Sunday, January 25, 2015

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Q&A: Jailed Saudi blogger's wife calls for his release

By Daniel Lak 

Wife of Raif Badawi, a blogger sentenced to 10 years in Saudi Arabia and 1,000 lashes, says he is a "peaceful person".

Raif Badawi, a 31-year-old Saudi blogger who has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticising the country's religious leaders, was due to receive his second set of 50 lashes.
A committee of Saudi doctors recommended the lashes be suspended this week because of health reasons.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from her home in Canada, Badawi's wife, Ensaf Haidar, says her husband is a "peaceful person" who deserves to be freed.
Al Jazeera: Tell us about your husband and how this happened to him.

Ensaf Haidar: My husband is an activist and the founder of the "Free Saudi liberal network". Raif believed in the freedom of speech and the respect of other beliefs. The main reason he launched the network is to promote debate and discussion about lots of topics in Saudi society.
He is accused of lots of things. In my opinion, Raif's detention is unjust and they should re-try him and set him free. All he was asking for was freedom of speech. And because he wrote that down, he was thrown in jail.

AJ: Have you heard from him at all? Do you speak? Are you able to communicate?

EH: Yes, we talk to each other. It's been four years since the kids and I have seen him, but we talk over the phone through official channels when he gets permission from the jail administration.

AJ: What do you know about his physical condition? How is he bearing up in this ordeal?

EH: His physical and psychological state is bad. Last week he was supposed to be flogged for the second time, but the jail doctor said that his body was not up to it. You know, when someone gets 50 lashes and knows he's going to receive another 50 lashes next week, he is certainly not going to feel good.

AJ: Is there any hope in the fact that the king had asked the Supreme Court to examine your husband's case? Any hope of a reprieve, a relaxation in the situation?

EH: The Office of the Saudi King filed Raif's case to the Supreme Court, but this did not help Raif because even after doing so, he still received the 50 lashes and that indicates that there's no change in his case.

AJ: Canada, the United States and other countries that are making these appeals for your husband's freedom, also have close relations with Saudi Arabia and in some cases sell them arms and other items. Do you have any hope that these appeals will work on the Saudi government?

EH: I don't think that this will make a difference and will not affect Raif's case. Raif's jailing is unjust and the governments of the world should call for his release on a humanitarian basis, but I don't think political relations with the Saudis will help.

AJ: What do you think the world can do to help? Tell us what can be done to help your husband.

EH: All that I can do is to raise my voice and make countries listen and help Raif. Raif is a peaceful person, his own man. He is a great dad and husband, and I call on all countries to stand by our side and call for the release and freedom of Raif.

Raif Badawi Exclusive: Saudi blogger 'moved to tears by campaign in Independent' - a newspaper he dreamed of writing for

Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger whose punishment of 1,000 lashes has led to an international outcry, is mentally “very strong” and taking great heart from the campaign to free him, his wife has told The Independent.
In an email exchange, Ensaf Haidar said she remains hopeful that her husband will be released soon, despite being sentenced to 10 years in prison and 50 lashes a week for 20 weeks for criticising the country’s clerics through his liberal blog. He is still recovering from his first round of flogging.
Ms Haidar, who now lives in Canada after being forced to flee Saudi Arabia with the couple’s three children, said she last spoke to her husband about five days ago over the phone, when he told her he was still “a little bit sick” but generally “fine”.
She added that she had started to tell him about the international attention his case was attracting – but was surprised at his emotional reaction when he heard that The Independent was campaigning for his release. “I want to thank you for supporting my husband,” she wrote. “For many years, one of Raif’s dreams was to write an article for the The Independent.
“When I told him that The Independent wrote on its front page ‘Free Raif Badawi’, he was crying and he told me about his dream. So many, many thanks.”
The second round of the blogger’s punishment, ordered to be conducted in public on successive Fridays, was delayed for a second week last week after the Saudi authorities said his wounds from the first 50 strokes had not healed sufficiently.
His flogging on 9 January in the city of Jeddah led to an outpouring of international condemnation, including demands from Washington and the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights for the punishment to be rescinded. In an open letter provided to The Independent, 18 Nobel laureates last week wrote to their Saudi academic counterparts urging them to add their voices to those calling for the 31-year-old dissident’s release.
Mr Badawi was arrested in 2012 after writing articles criticising Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics on his blog advocating the liberalisation of the country’s austere Wahhabist system. The father-of-three was charged with breaking the oil-rich kingdom’s technology laws and insulting Islam, although his supporters argue his only crime was to challenge his country’s Sunni religious leaders.
He was sentenced in 2013 to seven years’ imprisonment and 600 lashes – a punishment which was then increased on appeal last year to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. He was also fined the equivalent of £176,000.
His cause has been taken up around the world by governments and organisations including Amnesty International. It was reported on Friday that the Saudi authorities had agreed to halt the flogging and reduce Mr Badawi’s sentence but this has yet to be confirmed.
The death of King Abdullah in the early hours of Friday morning has provoked fresh scrutiny of his kingdom’s human rights record and relationship with the West. The UK Government’s decision to lower flags on public buildings in his honour was criticised as excessive and inappropriate by some MPs.

Free Raif Badawi

Aki Muthali

Raif Badawi is an activist in a dire circumstance because of a sinister mindset that panders to oppression and violence. While he is imprisoned for the crime of blasphemy, his wife and children eagerly await his release and require your immediate assistance.

It was over two and half years ago that Badawi was arrested and charged by the Saudi authority for “insulting Islam” on his blog. His wife, Ensaf Haider, published a notice detailing his situation and has been relentlessly active in protesting for her husband’s release.
Is it any surprise that Saudi Arabia [being notorious for punishments in the name of Islam] had initially sentenced Badawi to death for apostasy before altering it to 1000 lashes, 10 years in prison and an absurd fine? How sadistic are the minds of these men who have “reduced” the sentencing of death by giving an order to flog him 50 times a week for 20 weeks instead which is also synonymous to a death sentence?
The nature of blasphemy laws are so perilously disconnected from any moral values that it’s literally representative of psychopathy—people enduremass terror under these brutally primitive laws in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in this disconnection—and that is one of the most horrifying realities to deal with because it affects millions of Muslims and non-Muslimsaround the world.

Badawi will be given 50 severe lashes every week for hurting prides of fanatical men who do not respect the international laws that support freedom of speech. So what is it that Badawi had written in his blog that was deemed socriminal—so “insulting” towards Islam? He kindly promoted secularism so it can benefit the citizens—a great move forward to compel a modernization of Saudi Arabia.

By suggesting that the jurisprudence should be based on secular values instead of Islamic values—he was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to be tortured with an utter disregard for human life.
Badawi was punished for defying the same order that had encouraged him to write his blog in the first place. Saudi Arabia reacted by showing him what happens when one fights religious dictatorship—it was a textbook assault on freethinkers.

Islamic nations are inching toward unprecedented civil unrest due to resistance against Islamist terror and the religious authority [based in Saudi Arabia] do not fancy it one bit—what they prefer are values built on tribalism which means they will rather kill and punish than give into silly things like liberalism.
Those responsible for Badawi’s torture can witness their absurd sentiments being broken downwith every scar they inflict on his spine.

What’s amusing is the inconsistency of the Saudi law vs their condemnation of the Kouachi brothers. How many heads were “sentenced” to be slashed off people since and before the Paris attack? How many more bloodbaths are being created by the Islamists they fund around the rest of the world? If the west should be condemned—they should be condemned for their alliance with these demented fools who openly and freely torture their own citizens and promote Islamism.
What Saudi Arabia represents is indeed carnage that is no different from the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Human rights are so limited there that gender apartheid and blasphemy laws are rampant and the only thing that stands out is the dehumanization of women, children and men [for the sake of religion].
Badawi’s plight echoes a paradox of human rights struggle—from the religiously oppressive laws prosecuting people in the 21st century [courtesy of the far right conservative fringe] to the erroneous mindsets of the far left liberals that consolidate the primitive sentiments that fuel the right wing atrocity.
People often complain that freedom of speech should “not offend” others and yet do these people hear themselves? The state of being offended is a perception—not a fact. And the perception of being offended is a result of a personal sentiment and nobody’s sentiment is above human rights—it’s time the world understands this simple concept.

We must renounce the foolishnessand start contributing to the safe return of Badawi [and others like him]. If you wish to have cultures, traditions, beliefs and most importantly,laws based on humane principles—you will be more outraged for the victims of religious prosecution rather than being “offended” at free speech.You are free to believe what you want—but your belief can in no way infringe on the rights of others. Those who still believe in a liberal democracy will not allow religion to hijack morals and our fundamental human rights such as the expression of thought.

If you are not free to even verbally express yourself—then what else is there to life but slavery? What kind of god is so exalted, mighty and brave yet loses grace in the sight of free speech? The Islamic authority and fanatical individuals are the only ones who “insult Islam”by diminishing the“grace” of their god with blasphemy laws—not those who criticize Islam or promote secularism. The tyranny of religion [aside from scriptures] can only be validated by the acts of its worshippers.
Badawi is a hero whose name will be echoed in protests now and in the future—it’s loud and clear of that message. The protests must be kept strong and steady even after he is reunited with his wife and children—and I say this with a fleeting sense of hope because his name is being hailed across the world. If the Saudis choose to ignore these protests—they know they’re setting themselves up for a greater backlash from the international community.It is pertinent to use any diplomatic or media connection to condemn Saudi Arabia’s violent reign.
Raif Badawi is a brave man who used his own voice to encourage freedom of speechin a land that has criminalized it. Let’s continue to remind the Saudis that their atrocity on humanity will be met with firm resistance. Click here on Amnesty and to lend your voice to Raif and his family. Take action. #FreeRaif.

Do not show verbal restraint when it comes to protecting those brutalized by any system of governance that deny human rights because it is only your silence that strengthens such mass tyranny. The potential to break the cycle of oppression is razed by the non-action of those oppressed—and I believe it’s fair to say Raif Badawi knew that—and that is why we must stand with him and demand his release.

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Jan 24, 2015

China - Abe’s strategy clearer after hostage crisis

The release of a video on Saturday showing a message that Haruna Yukawa, one of the Japanese hostages captured by Islamic State (IS) militants, had been slaughtered, shocked both Japanese society and its Western allies. Official institutions in both Japan and the US consider the video is likely to be authentic. 

The IS claimed last Tuesday it had abducted two Japanese and gave the Japanese government 72 hours to pay $200 million in ransom for the captives. The Abe administration was put in a conundrum. In front of requests from the victims' families to save the hostages, the Japanese government vowed it would never give in to terrorism on one hand, on the other, it displayed a high-profile stance of striving to free the hostages. But it's believed that the Abe administration would be unlikely to carry out a dramatic rescue, which has already decided the fate of the hostages.

The brutality of the IS has become well-known. They kill hostages in a cold-blooded manner. Now that Japan has become a victim of global terrorism, Tokyo may reassess the challenges it faces. In the past few years, Japanese rightists portrayed China as Japan's major threat, despite the fact that China has never infringed upon Japan over the past century. It's instead  Japan that invaded China and persecuted Chinese people again and again.  

The death of the hostage also offers a new excuse for Abe to lift the ban on collective self-defense. Abe will face fewer hurdles now if he decides to cooperate with the US strategic deployment and strengthen Japan's military activities in the Middle East and its security deployment in East Asia. 

Some claimed that Abe is more concerned about promoting rightist policies than rescuing hostages. For the good of peace in East Asia and the Japanese public, we hope such analysis is just speculative. Japan is not capable of playing an active role in the Middle East. East Asian countries are not supposed to be key targets of the atrocious IS. The Japanese hostage case sends a warning signal. 

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the US has spent great efforts in ensuring its domestic security. However, US allies such as European countries and Japan have been constantly targeted by terrorism. It's worthwhile studying the underlying reasons. 

The attack on Charlie Hebdo seemingly unveiled the conflicts between the whole of European society and the Muslim community, but it was striking to see how the US tries to remain neutral over the issue. 

Having a geopolitical advantage, Japan should be a country without enemies. However, the country is plagued with a terrible mess in its national strategy. It misperceives China as an imaginary enemy. Tokyo's ultimate goal is said to be getting rid of US control, however, it is forced to defer to the US due to its confrontation with China. The killing of the Japanese hostage is more or less the price that Japan has paid for its support to Washington. 

We strongly condemn the brutal killing by the IS. In the meantime, we hope Japanese public opinion will take a clear-cut attitude against any terrorist attack launched on China. 

What to expect from Syrian peace talks in Moscow

With the Syrian conflict entering its fifth year and the Geneva format for peace talks delivering almost zero results, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has invited Syrian opposition leaders and the Syrian government to discuss the issues in Moscow.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, which has since evolved into today’s full-scale civil war, Russia has been playing an important role in trying to use diplomacy as the primary tool for resolving the conflict. The most recent international attempt to settle the conflict, the Geneva II Conference on Syria, did not achieve any serious results. Now, a year after Geneva II, Moscow is hosting peace talks on Syria that will start on Jan. 26 and are expected to last four days.
Technically, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers a platform for talks between various opposition groups and the Syrian government in the presence of a moderator who represents Russian civil society groups and is not affiliated with the government or the foreign ministry. This move is supposedly aimed at making the talks more constructive and convenient for the participants.
The moderator of the talks is going to be Vitaly Naumkin, the director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, a well-known Middle East expert,and the author of the Russia Direct Brief "Russia's Strategy in the Middle East." What makes Dr. Naumkin the most suitable candidate to moderate the talks is that he is an academic who speaks Arabic and is well known among the participants of the conference, who have already met him before on the sidelines of different meetings.
During the press conference which Dr. Naumkin gave ahead of the talks, he outlined the main principles of the Moscow meeting: no preconditions, free dialogue, no prearranged agenda, only Syrians participating, and no international pressure.
However, there is a possibility that Staffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary General’s representative for Syria, or his deputy, might join the talks as observers should they meet with approval by Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
The talks are going to be closed to the public and are planned to be held in two stages. In the first stage  – Jan. 26-27 – representatives of the Syrian opposition and civil society groups will meet with each other. In the second – Jan. 28-29 – the opposition will meet representatives of the Syrian government.
Although it is a new initiative and totally a new format, the new Moscow talks are not meant to be a replacement of the Geneva format, highlighted Dr. Naumkin. As he explained further: “That would be great if the Moscow talks will help to resume the Geneva process.” At the same time, he stressed that “no one expects an agreement to be signed” and that the main idea of the talks is “to make different personalities discuss the basis of dialogue when it starts.”
The Russian President’s Special Envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, said on Jan. 14 that Moscow has sent nearly thirty invitations to the representatives of Syrian opposition groups to take part in the Moscow Conference. Dr. Naumkin during the Jan. 20 press conference said that the number of opposition figures who will arrive to Moscow has already exceeded that target.
Interestingly, the invitations were sent to opposition figures on an individual basis – not to the opposition groups or factions – in an attempt to avoid unnecessary rivalry between opposition groups. In that regard, Naumkin underlined that they tried to invite representatives of all opposition groups with the exception of extremists. He also pointed out that representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood will be present at the meeting.
One of the biggest hopes that organizers hold is that the Moscow talks are not going to turn into the “war of declarations” and mutual accusations as it was the case during the Geneva I and II conferences.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry officially welcomed the talks in Moscow; however, representatives of the Washington-backed Syrian National Coalition as well as prominent opposition figure Mouaz Al Khatib have refused to take part in the conference. The main reason for their refusal is that the meeting does not envision the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which apparently, contradicts one of the main principles of the Moscow talks – no preconditions.
Dr. Naumkin commented on this development, “If you are a Syrian patriot why would you not want to use even a tiny possibility to come and talk... even if you do not agree with Russia's position?"
Hypothetically, the Moscow talks might bring some useful results and help to break the impasse of the already four-year long conflict. The approach in some European capitals towards Syria has started to change, given the current scale of the civil war in Syria. The rising threat from the Islamic State, which comes in the form of European jihadists coming back home and stirring up unrest, has made Europe rethink its policy towards the war in Syria and enhance their coordination with the Syrian army against the Islamic State. Recent terror attacks in France further shifted European anti-terror policy.
Also, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his annual press conference noticed that American policy on Syria has also started to shift, which was highlighted in an article in the New York Times. He pointed out that, in the U.S. President’s State of the Union speech, fighting against the Islamic State was described as a priority compared to all other goals related to Syria, which is a good sign that understanding of the issue is growing.
However, the Russian moderator of the upcoming Syria peace talks has downplayed expectations about the outcomes of the meeting. Asked about what would make the talks a success, he said: “If the participants will sit down and discuss matters together for four days rather than fight over the table – that would be great. And the second – if this process will get a continuation.”
Dr. Alexei Pilko, the director of the Eurasian Communication Center and a senior researcher in the History department of Moscow State University, characterizes the upcoming meeting as “only the first step in the long way towards dialogue between parties of the Syrian civil war.” He also argues that, “This is a move in a right direction, although we should not expect immediate results… it is important that that all parties of the conflict started to talk.”
Alexander Sotnichenko, professor at St. Petersburg State University, expects Syrian peace talks in Moscow to host a large number of opposition representatives. However, what is mostly important is “if representatives of National Coalition that previously refused to have any negotiations with Assad regime will be present at the conference, that would be a great breakthrough.”
He also argues that, “If representatives of the National Coalition and other opposition groups and the Syrian government will be able to set up a meaningful communication in Moscow, then this platform will gain a meaningful legitimacy; additionally, this can seriously contribute to the revitalization of the political dialogue between Moscow and regional countries supporting the Syrian opposition: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”
On Jan. 26, the first stage of the talks will start. Representatives of different Syrian opposition groups will start the talks and get prepared to meet representatives of the Syrian regime on Jan. 28. Reportedly, the Syrian government delegation consists of six members led by the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari; it also has become known that several representatives of the National Coalition will be present at the talks in a personal capacity. Thus, in theory, Moscow talks have quite a lot of potential to set up a meaningful dialogue between the Syrian opposition groups and the regime.

Shifting Realities in Syria

As recently as October, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that there will never be peace in Syria as long as President Bashar al-Assad “remains the focus of power” there. Even now, American officials continue to insist that any lasting political solution will require Mr. Assad’s exit. But the unsettling truth is that the brutal dictator is still clinging to power and the United States and its allies are going to have to live with him, at least for now.
Mr. Kerry seemed tacitly to acknowledge as much recently when he urged Mr. Assad to change his policies, while omitting the usual call for him to leave office.
In the last year, the situation in Syria has changed quickly and dramatically. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, now controls about half the country, while the rebels America counted on to defeat Mr. Assad have become weaker in the face of steady gains by the regime.
There seems no chance that Mr. Assad will leave power voluntarily anytime soon or that he will be forced out by the non-ISIS rebels unless the United States intervenes directly, a course President Obama has rejected. Recent history should humble anyone who would predict the direction of regime change. Except for Tunisia, countries that overthrew their leaders during the 2011 Arab Spring movements have replaced the old dictators with new ones or descended into chaos.
Besides, the greater threat now is not Mr. Assad but the Islamic State, especially if it continues to expand in Syria, entices more foreign fighters into its ranks and uses its territory to launch attacks on the West. A recent study by the RAND Corporation, which does research for the government, says the collapse of the Assad regime, while unlikely now, would be the “worst possible outcome” for American interests — depriving Syria of its remaining state institutions and creating more space for the Islamic State and other extremists to spread mayhem.
This was not the scenario envisioned in 2011 when Syrians staged peaceful protests against Mr. Assad’s autocratic government. President Obama and European leaders called for Mr. Assad to resign and pressured him with sanctions. The dictator, armed and aided by Russia and Iran, retaliated with his air force and barrel bombs, fueling a civil war in which some 200,000 Syrians have been killed and countless towns destroyed.
As has long been the case, the fighting in Syria raises tough questions and presents the United States with no good options. And Mr. Obama’s approach to the conflict remains the most inchoate element of his campaign against the Islamic State. While the Americans and Mr. Assad ostensibly share a common enemy, the two parties are not formally collaborating. Yet American fighter planes regularly invade Syrian airspace to bomb Islamic State targets. If the main threat is the Islamic State and the goal is to defeat it, might the West at some point be forced to work with Mr. Assad?
The administration says it is training Syrian rebels to assist the United States-led air campaign against the Islamic State, but those fighters will not be engaged for another few months and there are serious doubts about whether they can ever be effective. Figuring out Syria’s longer-term future is even more complicated. If, as American officials say, the only way to end the civil war and forge a common front against ISIS is some kind of political agreement that includes Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad’s major allies, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, his major opponents, what must Washington do to strengthen its position and shape the outcome?
American officials see an emerging international consensus on the need for a long-term diplomatic solution between Mr. Assad and diverse rebel groups. There is also interest in United Nations-led cease-fires in local communities like Aleppo that might serve as a basis for a broader peace. As The Times has reported, the Russians are trying to bring the two sides into talks later this month, with the apparent aim of a more gradual change in Syria.
But it’s unclear how plausible any of the ideas are, and no one seems to have figured out how to tie these disparate pieces into a coherent game plan. That includes the Republicans who control Congress and spend their time railing against Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, though they have offered no realistic alternatives. The idea of a capable force of “moderate” Syrians that can overthrow Mr. Assad has proved to be a fantasy, even though politicians like Senator John McCain keep insisting otherwise.
Congress must, of course, have a role in advising how to wage this new war against the Islamic State. But it has shirked its duty, and after months of American military action in Iraq and Syria, it has failed to authorize or even seriously debate how this indefinite war should be conducted.

US changes its tune on Syrian regime change as Isis threat takes top priority

By Simon Tisdall

 Washington still hopes Bashar al-Assad will be removed from power, but is no longer insisting on it as a precondition for peace.

US backing for Syria peace talks hosted by the Russian government in Moscow this week is being seen as further evidence that the Obama administration has quietly dropped its longstanding demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down as part of any settlement.
Russia, supported by Iran, has consistently backed the Assad regime since the civil war began in 2011, even after the UN implicated the Syrian leader in war crimes. The US government and the exiled Syrian opposition, supported by Britain, the EU, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have argued with equal vehemence that peace is inconceivable while Assad remains in power.
As recently as last October, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said there would never be peace in Syria “while Assad remains the focus of power”. But now Kerry has changed his tune. At a meeting this month with Staffan de Mistura, the UN’sSyria envoy, Kerry omitted any reference to regime change in Damascus, voluntary or involuntary.
“It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s emphasis on the terrorist threat is key to understanding the White House shift. Defeating Islamic State fighters who control roughly half of Syria and large swaths of Iraq has become the Obama administration’s top regional priority, ahead of ending the civil war or cutting a nuclear deal with Iran – though the latter aim would be advanced if Washington and Tehran can agree on Syria.
From the Russian perspective, curbing terrorism in Syria and beyond has always been the most important objective, as Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, reiterated in remarks prior to the three-day peace conference, which opens in Moscow on Monday.
Now Russia clearly believes the Americans have come around to its way of thinking. “There is full conviction in the west that a political solution to the crisis in Syria is inevitable,” Lavrov said.
Not long ago, a Russian-sponsored conference involving officially tolerated Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian regime represented by its UN ambassador, Bashar Jafaari, and a handful of individuals from the main exiled opposition alliance, the National Coalition, would have been dismissed in western capitals as a stunt.
But in what appeared to be an admission that both Washington’s Syria policy and the Geneva peace process launched in 2012 have run out of road, Kerry said he hoped the meeting would be “helpful”.
The state department encouraged Syrian opposition members to go to Moscow. “We’ve certainly conveyed we’d support them attending the meetings,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Lavrov said he hoped the conference, in which Russian officials will pay no direct part, would help de Mistura relaunch the UN-backed Geneva process, which stalled last year. Both the US and Russia are also supportive of de Mistura’s efforts to arrange local ceasefires inside Syria, such as that in Aleppo.
It has become uncomfortably clear to western governments that the Syrian war, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives, is stalemated and that the Assad regime remains defiantly entrenched. Russian and American analysts suggest the two countries increasingly share a common agenda over Syria: defeating terrorism, stepping up humanitarian ceasefires, and reviving the Geneva process.
While Moscow does not guarantee Assad’s personal future, it will continue to support his regime as Syria’s legitimate government in any Geneva talks. For its part, the US continues to hope Assad will be removed, but is no longer publicly insisting on it as a precondition for a peace deal.
“What’s curious about these Russian priorities is the extent to which they dovetail with White House talking points,” said analyst Tony Badran. “A year-end statement posted on the Facebook page of the US embassy in Damascus defined the US role as leading efforts ‘to meet humanitarian needs, defeat Isil [Isis], and foster a peaceful resolution to the conflict’. Nothing in there about removing Assad,” he wrote.
“Moscow has noted a completely new emphasis in Kerry’s remarks on President Bashar al-Assad and his regime, suggesting that the hitherto irreconcilable US approach has mellowed... It means that Moscow’s and Washington’s positions are no longer as antagonistic,” said Vitaly Naumkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Syria’s main opposition and their Turkish and Saudi backers will not like it, but a big power consensus is building that may enable Assad to survive.
“There seems no chance that Mr Assad will leave power voluntarily any time soon or that he will be forced out by the non-Isis rebels unless the US intervenes directly, a course President Obama has rejected,” a New York Times weekend editorial commented.
“Besides, the greater threat now is not Mr Assad but the Islamic State, especially if it continues to expand in Syria, entices more foreign fighters into its ranks and uses its territory to launch attacks on the west … The unsettling truth is that the brutal dictator is still clinging to power and the United States and its allies are going to have to live with him, at least for now.”

President al-Assad to Foreign Affairs Magazine: Israel is supporting terrorist organizations in Syria

President Bashar al-Assad said that wherever the Syrian Army has wanted to go, it has succeeded, but the Syrian army cannot have a presence on every kilometer of Syrian territory, adding “That’s impossible.”
In an interview given to the American magazine Foreign Affairs which will be published on Monday, President al-Assad said “We made some advances in the past two years. But if you want to ask me ‘is it going well,’ I say that every war is bad, because you always lose, you always have destruction in a war. The main question is what have we won in this war? What we won in this war is that the Syrian people have rejected the terrorists, the Syrian people support their government more, the Syrian people support their army more.”
In response to a question on what Israel’s true agenda currently is in Syria, President Assad said that Israel is supporting the rebels in Syria, adding “It’s very clear. Because whenever we make advances in some place, they attack in order to undermine the army. It’s very clear. That’s why some in Syria joke, how can you say that al Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.”

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Protesters Say Kabul Ignoring Growth of IS Group in Afghanistan

Dozens of activists from Afghan nongovernmental organizations have staged a protest in Kabul to call attention to what they say is the growing influence of Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan.
The protesters, many of them Shi’a from Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority, complained on January 23 that President Ashraf Ghani’s government is ignoring the activities and growth of the IS group -- particularly in the central province of Ghazni.
The demonstrators called for Afghan security forces to be deployed for military action against IS militants in Ghazni and other provinces.
Afghanistan’s government has denied the existence of IS militants in Afghanistan, saying militants who call themselves members of the Sunni-led extremist group are actually Taliban fighters who have changed their name due to differences with the Afghan Taliban leadership.
Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan on January 23 that the protesters' claims are being investigated and that security forces are in control.

Afghans Ponder the End of ISAF