All posts by Tyler Durden

Bombshell Report Catches Pentagon Falsifying Paperwork For Weapons Transfers To Syrian Rebels

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A new bombshell joint report issued by two international weapons monitoring groups Tuesday confirms that the Pentagon continues to ship record breaking amounts of weaponry into Syria and that the Department of Defense is scrubbing its own paper trail. On Tuesday the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) produced conclusive evidence that not only is the Pentagon currently involved in shipping up to $2.2 billion worth of weapons from a shady network of private dealers to allied partners in Syria - mostly old Soviet weaponry - but is actually manipulating paperwork such as end-user certificates,presumably in order to hide US involvement.

The OCCRP and BIRN published internal US defense procurement files after an extensive investigation which found that the Pentagon is running a massive weapons trafficking pipeline which originates in the Balkans and Caucuses, and ends in Syria and Iraq. The program is ostensibly part of the US train, equip, and assist campaign for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition of YPG/J and Arab FSA groups operating primarily in Syria's east). The arms transfers are massive and the program looks to continue for years. According to Foreign Policy's (FP) coverage of the report:
The Department of Defense has budgeted $584 million specifically for this Syrian operation for the financial years 2017 and 2018, and has earmarked another $900 million of spending on Soviet-style munitions between now and 2022. The total, $2.2 billion, likely understates the flow of weapons to Syrian rebels in the coming years.
But perhaps more shocking is the following admission that Pentagon suppliers have links with known criminal networks, also from FP:
According to the report, many of the weapons suppliers — primarily in Eastern Europe but also in the former Soviet republics, including Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Ukraine — have both links to organized crime throughout Eastern Europe and spotty business records.

The sheer amount of material necessary for the Pentagon program — one ammunition factory announced it planned to hire 1,000 new employees in 2016 to help cope with the demand — has reportedly stretched suppliers to the limit, forcing the Defense Department to relax standards on the materials it’s willing to accept.
It is likely that the organized crime association is the reason why the Pentagon has sought to alter its records. In addition, the sheer volume of weaponry continuing to ship to the Syrian battlefield and other parts of the Middle East means inevitable proliferation among unsavory terror groups - a phenomenon which has already been exhaustively documented in connection with the now reportedly closed CIA programto topple the Syrian government. The associations and alliances among some of the Arab former FSA groups the DoD continues to support in the north and east remains fluid, which means means US-supplied weapons will continue to pass among groups with no accountability for where they end up.

One of the authors of the OCCRP/BIRN report, Ivan Angelovski, told Foreign Policy that, “The Pentagon is removing any evidence in their procurement records that weapons are actually going to the Syrian opposition." The report is based on internal US government memos which reveal that weapons shipment destination locations have been scrubbed from original documents. 

Falsified and altered Pentagon procurement documents (Click to enlarge):

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Is an EUC (End User Certificate) still an EUC if it doesn't include an end user?

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Balkan Insight, which is hosting the original investigative report: "Seven US procurement documents were whitewashed to remove reference to 'Syria' after reporters contacted the Pentagon to enquire about whether the exporting countries – Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia – had been informed of the destination."

The fact that Foreign Policy, which is the foremost establishment national security publication in the world, would admit that the Pentagon's Syria weapons procurement program is tied to East European organized crime is itself hugely significant. At this point the evidence is simply so overwhelming that even establishment sources like FP - which itself has generally been pro-interventionist on Syria - can't deny it.

FP further reports that the Pentagon program "appears to be turbocharging a shadowy world of Eastern European arms dealers." And adds further that, "the Pentagon is reportedly removing documentary evidence about just who will ultimately be using the weapons, potentially weakening one of the bulwarks of international protocols against illicit arms dealing."

Map/Infographic produced as part of the OCCRP/BIRN report, itself confirmed by Foreign Policy magazine. Notice the map denotes that prior CIA weapons went directly to Idlib province (northwest, section in green) and the Golan border region (south). Both of these areas were and continue to be occupied by al-Qaeda (in Idlib, AQ's Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham). In Idlib specifically, analysts have confirmed genocidal cleansing of religious minorities conducted by AQ "rebels" directly assisted by CIA weapons.

Late last month we featured the story of Bulgarian journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva, who was fired from her job after being interrogated by national intelligence officials for exposing the same Pentagon arms network which is the subject of the latest OCCRP/BIRN investigation. At the time, Al Jazeera was the only major international outlet which covered the story, which confirmed that Bulgarian agents interrogated Gaytandzhieva and "tried to find out her sources." An anonymous source had leaked a large trove of internal government files connected to the arms trafficking to the East European-based Trud Newspaper journalist, which was the basis of her reporting. The newest investigation released Tuesday appears to include some of the same documents, also confirmed by Gayandzhieva.

Read the full OCCRP/BIRN investigation here.

Read Zero Hedge's original coverage of the Pentagon's Balkan arms pipeline here.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Israel Launches Air Strikes On Syria And Assad’s Waiting Game’

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Immediately after Israel's latest unprovoked strike on Syria we posed the question, did Benjamin Netanyahu just panic? The answer is yes, Israel is now acting from a position of desperation as it has failed in its goal of regime change in Syria. Overnight (Wed. evening/Thursday early morning), Israel attacked a Syrian military base near the town of Masyaf at about 3:00 a.m. which Syria has now confirmed in a statement that warns of "serious repercussions". Syria reported two troop deaths in the attack. It appears to have been a massive strike - grainy photos show a large fireball lighting up the night sky outside of Masyaf.

Israel appears to have timed its attack to occur on the very night a controversial U.N. report was released earlier in the day (Wednesday) which blames the Assad government for using chemical weapons against civilians at Khan Sheikhoun in April. A number of Israeli analysts and media reports purport the Masyaf base to be a site for chemical and non-conventional weapons storage (such as "barrel bombs") while claiming the attack was motivated by "humanitarian" concern for Syrian civilians.

But this is the reason for Israeli media and defense officials quickly claiming that the strike at Masyaf was on a chemical weapons facility: they know the "humanitarian" angle sells in the West, especially when coupled with allegations of civilians being gassed. Currently, this is putting the dubious and contested claim that the Syrian government attacked Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas back in the spotlight at a time when Israel is eager to sell war for regime change while casting its actions in terms of protecting and defending civilians from a brutal dictator. In typical fashion the big newsrooms, which rarely report from inside Syria but instead opt for the comfort of Beirut, are uncritically echoing the "humanitarian airstrike" narrative. The New York Times, in a report filed from Jerusalem, narrates the attack as follows while relying on unnamed "former Israeli officials" and a single Syrian pro-opposition outlet:
Israeli officials did not comment on the strike, but a Syrian monitoring group and two former Israeli officials said it had targeted an installation of a government agency that produced chemical weapons and a military base that produced advanced missiles.

The strike came a day after a United Nations commission accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in an attack in April that killed dozens in the town of Khan Sheikhoun and flooded clinics with victims gasping for breath.
Initially some Syria observers questioned how the Israeli Air Force could strike so deep inside Syria with no response from the country's advanced Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft system. But it appears Syrian airspace was never violated as the Israeli jets reportedly fired from over Lebanon. Masyaf lies west of Hama and just north of the Lebanese border. While Israel's incursion into sovereign Lebanese airspace is illegal according to international law, Lebanon cannot respond as it has no air force nor does it possess adequate anti-aircraft missiles.

It is further significant that Israel chose to fire from over Lebanon (not for the first time) even though it has routinely violated Syrian air space in previous attacks. It appears that Israel calculated it's strike position to be in the vicinity of Russian military presence yet without forcing a Russian response by directly violating air space. The attack comes just over two weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Vladimir Putin in Sochi. By many accounts the meeting was contentious as Netanyahu warned Putin that Israel would not tolerate Iranian presence in Syria. It was further revealed that a senior Israeli official accompanying Netanyahu on the trip threatened to assassinate Syrian President Assad by bombing his palace in Damascus, while further adding that Israel will seek to derail the US-Russia brokered de-escalation deal reached in Astana, Kazakhstan earlier this summer.

Russia’s Pravda described a frantic and upset Netanyahu at the Sochi talks with the following: “according to eyewitnesses of the open part of the talks, the Israeli prime minister was too emotional and at times even close to panic. He described a picture of the apocalypse to the Russian president that the world may see, if no efforts are taken to contain Iran, which, as Netanyahu believes, is determined to destroy Israel.”

At first glance it does appear that Netanyahu is now making good on his threats, but is this latest flagrant aggression against Syria a sign of more attacks to come? Will Netanyahu pursue escalation in the hope of dragging the US and other allies into war? It's not likely. Realistically that possibility ended when Syria retook Aleppo and with the US-Russia Astana 'de-escalation' deal which tacitly legitimized Iranian presence in Syria. Even some within the pro-opposition regime change crowd took to social media after the strike to say "too little, too late".  Simply put, Israel lost the covert war and is now left "holding the bag" while its more powerful allies pull out of the full push for regime change.

But what is clear is that Israel remains deeply uncomfortable with the Syrian Army's overwhelming momentum of late (just this week the army initiated the liberation of Deir Ezzor from ISIS) and seeks to keep the fires burning in Syria, at least enough to bog down Assad and Iran. Worse for Netanyahu, Hezbollah seems stronger than ever, along with the so-called 'resistance axis' that stretches from Tehran to South Lebanon.

Israeli officials have gone so far as to declare their preference for Islamic State terrorists on their border rather than allies of Iran. But as we've repeatedly pointed out, Israel is acting from a position of weakness and desperation. All that Netanyahu can hope for now is that an Israeli provocation leads to a direct Syrian military response, but it appears that Assad is not taking the bait.

In 2013 when Israel launched a massive missile attack against a Syrian defense technology facility in Jamraya outside of Damascus, it claimed to be attacking a parked Hezbollah weapons convoy. Perhaps more brazen was the 2016 attack targeting Damascus International Airport, which killed a well-known Hezbollah commander. And in a significant admission earlier this month, the head of Israel's air force acknowledged nearly one hundred IDF attacks on convoys inside Syria over the course of the past 5 years.

Netanyahu himself was recently caught on a hot mic bragging that Israel had struck Syrian targets at least "a dozen times". And this is to say nothing of Israel's covert support to al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria's south, which has reportedly involved weapons transfers and treatment of wounded jihadists in Israeli hospitals, the latter which was widely promoted in photo ops involving Netanyahu himself. As even former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell once directly told the Israeli public, Israel's "dangerous game" in Syria consists in getting in bed with al-Qaeda in order to fight Shia Iran.

Indeed Assad has not taken the bait for years now. While pro-government Syrians have themselves at times complained about Israel's seeming ability to strike inside sovereign Syrian territory with impunity, Assad has the long-game in mind of "survival now, retaliation later". It was clear from the start that Israel's attacks on largely non-strategic targets were more about provocation: should Damascus lob missiles back in Israel's direction Netanyahu would launch an all-out assault while Syria was at its weakest in the midst of a grinding and externally funded al-Qaeda insurgency.

Israel has also been careful to frame its actions in terms of counter-terror strikes on Hezbollah targets for the sake of maintaining an air of legitimacy to its aggression. But as the Astana agreement demonstrates (a strategic victory for Russia-Iran-Syria),  Syria's ability to absorb Israel's repeat provocations seems to be part of a strategic "waiting game" born of an accurate self assessment of past and current vulnerabilities. As The Century Foundation concludes:
Syria’s contemporary leaders seem to have adopted a simplified version of the “long breath strategy” of the former president—and father of Syria’s current leader—Hafez al Assad. This strategy was named for Syria’s ability to draw a deep breath and weather short-term pain and setbacks in pursuit of a better deal.
And this strategy seems to be working, resulting in a shift in perspective which is even beginning to permeate at least part of the Israeli defense establishment:
A formerly very high-placed source in Israel’s security system spoke to Al-Monitor last week. He said on condition of anonymity, “It’s high time to admit that perhaps all our assessments were erroneous. The prevailing consensus of the last five years was that Syria will never return to its former state. We thought that however this turns out, the Syrian state as we knew it had passed from the world. But evidently we were wrong.” 

Israel’s top decision-makers have not changed course, but it is likely that such arguments are heard in private discussions, and top-secret intelligence assessments see it as a real possibility that Assad is capable of outsmarting those who prematurely eulogized him and Syria as we knew it

'Syria is returning, that is clear now,' said the source. 'It’s not about the quantity of territory, it’s about central rule. If nothing unexpected happens, in the near future, Assad will be declared the final, unequivocal winner of this war. Following that, the path to Syria’s rebuilding and reconstruction will be short.'
Concerning Israel's adventurist military action this week, contrary to the claims of unnamed "Israeli officials" who say the latest attack was against a branch of Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), it is likely that this week's air strike was yet another "routine" attack on a Hezbollah weapons depot.

According to Elijah Magnier - a veteran Kuwait-based Middle East journalist, fluent Arabic speaker, and one who reports from on the ground in Syria (and has done so for years) - Israel in truth hit another Hezbollah weapons storehouse (not a chemical weapons production facility). But with renewed claims that Syrian government possesses and has used sarin gas, Israel is seeking to maximize the propaganda value of the strike. After all, the world's attention now seems far away from Syria and the Israeli gloves are off. Israel will do and say whatever it can to get the wheels of internationally backed regime change in motion again.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Pentagon Unveils Plan For ‘Pre-Emptive Strike’ On North Korea

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Just hours after Trump made his famously heated vow to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea if provocations by the Kim regime continued, the US Air Force issued a very clear statement in which it explicitly said that it was "ready to fight tonight," launching an attack of B-1 bombers if so ordered:
'How we train is how we fight and the more we interface with our allies, the better prepared we are to fight tonight,' said a 37th EBS B-1 pilot. 'The B-1 is a long-range bomber that is well-suited for the maritime domain and can meet the unique challenges of the Pacific.'
Now, according to an NBC report, it appears that the B-1 pilot was dead serious, as the Pentagon has unveiled a plan for a preemptive strike on North Korean missile sites with bombers stationed in Guam, once Donald Trump gives the order to strike. Echoing what we said yesterday that war "under any analysis, is insanity", the preemptive strike plan is viewed as the "best option available" out of all the bad ones:
'There is no good option,' a senior intelligence official involved in North Korean planning told NBC News, but a unilateral American bomber strike not supported by any assets in the South constitutes 'the best of a lot of bad options.'
The attack would consist of B-1 Lancer heavy bombers located on Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, a senior acting and retired military officials told NBC news.

"Of all the military options … [President Donald Trump] could consider, this would be one of the two or three that would at least have the possibility of not escalating the situation,” retired Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe and an NBC News analyst, said.

Why the B-1?
Military sources told NBC News that the internal justification for centering a strike on the B-1 is both practical and intricate. The B-1 has the largest internal payload of any current bomber in the U.S. arsenal. A pair of bombers can carry a mix of weapons in three separate bomb bays — as many as 168 500-pound bombs — or more likely, according to military sources, the new Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile — Extended Range (JASSM-ER), a highly accurate missile with a range of 500 nautical miles, allowing the missile to be fired from well outside North Korean territory.
There is another important consideration: according to one senior military officer, "the B-1 has also been selected because it has the added benefit of not being able to carry nuclear weapons. Military planners think that will signal China, Russia, and Pyongyang that the U.S. is not trying to escalate an already bad situation any further.

The plan explains why in recent weeks pairs of B-1s have conducted 11 practice runs of a similar mission since the end of May, the last taking place on Monday, around the time Trump and Kim were exchanging unpleasantries in the media, with the training has accelerated since May, according to officials. In an actual mission, NBC notes that the non-nuclear bombers would be supported by satellites and drones and surrounded by fighter jets as well as aerial refueling and electronic warfare planes.

There are currently at least six B-1 bombers on Andersen Air Force base, which is located some 3,200km from North Korea. If given the command, these strategic bombers would target around two dozen North Korean "missile-launch sites, testing grounds and support facilities" according to sources cited by NBC.

Asked about the B-1 bomber plan, two U.S. officials told NBC News that the bombers were among the options under consideration but not the only option. NBC points out that "action would come from air, land and sea — and cyber."

Of course, as we elaborated yesterday, striking North Korea is certain to prompt an immediate and deadly response that could involve targets as near as Seoul, just 40 miles from the border, or as far away as Andersen AFB, according to Adm. Stavridis.

The use of the B-1 bombers to actually drop bombs and destroy Korean infrastructure and kill North Koreans would cause an escalation," said Stavridis. "Kim Jong Un would be compelled to respond. He would lash out militarily, at a minimum against South Korea, and potentially at long-range targets, perhaps including Guam. … That's a bad set of outcomes from where we sit now."

"Diplomacy remains the lead," said Gen. Terrence J. O'Shaughnessy, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander, after the B-1 bombers' late May training run. "However, we have a responsibility to our allies and our nation to showcase our unwavering commitment while planning for the worst-case scenario. If called upon, we are ready to respond with rapid, lethal, and overwhelming force at a time and place of our choosing."

* * *

Finally, should the worst-case scenario be put in play, and conventional war is launched, here is what Capital Economics predicted would be the drastic economic consequences from even a contained, non-nuclear war.
  • North Korea’s conventional forces, which include 700,000 men under arms and tens of thousands of artillery pieces, would be able to cause immense damage to the South Korean economy. If the North was able to set off a nuclear bomb in South Korea, the consequences would be even greater. Many of the main targets in South Korea are located close to the border with the North. The capital, Seoul, which accounts for roughly a fifth of the country’s population and economy, is located just 35 miles from the North Korean border, and would be a prime target.

  • The experience of past military conflicts shows how big an impact wars can have on the economy. The war in Syria has led to a 60% fall in the country’s GDP. The most devastating military conflict since World War Two, however, has been the Korean War (1950-53), which led to 1.2m South Korean deaths, and saw the value of its GDP fall by over 80%.

  • South Korea accounts for around 2% of global economic output. A 50% fall in South Korean GDP would directly knock 1% off global GDP. But there would also be indirect effects to consider. The main one is the disruption it would cause to global supply chains, which have been made more vulnerable by the introduction of just-in-time delivery systems. Months after the Thai floods had receded in 2011 electronics and automotive factories across the world were still reporting shortages.

  • The impact of a war in Korea would be much bigger. South Korea exports three times as many intermediate products as Thailand. In particular, South Korea is the biggest producer of liquid crystal displays in the world (40% of the global total) and the second biggest of semiconductors (17% market share). It is also a key automotive manufacturer and home to the world’s three biggest shipbuilders. If South Korean production was badly damaged by a war there would be shortages across the world. The disruption would last for some time – it takes around two years to build a semi-conductor factory from scratch.

  • The impact of the war on the US economy would likely be significant. At its peak in 1952, the US government was spending the equivalent of 4.2% of its GDP fighting the Korean War. The total cost of the second Gulf War (2003) and its aftermath has been estimated at US$1trn (5% of one year’s US GDP). A prolonged war in Korea would significantly push up US federal debt, which at 75% of GDP is already uncomfortably high.

  • Reconstruction after the war would be costly. Infrastructure, including electricity, water, buildings, roads and ports, would need to be rebuilt. Massive spare capacity in China’s steel, aluminum and cement industries mean reconstruction would unlikely be inflationary, and should instead provide a boost to global demand. The US, a key ally of South Korea, would likely shoulder a large share of the costs. The US spent around US$170bn on reconstruction after the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. South Korea’s economy is roughly 30 times larger than these two economies combined. If the US were to spend proportionally the same amount on reconstruction in Korea as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would add another 30% of GDP to its national debt.
Naturally, should North Korea manage to successfully launch a nuke, the devastation, economic and otherwise, would be orders of magnitude greater.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

McMaster: U.S. Preparing For ‘Preventive War’ With North Korea

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The United States is preparing for all options to counter the growing threat from North Korea, including launching a “preventive war,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster said in an interview that aired Saturday on MSNBC. The comments come after North Korea carried out two tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles in the past month and after the president said he has been clear he will not tolerate North Korea's threats to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons.

The key excerpts (full transcript):
Hugh Hewitt: Let me switch if I can to North Korea, which is really pressing. And– and remind our audience, at the Aspen Institute ten days ago, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford, said, 'There’s always a military– option. It would be horrific.' Lindsey Graham on Today Show earlier this week said– 'We need to destroy the regime and their deterrent.' Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday, I believe, to North Korea, 'You are leaving us no choice but to protect ourselves.' And then the Chairman of the Chief of Staff of the Army said, 'Just because every choice is a bad choice doesn’t mean you don’t have to choose.' Are we looking at a preemptive strike? Are you trying to prepare us, you being collectively, the administration and people like Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton for a first strike North Korea?

H.R. McMaster: Well, we really, what you’re asking is– is are we preparing plans for a preventive war, right? A war that would prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon. And the president’s been very clear about it. He said, 'He’s not gonna tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States' if they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States; It’s intolerable from the president’s perspective. So of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.

Now, would we like to resolve it short of what would be a very costly war, in terms of– in terms of the suffering of mainly the South Korean people? The– the ability of– of that North– North Korean regime to hold the South hostage to conventional fire’s capabilities, artillery and so forth, Seoul being so close. We’re cognizant of all of that. And so what we have to do is– is everything we can to– to pressure this regime, to pressure Kim Jong-un and those around him such that they conclude, it is in their interest to denuclearize. And there are really I think three critical things, came out of the president’s very successful summit with– President Xi of China that were different– that were different from past efforts to work with China, which has always been, you know, the– the desire, right, to work with China– on the– on the North Korean problem.
How many casualties will there be:
HH: In 1994, when the first North Korean deal with signed, the people who executed it, Gallucci, Dan Poneman, Joe Wit wrote a book. And they quoted a general saying, 'If there is a conflict,' called Going Critical, “there will be a million casualties.” A million casualties. Is that still a good estimate of what happens if– preemptive strike unfolds in North Korea, General?

HRM: You know, one thing about war. It’s impossible oftentimes to predict. It’s always impossible to predict the future course of events. Because war is a continuous interaction of opposites, a continuous interaction between your forces and those of the enemy. It involves not just the capability to use force, but also intentions and things that are just unknowable at the outset. And so I think it’s important to– to look at– range of estimates of what could happen, because it’s clear that at war, it’s unpredictable. And so you always have to ask the question, 'What happens next? What are the risks? How do you mitigate those risks?' And– and obviously, you know, war is– is– is the most serious decision any leader has to make. And so what can we do to make sure we exhaust our possibilities and exhaust our other opportunities to accomplish this very clear objective of denuclearization of the peninsula short of war?
Should Americans be concerned:
HH: How concerned should the American people be that we are actually on the brink of a war with North Korea?

HRM: Well, I think it’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with this. Right, the, so I think it’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with a rogue, brutal regime, I mean, who murdered his own brother with nerve agent in an airport. "I mean, think about what he’s done in terms of his own brutal repression of not only members of his regime but his own family," McMaster added.
On Tuesday,  Sen. Lindsey Graham said that the president told him there would be a war with North Korea if the regime continues to try to hit America with an ICBM. Appearing on the Today Show, the South Carolina Republican Senator said that President Trump has indicated to him that the administration is prepared to strike North Korea to prevent an attack against the U.S.  Pushed on by Matt Lauer on whether a viable military option exists in the region, Graham responded: "They're wrong.  There is a military option to destroy North Korea's program and North Korea itself."

As reported last Friday, North Korea claimed that its latest missiles can now strike anywhere in the United States, delivering nuclear warheads. Experts have said that the country’s missile program has greatly accelerated in recent months putting it far ahead of previous predictions about when it could launch reliable long-range missiles. Speaking to Newsweek in recent days, several experts said that an attack would be the deadliest the US has ever received and potentially kill more 

“I’m not going to confirm [whether the latest ICBM could reach anywhere in the US] but whether it could reach San Francisco or Pittsburgh or Washington, I mean how much does that matter? It’s a grave threat,” McMaster said.

He added: “It’s impossible to overstate the danger associated with a rogue, brutal regime."

McMaster cautioned that he was aware of the fact that any strike against North Korea could bring about a “very costly war” that would cause immense “suffering of mainly the South Korean people.”

Last month, CIA Director Mike Pompeo floated another option for dealing with the North Korea threat, saying that he was “hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system.” North Korea responded by threatening swift and brutal consequences for any attempt to topple Kim.

“Should the US dare to show even the slightest sign of an attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the US with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Still, McMaster did not rule out such an attempt when asked whether it could be a legitimate tool. “I think it depends on the legal justifications for that. And this goes back to just war theory. And what is the nature of the risk? And does that risk justify acting in defense of your people and your vital interests?”

Last week, the local press reported that South Korea's military is preparing a "surgical strike" scenario that could wipe out North Korean command and missile and nuclear facilities following an order by S.Korea's president Moon Jae-In.

Reprinted with permission from Zero Hedge.

US Urges All Nationals In North Korea To ‘Depart Immediately,’ Bans Tourists From Visiting

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Dennis Rodman will be disappointed to learn that the US is set to ban all citizens from traveling to North Korea, according to two agencies that operate tours there. Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours said the ban would be announced on 27 July to come into effect 30 days later, the BBC reported. "After the 30-day grace period any US national that travels to North Korea will have their passport invalidated by their government." The ban comes one month after US student Otto Warmbier died following his imprisonment by the Kim regime.

China-based Young Pioneer Tours, which had taken Warmbier to North Korea, and Koryo Tours said the ban will come into force on July 27 - the anniversary of the end of the Korean War - with a 30-day grace period. Koryo Tours added that the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular affairs for the United States in the North, informed it of the ban, but did not say how long it would last. The U.S. embassy in the South Korean capital, Seoul, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rowan Beard said that the 30-day grace period would "give leeway for any [Americans] currently in the country as tourists or on humanitarian work". Simon Cockerill, of Koryo Tours, said: "It remains to be seen what the exact text is, but the indication is it's just a straight up ban on Americans going." Mr Cockerill told the BBC the agency would still conduct tours and take Americans until the ban came into effect.

Additionally, Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours, told the BBC the embassy was urging all US nationals to depart immediately. He said the embassy was trying to check on the number of US tourists left in the country.

For now there has been no official confirmation from the US: the state department continues to have an alert dated 9 May strongly warning US citizens not to travel to North Korea.

As the BBC adds, there has been movement towards a ban for a while in the US, which increased with the Warmbier death.
In May, two congressmen introduced the North Korea Travel Control bill to cut off the foreign currency the country earns from American tourists. The House foreign affairs subcommittee is scheduled to take up the draft legislation on 27 July but it would still have to go to the Senate. So there could be an executive order. Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: 'We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea. We have not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it.' Apart from the treatment of Americans in North Korea, tension has been increasing over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
Some are suggesting the US is using the date the ban is set to be announced - 27 July - to cloud North Korea's Victory Day on the same day. It was not clear if the urge to clear out US citizens from North Korea is a precursor to more "aggressive" (or kinetic) action by the US government.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Photos Of Aleppo Rising: Swimsuits, Concerts And Rebuilding In First Jihadi-Free Summer

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Aleppo orchestra concert, Summer 2017/via Sarah Abdallah

When taxi and bus drivers take journalists into Syria via the Beirut-Damascus Highway these days, there's a common greeting that has become a kind of local tradition as the drivers pull into their Damascus area destinations. They confidently tell their passengers: "welcome to the real Syria." Local Syrians living in government areas are all too aware of how the outside world perceives the government and the cities under its control. After years of often deceptive imagery and footage produced by opposition fighters coordinating with an eager Western press bent on vilifying Assad as "worse than Hitler", many average Syrian citizens increasingly take to social media to post images and scenes of Syria that present a different vision: they see their war-torn land as fundamentally secular, religiously plural, socially tolerant, and slowly returning to normalcy under stabilizing government institutions.

As the most intense phase of fighting in Aleppo was unfolding in 2016, veteran journalist Stephen Kinzer took to the editorial pages of the Boston Globe to remind Americans that the media has created a fantasy land concerning Syria. Kinzer painted a picture quite opposite the common perception:
Coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press... For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression. They posted notices warning residents: 'Don’t send your children to school. If you do, we will get the backpack and you will get the coffin.' Then they destroyed factories, hoping that unemployed workers would have no recourse other than to become fighters. They trucked looted machinery to Turkey and sold it...

The United States has the power to decree the death of nations. It can do so with popular support because many Americans — and many journalists — are content with the official story.
Now, during the first summer of relative calm Aleppo residents have seen in over four years of grinding conflict, the city commonly referred as "the jewel of Syria" is once again rising from the ashes. Foreign journalists are also accessing places like East Aleppo and the heart of the walled "old city" for the first time. Some few honest correspondents, unable to deny the local population's spirit of hopefulness and zeal with which they undertake rebuilding projects, acknowledge that stability and normalcy have returned only after the last jihadists were expelled by the Syrian government and its allies.

A Western press and political class which generally mourned the liberation of the city from al-Qaeda groups like Nusra (AQ in Syria), calling government actions a "massacre" and "genocide", now finds a reality that can't be ignored or denied: Aleppines are returning to ravaged parts of the city to rebuild, they are enjoying nightlife, going to music concerts, staying out late at cafes; families are swimming at local pools, women are strolling around in t-shirts and jeans free of the oppressive Wahhabi fighters that once ruled parts of the city.

Kinzer's Boston Globe piece further concluded that the entire web of assumptions on Syria woven by the media and fed to the public over the years were "appallingly distant from reality" and warned that these lies are "likely to prolong the war and condemn more Syrians to suffering and death." As new photos continue to emerge of the real Aleppo and the real Syria it is essential to revisit the most destructive among the lies that have helped serve to prolong this tragic and brutal war.

Aleppines didn't want to live under Wahhabi Islamist rule

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According to multiple eyewitness reports and studies, the story of how war entered Aleppo's environs was not primarily one of mass public protests and government crackdown, but of an aggressive jihadist insurgency that erupted suddenly and fueled from outside the city. According to then Indian ambassador to Syria, V.P. Haran (Amb. to Syria from 2009 to 2012), Aleppo on the whole was unwillingly dragged into the war after remaining silent and stable while other cities raged. In an interview which detailed his own on-the-ground experience of the opening years of war in Syria, the ambassador said:
Soon parts of Latakia, Homs and Hama were chaotic but Aleppo remained calm and this troubled the opposition greatly. The opposition couldn’t get the people in Aleppo to rise up against the regime so they sent bus loads of people to Aleppo. These people would burn something on the streets and leave. Journalists would then broadcast this saying Aleppo had risen.
Why did it take until July 2012 - well over a year since conflict in Syria began - for Aleppo to see any fighting? Why did residents not "rise up" against the government?

The answer is simple. The majority of Syrians, whether Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Christian, Kurd, or Ismaili, are sane individuals – they’ve seen what life is like under the “alternative” rebel rule marked by sharia courts, smoke and alcohol bans, public floggings, street executions, desecration of churches, and religious and ethnic cleansing of minorities. They recognize that there is a real Syrian national identity, and it goes beyond mere loyalty to the current ruling clique that happens to be in power, but in Syria as a pluralistic Levantine society that rejects Saudi style theocracy.

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Rebuilding Aleppo, Summer 2017. Latin Parish of St. Francis/via Sarah Abdallah

The kind of religious and cultural pluralism represented in the liberal democracies of the West are present in Syria, ironically, through a kind of government-mandated “go along, get along” policy backed by an authoritarian police state. One can even find Syrian Jews living in the historic Jewish quarter of Damascus’ walled old city to this day.

Syrian urban centers have for decades been marked by a quasi-secular culture and public life of pluralist co-existence. Aleppo itself was always a thriving merchant center where a typical street scene would involve women without head-coverings walking side by side with women wearing veils (hijab), cinemas and liquor stores, late night hookah smoke filled cafés, and large churches and mosques neighboring each other with various communities living in peaceful co-existence. By many accounts, the once vibrant secular and pluralist Aleppo is now coming back to life (and largely never left government-held West Aleppo).

"Moderates" did not "liberate" Aleppo, but gave cover to an ISIS and al-Qaeda invasion

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One of the most under reported and least understood events surrounding the history of how all of Aleppo province and the Northern Syria region became a hotbed of foreign jihadists is the fall of the strategically located Menagh airbase near Aleppo. As a Reuters timeline of events indicates:
In early 2012 rebels take control of the rural areas northwest of Aleppo city, besieging the Menagh military air base and the largely Shiite towns of Nubl and Zahra.
After a lengthy siege of Menagh, the base finally fell to jihadist factions under the command of the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) in August of 2013. This event was key to rebel fighters gaining enough territory to cut off the Aleppo-Damascus Highway, which allowed them to encircle all of Aleppo for much of that year. But a little known yet hugely important detail of the Menagh episode is that rebels only got the upper hand after being joined by ISIS suicide bombers commanded by Omar the Chechen (ISIS' now deceased most senior military commander). The fall of this government base is what opened a permanent jihadi corridor in the North, allowing terrorists to flood the area. The commander for the operation was US Ambassador Robert Ford's personal friend, Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, who was head of the US and UK funded Revolutionary Military Council of Aleppo (FSA). Okaidi worked in tandem with ISIS military commander Omar the Chechen and his crew for the operation - all while being supported by the United States and Great Britain.

Concerning US-backed Okaidi's close relationship to the ISIS faction in the summer of 2013, there is actually video evidence and eyewitness testimony (US Ambassador Ford himself later admitted the relationship to McClatchy News). Amazingly, the video, titled “US Key Man in Syria Worked Closely with ISIL and Jabhat al Nusra” never had very widespread public distribution, even though it has been authenticated by the top Syria expert in the U.S., Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, and author of the hugely influential Syria Comment. Using his Twitter account, Dr. Landis commented: “in 2013 WINEP advocated sending all US military aid thru him [Col. Okaidi]. Underscores US problem w moderates.”

The video, documenting (now former) U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford’s visit to FSA Col. Okaidi in Northern Syria, also shows the same Col. Okaidi celebrating with and praising a well-known ISIS commander, Emir Abu Jandal, after conducting the joint Menagh operation. In an interview, this U.S. “key man” at that time, through which U.S. assistance flowed, also praised ISIS and al-Qaeda as the FSA’s “brothers.” Abu Jandal was part of Omar the Chechen's ISIS crew assisting the FSA. Further video evidence also confirms Omar the Chechen's role at Menagh. The videos also show Okaidi proudly declaring that al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) makes up ten percent of the FSA. The FSA was always more of a branding campaign to sell the rebels as "moderates" to a gullible Western media than a reality on the ground; it was a loose coalition of various groups espousing militant jihad with the end goal of establishing an Islamist polity in Syria.

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In the end, terror groups like ISIS enjoyed a meteoric rise in Syria due to US government and media support for these so-called "moderate rebels" - all entities which collectively sought regime change at all costs - even the high cost of mass civilian death and suffering that inevitably results from unleashing an insurgency in urban areas.

The Syrian Army and government were never "Shia" or sectarian-based

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The Arab Spring narrative was the ideological lens through which experts initially pit the oppressive supposedly “Alawite/Shia regime” against a popular uprising of Syria’s majority Sunnis. As Sunnis make up about 70 percent of Syria’s population, it was simply a matter of numbers, and of time. But this view proved overly simplistic, and according to one little known West Point study, utterly false. It was commonly assumed that the Syrian Army was a hollowed out Alawite institution with its Sunni conscripts apprehensively waiting for the right moment to defect to the rebel side. This was the fundamental supposition behind years of repetitious predictions of the Assad regime’s impending collapse, and predicated upon a view of the Syrian military as a fundamentally weak and sectarian institution. But West Point's 2015 study entitled Syria’s Sunnis and the Regime’s Resilience concluded the following:
Sunnis and, more specifically, Sunni Arabs, continue to make up the majority of the regular army’s rank-and- file membership.
The study's unpopular findings confirmed that the Syrian Army, which has been the glue holding the state together throughout this war, remains primarily a Sunni enterprise while its guiding ideology is firmly nationalistic and not sectarian.

The highest ranking Syrian officer to fall victim to rebel attack was General Dawoud Rajiha, Defense Minister and former chief of staff of the army, in a major 2012 bombing of a Damascus national security office. General Rajiha was an Orthodox Christian. Numerous Christians and officers of other religious backgrounds have served top positions in the Syrian Army going back decades - a reflection of Syria's generally nationalist and religiously tolerant atmosphere.

Mainstream press did not report from Aleppo, but was hundreds of miles away.

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The heavily populated urban areas of Syria continue to be held by the government. But most reporting has tended to dehumanize any voice coming out of government held areas, which includes the majority of Syrians. The war has resulted in over 6.5 million internally displaced people - the vast majority of which have sought refuge in government territory.

The fact remains that there are some popular figures in the establishment media and analyst community who speak and write frequently about Syria, and yet have never spent a significant amount of time in the country. Throughout much of the war they've primarily reported from Western capitals - thousands of miles away - or, if they are in a Middle East bureau, without ever leaving the safety of places like Beirut or Istanbul. Fewer still have the necessary Arabic language skills to keep pace with local and regional events. Some have never been to Syria at all. They become willing conduits of rebel propaganda beamed through WhatsApp messages and Skype interviews, which was especially the case when it came to the battle for Aleppo. That much of the world actually considers these people as authorities on what’s happening in Syria is a joke – it’s beyond absurd.

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We are hopeful that the jihadist menace will be fully expelled and that the international proxy war which has taken so many lives and reduced much of a beautiful nation to rubble will finally come to an end. Aleppines and other Syrians are rebuilding - they are optimistically preparing for the future. Welcome to the real Aleppo.

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Final national exams just before summer 2017/via Syria Daily

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Israel Minister: ‘The Time Has Come To Assassinate Bashar Assad’

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Israel's Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant called for the assassination of Syrian President Bashar Assad following yesterday's US State Department report that the Syrian regime was using a prison crematorium to hide mass killings outside Damascus, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Speaking at a conference outside Jerusalem, Galant, a retired Israeli Defence Forces general, said that in light of recent allegations that Assad’s regime carried out mass executions and burned the bodies of the victims, he had to be killed.

"The reality in which people are executed in Syria, being hit deliberately by chemical weapons, their bodies being burned, something we haven’t seen in 70 years. In my view, we are crossing a red line. And in my view, the time has come to assassinate Assad. It’s as simple as that,” said Galant, who previously served as the head of the IDF’s Southern Command. The minister said Assad’s actions in Syria amount to nothing less than a “genocide,” with “hundreds of thousands killed."

Galant also likened the assassination of Assad to cutting off the “tail of the snake.” After that, he said, “we can focus on the head, which is in Tehran.”

In a conversation with The Times of Israel after his speech, Galant stood by his comments and acknowledged that targeted political assassinations are considered illegal under international law, but clarified that he “wasn’t speaking about practicalities.” However, he added, “Anyone who murders people and burns their corpses does not have a place in this world.”

As reported on Monday, the United States State Department accused the Assad regime of carrying out mass killings of thousands of prisoners and burning the bodies in a large crematorium outside the capital.

The US said it believed about 50 detainees a day are being hanged at Saydnaya military prison, about 45 minutes north of Damascus. Many of the bodies, it said, are then burned in the crematorium.  “We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place,” said Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, in accusing the Syrian government of sinking “to a new level of depravity.”

According to Galant, while it is unclear whether or not the crematorium was in use for all those years, it is imperative that something must now be done. The Obama administration made a “strategic mistake” Galant said by “deviating” from the course of supporting Sunni countries in order to try to come closer to Shi'ite countries, something which Galant said is different in the Trump administration.

During his speech, Galant also said that in a wider view, Assad and his ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group, are larger threats to the world order than the Islamic State and other Sunni terrorist groups. Galant was speaking at the Israel Defense publication’s “Ground Warfare and Logistics” conference at the tank museum in Latrun.
Up until a year-and-a-half ago, Syria looked like it was heading towards a Sunni rule, but following the Russian intervention, who used methods first used in Chechnya such as blockading cities while continuing aerial bombardments, the will of the rebels to fight was broken and the tides turned. 

But while the Russians are currently backing Assad, they realize the importance of the region and understand who they are aligned with, Galant said.

'They realize that once the war is over there will still be 20 million Sunnis in Syria who will be wanting to avenge their dead and the Russians know they will be a target,' Galant said adding that the Russians will 'seek avenues to make relations better with the Sunnis, including sacrificing Assad.'
As for ISIS, the Israeli minister was laconic: “The world will wipe out Daesh, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda,” he said. Galant said his assessment came from the fact that those terrorist groups do not enjoy the same level of support as Syria and Hezbollah, which are backed by Iran.

Indeed, his main focus was Tehran:  “What is behind Syria is Hezbollah who is backed by Iran. Iran is a danger to the security of the entire world. Iran is the problem, not the solution.” By getting to Assad, Galant said, we get to Tehran. “When we get the tail of the snake we can get the head in Tehran too.”

In short, it's refreshing that in an increasingly volatile world, absolutely nothing has changed in the middle-east.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Israel Minister: ‘The Time Has Come To Assassinate Bashar Assad’

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Israel's Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant called for the assassination of Syrian President Bashar Assad following yesterday's US State Department report that the Syrian regime was using a prison crematorium to hide mass killings outside Damascus, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Speaking at a conference outside Jerusalem, Galant, a retired Israeli Defence Forces general, said that in light of recent allegations that Assad’s regime carried out mass executions and burned the bodies of the victims, he had to be killed.

"The reality in which people are executed in Syria, being hit deliberately by chemical weapons, their bodies being burned, something we haven’t seen in 70 years. In my view, we are crossing a red line. And in my view, the time has come to assassinate Assad. It’s as simple as that,” said Galant, who previously served as the head of the IDF’s Southern Command. The minister said Assad’s actions in Syria amount to nothing less than a “genocide,” with “hundreds of thousands killed."

Galant also likened the assassination of Assad to cutting off the “tail of the snake.” After that, he said, “we can focus on the head, which is in Tehran.”

In a conversation with The Times of Israel after his speech, Galant stood by his comments and acknowledged that targeted political assassinations are considered illegal under international law, but clarified that he “wasn’t speaking about practicalities.” However, he added, “Anyone who murders people and burns their corpses does not have a place in this world.”

As reported on Monday, the United States State Department accused the Assad regime of carrying out mass killings of thousands of prisoners and burning the bodies in a large crematorium outside the capital.

The US said it believed about 50 detainees a day are being hanged at Saydnaya military prison, about 45 minutes north of Damascus. Many of the bodies, it said, are then burned in the crematorium.  “We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place,” said Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, in accusing the Syrian government of sinking “to a new level of depravity.”

According to Galant, while it is unclear whether or not the crematorium was in use for all those years, it is imperative that something must now be done. The Obama administration made a “strategic mistake” Galant said by “deviating” from the course of supporting Sunni countries in order to try to come closer to Shi'ite countries, something which Galant said is different in the Trump administration.

During his speech, Galant also said that in a wider view, Assad and his ally Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group, are larger threats to the world order than the Islamic State and other Sunni terrorist groups. Galant was speaking at the Israel Defense publication’s “Ground Warfare and Logistics” conference at the tank museum in Latrun.
Up until a year-and-a-half ago, Syria looked like it was heading towards a Sunni rule, but following the Russian intervention, who used methods first used in Chechnya such as blockading cities while continuing aerial bombardments, the will of the rebels to fight was broken and the tides turned. 

But while the Russians are currently backing Assad, they realize the importance of the region and understand who they are aligned with, Galant said.

'They realize that once the war is over there will still be 20 million Sunnis in Syria who will be wanting to avenge their dead and the Russians know they will be a target,' Galant said adding that the Russians will 'seek avenues to make relations better with the Sunnis, including sacrificing Assad.'
As for ISIS, the Israeli minister was laconic: “The world will wipe out Daesh, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda,” he said. Galant said his assessment came from the fact that those terrorist groups do not enjoy the same level of support as Syria and Hezbollah, which are backed by Iran.

Indeed, his main focus was Tehran:  “What is behind Syria is Hezbollah who is backed by Iran. Iran is a danger to the security of the entire world. Iran is the problem, not the solution.” By getting to Assad, Galant said, we get to Tehran. “When we get the tail of the snake we can get the head in Tehran too.”

In short, it's refreshing that in an increasingly volatile world, absolutely nothing has changed in the middle-east.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

Assad Calls US Forces In Syria ‘Invaders,’ Loses Faith In Trump

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With the Trump administration rapidly shifting its foreign policy stance in recent weeks as the Goldman-led group inside the White House steamrolls all opposition, in the process dashing hopes of a detente between DC and Moscow which now appear set to continue the "cold war" diplomatic ways set under Obama and Hillary Clinton, another foreign leader who is losing faith that Trump will bring any notable change is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who in an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix said US forces in Syria were "invaders" and that he had yet to see "anything concrete" emerge from US President Donald Trump's vow to prioritize the fight against Islamic State. 

Quoted by Reuters, Assad said he initially saw promise in Trump's vows to battle the Islamic State in Syria, where US policy under President Barack Obama had mostly backed rebels fighting Assad and shunned him as an illegitimate leader. That promise, however, has now faded, especially after Trump recently stated he would boost US troops in Syria in an attempt to create "safe zones" in the nation, in the process likely further escalating the 6 year old proxy war in Syria.

"We haven't seen anything concrete yet regarding this rhetoric," Assad said in an interview with Chinese TV station Phoenix. "We have hopes that this administration in the United States is going to implement what we have heard," he said. Well, so do millions of Americans who are hoping that Trump will end Obamacare, not to mention all those still expecting Trump to unveil the "tremendous" tax plan. Maybe get in line. 

In Syria, the US is currently working with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias and its biggest focus at this moment is to encircle and ultimately capture the ISIS capital of Raqqa. This week, the US-led coalition announced that around 400 additional US forces had deployed to Syria to help with the Raqqa campaign and to prevent any clash between Turkey and Washington-allied Syrian militias that Ankara sees as a threat. Around 500 US forces are already in Syria in support of the campaign against Islamic State, which this week added several hundred, marines who were recently caught on video as they prepare for the Raqqa offensive.

Asked about a deployment of US forces near the northern city of Manbij, Assad said: "Any foreign troops coming to Syria without our invitation ... are invaders." 

"We don't think this is going to help."

Voicing his disappointment with Trump, Assad said that "in theory" he still saw scope for cooperation with Trump, though practically nothing had happened in this regard. He dismissed the US-backed military campaign against Islamic State in Syria as "only a few raids", and said a more comprehensive approach was needed.

Turning to his far closer ties with Moscow, Assad said that the Russian-backed Syrian army was now "very close" to Raqqa city after advancing to the western banks of the Euphrates River this week - a rapid gain that has brought it to the frontier of areas held by the US-backed forces.  He said Raqqa was "a priority for us", but indicated that there could also be a parallel army attack towards Deir al-Zor in the east, near the Iraqi border. Deir al-Zor province is almost completely controlled by ISIS. The Deir al-Zor region had been "used by ISIS as a route for logistics support between ISIS in Iraq and ISIS in Syria, so whether you attack the stronghold or you attack the route that ISIS uses, it (has) the same result", Assad said.

Two months after his dramatic victory and takeover of Aleppo which turned the tide in the war against ISIS thanks to Russian and Iranian military support, Assad firmly has the upper hand in the war with rebels who have been trying to topple him with backing from states including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Finally, Assad also praised "crucial cooperation" between Syria and Chinese intelligence against Uighur militants who have joined the insurgency against him. He said ties with Beijing were "on the rise." Last summer, China unexpectedly snubbed the US when it announced it would side with Russia in the Syrian proxy war, promising aid and military training to Assad's forces. China and Russia most recently showed their support of Assad last month when the two nations blocked U.N. sanctions on Syria over accusations of chemical weapons attacks during the war.

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.

TSA Launches ‘Invasive’ Pat-Downs With ‘More Intimate Contact Than Before’

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As a result of a study, which found that weapons routinely make it past airport security, the TSA is introducing “more rigorous” and “comprehensive” physical inspections at airports around the country, according to Bloomberg. The security agency, which until now had the option of using five different types of physical pat-downs in the screening line, is eliminating the "options" and replacing them with a single, universal method which would involve heavier groping.

The Transportation Security Administration made the announcement to its agents this week, and in the case of Denver International Airport employees, advised employees and flight crews on Thursday that the “more rigorous” searches “will be more thorough and may involve an officer making more intimate contact than before.”

In an ominous warning, TSA spokesman Bruce Anderson told Bloomberg that "people who in the past would have gotten a pat-down that wasn’t involved will notice that the [new] pat-down is more involved." The shift from the previous, risk-based assessment on which pat-down procedure an officer should apply was phased in over the past two weeks after tests at smaller airports. In their notice, Denver airport officials said employees are subject to search at random locations: “If a pat down is required as part of the operation, badged employees will be required to comply with a TSA officer’s request to conduct a full body pat down.”

The new policy will also apply to pilots and flight attendants, classified as “known crewmembers” who generally receive less scrutiny at checkpoints. The TSA conducts occasional random searches of these employees, and airlines this week inquired as to whether their employees would be subject to more frequent pat-downs. The number of random searches for airline crews isn’t changing and will remain a “very small percentage” of the total, Anderson said. But airport employees may face more random checks.

Anyone who declines use of the TSA's existing conventional scanner screen will be subject to the new pat-down. The TSA currently screens about 2 million people daily at U.S. airports. The agency doesn’t track how many passengers are subject to pat-down searches after they pass through an imaging scanner.

The TSA has been criticized in recent years for its overall screening techniques after an internal investigation by Homeland Security in 2015 found that the TSA failed an unbelievable 95 percent of airport security tests, allowing undercover agents to successfully and repeatedlysmuggle mock explosives and banned weapons through checkpoints in the country’s busiest airports. As a result, the TSA has been in desperate need of change and the physical inspection would be a good place to start.

That said, the agency has been ridiculed for years for causing delays at airports and being largely ineffective at detecting contraband. The good news is that while passengers may find the new patdown more intrusive, Anderson promised that the new screening procedure isn’t expected to increase overall airport security delays. However, “for the person who gets the pat down, it will slow them down.”

As Bloomberg adds, in December, a CNN political commentator, Angela Rye, posted an article online describing her “humiliation” during a TSA agent’s search. Rye wrote in graphic detail about the pat down of her genitals during a search at the Detroit Airport before a flight to New York.

TSA officials didn’t immediately address whether the new universal pat-down protocol will mandate touching of passenger genitals.

While the physical screening process has been a stress point for the TSA practically since its inception, the agency has tried to make travelers more comfortable by pairing them up with people of the same gender for pat-downs and also giving people the option of being inspected in a private room, however at the cost of substantial travel delays. However, as some have mused out, it still doesn’t answer one of the most confounding questions about the TSA: "Is America really any safer because some underpaid worker grabbed a pussy at the airport?"

Reprinted with permission from ZeroHedge.