Friday, January 29, 2016

Video Report - Americas mobilize against Zika

Saudi Arabia's Defeat in Yemen: The Stakes Could Not Be Higher

Alexander Mercouris

The most dangerous crisis in the world today is not the confrontation in the South China Sea, the war in Syria, the crisis in Ukraine or the North Korean nuclear test.

All these crises have their share of irrational actors, and there is a risk any one of them might spiral out of control.

However the main parties in these quarrels — the US, China, Russia and Germany — have long histories of squaring off against each other. They have worked out rules with each other about how to handle such conflicts, which for the moment are just about working.

The most dangerous crisis in the world, the one where the potential risks are greatest and where the actions of the players are least predictable, is the war in Yemen.

Last year Saudi Arabia backed by a coalition of conservative Sunni Arab states intervened militarily in Yemen, which has been in a state of prolonged political crisis since 2011.

Saudi Arabia’s declared reason for doing so was to restore the country’s legitimate President. Its actual reason was to prevent the takeover of the country by political and militia groups it believes are aligned with Iran.
As is always the case with anything involving Saudi Arabia, it is very difficult to say how its intervention in Yemen is going. Such reports as there are however suggest it is going badly.

Despite heavy bombing and the deployment of large numbers of Saudi troops the opposition in Yemen appears to be undefeated.

More alarming still, the Yemeni opposition appears to be going onto the offensive, launching attacks on Saudi territory, capturing Saudi towns and settlements along the border.

That is an astonishing development which must be causing growing alarm within the Saudi government.
The fact foreign forces have captured Saudi territory despite all the Saudis have thrown at them must be causing alarm about the competence of the Saudi army and its ability to win the war.

Worse, it may be jeopardising the stability of the Saudi state itself.

Saudi Arabia competes with North Korea in its success in keeping its internal political situation secret.
For example, it nows seems that in the 2000s Saudi Arabia had to fight on its own territory an al-Qaeda led jihadi insurgency. Though it was defeated, outside Saudi Arabia hardly anyone knows about it.

That there are people in Saudi Arabia who oppose the government is hardly disputed, though their number, militancy and state of organisation is unknown.  

How these people will react to the Saudi army’s defeats in Yemen is anyone’s guess.

There must however be at least a possibility that like the revolutionaries in Russia in 1905 and 1917 they will use the impression of weakness created by the defeats to step up their opposition to the Saudi government.

As for the Saudi government, I have little doubt the war in Yemen is by far its biggest worry, eclipsing concern about oil prices.

It is probably nervousness about the effect of the defeats in Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s internal situation which explains the recent wave of executions — including that of a Shia cleric — as the Saudi government tries to intimidate its enemies and put on a show of strength.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s leading oil producer and geographic heart of Islam. It lies on an extraordinary multiplicity of geopolitical, economic and religious fault-lines.  A crisis that risked the survival of the Saudi monarchy would throw the entire international system into chaos.

It would be the biggest and most dangerous crisis the world has seen since the end of the Second World War.
That however could be what we might be looking at before long.

Read more:

Saudi Arabia is a far worse threat than Iran


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently traveled to Riyadh to reassure the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that the U.S. stood with them. “Nothing has changed” as a result of the nuclear pact with Iran, he insisted.
Washington’s long relationship with Riyadh was built on oil. There never was any nonsense about sharing values with Saudi Arabia, which operates as a slightly more civilized variant of the Islamic State group.
The royals run a totalitarian system that prohibits political dissent, free speech, religious liberty and social autonomy. The State Department has devoted an astonishing 57 pages detailing the Saudi monarchy’s human rights abuses.
At a time of heavy Western dependence on Gulf oil, a little compromise in America’s principles might have seemed necessary. Even then, of course, Saudi Arabia could not control the international oil market and the royals could not long survive without selling their oil.
Today it’s hard to make a case that petroleum warrants Washington’s “special relationship” with Riyadh. The global energy market is expanding; the U.S. will soon become a petroleum exporter. The royal regime has continued to pump even as prices have collapsed.
In recent years Washington also treated Riyadh as an integral component of a containment system against Iran. Of course, much of the “Tehran problem” was made in America: overthrowing Iranian democracy ultimately led to creation of an Islamist state.
Fears multiplied as Tehran confronted its Sunni neighbors along with Israel and continued the Shah’s nuclear program. Overwrought nightmares of Islamic revolution throughout the region encouraged America’s fulsome embrace of Saudi Arabia and allied regimes.
But this argument for supporting the Saudi royals has become quite threadbare. Saudi Arabia is well able to defend itself. In 2014 it came in at world No. 4 with $81 billion in military expenditures, a multiple of Iran’s total.
Threats of subversion reflect internal weaknesses beyond Washington’s reach: the kingdom’s general repression and particular mistreatment of its Shiite minority, including the recent execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who urged nonviolent opposition to the monarchy.
Moreover, the nuclear agreement creates a real opportunity for change in Iran. The process will not be quick or easy. However, Asian and European countries are re-entering the Iran market. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, there are (carefully circumscribed but real nonetheless) elections, political debate, religious diversity, generational resistance and liberal sentiments.
Whatever the alleged benefits of the Saudi alliance, America pays a high price. First is the cost of providing free bodyguards for the royals.
For this reason the U.S. initiated the Persian Gulf War and left a garrison on Saudi soil. The inconclusive end of that conflict led to continual bombing of Iraq even during “peacetime” and ultimately the Iraq invasion. At the Saudis’ behest, Washington backs their misbegotten war in Yemen and remains formally committed to the overthrow of Syrian President Bashir Assad, the strongest force opposing the far more dangerous Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia also tramples American values beyond its own borders. Riyadh help suppress the majority Shiite population in next-door Bahrain, and in more distant Egypt the Saudis subsidize renewed military rule. Saudi Arabia also has underwritten extremist Islamic teaching in Muslim schools around the world
Moreover, Saudi money backed al-Qaida and the people who performed 9/11. Similar private support for extremist violence apparently continues.
Over the last few years, Riyadh’s behavior has become more harmful to Western interests. The monarchy has been pushing to oust Syria’s Assad without worrying about who or what would follow.
In Yemen, moreover, Saudi Arabia turned a long-term insurgency into another sectarian conflict. In the process the royals have been committing war crimes and creating a humanitarian disaster.
By executing al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia triggered sectarian protests in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Riyadh responded by breaking diplomatic relations with Iran, undermining political negotiations to resolve Syria’s civil war.
Of course, the fact that Riyadh is a destabilizing force does not mean that the U.S. should attempt regime change in Riyadh. America has proved that it isn’t very good at overseas social engineering — consider Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.
But Washington should stop lavishing support and reassurance on the Saudi royals. Particularly important, the U.S. should disentangle itself militarily from Saudi Arabia, especially the latter’s misbegotten war in Yemen.
The two countries need a new, more normal relationship. They should work together when advantageous and disagree when appropriate. Sell weapons to Riyadh without committing to providing a royal bodyguard.
Most important, Washington should feel no inhibition in joining other nations in attempting to forge a better relationship with Tehran. Balance should return to American policy in the Middle East.

Senator Wonders How Much Longer U.S. Will Blindly Support Saudi Arabia

The U.S.'s relationship with Saudi Arabia has weathered disagreements over how to rein in Iran, regime change across the Middle East and several large military adventures. Now it faces a new question, which was crystallized Friday in a speech by influential progressive Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
"No one has a particularly credible long term strategy [for the Middle East] because it would involve facing some very uncomfortable truths -- about the nature of the fight ahead of us, and imperfections of one of our most important allies in the Middle East,” Murphy said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
The carefully worded address pointed to Saudi Arabia's backing of extremist Islamic ideology and its reckless military intervention in Yemen as evidence of the need to question unwavering U.S. support for the kingdom.
"For all the positive aspects of our alliance with Saudi Arabia, there is another side to Saudi Arabia" that America doesn't often see, Murphy said. "And it is a side that we can no longer afford to ignore as our fight against Islamic extremism becomes more focused and more complicated."
For all the positive aspects of our alliance with Saudi Arabia, there is another side.... that we can no longer afford to ignore." Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn) Murphy's frank and measured critique is one of the most high-profile of its kind, evidence in itself that questioning the relationship between Washington and Riyadh is becoming less of a political heresy.
Initially rooted in a shared interest in protecting the kingdom’s vast oil reserves, the U.S.-Saudi partnership has evolved into a broad, shadowy military relationship that is difficult to fully detail.
The two countries cooperated to funnel fighters into Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, together kicked Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait during the Gulf War, and have now grown closer in the broader war against groups like al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. The two are now supporting groups fighting in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and beyond.
Saudi Arabia has an outsized role in these efforts despite its relatively small population and weak military because it has bought more weapons from the U.S. than any other country in the world. Between 2009 and 2014, the U.S. delivered over $12 billion of weapons to the kingdom, much of which is being used in the bloody Saudi-led war in Yemen.
To Murphy, this relationship and the general assumption that it cannot be questioned has been risky and occasionally self-defeating.
It has required the U.S. to largely ignore the Saudis' decadeslong funding for fundamentalist thinking in the Muslim world -- a mindset that experts say makes communities more vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups like ISIS. "Less-well-funded governments and other strains of Islam can hardly keep up with the tsunami of money behind this export of intolerance," Murphy said, noting that the monarchy in Saudi Arabia relies heavily on its alliance with hardliners known as Wahhabis. “It is important to note the vicious terrorist groups that Americans knows by name are Sunni in derivation, [rather than Shiite, the sect of Islam most common in Iran], and greatly influenced by Wahhabi, Salafist teachings,” he said, citing an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.
Murphy acknowledged that Shiite clerics supported by Iran also often invoke religion to inspire violent acts. But the U.S. does not provide Iran with billions of dollars of weapons annually or support its military endeavors.
The costs of aligning with Saudi Arabia are especially clear now because that friendship has led the White House to join the controversial Saudi campaign in Yemen. Almost 6,000 people have died there, including thousands of civilians, since Saudi Arabia launched a U.S.-supported campaign to restore the country's government last March, according to the United Nations. Some of the strikes by the Saudi-led, pro-government coalition may count as crimes against humanity, the U.N. said this week.

Turkey Alone Can’t Solve Europe’s Refugee Crisis

Izza Leghtas

I talked to “Nabeel,” a 52-year-old man from Syria a few days ago in the resort town of Cesme on Turkeys’ Aegean coast. He told me how the overcrowded boat he’d boarded with his wife and four children a few days earlier sank. Turkish coastguards saved them. With his 9-year-old son by his side, he told me his priority was his children’s future. “I just want my kids to be in school, and to have medical care. If this was provided in Turkey or Lebanon I would have stayed.”
Watching the news from London, it would be easy to think the EU’s deal with Turkey on refugees is a simple trade-off: three billion Euros, visa free travel and the reopening of EU accession negotiations for Turkey in exchange for stemming the flow of the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have been arriving on Europe’s shores via Turkey. But spending a week speaking to asylum seekers and nongovernmental groups in Turkey made clear that the situation on the ground there is complex, and that Turkey alone is not the answer.
Though it doesn’t recognize them as refugees, Turkey provides most of the more than two million Syrians living there with temporary protection that allows them to get medical treatment and education. Earlier this month, the Turkish government announced that it would give work permits to Syrians who have been in Turkey for over six months. But important as that step is, giving Syrians the right to work is unlikely to deter people seeking protection in Europe or risking their lives in the process. The deaths of more 40 people —including 17 children — when their boats sank in the Aegean last week makes that clear.
First, these measures only benefit Syrians. Though the largest group, Syrians are not the only ones crossing into Europe. In Turkey, Hungary and the Western Balkans, I have spoken to Iraqi Yezidis fleeing the horrors of ISIS, Afghans who had received death threats from the Taliban, and Ethiopians who fled human rights abuses at home. They will continue to need protection as long as the reasons that push them out of their own countries persist, but around 100,000 Iraqis, more than 45,000 Afghans, and almost 15,000 Iranians in Turkey don’t have temporary protection or access to the benefits to which Syrians are entitled.
Second, despite efforts by the Turkish government and many Turks to help, the situation for Syrians in Turkey remains dire. Up to 400,000 Syrian children are out of school because their families cannot afford school supplies or transportation or encounter language barriers or widespread discrimination against Syrians in Turkish schools. Registered Syrians also have the right to medical care in the town in which they are registered, but lack information about their rights and face discrimination. Workers in groups helping refugees spoke of Syrians being turned away or treated with contempt in schools and hospitals.
Hopefully, work permits will help many Syrians to benefit from the protections of legal work and will be an important step toward ending rampant child labor of Syrian children who work to support their families. But, as with formal access to education and health care, barriers to employment are likely to persist and many Syrians are likely to remain marginalized.
If it is properly disbursed and reaches the intended beneficiaries, the three billion Euros could help make life a little easier for Syrians in Turkey. But with widespread prejudice against Syrians, the priority should be ensuring that Syrians in Turkey can actually get jobs, health services, and education there.
Expecting Turkey to host ever greater numbers of Syrians and other asylum seekers when it has not yet addressed these issues will only exacerbate them, and people will continue to turn to smugglers to bring them to Europe.
With no end to the violence in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq or to human rights abuses in many other refugee-producing countries, EU governments should not turn their backs on the people risking their lives for protection. Last year, EU member states agreed to resettle about 22,500 refugees from Turkey and other first-asylum countries, but by the end of 2015 had admitted only 779. The EU cannot expect Turkey to do more when its own member states do so little to share responsibility.
As they sit in Brussels, Berlin or Copenhagen, EU leaders should ask themselves: what would I do if I had to save my family from bullets and bombs, and where would I go for my children’s future? I’m sure their priorities would be the same as Nabeel’s.

Video Report - Discussion: Can China and the US cooperate on regional security?

Op-ed: South China Sea issue cannot be used as excuse to undermine China-U.S. relations

By Hua Yisheng

The U.SSecretary of State John Kerry recently kicked off his first Asian trip in 2016.Western mediakeeping a close eye on Kerrys agendabelieve the South China Sea issuewill be one of the priorities during the trip taking him to LaosCambodia and China.
Their concerns were not raised out of nowhereAt the Davos World Economic Forum notlong agothe U.SSecretary of DefenseAsh Carterclaimed that Beijing is taking “self-isolating” steps in the South China SeaHe even urged other countries to seek help fromthe U.S.
As for Kerrys itinerary this timecomments from Reuters and other media suggest thatthe U.Swill urge ASEAN countries to contain China together.
A U.Sofficial even told the press that the ASEAN hopes to avoid “militarization” andconflicts by “safeguarding maritime rights and interests”.
Repeated voices from the U.Sare by no means unintentionalIt is clearly motivated bythree objectives.
First of allthe U.Sattempts to interfere in Chinas legitimate construction activities onthe Nansha Islands.
In order to force China to halt constructionthe U.S., ignoring Chinas sovereignty over theSouth China Seahas made multiple groundless criticismsand even accused China ofmilitarizing” the region.
Secondlywith the groundless excuse that China will “bully” small countriesthe U.Striedto undermine Chinas efforts to settle disputes through negotiations with the partiesdirectly concerned.
In the meantimethe superpower has been stirring up the arena of the South China SeaItinstigated ASEAN countries to increase tensions by taking advantage of their concerns.
On the one handthe U.Sadds pressure on China on the issue by urging other ASEANmembers to support the Philippines’ territorial appealIt helped the Philippines file aunilateral arbitration in the name of safeguarding international law.
The U.S., thereforehas become a backstage driving force for escalating tensions in theSouth China Sea.
Lastlysuch acts by the U.Saim to pave a way for demonstration of its military power.
Last Octoberthe U.Ssent a military vessel to enter into waters near Chinas NanshaIslands in spite of Chinas oppositionand announced to “regularly” conduct such activitieson the grounds of safeguarding freedom of navigation.
Realizing the freedom is not jeopardizedthe U.Shas to justify its behaviors by hyping upso called “China threats”.
Encouraging ASEAN to patrol the sea is just another attempt to normalize its actionsthrough numerical strength.
The “diligent work” of the U.S., howeverdid not work as it expected.
The U.Scannot deny the historical and lawful evidence that proves Chinas sovereigntyinterests over the South China Seaneither can it stop Chinas construction on the islands.
Its provocations will only further prove it is the U.Sthat threatens regional stability andpushes forward the dangerous “militarization”.
Most ASEAN members are clear-headed when it comes to the South China Sea issueandwill not endorse the Philippines without any principles.
Despite incitement from the U.S., Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and ForeignMinister Hor Namhong said that individual countries should settle disputes amongthemselves without the involvement of the ASEAN.
China also said previously that U.Sofficials cannot speak for ASEAN countries.
As for patrolling the South China Seathe ASEAN will not stand beside the U.Ssince itfears that the Eagles actions will trigger military conflicts.
The ASEAN is also unwilling to get involved in the issuelet alone conduct patrolsrecklessly.
China has always advised the U.Swith kind wordshoping it can focus more on the bigpicture of bilateral ties
Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out that the enhanced China-U.Scooperation willbring enormous benefits to the world during his meeting with Kerry on Wednesdayas hehad stressed on many occasions.
Both countries agree to build a new type of major-country relations under the principles ofpeacemutual respect and win-win cooperationThe South China Sea issue should not beused as excuse to undermine China-U.Srelations.

Details emerge about Russia's mysterious Ebola vaccine

In January 2016, Russian authorities announced a vaccine for the Ebola virus, which killed thousands of people in West Africa last year. Officials, however, did not go into detail about how it works or how in less than two years researchers managed to develop a unique drug that has no equivalent in the world. According to RBTH's sources, the new vaccine might in fact have been conceived to fight against biological weapons.

The faded and unremarkable building that houses the Gamalei Scientific Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology is located in a peripheral Moscow neighborhood.
The Ebola epidemic hasn't hit Russia, so why does it need a vaccine? How were biologists able to develop this highly effective drug in just a year and a half?
Russian officials declined to answer these questions, but virologists familiar with the vaccine told RBTH that Soviet-era military research provided for a foundation that helped scientists today to work quickly.

An antidote against bio-terrorism?

In the USSR microbiologists studied the Ebola virus and other exotic diseases in the military town of Zagorsk-6, as well as in a Siberian research center, called Vektor. In the 1980s these studies were used to create biological weapons, and this research was the foundation used to make the vaccine that was presented in January.
Professor Mikhail Schelkanov at the Far Eastern Federal University was among the first group of specialists sent to Guinea in the summer of 2014 to set up a microbiological center. He said that geopolitics is the primary reason for the vaccine's creation.
"Nigeria, with its high population density, is close to the epidemic's epicenter; meanwhile, the Boko Harem terrorist organization is active in the country,'' Schelkanov told RBTH. "Essentially, this is the West African arm of the infamous Islamic State. If a biological weapon based on the Ebola virus falls into the hands of religious fanatics, the consequences for the world will be very serious.
"The Gamalei Institute vaccine was created not only with the help of Soviet-era military research, but also with material that we collected in the past 18 months in Guinea," said Schelkanov.
Another secret vaccine
RBTH learned there is another vaccine in addition to the one created by the Gamalei Institute. This one was developed by the Vektor Novosibirsk Center for Virology and Biotechnology.
RBTH inquired about Vektor's research with Anna Popova, the press secretary at Russia’s consumer rights watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, and she confirmed that the vaccine has indeed been created and is now being clinically tested. A source who spoke anonymously said that the vaccine is effective, and that it was created based on another technology.
How does the vaccine work?
"The vaccine was created based on a virus technology that has been mastered in Russia," explained one of its developers, Denis Logunov. "It's sometimes called the rose without thorns." 
It works like this: the antigen used to induce an immune response to Ebola or another dangerous virus is implanted into a harmless virus, which is then introduced into the human body. In addition to the main vaccine, scientists also created a version for people with HIV.
Virologist Sergei Netesov, who in the mid 1990s tested vaccines against Hepatitis A, believes that since little information is available the vaccine in question has probably only passed the first phase of testing out of the necessary three.
Clinical testing has already been done, according to the Gamalei Institute. "There were 92 volunteers, including understudies," noted virologist Yana Simakova, who directed the tests. She told RBTH that in laboratory conditions the vaccine demonstrated, "100 percent effectiveness." The institute promises to publish the data confirming this in the near future.

Russia supports Syrian Kurds’ participation in the intra-Syrian talks — diplomat

Russia supports the idea of Syrian Kurds’ participation in the intra-Syrian talks in Geneva, Russia’s Permanent Representative at Geneva office of the United Nations and other international organization Alexey Borodavkin said on Friday. "Those [oppositionists] who met in Moscow and Cairo agreed to stand together. This Moscow-Cairo group demands representatives of the Syrian Kurds be invited to the talks," he told journalists. "We support this idea since it looks impossible to discuss the agenda without Syrian Kurds." "Some regional powers insist on excluding the Kurds. We believe we should not yield to this blackmail," he stressed.

The main result of the first day of Geneva talks According to the diplomat, the meeting between UN Special Envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura with the Damascus official delegation is the main result of the first day of the Geneva talks. "The arrival of the Syrian government delegation and its meeting with de Mistura is the main result of the first day of talks. It signals that the [Syrian] government has taken a constructive approach and will be constructive in seeking the achievement of positive results in the interests of the Syrian people," the diplomat said. Geneva talks require flexibility, constructive approach The official also noted that Russia and Syria are united that intra-Syrian talks in Geneva require flexibility and constructive approach. "Ambassador Ja’afari came over to the Russian mission ‘to synchronize watches’ with us regarding the tactic of these indirect talks with mediation of [United Nations Special Envoy on Syria] Staffan de Mistura," Borodavkin said.

"We outlined our views on the course of talks, their format. The Syrian partners shared with us their considerations," he said. "The dialogue took place very constructively, on most issues connected with the start of talks we have a common viewpoint: it’s necessary to behave constructively, display the required flexibility and reach agreements with the opposition in the interests of the entire Syrian people," Borodavkin said. Riyadh-based opposition keeps on advancing preliminary conditions  Borodavkin also pointed out that the Riyadh-based opposition keeps on advancing preliminary conditions for participation in the talks. "As for the group formed in Riyadh, according to our information, they are still in the Saudi capital and keep on advancing preliminary conditions thus demonstrating a non-constructive approach," he stressed. "United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 has it clear that no one can advance any preliminary conditions.".


Britain must make Vladimir Putin an ally in the disaster that is Syria

By Eygeny Lebedev

Outrage and horror were in no short supply when, last week, it was announced that the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War will finally be published next summer. I think it highly unlikely that this will provide the cathartic moment that many opponents of the war desire.
In fact, the Chilcot Report’s most useful function may be altogether different, in reminding the people of Britain of a time when this country was a strong and active player in the Middle East.
It is becoming genuinely difficult to argue that Britain does indeed have a foreign policy today — at least in relation to the biggest crisis in the world today, which is the dissolution of Syria.
Early in his tenure, William Hague’s approach as Foreign Secretary coincided with a shift in focus to trade, as if his department had become a branch of the Treasury.
This was gradually reversed, but our National Security Council and Philip Hammond, Hague’s successor, have not injected vim, confidence, or anything approaching a coherent, long-term strategy into our response to the biggest challenge we face.
At a time when rising powers such as China and India know exactly what they’re doing — note the former’s investment in Africa and dropping of its one-child policy — this doesn’t make Britain look too smart. Partly because of our good fortune in not being part of the euro, we have been a bystander as the continent’s economy has spluttered from crisis to crisis.
Henry Kissinger never actually said “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” — but if an American Secretary of State were to do so today, the answer would be Angela Merkel, not our Prime Minister.

Nor does our indecision over whether to remain in the EU help us secure influence in Brussels, or other capitals across the continent. On the most pressing issue in our time — Syria — to say that Britain is playing second fiddle would be putting it mildly.
What is worse, we appear reluctant to work with those who are most active in the region, and with whom we share strategic interests. I’m thinking here of Russia.
Speaking to The Times last week, Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to London, who has written in these pages, was gratifyingly frank about the deterioration in relations with Britain, which have “bit by bit fallen into decline”.
“Practically all political contacts were abruptly broken off at Britain’s initiative. Political dialogue has gone at the top level, between the leaders,” he said. “At the ministerial level there is also stagnation... Forums for the discussion of trade and economic co-operation where we discussed mutual interests are frozen, science ties are effectively cut off; the only sphere we have left is culture.”
This is an appalling state of affairs. Given Russia’s standing on the world stage, it is also a deeply unhealthy one. If we can make pragmatism the basis of our relations with, say, China, then why not Russia too?
Of course, I have an interest here. I was born in Moscow, lived there until I was eight, have dual citizenship and love both my homeland and my adopted home equally, albeit in different ways.
I don’t want these two great nations, whose peoples have so much to offer each other, to grow apart through hostility and recrimination. I have no doubt, based on conversations with senior figures in Moscow, that the Kremlin wants to make an ally rather than an enemy of Britain. And I also believe that it is in Britain’s best interest not only to work constructively with Moscow, but to be an active, engaged player on the world stage. Not least because where Britain withdraws, others are stepping into the breach.
Over the past few days, former (and perhaps future) French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been in Moscow, praising Vladimir Putin, calling for closer ties with Russia and arguing that she should play a central role in managing the Syrian quagmire.
“Isolating Russia makes no sense,” he said. “We need to choose rapprochement and dialogue.” France, he implied, could help to bring Russia in from the cold.
Shouldn’t Britain be that very thing, the trusted intermediator, that Russia seeks and France offers? Put this question to diplomats and they will say that Russia deserves to remain in the international doghouse for a while yet, on account of its behavior in Crimea.
That seems naive to me. Contrary to almost all Western media coverage about the matter, the conflict in Ukraine is beginning to fizzle out. That is not to say the military presence is gone, or the tensions have disappeared, or that there will be no more reports about daily skirmishes. It is simply the case that — for now at least — the Kremlin’s attention is elsewhere: specifically, in Syria.
And who can blame them? There may be up to 7,000 Russian nationals who are in Syria as a result of being radicalized. Moscow, not a multicultural city in the way that London is, and run by an administration that is much more militarily decisive because it doesn’t put all big decisions to Parliament, is clear: these terrorists must be killed, before they return to Russia to wreak havoc.
On that point, Britain and Russia should be of like mind. We, too, know that there are many British citizens who have been radicalised and, for unfathomable reasons, decided to flee to this anarchic region and fight against all the things readers of this newspaper take for granted: democracy, peace, civilization.
We have common cause with the Russians, a common enemy. The biggest threat to humanity today is cancerous, Islamist ideology that is growing fast right across the world — one that claims, with what truth we don’t yet know, to be behind the weekend’s tragic plane crash in Egypt’s Sinai desert.
Not for nothing did the head of our security services say last week that the terror threat in Britain is the highest it has been in his 32-year career.
Destroying this cancer, or plague, at source could hardly be more worthwhile or urgent; and yet, rather than work with the Russians to do this, we seem intent on cutting ties instead.
Britain should not be leaving it to the French to mediate between Russia and the West. For all the greatness of this island nation, for all its hard and soft power, there is a laxity in our approach to the Syrian crisis. 

The Iowa battle: winning over the polls and the people

US political parties decide their White House nominees through caucuses and primary elections. Success - or failure - in Iowa is hugely important, but why? From Washington, Ines Pohl reports that anything is possible.
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Hardly anyone in the US really understands what the difference is between caucuses and primaries and how the rules of the Democrats and those of the Republicans differ. But everyone knows that it's the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary that decide the future of those hoping to be nominatedby their respective parties as their presidential candidates.
For someone who did not grow up with the system, it is hard to understand why such an important role is played by Iowa, a small state in which only 1 percent of the US population lives, where there are four times more pigs than humans and which is responsible for every fifth ear of corn. This is where the official battle for the presidential nominations begins on February 1.
Why these first elections in Iowa and New Hampshire play such a role is almost a philosophical question. Are they so important b Small primaries with huge significance
ecause often they anticipate the direction all the caucuses and primaries will take? Or are they so important because the results of the people who participate are taken so seriously that they decide on the direction of the months to come?
The answer to this question might only be really meaningful to philosophers. But the candidates know that those of them who do not fare well will not be able to catch up later on in the campaign, especially not in this strange election year. Failure to win in either state can mean a very abrupt end. But why?
Wooing the voters
In these elections, candidates have to prove that they are electable. They have to prove not only that they are capable of raising funds and attracting influential supporters to their side but also that they can woo the voters. They have to prove that they can win not only the polls but the people. They have to prove that they can match expectations - not only in appearance, but in reality. This is perhaps what is most important in this massive media show.

Trump does not go down well everywhere
Of course, expectations differ according to candidate. Let's begin with Donald Trump: He has been shaping how the media perceive the Republicans for over six months. In defiance of all the commentators and despite his unsettling public appearances, he is headline news. If the polls are to be believed, people like him because he has understood how to position himself as an outsider, as someone who cannot be corrupted, who can be believed. Most of all, he has sold himself as a man who knows how to win.
And that's exactly why Iowa could be his undoing. Iowa is small, very white and very religious. It has a population of god-fearing farmers who might not like smug and bawdy jokes. They might not like the Trump show. Sarah Palin, whom the New York multi-millionaire recently conjured from under his hat to win over the religious working classes, might not quite do the trick.
What would happen then? What happens to someone who keeps banging on about his winner status if he loses? Would he give up? This is foreseeable. Trump's rivals in the party would know what to do. The Republican establishment hates him so much that even the billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is thinking of running if he wins the Republican nomination and Bernie Sanders wins that of the Democrats.
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What would it mean for Hillary Clinton if Bernie Sanders won in Iowa?
What about the Democrats?
Bernie Sanders is the provocative candidate on the other end of the spectrum. Just weeks ago it seemed impossible that this unknown, self-proclaimed socialist could have a serious chance against the Clinton dynasty, with Hillary at its head. But once again if the polls are to be believed, this now seems very possible.
What would it mean for Clinton if Sanders won in Iowa? If he succeeded in doing what Barack Obama did in 2008? Obama's advisers later claimed that this victory had laid the path for his nomination. Because the winner gets all the attention and positive coverage, while the loser becomes the object of scorn and people start questioning whether he or she will really make it to the end, when it becomes a matter of voters deciding for themselves and not the machine.
Such doubts are poison for the financial backers, the fans and the undecided voters. History is full of examples of people who have sacrificed their convictions to be on the side of the winner.
Rarely has the prelude to a US election campaign been so highly charged and exciting. Never in modern history has the country been so divided. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are the two faces at either extreme of the spectrum.