COLLEAGUE KILLS 10 AFGHAN POLICE
A rogue Afghan police officer drugged and shot dead 10 of his colleagues early today at a checkpoint in Afghanistanâ€™s central province of Uruzgan, Al Jazeera reports. The man collaborated with Taliban insurgents, who joined him in shooting the officers. Weapons and ammunition were missing from the checkpoint after the attack. This is the latest in a long series of so-called â€œinsiderâ€ or "green-on-blue" attacks, in which Afghan officers turn their weapons on foreign troops or colleagues. They have been a major problem for the countryâ€™s security forces, which have struggled with desertion, low morale and mistrust for a long time.
â€œSchengen is on the brink of collapse,â€ Austrian daily Kronen Zeitung quoted Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner as saying yesterday. Mikl-Leitner had been discussing Europeâ€™s passport-free travel zone and the possibility of extending national border controls to tackle the migrant crisis. EU governments could decide to suspend the Schengen system for two years, The Guardian reports. The border-free zone has been in place for more than 20 years.
- Meanwhile, Danish lawmakers will vote today on a highly controversial bill that would allow authorities to confiscate migrantsâ€™ valuables to pay for their upkeep. The proposal aims to make the country less attractive for asylum seekers and is expected to pass.
- In Sweden, a migrant teen stabbed a 22-year-old refugee center employee to death yesterday, the Swiss daily Dagens Nyheter reports. The boy lived at the center and is believed to be between 14 and 17 years old. He has since been arrested. Although the motive is unclear, such an incident is likely to increase tensions between the Swedish population and asylum seekers in the country.
SYRIAN ARMY CAPTURES KEY TOWN
Syrian government forces captured the key southern city of al-Shaykh Maskin from rebel forces Monday after weeks of fierce fighting, Al Jazeera reports. It will allow the Syrian army to strengthen its presence in the Daraa province and cut off rebel supply lines. Daraa saw some of the earliest anti-government protests in 2011.
- Meanwhile, UN-backed Syrian peace talks between the opposition and Bashar al-Assadâ€™s regime, which were set to start Monday in Geneva, have been delayed to Jan. 29, France 24 reports. This is due to disagreements over which rebel groups should be allowed to attend.
- The Syrian opposition has also cast doubt on whether it will attend Fridayâ€™s talks. Reuters quoted opposition official Asaad al-Zoubi as saying that he was pessimistic, though the final decision would be made at an opposition meeting in Riyadh.
- A double bomb attack in Syriaâ€™s government-controlled city of Homs killed 22 people and wounded more than 100 early today, the daily L'Orient-Le Jour reports. ISIS claimed the attack.
Spain is waving a red flag at famous bullfighter Francisco Rivera Ordóñez after he posted a picture of himself taunting a bloody calf while holding his 5-month-old daughter. Ordóñez posted the photograph, featured on todayâ€™s front page of Spainâ€™s leading daily El País, on his official Instagram account. Read more about the uproar here.
Argentine paleontologists recently announced the discovery of what they termed the Notocolossus gonzalesparejasi â€" a dinosaur likely to dwarf another sauropod found in Patagonia in May 2014, whose cast skeleton has just made its debut at New Yorkâ€™s American Museum of Natural History. The titanosaurian species, which lived about 86 million years ago, was found recently in the Argentine province of Mendoza, and is being hailed as possibly the most massive dinosaur that ever lived.
Read the full article, Notocolossus: Is This The Biggest Dinosaur Find Ever?
ON THIS DAY
Happy 55th birthday to â€œThe Great One,â€ Wayne Gretzky. That and more in today's shot of history.
SUNKEN BOAT LEAVES 13 INDONESIANS DEAD
At least 13 people, nine women and four men who are believed to be Indonesian migrants, died when their boat capsized near the southern coast of Malaysia early this morning, Al Jazeera reports. A local police chief said the boat was thought to be carrying 30 to 35 people. Such tragedies are fairly common in Malaysia, where many Indonesian migrants try to find work illegally.
Malaysiaâ€™s Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali said today that a $681 million transfer into Prime Minister Najib Razakâ€™s personal bank account was a â€œprivate donationâ€ from the Saudi royal family, and not bribery, the daily The Star reports.
- The statement clears Najib from a confusing and long-running corruption scandal, in which he had been accused of receiving the money from a state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), whose advisory board Najib chairs.
- A statement also claimed Najib returned $620 million to the Saudi royal family, leaving just $60 million unaccounted for.
- Malaysiaâ€™s opposition is now questioning whether the attorney general covered up for the prime minister, The Guardian reports.
MY GRAND-PÈREâ€™S WORLD
MAKING THE MOST OF THE SNOW
Patrick Horton, an advertising art director living in Brooklyn, New York, built an igloo in his backyard after last weekendâ€™s heavy snowfalls, and listed it on Airbnb. Charging $200 a night, he called it a â€œBoutique Winter Igloo for 2,â€ the â€œsnowpocalypse of 2016â€™s most desirable getaway, hand-crafted, and built using only natural elements,â€ The Verge reports. Airbnb unfortunately deleted the listing because the abode lacked electricity, piped water or even a door, thus not meeting occupancy guidelines. But the vacation-rental website conceded that the igloo was â€œvery well constructed.â€
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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