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Erdogan Rejects U.S. Call for Ceasefire

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  • Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rejected U.S. efforts for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria for the second time on Wednesday.
  • Speaking during a press conference later, President Trump denied that Erdogan had said he would not agree to a ceasefire and expressed optimism that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Pence would broker a truce.
  • Over the weekend the Trump administration also announced that it would be imposing sanctions on Turkey while simultaneously withdrawing more U.S. troops from Syria.

Erdogan’s Announcement

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his rejection to the United States’ call for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria on Wednesday.

The announcement comes the same day that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to Turkey to meet with the Turkish leader and to try to press Turkey for a ceasefire in its incursion into Northern Syria.

The Turkish military operation started last week after the White House released a statement saying the U.S. would step aside while Turkey went ahead with a long-planned offensive against Kurdish forces in the region.

Turkey considers the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) that control the region terrorists and has said the operation is necessary to secure their border.

However, the U.S. has long been allied with the SDF, which has done the bulk of fighting against ISIS on the ground in Northern Syria and also guarded prisons holding tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families.

In a direct rebuke of the U.S., while speaking before the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan said that Turkey would not broker a truce because it has “never in its history sat down at a table with terrorist groups.”

“We are not looking for a mediator for that,” he continued. “Nobody can stop us.”

The president also called for Syrian fighters to lay down their weapons and leave the region immediately.

Although it appears that Pence and Pompeo still intend to make their trip, there have been conflicting reports about whether or not Erdogan would meet with Pence or Pompeo.

“I am standing tall. I will not meet with them. They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes,” he told Sky News Tuesday.

Later, his communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the president had reversed that decision. 

“He does plan to meet the U.S. delegation led by @VP tomorrow — as confirmed in the below statement to the Turkish press,” Altun said in a tweet.

Sanctions and Ceasefire

Erdogan’s statement Wednesday echoed a similar sentiment he expressed the day before, while also speaking about sanctions imposed by the U.S. 

“They say ‘declare a cease-fire’. We will never declare a cease-fire,” the president said speaking in Azerbaijan. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

In an announcement Monday, President Donald Trump said that he would “soon be issuing an Executive Order authorizing the imposition of sanctions against current and former officials of the Government of Turkey and any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.”

He added that, among other things, the U.S. would stop negotiations of a trade deal, increase steel tariffs by 50%, and “authorize a broad range of consequences including financial sanctions, blocking of property and barring entry into the U.S.”

U.S. Withdraws Troops & Kurds Side With Assad

Trump’s announcement of sanctions Monday came after a series of rapid developments the day before.

Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that following discussions with the national security team, Trump had directed that the U.S. “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.” 

Esper did not say exactly when or how many troops would be withdrawn, but he later told Fox News that the number would be “less than 1,000 troops.” According to reports, the U.S. only has about 1,000 troops in the region.

The announcement also came amid reports from Kurdish officials and others in the area that around 800 people held in ISIS prisons broke free. Erdogan responded by saying the claims were “disinformation” intended to provoke the U.S. and others.

But Kurdish forces maintained that this was a serious security threat.

Many experts and lawmakers have warned that the U.S. removal of troops in Syria would allow ISIS to regroup because Kurdish forces would be stretched too thin fighting a military attack and would not able to keep a stable hold on the region or stop ISIS fighters from escaping from the camps.

Some condemned Esper’s announcement, arguing that the U.S.’ decision to remove even more troops would just make the situation worse.

Just hours after Esper’s statement, Kurdish leaders announced that they had struck a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, would be sending troops to help the Kurds fight Turkey.

Many described this move as a turning point in Syria’s eight-year-long war because it represents a notable shift in influence from the United States to Russia.

Those critical of the removal of U.S. forces in Syria have argued that it will pave the way for Russian forces allied with the Syrian government to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. leaving the region.

Trump, for his part, responded to the move in a tweet later on Monday, writing, “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

Russia appeared to have taken that to heart, and announced Tuesday that they would be sending their own troops to patrol between Turkish and Syrian forces.

Trump Press Conference

Trump on Wednesday maintained that he will try to mediate discussions between Turkey and the Kurds.

While speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump claimed that Erdogan did not refuse to agree to a ceasefire, and downplayed U.S. involvement in the crisis.

“The Kurds are much safer right now, but the Kurds know how to fight,” he said. “And as I said they’re not angels, they’re not angels, if you take a look, you have to go back and take a look. But they fought with us and we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s okay.” 

“So, if Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them. They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border, we shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” he continued. 

The president also later seemed to echo what Erdogan said when Kurdish forces reported that ISIS prisoners had escaped.

“Some were released just for effect, to make us look a little bit like ‘oh gee, we got to get right back in there,’” Trump said.

Meanwhile, the violent military standoff between Turkey and Syria continues.

It is currently unclear how many military personnel and civilians have died, but what is clear is that the Turkish incursion is tearing up a country already ravaged by war, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in a country where there are already millions of refugees.

On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that “at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the offensive began,” also adding that “hospitals and schools and other public infrastructure hit or affected by the fighting.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (Axios)

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Anti-LGBTQ+ Hungarian Politician Resigns After He Was Caught At a 25-Man Orgy

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  • József Szájer, a longtime ally of the right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister and a Member of the European Parliament, resigned Sunday after he was caught attending a 25-man orgy in Brussels.
  • The event was raided after a noise complaint as Brussels is currently under a lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.
  • Szájer claimed diplomatic immunity after being detained and was issued a €250 fine.
  • His attendance at a gay orgy contrasts his career as an adamantly anti-LGBTQ+ politician. In fact, he was instrumental in rewriting Hungary’s 2010 constitution to include provisions meant to stifle the possibility of gay marriage.

Covid-Breaking Party

Long time anti-LGBTQ+ politician József Szájer resigned from the European Parliament Sunday after revelations that he attended a 25-man orgy in Brussels, which was raided by police.

The Saturday event violated Belgium’s stay-at-home orders, which prohibit inter-household gathers of more than four people in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. Police were notified of the orgy after a neighbor called to file a noise complaint. The organizer of the party was unapologetic about hosting the party during the pandemic, telling HLN, “I always invite a few friends to my parties, who in turn bring some friends along, and then we make it fun together.”

“We talk a little, we have a drink – just like in a café. The only difference is that in the meantime we also have sex with each other. I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” he added.

József Szájer’s Great Escape

According to local media HLN, Szájer wasn’t even invited to the party but instead came as a guest’s friend. There are differing accounts about how he was aprehended at the party. A spokesperson for the local prosecutor’s office said on Tuesday, “A passer-by reported to the police that he had seen a man fleeing along the gutter; he was able to identify the man.”

The man’s hands were bloody. It is possible that he may have been injured while fleeing. Narcotics were found in his backpack. The man was unable to produce any identity documents. He was escorted to his place of residence, where he identified himself as [Szájer József] by means of a diplomatic passport.”

After apprehending him, police detained Szájer and searched a bag he brought with him where they allegedly found ecstasy.  Szájer denied the drugs were his and demanded a drug test, which the police declined to do.

On Tuesday, after reports of his attendance at the orgy became public, Szájer made a statement saying, “After the police asked for my identity — since I did not have ID on me — I declared that I was a MEP.”.

“The police continued the process and finally issued an official verbal warning and transported me home.

“I deeply regret violating the Covid restrictions, it was irresponsible on my part. I am ready to stand for the fine that occurs.”

That fine ended up being €250.

No Future Career

Szájer, as a member of Orban’s party, helped rewrite Hungary’s constitution in 2010. He once boasted on his blog in 2011 that he wrote the constitution on his iPad. That constitution included a provision that would “protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

In his statement Tuesday, Szájer asked that the matter be treated as “strictly personal” and added, “I ask everyone not to extend it to my homeland, or to my political community.”

His words gave light to the reason he originally resigned as a member of the European Parliament on Sunday, which at the time came as sudden and unexpected news.

His party hasn’t issued any statement regarding Szájer’s actions, and Szájer asked for forgiveness from his wife, child, and country. He added that he would be retiring from political life.

See What Others Are Saying: (Business Insider) (The Daily Beast) (The Guardian)

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U.K Approves Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine

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  • The United Kingdom has become the first western country to approve a coronavirus vaccine after giving Pfizer’s vaccine the go-ahead.
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson said vaccinations will start next week. Health care workers and those in elderly care homes are expected to get priority.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin also ordered that doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine be given in the country next week, though many are still skeptical of Russia’s vaccine due to a lack of transparency and data.
  • In the U.S., Moderna and Pfizer will likely get approval in the next few weeks, and Vice President Mike Pence has told states to get ready to distribute. The timing in the states is crucial as health officials are warning that the coronavirus threat to Americans is at a historic high.

U.K. Greenlights Pfizer

The United Kingdom became the first western country to greenlight a coronavirus vaccine Wednesday after approving one created by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Pfizer said its vaccine is 95% effective and has also begun the process of seeking Food and Drug Administration approval in the U.S. If all goes well, it should be authorized in the next two weeks. Across the pond, the review was done by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which said that the vaccine met its high standards. 

“A dedicated team of MHRA scientists and clinicians carried out a rigorous, scientific and detailed review of all the available data and have concluded that the vaccine meets high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness,” the agency said in a statement.

“I’m really pleased to say that the UK is now one step closer to providing a safe and effective vaccine to help in the fight against COVID-19 – a virus that has affected each and every one of us in some way – and in helping to save lives,” MHRA’s Chief Executive Dr. June Raine added.

The U.K., like much of Europe, is recovering from a staggering increase of cases in the fall, which reached their peak sometime in November. The country has so far seen over 1.6 million cases and suffered 59,000 deaths.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the vaccine will be made available across the U.K. next week. Priority will likely go to staff and residents at elderly care homes, medical workers, and those above the age of 80. However, since the vaccine needs to be stored in extreme subzero temperatures, doses will likely be given out from hospitals first as those are among the few locations with the means to store them.

Russian Vaccine and Skepticism

The U.K. was not the only country making vaccine progress on Wednesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered doses of their Sputnik V vaccine to be distributed next week. Russia approved their vaccine before trials were completed, eventually claiming a 92% efficacy rate. While some health officials are optimistic about it, and countries like Brazil, Mexico, India, and Egypt have bought doses, others remain skeptical.

Critics often cite a lack of transparency between Russia and the public about their trials as well as a lack of data. 

“The sample is too low to claim any percentage of efficacy,” Enrico Bucci, an Italian biologist told CBC News.

Others are concerned that Russia was aiming to win a vaccine race, putting speed ahead of everything else. John Moore, a vaccine researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College told Science Mag that the FDA would never approve a vaccine with the limited information of Sputnik V.

“Why is Russia doing this?” Moore asked. “It’s the international vaccine race. They want to be seen to be keeping up with their competitors in other countries. It’s clearly a rushed out announcement.”

 “But it doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” he continued.

Others have also raised questions about why Putin himself has not taken the vaccine, especially considering his claims that his own daughter already has. Russian officials say the president cannot take an “uncertified” vaccine, but it is unclear what the difference between a certified vaccine and an approved vaccine is. 

U.S. Vaccine Updates

The United States is also making strides towards approving a vaccine. On Monday, Moderna started the process of seeking FDA authorization with their vaccine, which touts a 94.1% efficacy rate. The FDA is set to meet to discuss Pfizer’s vaccine next week and Moderna’s the week after. 

As the potential for a vaccine in the states inches closer, Vice President Mike Pence said that vaccine distribution could begin this month. 

“We strongly believe the vaccine distribution process could begin as soon as the week of December 14,” he said while speaking to the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Monday. “With this morning’s news that Moderna is joining Pfizer in submitting an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), we continue to be on pace.”

As far as who will get it first in the U.S., the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 on Tuesday to recommend that healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities get vaccinated first.

The need for a vaccine has never been greater. Daily case reports are increasing significantly and the country is seeing spikes like never before. So far, there have been 13.7 million cases and 270,000 lives lost.

On Wednesday, multiple news outlets obtained reports the White House Coronavirus Task Force sent to states warning of a dire state. 

“The COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high,” the report said. “We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity.”

“If state and local policies do not reflect the seriousness of the current situation, all public health officials must alert the state population directly,” it added. 

On top of this, the report said that anyone over the age of 65 or anyone with significant health conditions should not enter any indoor spaces with unmasked people as it poses an “immediate risk to your health.” It also said that anyone under 40 who traveled for Thanksgiving should assume they became infected.

“Most likely, you will not have symptoms; however, you are dangerous to others and you must isolate away from anyone at increased risk,” the report warned.

See what others are saying: (BBC News) (The Independant) (CNN)

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China Refuses to Apologize for Official’s Tweet Showing Fake Image of Australian Soldier

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  • Earlier this month, Australia released a report saying 25 Australian soldiers likely killed 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.
  • The report was praised in Australia for its transparency. In China, however, it was used as a prop to highlight the perceived hypocrisy of the West towards Human Rights.
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian tweeted out a posed image of an Australian soldier threatening to kill an Afghan child.
  • The tweet caused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to angrily respond, asking Twitter to remove the image.
  • China has refused to apologize for the tweet, marking the latest escalation in diplomatic tensions between the two countries

Tweets on the International Stage

China has refused to apologize for a tweet by a Chinese Foreign Ministry official that caused Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ask Twitter to take down the post.

On November 29, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted out, Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable.”

That post also featured the staged image of an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to an Afghan child, with the caption, “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”

Zhao was referencing an internal report by the Australian Defence Force released earlier this month. The report investigated allegations of Australian war crimes and found found “credible information” that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murders of 30 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.

Shortly after the tweet, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded and asked Twitter to intervene. Morrison described it as “disinformation” and “truly repugnant, deeply offensive, utterly outrageous.”

“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes. It is a false image and terrible slur on our defense forces,” he added.  

Chinese diplomats seem to be confused about why Spokesperson Zhao’s tweet got such a strong response from Australia. A different Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, responded to reporters questions about the incident and said, “The Australian side reacted so strongly to my colleague’s personal tweet.”

Are they justifying the ruthless killing of innocent Afghan civilians by Australian soldiers but suggesting that it is unreasonable for anyone to condemn such a cold crime?” he continued.

The issue has highlighted differences in how the West and China see the same situation. The Australian war crimes report was met with indignation at the actions of certain soldiers, while also being praised as a new standard of transparency.

Meanwhile, in China, this report highlighted perceived hypocrisies in the West over human rights. The image Zhao tweeted out is actually from a Chinese Weibo user who has gained some fame this year for making art criticizes Western takes on democracy and human rights.

International Tensions

This situation is the latest in an ongoing series of diplomatic tit-for-tats between Australia and China. In April of this year, Australia tried to get E.U. support in investigating whether Beijing’s early response to the coronavirus led to it becoming a global pandemic. China responded with tariffs on Australian barley and this past Friday imposed duties on Australian wine.

These incidents actually reach out beyond just Australia and China. China uses the threat of cutting off or limiting trade on smaller nations to “win” international disputes. In the case of Australia, that’s a significant threat; 40% of everything Australia sells internationally goes to China.

The combat this, the U.S. has sought to make a loose-coalition of Western nations to jointly-retaliate when China tries to do this, although those efforts have yet to materialize.

See What Others Are Saying: (BBC) (Wall Street Journal) (CNBC)

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