TIME Syria

U.N. Envoy: Syria Willing to Suspend Aleppo Strikes for Six Weeks

Children walk on the debris of a damaged building in Aleppo February 16, 2015
Hosam Katan—Reuters Children walk on the debris of a damaged building in Aleppo February 16, 2015

Suspending strikes would allow the U.N. to test a plan to "freeze" hostilities in Syria's largest city

(UNITED NATIONS) — The United Nations envoy to Syria said Tuesday he has received a commitment from the Syrian government to suspend airstrikes and artillery shelling on the city of Aleppo for six weeks to allow a proposed U.N. plan to “freeze” hostilities in the country’s largest city to be tested.

Staffan de Mistura was briefing the Security Council in closed session on his latest efforts to find a solution to the grinding civil war. There was no indication of when the suspension of airstrikes would begin, but the envoy said he will return to Syria “as soon as possible” to assess whether the government’s commitment is possible and to announce a start date.

He called the new development a glimmer of hope. And he continued to emphasize a political solution to the nearly four-year conflict.

But questions remain. De Mistura now has to get the opposition’s support for the plan, which includes a request for them to suspend rocket and mortar fire in the same period. And Syria’s ambassador to the U.N. refused to comment after the council meeting.

“Let’s be frank. I have no illusions,” de Mistura told reporters. “Based on past experiences, it is a difficult issue to achieve.”

This was de Mistura’s first council briefing since he explained his freeze plan in October, and council members wanted to know what kind of support, if any, it received from President Bashar Assad in his meeting with de Mistura earlier this month.

Aleppo is divided into a rebel-controlled west and government-held east. De Mistura wants to see a U.N.-monitored “freeze zone” that will calm violence there, allow more humanitarian aid access and act as the first step toward a wider solution to the conflict. “Our hope is that Aleppo could be a signal of goodwill, a confidence-building measure which could and can facilitate the re-starting of a political process with a clear political horizon,” he said last month in Geneva.

But Aleppo-based opposition activists have expressed fears the government would exploit a truce to gather its forces to fight elsewhere, and they have questioned how a cease-fire could work with Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in the area. And the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria, recently dismissed de Mistura’s proposal as a conspiracy that would allow Syrian government forces to regroup for more assaults.

On Tuesday, the U.N. representative of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Najib Ghadbian, said they were waiting to see a detailed proposal from de Mistura.

“The Assad regime’s compliance with any such proposal will be judged by actions, not words. And thus far, his actions have been only brutality and terror,” Ghadbian said.

Local truces have largely succeeded in several areas near Damascus and the central city of Homs, but the deals were seen as heavily lopsided in favor of the government, and the U.S. State Department has described them as closer to “surrender arrangements.”

The U.N. estimates the conflict has killed 220,000 people. Millions have fled to neighboring countries.

De Mistura is the third in a series of U.N. envoys tasked with trying to find an end to the conflict. He was named to his post in July, not long after ISIS launched an onslaught in Syria’s north and east.

He told council members Tuesday that ISIS has made no inroads in the western part of Syria and that no side in the conflict has made strategic gains since his last briefing, diplomats said. He also warned that Syria remains fertile ground for radical armed groups.

De Mistura has urged the international community to make 2015 the year in which movement toward a political settlement of the conflict takes place. He has welcomed consultations in Moscow in late January between representatives of the Syrian government and the opposition, the first on Syria since a U.N.-sponsored conference in Geneva collapsed early last year.

TIME North Korea

North Korea Threatens Strong Response to D.C. Rights Meeting

North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Jang II Hun, left, is seated between North Korea's mission consulars Kin Song, center, and Kwon Jong Gun, right on Feb. 16, 2015 in New York
Bebeto Matthews—AP North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Jang II Hun, left, is seated between North Korea's mission consulars Kin Song, center, and Kwon Jong Gun, right, in New York on Feb. 16, 2015

North Korea says it will respond "very strongly" to Tuesday's conference in D.C. on its human-rights abuses

(UNITED NATIONS) — North Korea says it will respond “very strongly” to a conference in Washington on Tuesday about its widespread human rights abuses and says the United States ignored Pyongyang’s offer to attend and defend itself. Puzzled conference organizers said the event was open to the public.

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Jang Il Hun told reporters Monday his country has asked the U.S. government to “immediately scrap the so-called conference” hosted by the nonprofit Center for Strategic & International Studies. Speakers include Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues.

Victor Cha, Korea chair at CSIS, said he was not sure what Jang was referring to. “We issued no specific invitations to anyone,” he said.

Nuclear-armed North Korea has been on the defensive ever since a groundbreaking U.N. commission of inquiry detailed vast rights abuses there. International pressure behind last year’s report led the U.N. Security Council to place the issue on its agenda of matters of international peace and security.

Jang said he sent a formal request to his counterpart in the State Department and that the counterpart responded that the conference was not a government one. “That means our request was denied,” Jang said.

North Korea and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations, but Jang is tasked with communicating through the so-called “New York channel” that the country’s U.N. mission uses to reach out to U.S. officials. Jang said his communication to the U.S. was only about the conference.

The U.S. restricts North Korean diplomats to traveling within a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius of midtown Manhattan, and they must request permission to go farther.

The State Department said the conference was a privately organized event.

North Korea has repeatedly said the U.S. uses the human rights issue as a pretext to overthrow it, and it has started demanding that the U.S. should instead look into the CIA’s “torture crimes.”

The U.N. General Assembly in December approved a resolution that urged the council to refer North Korea’s human rights situation to the International Criminal Court, and the head of the commission of inquiry has written to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un warning that he could be held accountable for crimes against humanity.

“We are not guilty of any crime,” Jang said Monday, smiling.

But alarmed by anything targeting their young leader, North Korean diplomats briefly proposed last year that the U.N. high commissioner for human rights could visit their country if the U.N. resolution would drop the language about Kim and the ICC.

Jang on Monday told reporters that the opportunity had passed. “Once it’s gone, we have to start all over again,” he said.

Jang also has said his foreign minister was not allowed to attend a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and other diplomats about North Korea’s human rights during the U.N. General Assembly of world leaders last fall.

Another organizer of Tuesday’s conference, Greg Scarlatoiu with the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said he had not heard from North Korea about it. “I find it encouraging that North Korea is paying attention to a conference commemorating one year since the release of the report, since they’ve been unwilling to accept the commission of inquiry,” he said.

TIME Yemen

U.S. Closes Embassy in Yemen Amid Continued Unrest

Yemenis hold a rally to protest against Houthi Shiite rebels, who took over the government of Yemen and installed a new committee to govern, in Taiz, Yemen, Feb. 7, 2015
Anees Mahyoub—AP Yemenis hold a rally to protest against Houthi Shi'ite rebels, who took over the government of Yemen and installed a new committee to govern, in Taiz, Yemen, on Feb. 7, 2015

U.S. embassy in Yemen has been suspended and staff relocated

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — The State Department confirmed late Tuesday that it has closed the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and evacuated its staff because of the political crisis and security concerns following the takeover of much of the country by Shiite rebels.

The department announced it had suspended operations at the embassy in Sanaa and relocated its remaining diplomatic personnel “due to the ongoing political instability and the uncertain security situation.” The embassy had been operating with only a skeleton staff for some weeks amid deteriorating conditions.

Yemen has been in crisis for months, with Iran-linked Shiite Houthi rebels besieging the capital and then taking control. Earlier Tuesday, U.S. officials said the embassy closure would not affect counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida’s Yemen branch.

“The United States remains firmly committed to supporting all Yemenis who continue to work toward a peaceful, prosperous and unified Yemen,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “We will explore options for a return to Sanaa when the situation on the ground improves.”

The State Department also issued a travel warning advising U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and urging U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart.

Two U.S. officials said Marines providing the security at the embassy will also likely leave, but American forces conducting counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate in other parts of the country would not be affected. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closure publicly on the record.

Although operations against al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate will continue, the closure of the embassy will be seen as a blow to the Obama administration, which has held up its partnership with ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government as a model for his strategy in combatting terrorism, particularly in unstable countries.

“Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability,” President Barack Obama said late last month as conditions in the capital of Sanaa became worse. “What I’ve said is, is that our efforts to go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without an occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government, is the approach that we’re going to need to take.”

The embassy closure will also complicate the CIA’s operations in Yemen, U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge. Although CIA officers could continue to work out of U.S. military installations, many intelligence operations are run from embassies, and the CIA lost visibility on Syria when that embassy was evacuated in 2012. The CIA’s main role in Yemen is to gather intelligence about members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and occasionally kill them with drone strikes. Both the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command run separate drone killing programs in Yemen, though the CIA has conducted the majority of the strikes, U.S. officials have said.

There were 23 U.S. drone strikes reported in Yemen last year, 26 in 2013 and 41 in 2012, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks them through media reports.

The Houthis last week dissolved parliament and formally took over after months of clashes. They then placed President Hadi and his Cabinet ministers under house arrest. Hadi and the ministers later resigned in protest.

Earlier Tuesday, Yemeni military officials said the Houthis, aided by troops loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took full control of the key central province of Bayda province.

Bayda is the gateway to the country’s south, which remains in the hands of pro-independence southerners and to the strategic oil-rich Maarib province, to the east, also still not in rebel hands.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen is the third in an Arab country that has closed since the turmoil of the Arab spring began in December 2010. The other two were embassies in Damascus, Syria and Tripoli, Libya. The embassy in Damascus was closed in Feb 2012 and the embassy in Tripoli was closed in July 2014.

The embassy in Yemen was operating with only a small portion of its usual diplomatic staff and had closed to the public for all but emergency services in January. It had been operating with reduced manpower since September 2014, when the State Department ordered all non-essential personnel to leave the country.

In May, 2014 the embassy in Sanaa was closed for several weeks due to heightened security threats.

TIME Egypt

Canada Says Release of al-Jazeera Journalist in Egypt ‘Imminent’

Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, Peter Greste
Heba Elkholy—AP From left: al-Jazeera English producer Baher Mohamed, Canadian-Egyptian acting Cairo bureau chief Mohammed Fahmy and correspondent Peter Greste appear in court in Cairo on March 31, 2014

Diplomats are trying to secure the 40-year-old's deportation to Canada

Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird announced Monday that the release of Canadian-Egyptian journalist Mohamed Fahmy from an Egyptian prison was “imminent.”

Baird told Canada’s public broadcaster that diplomatic efforts to free Fahmy, who was al-Jazeera’s acting Cairo bureau chief, were going well but gave no specific time frame.

Fahmy, 40, was arrested in 2013 along with colleagues Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste for allegedly aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. All three were sentenced to between seven and 10 years in jail.

Greste was released on Sunday and deported back to his native Australia. Mohamed remains in detention.

Fahmy has relinquished his Egyptian citizenship as a prerequisite to his deportation under a presidential decree that allows foreigners on trial to be returned to their home countries.

On Jan. 1, Egypt’s Court of Cessation overturned their sentences and ordered a retrial, but there is as yet no indication of when this will begin.

TIME Know Right Now

Know Right Now: President Obama And the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama will be appearing in public with Obama for the first time

TIME revealed on Thursday that the Dalai Lama will be attending the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5.

But why is this going to be so significant — and what does China have to do with it?

Watch today’s Know Right Now to find out more.

TIME Cuba

Fidel Castro Sends Word That He’s Alive — and Cautiously Optimistic About Talks With the U.S.

El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building in Havana, Dec. 2014.
Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME El Capitolio, the National Capitol Building in Havana, Dec. 2014.

The former Cuban leader and lifelong revolutionary makes it clear that he won't stand in the way of diplomacy with Washington

The letter from Fidel Castro that surfaced on the front page of the state newspaper Granma on Tuesday served two purposes. The first was proof of life. When you’re the founder of a state and your physical condition is subject to almost constant rumor, you don’t arrange to be photographed holding up a copy of a current newspaper to prove that you remain alive. You remark on events that have recently transpired, and make that front page your own.

Which was of course the other thing the senior Castro, 88, accomplished: leaving his mark — however belatedly, guardedly and obtusely — on events that have largely been out of his hands since he handed over power to his brother Raúl in 2006, owing to failing health. Tuesday’s remarks were Fidel’s first since the momentous simultaneous declaration on Dec. 19 by Raúl and President Barack Obama that Cuba and the U.S. would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, and work together toward removing the more than 50-year-old American economic embargo.

In the meantime a senior State Department delegation had already come to Havana on Jan. 21 and left amid smiles and mutual avowals of continuing the rapprochement. In his public letter Fidel was less effusive, but made it clear that he wouldn’t stand in the way of new diplomatic ties. “I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them, but this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” Castro wrote, in remarks addressed in his name to a student federation at the University of Havana. “We shall always defend the cooperation and friendship between all people, among them our political adversaries,” the letter went on. “With this spirit, I have fought and will continue fighting until my last breath.”

The tones of skepticism, even amid the outpouring of enthusiasm with which ordinary Cubans received word of the rapprochement, shouldn’t be surprising. After reaching out in vain to the Eisenhower Administration after Fidel and his fellow rebels ousted the U.S.-backed Cuban government in 1959, no leader faced more persistent efforts by the U.S. to remove him and undo his revolution. There were direct military attacks, planned assassinations and a long string of assaults by U.S.-backed surrogates spanning more than a decade. Castro’s resilience and increasingly proud defiance of Washington gave him unique standing on the world stage — and made him ever more reviled by the Cuban exiles in the U.S. who loathed his socialist system and often brutal repression of dissidents and rivals.

Today there’s no disputing who is in charge in Cuba. Nearly a decade after taking power, Raúl has brought in his own people, and gradually but steadily pushed for pragmatic changes that have eased the economic hardships that defined Cuban life in the years after the Soviet Union abruptly withdrew its wholesale support at the end of the Cold War. Fidel said as much in his statement, noting that as President, the 83-year-old Raúl “has taken the pertinent steps in accordance with his prerogatives and the powers given to him by the National Assembly the Communist Party of Cuba.” But opening to market forces also threatens the system of social equality that was a hallmark of the Castro regime — a risk that likely accounts for much of the wariness evident in Fidel’s missive.

Fidel, who hasn’t spoken in public in years, is clearly not well. He remains at home on his ranch on the western outskirts of the capital, his health widely believed to be fragile at best. After a flurry of rumors a fortnight ago that he had suffered a fatal stroke, he sent a letter to the soccer legend Diego Maradona, an old friend, saying he was very much alive. (The confusion was due in part to the very real death earlier this month of Fidel Castro Odinga, the son of Kenya’s opposition leader.) But as the embodiment of the Revolution, the Bearded One retains the power of paterfamilias status, and perhaps a good deal more, among ordinary Cubans.

“I’ve got a lot of faith in my government,” said Caridad Alfonso, 43, at a beer garden along the shore after finishing her day as a general practitioner in Havana. “We are Fidelistas. We love Fidel even though he’s not the President any more and we follow Raúl.”

But she welcomed the opening to the U.S., especially as framed by both Raúl and Obama and their diplomats, who make frequent mentions of mutual respect and sovereignty, as well as “profound disagreements.”

“Now we’re equal,” Alfonso said. “It’s a good beginning.” And Fidel Castro may be around to see the end as well.

TIME diplomacy

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Planning Trade Mission to Cuba

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo arrives for his inaugural ceremony at One World Trade Center in New York on Jan. 1, 2015.
Reuters New York Governor Andrew Cuomo arrives for his inaugural ceremony at One World Trade Center in New York on Jan. 1, 2015.

It'll be one of the first high-profile visits by an American politician to Cuba since President Obama ended travel restrictions this week

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is expected in his state-of-the-state address on Wednesday to announce he will lead a trade mission to Cuba in the coming months, according to a new report.

Citing an anonymous source, the Wall Street Journal reports that the second-term Democratic governor’s trip will be one of first visits to Cuba by a high-profile U.S. politician since President Obama struck down travel restrictions to the isolated Caribbean nation this month.

Read more: Viva Cuba Libre

Cuomo added Cuba as the first expected trip on his itinerary after the Obama administration released rules this week that travelers could visit Cuba without having to apply for a travel license.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

TIME diplomacy

Barack Obama and David Cameron Are Going to Play a Cyber Attack War Game

UK PM David Cameron Visits Washington DC
Alex Wong—Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama (R) walks with British Prime Minister David Cameron (L) through the colonnade as they are on their way for a working dinner at the Blue Room of the White House January 15, 2015 in Washington, DC. Prime Minister Cameron is on a two-day visit to Washington.

The U.S. and U.K. will collaborate on measures to prevent online crime

MI5 and the FBI will team up in a series of practice runs to combat cyber attacks, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced Thursday during a two-day visit to the White House.

The two leaders will practice opening lines of communication in a series of war games staging potential global threats, beginning with a simulated attack on the Bank of England and Wall Street to take place later this year. It will be followed by tests on infrastructure.

Cameron tells the BBC that he wants to work with Obama on getting companies like Google and Facebook to cooperate with their governments when they need to see encrypted messages — a move that’s likely to be a red flag for privacy advocates.

“We need to work with these big companies,” Cameron said, “to make sure that we can keep people safe.”

[BBC]

TIME Cuba

Castro Hails Thaw in US Relations, But Reasserts Communist Rule

Raul Castro
Ramon Espinosa—AP Cuba's President Raul Castro points to the press during the closing of the twice-annual legislative session at the National Assembly in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 20, 2014.

“Every country has the inalienable right to choose its own political systems"

Cuban president Raul Castro hailed “a new chapter” in U.S.-Cuban relations on Saturday, but insisted the diplomatic thaw will not break Cuba from its Communist past.

“In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” Castro said in a Saturday speech before Cuba’s National Assembly, Reuters reports.

The speech comes as U.S. officials prepare for a historic visit to Havana in January, where they are expected to push their Cuban counterparts to allow a greater measure of political freedom in exchange for an easing of the U.S. embargo.

“The only way to advance is with mutual respect,” Castro said.

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