Friday, January 11, 2013
At a joint news conference Friday, Jan. 11, retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, cleaned the Pentagon’s Syrian desk ready for incoming Secretary Chuck Hagel. Boiled down to essentials, their triple message was that Bashar Assad could not be stopped from using chemical weapons if he chose to do so, that securing the CW sites after Assad’s fall was the job of the “international community” and that no US ground troops would be sent to Syria.
Panetta and Dempsey essentially confirmed a fact first reported by DEBKAfile in the third week of November: US naval, air and marine forces were withdrawn from Syrian offshore waters following the White House's decision to stay clear of military involvement in the Syrian conflict. After extending Syrian opposition forces diplomatic support for nearly two years, the Obama administration is dumping the Assad headache in the laps of Syria’s immediate neighbors, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, and casting the rebels adrift.
This decision was spelled out with crystal clarity by Panetta and Dempsey at a joint Washington press conference in Washington:
“The United States is increasingly focused on how to secure Syria's chemical weapons if President Bashar al-Assad falls from power,” said the outgoing defense secretary. In reference to the problem while Assad is still in place, Panetta emphasized that the United States is not considering sending in ground troops.
At one stroke, he refuted Western and Israeli media claims of American and Israeli special forces operating at the chemical weapons sites.
His words also broadly hinted to Bashar Assad that, if he kept his hands off using his chemical arsenal, he would enhance his chances of staying in power, because after America’s exit from the war scene, no other military force would be around to help the opposition remove him.
Panetta was less clear about the so-called “international community” – an amorphous entity in every sense. He said: "I think the greater concern right now is what steps does the international community take to make sure that when Assad comes down, there is a process and procedure to make sure we get our hands on securing those sites. That I think is the greater challenge right now."
The US government was discussing the issue with Israel and other countries in the region, he said, but ruled out deploying American ground forces in any "hostile" setting. He repeated: "We're not talking about ground troops."
The defense secretary did not say exactly how this international coalition would function or whether it would go into action if Assad himself embarked on chemical warfare. Neither did he refer to the claim leaked by British intelligence this week that the Syrian stock of 50 tonnes of un-enriched uranium, enough for weapons grade fuel for five nuclear devices, had gone missing and may have passed to Iran.
Gen Dempsey, addressing the same press conference, spoke about the current problem: He said that if Assad chose to use his chemical stockpiles against opposition forces, it would be virtually impossible to stop him. Preventing the launch of chemical weapons "would be almost unachievable,” he said “... because you would have to have such clarity of intelligence, you know, persistent surveillance, you would have to actually see it before it happened."
He added that “messaging” to the Syrian ruler publicly warning him that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line, established a deterrent, because “he might think it would prompt outright US or international intervention leading to his downfall. But that’s different from preemption.”
Dempsey was repeating Panetta’s implied message to Assad that avoiding chemical warfare would extend the life of his regime, say our sources.
US military sources later told reporters that, while Dempsey and Panetta believe sarin gas will break down after 60 days – “That’s what the scientists tell us,” Dempsey said, US government sources have suggested that “Syrian sophistication with chemical weaponry may leave the combined, weaponized sarin deadly for up to a year.” Sarin, they say, is exceptionally hard to dispose of.
DEBKAfile reports: This confusion is compounded by the decoys used by the Syrian army to conceal its chemical weapons stocks, which are now believed to have been distributed among different Syrian Air Force bases.
Israel has responded to the US withdrawal from the Syrian arena with a decision announced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Israel has started erecting a special security fence along its 57-kilometer boundary with Syria.
Ankara's response has been to segregate Turkey from the Syrian conflict behind the six Patriot anti-missile batteries provided by NATO and place them on the border of its embattled neighbor in defensive array.
Indeed, both countries have retreated to defensive postures. However, neither the Patriots nor the wall will be much use should chemical weapons fall into rebel hands, including the Islamist terrorists in their ranks, and they decide to use them.
WORCESTER, England — Britons may remember 2012 as the year the weather spun off its rails in a chaotic concoction of drought, deluge and flooding, but the unpredictability of it all turns out to have been all too predictable: Around the world, extreme has become the new commonplace.
Especially lately. China is enduring its coldest winter in nearly 30 years. Brazil is in the grip of a dreadful heat spell. Eastern Russia is so freezing — minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and counting — that the traffic lights recently stopped working in the city of Yakutsk.
Bush fires are raging across Australia, fueled by a record-shattering heat wave. Pakistan was inundated by unexpected flooding in September. A vicious storm bringing rain, snow and floods just struck the Middle East. And in the United States, scientists confirmed this week what people could have figured out simply by going outside: last year was the hottest since records began.
“Each year we have extreme weather, but it’s unusual to have so many extreme events around the world at once,” said Omar Baddour, chief of the data management applications division at the World Meteorological Organization, in Geneva. “The heat wave in Australia; the flooding in the U.K., and most recently the flooding and extensive snowstorm in the Middle East — it’s already a big year in terms of extreme weather calamity.”
Such events are increasing in intensity as well as frequency, Mr. Baddour said, a sign that climate change is not just about rising temperatures, but also about intense, unpleasant, anomalous weather of all kinds.
Here in Britain, people are used to thinking of rain as the wallpaper on life’s computer screen — an omnipresent, almost comforting background presence. But even the hardiest citizen was rattled by the near-biblical fierceness of the rains that bucketed down, and the floods that followed, three different times in 2012.
Rescuers plucked people by boat from their swamped homes in St. Asaph, North Wales. Whole areas of the country were cut off when roads and train tracks were inundated at Christmas. In Megavissey, Cornwall, a pub owner closed his business for good after it flooded 11 times in two months.
It was no anomaly: the floods of 2012 followed the floods of 2007 and also the floods of 2009, which all told have resulted in nearly $6.5 billion in insurance payouts. The Met Office, Britain’s weather service, declared 2012 the wettest year in England, and the second-wettest in Britain as a whole, since records began more than 100 years ago. Four of the five wettest years in the last century have come in the past decade (the fifth was in 1954).
The biggest change, said Charles Powell, a spokesman for the Met Office, is the frequency in Britain of “extreme weather events” — defined as rainfall reaching the top 1 percent of the average amount for that time of year. Fifty years ago, such episodes used to happen every 100 days; now they happen every 70 days, he said.
The same thing is true in Australia, where bush fires are raging across Tasmania and the current heat wave has come after two of the country’s wettest years ever. On Tuesday, Sydney experienced its fifth-hottest day since records began in 1910, with the temperature climbing to 108.1 degrees. The first eight days of 2013 were among the 20 hottest on record.
Every decade since the 1950s has been hotter in Australia than the one before, said Mark Stafford Smith, science director of the Climate Adaptation Flagship at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.
To the north, the extremes have swung the other way, with a band of cold settling across Russia and Northern Europe, bringing thick snow and howling winds to Stockholm, Helsinki and Moscow. (Incongruously, there were also severe snowstorms in Sicily and southern Italy for the first time since World War II; in December, tornadoes and waterspouts struck the Italian coast.)
In Siberia, thousands of people were left without heat when natural gas liquefied in its pipes and water mains burst. Officials canceled bus transportation between cities for fear that roadside breakdowns could lead to deaths from exposure, and motorists were advised not to venture far afield except in columns of two or three cars. In Altai, to the east, traffic officials warned drivers not to use poor-quality diesel, saying that it could become viscous in the cold and clog fuel lines.
Meanwhile, China is enduring its worst winter in recent memory, with frigid temperatures recorded in Harbin, in the northeast. In the western region of Xinjiang, more than 1,000 houses collapsed under a relentless onslaught of snow, while in Inner Mongolia, 180,000 livestock froze to death. The cold has wreaked havoc with crops, sending the price of vegetables soaring.
Way down in South America, energy analysts say that Brazil may face electricity rationing for the first time since 2002, as a heat wave and a lack of rain deplete the reservoirs forhydroelectric plants. The summer has been punishingly hot. The temperature in Rio de Janeiro climbed to 109.8 degrees on Dec. 26, the city’s highest temperature since official records began in 1915.
Dhaka - A cold snap which saw temperatures drop on Thursday to their lowest point in Bangladesh's post-independence history has killed around 80 people, officials said.
The weather office said the lowest temperature was recorded at 3ºC in the northern town of Syedpur and the Red Crescent said hospitals were packed with patients suffering respiratory illness.
Shah Alam, deputy head of the weather office, said the last time the temperature had dropped below 3ºC was in February 1968 when Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan.
"The temperature is the lowest in Bangladesh's history," he said.
The Red Crescent Society said impoverished rural areas had been worst hit as many people could not afford warm clothing or heating.
"They are not prepared for such extreme weather. Many could not even go to work," the society's general-secretary Abu Bakar said.
"According to the reports of our district offices and local administrations about 80 people have died due to cold-related diseases such as respiratory problems, pneumonia and cough," Bakar added.
Bangladesh, which is a tropical country, normally sees temperatures fall to around 10ºC at this time of year.
The weather office said temperatures were expected to rise from Saturday.
Industrial production grew by a slower-than-expected 0.3pc in November, despite a strong rebound in oil and gas extraction that was due to the completion of maintenance on Britain's largest North Sea field.
Manufacturing output also fell 0.3pc on the month - less than a 1.3pc fall seen in October, but also overturning forecasts for a monthly rise of 0.5pc.
"It's a disappointing set of data. We had thought that we might see a bounce back in manufacturing output over the month, but what we saw instead was a further contraction," said Philip Shaw, an economist with Investec in London.
"Most of the official data are suggesting weakness over the fourth quarter."
That would be further bad news for a government struggling to convince voters and economists that it can get the economy back on to a growth track while cutting public spending to reduce the budget deficit.
Sterling fell to a nine-month low against the euro after the statistics office release.
Still, there have been some more positive signs, particularly on lending, and Shaw underlined that the numbers did not yet conclusively point to a contraction in the fourth quarter. Analysts also expect the economy to recover modestly in the first three months of 2013.
"With austerity and inflation going nowhere, the outlook for manufacturers is subdued," said Mike Rigby, who heads up UK bank Barclays' business with companies in the sector.
"However, there may be some respite with encouraging economic signs from abroad, particularly if recent reports that the euro zone woes may be bottoming out are correct."
Overall industrial output had fallen 0.9pc in October. The rise in November was largely due to an 11.3pc jump in oil and gas output that was the biggest since 1968, after maintenance of the Buzzard North Sea field was completed.
Economists had predicted a monthly rise of 0.8pc in industrial production.
Separate non-seasonally adjusted construction figures, also released on Friday, showed a 3.4pc fall on the month in output and a 9.8pc annual drop - undermining hopes of a rebound in the sector.
The latest forecasts from the government's fiscal watchdog predict the economy will shrink over the last three months of 2012 - a prospect already reinforced by weak trade data and downbeat purchasing managers' surveys.
Economic uncertainty, below-inflation wage growth and finance minister George Osborne's austerity measures have kept a lid on demand for manufactured goods at home, while exports are struggling to recover in the face of a weakened euro zone economy.
But data from the BoE has also shown some sign that its Funding for Lending Scheme - aimed at getting more credit into the wider economy - is beginning to have some effect.
MOSCOW, January 11 (RIA Novosti) - Ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and Baltic Fleets are to start exercises off the coast of Syria the Russian Defense Ministry said on Friday.
"A tactical group of Black Sea Fleet warships headed by the cruiser Moskva will undertake exercises in the eastern sector of the Mediterranean Sea," the Ministry said. "The tanker Ivan Bubnov has fuelled the ships and emergency drills have been carried out. On January 10 the tanker filled its fuel and water tanks and food stores at the Cyprus port of Larnaka."
A Baltic Fleet group consisting of the patrol vessel Yaroslav Mudry and tanker Lena will dock at Valetta on Malta for storing and to allow the crew to rest, the Ministry said. The ships will then head for the eastern Mediterranean, where the two ships will practice stores transfer at sea in day and night and the Yaroslav Mudry will carry out anti-submarine warfare drills.
Meanwhile the navy's large frigate Severomorsk will visit the Greek port of Suda during an anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden from January 14-18. "Russian Naval Infantry soldiers will visit a NATO training center to get additional training" during the visit, the Ministry said.
The Russian Navy maintains a small base at Tartus on Syria's Mediterranean coast. Syria is currently locked in a civil war between government forces and rebels that the UN estimates has cost the lives of at least 30,000 people, while other estimates put the death toll at around twice that number.
Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday he will give President Barack Obama his recommendations about how to deal with gun violence by Tuesday.
Biden was tapped to lead an administration task force after a gunman shot to death 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
“There’s an emerging set of recommendations, not coming from me but coming from the groups we’ve met with,” Biden said during a day meeting with sportsmen and wildlife interest groups. “And I’m going to focus on the ones that relate primarily to gun ownership and the type of weapons that can be owned. And one is…a surprising recurrence of suggestions that we have universal background checks. Not just close the gun show loophole but total, universal background checks, including private sales.”
He said it was also crucial for federal agencies to be able to gather data about gun violence, including “what kind of weapons are used most to kill people” and “what kind of weapons are trafficked weapons,” according to the White House pool report.
“There has got to be some common ground, to not solve every problem but diminish the probability” of future mass shootings, Biden said. “That’s what this is all about. There are no conclusions I have reached.”
Obama vowed last month “whatever power this office holds” to prevent future mass shootings.
After meeting with gun safety groups Wednesday, Biden said the president could take “executive action” to crack down on guns. Biden was set to meet with National Rifle Association representatives later on Thursday.
Biden described himself as a shotgun owner but said he’s “no great hunter, it’s mostly skeet shooting for me.”
If Syrian dictator Bashar Assad decides to use his chemical weapons, there won’t be a thing the U.S. military can do to stop him, America’s top military officer conceded on Thursday. Nor will the U.S. step into a “hostile” atmosphere, with or without Assad, to keep those chemicals under control.
It’s been a month since U.S. intelligence learned that Assad’s forces were mixing some of their precursor chemicals for sarin gas, as Danger Room first reported. The Syrian military even loaded aerial bombs with the deadly agent. Assad hasn’t used the weapons — yet. Should he change his mind, there’s little chance the U.S. would know it before it’s too late to stop the first chemical attack in the Mideast in over 20 years.
“The act of preventing the use of chemical weapons would be almost unachievable,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. “You would have to have such clarity of intelligence, persistent surveillance, you’d have to actually see it before it happened. And that’s unlikely, to be sure.”
That explains the emphasis the Obama administration has given, from President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on down, to publicly warning Assad that using his chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Dempsey said that “messaging” seeks to establish a deterrent, since Assad might think it would prompt outright U.S. or international intervention leading to his downfall. But that’s different from preemption.
American officials began strategizing months ago for how it should operate in a post-Assad Syria. And that includes scoping out plans for disposing of Assad’s stockpiles of nerve and mustard agents.
Today, however, Panetta shot down a related preventive step: sending U.S. troops into the chaos of the Syrian civil war to secure the chemical stocks.
U.S. military officials have previously speculated that an intervention to take hold of an estimated 500 tons of chemical precursors would require 75,000 troops, a force larger than the one currently in Afghanistan. Panetta said the international community needs to establish a “process and procedure” for keeping the stockpiles under control — but only after Assad falls, which is an uncertain proposition. U.S. intervention to lock down the chemicals, Panetta said, would depend on the establishment of new regime willing to invite the U.S. military in — another uncertain proposition.
“We’re not working on options that involve boots on the ground,” Panetta said. If there’s a “peaceful transition,” then the U.S. might consider a request that a friendly successor government might make to secure the chemical stocks. “But in a hostile situation, we’re not planning for that.” It’s looking likely that the 400 U.S. soldiers sent to Turkey to man Patriot missile batteries could be the only uniformed troops that the Pentagon openly sends to handle the Syrian crisis.
The U.S. public has little appetite for throwing exhausted U.S. soldiers and marines into yet another bloody Mideastern conflict. But Panetta and Dempsey’s concession underscores the massive risks that the Syrian civil war poses for either the use or black market proliferation of chemical weapons. The revolution has already claimed the lives of 60,000 Syrians. The longer it goes on, the greater the pressure Assad may feel to unleash his unconventional arms. Alternatively, various Syrian factions might be either unwilling or unable to secure the stocks, should they prevail, nor is there any guarantee they will give up the chemical weapons once victorious.
There is confusion about how long the sarin gas will remain usable once its precursors combine. Nerve agents are inherently unstable, but U.S. government sources have told Danger Room that Syrian sophistication with chemical weaponry may leave the combined, weaponized sarin deadly for up to a year. Dempsey and Panetta, however, believe that they’ll break down after 60 days. “That’s what the scientists tell us,” Dempsey said. “I’d still be reluctant to handle it myself.”
Disposing of (or “demilitarizing”) chemical weapons is extraordinarily difficult under any circumstances; Iraq’s former chemical bunkers are still toxic nearly than a decade after Saddam’s overthrow, and the U.S. recently said it won’t be done disposing of its Cold War chemical weapon arsenal until 2023. Assad’s nerve agents will be no exception.
One of sarin’s main precursors – methylphosphonyl difluoride, or DF – can be turned into a somewhat non-toxic slurry, if combined properly with lye and water. The problem is that when DF reacts with water, it generates heat. And since DF has an extremely low boiling point — just 55.4 degrees Celsius — it means that the chances of accidentally releasing toxic gases are really high. “You could easily kill yourself during the demil,” one observer told Danger Room during the fall. That would explain Dempsey’s reluctance to touch it.
Naturally, this process could only begin once the DF and the rubbing alcohol (sarin’s other main precursor) was gathered up from Assad’s couple dozen storage locations. Then, they’d have to be carted far, far out into the desert — to make sure no bystanders could be hurt — along with the enormous stirred-tank reactors needed to conduct the dangerous chemistry experiments. And when it was all done, there would the result would be a whole lot of hydrofluoric acid, which is itself a poison.
It’s an operation that will take many months, many men, and many millions of dollars. No wonder the leaders of America’s overtaxed military won’t commit to the job until the Syrian civil war is done.