As Night Falls In Syria, U.S. And Russia Brokered Cease-Fire Appears To Be Holding

There have been many attempts at cease-fire deals in the last year in Syria, but there is some hope that this agreement will create a better atmosphere for the next round of peace talks in Geneva.

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George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images

A cease-fire seemed to be holding in southwestern Syria more than nine hours after it took effect at noon on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that the truce “ended its first hour without documenting any violations” — and that continued throughout the afternoon and evening.

The peace deal was brokered by the United States and Russia at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, along with Jordan. Israel was also reportedly involved in the negotiations. Announcing the deal on Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russia has “an interest in seeing the Mideast nation become a stable place,” though he conceded that Washington and Moscow have had conflicting views on Syria.

This agreement is the fifth such attempt to quell the violence in Syria since early last year. Other cease-fires have quickly fallen apart, as was the case with a similar truce between the U.S. and Russia in the fall, and a deal between Turkey and Russia in December. In May, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to create “de-escalation zones,” which have had some success, though several groups have declined to respect them.

The announcement of the latest cease-fire agreement came out of a much-anticipated meeting between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Trump tweeted Sunday morning that the new cease-fire will “save lives” and that “it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.” The president added in the same series of tweets that he and Putin discussed forming a “Cyber Security unit” to fight election hacking and “many other negative things.”

…We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017

Trump’s calls for collaboration with Russia have been met with enthusiasm from some quarters, and with skepticism and even disdain from others.

But for much of Sunday, the U.S.-Russia deal resulted in a “cautious calm” in parts of Syria, as a spokesman of the Southern Front rebel coalition told Reuters. As the BBC’s Sophie Long reported for NPR, the hope now is that this cease-fire will create a “more conducive atmosphere” for the new round of U.N. peace talks, set to begin in Geneva on Monday.

The Syrian Civil War has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and displaced millions more.

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Mosul Has Been Liberated From ISIS Control, Iraq's Prime Minister Says

Iraqi civilians in Mosul’s Old City flash the “victory” sign as they celebrate the government’s announcement of the “liberation” of the embattled city Sunday.

Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi is declaring victory in Mosul, saying that the city where ISIS declared its “caliphate” three years ago has finally been liberated. Fighting is still being reported in paert of the northern city on the Tigris River.

“They’re now in one particular neighborhood, where the last pockets of ISIS fighters are fighting very hard. It’s really their last stand,” NPR’s Jane Arraf reports from Mosul. “The problem is, there are civilians among them, still at least 2,000 civilians.”

Jane says she’s been seeing families who are returning to newly reclaimed areas, walking to the safety provided by the military.

“They looked exhausted,” she said. “They’re tired, they’re hungry, they’re thirsty. It’s been a very tough nine months, but according to the military, fast coming to a close.”

PM Al-Abadi meets with ISF commanders and forces who led the Mosul liberation campaign

— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) July 9, 2017

Abadi arrived in Mosul as the final push to take control seemed to have worked on Sunday. Dressed in black military fatigues and a black cap, he toured the area and congratulated troops, shaking hands with rows of soldiers.

As the takeover was announced, UNICEF’s chapter in Iraq posted a tweet stating, “Children’s needs remain acute,” both inside the city and in nearby camps where civilians have sought refuge from warfare.

Prime Minister declares #Mosul under government control. Children’s needs remain acute inside the city & in camps.

— UNICEF Iraq يونيسف (@UNICEFiraq) July 9, 2017

The current push to retake Mosul began last October, when pro-government forces — from the Iraqi Security Forces to Peshmerga fighters and militias — began massing near the city. The U.S. and its allies have been providing advisers, including Green Berets, in addition to airstrikes in support of the effort.

Mosul has played a key role in ISIS becoming a legitimate threat in the region and drawing recruits from abroad. It was there that, in July of 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made a rare public appearance to pronounce the group’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria at the site of the 12th century Great Mosque of al-Nuri.

The mosque and its distinctive minaret were destroyed last month, in an explosion that ISIS attempted to blame on a U.S. airstrike — an account disputed not only by Iraqi and U.S. officials but by video recordings.

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Facing Cancer Is Even Tougher If The Only Radiation Machine Is Broken

The only radiotherapy machine in Senegal is no longer working.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR

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Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR

If you happen to be a cancer patient needing radiation in Senegal, getting past the shock of the diagnosis and onto treatment is a major hardship at the moment.

The country’s only radiotherapy machine — indeed for a long while the only one in French-speaking West Africa — is broken. That’s the machine whose radiation is used to treat primarily breast, head and neck tumors and bone cancer.

Aristide Le Dantec teaching hospital, one of the oldest and largest in Dakar, the Senegalese capital, buzzes with activity. Dozens of mainly female patients are waiting to be seen at a cancer outpatient clinic.

The recently refurbished chemotherapy area at Aristide Le Dantec hospital, with rows of new daybeds.

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It’s in this department that patients would normally receive radiotherapy treatment. But that hasn’t been an option in Senegal since late last year.

Dr. Mamadou Diop is charge of the cancer institute at Aristide Le Dantec Hospital. In consultation with his colleagues, Diop made the decision to switch off the Cobalt radiotherapy machine in December, after it kept breaking down. He says it had simply become too dangerous — for patients receiving treatment and technicians operating the machine.

Dr. Mamadou Diop (right) is in charge of the cancer institute at Aristide Le Dantec Hospital. He’s talking with members of the Senegalese Anti-Cancer League and donors.

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As a young intern in his final year of medical school in 1989, Diop saw what he describes as a revolutionary radiotherapy machine then for Senegal being wheeled into the hospital. Today, it’s just taking up space.

“This is the waiting room,” says oncologist and radiotherapy specialist, Dr. Mamadou Moustapha Dieng, giving NPR a tour of the radiation center. “Patients come here. This is the treatment room. This is the cabin. This is the machine. You see it,” he says, pointing to a huge, cream-colored and distinctly 20th-century looking machine.

The Senegalese government has promised four new radiotherapy machines for Senegal — including a replacement for this hospital – will be installed this year.

Until then, patients must travel to Morocco for treatment — at the government’s expense, with help from the Senegalese Anti-Cancer League.

The League has recently refurbished Aristide Le Dantec’s brightly-lit chemotherapy department, with rows of new daybeds in the ward. The chemo unit stands in sharp contrast to the dated, kaput Cobalt machine sitting in an empty treatment room in the radiotherapy unit across the way.

Michel Djery Dogue, 24, twice had surgery for a tumor on his tongue last year and has just completed chemo. He’s one of dozens of Senegalese booked for radiotherapy in Morocco. Dogue winds a scarf around his head covering prominent scars from surgery on the side of his face and under his chin.

“It’s a shame I can’t have my radiotherapy here in Senegal,” says Dogue.

Diop, head of the cancer unit, says the problem in Senegal — and elsewhere in Africa — goes much deeper than one broken radiotherapy machine. He says the government continues to spend more time and money on infectious diseases such as malaria, which affect many more people and are inexpensive to treat compared with cancer.

“I don’t want to hear another word about high-cost cancer care,” says an exasperated Diop, adding, “When you’re talking about the effect on people’s lives and families, how do you measure the cost?”

Diop says Senegal needs to fast-track training cancer specialists and set up one-stop centers where patients have access to all the treatment they need.

“We need to do more screening and record numbers and patients and which cancers are most prevalent,” says Diop, stressing that the focus needs to be placed squarely on chronic diseases that are killing the Senegalese.

Senegal doesn’t have good statistics on cancer numbers or deaths. Currently, Diop says, prostate cancer is thought to be the country’s number one cancer. But he is convinced that breast cancer is a bigger killer in Senegal.

“How do I tell a mother of 35 or 40 that she’s come too late and the diagnosis is that she may not survive, despite treatment? That disrupts an entire family, the children’s education, the family’s future. We must prioritize cancer in Senegal and other African countries, as well as infectious diseases.”

The priority right now for widow Madeleine Sene, is her only child, Michel Djery Dogue — the tongue tumor cancer patient.

“We want him to receive radiotherapy in Morocco and return home safely to Senegal,” she says. “That’s what we’re praying for.”

Sene clutches her rosary as if for comfort as tears well up in her eyes.

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Trump Says He Pressed Putin, While Casting More Doubt On Election Meddling

President Donald Trump says he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to form a joint cyber security unit during their talks at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany.

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President Trump says he “strongly pressed” Russian President Vladimir Putin twice about Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election — and that it’s now time “to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”

That work, Trump said, will include a joint cyber security operation, as well as a new ceasefire in Syria.

In a series of tweets Sunday about his meetings with Putin at the G-20 Summit, Trump said Putin “vehemently denied” interfering in the U.S. election.

I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017

“I’ve already given my opinion,” Trump added, apparently referring to his remarks in Poland shortly before attending the G-20 Summit in Germany. When he was asked about election hacking, Trump replied, “Well, I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries. Could have been a lot of people interfered.”

He added, “Nobody really knows for sure.”

At that news conference in Warsaw, Trump also noted that “three or four” U.S. intelligence agencies, rather than all of them, say that Russia sought to interfere in the election. And he compared their findings about Russia’s involvement to the hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — making it clear that he remains a skeptic.

Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded..

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017

Trump’s posts on Sunday morning also included digs at the CIA, FBI and the Democratic National Committee, as well as a plan to work with Russia to form a “Cyber Security unit,” raising questions about whether America’s president agrees with U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia carried out hacking to help Trump win the White House.

After Trump touted the plan to collaborate with Russia on Internet security issues, he was criticized by fellow Republicans, including his former rivals for the presidency.

“It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

WATCH: Sen. @LindseyGrahamSC responds to Trump’s call to work with Russia, saying it’s not the dumbest idea “but it’s pretty close.”

— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) July 9, 2017

Graham called the meeting with Putin “disastrous,” and said that while he sees Trump having success in other foreign policy areas, “when it comes to Russia, he’s got a blind spot.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had a similar take, saying that “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad on a ‘Chemical Weapons Unit.'”

Partnering with Putin on a “Cyber Security Unit” is akin to partnering with Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit”. 2/3

— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) July 9, 2017

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, defended the president, asking on ABC’s This Week, “Why would President Trump broadcast exactly what he said” to Putin and adding, “Strategically that makes no sense.”

.@stevenmnuchin1: “Why would President Trump broadcast exactly what he said” in Putin meeting? “Strategically that makes no sense.”

— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) July 9, 2017

It’s the second time in recent days Trump has tweeted about the Russian hacking. On Friday, he wrote from the international talks in Hamburg to say, “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”

Responding to that post, Podesta clarified that he had worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and not the DNC. He also reminded the president of his duties at the G-20 conference and told Trump, “Get a grip, man.”

At the Hamburg meetings, Trump and Putin spoke for more than two hours. Afterwards, Putin said he thought Trump had “agreed” with his denials of Russia’s involvement in the U.S. presidential campaign.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered a nuanced take on the two leaders’ meeting, saying that while Trump raised the “concerns of the American people regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election” at the very start of his time with Putin, Trump also decided to focus on advancing talks on other issues. Tillerson added that in the meeting, “there was not a lot of re-litigating of the past.”

When reporters asked Tillerson about how direct the American president had been in confronting Putin over Russia’s interference in the U.S. democratic process — and whether Trump had presented any evidence to try to convince Putin — Tillerson replied:

“The Russians have asked for proof and evidence. I’ll leave that to the intelligence community to address the answer to that question. And again, I think the President, at this point, he pressed him and then felt like at this point let’s talk about how do we go forward. And I think that was the right place to spend our time, rather than spending a lot of time having a disagreement that everybody knows we have a disagreement.”

After Friday’s more than two-hour meeting between the two leaders, Tillerson’s Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, implied that the U.S. president might not agree with his agencies’ assessment, stating, “Of course, President Trump also mentioned that certain circles in the United States keep on spinning the issue of Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections even though they are unable to prove that.”

Trump didn’t dispel that notion today, using the term “fake news” to refer to U.S. media outlets such as the Associated Press and New York Times that have clarified that four U.S. intelligence agencies (including the FBI and CIA) have concurred on Russia’s attempt to meddle in America’s national vote, rather than all 17 U.S. agencies that were mentioned in early reports.

…have it. Fake News said 17 intel agencies when actually 4 (had to apologize). Why did Obama do NOTHING when he had info before election?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2017

There are no plans as of yet for another meeting between Trump and Putin, Tillerson said on Friday. He added that the State Department will explore “the cyber issue and this issue of non-interference.”

On Sunday, Trump said the cyber collaboration unit would work to prevent election hacking. But that concern wasn’t at the top of Lavrov’s list earlier in the weekend, when he said the effort would focus on terrorism, organized crime, and problems such as child pornography and “so-called suicide networks,” in addition to “hacking in all its forms.”

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Have Israel's Religious Authorities “Blacklisted” 160 Rabbis?

Israel’s state rabbinate has released a list of 160 rabbis – from the U.S. and 23 other countries – whose certifications of a person’s Jewish identity it rejected last year. Jewish immigrants in Israel often must present such certifications from their rabbis abroad to prove their Jewish identity.

Rabbis from liberal Jewish movements, which Israel’s Orthodox religious establishment sees as too religiously lenient, unsurprisingly appear on the list. But so do prominent Orthodox rabbis, including a rabbi from Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s synagogue in New York, and a rabbi with close relations to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

A spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Kobi Alter, said the list of rejections reflected case-by-case technicalities like missing documents, not a judgment call on rabbis. “Every case has a different explanation,” he said.

But a Jewish advocacy group fighting the rabbinate in court over the matter is calling it a “blacklist.” The group, Itim, says it reflects a lack of oversight and transparency in the evaluation process, as well as the conservative rabbinate’s suspicion of Jewish communities abroad, and its attempt to assert itself as the world’s prime Jewish gatekeeper.

“It’s telling 160 Jewish communities around the world, for us, the State of Israel, your rabbi is not a rabbi,” said Rabbi Seth Farber of Itim, the advocacy group. “The baseline assumption is that no one can be trusted.”

One revelation from the group’s legal battle for transparency in the decision-making process for accepting foreign rabbis’ testimony: the rabbinate said there is only one clerk in charge of making decisions.

Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau said Sunday he was “shocked” to learn such a list had been compiled and publicized, and ordered the clerk in charge of the matter be disciplined. A special rabbinic committee is currently formulating criteria for which foreign rabbis would be accepted in Israel for purposes of confirming Jewish identity.

“It cannot be that a Chief Rabbinate clerk decides on his own to publish which (rabbis) are approved and which are not,” Rabbi Lau wrote in a letter to the Chief Rabbinate’s director general. “Secondly, there is no need to elaborate on the grave repercussions and deep hurt this causes certain rabbis, especially Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.”

Rabbis whose testimonies were rejected can still practice in their respective countries; they operate independently of Israel’s rabbinate. But the Israeli state rabbinate has frequently questioned foreign rabbis’ judgment in religious matters. Last year, Israel’s religious authorities issued a ruling that raised doubts about the credentials of the New York rabbi who oversaw Ivanka Trump’s Jewish conversion.

State religious authorities in Israel have sole jurisdiction over marriage, and require Jewish immigrants applying for a marriage license to provide a certificate from their rabbis abroad proving they are Jewish. But Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has rejected thousands of these certificates in recent years.

Itim, which represents Jewish immigrants in Israel, has taken the rabbinate to court to reveal which rabbis’ certificates are being rejected – and why. The rabbinate has not published its criteria for rejections, but in late April gave Itim its list of rejections from 2016. Itim revealed the list Sunday.

On the list are 66 rabbis from the U.S., including Rabbi Baruch Goodman, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement and campus rabbi at Rutgers University; Rabbi Joshua Blass of Yeshiva University, an Orthodox-affiliated university in New York; and Rabbi Daniel Kraus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were affiliated when living in New York.

Others on the list include 27 rabbis from Argentina, four rabbis from the U.K., and rabbis from Europe, South America, South Africa, Greece, India, Mexico and elsewhere.

Rabbi Adam Scheier, an Orthodox rabbi in Montreal who accompanied Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial in Poland, said he does not know why his name appears on the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s rejects list. He said he does not consider it a “high-level” decision to reject his standing as a Jewish leader, but rather the evaluation of one government clerk without transparency.

“As an Orthodox rabbi, I believe that the existence of this list is an affront to the hard work and devotion of so many of my colleagues – of all denominations,” Scheier told NPR. “To delegitimize rabbis – and, accordingly, their communities – without due-diligence or process is simply an abomination.”

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Why Are American Runners Getting Slower?

The average American runner is getting slower.

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The largest study of its kind — analyzing data from 24,763,389 results between 1996 to 2016 — has found that the average American runner, from 5k runners to marathoners, are getting slower.

The study was led by Jens Jakob Andersen and Ivanka Andreeva Nikolova from Andersen is a former competitive runner and statistician from Copenhagen Business School. Nikolova holds a Ph.D. in Mathematical Analysis. The results include only races with more than 2,000 finishers. The researchers have data from 1902 to 2017 (May), but chose to publish only the trimmed data set from 1996 to 2016. Results can be trusted at a 99 percent confidence level (a statistical measure based on the sample size) and don’t include top elite American runners, who are faster than ever.

The graph below summarizes the results for marathons. On the vertical axis, we see the average finish times, while in the horizontal axis the different years. The straight line is a best fit between all points. There is a clear upward trend with the years, which means that finishing times are growing longer on average. The years 2015 and 2016 are the slowest in history.

Finishing times for American marathoners from 1996 to 2016.

Courtesy of Anderson and Nikolova

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Courtesy of Anderson and Nikolova

Although the numbers differ, the upward trend is similar across all four distances. The interesting question, of course, is why. After showing the data, the authors disprove a few possible answers. Here is a quick list:

  • The proportion of women participants is increasing. This would mean that since women tend to be slower runners in general, if there are more women running, the average finishing times will tend to increase. Analyzing the data by gender, Andersen and Nikolova show that the rise in the number of female runners has less effect (46 percent) in the slowing pace than the decrease in the speed of male runners (54 percent), concluding that men are becoming slower much faster than the increase in the number of female runners.
  • People with inappropriate fitness level just walk the race. Since the average walking pace is roughly 19 and half minutes per mile, Anderson and Nikolova show that across the four distances the proportion of runners finishing with times comparable or slower to a walking time has remained constant through the years. So, an increasing number of walkers doesn’t explain the data either.
  • Slow runners are getting slower. Here, the idea is that if slower runners are getting slower, they will push up the average finishing time over the years. Anderson and Nikolova studied the average finishing times of the 100th, 1,000th, 2,000th, and 5,000th finishers to see if, indeed, the slower finishers were taking longer to finish the races. They found that the times were slower across the board and with similar trends, be it the 100th or the 2,000th. On average, women slowed down by 9.87 percent over the past 17 years, and men by 9.94 percent.

With these arguments out of the way, the question remains: Why are Americans getting slower?

I exchanged a few emails with Nikolova about this. They believe that the reason is the overall decline in health of Americans, which is reflected in the finishing times of races across the four distances. They looked for correlations using data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in particular, the increase in adult and teenage obesity, diabetes and hypertension, and overall annual medical expenditure.

As the authors write:

“We correlated the average race finish time with each of those parameters and saw clear trends. These correlations proved to be strong, 99 percent statistically significant, consistent, plausible, coherent and replicable in different circumstances.

Nevertheless, these are just correlations. We cannot infer from the national statistics the health condition of the race runners. Is it deteriorating or improving? Also, in no way we argue that these are the only possible explanations and reasons for the observed effect.”

So, although there is a correlation between the finishing times in races and the general deterioration of the health of the American population, the authors are careful to state that this may or not be reflected on the statistical results. To be sure, they’d need to know the medical condition of more than 20 million runners — an impossibility.

As I mentioned to Nikolova, I am somewhat skeptical of this correlation, especially for half-marathons and marathons. Being a runner, I find it hard to believe that many more people with obesity are tackling such distances. I surely don’t see them at the starting line.

To my mind, the reason why Americans are getting slower on average is a good one: With more people interested in running to get and stay fit, there is an unavoidable drop in the level of training and preparedness. More people run, and the results are slower overall.

To settle this, I encourage Andersen and Nikolova to repeat their study for other countries, where there isn’t a marked increase in the level of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, as in the US. If the finishing times in these other countries are either faster or have remained stable over the years, then they have a strong argument in their hands. Otherwise, if the finishing times are also growing in different countries, then it’s all due to having more people running, a very good thing for everyone.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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