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Assad ‘may be Russia’s ally but he is also a liability’



Russia was not spoiling for a fight in Syria. Not with the US.

That much was clear in the Kremlin’s muted reaction to an incident back in February, curiously brought back to the fore in recent remarks by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

“In Syria now a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple hundred Russians were killed,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Thursday.

On 7 February, pro-regime forces backed by Russian mercenaries had launched an attack on a Syrian Democratic Forces headquarters near Deir Ezzor.

The US coalition which backs the SDF responded with air and artillery strikes. The number of reported casualties on the regime side varies wildly.

Suffice to say, there were more than a handful of funerals on Russian soil which the media were not allowed to attend.

:: UK, US and France bid for ceasefire in Syria after airstrikes

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PM defends ‘targeted and effective’ strikes

The Kremlin eventually admitted that “several dozen” Russians had been killed in Syria, but said they were not uniformed servicemen.

Anything to play down a situation in which Russians and Americans were facing off against each other in direct combat on Syrian soil.

Both sides knew how dangerous that could be. Both sides tried to keep the story quiet.

Fast forward a handful of weeks – a chemical attack in Salisbury and a fresh round of sanctions later.

Russia is angrier but its strategic calculus on Syria has not shifted.

Thanks to Russia’s support, Bashar al Assad has all but finished a gruesome clear-out of the remaining opposition strongholds, broken neighbourhood by broken neighbourhood in city after city.

In Dhouma, the alleged chemical attack last Saturday night which Russia says did not happen may have been the straw which broke the camel’s back – finally forcing the Islamist group Jaish al-Islam into accepting defeat and an evacuation deal.

Off to Idlib province which teems with the vanquished from Syria’s sieges, waiting for the final onslaught from above.

:: Chemical attacks in Syria: A deadly history

Cable: ‘No quibbles on strike legality’

Russia’s involvement in Syria’s war has not cost much to date in terms of blood and treasure and it has gained hugely in regional power.

Quite apart from being the best part of suicidal, Russia was not about to risk that through wider conflict with the US.

Bashar al Assad may be Russia’s ally but he is also a liability.

The assumption that he will respond to Russia’s bidding is also not a given.

However it may be perceived in Washington, Paris or London, Russia sees itself as on the defensive vis-a-vis the West.

The Kremlin knows Russia does not have the economic or military capabilities to take on the US and NATO.

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It is status which Russia wants. And the limited strike which gave wide berth to Russia’s military bases in Syria gave Moscow the respect it feels it deserves at least militarily.

Russia’s ambassador to the US tweeted cryptically just afterwards that the West had failed to heed Russia’s warnings and that “a pre-designed scenario was being implemented”.

At a press conference that afternoon, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov segued seamlessly from the strike on Syria to a much longer excoriation of the UK’s novichok analysis, claiming that a Swiss laboratory which had tested the samples had found the chemical compound involved was one used by US and NATO countries, not Russia.

The lab in question swiftly put out a tweet declaring it had said nothing of the sort.

Information warfare is a far more comfortable battleground for the Kremlin than the war-torn streets of Syria.

It is cheap and it is a simple way to keep the Russian public on side.

But the more vicious that fight and the more flagrant the Kremlin’s abuse of truth and transparency, the more difficult for Russia to get what it really wants – a seat at the top table worthy of the great power that Russia so desperately wants to be.

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Coronavirus: Dogs deployed at Helsinki Airport to sniff out virus | World News



An airport in Finland is using sniffer dogs to detect passengers infected with coronavirus.

Helsinki Airport is trialling the scheme which will see 10 dogs trained in total by Wise Nose, a smell detection agency, with four deployed to work per shift.

It follows a study by the University of Helsinki’s Veterinary Faculty, which suggested trained dogs can detect COVID-19 with close to 100% certainty.

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Kossi (L) and Miina (R), some of the sniffer dogs being trained to detect the coronavirus from the arriving passengers' samples, is seen at Helsinki Airport in Vantaa, Finland September 22, 2020. Lehtikuva/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. FINLAND OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN FINLAND.
Finnish airport operator Finavia is trialling the scheme after a study suggested trained dogs can detect COVID-19 with close to 100% certainty

Finnish airport operator Finavia said: “We are among the pioneers. As far as we know no other airport has attempted to use canine scent detection on such a large scale against COVID-19.

“This might be an additional step forward on the way to beating COVID-19.”

But for those hoping for a quick play with a puppy there’s bad news – there’s no direct interaction between passengers and the pooches.

Those who are tested will also receive a conventional check to make sure the animals are accurate.

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One of the dogs – an eight-year-old greyhound mix called Kossi, learned to identify the scent in just seven minutes.

The scheme will see passengers swab their skin with a wipe, which they will then drop into a cup to be given to one of the dogs to check in a separate booth.

The operation is being run in this way to protect passengers’ anonymity and also protect dog handlers.

Anyone who tests positive will be sent to an information point at the airport.

Finland has reported 9,195 cases of COVID-19 and 341 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University which has been tracking the outbreak.

In the UK, the charity Medical Detection Dogs is running a programme to see if it can train hounds to be able to sniff out the coronavirus.

The scheme is being run with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Durham University, with funding from both the government and the public.

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ISS forced to move to avoid collision with space junk | Science & Tech News



Astronauts aboard the International Space Station had to carry out an “avoidance manoeuvre” to prevent it from being hit by space junk, NASA has said.

Its trajectory was changed to move it further away from the “unknown piece of space debris”, the US space agency wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

The three crew members – two Russians and an American – relocated to their Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS during the operation, so they could evacuate if necessary.

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Experts expected the space junk to pass within “several kilometres” of the ISS, but decided to move it “out of an abundance of caution”.

Russian and US flight controllers worked together to adjust the station’s orbit in an operation which took minutes.

The crew were able to continue with their regular activities after the manoeuvre was complete.

NASA said the crew were not in danger at any time.

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“Maneuver Burn complete. The astronauts are coming out of safe haven,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Twitter.

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It is the third time this year the International Space Station (ISS) has had to manoeuvre to avoid space debris, he said.

He tweeted: “In the last 2 weeks, there have been 3 high concern potential conjunctions. Debris is getting worse!”

Astronomer Jonathon McDowell, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted the unknown object was a part of a 2018 Japanese rocket which broke into 77 pieces last year.

The ISS is orbiting around 260 miles (420km) above the Earth, travelling at a speed of about 17,130mph (27,568km/h).

At this velocity, even a small object has the ability to cause serious damage to the space station.

NASA has said these kinds of manoeuvres occur on a regular basis, with 25 having occurred between 1999 and 2018.

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China emissions pledge could help the world avoid climate catastrophe, says top diplomat | UK News



Catastrophic climate change could be avoided because of China’s promise to be carbon neutral by 2060, the UK’s climate diplomat has told Sky News.

John Murton – who is the UK’s envoy for climate summit COP26 – says although the details need to be examined, he hopes other countries will now follow China’s lead to reduce their emissions.

“It’s a really important thing that China has made this commitment as there’s no way that the world would be able to meet Paris goals of keeping temperature rise to no more than 2C – and as close to 1.5C – if China hadn’t made this sort of commitment,” he said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is pictured in his pre-recorded UN address

China pledges carbon neutrality by 2060

“So in that sense, it’s good news. We need to learn the details but what it does is tell other big emitters that these sorts of reductions are possible.”

Mr Murton said China’s pledge is a “positive thing” for the COP26 conference, which is due to be held in Glasgow next November, as it could persuade other nations to make similar targets.

China is the world’s worst polluter, but in a virtual speech at the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping said his country would be carbon neutral by 2060 and achieve a peak in carbon dioxide emissions before 2030.

It is the first time China has said it will end its net contribution to climate change.

But it is not just its domestic reliance on fossil fuels that environmentalists say needs to be cleaned up.

John Murton is the UK's climate diplomat
John Murton is the UK’s climate diplomat

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says China spent more than $1tn (£786bn) on foreign infrastructure. Over the last few years, the majority of that is thought to involve fossil fuels.

And it has coal projects in at least 28 countries totalling over $50bn (£39bn), according to global coal finance tracker

Professor Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics said: “A big majority of their investments in energy infrastructure would be in fossil fuels, coal and oil and gas, but what we must hope now is that given that China has changed its ambitions, upped its ambitions for emissions within China, that it will apply the same logic outside.

“China’s investments internationally should follow the same principles of China’s investments inside China and China has made statements to the effect that they will be – that China’s investments outside China will be sustainable but that is something that will now be tested.”

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