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The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has reportedly fired Scud missiles at rebel fighters in what is being described as a major escalation. According to the New York Times, more than six missiles have been fired from around the capital Damascus into northern Syria. If confirmed, the move would mark the first time the Assad regime has used the Scuds in Syria’s 20-month-old internal conflict. In Washington, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Assad is displaying "desperation and brutality."
Victoria Nuland: "As the regime becomes more and more desperate, we see it resorting to increased lethality and more vicious weapons moving forward, and we have in recent days seen missiles deployed. So I would also say that we are seeing use of another egregious weapon, this kind of barrel bomb, which is an incendiary bomb that contains flammable materials. It’s sort of a napalm-like thing, and it’s completely indiscriminate in terms of civilians. So, very, very concerning and indicative of the regime’s desperation and the regime’s brutality."
The Obama administration has invited Syria’s umbrella opposition group to Washington following formal recognition earlier this week. Speaking at an international gathering in Morocco, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns followed up President Obama’s public declaration of support for the Syrian opposition coalition with an invite to the White House.
William Burns: "Today the United States has taken an important step forward. We now recognize the Syrian opposition council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. We have extended an invitation to Mouaz al-Khatib and the coalition leadership to visit Washington at their earliest opportunity."
In the latest violence from Syria, at least 16 people have been killed and more than 25 wounded in a car bombing in the town of Qatana. The victims reportedly included seven children.
The U.N. Security Council has voted to condemn North Korea for carrying out a new test launch of a long-range rocket. North Korea says it is experimenting to put a satellite into space, but opponents say North Korea is in fact testing for what could one day be a long-range nuclear warhead. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denounced the launch.
Ban Ki-moon: "I really deplore today’s rocket launch by the DPRK. It was all the more regrettable because it defied the unified and strong call of the international community. It is a clear violation of the Security Council Resolution 1874, in which the Council demanded that the DPRK not conduct any launch using ballistic missile technology. I have been urging the leadership in Pyongyang not to carry out such a launch and instead to build confidence and to improve the lives of its people."
The United States and European Union say they will push for a new round of sanctions against North Korea in response to the launch.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, clashes have erupted in the West Bank city of Hebron following the shooting death by Israeli soldiers of a Palestinian teen. Mohammed Salayma was shot up to six times at an Israeli military checkpoint after Israeli soldiers said he brandished a fake gun. But Palestinians say Salayma was killed after failing to heed Israeli orders to halt because he was hard of hearing. Salayma’s death fell on his 17th birthday. A widely circulated photograph taken hours before his slaying shows him smiling as he poses next to a birthday cake at school. Hours after the shooting, Israeli forces fired tear gas at Palestinian youths who threw stones and bottles in response. At least five Palestinians were hospitalized with injuries.
The Pentagon has quietly confirmed plans to replenish the U.S.-made munitions used by Israel in its recent assault on the Gaza Strip. The website Common Dreams reports that Congress has been notified of a $647 million deal to resupply the Israeli Air Force with the bombs and missiles that rained on Gaza over the course of the eight-day siege. The U.S.-backed Israeli attack killed more than 180 Palestinians, including many children. Congress is expected to approve the deal this week.
As the United States resupplies the Israeli military, it is facing calls from key foreign allies to take meaningful action against Israel’s latest settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank. Israel has announced plans to build 3,000 new settlement homes and expand the "E1" settlement zone that bisects the West Bank in response to last month’s historic Palestinian statehood vote at the United Nations. While governments across the world have denounced the move as a fatal threat to the two-state solution, the Obama administration has offered a tepid response, calling the massive settlement expansion "counterproductive." At a meeting in Belgium, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt urged the United States to join the world in opposing the settlements and seeking a negotiated peace.
William Hague: "I expect the whole of the EU, like the United Kingdom, will be strongly opposed to that and deplore that decision. And certainly, in Britain we call on the United States to lead a major effort to revive the peace process in the coming months, and I think we need to discuss today how European nations can best support that."
Carl Bildt: "I think what the Israelis did there, on the E1, has really shifted things inside the European Union to an extent that I don’t think they have fully appreciated because the level of concerns that are there."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan to discuss the Obama administration’s plans for its troop presence over the next several years. The White House has long billed its 2014 withdrawal deadline as an end to the Afghan War, but reports have recently surfaced it plans to keep some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan well beyond that date. Meeting with U.S. commander, General John Allen, Panetta praised the job of U.S. forces on the ground.
Leon Panetta: "My purpose here is to have a chance to talk with John and the other leaders, to see the situation on the ground, talk to the Afghan leaders and try to tee up decisions that the president ultimately has to make with regards to the future. You guys have done a great job. I can’t tell you how proud we are of all the work you’re doing."
Egypt’s opposition leaders have begun urging supporters to vote "no" instead of boycotting the upcoming referendum sought by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The vote will take place this Saturday and one week later as Morsi seeks approval of a constitution drafted by an Islamist panel. On Wednesday, opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi of the secular National Salvation Front urged opponents of the constitution to take part in the referendum by voting "no."
Hamdeen Sabahi: "The National Salvation Front confirms the legitimacy of all peaceful means to bring about the cancellation of this distorted constitution. The Front has decided to invite the people of Egypt to go to the ballot boxes and vote 'no.' There is only one way to get the country out of the present deadlock and the political tension, and this is for the president to shoulder his responsibility by issuing a decision to postpone the referendum by two or three months as well as to put in place serious and balanced national dialogue."
Voting on the constitution began at embassies worldwide on Wednesday for Egyptians living abroad.
The talks on averting the so-called fiscal cliff continue in Washington with no reported breakthroughs. The White House and congressional Republicans are hoping to strike a spending deal before a round of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect next month. On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner and White House spokesperson Jay Carney continued to lay blame for the stalemate at the other side of the bargaining table.
John Boehner: "In the five weeks since we’ve signaled our willingness to forge an agreement with the president, he has never put forth a plan that meets these standards. And frankly, that’s why we don’t have an agreement today."
Jay Carney: "The obstacle, thus far, has been the adamant refusal to accept the proposition that rates have to go up for the top 2 percent and that rates must continue to stay where they are so that there is no tax hike on 98 percent of the American people. And I think what Republicans have to explain somehow is why — Republican leaders, anyway — why it is better for you, broadly speaking, the American people, 98 percent of you, to have your taxes go up if the wealthiest American don’t get a tax cut."
The Federal Reserve has announced plans to keep interest rates near zero until the official unemployment rate falls to 6.5 percent. The unprecedented move was unveiled alongside plans to purchase another $45 billion in Treasury debt. Announcing the measures, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke said the Fed won’t be able to properly offset the full economic damage should the United States fall off the "fiscal cliff."
Ben Bernanke: "Outside forecasters all think that that would have very significant adverse effects on the economy and on the unemployment rate. And so, on the margin, we would try to do what we could. We would perhaps increase a bit. But I just want to, again, be clear that we cannot — we cannot offset the full impact of the fiscal cliff. It’s just too big, given the tools that we have available and the limitations on our policy toolkit at this point."
Massachusetts Democratic Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren has been selected to join the Senate Banking Committee when the new Congress convenes next month. Best known for launching the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama, Warren’s bid to join the Senate, and subsequently the Banking Committee, was heavily opposed by Wall Street lobbyists.
A military judge presiding over the death penalty trial of five prisoners accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks has approved the government’s request to keep testimony about their torture secret. Before being transferred to Guantánamo in 2006, the five prisoners, including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, were held in secret CIA prisons and reportedly tortured during interrogations. In a ruling released Wednesday, Army Colonel James Pohl banned the disclosure of information about where the prisoners were held before Guantánamo and the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" they may have endured. The American Civil Liberties Union had challenged the government’s request for secrecy, saying the public has a right to hear the testimony. The ACLU now says it will seek further review.
New York and six other U.S. states have announced plans to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to address methane emissions created by the oil and gas industry. Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted by humans and 21 times more powerful at contributing to global warming than carbon over a 100-year period. In a statement, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the oil and gas industry is the single largest source of human-made methane emissions and called the EPA’s failure to address those emissions a violation of the Clean Air Act. Schneiderman said: "We can’t continue to ignore the evidence of climate change or the catastrophic threat that unabated greenhouse gas pollution poses to our families, our communities and our economy."
The federal government held a controversial auction on Wednesday to allow for oil drilling and fracking on some 18,000 acres of California public land. The Bureau of Land Management said at least eight bidders in Sacramento competed for oil leases in areas of Central California, home to some of the largest deposits of shale oil in the United States. The auction was met by dozens of protesters chanting environmental slogans and donning hazmat suits. In a statement, protest organizer and environmental watchdog the Center for Biological Diversity said: "The federal government should protect these beautiful public places, not sell them off to be drilled and fracked, risking irreparable harm to our air, water and climate."