As talks falter, Moscow finds brokering Syria peace trickier than waging war

ASTANA:  With its show of military force, Russia changed the tide of the Syrian civil war. It is finding the next phase — brokering an end to the fighting — a tougher proposition.
A round of Syria peace talks sponsored by Russia ended on Thursday with no joint communique, usually the minimum outcome of any diplomatic negotiation, and saw opposing Syrian groups exchanging angry tirades at each other and the brokers.
With no concrete progress to report, media representatives at the talks venue in ex-Soviet Kazakhstan, were so hungry for a scrap of news that at one point a crowd formed around an Arabic speaker who they thought was a participant in the talks. He turned out to be another journalist.

Western diplomats, who say Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign of air strikes has worsened the conflict, have, in private, reacted to Russia’s tribulations as a peacemaker with variations on the phrase: “We told you so.”
Russia proposed a series of negotiations in the Kazakh capital Astana late last year with the expectation that, as the predominant outside power in Syria following its military intervention, it could break a deadlock that had defied the repeated efforts of the big Western powers and U.N. mediators.
Moscow’s peace drive started hopefully, with the first Astana meeting in January. The Syrian rebels and government came together for the first time in 9 months, and agreement was reached to consolidate a shaky ceasefire.
But by the second round this week, things had gone downhill. The Syrian rebels debated until the eleventh hour about whether to attend at all, finally sending a smaller delegation which arrived in the Kazakh capital a day late.

Russia’s efforts were hampered by the deep enmity between the rival Syrian sides, but also by contradictions among its co-sponsors. One of them, Turkey, is fiercely opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and the third co-sponsor, Iran, are Assad’s staunchest allies.
Syrian government negotiator Bashar Jaafari said on Thursday that peace talks in Astana had not produced a communique because of the “irresponsible” late arrival of rebel participants and their Turkish backers which delayed the joint session by a day.
He also criticized the rebels and Turkey for downgrading their delegations from the previous meeting.
“Turkey cannot ignite the fire and at the same time act as a firefighter,” he told a briefing after the talks.
The rebels, in turn, accused the Syrian government and Iran of routinely violating the ceasefire and Russia of failing to enforce it.
“We know that the Russians have a problem with those for whom they are guarantors,” rebel negotiator Yahya al-Aridi told reporters, referring to Tehran and Assad’s forces.
According to two sources – a senior French diplomat and an official present for the talks from a country not directly participating – one of the main reasons progress had slowed were Moscow’s attempts to expand the talks beyond the ceasefire and discuss political solutions to the Syrian crisis.
Moscow has offered the Syrians a draft of a new constitution, Russian negotiator Alexander Lavrentiev told reporters on Thursday.
He also said the joint Russia-Turkey-Iran ceasefire monitoring task force agreed upon in Astana in January could in the future expand its activities to include a political settlement of the crisis.
But the sources said other parties resisted those efforts, because they were still more focused on the fighting on the ground in Syria.
Iran, according to one of the sources, wants to push on with territorial gains achieved by its allies in Syria, while Turkey is hell-bent on not allowing any Kurds near its border.
The rebels also indicated they wanted the talks to focus on more down-to-earth matters such as air strikes on their territory – which they said Russia has promised to stop – and release of prisoners.
“We did not come here to make incorrect political decisions,” said rebel negotiator Mohammad Alloush.
Even the hosts for the talks, the Kazakh government, downgraded their presence. A deputy foreign minister welcomed the delegates instead of the minister himself, as was the case in January. The rebels sent 9 people, instead of the 15-person delegation that attended the previous round.
Organizers cordoned off most of the lobby of the Rixos Hotel, venue for the meeting, so negotiators could step out and have tea or coffee at tables surrounded by plants and parrots in cages.
Several ambassadors from Middle Eastern countries kept walking in and out of a conference room where the talks were being held behind closed doors, but mostly spent their time in the hotel’s Irish pub, though they did not appear to drink any alcohol.
United Nations special envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura attended the first round of talks where he stressed that Syria’s political transition must be discussed in Geneva rather than in Astana. He did not attend the second round, traveling to Moscow instead for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Originally, Thursday’s talks were billed as a low-key technical meeting. The co-sponsors then upgraded it last Friday, raising expectations that real progress could be achieved.
A successful outcome would have handed a PR coup to Russia right before U.N.-led talks on Syria in Geneva on Feb.23. But instead, Lavrentiev, the Russian negotiator, was left trying to explain why the latest round had ended in acrimony.
“The level of mutual distrust is rather high and there were many mutual accusations, but I think we must keep moving forward every time, step by step,” he said.

Impeachment trial ruling expected early March

The Constitutional Court set Feb. 24 as the final date of the impeachment trial of President Park Geun-hye, Thursday.

Acting court President Lee Jung-mi said the judges would hear closing arguments from both the National Assembly prosecutorial panel and defense attorneys representing Park.

"Both sides are to submit written arguments on Feb. 23 and prepare for closing arguments the next day," Lee said.

The court decision is expected around March 10, given that it takes up to 14 days for deliberation. The schedule for an early presidential election and other necessary political events will follow afterward if the impeachment is upheld.

Park's defense attorneys vehemently opposed the court's plan, saying it puts them under a severe time constraint.

"If the ruling is made within the court-designated timeframe, it is bound to lack a full deliberation. It is too dangerous," said Lee Joong-hwan, one of the defense attorneys.

However, Kang Il-won, one of the presiding judges said it was unlikely for the court to withdraw the announced plan just because of their opposition. 

Rep. Kwon Seong-dong of the ruling Liberty Korea Party, formerly known as the Saenuri Party, said the prosecutorial panel would comply with the court's order.

"We will convene an impeachment committee to fully deliberate the motion and submit our report to the court on Feb. 23, as requested," Kwon said during a press conference at the National Assembly. 

Chinese media on ISRO’s record satellite launch: ‘Well done India, but we are way ahead’

India’s satellite-launch record has been noticed. The Chinese media in a backhanded compliment hailed the feat but not before reminding India it had the world’s largest number of poor and its space technology lagged China by miles.
The state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) on Wednesday launched 104 satellites in one go, a triumph that underlines the credibility of the country’s frugal but effective space programme.
India should be proud of its achievements, Chinese state media said on Thursday, pointing out gaps such as lack of a manned mission. “On the whole, India’s space technology still lags behind the US’ and China’s. It has not yet formed a complete system,” the nationalist tabloid Global Times wrote.
India should remember it had the largest number of poor people in the world and a weak foundation for all-round national development, it said. India didn’t have rockets powerful enough to support large-scale space exploration. “There is no Indian astronaut in space and the country’s plan to establish a space station has not started,” the editorial said.
China launched its sixth manned mission in October. The first was in 2003. The October launch was part of the long-term mission to have a permanent space station by 2020.

USA Security adviser Michael Flynn resigns

WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (AP) — President Donald Trump's embattled national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned following reports he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia. His departure upends Trump's senior team after less than a month in office.
In a resignation letter, Flynn said he gave Vice President Mike Pence and others "incomplete information" about his calls with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. The vice president, apparently relying on information from Flynn, initially said the national security adviser had not discussed sanctions with the Russian envoy, though Flynn later conceded the issue may have come up.
Trump named retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg as the acting national security adviser. Kellogg had previously been appointed the National Security Council chief of staff and advised Trump during the campaign. Trump is also considering former CIA Director David Petraeus and Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a U.S. Navy SEAL, for the post, according to a senior administration official.
The Trump team's account of Flynn's discussions with the Russian envoy changed repeatedly over several weeks, including the number of contacts, the dates of those contacts and ultimately, the content of the conversations.
Late last month, the Justice Department warned the White House that Flynn could be in a compromised position as a result of the contradictions between the public depictions of the calls and what intelligence officials knew to be true based on recordings of the conversations, which were picked up as part of routine monitoring of foreign officials' communications in the U.S.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, as well as at other times during the transition.
An administration official and two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the Justice Department warnings on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. It was unclear when Trump and Pence learned about the Justice Department outreach.
The Washington Post was the first to report the communication between former acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, and the Trump White House. The Post also first reported last week that Flynn had indeed spoken about sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Trump never voiced public support for Flynn after that initial report and continued to keep his national security adviser close.
But White House officials sent contradictory messages about Flynn's status. Counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump had "full confidence" in Flynn, while press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was "evaluating the situation" and consulting with Pence about his conversations with the national security adviser.
Asked whether the president had been aware that Flynn might have planned to discuss sanctions with the Russian envoy, Spicer said, "No, absolutely not."
The Kremlin had confirmed that Flynn was in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions. On Tuesday, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defense of Flynn.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, said in a post on Facebook that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is "not just paranoia but something even worse." Kosachev also expressed frustration at the Trump administration:
"Either Trump hasn't found the necessary independence and he's been driven into a corner... or russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom," he said.
Kosachev's counterpart at the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, Alexei P ushkov, tweeted shortly after the announcement that "it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia."
Flynn's discussions with the Russian raised questions about whether he offered assurances about the incoming administration's new approach. Such conversations would breach diplomatic protocol and possibly violate the Logan Act, a law aimed at keeping citizens from conducting diplomacy.
Administration officials said that misleading Pence was ultimately Flynn's downfall, though they insisted he resigned and was not fired by Trump.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Flynn's resignation "does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians." He said the White House has yet to be forthcoming about whether Flynn was acting at the behest of the president or others.
Flynn's resignation comes as Trump and his top advisers seek to steady the White House after a rocky start. The president, who seeks input from a wide range of business associates, friends and colleagues, has been asking people their opinions on his senior team, including Spicer and chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Flynn was a loyal Trump supporter during the campaign, but he was viewed skeptically by some in the administration's national security circles, in part because of his ties to Russia. In 2015, he was paid to attend a gala dinner for Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed television station, and sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the event.
Flynn apologized to Pence about the matter on Friday, according to an administration official. The official said Pence was relying on information from Flynn when he went on television and denied that sanctions were discussed with Kislyak.

Recent Trump win on China trademark raises ethics questions

President Donald Trump is poised to receive something Tuesday that he has been trying to get from China for a decade: trademark rights to his own name. After suffering rejection after rejection in China's courts, he saw his prospects change dramatically after starting his presidential campaign.
Trump's late triumph in the fight to wrest back his brand for construction services could prove to be the first of many intellectual property victories in China during his presidency. Each win creates value for Trump's business empire, and ethics questions about his administration.
At stake are 49 pending trademark applications — all made during his campaign — and 77 marks already registered under his own name, most of which will come up for renewal during his term. The construction-services case also raises the possibility that the president could claw back control of more than 225 Trump-related marks held or sought by others in China, for an array of things including Trump toilets, condoms, pacemakers and even a "Trump International Hotel."
Ethics lawyers from across the political spectrum say the trademarks present conflicts of interest for Trump and may violate the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless explicitly approved by Congress.
Countries could use Trump's desire to consolidate control over his brand to extend — or withhold — favor, especially a nation such as China where the courts and bureaucracy are influenced by the ruling Communist Party and by design reflect the leadership's political imperatives. While China recently has shown greater interest in protecting intellectual property rights in general, simply the possibility that it could use trademarks as leverage has drawn concern.
"There can be no question that it is a terrible idea for Donald Trump to be accepting the registration of these valuable property rights from China while he's a sitting president of the United States," said Norman Eisen, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer for President Barack Obama. "It's fair to conclude that this is an effort to influence Mr. Trump that is relatively inexpensive for the Chinese, potentially very valuable to him, but it could be very costly for the United States."
Richard Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, called the situation "highly improper." Since foreign governments know Trump cares deeply about his family's business, Painter said, "they will give him what he wants and they will expect stuff in return."
Eisen and Painter are involved in a lawsuit alleging that Trump's foreign business ties violate the U.S. Constitution. Trump has dismissed the lawsuit as "totally without merit."
The precise value of the trademarks is a matter of debate, but the billionaire president himself has said he considers the Trump brand to form a major part of his fortune, and he has long fought to protect his trademarks in China.
"I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to secure my own name and globally recognized brand from Chinese individuals who seek to trade off my reputation," Trump wrote in 2011 to then-U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke about a trademark dispute in Macau, an autonomous region of China.
In May 2009, he dispatched a team with 300 pounds of audiovisual evidence that Donald Trump was, in fact, famous. It didn't work. Trump railed against the courts as "faithless, corrupt and tainted."
"The Trump name resonates throughout the entire world," Trump wrote. "According to their ignorant council of judges, it appears the only two places in the world I am not well known are" China and Macau.
As president, Trump's elevated profile in China will likely make it easier to protect his brand, said Zhou Dandan, a lawyer with Unitalen Attorneys at Law in Beijing, which has worked for Trump since 2006. Trademark authorities will almost certainly reject new "Trump" applications from unrelated parties, she said, and may take back rights from existing "Trump" trademark holders.
That's what happened in the case nearing completion this week.
Trump applied for rights to the Trump mark for construction services on Dec. 7, 2006, but a man named Dong Wei had filed a similar application about two weeks earlier. China works on a first-come-first-served basis for trademarks, and the Trademark Office rejected Trump's application.
Trump appealed to the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board, then to the Beijing Intermediate People's Court, and finally to the Beijing High People's Court. He lost, lost and lost again.
Separately, he tried to invalidate Dong's trademark, but failed, and failed again on appeal, according to Matthew Dresden, a China intellectual property attorney at Harris Bricken in Seattle, who has studied the case.
The last time courts ruled against Trump in the construction-services case was May 2015, the month before he declared his candidacy.
Then Trump's lawyers made what Dresden described as "an odd choice."
They simply went back to the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board, which had already rejected their case, and again asked them to invalidate Dong's trademark, Dresden said.
This time it worked. On Sept. 6, 2016, the Trademark Office published its invalidation of Dong's trademark for construction services. Dong could not be reached for comment.
That decision cleared the way for Trump's own claim to move ahead. Trump's mark was published in China's Trademark Gazette on Nov. 13, less than a week after he won the presidential election. Interested parties have three months to object. If no one does, the trademark will be registered to Trump on Tuesday.
Why is Trump winning in China's bureaucracy now, after years of failure? China's State Administration for Industry and Commerce and its foreign ministry did not reply to requests for comment.
Alan Garten, chief legal officer of The Trump Organization, portrayed the company's efforts to enforce its trademarks as part of a long-standing pattern of vigilance.
"The company has been zealously protecting its valuable brand internationally for more than 20 years," he said in an email. He did not answer questions about the ethical dilemmas Trump's China trademarks present for his presidency.
Some lawyers point to a general hardening in China's stance on trademark squatting. In January, China's Supreme People's Court released a legal interpretation stipulating that names of "political, economic, cultural, religious, national and other public figures" should not be trademarked. That notice came after a December ruling that returned the Chinese version of Michael Jordan's name from Qiaodan Sports Co. to the basketball star. In Chinese, Qiaodan sounds like Jordan.
Others say politics almost certainly played a role. By 2016, the nature of the dispute had changed. Chinese authorities were now ruling on case that pitted a guy from Liaoning province against a man running for president of the United States.
"Particularly something of this scale, where there are international repercussions for a given decision, it would be hard to imagine that the judges, the Trademark Office and/or the Trademark Review and Adjudication Board were acting without some kind of guidance," said Dan Plane, a director at Simone IP Services, a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy.
He added that the outcome of future cases could depend on Trump's relationship with Beijing.
"If there's a clear decision made by an angry Chinese government to stop giving broad protection to the Trump name in China, Trump's ability to defend or enforce his name could be quite limited," Plane said.
If Trump is able to seize broad control of his brand in China, it could be bad news for Shenzhen Trump Industrial Co., which makes high-end Trump-branded toilets. Zhong Jianwei, one of the founders, said the company will defend its brand if challenged by the U.S. president.
The company applied for its Trump mark in 2002. The Chinese name brings together ideas of innovation and popularity and has nothing to do with President Trump, said Zhong Jiye, another founder. And in English, the "U'' makes a nice toilet-seat shape for their logo.
Trump toilets for the home can do pregnancy tests, while models for public use have disposable seat covers for improved hygiene. The company says sales were up more than 50 percent last year and an international expansion is in the works — perhaps under a different brand now that Trump is president.
People use Trump toilets some 100 million times a year, said Zhong Jiye.
Among them, he added, are customers at Zhongnanhai, the official residence of Chinese President Xi Jinping

S. Korea emergency security meeting over death of half brother

South Korea's Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will hold a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to discuss the apparent assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half brother, his office said.

The NSC Standing Committee session, which is to begin at 8:50 a.m., will bring together top security and diplomatic officials, including the ministers of foreign affairs, defense and unification, and the head of the National Intelligence Service.Kim Jong-nam was assassinated Monday in Malaysia, an informed source has said without revealing any further details. 

Malaysian police officials were quoted in news reports as saying that the 45-year-old Kim was attacked with an apparently toxic chemical spray at a Kuala Lumpur airport and died while being taken to a hospital. He was waiting for a flight to Macau when the attack happened, the officials said.  Many observers believe that the assassination is part of the North Korean leader's efforts to get rid of potential risks to his autocratic rule and further consolidate his power. Kim's deceased half brother had been an outspoken critic of the dictatorial regime.

North Korean leader's half-brother killed in Malaysia

Kim Jong-nam, the older half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in Malaysia, according to Malaysian police on Tuesday. 

Kim died while on his way to a hospital from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Monday, after two unidentified women presumably from North Korea assassinated him with poisoned needles, they said.

The two suspects fled in a taxi after the attack The Malaysian police suspect that North Korea was behind the assassination.
This marks the most high-profile death since Kim Jong-un took power in 2011. His uncle Jang Song-thaek was executed on his orders in December 2013.

South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not confirm anything regarding the incident. However, observers speculate that Kim Jong-un may have ordered the death of his half brother to further solidify his grip on power.

"It has been over five years since Kim Jong-un took power. He may have felt pressured to consolidate his regime by getting rid of him" said An Chan-il, head of the World Institute for North Korea Studies.

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said, "The assassination of Kim Jong-nam could not have been conducted without Kim Jong-un's approval."

He said that the Reconnaissance General Bureau, North Korea's intelligence agency, is suspected of being directly involved in the murder.

"The bureau has kept a watch on Kim Jong-nam, and it is the agency in charge of assassinating key North Korean figures," Cheong noted.

Kim Jong-nam is the eldest son of the late-North Korea leader Kim Jong-il, and has been in de facto exile abroad for decades.

He had reportedly been under threat by his younger brother for a long time as the North Korean leader viewed him as a rival to securing power. Jong-nam was believed to be under China's protection, and had emerged as a possible successor to Kim Jong-il in the late 1990s.

But Jong-nam's position in the regime was soon undermined after his aunt Sung Hye-rang migrated to the U.S. in 1996, and when he was expelled to China after he tried to enter Japan illegally with a fake passport.

Jong-nam lived mostly in the Chinese territory of Macau where he was said to have managed one of his father's slush funds and North Korea's arms dealings under the direction of Kim Jong-il.

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