Bolton arrives in Turkey amid tensions over U.S. withdrawal from Syria

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Jan. 8, 2019 / 12:28 AM GMT

ANKARA — National security adviser John Bolton arrived in Turkey Monday for what are expected to be contentious talks with government officials about the future of the U.S. military involvement in Syria.

Uncertainty surrounded an anticipated meeting on Tuesday between Bolton and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as tensions flared between Washington and Ankara.

Before arriving in Turkey, Bolton previewed the message he plans to deliver to Erdogan: President Donald Trump won’t withdraw American troops from northern Syria until Turkey agrees not to attack the Syrian Kurds who have been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS.

Jan. 7, 201901:15

The demand, which Bolton said came from Trump, followed remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who said the U.S. would make sure Turkey doesn’t “slaughter” the Kurds after a U.S. withdrawal.

Turkish officials have criticized the suggestion that the government would target Syrian Kurds. And on Monday Erdogan published an op-ed in the New York Times saying Trump made the right call to withdraw from Syria and that the Turkish government has “no argument with the Syrian Kurds.”

The Turkish leader called for a “stabilization force” in Syria that would be created by Turkey. To do so, Turkey would vet the Syrian Kurds who fought with the U.S. against ISIS and include those “with no links to terrorist organizations in the new stabilization force,” Erdogan wrote.

“Only a diverse body can serve all Syrian citizens and bring law and order to various parts of the country,” he wrote.

It’s unclear if Erdogan was directly addressing remarks made by Bolton when he wrote: “Turkey intends to cooperate and coordinate our actions with our friends and allies.”

Bolton told reporters over the weekend that the White House doesn’t “think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States.”

Bolton’s discussions with Turkish officials are broadly aimed at trying to reach a consensus about the outlines of a way forward in Syria after a withdrawal of U.S. forces that prevents a resurgence of ISIS.

“Part of what we want to see is no vacuum in northeast Syria that malign forces can take advantage of, so that will be a big part of discussions with the Turks,” Bolton said before flying to Turkey from Israel.

The Turkey visit is among the most critical of a series of stops in the region that Bolton and Pompeo are making to try to contain the fallout from Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he was immediately withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria.

Bolton said Trump made clear to Erdogan in recent conversations that he won’t withdraw troops from Syria until the Turkish leader guarantees he won’t use their departure to go after the Syrian Kurds.

While he said a U.S. withdrawal will be contingent on whether the White House can reach an agreement with Turkey on protecting the Kurds, Bolton also said the time American troops will remain in Syria is not unlimitedThe primary point is we are going to withdraw from northeastern Syria,” Bolton said.

While Bolton described his discussions with Turkish officials as among the most important the U.S. is having with foreign governments about Syria, he does not anticipate the talks will be finished before he leaves Ankara Tuesday.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford will remain in Turkey to continue the discussions. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the State Department envoy for Syria and the ISIS coalition also is joining Bolton in Ankara and will meet with the Kurdish opposition in Syria this week.

Amid planned Syria withdrawal, U.S. scrambling to find places to send ISIS detainees

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 8:27 PM GMT

President Trump’s surprise announcement that he was pulling the U.S. military out of Syria came with no plan in place for what to do about more than 790 imprisoned ISIS fighters and their families. Now his administration is in a frantic search for solutions, including a renewed look at sending the most dangerous fighters to Guantanamo Bay, U.S. and congressional officials tell NBC News.

The scramble has been complicated by the fact that the timeline for the planned U.S. withdrawal keeps evolving, with Trump and his aides giving shifting descriptions of how fast the troops are leaving. The ISIS detainees are being held in Syria by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, who have warned they may have to let the ISIS fighters go if a feared onslaught by Turkish forces occurs.

Amid the tumult, U.S. diplomats and military officials have been making urgent appeals to foreign countries to take back foreign fighters who went to fight in Syria and were apprehended, so they can be imprisoned and prosecuted in their home countries. It’s an appeal the U.S. has been making for several years in anticipation of an eventual U.S. withdrawal, but nearly every country has refused.

The sun rises over Camp Delta detention compound at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in 2008.Brennan Linsley / Pool via AFP – Getty Images

Now the U.S. warning to embassies is more desperate: Trump’s decision is real, the U.S. is leaving Syria, and the issue must be resolved quickly to ensure ISIS fighters aren’t released and rejoin the battle. It comes amid a frenzied effort to turn the president’s abrupt decision into workable policy, a period that one former U.S. official described as “chaotic,” as officials “search for guidance” from the White House that is not forthcoming.

The White House’s National Security Council declined to comment.

The basic understanding of Trump’s intentions keeps changing, from a decision to withdraw all troops within a month to a slower withdrawal over four months and now, an exit with no specified timeline. After broad bipartisan concern about a hasty withdrawal, the administration now says some troops could remain in Syria for an indefinite amount of time.

“There are objectives that we want to accomplish that condition the withdrawal,” national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday during a trip to Israel.

Amid the shifting policy, the White House has given national security officials no written guidance on how to proceed, several officials said. At a meeting last week with the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, Nathan Sales, there were no firm answers about what the administration wants to do, officials familiar with the meeting said. The State Department had no comment on the meeting.

Absent any clear instructions, officials are discussing options based on what they presume Trump and Bolton want to hear, one official said. The National Counter Terrorism Center, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is involved in the planning along with the State Department and the Pentagon.

To tackle the problem, the U.S. has separated the list of detainees into three categories: most dangerous, mid-level fighters and some leaders, and the more general fighters, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the planning. The most dangerous fighters are the ones under consideration to send to the detention facility at Guantanamo, which the president has repeatedly threatened to “load up” with “some bad dudes.”

Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, says there is precedent for quickly and secretly moving prisoners into Guantanamo Bay.

“Recall what happened in 2001,” she said, “the U.S. set up Guantanamo in 96 hours. It could happen very fast.”

Dec. 27, 201802:02

Greenberg, author of The Least Worst Place, a book about the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, reminds that the first planeload of detainees arrived in Cuba almost exactly 17 years ago, on January 11, 2002. The current discussions without much actual policy guidance from the White House is reminiscent of the 2001 scramble to find a place to detain nearly 800 fighters.

But unlike in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military collected evidence against al-Qaida fighters as they picked them up on the battlefield, the ISIS fighters in Syria are not in U.S. custody, making it harder to build cases against them that would hold up in the U.S. or other legal systems.

“These detainees were not apprehended by the United States and have no connection to the United States,” said Ambassador Lee Wolosky, the former U.S. special envoy for closing Guantanamo in the Obama administration. “They should be returned to their countries of origin for prosecution and incarceration.”

The ISIS fighters are being held in makeshift facilities run by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish coalition of fighters that the U.S. has relied heavily on for years to fight ISIS on the front lines. Fearing a post-withdrawal onslaught by Turkey, which considers the Kurdish fighters to be terrorists, Kurdish officials have threatened that they might have to simply release the ISIS fighters so they can focus on self-preservation.

Despite that threat, U.S. officials said it’s considered unlikely that the Kurdish forces would let the ISIS fighters free – unless Turkey invades to attack them. Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces to be an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish group deemed by the U.S. to be terrorists who have waged a two-decade insurgency against Turkey’s government.

If Turkey does attack, as has been widely feared in the wake of Trump’s decision, the Kurdish forces in Syria would have to redirect all their resources to defending their territory and could release the ISIS prisoners, officials said.

That concern may be one reason that Trump’s team is putting a renewed emphasis on trying to prevent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from – as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it last week – “slaughtering the Kurds.”

Jan. 7, 201905:30

Ahead of a visit to Ankara, Bolton said an agreement from Turkey not to attack Syrian Kurdish forces was now a prerequisite to a U.S. withdrawal. Erdogan has long sought a U.S. exit from Syria and had offered to Trump that his military would take over and finish off the remaining ISIS fighters operating in Syria, NBC News has reported.

Two of the detainees held in Syria, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, are suspected of having taken part in the torture and murder of American and other Western hostages. They were captured one year ago and have been dubbed “the Beatles” because of their British accents.

The Trump administration, at the urging of some Republican lawmakers, has considered transferring them to the Guantanamo detention camp. But Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire has appealed to the administration to try them in federal courts, arguing that flawed military commissions for Guantanamo inmates have provided fodder for extremist propaganda. Shaheen has worked closely with the parents of James Foley, the American journalist who was murdered by Islamic State in 2014.

The president’s “hasty decision to withdraw American forces from Syria betrays the trust that Syrian Democratic Forces have put in the U.S., and risks unraveling our efforts to bring these terrorists to justice,” Shaheen told NBC News in an email.

Another major dilemma facing the administration: more than 2,000 family members of ISIS fighters who also must be dealt with. The wives and children are not in prison but in separate sections of camps in Syria for internally displaced people, officials said.

A few countries, including France and Belgium, have started talking about taking back some of the families who originated from their countries, but the problem is far from solved.

Human rights groups have insisted the issue must be solved before the U.S. forces come out, arguing that local Kurdish authorities are not equipped to keep holding them or put them on trial. But Human Rights Watch also emphasized that detainees should not be transferred to countries known to practice torture or for tainted court trials, including neighboring Iraq, where the group said the U.S. has already sent at least five of the detainees.

“The issue of the foreign detainees – men, women and children – should be a key priority for any planning for U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria, said Nadim Houry, who runs the group’s terrorism and counterterrorism program. “The local authorities in northern Syria should not be left to deal with this international issue on their own.”

World Bank president resigns, paving way for Trump appointee

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 6:48 PM GMT/ Source: Associated Press

Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, announced Monday he is resigning at the end of January.

Kim’s unexpected departure — nearly three years before his term was set to expire — is likely to set off a fierce battle between President Donald Trump’s administration and countries who have complained about the influence the United States exerts over the World Bank.

The official announcement of his departure provided no reason for his sudden departure. It will give Trump the opportunity to nominate his choice to fill the World Bank post.

The 189-nation World Bank is the largest government source for development funding, providing low-cost loans for projects around the world.

Since the creation of the World Bank at the end of World War II, its leaders have all been Americans. Its sister lending agency, the International Monetary Fund, has always been headed by a European.

Other countries, including China and other Asian nations, have complained about this pattern. The IMF, which provides emergency loans to countries in economic crisis, is currently headed by former French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.

Kim, the former head of Dartmouth College, was first tapped by former President Barack Obama to lead the World Bank in 2012. He was nominated by Obama for a second term in August 2016.

In his resignation statement, Kim said he planned to join a firm that will focus on increasing infrastructure investments in developing countries. He will also rejoin Partners in Health, an organization he co-founded more than 30 years ago to provide medical support to poor nations.

The World Bank said Kim will be succeeded Feb. 1 on an interim basis by Kristalina Georgieva, its chief executive officer.

“It has been a great honor to serve as president of this remarkable institution, full of passionate individuals dedicated to the mission of ending extreme poverty in our lifetime,” Kim said.

China's economic woes stem from more than just tariffs, experts say

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 6:15 PM GMT

As pivotal trade talks between delegations from the United States and China get under way this week, some economists are taking issue with President Donald Trump’s characterization of the impact that his trade sanctions have had on the Chinese economy.

Commerce Department Secretary Wilbur Ross said in an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box on Monday that the Trump tariffs were causing slower growth and raising the potential of political instability. He said China’s slowdown was a “big problem in their context of having a very big need to create millions of millions of jobs to hold down social unrest.”

However, “I would characterize the Chinese economy as slowing, for sure, but we wouldn’t blame it on the trade issue,” said Paul Christopher, head of global market strategy for the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

“I think China wants to get it resolved. Their economy’s not doing well,” Trump told reporters on Friday.

Trade and market expert say statements such as this lack two things: An acknowledgement that investor anxiety over the potential impact of a drawn-out trade war on the U.S. economy also contributed to market volatility that has sent equities plummeting over the past several weeks, and an understanding of the factors from which China’s economic woes stem.

“Today, both the U.S. and China are negatively affected by the current tensions,” said Ludovic Subran, global economist at Euler Hermes. “The big issue is really more the domestic economy and its transformation,” he said.

“There’s evidence that the latest round of economic reforms started to slow the economy before we got to the tariffs,” Christopher said. In terms of advancing a mix of expansionary and tightening policies, China is still tinkering with the balance. “They haven’t really found the right combination yet,” he said. “We think they’re still experimenting.”

A decrease in Chinese car sales is one key data point that has been misconstrued, China experts say. Automotive consulting firm ZoZoGo found that car sales in China reversed course last year and fell by 3 percent after roughly two decades of growth, and the country’s largest automotive trade group also has reported sinking sales figures in recent months.

Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that a temporary tax break spurred Chinese consumers to accelerate car-buying, and the subsequent falloff is a natural outcome of pulling forward demand.

Strong growth in Chinese exports to the U.S. for much of 2018 could indicate an acceleration of commerce as businesses scramble to get goods and manufacturing inputs over the border before any additional tariffs kick in.

“The trade flows alone don’t tell the whole story. Some of the strength of U.S. imports from China is the result of firms trying to ship products before more tariffs are applied, so it won’t last,” said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist at Capital Economics.

As in the U.S., uncertainty over tariffs has weighed on the Chinese equity market as businesses hold off on investments until they know more about what the future holds. “But the trade war is not the main headwind that China’s economy is facing,” Williams said.

That headwind is tighter domestic financial policymaking, experts say. The Chinese government put sharp curbs on non-bank lending, which had fueled considerable growth in consumer spending, real estate investment and local infrastructure projects, but also ratcheted up the risk factor.

“I think the slowdown is primarily a result of the slowdown in credit,” Lardy said. “By the end of last year, credit was growing at the slowest pace in 10 years,” which has crimped spending, investment and weighed on the Chinese stock market.

More recently, Beijing has been walking back some of these tightening policies to promote a more stimulative economic environment: On Friday, China’s equivalent of the Federal Reserve announced that it would cut bank reserve requirements, which would free up more capital for lending, following pledges to cut taxes and increase infrastructure spending to further stimulate its economy.

Economists say a shrinking pool of credit is one contributor to slower Chinese consumer spending, which has been fueled in recent years by taking on debt, and — as in the U.S. — people are unwilling to add to their debt burden in the face of economic uncertainty. “We also notice households have taken on some debt in recent years, and we think some of them might be reaching their limits,” Christopher said. “Households, we think, are feeling a little bit of a pinch,” he said.

Softness in Chinese household spending also is a result of how consumer economic activity is calculated, experts say. As the Chinese economy matures and its middle class grows, people are spending increasingly more on services ranging from healthcare to education to tourism — spending not captured by metrics that only include purchases of goods.

“Service spending by Chinese households, that growth rate is still at an upward trajectory — it’s not only the level that’s rising, but the growth rate that’s rising,” Christopher said.

Looming galactic collision will rip open the black hole at the Milky Way's center

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Jan. 7, 2019 / 5:39 PM GMT/ Source: Live Science

The end of the Milky Way as we know it may come a few billion years ahead of schedule.

According to a new paper published Jan. 4 in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, our home galaxy appears to be on a crash course with one of its nearest satellites, the spiral of stars known as the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC).

This cosmic crash, modeled in lovely and terrifying detail by a team of astrophysicists at Durham University in the U.K., could begin as soon as 2 billion years from now — roughly 2 billion to 3 billion years sooner than the long-anticipated collision between the Milky Way and its nearest cosmic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy. (Adjust your doomsday clocks accordingly.)

While the LMC boasts only about one-twentieth the solar mass of the Milky Way, the collision would nevertheless leave permanent scars on both galaxies, igniting once-dormant black holes, flinging stars quadrillions of miles out of orbit and staining the sky with crackling cosmic radiation.

“The destruction of the Large Magellanic Cloud, as it is devoured by the Milky Way, will wreak havoc with our galaxy,” Marius Cautun, lead study author and postdoctoral fellow in Durham University’s Institute for Computational Cosmology, said in a statement.

When galaxies collide

Galactic collisions are a common occurrence in the surprisingly crowded infinity of space, and scientists are getting pretty good at modeling how fresh mergers might play out. Using a supercomputer collision simulator called EAGLE, the Durham team modeled several possible scenarios for the impending Milky Way/LMC merger.

What will change for our galaxy? For starters, the colliding LMC would likely pour loads of fresh gas and stars into the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, breathing fresh life into the once-sleeping giant. According to Cautun and colleagues, such a collision could bulk up the black hole to about 8 times its current size, possibly even turning it into a quasar — one of the brightest objects in the universe, which occurs when a supermassive black hole sucks in and spits out blazing celestial matter at near-light-speed.

Should this happen, the stars that currently call the Milky Way’s galactic center home will, sadly, have to yield the neighborhood they know and love to a new population of cosmic emigrants from the LCM. According to the researchers, many stars will be sucked into the growing black hole at the galactic center; other stars, reacting to all the extra mass pouring into their neighborhood, could be flung headlong into interstellar space, quadrillions of miles away.

Fortunately for any descendants you might leave 2 billion years from now, only a few stars inhabiting the general region of Earth’s sun will be affected by the merger, the authors wrote. The researchers predicted that any risk to life on Earth is “very unlikely” — and, on the brighter side, the Milky Way’s brand-new quasar could actually treat future Earthlings to “a spectacular display of cosmic fireworks,” according to study coauthor Carlos Frenk, director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham.

Originally published on Live Science.

Mexico fights fuel theft, but frustrates motorists

Jan. 7, 2019 / 4:35 PM GMT

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — An offensive by Mexico’s new government against fuel theft at one of the country’s main refineries has led to days of shortages at gas stations in several central states, as authorities move more fuel by tankers and less by vulnerable pipelines.

A Reuters witness said many gas stations in the city of Guadalajara in Jalisco state were closed on Sunday, including those operated by state oil firm Pemex, Spain’s Repsol and BP. There were long lines of motorists at those that were operating.

“I’ve gone to 10 gas stations and nothing, there’s none at any of them,” said Alan Delgado, trying to fill his Buick truck at a BP gas station in Guadalajara. “This is a serious and critical situation because it complicates work and businesses.”

The shortages followed the closure of a pipeline from the Salamanca refinery in the central state of Guanajuato, and as Pemex started using more tankers to transport fuel.

People buy gasoline at a station in Guadalajara, Jalisco State, on January 6, 2019 as shortages have also been reported in several other Mexican states. – President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador recently announced a joint plan with state-run oil company Pemex to tackle fuel theft from pipelines and within company.ULISES RUIZ / AFP – Getty Images

Theft by gangs and oil industry workers from Mexico’s state-controlled refineries is a major drain on government resources, but the measures taken to tackle the crime could also weigh on the economy if shortages drag on.

Violent criminal gangs have for years used fuel theft as a way to supplement their income, bleeding money from state coffers and driving bloodshed as they fight rivals and extort oil workers.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December, confirmed on Friday that less fuel was being sent through pipelines.

“I ask citizens for understanding and support, because we need to solve this problem together. We are trying to get it resolved soon,” Lopez Obrador said in a televised speech.

Obrador has vowed to tackle theft “outside and inside” Pemex, or Petroleos Mexicanos [PEMX.UL], which estimates that fuel worth more than 146 billion pesos ($7.40 billion) has been stolen since 2016 alone.

The president said last month that Mexico’s armed forces would take part in security at Pemex installations around the country, including its refinery in Salamanca.

Fuel theft there has been linked to a surge in violence, according to Guanajuato state governor Diego Sinhue.

The Mexican Association of Gasoline Station business owners warned its members on Jan. 3 that no fuel was being transported via the pipeline from the Salamanca refinery.

“You are free to take measures that benefit your customers, to limit the sale (of fuel) to 10 liters per car or whatever you consider necessary to serve the public,” the association said.

Guanajuato governor Sinhue took to Twitter on Sunday, saying that Pemex’s chief executive Octavio Romero “confirmed that after reopening the Salamanca-Leon pipeline, he expects to reestablish service to 100 percent of the gasoline stations during the day.”

It was not immediately clear whether opening that pipeline would reduce shortages in other regions.

Pemex said on Saturday that it is “preferring the use of safer means of transport, which means changes in the logistics for delivery to service stations,” leading to delays in the states of Hidalgo, Mexico, Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato and Queretaro.

Pemex said it is aiming to boost distribution in the affected states by up to 20 percent, transporting fuel by tanker trucks and trains.

A May 2017 study commissioned by the national energy regulator found that thieves, between 2009 and 2016, had tapped pipelines roughly every 1.4 kms (0.86 miles) along Pemex’s approximately 14,000 km pipeline network.

The government has not made clear if they see road and rail transport as a long term solution for fuel distribution.

Transporting fuel by road and rail is 12 to 16 times more expensive than by pipeline, said Gonzalo Monroy, a Mexico City-based oil analyst.

“If this keeps happening and expanding to other parts of the country, the Mexican economy is going to have a very tough first quarter,” said Monroy.