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Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out, says US ambassador to UN Nikki Haley

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Thursday that Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is interviewed Feb. 10, 2017, in Syria. With a changing reality on the ground Assad's ouster is no longer the focus of many Western and Arab governments, VOA
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Syria, April 1, 2017: The battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be over — at least as far as the Trump administration is concerned.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said Thursday that Washington’s “priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.”

Haley’s remarks drew the ire of American lawmakers who have argued for a more robust U.S. effort to topple Assad. Republican Senator John McCain warned the Trump administration against making a “Faustian bargain” (a deal with the devil) with the Syrian government’s ally Russia.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warned that taking the focus off Assad would be “the biggest mistake since President [Barack] Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.”

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Later Friday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that the United States must accept the political reality that the future of Assad is up to the Syrian people.

“With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now,” he said. Spicer added that the Untied States lost “a lot of opportunity” during the last administration to change the situation with Assad. He did not elaborate.

Spicer would not comment on whether Assad should step down, saying it is a decision for the Syrian people alone. He said the foremost priority for the United States in Syria right now is the defeat of Islamic State militants.

Some Middle East analysts say similar comments by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week in Ankara also signal regime change is off the table. These analysts argue the recent remarks merely reflect the reality on the ground — that Assad’s survival after a brutal six-year-long conflict appears assured.

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Expected move

Many analysts had been expecting President Donald Trump’s administration to inch closer to a much more explicit shift in U.S. policy in Syria — one exclusively focused on the war against the Islamic State. Some analysts say the administration has little alternative now. They trace the policy reversal to the Obama administration, which in its last months also was signaling an acceptance of Assad staying in power, if only in the short-term during a political transition.

In a roundtable discussion this week on the future of the conflict on Syria, analyst Sam Heller of The Century Foundation, a U.S. policy research institute, argued that not much is left of the revolutionary opposition.

“When we say that the Assad regime has ‘won the war,’ we mean it’s achieved a strategic victory in Syria’s central civil conflict: the war between, in approximate terms, the regime and its mixed revolutionary-Islamist opposition in western Syria,” he said.

According to Heller, much of the main armed opposition to Assad has been neutralized and diverted away from the insurgency against the government by regional powers who are using rebel militias for their own security projects in war-torn Syria. That includes the Turks, who have carved out a sweep of territory in northern Syria to keep Islamic State militants away from its border and block Syrian Kurds from uniting Kurdish-majority cantons.

The U.S. has persuaded other Arab Sunni and Turkmen militias to throw in their lot with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and to focus on battling the Islamic State. The U.S. is generally working with splinter groups or rejects from the main anti-Assad rebel force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Rebel militias not participating in the Turkish intervention or who are not aligned with the fight against the Islamic State have seen foreign backers cut their arms supplies.

Heller says the future for FSA militias is bleak.

“The choice they now seem to face is between being reincorporated into the extant Syrian state [Assad’s state], serving in a Turkish or Jordanian cross-border protectorate, or indefinite exile. Or they can die with the jihadists, which is also an option. They can and will continue to fight, but they’ll likely be doing so alone, against insurmountable odds, and at a terrible cost to their civilian families and communities.”

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Tahrir al-Sham group takes lead

Most recent breakout assaults by rebel militias have been led by a former al-Qaida affiliate. It has joined with other Islamist rebel militias in a group called Tahrir al-Sham, and last week assaulted the Syrian town of Hama, managing to advance to within 10 kilometers of its center. Other insurgents also recently launched an offensive on government-held areas in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.

But there’s little prospect the Hama and Jobar offensives can be translated into major threats to the government, which was bolstered when Russia’s military intervened to back Assad more than a year ago. In December, the government, backed by Iranian and Shi’ite militias, recaptured the rebel redoubt in the eastern half of Aleppo.

Since December, Syrian government forces and foreign fighters have been pressing their military edge, slowly winning back rebel-held areas near the Syrian capital and squeezing Tahrir al-Sham and other Islamist militias in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, to the west of Aleppo.

Several military observers from European governments told VOA in recent weeks that they see no way that opposition forces can threaten Assad’s hold over the main western and coastal cities of Syria.

They do expect fighting to continue, though, led by Tahrir al-Sham.

Aron Lund, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a research institute in Washington, agrees with those assessments. At The Century Foundation’s roundtable, he predicted: “There will be fighting for a long time and Syria may remain a failed state in many respects, and, of course, some unscripted event could still turn all assumptions upside down. But as things stand, Assad is definitely over some sort of threshold.”

Lund says Western and Arab governments that had sought regime change in Syria have now mostly accepted that their side has no path to victory.

“They are coming to terms with the fact that Assad is staying, while deciding to what extent they want to play spoilers. They’re not willing to say it publicly, but it’s happening,” Lund said. (VOA)

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Christine Ford Testifies Against Brett Kavanaugh; Decision Pending

If Kavanaugh is confirmed for the Supreme Court, the court will have a clear 5-4 conservative majority, which could be solidified for a generation or longer.

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Brett Kavanaugh
In this combination image of Reuters photos, Christine Blasey Ford, left, and Supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testify separately before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

It was a day of drama, tears and tempers in the U.S. Capitol on Thursday with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh angrily denying a charge of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford at a party in 1982 when they were teenagers.

Both got the chance to tell their stories to the Senate Judiciary Committee during a nearly nine-hour-long hearing.

“I have never sexually assaulted anyone, not in high school, not in college, not ever,” Kavanaugh told the senators. “I have never done this to her or to anyone.”

Hours earlier, Ford told the panel she was “100 percent certain” it was a drunken Kavanaugh who pinned her down on a bed, groped her, tried to take off her clothes, and put his hand over her mouth to muffle her screams for help.

Kavanaugh told the senators he attended no such party. He accused Democrats of seeking to avenge Hillary Clinton’s election loss by mounting a calculated attack for political gain and engaging in grotesque character assassination.

Kavanaugh vowed he will not be intimidated into withdrawing.

The Judiciary Committee, with 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, plan to vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination Friday and, if approved, will send it to the entire Senate, which will begin procedural votes Saturday.

 

Brett Kavanaugh
In this photo combination, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

 

Late Thursday, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee announced he would vote to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While, he said, it took courage for Ford to testify, there was no evidence to corroborate her allegations.

Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said he is still weighing his vote after hearing Ford and Kavanaugh testify.

Asked how he will vote, Flake said, “Let me process it.”

 

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, also said she needs time to decide how she will vote. She is running for re-election in a state that voted heavily for President Donald Trump.

Sen. Doug Jones, a first-term Democrat from Alabama, said he is voting no on Kavenaugh’s bid for the Supreme Court. “The Kavanaugh nomination process has been flawed from the beginning,” he said, adding that Ford was credible and courageous.

Brett Kavanaugh
In this photo combination, Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. VOA

Ford’s testimony

Earlier in the day, Ford testified that she feared that Kavanaugh was “going to accidentally kill” her during the alleged incident in 1982.

She said what she remembers most was Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge’s “uproarious laughter” during the incident and “having fun at my expense.”

Democratic senators repeatedly praised Ford for her courage in coming forward.

A prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, questioned Ford on behalf of Senate Republicans. She asked Ford about timelines and peripheral issues and did not challenge her basic account of sexual assault. But Ford’s account lacked firm corroboration of her claims by others at the party.

Kavanaugh’s testimony

Kavanaugh was much angrier, strident and emotional.

He “unequivocally and categorically” denied the charges and cried as he spoke of how the ordeal has wrecked his family. He presented the senators with what he said were handwritten calendars from 1982 showing his activities and whereabouts. He says they did not include the party.

Kavanaugh said he welcomes whatever the investigation the committee wants, but would not directly answer whether he would approve an FBI probe.

Brett Kavanaugh
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh gives his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee. VOA

Admitting he loves drinking beer, he pointed to what he says was his outstanding academic record and dedication to high school sports and church.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley defended Kavanaugh and blamed Democrats for not disclosing the accusations earlier.

“As part of Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the FBI conducted its sixth full field background investigation of Judge Kavanaugh since 1993, 25 years ago. Nowhere in any of these six FBI reports … was there a whiff of any issue, any issue at all related to anyway inappropriate sexual behavior.”

But Democrats did not buy Kavanaugh’s self-portrayal of an angelic choir boy. Senator Patrick Leahy pointed to Kavanaugh’s high school yearbook page and its jokes about heavy drinking and sex.

Brett Kavanaugh
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., makes a point during a hearing with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee. VOA

Republican Senator Lindsay Graham lost his temper during his time to question Kavanaugh. He accused Democrats of an “unethical sham” and warning Republicans that if they vote not to confirm Kavanaugh, they would legitimize “the most despicable thing I’ve ever seen in my time in politics.”

Trump stands by his man

President Trump nominated Kavanaugh to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. He tweeted that the judge showed Americans exactly why he was chosen.

Trump’s tweet did not mention Ford.

No clear winner

Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, Ilya Shapiro, says it is unclear if anyone came out ahead after Thursday’s testimony.

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“We’re at a dangerous point because if we have no more evidence and Kavanaugh’s rejected, that sets the precedent that accusations are enough to derail … and if he’s approved, then still there will be people who think that he’s a sexual assaulter or rapist and there he is sitting at the Supreme Court.”

If Kavanaugh is confirmed, the court will have a clear 5-4 conservative majority, which could be solidified for a generation or longer. (VOA)