Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

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Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

The matzo meter: Signs Israel and Turkey are getting friendlier

Elif Batuman reports in the New Yorker this week on Istanbul’s “phantom matzo factory” that operated in the city’s Galata neighborhood for thirty years, before being closed in 2007 and turned into an arts space:

A lot of people don’t know that, for nearly thirty years, Istanbul had its own working matzo factory, or that Istanbul still has its own non-working matzo factory. Known in Turkish as the “doughless oven,” located in Galata, on the northern bank of the Golden Horn, it has been given over to the arts. …

The machine had stopped running in 2007, after visiting rabbis found that some batches of matzo didn’t meet the regulations to be kosher. Maintaining the aging Turkish apparatus, with its frequent need of repairs and replacement parts, turned out to be more costly than importing matzo from Israel ….It might seem ironic to mass-produce and export a kind of bread that derives its importance from the fact that it was made on the run. Nonetheless, Israel now supplies all of Turkey’s matzo.

In Istanbul last month to cover the international Iran nuclear talks, I snapped the photo above of some of those Israeli matzohs for sale at a grocery store in Istanbul’s Nistantisi neighborhood.

While Israel and Turkey have been at odds in recent years in particular since the 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla violence, there are several recent signs that relations between the two countries are quietly improving. Israel this week downgraded its March warning to citizens about travel to Turkey to its lowest level–that of “continuing potential threat.”

Among other signs: Turkish authorities reportedly halted some “flytilla” activists at Turkish airports last month. Meantime, flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul were expanded to three a day last month, and Turkish budget airlines Pegasus reportedly added Tel Aviv to its routes. And commercial trade between the two nations rose to almost $4 billion in 2011–notably, with more of it consisting of consumer goods–software, foodstuffs, etc., rather than high-price-tag defense items.

Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan–who previously served as Ankara’s envoy to Israel–attended Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Washington this week, where his presence was warmly welcomed by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

“We very pleased to see [Turkish Amb ] @NamikTan here tonight,” Amb. Oren told Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir, he noted on twitter, in a post retweeted by the Israeli envoy. “We missed him a lot.” Continue reading