As Aid Is Offered In Madaya, Other Regions In Syria Are Still Besieged

Dr. Rajia Sharhan, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist, takes a child's mid-upper arm circumference in Madaya, Syria, on Thursday. The city was under siege by government forces and didn't receive aid for months. Dozens of people have died of malnutrition.

Dr. Rajia Sharhan, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist, takes a child’s mid-upper arm circumference in Madaya, Syria, on Thursday. The city was under siege by government forces and didn’t receive aid for months. Dozens of people have died of malnutrition. Ahdab Al Mobayed/UNICEF hide caption

toggle caption Ahdab Al Mobayed/UNICEF

Aid convoys reached the besieged towns of Madaya, Foua and Kefraya on Monday. Since then, aid workers have reported horrifying scenes of malnutrition and deprivation.

Meanwhile, U.N. officials are emphasizing that the need in Syria extends far beyond those towns. Almost 400,000 people are living in besieged areas in Syria, the U.N. says.

Dr. Rajia Sharhan, a nutritionist with UNICEF, was on one of the convoys arriving in Madaya this week. She described what she found to NPR’s Rachel Martin on Weekend Edition Sunday.

“We saw children, we saw adults, mothers all suffering from malnutrition … their bodies were too weak even to move around or to talk,” she said.

In the basement of a makeshift hospital, she came across two children lying on a bed. “Both of them had severe, acute malnutrition complications — one of them was dying in front of our eyes,” she says. She tried to resuscitate him, but couldn’t save his life.

When she turned to the boy next to him, who was so weak she could barely find his pulse, he was pleading with her, asking what had happened to the other child. She tried to calm him down.

” ‘Did he die? Did he die?’ ” Dr. Sharhan remembers him asking.

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Hear UNICEF’s Dr. Rajia Sharhan On ‘Weekend Edition Sunday’

The second boy survived, and was evacuated out of Madaya.

Many weren’t so lucky — Doctors Without Borders says a total of 35 people have died of starvation in Madaya, including seven who died as aid convoys were being prepared, and five who died after the convoys arrived.

Dr. Sharhan noted that thousands of Syrians across the country, not just in Madaya, are facing starvation.

“Syria is under war. And war makes everything difficult,” she says. “But we are advocating strongly and asking all sides to lift the siege on all the communities in Syria and provide unimpeded, unconditional humanitarian access.”

It’s a call that’s echoed at the highest levels of the U.N. Speaking to the press on Thursday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that U.N. teams providing aid “have witnessed scenes that haunt the soul.”

“I want to make a special plea for those in besieged areas of Syria,” he said. “I would say they are being held hostage — but it is even worse. Hostages get fed.”

He said of the almost 400,000 people besieged in Syria, about half are under siege by ISIS, about 180,000 by the Syrian government and its allies, and about 12,000 by armed Syrian rebels.

“In 2014, the UN and partners were able to deliver food to about 5 per cent of people in besieged areas. Today, we are reaching less than 1 per cent,” Ban said.

“This is utterly unconscionable.”

On Monday, Abeer Etefa of the UN’s World Food Program told NPR’s Kelly McEvers that besieged areas have been cut off for months — and some areas have never been reached by aid convoys.

And it’s not enough for a town to receive a single delivery of aid, she says.

“We need regular, unimpeded access,” she said. “We cannot send food that’s enough for a year and let people [be] besieged. We have to reach them on monthly basis.”

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Ban called the use of starvation as a weapon a war crime, and called on the U.N. Security Council to find a solution to the crisis in Syria.

Syrian peace talks are set to resume in Geneva on January 25.

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President Obama Says Diplomacy Was Key To Nuclear Deal, Prisoner Swap

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President Obama has spoken to the nation about the Iran nuclear deal. NPR’s Rachel Martin speaks to White House Correspondent Scott Horsley about what the president said.

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President Obama Gives Statement About U.S.-Iran Deals This Weekend

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President Barack Obama addresses the nation, following the lifting of sanctions on Iran. NPR’s Scott Horsley and Deb Amos join host Rachel Martin to discuss what the president says.

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Rouhani Press Conference Gives View Into Iran's Reaction To End Of Sanctions

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For reaction to the news that economic sanctions on Iran have ended, NPR’s Rachel Martin speaks to the New York Times’ correspondent in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink.

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Path To U.S.-Iran Deal, Prisoner Swap Began Years Ago

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani presents the draft budget for the next Iranian fiscal year to the chairman of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani at the Iranian parliament in Tehran on Jan. 17, 2016.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani presents the draft budget for the next Iranian fiscal year to the chairman of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani at the Iranian parliament in Tehran on Jan. 17, 2016. Anadolu Agency/Getty Images hide caption

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Iran is open for business again as ten years of punishing international sanctions are lifted.

President Hassan Rouhani declared the nuclear deal a “golden page” in Iran’s history as he presented a new budget to parliament on Sunday. Economists call it the biggest windfall in history, with as much as an estimated $150 billion of Iran’s frozen assets being unlocked from banks across the globe.

“Implementation Day” was declared in Geneva on Saturday. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, certified Iran had fulfilled its obligations under a nuclear agreement with six world powers.

“This will turn Iran from the most sanctioned state to the country with the most monitored nuclear program in the world,” says Ali Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group.

It’s the “Big Bang,” he says. The agreement opens a way for Iran to transform its economy and reconnect its 80 million people to the global economy. “After more than a decade, the race of sanctions against centrifuges, has finally ended,” he says.

Saturday’s prisoner swap

The new era began with signals that the nuclear deal represents a change in relations between Tehran, the international community, and the United States.

Especially striking – a prisoner swap that came hours before the main event in Geneva. Five Americans were released, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, held for more than a year on charges of spying. The U.S. granted clemency and released seven Iranians accused of violating U.S. sanction laws.

“This is a major victory for diplomacy, a victory for people who want to talk to Iran,” says Mohsen Milani, who heads the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of South Florida.

Iran’s end of the bargain

While nuclear negotiations are also an example of “talking to Iran,” it is an extremely technical agreement between diplomats and experts.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the IAEA verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif after the IAEA verified that Iran has met all conditions under the nuclear deal. Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images

“Iranians put cement in a nuclear reactor,” says Milani, about a crucial step in the nuclear agreement when the core of the Arak heavy water nuclear reactor was removed and disabled.

“Ordinary Americans and Iranians don’t understand what that means,” he says.

In December, Iran shipped out 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium and dismantled more than 12,000 centrifuges, also part of the deal.

“Iran has undertaken significant steps that many people – and I do mean many – doubted would ever come to pass,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in remarks in Geneva.

But it was the release of five Americans held in Iran that captured American attention and overshadowed the landmark conclusions of the nuclear agreement. This was a tangible example of the new era, coupled with the quick release of captured U.S. sailors in the Persian Gulf last week.

“You are talking about actual people, not centrifuges,” says Milani about the emotional reactions. It also demonstrated a change in Iran.

“For me, it shows there are reasonable forces who don’t want to go back to the bad old days,” he says.

Diplomacy and dialogue

Secret negotiations over Americans held in Iran began more than “14 months ago and accelerated after the conclusion of the nuclear deal,” according to senior officials who briefed reporters after the swap was announced on Saturday. As the names reverberated on social media and TV news channels on Saturday, the swap was widely applauded in the U.S. despite charges by Republican presidential hopefuls that it showed the latest American “weakness.”

“In terms of optics, it’s more powerful than ‘Implementation Day,'” says Milani, in what appears to be a historic shift that has “opened the door of communications,” after more than three decades of enmity.

For the Obama administration, the prisoner swap and Iran’s swift compliance with the deal’s difficult measures is the triumph of diplomacy and dialogue over confrontation and public threats. Still, the opening to Iran is a gamble that historians will debate for years, citing key moments and motivations that led to successful negotiations.

The deal took two years of formal negotiations between Iran and six powers, but the Obama administration reportedly reached out much earlier. The Wall Street Journal reported discreet exchanges that go back to 2009.

President Obama sent another signal the same year. He was the first U.S. president to call the country “The Islamic Republic of Iran” in a Persian New Year’s message to the Iranian people.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on Jan. 17, 2016 after international sanctions on Iran were lifted.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference on Jan. 17, 2016 after international sanctions on Iran were lifted. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Soon after, the U.S. and Iran opened secret back-channel communications facilitated by the tiny Gulf state of Oman.

“A convergence of factors explains it,” says Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Based in the Gulf, he says the Obama administration saw Iran as a potential breakthrough as the aftermath of the Arab Spring convulsed the Arab world.

“With Iran, there was an opportunity for a deal. Iran looked cohesive, it has institutions,” even though Iran’s regional policies were often at odds with U.S. goals, he says. “Iran was bad, but it was good at being bad. Iran is a competent actor.”

Rouhani’s election sparked change

When President Hassan Rouhani took office in 2013, the White House called his election “an opportunity” for Tehran to resolve international concerns over its nuclear program. During his campaign, the moderate cleric pledged to open a new chapter with the West. More important for his country’s crippled economy, Rouhani promised to reintegrate Iran into the international economic system after decades of isolation. It was a high stakes gamble, linking the success of his presidency to success in complex nuclear talks with world powers.

Both presidents faced domestic pressure to scuttle the deal. For the Obama administration, the opening to Iran was met with deep suspicion by congressional Republicans. Republican presidential hopefuls pledged to scrap it on the first day in office.

America’s key allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are adamant that Iran is a destabilizing force likely to grow bolder with a huge injection of cash as sanctions are lifted. The objections are likely to grow louder as implementation gets underway, says Hokayem. “Iran remains a very concerning actor, very confrontational. There is a long list of U.S. interests where Iran cannot be a net contributor.”

In a sign of the tumult of the new era, on Sunday, the U.S. Treasury announced new sanctions against 11 entities and individuals involved in procurement on behalf of Iran’s ballistic missile program.

“There will be ups and downs in relations,” says Milani. “You cannot change years of animosity and political war between two countries overnight.”

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The Reaction To The U.S.-Iran Deal In Tehran

For reaction to the news that economic sanctions on Iran have ended, NPR’s Rachel Martin speaks to the New York Times’ correspondent in Tehran, Thomas Erdbrink.

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President Obama Reacts To Iran Nuclear Deal, Prisoner Swap

President Obama has spoken about the Iran nuclear deal. It will release billions of dollars to Iran. NPR’s Rachel Martin speaks to White House Correspondent Scott Horsley about what he said.

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Palestinian Officials Arrest Peace Negotiation Aide On Suspicion Of Spying

Palestinian security officials have arrested an aide to the Palestinian peace negotiating team, accusing him of spying for Israel.

The arrest occurred two weeks ago, and the precise nature of the allegations aren’t yet clear, NPR’s Emily Harris reports:

“The man is suspected of passing information to the Israelis. The head of the Palestinian negotiating office, Saeb Erekat, confirmed that the arrest happened a couple weeks ago but wouldn’t detail the man’s job or assess how much damage may have been done.

“Another Palestinian official described the suspect as a member of the staff, not the negotiating team. Both said Palestinian security officials are continuing their investigation.”

The suspect worked with the negotiating team for years — reports in the Israeli and Palestinian press suggest as long as two decades.

Peace talks have been at a stalemate for a while now, Emily notes: the last round of negotiations, shepherded by Secretary of State John Kerry, ended almost two years ago.

Officials say they are working to determine the scale of the alleged information leaks, and the nature of the suspect’s involvement.

One Palestinian official told Emily he wasn’t aware of a previous case like this one, where a staffer for the negotiating team was accused of spying for Israel.

But the Palestinian negotiators have had trouble with sensitive information leaks before. In 2011, more than 1,600 documents from the Palestinian negotiating office were leaked to Al Jazeera and The Guardian.

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Hunting Snakes In The Everglades To Protect Native Species

Hundreds of people are taking part in a python hunt in the Everglades.
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Hundreds of people are taking part in a python hunt in the Everglades. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

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Florida’s Everglades is known for its alligators, and in recent years, pythons. Burmese pythons aren’t native to the Everglades. But over the last two decades, the snakes, which can grow up to 20 feet, have become established there and taken a big toll on native wildlife.

With the pythons, there’s another new Florida species — the python hunter. They’ve been featured on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. And hunters are descending on the Everglades this month for a competition — the Python Challenge.

Several hundred people have signed up to take part in the month-long python hunt. This weekend, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission held a kickoff event where they showed prospective hunters how best to corral a 10-foot long snake.

A snake wranger holds a demonstration as part of the month-long Python Challenge.

A snake wranger holds a demonstration as part of the month-long Python Challenge. Greg Allen/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Allen/NPR

While biologist Jenny Novack narrates, snake wrangler Jeff Fobb works to control and bag a Burmese python that weighs 50 pounds.

“Now this animal has gone into fight behavior. He knows that Jeff is there. He’s not happy about it. He’s hissing a little bit,” Novack says.

She describes how Fobb controls the snake. “Then he’s just going to grasp the animal right behind the head. He can feel the jawbones on his hand,” Novack says.

In the last python challenge, three years ago, 1,600 people took part, but they caught just 68 snakes. Researchers say there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in the Everglades. Catching them isn’t easy. Finding them is even harder.

Veteran snake hunter Bill Booth says in the last python challenge, his team hunted seven days before finding their first snake. They ended up taking second place.

“We got six snakes, and one got away,” he laughs. “We were being followed by National Geographic and they were filming a show. And they actually borrowed the snake from us to reenact one of the other hunters. And they came back and said the snake got away. So, we wanted to kill them.”

Booth, a firefighter from the Tampa area, took a month off of work for this year’s challenge. He grew up in Miami and says he spent much of his childhood in the Everglades. Burmese pythons, Booth says, have had a dramatic impact on wildlife there.

“The thing is, you don’t see anything. It’s like a wasteland out there,” Booth says. “I think in the 30 days that we spent on the last python challenge, I think we saw maybe one or two otters in 30 days. And rabbits and stuff like that, they’re just not around.”

As preparations were underway for this year’s python challenge, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on Florida to tell participants not to decapitate the heads of pythons they capture. The animal rights group said when decapitated, pythons can remain alive and writhe in agony for hours. State officials declined to take a position.

Ron Bergeron is a commission board member and a longtime snake hunter, who says the best way to kill a snake is whatever works.

“You know, as an expert, I catch them alive. But we don’t really recommend that to the public,” he says. “It can be dangerous. A snake can turn around and bite you.”

Some Floridians are not just hunting invasive species — they’re eating them.

At the kickoff to the python hunt, chef Jimmy Rodriguez was serving up samples of invasive species. There were no snakes. But he did have two marine species — snakeheads and lionfish, fried. Plus tacos made with slow-cooked green iguana, an invasive species he says is taking over.

“We’re trying to educate the public on how gorgeous the texture of this meat is,” Rodriguez says. “Not just the texture, the flavor.”

With the extensive media coverage, Burmese pythons have become Florida’s best-known invasive species. The python challenge attracts people from across the country. Howard Hudson and his wife Diana came with their friend Chip Williamson from Cincinnati, Ohio, to join in what would be their first python hunt.

“This is also just an adventure. We’d love to be able to help protect the native wildlife from the invasive species,” Hudson says. “We know that they’re really hard to find out there. But, I think we’ll have a ball.”

I point out to the Hudsons and to Williamson that they’ll be up against some serious python hunters.

Hudson says they’re not worried, they’re mostly there to have fun. “We’re not them. We’re going to enjoy ourselves and have a good time,” he says. They could end up catching the biggest snake by chance. “You never know,” he says.

As for catching a python, the Ohioans say they think they know how to do it. They’ve seen it done on Animal Planet.

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Weakness Or Effective Diplomacy? Candidates, Officials React To Iranian Deals

In the wake of this weekend’s prisoner exchange with Iran, a Twitter hashtag supporting Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian underwent a jubilant change: #FreeJason became #JasonIsFree.

The family of Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran in 2007 and whose whereabouts remain unknown, started a frustrated hashtag of their own: #WhatAboutBob.

Praise God! Surely bad parts of Obama’s latest deal, but prayers of thanksgiving that Pastor Saeed is coming home. https://t.co/rad1VcWUml

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) January 16, 2016

Meanwhile, “Implementation Day” arrived Saturday — that is, the day Iran fulfilled the requirements of the international nuclear pact and sanctions against the country were lifted.

Like the prisoner exchange, the end of sanctions left some elated and others irate.

Here are a few reactions to the weekend’s news out of Iran:

  • The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Implementation Day with a statement saying Iran has signed the deal, but not given up its aspirations for nuclear weapons. The statement called for “an appropriate response to each violation” of the deal Iran might make in the future, and said Israel will take any action necessary to defend itself.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry celebrated the prisoner exchange, noting that the negotiations for the prisoner exchange were not directly related to the nuclear negotiations, but that “the relationships forged and the diplomatic channels unlocked over the course of the nuclear talks” helped accelerate the pace of the prisoner talks. He then spoke at length about the achievement of Implementation Day, saying, “Today marks the first day of a safer world … I think we have also proven once again why diplomacy has to always be our first choice and war our last resort.”
  • Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Twitter, “I thank God for this blessing & bow to the greatness of the patient nation of Iran. Congrats on this glorious victory!” He also tweeted, “We extended a hand of friendship & despite the challenges, conspiracies & doubts managed to open a new chapter in our relations w/ the world.”
  • GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump criticized the terms of the prisoner deal, which involved Iran releasing four prisoners, the U.S. pardoning seven Iranians charged with sanctions violations and the U.S. dropping extradition requests for 14 more Iranians. “They’re getting seven people, so essentially they get $150bn plus seven, and we get four,” Trump said Saturday, according to The Guardian. “I’m happy they’re coming back, but I will tell you it’s a disgrace they’ve been there so long.”
  • GOP candidate Ted Cruz, who had joined in advocating for pastor Saeed Abedini’s release from Iranian jail, thanked God for his release while expressing skepticism about the negotiations that led to that release.
  • Similarly, fellow Republican candidate Mike Huckabee tweeted “Praise God!” for the release of Abedini before tweeting, “It’s embarrassing John Kerry & Obama negotiate with Iran as innocent Americans still remain locked-up in prison.”
  • Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders acknowledged the prisoner release with a short statement, saying, “This good news shows that diplomacy can work even in this volatile region of the world.”
  • GOP candidate Jeb Bush criticized the American half of the prisoner exchange, the pardoning of seven Iranians who had been charged with or convicted of sanctions violations. “Every time we show weakness it is a victory for Iran,” he said at a town hall, according to Reuters.
  • Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton praised both the prisoner release and the implementation of the nuclear pact. “But we shouldn’t thank Iran for the prisoners or for following through on its obligations,” she said in a statement. “These prisoners were held unjustly by a regime that continues to threaten the peace and security of the Middle East. Another American, Bob Levinson, still isn’t home with his family.” Clinton also called for fresh sanctions against Iran over the country’s ballistic missile program — which, a day later, the Treasury Department implemented.
  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan criticized the lifting of sanctions on Iran in a statement that did not mention the prisoner exchange. “Today, the Obama administration will begin lifting economic sanctions on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. As the president himself has acknowledged, Iran is likely to use this cash infusion—more than $100 billion in total—to finance terrorists,” he said. On Twitter, Ryan said he was “very glad” the American prisoners are coming home.
  • GOP candidate Marco Rubio, who has been highly critical of the Iran deal, also denounced the prisoner exchange. “Of course we’re happy for [the released prisoners] and their families, but they should have never been there,” Rubio said, according to Time. ” We shouldn’t be involved in swaps,” he continued. “The fact of the matter is that this tells us everything we need to know about the Iranian regime—that they take people hostage in order to gain concessions. And the fact that they can get away with it with this administration I think has created an incentive for more governments to do this around the world.”
  • U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Implementation Day “a significant milestone,” one demonstrating “that international proliferation concerns are best addressed through dialogue and patient diplomacy.”
  • British foreign secretary Philip Hammond celebrated the achievement of Implementation Day, saying: “Years of patient and persistent diplomacy, and difficult technical work, have borne fruit as we now implement the deal. There were many sceptics who said Iran would never deliver on its side of the bargain, but the independent International Atomic Energy Agency has said they have.”
  • Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who is also a nuclear physicist, said that “based on hard science” the nuclear deal improves global security. “Iran’s breakout time has increased from just two to three months before the agreement to at least one year,” he said in a statement. “Since Adoption Day in October, Iran has shipped 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium out of the country and has removed and placed in monitored storage two-thirds of its centrifuges and associated infrastructure. The core of Iran’s Arak Heavy Water Research Reactor was removed and filled with concrete, eliminating Iran’s potential source of weapons-grade plutonium.”

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