Beirut, Sep 6 (AP/UNB) — When the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran meet Friday in Tehran, all eyes will be on their diplomacy reaching a last-minute deal to avert a bloodbath in Idlib, Syria's crowded northwestern province and last opposition stronghold.
The three leaders, whose nations are all under U.S. sanctions, have an interest in working together to contain a potentially catastrophic offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces to recapture the province, but Idlib is complicated and they have little common ground when it comes to Syria.
The province and surrounding area is home to about 3 million people — nearly half of them civilians displaced from other parts of Syria — but also an estimated 10,000 hard-core fighters, including al-Qaida-linked militants.
For Russia and Iran, both allies of the Syrian government, retaking Idlib is crucial to complete what they see as a military victory in Syria's civil war after they recaptured nearly all other major towns and cities, largely defeating the rebellion against Assad.
A bloody offensive that creates a massive wave of death and displacement, however, runs counter to their narrative that the situation in Syria is normalizing, and could hurt Russia's longer-term efforts to encourage the return of refugees and get Western countries to invest in Syria's postwar reconstruction.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which supports Syria's rebels, stands to lose the most from an assault on Idlib.
Turkey already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees and has sealed its borders to newcomers. It has also created zones of control in northern Syria and has several hundred troops deployed at 12 observation posts in Idlib. A government assault creates a nightmare scenario of potentially hundreds of thousands of people, including militants, fleeing toward its border and destabilizing towns and cities in northern Syria under its control.
"I don't think that there is a total solution for Syria on the table, but certainly it is a defining moment," said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. He said if Damascus retook Idlib, it would mark its near-total victory over the opposition, but it will likely also bring humanitarian suffering and carnage on a scale not yet seen in the seven-year war.
A lot of expectations hang on the Iran summit bringing together Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N.'s Syria envoy, made a personal appeal to Erdogan and Putin to find a "soft solution to this crisis."
"We look to Russia, Turkey, Iran to come with hope to the civilians in Idlib," he said. "There are indeed many more babies than there are terrorists in Idlib. There are a million children."
Friday's meeting in Tehran marks the third time the presidents of Turkey, Russia and Iran have met over Syria in less than a year. In the absence of an engaged United States, they have taken it upon themselves to manage Syria's messy civil war, and their previous meetings in Sochi and Ankara established so-called de-escalation zones in several areas, including Idlib, that temporarily reduced violence. All these agreements were later violated as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, moved to retake those areas after pounding them into submission with airstrikes.
Capitulating rebels and militants from Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta and Daraa were packed in green buses and taken to Idlib, where the war's last showdown is about to unfold. Only this time, there is nowhere left to go, and remaining fighters are more likely to fight until the end.
Speaking to Russian news agencies Wednesday in Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov repeated Russian statements that Idlib is turning into a breeding ground for terrorists and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
He added, however, that Russia "is acting cautiously, selectively and is trying to minimize possible risks for civilians." He added that the Russian and U.S. militaries, as well as diplomats, are still in touch on the situation in Idlib.
"I think the military situation will become clearer after the leaders of the three countries hold talks on Friday," he said.
The meeting takes place against the backdrop of much saber-rattling.
Assad has built up forces around Idlib, vowing to retake the province. Turkey, which backs the rebels in Idlib, is warning against such a move, saying it will be disastrous. Moscow, meanwhile, has moved 10 warships and two submarines off the coast of Syria in a huge show of force.
At the core of Idlib's predicament is the thousands of jihadists entrenched in the province along with the civilians. The al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee remains the dominant force there, and any deal would most likely entail intensified Turkish efforts to oust the militants. Russia is reportedly talking to the group through mediators about dissolving itself.
Instead of a full-scale assault, Russia, Turkey and Iran could agree to a piecemeal approach that would see government forces taking off bites of the province, including cities like Jisr al-Shughour, close to Assad's coastal heartland in Latakia province, and Maaret al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun, which lie on the M5, a key highway that runs through Syria's major cities.
According to an analysis by the International Crisis Group, one compromise plan could entail ending recurrent rebel drone attacks on Russia's Hmeimeem air base in Latakia by withdrawing the de-escalation zone's protection from specific problem areas, and reopening key highways in return for suspending a government offensive in Idlib to enable Turkey to find a solution to the province's jihadist challenge.
Another approach could be to get Turkey to agree to a government return to parts of Idlib while guaranteeing Turkish interests in northwestern Syria, at least in the short term.
For Turkey, however, the loss of Idlib would represent a humiliating failure that threatens to completely defeat Ankara's interests in Syria.
Can Acun, foreign policy researcher at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, or SETA, said Turkey will try to push at the summit for any operation in Idlib to be limited, "one that targets only terror and radical groups."
He said Turkey could propose that the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces and other moderate groups in Syria be used "to weaken" the radical groups in Idlib.
Russia, which has seen its ties with Turkey grow amid Ankara's ongoing row with Washington, may be willing to compromise to protect the budding relationship.
Volkan Bozkir, head of the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee and a senior official of Turkey's ruling party, said he was hopeful a political solution would emerge at the meeting.
"They (Turkey, Russia and Iran) are all smart nations," Bozkir said. "I am hopeful that a formula can be reached with diplomatic ways, with smart policies and not through the use of guns."
Salt Lake City, Sep 5 (AP/UNB) — A Utah driver who slammed her Tesla into a stopped firetruck at a red light earlier this year while using the vehicle's semi-autonomous function has sued the company, alleging salespeople told her the car would stop on its own in Autopilot mode if something was in its path.
Heather Lommatzsch claimed in the lawsuit filed Tuesday that Tesla salespeople told her in 2016 when she purchased the Model S that she could just touch the steering wheel occasionally while using the Autopilot mode. Lommatzsch, 29, said she tried to brake when she saw the stopped cars, but that the car's brakes did not work.
The accident happened May 11 in the Salt Lake City suburb of South Jordan. Lommatzsch broke her foot and was charged with a misdemeanor traffic citation for failure to keep a proper lookout. The firetruck's driver suffered but was not hospitalized.
Tesla spokesman Dave Arnold said in a statement about the lawsuit that the company "has always been clear that Autopilot doesn't make the car impervious to all accidents."
"When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times," Arnold said.
Arnold stressed that Lommatzsch was cited and that the final police report said she told police she was looking at her phone before the crash. Car data showed Lommatzsch did not touch the steering wheel for 80 seconds before the crash, the report said.
Data taken from her car showed it picked up speed for 3.5 seconds before crashing into the firetruck, the report said. The driver then manually hit the brakes a fraction of a second before the impact.
Police suggested that the car was following another vehicle and dropped its speed to 55 mph (89 kph) to match the leading vehicle. They say the leading vehicle then likely changed lanes and the Tesla automatically sped up to its preset speed of 60 mph (97 kph) without noticing the stopped cars ahead.
Lommatzsch claimed she has suffered serious physical injuries that have deprived her of being able to enjoy life and led to substantial medical bills. She is seeking at least $300,000 in damages.
The Utah crash is one of several Tesla accidents that has brought scrutiny to its Autopilot, the company's semi-autonomous system designed to keep a vehicle centered in its lane at a set distance from cars in front of it. The system also can also guide the cars to change lanes automatically.
All Teslas are equipped with automatic emergency braking, which Tesla says will detect objects and brake to help avoid or lessen impact of a crashes. Tesla warns drivers to pay attention and not to rely on the system entirely.
The National Transportation Safety Board recently issued initial findings about two separate crashes involving Tesla vehicles in which three people died.
The agency found that a Tesla Model S electric car that crashed and burned last month in Florida, killing two teenagers, was traveling 116 mph (187 kph) three seconds before impact and only slowed to 86 mpg (138 kph) as the air bags were inflated.
The agency said that a Tesla Model X SUV using Autopilot accelerated just before crashing into a California freeway barrier in March, killing its driver.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said it is investigating the Utah crash, but the agency did not immediately return an emailed request for an update on that investigation.
Seattle, Sep 5 (AP/UNB) — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie Bezos have made their largest political donation to date, giving $10 million to a nonpartisan political-action committee devoted to helping military veterans running for Congress.
The North Carolina-based committee With Honor confirmed the donation, which was first reported Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal. With Honor said it has raised $20 million toward its $30 million goal to support veteran candidates of both parties.
Bezos has previously made contributions to Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and to Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz. He has also contributed to Washington state campaign efforts to support gay marriage and charter schools and to defeat a measure that would have imposed a state income tax on high earners.
Rio De Janeiro, Sep 5 (AP/UNB) — Brazil's National Museum said Wednesday that centuries-old Torah scrolls, considered to be some of Judaism's oldest documents, had been moved before a massive fire ravaged the place and gutted much of the largest collections of national history artifacts in Latin America.
Questions about the fate of the scrolls had swirled since Sunday night's blaze at the museum, which used to be the home of Brazil's royal family. Amid an ongoing investigation and unable to access much of the now destroyed museum, officials have been reluctant to give any account of how specific artifacts fared in the fire or disclose information on other material that may have been in other locations.
"The Torah is being kept in a safe place," according to a museum statement sent to The Associated Press on Wednesday, adding it had been removed nearly two years ago. The statement did not say where it had been transferred.
A spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in the capital Brasilia said it didn't have more information on the Torah, Judaism's holy book.
Brazilian scholars have said the scrolls originated in Yemen and possibly date back to the 13th century.
The museum's website says the nine scrolls, written in Hebrew, were acquired in the early 19th century by the country's last monarch, Dom Pedro II. The website, which had apparently not been updated, also said the scrolls were not part of an exhibit, but rather kept in a safe in the director's office.
Avraham Beuthner, from the Jewish organization Beit Lubavitch in Rio de Janeiro, told the AP that university officials told him the Torah was being housed at a university library near the museum. The museum is part of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Beuthner said he had been fielding calls from Jews in Israel and several Latin American countries since the fire inquiring about the relic.
"Thank God it's safe," he said, adding that university officials had promised to soon allow Jewish community leaders to see where the Torah is being held.
The good news came as museum officials said they feared as much as 90 percent of Latin America's largest collection of treasures might have been lost in the fire. Aerial photos of the main building showed only heaps of rubble and ashes in the parts of the building where the roof collapsed.
Firefighters on Tuesday "found fragments of bones in a room where the museum kept many items, including skulls," said Cristiana Serejo, the museum's deputy director. "We still have to collect them and take them to the lab to know exactly what they are."
In its collection of about 20 million items, one of the most prized possessions is a skull called Luzia, which is among the oldest fossils ever found in the Americas.
With the cause of the fire still under investigation, the disaster has led to a series of recriminations amid accusations that successive governments haven't sufficiently funded the museum, and it has raised concerns that other institutions might be at risk. Officials have said it was well known that the building was vulnerable to fire and in need of extensive repair.
A UNESCO group of specialists in recovery and reconstruction are expected to arrive in Brazil next week, according Maria Edileuza Fontele Reis, the organization's ambassador in Brazil.
The group "has experience working with pieces of national heritage in areas of war, such as in Iraq, and areas impacted by fire," Fontele Reis told the AP in a phone interview.
Washington, Sep 5 (AP/UNB) — Diplomats from more than 30 Western Hemisphere countries are meeting in Washington to discuss Venezuela's migrant crisis, with tens of thousands of desperate people fleeing the economically imploding oil state to nearby nations.
Members of the Organization of American States plan to discuss potential solutions to the migrant crisis Wednesday, including a possible resolution urging Venezuela to end its refusal to accept international aid.
The United Nations estimates more than 1.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015 as the country is beset by hyperinflation and severe shortages of food, medicine and other goods.
Human rights groups have called on South American countries to suspend the deportation of Venezuelans and also to ratchet up sanctions against Venezuelan officials who are guilty of human rights abuses.