Top of the Agenda: Obama Speaks Out on Syrian Chemical Probe
U.S. President Barack Obama called reports (WashPost) of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria's civil war "very troublesome" and said it threatened the "core national interests" of the United States, adding that he faces a shortened timetable for a decision on a response. Meanwhile, the UN stepped up demands on Syria for access to the rebel-held Damascus suburbs hit by an alleged poison gas attack earlier this week. Russia, one of Syria's staunchest allies, has called on the government (al-Jazeera) of President Bashar al-Assad to allow the UN inspection team inside, while activists on the ground sought to smuggle samples from victims to the weapons inspectors. The UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he believed the incidents should accelerate efforts (Reuters) by world powers to mount a new coordinated push for peace talks.
"I am certain there are plans for the discreet use of special forces to secure chemical weapons--but it is not clear what the trigger would be. In either case, Mr Obama is likely to insist on going the full UN route to gather the maximum possible support for any action--and that means waiting for the inspector's report on earlier incidents at the very least," writes Mark Mardell for the BBC.
"The administration's caution has reflected not only an admirable reluctance to ensnare the United States in another foreign war but also a concern that the Syrian opposition remains too volatile and divided to be trusted," writes an editorial for the Los Angeles Times.
"A president of the U.S. cannot say something crosses a red line and then go on conducting business as usual. Doing so dilutes the impact of both threats to foes and assurances to friends. There is no way of knowing if past U.S. inaction may have emboldened the regime to again use chemicals, but it is all too possible that not following through on threats could have consequences where the stakes are arguably larger--namely, Iran," writes CFR President Richard N. Haass in the Financial Times.
South Korea, U.S. Negotiate Troop Presence
South Korea and the United States are still "wide apart" in their differences (Yonhap) on cost sharing for U.S. troop presence in the country. The allies are on their third round of negotiations, kicked off in early July, to renew their five-year Special Measure Agreement that will expire at the end of 2013.
Pakistan on Friday released 337 Indian nationals (TheHindu), most of them fishermen, against the backdrop of tensions between the two countries over the disputed Line of Control in Kashmir. Pakistan and India have frequently accused each other of violating their respective zones in the Arabian Sea.
INDIA: A female photo journalist was gang-raped (NYT) in Mumbai while on assignment, triggering protests evoking comparisons with a similar assault in New Delhi in December.
Israel's air force bombed a militant base (Reuters) in Lebanon used by allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a response to a cross-border rocket fire a day earlier. An al-Qaeda-associated Sunni Muslim group called the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack.
Fighting Resumes in DRC
After a three-week reprieve, heavy fighting resumed (VOA) outside the eastern city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. M23 rebels and the DRC army blame each other for renewing hostilities, which mark the first major escalation of conflict since the army bombed rebel headquarters last month.
SOMALIA: At least ten al-Shabaab fighters were reportedly killed (Garowe) in heavy clashes between Kenyan security forces and militants on the Kenyan border of Somalia.
This CFR Backgrounder explains the origins of the Somalian-based militant group.
U.K. Runs Secret Mideast Monitoring Station
The U.K. runs a secret monitoring station in the Middle East that intercepts and processes (Independent) vast amounts of emails, phone calls and internet traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, according to a report by the Independent that cites leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden has denied (Guardian) working with the paper.
RUSSIA: Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that tighter customs controls (FT)could be needed to prevent European goods from flowing through Ukraine into Russia.
U.S. Approaches End of Fed Stimulus
U.S. Approaches End of Fed Stimulus
The Federal Reserve is approaching the end of its $85 billion-a-month stimulus package (Guardian), but the central bank did not give any clear indication about when the taper of funds might begin, according to the minutes of its last meeting. U.S. markets were largely untouched by the news.
BRAZIL: Brazil's central bank announced a currency-intervention (MercoPress) program on Thursday in a bid to bolster the country's currency, which has slipped to near five-year lows against the dollar.