The government is reviewing the demands, a spokesman has said.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, quoted by Al-Jazeera, said: “The US secretary of state recently called upon the blockading nations to produce a list of grievances that was ‘reasonable and actionable’.
“The British foreign secretary asked that the demands be ‘measured and realistic.’ This list does not satisfy that [sic] criteria.”
He said the demands were proof that the sanctions had “nothing to do with combating terrorism… [but] limiting Qatar’s sovereignty, and outsourcing our foreign policy”.
Al Jazeera accused them of trying to silence freedom of expression, adding: “We assert our right to practise our journalism professionally without bowing to pressure from any government or authority.”
What effect are sanctions having?
Qatar’s main import routes – by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from container ships docked in the UAE – have been disrupted, and much of the surrounding airspace has been closed to its air traffic.
However, the small but wealthy country has so far avoided economic collapse by finding alternative routes.
Qatari citizens living in neighbouring countries or with family living there have been hit harder, Reuters news agency notes, because of ultimatums issued for them to leave.
What happens if the demands are not met?
The UAE’s foreign minister said there would be a “parting of ways” with Qatar if it failed to meet them.
“The alternative is not escalation,” he said. “The alternative is parting of ways. It’s very difficult for us to maintain a collective grouping with one of the partners… actively promoting what is an extremist and terrorist agenda.”
He described Qatar as a “Trojan horse” within the group of Arab monarchies.
Where is the US in this?
Correspondents say there has been frustration in Washington over the time taken by the Saudis and others to formalise their demands.
US President Donald Trump has taken a hard line towards Qatar, accusing it of being a “high-level” sponsor of terrorism.
However, the Arab states involved in the crisis are all close allies of the US, while the largest US base in the Middle East is in Qatar.
Do you live in Qatar? Have you been affected by the sanctions? Let us know by emailing [email protected]
The Affordable Care Act gave health insurance to millions of Americans by shifting resources from the wealthy to the poor and by moving oversight from states to the federal government. The Senate bill introduced Thursday pushes back forcefully on both dimensions.
The bill is aligned with long-held Republican values, advancing states’ rights and paring back growing entitlement programs, while freeing individuals from requirements that they have insurance and emphasizing personal responsibility. Obamacare raised taxes on high earners and the health care industry, and essentially redistributed that income — in the form of health insurance or insurance subsidies — to many of the groups that have fared poorly over the last few decades.
The draft Senate bill, called the Better Care Reconciliation Act, would jettison those taxes while reducing federal funding for the care of low-income Americans. The bill’s largest benefits go to the wealthiest Americans, who have the most comfortable health care arrangements, and its biggest losses fall to poorer Americans who rely on government support. The bill preserves many of the structures of Obamacare, but rejects several of its central goals.
Like a House version of the legislation, the bill would fundamentally change the structure of Medicaid, which provides health insurance to 74 million disabled or poor Americans, including nearly 40 percent of all children. Instead of open-ended payments, the federal government would give states a maximum payment for nearly every individual enrolled in the program. The Senate version of the bill would increase that allotment every year by a formula that is expected to grow substantially more slowly than the average increase in medical costs.
Avik Roy, the president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, and a conservative health care analyst, cheered the bill on Twitter, saying, “If it passes, it’ll be the greatest policy achievement by a G.O.P. Congress in my lifetime.” The bill, he explained in an email, provides a mechanism for poor Americans to move from Medicaid coverage into the private market, a goal he has long championed as a way of equalizing insurance coverage across income groups.
High-income earners would get substantial tax cuts on payroll and investment income. Subsidies for those low-income Americans who buy their own insurance would decline compared with current law. Low-income Americans who currently buy their own insurance would also lose federal help in paying their deductibles and co-payments.
The bill does offer insurance subsidies to poor Americans who live in states that don’t offer them Medicaid coverage, a group without good insurance options under Obamacare. But the high-deductible plans that would become the norm might continue to leave care out of their financial reach even if they do buy insurance.
The battle over resources played into the public debate. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said the bill was needed to “bring help to the families who have been struggling with Obamacare.” In a Facebook post, President Barack Obama, without mentioning the taxes that made his program possible, condemned the Senate bill as “a massive transfer of wealth from middle-class and poor families to the richest people in America.”
In another expression of Republican principles, the bill would make it much easier for states to set their own rules for insurance regulation, a return to the norm before Obamacare.
Under the bill, states would be able to apply for waivers that would let them eliminate consumer protection regulations, like rules that require all health plans to cover a basic package of benefits or that prevent insurance plans from limiting how much care they will cover in a given year.
States could get rid of the online marketplaces that help consumers compare similar health plans, and make a variety of other changes to the health insurance system. The standards for approval are quite permissive. Not every state would choose to eliminate such rules, of course. But several might.
“You can eliminate all those financial protections,” said Nicholas Bagley, a law professor at the University of Michigan. “That would be huge.”
Americans with pre-existing conditions would continue to enjoy protection from discrimination: In contrast with the House health bill, insurers would not be allowed to charge higher prices to customers with a history of illness, even in states that wish to loosen insurance regulations.
But patients with serious illnesses may still face skimpier, less useful coverage. States may waive benefit requirements and allow insurers to charge customers more. Someone seriously ill who buys a plan that does not cover prescription drugs, for example, may not find it very valuable.
There are features that would tend to drive down the sticker price of insurance, a crucial concern of many Republican lawmakers, who have criticized high prices under Obamacare. Plans that cover fewer benefits and come with higher deductibles would cost less than more comprehensive coverage.
But because federal subsidies would also decline, only a fraction of people buying their own insurance would enjoy the benefits of lower prices. Many middle-income Americans would be expected to pay a larger share of their income to purchase health insurance that covers a smaller share of their care.
The bill also includes substantial funds to help protect insurers from losses caused by unusually expensive patients, a measure designed to lure into the market those insurance carriers that have grown skittish by losses in the early years of Obamacare. But it removes a policy dear to the insurance industry — if no one else. Without an individual mandate with penalties for Americans who remain uninsured, healthier customers may choose to opt out of the market until they need medical care, increasing costs for those who stay in.
The reforms are unlikely to drive down out-of-pocket spending, another perennial complaint of the bill’s authors, and a central critique by President Trump of the current system. He often likes to say that Obamacare plans come with deductibles so high that they are unusable. Subsidies under the bill would help middle-income consumers buy insurance that pays 58 percent of the average patient’s medical costs, down from 70 percent under Obamacare; it would also remove a different type of subsidy designed to lower deductibles further for Americans earning less than around $30,000 a year.
Out-of-pocket spending is the top concern of most voters. The insurance they would buy under the bill might seem cheap at first, but it wouldn’t be if they ended up paying more in deductibles.
Mr. McConnell was constrained by political considerations and the peculiar rules of the legislative mechanism that he chose to avoid a Democratic filibuster. Despite those limits, he managed to produce a bill that reflects some bedrock conservative values. But the bill also shows some jagged seams. It may not fix many of Obamacare’s problems — high premiums, high deductibles, declining competition — that he has railed against in promoting the new bill’s passage.
Pakistan officials say a South Korean national who it accused of using a business visa to preach the Gospel inside the Islamic republic has been expelled from the country.
The news comes after two Chinese nationals believed to be associated with the South Korean were killed last month by Islamic militants affiliated with the Islamic State terror group.
“Investigations have revealed that the South Korean national went to Pakistan on a business visa, set up an Urdu academy in Quetta and got involved in illegal preaching activities,” a Ministry of Interior official told ucanews.com this week. “We have revoked his visa and asked him to leave the country.”
According to World Watch Monitor, the South Korean national is Juan Won-seo. Pakistani officials told ucanews.com that 24-year-old Lee Zingyang and 26-year-old Meng Lisi, who were abducted and killed last month, were preaching Christianity under Won-seo’s guidance.
However, the Hindustan Times reports that South Korea has rejected Pakistan’s claims that Lee and Meng, who were in the country on the premise that they were Mandarin teachers learning Urdu, were preaching Christianity. A South Korean official told the news outlet on June 14 that there is no evidence from Pakistan to backup the claim that they were proselytizing under the leadership of the South Korean.
According to World Watch Monitor, a Chinese student interviewed by a Chinese government-sanctioned English news outlet claimed that South Koreans recruit Chinese “teenagers to conduct missionary activities in Muslim countries.”
“Compared to Chinese, more South Koreans have been killed abroad due to risky missionary activities in conservative Islamic regions,” the student was quoted as saying. “Some Chinese voluntarily join in the dangerous missionary activities in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq after being converted by South Koreans.”
However, critics have warned that China’s placing the blame on South Korean missionaries is an attempt to “mislead the Chinese people.”
“Most Chinese Christians have become Christian through Chinese evangelists. It has been very difficult for foreign citizens to proselytise in China. China does not have a visa category for religious clergy or missionaries,” Yang Fenggang, the director of the Centre on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University in Indiana told the Hindustan Times. “Some foreign students, professionals and business people may do evangelistic work within China, but evangelistic activities are restricted.”
Carsten Vala, an associate professor of political science at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland, told the Hindustan Times that Chinese nationals have also been “eager to go abroad as missionaries.”
“At least one Chinese church leader I interviewed reported that his congregation had sent missionaries to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Arabic-speaking countries,” Vala said.
Both China and Pakistan are listed as two of the worst countries in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians. Open Doors USA’s 2017 World Watch List ranks Pakistan as No. 4 and China as No. 39.
A three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a Mississippi law that protects people who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds from being sued.
In a unanimous decision issued Thursday, the panel concluded that the plaintiffs lacked the standing to sue the state over House Bill 1523, also called the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act, reversing a lower court’s decision.
“The governor of Mississippi and the executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services appeal a preliminary injunction. Because the plaintiffs do not have standing, we reverse the injunction and render a judgment of dismissal,” wrote Circuit Judge Jerry Smith on behalf of the panel.
In April 2016, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed HB 1523 into law, which prohibits the state from compelling businesses and individuals from supporting or servicing gay weddings.
“The sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions protected by this act are the belief or conviction that: (a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth,” reads HB 1523 in part.
LGBT groups and their allies denounced the legislation and sued to have it struck down. For his part, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order last year banning non-essential state travel to Mississippi.
“[I]t is the policy of the state of New York to promote fairness, protect the welfare of the citizens of the state of New York, and combat discrimination,” read Cuomo’s 2016 order.
“All agencies, departments, boards, authorities and commissions [will] review all requests for state funded or state sponsored travel to the state of Mississippi so long as there is law in effect there that permits and enshrines discrimination against LGBT citizens and unmarried individuals …” Cuomo’s order added.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said in a statement Thursday that he commended the panel’s ruling on the “commonsense law.”
“No person should be punished by the government with crippling fines or face disqualification for simply believing what President Obama believed until five years ago, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman,” said Perkins.
“Today’s ruling leaves us more confident that the courts will uphold the ability of elected officials to protect the freedom of their citizens to believe and live according to those beliefs”
Senior Obama Official On Handling Of Russia Hacks: ‘We Sort Of Choked’
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Some senior Obama officials lament that they did not do enough to stop Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election, The Washington Post reported Friday.
Former President Barack Obama’s handling of the response to Russia’s attempts have come under intense scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats. The only public warning of the Russian governments’ efforts came in an Oct. 7 memo from the Director of National Intelligence ascribing Democratic National Committee hacks to Russia.
Obama and many of his senior advisers have publicly defended their handling of the investigation.
“There has been this theory we didn’t do anything, which I take issue with,” former White House senior advisor Lisa Monaco told Politico Magazine in April.
Another senior administration official, however, admitted to WaPo that the response to Russian actions in the election “is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend.”
“I feel like we sort of choked,” he declared.
“Everyone agreed you had to push back at the Russians and push back hard. But it didn’t happen,” a senior Department of State official lamented to The New York Times in December. Without any response from the White house, Russia continued its hacking campaign. Obama may have even held off on a more aggressive response to try and save one of his many failed ceasefire deals for the Syrian Civil War.
The strongest apparent response from the Obama administration came in a reported face to face meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama reportedly told Putin the U.S. “knew what he was doing and [he] better stop or else.”
“We weren’t able to put all of those pieces together in real time,” former White House deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told WaPo. “In many ways that complete picture is still being filled in.” Rhodes declined to discuss any sensitive information,” he lamented.
Mexico president calls for probe into alleged government spying
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers a speech during an event in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, in this undated handout photo released to Reuters by the Mexican Presidency on June 22, 2017. Mexico Presidency/Handout via REUTERS
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto asked the attorney general’s office on Thursday to investigate charges the government spied on private citizens, saying he wanted to get to the bottom of the accusations that he called “false.”
Activists, human rights lawyers and journalists in Mexico filed a criminal complaint on Monday following a report that their smartphones had been infected with spying software sold to the government to fight criminals and terrorists.
“Here and now I want to categorically state this is a democratic government, this is a government that respects and tolerates critical voices,” Pena Nieto said at a televised event.
The complaint presented to the attorney general’s office by nine people followed a New York Times report that some of them had been spied on with software known as Pegasus, which Israeli company NSO Group sold to Mexico’s government.
“All of the equipment and technology that the government … has acquired is used to uphold the country’s domestic security. It’s used to fight against organized crime,” said Pena Nieto.
He said there was no room for “illegal” spying on the private lives of citizens and that the investigation would focus on determining if the charges were backed by evidence and uncovering the source of the accusations.
During his speech, Pena Nieto appeared to suggest the probe would target both the allegations and the accusers, saying he would use the full force of the law “against those who have hurled these false accusations against the government.”
A presidential aide told Reuters that Pena Nieto misspoke and meant to say the charges would be investigated and that anybody found to have engaged in “illegal” spying would be prosecuted.
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Peter Cooney)
WASHINGTON — The 142-page Senate health care bill released on Thursday is easy to summarize: It cuts health care spending for low-income and middle-income Americans and uses the savings to finance large tax cuts for the wealthy and the medical industry.
How it accomplishes this is simple as well: It makes large cuts to Medicaid and to subsidies for private insurance, meaning large chunks of money that the government would have spent on helping Americans afford coverage, pay for long-term care and reduce their out-of-pocket costs would instead be paid either by states or by the customers themselves.
In this regard, the bill, which is called the Better Care Reconciliation Act, is broadly similar to the American Health Care Act that passed the House in May. There are some significant differences within that framework, however, especially when it comes to private insurance subsidies.
Let’s go through the main planks of the Senate plan:
Medicaid covers about 70 million Americans, including low-income residents, seniors in nursing homes (over 60 percent of whom are on Medicaid) and people with disabilities.
The Senate bill would restructure the program, cap its spending and reduce its funding significantly over time.
Protester Shares Her Reasons For Opposing Health Care Bill0:57
First, the Senate GOP bill would eliminate a major expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.
The Affordable Care Act gave states federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage to people whose incomes were between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty line (the current cap is about $34,000 for a family of four). The Supreme Court later made the funding optional, but 30 states and the District of Columbia accepted it. The Senate bill would gradually end this expansion between 2020 and 2024.
But it would go a lot further than repealing Obamacare’s changes. It would also cap the amount of funding states can get on a per-recipient basis rather than continue the current system, in which states decide how much to spend and then have the federal government match their contribution.
Starting in 2025, the plan would then grow those per-recipient caps at a rate that’s unlikely to keep pace with increasing medical costs. A similar change in the House bill was projected to reduce Medicaid spending by $839 billion over a decade and cover 14 million fewer people. The Senate bill kicks in later, but its cuts would be even deeper than the House plan.
To make up the difference, states would either have to raise taxes, cut programs elsewhere or reduce benefits and coverage for recipients. That prospect has governors, including some Republicans like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, nervous that the reduced funding will hamper their ability to respond to health crises like the current opioid epidemic. The bill provides an extra $2 billion next year for substance-abuse treatment, a small number compared to its looming cuts.
But the Medicaid cuts also have small-government conservatives nervous. Congress has a history of passing cuts to services or tax increases and then delaying them down the line. The more time before they kick in, the greater the chance that government control might change hands or public opposition could prompt a reversal.
Private insurance subsidies
When it comes to Obamacare’s subsidies to buy private insurance, the Senate bill keeps the same basic structure, but provides less money for fewer people to purchase insurance that is less generous. These changes would also raise premiums for older people.
Under the current system, people who don’t get health insurance through work or a government program can qualify for help buying a private plan on Obamacare’s exchanges. The maximum amount you’re expected to contribute is capped based on your income.
There are limits, though. If your income is higher than 400 percent of the federal poverty line — about $98,000 for a family of four — you don’t get those subsidies. This is one of the biggest gripes about Obamacare: While most people qualify for aid, those who miss the cutoff have to pay full price, which can be difficult to afford.
The Senate bill would expand this complaint to a wider group. It would cut the subsidies off at 350 percent of the federal poverty line instead, about $86,000 for the same family. On the other hand, it would also cover some lower-income people who currently fall in the “Medicaid gap” in states that didn’t take the federal expansion.
Those who qualify for subsidies could also pay higher premiums. Under current law, no Obamacare recipients are expected to contribute more than 9.5 percent of their income in premiums. But the Senate bill changes this and make the caps more generous for younger customers and less generous for older customers. A 60-year-old making $42,000 would now have to contribute as much as 16 percent of their income to premiums.
In addition, the subsidies would be pegged to less comprehensive insurance. Under the current law, they’re calculated based on a “silver plan” that covers an average of around 70 percent of medical costs. The new bill would peg them to plans that cover only 58 percent of costs. That means higher deductibles, which have also been a major complaint among Obamacare users.
Out-of-pocket expenses would actually go up even higher for many Americans. Obamacare provided “cost-sharing reduction” payments to insurers, which they used to lower expenses for customers making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line (about $61,500 for a family of four). For those at 150 percent of the line, these payments reduced the average deductible from $3,609 to just $255, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But the Senate bill ends those subsidies starting in 2019.
This is still a big difference from the House bill, which would have offered only fixed tax credits. Those credits would have likely fallen far short for many people, especially older, lower-income customers in places with high health care costs, which are often rural areas. Now the subsidies will scale up to meet the costs in their area, even if they fall short of current levels.
In addition to the subsidies, the bill provides significant funding to help stabilize insurance markets in the short-term (which have been jittery, partly due to the health care debate) and a $62 billion fund over eight years to help states potentially cover more expensive patients. But the funding is temporary, making the future uncertain.
The Senate bill does not let insurers deny people coverage based on a pre-existing condition or charge them more based on their health, which keeps two core pieces of Obamacare in place.
However, this doesn’t mean those with pre-existing conditions won’t potentially be affected. The bill does give states flexibility to waive Obamacare’s “essential health benefits,” a list of 10 broad categories of coverage every insurance plan needs.
Republicans argue states should be able to eliminate those requirements in order to lower overall premiums and provide more flexibility to insurers and customers. In the pre-Obamacare era, insurance companies often didn’t cover items like maternity care or mental health treatment, two items that are included in “essential health benefits.”
Some health experts fear that insurers will try to shepherd healthier patients into cheaper plans that cover fewer items, leaving patients with pre-existing conditions struggling to find an affordable option that covers their treatment. So even though insurers will not be able to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions, the effect could be to make their care less affordable.
Importantly, items that aren’t considered essential health benefits could be subjected to lifetime or annual limits by insurers, a practice that Obamacare eliminated.
The individual mandate
There would be no individual mandate requiring that people buy insurance, which penalized people who went without coverage.
The goal was to encourage younger and healthier people to enter the market so insurers weren’t left on the hook for only more expensive patients who were more likely to seek coverage. It didn’t work as well as intended, however, and insurers complained that the penalties were too weak and left them with a sicker crop of patients who required them to raise premiums to cover.
Schumer, Pelosi Denounce Senate GOP’s ‘Heartless’ Health Care Bill 1:19
This bill eliminates the penalties entirely, though, and instead counts on healthier people deciding coverage is affordable enough for them to get covered. That could be a problem if they conclude that the new insurance, which could have higher deductibles, is not worth the trouble.
“I just don’t see why people would sign up,” Joe Antos, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told NBC News.
If they don’t come off the sidelines, or if they drop their existing coverage, premiums could rise for everyone as markets become dominated by sicker customers. The Society of Actuaries indicated in a statement on Thursday they would be watching this issue closely.
Unless you were paying a penalty for not carrying insurance, it’s unlikely you’ll notice any change in your taxes as a result of the Senate bill.
For rich people, though, the Senate bill is a nice income boost. It eliminates a surtax on income and investment gains for individuals making over $200,000 a year and married couples making over $250,000 a year. The bill also cuts taxes on health companies like medical device manufacturers and prescription drug companies.
Does it have ‘heart?’
President Donald Trump said recently that the Senate bill should be “something with heart.”
“Heart” is a subjective idea, but Trump laid out very specific standards as a candidate and as president. By those standards, the bill falls short.
Trump explicitly pledged he would make no cuts to Medicaid. Instead, the bill will cut Medicaid by hundreds of billions of dollars. He promised “insurance for everybody” backed by federal spending: Instead the bill will likely cover millions fewer people than current law. He repeatedly promised lower deductibles: Instead a core feature of the bill pushes customers towards higher deductible plans. He argued his dedication to providing more generous health care distinguished him from conservative Republicans who sought smaller government.
“This bottom line is that this bill will result in a very significant reduction in insurance coverage, as well as large increases in premium and out-of-pocket costs for those who manage to retain coverage,” Matthew Fiedler, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, told NBC News.
Should the bill become law, these will be unambiguous broken promises.
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner should “absolutely” have his security clearance suspended, Rep. Mike Quigley told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
Appearing on “The Situation Room,” the Illinois Democrat said Kushner “shouldn’t have clearance at this point,” echoing a letter from House oversight committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings and citing a “whole series of activities,” including “concerns about Mr. Kushner’s activities prior to the Inauguration.”
Cummings’ letter criticized the White House for allowing fired national security adviser Michael Flynn to keep a security clearance despite concerns raised by then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates that he could be vulnerable to blackmail based on intelligence assessments that she reviewed; the letter raised “parallel concerns” about Kushner’s security clearance over previously undisclosed calls to Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak and undisclosed meetings Kushner had with Kislyak and the CEO of Vnesheconombank, a state-run Russian bank under US sanctions.
In his letter, Cummings cited an executive order requiring employees to have their security clearance preemptively suspended if they are suspected of being a national security risk.
“In general, when there are credible allegations that employees may be unfit to continue accessing classified information, security clearances are supposed to be suspended while the allegations are investigated,” Cummings wrote in the letter, sent June 21.
A spokeswoman for House oversight committee Chairman Trey Gowdy declined comment on the letter Wednesday.
The White House declined to offer comment on Wednesday about Democrats’ requests to look into Kushner’s security clearance.
“I will have to get back to you on that,” spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told reporters aboard Air Force One.
In his interview with CNN, Quigley indicated there were additional concerns about Kushner’s security clearance, referencing “a whole series of activities that I can’t get into at this point in time, but they raise concerns about his judgment and his ability to keep our nation’s secrets.” When pressed by Wolf Blitzer, Quigley said, “I can’t get into details, because some of those things were also discussed in classified settings.”
Kushner arrived in Israel earlier Wednesday, where he’s scheduled to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an attempt to negotiate a peace deal, a role Quigley also questioned.
“Look, I like that we are always moving forward on peace deals. This is exactly what our country should do,” Quigley said. “First of all, he is wholly unqualified to make those efforts. Second, to what Mr. Cummings was referencing — that’s what I was referencing — he shouldn’t have clearance at this point.”
U.S. on collision course with Syria and Iran once de facto Islamic State capital falls
Graduates of a U.S.-trained Syrian police force, which expects to be deployed in Raqqa, salute during a graduation ceremony Saturday near Ain Issa village, north of the de facto Islamic State capital in Syria. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.To some extent, that clash has already begun. Unprecedented recent U.S. strikes against regime and Iranian-backed militia forces have been intended as warnings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran that they will not be allowed to confront or impede the Americans and their local proxy forces.
As regime and militia forces have begun advancing eastward, senior White House officials have been pushing the Pentagon to establish outposts in the desert region. The goal would be to prevent a Syrian or Iranian military presence that would interfere with the U.S. military’s ability to break the Islamic State’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq — a sparsely populated area where the militants could regroup and continue to plan terrorist operations against the West.
Officials said Syrian government claims on the area would also undermine progress toward a political settlement in the long-separate rebel war against Assad, intended to stabilize the country by limiting his control and eventually driving him from power.
The wisdom and need for such a strategy — effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia, Assad’s other main backer — has been a subject of intense debate between the White House and the Pentagon.
Some in the Pentagon have resisted the move, amid concern about distractions from the campaign against the Islamic State and whether U.S. troops put in isolated positions in Syria, or those in proximity to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, could be protected. European allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition have also questioned whether U.S.-trained Syrians, now being recruited and trained to serve as a southern ground-force vanguard, are sufficient in number or capability to succeed.
One White House official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Syria planning, dismissed such concerns, saying: “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable U.S. forces . . . if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.”
The official said the expanded U.S. role would not require more troops, comparing it to “The Rat Patrol,” the 1960s television series about small, allied desert forces deployed against the Germans in northern Africa during World War II.
“With our ability with air power . . . you’re not talking about a lot of requirements to do that,” the official said. “. . . You don’t need a lot of forces to go out and actually have a presence.”
This official and others played down reports of tensions over Syria strategy. “No one disagrees about the strategy or the objectives,” said a second White House official. “The question is how best to operationalize it.”
The Pentagon, not the White House, made the decision to shoot down Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter jet in response to their approaches to or attacks against U.S. forces and their Syrian allies, this official said. “They shot down an enemy aircraft for the first time in more than a decade. That’s accepting a high level of risk,” the official said. “. . . We’ve done quite a lot since April that the previous administration said was impossible without the conflict spiraling.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon official now in charge of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East program, agreed that the Obama administration “over-agonized” about every decision in Syria.
But Goldenberg faulted the Trump administration with failing to articulate its strategy. “It has been the worst of all worlds,” he said. “A vagueness on strategy, but a willingness to deploy force. They are totally muddying the waters, and now you have significant risk of escalation.”
“I know the president is fond of secret plans,” Goldenberg said. “But this situation requires clarity about our objectives and what we will or won’t tolerate.”
Trump promised during his campaign to announce within his first month in office a new strategy for defeating the Islamic State. That strategy remains unrevealed, and for several months Trump appeared to be following Obama’s lead in avoiding Assad, Iran and Russia and continuing a punishing assault on Islamic State strongholds elsewhere in Syria, as well as in Iraq.
In April, Trump broke that mold with a cruise-missile attack on regime forces after their use of chemical weapons against civilians. Assad and his allies protested but did little else.
More recently, however, there have been direct clashes between the United States and the regime. Trump’s campaign calls to join forces with Russia against the Islamic State have largely disappeared amid increased estrangement between Washington and Moscow and investigations of Trump associate’s contacts with Russian officials.
Despite U.S. warnings, regime and militia forces have moved toward the Syrian town of At Tanf, near the Iraq border, where U.S. advisers are training Syrian proxies to head northeast toward Deir al-Zour, the region’s largest city, controlled by the regime and surrounded by the Islamic State. It is a prize that the regime also wants to claim.
At the end of May, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces pushed southward to the Iraq border, between At Tanf and Bukamal, where the Euphrates crosses into Iraq. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have, in small but concerning numbers, left the anti-Islamic State fight and headed closer to the border, near where regime forces were approaching.
On at least three occasions in May and June, U.S. forces have bombed Iranian-supported militia forces approaching the At Tanf garrison. Twice this month, they have shot down what they called “pro-regime” armed drones, including one on June 8 that fired on Syrian fighters and their American advisers.
On Sunday, two days before the most recent drone shoot-down near At Tanf, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air-force jet southwest of Raqqa.
In response, Russia said it would train its powerful antiaircraft defense system in western Syria on farther areas where U.S. aircraft are operating and shut down the communications line that the two militaries have used to avoid each other in the crowded Syrian airspace.
“The only actions we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria . . . have been in self-defense,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.
Dunford also made clear that victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa, and in Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces are in the last stages of a months-long offensive, will not mark the end of the war.
“Raqqa is tactical. Mosul is tactical,” Dunford said. “We ought not to confuse success in Raqqa and Mosul as something that means it’s the end of the fight. I think we should all be braced for a long fight.”
In a report Wednesday, the Institute for the Study of War, referring to intelligence and expert sources, said that the Islamic State in Raqqa had already relocated “the majority of its leadership, media, chemical weapons, and external attack cells” south to the town of Mayadin in Deir al-Zour province.
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Neither the U.S.-led coalition and its local allies nor what the institute called the “Russo-Iranian coalition” can “easily access this terrain — located deep along the Euphrates River Valley — with their current force posture,” it said.
At the White House, senior officials involved in Syria policy see what’s happening through a lens focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic State. The Iranian goal, said one, “seems to be focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the border, to control lines of communication and try to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.
“If it impacts your political outcome, if it further enables Iran to solidify its position as the dominant force in Syria for the long haul,” the official said, “that threatens other things,” including “the defeat-ISIS strategy” and “the ability to get to political reconciliation efforts.”
“For us,” the official said, “that’s the biggest concern.”
Tensions are building inside the Justice Department as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein contemplates whether he will become a witness in the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections.
Rosenstein, in office for less than two months, is the top Justice official overseeing the probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself.
But Rosenstein could end up recusing himself, too, Justice officials say, in part because he played a role in President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. The Comey dismissal could become part of a widening investigation into whether the President tried to interfere with the ongoing Russia probe.
Officials familiar with the matter describe friction on the Justice Department’s fourth and fifth floors, home to the suite of offices belonging to the deputy attorney general and the attorney general, respectively, in part because of Rosenstein’s handling of the Russia matter.
Rosenstein was among those who advised Sessions to recuse himself, according to officials briefed on the matter. But then Rosenstein made the surprise move to appoint Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the Russia investigation, a development that people close to Sessions and Trump believe has worsened matters for everyone involved.
Sessions learned of the Mueller appointment at about the same time that the press was told, according to people briefed on the matter. The attorney general was at a White House meeting when the notification came from Rosenstein, prompting the enraged President to scold the attorney general for the turn of events. Trump had viewed Sessions’ recusal as unnecessary, even though Justice Department regulations made it almost impossible to avoid.
The focus on Rosenstein sharpened Friday because the President attacked the deputy attorney general in a tweet, blaming him for what he terms a “witch hunt.”
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” the President tweeted.
The President’s tweet — seeming to confirm the probe based on news reports — came as a surprise to the President’s own legal team, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Mueller continues to hire a team of lawyers, and with FBI investigators is gathering information that is widely expected to lead to a formal investigation into whether President Trump attempted to interfere in the investigation. Comey’s firing likely will be part of that probe.
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Rosenstein told the Associated Press earlier this month that when he hired Mueller he discussed the possibility of having recuse himself “if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation” and if recusal is necessary.
The strain on Rosenstein has increasingly become visible in recent weeks, according to Justice officials.
At a ceremony last month to welcome Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand, the Justice Department’s third-ranking official, Rosenstein joked awkwardly about being at the center of criticism since taking office, according to people who were in the room.
If Rosenstein recuses himself, Brand, a Trump appointee, would become the top Justice official overseeing Mueller’s work.
On Thursday night, he issued a statement lashing out at news stories sourced to anonymous officials and that he believes are causing the President and Republicans to attack the Justice Department, the FBI and Mueller for alleged leaks.
Rosenstein’s unusual statement, which he issued over the objections of some advisers, said in part: “Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials.'”
A Justice official said Rosenstein was motivated in part because of frustration that recent news stories have unfairly brought on a torrent of “leak” accusations against the FBI and Mueller’s team.
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