Beyond the county: Russian airstrikes in Syria, student loan default rate drops
Russia begins airstrikes in Syria, but West disputes targets
MOSCOW — Russia launched airstrikes Wednesday in Syria, sharply escalating Moscow’s role in the conflict but also raising questions about whether its intent is fighting Islamic State militants or protecting longtime ally, President Bashar Assad.
President Vladimir Putin called it a pre-emptive strike against the militants, and the Russian Defense Ministry said its warplanes targeted and destroyed eight positions belonging to extremists from the IS group, also known as ISIL or ISIS. It did not give specific locations.
But French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers in Paris: “Curiously, they didn’t hit Islamic State. I will let you draw a certain number of conclusions yourselves.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also said the Russians appeared to have targeted areas that did not include IS militants and complained Moscow did not use formal channels to give advance notice of its airstrikes to Washington, which is conducting its own airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State group.
He said the Russians should not be supporting the Assad government and their military moves are “doomed to fail.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington was prepared to welcome Russian military action in Syria as long as it is directed against IS and other al-Qaida affiliates, but would have “grave concerns” if it conducted strikes against other groups.
The U.S. and Russia both agree on the need to fight the Islamic State but not about what to do with Assad. The Syrian civil war, which grew out of an uprising against Assad, has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria came after Putin met Monday with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where they discussed Moscow’s military buildup in the country. Obama had said the U.S. and Russia could work together on a political transition, but only if the result was Assad’s departure.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Russians’ new action “calls into question their strategy, because when President Putin and President Obama had the opportunity to meet at the U.N. earlier this week, much of their discussion was focused on the need for a political transition inside Syria.”
Putin, who is Assad’s most powerful backer, justified the airstrikes as a move to not only stabilize Syria, but also help stifle global terrorism.
“If they (militants) succeed in Syria, they will return to their home country, and they will come to Russia, too,” Putin said at a government session.
According to a statement from Assad’s office, the Syrian leader had asked Putin for the support.
Kerry said Russian operations must not support Assad or interfere with those of the U.S.-led coalition that is already attacking Islamic State targets. He called for an urgent start to military-to-military talks to prevent any kind of conflict between Russia and the coalition.
“If Russia’s recent actions and those now ongoing reflect a genuine commitment to defeat (the Islamic State) then we are prepared to welcome those efforts and to find a way to de-conflict our operations and thereby multiply military pressure on ISIL and affiliated groups,” Kerry said. “But we must not and will not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad.”
He added that the U.S. “would have grave concerns should Russia strike areas where ISIL and al-Qaida affiliated targets are not operating,” he said. “Strikes of that kind would question Russia’s real intentions fighting ISIL or protecting the Assad regime.”
Russia targeted positions, vehicles and warehouses believed to belong to IS militants, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian news agencies.
A senior U.S. official, however, said the airstrikes don’t appear to be targeting IS, because the militants aren’t in the western part of Syria, beyond Homs, where the strikes were directed. It appears the strikes were directed against opposition groups fighting Assad, according to the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the Russian airstrikes publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Syrian state TV quoted an unidentified military official as saying that Russian planes targeted IS positions in central Syria, including the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh, and areas near the town of Salamiyeh in Hama province.
IS controls parts of Homs province, including the ancient town of Palmyra. Homs also has positions run by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front. Both groups have fighters from the former Soviet Union, including Chechens.
Genevieve Casagrande of the Institute of the Study of War, said the airstrike on Talbiseh, “did not hit ISIS militants and rather resulted in a large number of civilian casualties.”
“If confirmed, the airstrike would signal Russian intent to assist in the Syrian regime’s war effort at large, rather than securing the regime’s coastal heartland of Latakia and Tartous,” she said.
Khaled Khoja, head of the Syrian National Council opposition group, said at the U.N. that Russian airstrikes in four areas, including Talbiseh, killed 36 civilians, with five children among the dead. The claim could not be independently verified.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said claims of civilian casualties were part of an “information war … which, it appears, someone prepared well.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said a Russian official in Baghdad had told U.S. Embassy personnel in the Iraqi capital that Russian military aircraft would shortly begin flying anti-IS missions in Syria. The Russian official also asked that U.S. aircraft avoid Syrian airspace during those missions Wednesday. Kirby didn’t say whether the U.S. agreed to that request.
The U.S.-led coalition will continue missions over Iraq and Syria, Kirby added.
The U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were no conflicts with the Russian strikes, and they had no impact on coalition missions, primarily in the north and east.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian lawmakers voted unanimously to allow Putin to order the airstrikes in Syria, where Russia has deployed fighter jets and other weapons in recent weeks. The Federation Council, the upper chamber of the parliament, discussed Putin’s request for the authorization behind closed doors in a debate notable for its speed.
Under the constitution, Putin had to request parliamentary approval for any use of Russian troops abroad. The last time he did so was before Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
Putin insisted Russia will not send ground troops to Syria and that its role in Syrian army operations will be limited.
“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” he said. “First, we will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups. Second, this will be air support without any participation in the ground operations.”
Putin also said he expects Assad to talk with the Syrian opposition about a political settlement, but added he was referring to what he described as a “healthy” opposition group.
Putin and other officials have said Russia was providing weapons and training to Assad’s army to help it combat IS. Russian navy transport vessels have been shuttling back and forth for weeks to ferry troops, weapons and supplies to an air base near the coastal city of Latakia. IHS Jane’s, a leading defense research group, said last week that satellite images of the base showed 28 jets, including Su-30 multirole fighters, Su-25 ground attack jets, Su-24 bombers and possibly Ka-52 helicopter gunships.
Worried by the threat of Russian and U.S. jets clashing inadvertently over Syrian skies, Washington agreed to talk to Moscow on how to “deconflict” their military actions. Last week, Carter had a 50-minute phone call with his Russian counterpart — the first such military-to-military discussion between the two countries in more than a year.
Putin’s strategy in Syria could bring bloody blowback at home, said Andrew Weiss, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Putin has “basically created a giant recruiting poster for the global jihadist movement. He’s put Moscow on the map for jihadist groups who have been operating in Syria,” Weiss said.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Matthew Lee in New York, Lolita C. Baldor, Robert Burns and Sagar Meghani in Washington, Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Sarah el Deeb in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Angela Charlton in Paris, Vivian Salama in Baghdad and Zeina Karam at the United Nations contributed to this report.
— Associated Press
Default rate for repaying student loans drops
WASHINGTON — The Education Department says there’s been another drop in the percentage of people who are defaulting on their student loans in the first years of repayment.
More than 5.1 million borrowers began paying back their loans in the 2012 budget year, and about 611,000 defaulted — about 11.8 percent. The rate was 13.7 percent in 2011 and 14.7 percent for 2010.
“We’re seeing real progress,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday in a phone call with reporters.
The drop was seen across all sectors of higher education — public, private and for-profit institutions.
For public institutions, the rate fell from 12.9 percent to 11.7 percent, and from 7.2 percent to 6.8 percent for private nonprofit schools.
For-profit schools had the highest rate — 15.8 percent, a decline from 19.1 percent the previous year.
All schools with a default rate that is equal to or greater than 30 percent must come up with a plan to identify the reasons for the high rates and submit that plan to the department.
Schools with high default rates may lose eligibility to take part in federal financial aid programs.
— Associated Press
Federal health program for Sept. 11 responders set to expire
WASHINGTON — A law that provides medical monitoring and treatment for Sept. 11 first responders expires at midnight Wednesday due to the failure of Congress to act.
For now, first responders who rushed to the World Trade Center after the 2001 terrorist attacks, worked for weeks and now suffer from illnesses like pulmonary disease and cancers will still be able to get their health care. But federal officials who administer the program say it will face challenges by February and will have to start shutting down by next summer.
Letting the program expire creates “enormous anxieties and fears in the minds of very sick people,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has been lobbying her colleagues to make the program permanent and recently was joined by comedian Jon Stewart.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said it was unacceptable for Congress to let it expire.
“Congress must stop putting politics ahead of our heroes’ health,” he said in a statement.
The Sept. 11 program is one of several that will expire at midnight due to congressional inaction. While Congress moved toward passing legislation to keep government agencies open, there are some programs that depend on further action to operate long-term.
John Feal, a former World Trade Center demolition worker and leading advocate for sick responders, has pressed lawmakers to pay attention to the Sept. 11 program.
“People are dying and suffering, and Congress can easily close this wound,” Feal said. “But they continue to add salt to it.”
The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at ground zero, first became law in 2010 after a debate over the bill’s cost. Proponents are seeking the law’s permanent extension in part because some illnesses may not manifest until years later, after the statute of limitations for worker’s compensation or certain state laws may have run out.
House Republicans have been supportive of the program but have opposed its permanent extension because they say they want the chance to periodically review it and make sure it is operating soundly. The Senate has not moved a bill.
In a letter to the Senate, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden said if the law isn’t extended, the World Trade Center Health Program “will begin to face significant operational challenges” by February. By next summer, the program’s 72,000 enrolled beneficiaries will have to be notified that they may not receive health care beyond September 2016 and the program will have to start to shut down. Frieden said that process could cause patients additional stress.
Earlier this summer, Dr. John Howard, the administrator of the CDC program, told a House panel that extending the law would help clinicians treat victims and allow administrators to better plan patient care.
Other laws set to expire at midnight tonight:
—Federal Perkins Loan Program. The House passed a bill Monday to extend the student loan program, which provides low-interest loans as one alternative to more expensive private student loans. But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on Wednesday blocked an attempt to extend the law in the Senate.
Alexander said the rate for Perkins loans is higher than other loans and he wants Congress to replace the program with simpler loans that have lower interest rates and more generous repayment plans. He said students who have Perkins loans now will not be affected.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called on Congress to expand and better target the program. “Perkins is an important campus-based financing tool to help lower and middle income students cover any remaining need after other aid has been applied,” he said.
—Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Interior Department program invests earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing to protect federal public lands and waters. Expiration will mean that the government isn’t authorized to collect some of the offshore royalties, decreasing revenues collected for local conservation, restoration and historic preservation projects across the country.
Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and James Lankford of Oklahoma objected to an attempt to extend the program Wednesday, saying the fund already has enough money and federal land ownings should be re-examined.
—Child nutrition. Renewal of the 2010 law that oversees school meal programs, summer feeding programs, the Women, Infants and Children program and other government institutional food aid has been stalled as lawmakers debate its cost and whether rules making school meals healthier should be changed. The programs will continue even if the law expires, as long as congressional spending bills provide the dollars.
According to the Agriculture Department, one program will be shut down by expiration — the USDA National Hunger Hotline, which helps hungry people find local food resources.
— Associated Press
California muralist killed doing anti-violence project
OAKLAND, Calif. — An artist who was painting a mural for a group that works to stop violence was shot and killed while he worked in Oakland, California.
The Oakland Tribune reported (http://bayareane.ws/1KK5TIE) Wednesday that police were searching for the shooter as friends mourned 27-year-old Antonio Ramos during a candlelight vigil at the mural site.
Police say an argument Tuesday at the site under an Interstate 580 overpass led to the fatal shooting.
The idyllic painting of trees, a creek and brightly colored Victorian houses contrasts sharply with another side of West Oakland struggling to cope with drugs, poverty and homicides, the newspaper reported.
The Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project is coordinated by the Attitudinal Healing Connection, a group that seeks to stop violence by inspiring people with art and education.
Oakland has had 73 homicides this year.
— Associated Press
Dispensaries offer free marijuana to fire victims
Medical marijuana dispensaries in Northern California are giving patients affected by a hugely destructive wildfire up to $200 in free cannabis per patient for the next week. The Los Angeles Times reports that through Oct. 7, two companies are offering free products at five dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Lake County. Patients eligible for the products must have a medical marijuana prescription and home addresses in Cobb, Kelseyville, Middletown or Hidden Valley Lake.
— Associated Press
Calif. offering amnesty on traffic debt for poor
California is instituting an amnesty program for residents who can’t afford to pay off spiraling traffic fines and court fees that have led to millions of driver’s licenses being suspended.
The program pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and adopted as part of his annual budget goes into effect Thursday and runs through March 31, 2017.
Under the plan, drivers with lesser infractions would pay either 50 or 80 percent of what they owe, depending on income.
Drivers who have had their licenses revoked would be able to apply to have them reinstated.
DUI violations are not eligible.
Only tickets due to be paid before Jan. 1, 2013, are eligible for discounts.
Since 2006, the state has suspended 4.8 million driver’s licenses after motorists failed to pay or appear in court.
— Associated Press
Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to be CEO for 2nd time
SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter may be about to hire co-founder Jack Dorsey as its permanent CEO three months after he took over the job on a temporary basis.
The technology news site Re/Code says Dorsey’s appointment could be announced as early as Thursday morning. The report posted Wednesday cited unnamed people.
Twitter declined to comment. Its shares climbed nearly 3 percent in afternoon trading.
If Dorsey is anointed as Twitter’s CEO, it would mark his second reign at the San Francisco company that he helped start in 2006. He was Twitter’s original CEO until he was ousted in 2008 in a coup engineered by another company co-founder, Evan Williams.
Although Twitter is among the world’s best known technology companies, it still hasn’t posted a profit and its user growth has been slowing.
— Associated Press
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