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Six major humanitarian challenges confronting the UN General Assembly

Mon, 18 Sep 2017 09:15:00 +0000

Hype over what President Donald Trump may or may not say dominated the media build-up to this week’s UN General Assembly. However, US funding cuts and the apparent absence of American authority on key global issues weigh more heavily over world leaders beset by a host of daunting humanitarian challenges.   It’s the first UNGA since Trump was elected president. He’ll make his debut on Monday in hosting a meeting on UN reform, ahead of his maiden speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday. It’s also the first year at the helm for UN Secretary-General António Guterres. His speech opening high-level week on Tuesday will be closely watched, as will his handling of Trump’s US administration.   The US decision on the eve of the General Assembly to halve its diplomatic presence in New York doesn’t augur well for those concerned that US cuts and retreats from international agreements are creating a dangerous vacuum at a time when the General Assembly has so many global crises to address.   Here’s our guide to the major humanitarian issues:   Climate Change   The UNGA is always a vital forum for the world’s developing countries, particularly those facing down climate change. The new General Assembly president, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovenia, identified grappling with it a priority for the UN’s 72nd session. Catastrophic flooding in South Asia and two record-setting hurricanes that recently hit the Caribbean and the southern United States will lend added gravity to sessions this week.   A high-level meeting convened by Lajcak and Guterres on Monday will focus on Hurricane Irma, which ploughed through the Caribbean and into Florida earlier this month. The UN’s regional response plan for the Caribbean calls for $27 million to help up to 265,000 people affected. For the first time in 300 years, no one is left living on Barbuda, according to Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the US.   Notably absent from the expected speakers list are any Americans. Trump this year announced he would pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, angering world leaders and giving an opening to countries like China to take more of a lead on the issue. After word leaked that the US might be changing its position once more, the White House confirmed on the eve of the UNGA that it still plans to renege unless drastic changes are made. On Tuesday, heads of state will meet for a roundtable on climate change. By then, a new hurricane, Maria, will be running over some of the same Caribbean islands hit by Irma, possibly reaching Hispaniola by the end of the week. NGOs hope that attention will rub off on the sustainable development goals more broadly, with warnings that countries are falling behind.   Famine   More than 20 million people in Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, and northeastern Nigeria are still at risk of famine, and their lot will be the focus of aid agencies and diplomats. The UN’s just-released State of Food Security report warns that “the long-term declining trend in undernourishment seems to have come to a halt and may have reversed.”   Shortfalls in funding persist across the board, and the aid community will be applying further pressure on donors to follow through on their promises. The week’s main event on famine response and prevention is on Thursday. It will provide an opportunity for some new faces – recently appointed World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley and Mark Lowcock, the new top UN relief official – to set out their stall.   Yemen’s long humanitarian crisis, deepened by years of war, is now considered the world’s most dire: more than 20 million people are in need of assistance; seven million are severely food insecure; two million children are acutely malnourished; the worst cholera outbreak in memory has infected more than 660,000 people and claimed 2,100 lives. There’s no sign the warring parties are any closer to ending the civil war. On Monday, UN, EU and Gulf Cooperation Council representatives will host a closed-door donor coordination meeting; Friday will see[...]



Somalia’s impossible fight against cholera

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 16:29:47 +0000

Ahmed Hussein’s perfectly white teeth seem too big for his mouth; his upper arms look like they belong to a little boy, not a 23-year-old man. Propped up on an iron bed, Hussein laughs and says he always was slim. But he is clearly malnourished. Hussein arrived at Mogadishu’s Bandir Hospital a day earlier with his mother and two sisters, all suffering from acute watery diarrhoea: a tell-tale sign of cholera. A nurse at the hospital told IRIN she believed the whole family got sick from the same water source.  This is Somalia’s worst cholera outbreak in five years. So far, 71,663 cases have been counted, including more than 1,098 deaths, according to Doctor Ghulam Popal, the World Health Organization representative. In July, when Hussein was admitted, 5,840 cases of acute watery diarrhoea were reported at Bandir Hospital alone. Cholera is an acute disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. Waterborne, it thrives in unsanitary conditions. After nearly three decades of continuous conflict, Somalia has a barely existent government with no public health system and 800,000 people driven into unsanitary settlements by drought and insecurity – perfect conditions for cholera to thrive. “[The] WASH infrastructure in Somalia is totally collapsed due to the absence of the government,” explained Hassan Ahmed Ali, a Water Sanitation and Hygiene expert with the Norwegian Refugee Council, a development agency. Unknown scale The extent of Somalia’s cholera crisis is likely to be a good deal worse than the official numbers suggest. There are no health clinics or hospitals for 400,000 displaced people clumped in settlements along the two main arterial roads that feed into Mogadishu. Ali of the NRC believes many people, not counted in the statistics, will have died before they could reach treatment. Neither are the cases counted in the swathe of territory controlled by the jihadist group al-Shabab, which is battling the government. Compounding the effects of the war, three consecutive seasons of drought have served to tip Somalia into an even deeper food crisis. More than 6.2 million people – over half the population – need aid. That vulnerability increases their susceptibility to cholera. Rules and regulations “Unless the systems are strengthened, we can only save lives. Long-term social well-being cannot be achieved,” said Mahboob Ahmed Bajwa, the head of WASH for the UN’s children’s agency, UNICEF. “Systems” refers both to the federal government’s loose relationship with the decentralised states, and the country’s generally pitiful infrastructure. National institutions are weak. In the absence of government, all water supply is privatised and unregulated. These profit-driven companies do not overly concern themselves with cleanliness or quality, despite the obvious risks. Doctor Lul Mohamed, head of paediatrics at Bandir Hospital, points to the problem of open defecation, and to the lack of controls that allows what toilets are available to be built right next to wells. The Ministry of Energy and Water Sources is creating new regulations to tackle contamination. But the bill has to go to parliament and will take at least three months to pass into law, according to Omar Shurie, an advisor to the ministry. Besides the infrastructural deficiencies, recruiting qualified health workers and paying them regularly is yet another of the seemingly endless tasks on Somalia’s to-do list. Doctor Mohamed, for example, does not receive a government salary. She earns money lecturing at a university in the city, only working at Bandir out of a sense of duty. Stronger response Despite the magnitude of the current food crisis and the cholera outbreak, the response of the humanitarian community and the generosity of the Somali diaspora have built a better ability to cope compared to previous disasters. “Aid works, and it is critical that we continue providing this support throughout the remainder of 2017”  In 2011, drought led to a famine in which 250,000 people died[...]



The Somali pirates are back (SPOILER ALERT: they never really left)

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 14:44:04 +0000

A pirate with a full beard makes an ironic salute as I walk towards him across the red gravel of the prison yard in Garowe, the capital of the Somali region of Puntland. His fellow prisoners turn away in disgust or yell curses at me through the bars. "We hate you. It's your fault that we are sitting here like animals in a cage. It’s humiliating that white men always come and take photos of us and repeat the same stupid questions," scoffs the pirates’ spokesman, Abdi Mahad. There are 47 ex-pirates locked up in Garowe, most of them serving decades-long sentences. According to the prison warden, only the lowest ranking pirates are doing time in the EU-funded facility, along with soldiers from the jihadist insurgent group al-Shabab, petty cattle thieves, and domestic abusers. This is what the flagship of Western engagement looks like up close: 47 luckless men behind bars on a rocky plateau in a country tested by drought and instability. But the fight against piracy has produced results. To protect the shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden, the international powers sent warships and the EU trained the Somali coast guard. At piracy’s peak in 2010-13, more than 100 ships were being hijacked per year and millions of dollars paid in ransom. In 2015 and most of 2016 there were no successful hijackings. The EU's Operation Atalanta is still patrolling the Gulf of Aden alongside the Indian, Russian, and Chinese navies. But NATO's vessels left for other hot spots in December last year, and the pressure on the pirates has decreased considerably.  As a result, the attacks have begun again. At least five ships have been hijacked off the coast of Somalia this year, among them the oil tanker Aris 13 and a fishing vessel, which was transformed into a so-called mother ship from where new hijackings can be orchestrated. Piracy’s money capital Puntland, a rugged province at the tip of the Horn of Africa, is where piracy began; it’s also from here that several of the recent attacks have been launched. Puntland is an autonomous region, slightly better off than the rest of Somalia, but it still suffers from chronic poverty and insecurity. It is where so-called Islamic State has established a toehold, and is also a base for al-Shabab. Every week there are assassinations, ambushes, and suicide attacks.  Garowe, 200 kilometres from the coast, houses the region’s politicians and business elite. Lots of investment in the pirate industry has come from the wealthy in this city. The evidence is in the skyline: the unmistakable Holy Day hotel for example, shaped like the hull of a ship, is owned by a famous pirate who has now transformed it into apartments. In front of another of the city's hotels waits a 10-metre-long pink limousine. Ali Ahmed rents it out for $50 an hour and says there was a great demand for it during the heyday of piracy. Now it’s only in use a couple of times a month, mostly for weddings. One of the front wheels is flat. Garowe is a surprisingly cosmopolitan city. There are electricians from India, Pakistani construction workers, Kenyan chefs, Ugandan receptionists, tattooed South African security guards, and several Somalis who have returned from distant places like Stockholm, Melbourne, and Minnesota.  People walking in the streets are not armed. Money is still being laundered, but the criminals have become more discreet. The notorious arms dealer Gaagaale – "he who stutters" – no longer has a shed down by the roundabout. You can, however, still buy Makarov pistols from him for $1,600 or a Kalashnikov for $1,400 if you know someone who has his number. Apparently, my Danish-Somali guide does. Frederik Østerby/IRIN The pink limousine was in great demand in the heydays of piracy The criminal networks We drive to the Puntland Development Research Center, a respected NGO, to find out how the pirates have made a comeback after seemingly being reduced to a problem of the past. "Their acces[...]



Displaced and neglected: Ethiopia's desperate drought victims

Wed, 19 Apr 2017 14:53:42 +0000

Dead camels rot on the outskirts of informal settlements in Ethiopia’s rain-starved Somali region as their owners, once proudly self-sufficient pastoralists, turn to government aid to stay alive. Ethiopia is facing a drought so terrible that nomadic herders, the hardiest of survivors, have been pushed to the brink. The lucky ones receive supplies of food and brackish water, but the majority, who have settled in spontaneous camps in the remotest reaches, must look after themselves. “We call this drought sima,” said 82-year-old Abdu Karim. “It means ‘everyone is affected’. Even when I was a child, no one spoke of a drought like this one.” Across the Horn of Africa, people are struggling after three successive years of failed rains. In Somalia and Yemen, there is real fear of famine. While Ethiopia’s remote southern region has been spared the warfare that has deepened the crisis confronting its neighbours, the drought has been no less brutal. “Having lost most of their livestock, they have also spent out the money they had in reserve to try to keep their last few animals alive,” said Charlie Mason, humanitarian director at Save the Children. “For those who have lost everything, all they can now do is go to a government assistance site for food and water.” Livestock are the backbone of the region’s economy. Pastoralists here are estimated to have lost in excess of $200 million-worth of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels. That is not only a blow to their wealth, but also deprives them of the meat and milk that is the mainstay of the pastoralist life-support system. Last year, more than 10 million people were affected by an El Niño-induced drought. The government spent an unprecedented $700 million, while the international community made up the rest of the $1.8 billion needed to meet their needs. This year, the appeal is for $948 million to help 5.6 million drought-affected people, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country. So far, only $23.7 million has been received. “Last year’s response by the government was pretty remarkable,” said World Vision’s Ethiopia director, Edward Brown. “We dodged a bullet. But now the funding gaps are larger on both sides. The UN’s ability is constrained as it looks for big donors – you’ve already got the US talking of slashing foreign aid.” Under strain The government has a well-established safety net programme managed by the World Bank that supports the chronically food insecure, typically with cash-for-work projects. But it doesn’t pick up those affected by sudden shocks like the current drought. They fall under a new and separate programme, which is struggling to register all those in need. There are 58 settlements for the internally displaced in the Somali region currently receiving government aid. But that’s only a fraction of the 222 sites containing nearly 400,000 displaced people identified in a survey by the International Organization for Migration. Forty-four percent of these camps reported no access to food, and only 31 percent had a water source within a 20-minute walk. "People were surviving from what they could forage to eat or sell but now there is nothing left,” said one senior aid worker who visited a settlement 70 kilometres east of the southern town of Dolo Ado, where 650 displaced pastoralist families weren’t receiving any aid at all. The only livestock left alive in the camp was one skinny cow, its rib cage undulating through its skin, and her new-born calf. In some shelters people were reported as too weak to move.  James Jeffrey/IRIN IDPs are falling through the cracks Informal settlements have sprung up wherever the exhausted pastoralists have stopped. The further away from the regional capital, Jijiga, the less likely they are to be supplied by the government. There is also a degree of friction between the federal government and the semi-autonomous reg[...]



We are not the world: Inside the “perfect storm” of famine

Fri, 24 Mar 2017 13:47:28 +0000

Like the four countries facing extreme hunger crises today, the famine that gripped Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985 struggled for attention until it was far too late. There was conflict. There had been years of consecutive drought – similar to Somalia now. The government spent its money on fighting, not aid. The rich world eventually reacted, with Bob Geldof and Live Aid at the forefront of a public funding campaign. But access in a time of war was hard. By 1984, 200,000 mostly starving Ethiopians had died, young children often the first to go. The final toll was closer to one million. More than three decades later, the stakes are arguably even higher. A badly strained humanitarian system finds itself facing not one but four vast challenges. In all, more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine across South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northeastern Nigeria. Much has been learnt since 1984: the value of building resilience before crises arrive, the role climate change plays, the imperative of early conflict prevention, the importance of cash aid, the need to prioritise water as well as food. Nonetheless, the goal posts for those struggling to reach the world’s most vulnerable and provide them with life-saving assistance have shifted. Why? The simple answer is conflict. It’s the one factor that afflicts all four famine-facing regions listed above. And that’s not to mention how the effects of war in places like Iraq and Syria, including the mass migration to Europe, have drained valuable humanitarian resources and donor dollars. As Nancy Lindborg, president of the US Institute of Peace, pointed out in testimony last week before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “humanitarian assistance flows have shifted from 80 percent of global aid going to victims of natural disasters to now 80 percent going to assist victims of violent conflict.” Unfortunately, Lindborg’s remarks may well have fallen on deaf ears: President Donald Trump’s administration is threatening draconian cuts to the State Department’s budget, affecting US funding for everything from UN peacekeeping to the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF.   allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" allowtransparency="true" frameborder="0" height="260" id="datawrapper-chart-2KOBf" mozallowfullscreen="mozallowfullscreen" msallowfullscreen="msallowfullscreen" oallowfullscreen="oallowfullscreen" src="//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/2KOBf/3/" webkitallowfullscreen="webkitallowfullscreen" width="100%"> Cutting and shrinking MINUSTAH – Haiti UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended that the mission in Haiti be drawn down and replaced with a smaller UN presence by October of this year. That move is complicated both by disagreements over what the new presence would entail – or if there should be one at all – and the UN’s ongoing response to a cholera epidemic that its own peacekeepers introduced in 2011. A trust fund set up to finance the UN’s $400 million cholera response strategy currently contains just $2 million. MINUSTAH’s current mandate will expire in less than one month – on 15 April. Currently, there are nearly 5,000 uniformed personnel deployed, including 2,370 military and 2,601 police. An additional 1,245 civilian personnel are in the country, according to the Department of Peacekeeping. The mission’s budget is currently $345.9 million. UNOCI – Cote D’Ivoire In April 2016, the UN Security Council voted to close down UNOCI by June of this year, and lifted an arms embargo on the country, and travel bans. By 30 April, all uniformed and civilian personnel are to leave the country. The mission’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 2017 is $153 million. UNMIL – Liberia After more than 13 years, the UN’s mission in Liberia will close at the end of March. Its approved budget through this year was $187 million. Maximum overall savings: $685.9 million The Big Missions The UN’s five most [...]



Can aid come in time to avert famine in Somalia?

Mon, 06 Mar 2017 16:19:03 +0000

The drought in Somalia is so severe it threatens not only to trigger famine, but also the viability of the age-old pastoralist way of life.   Somalis are tough and resourceful, but this is the third consecutive year of failed rains. Whatever resilience remains is being tested to the limit.   On the road out of Garowe, the capital of the northeastern Puntland region, IRIN encountered three young brothers standing next to decomposing camel carcasses and clumps of dead goats.   The boys – aged under 18 – had been left behind in the desert to tend to the family’s last two camels. The family once had 300 goats – down now to 50. They used to have 15 camels. Now, just these two remained, both too weak to move.   The boys had nothing to feed the animals. All they could do was wait for their parents, who were away checking a nearby village to see if any food or pasture might be available.   They would be lucky to find any. In the arid northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland, people load their animals onto trucks and travel far afield on just the rumour of pasture.   No reprieve   The drought is expected to worsen in the coming months. That does not bode well when half of all Somalis – 6.2 million people – are already short of food or in need of livelihood support.   Unless aid can be rapidly scaled up, the conditions are in place for a repeat of the 2011 famine in which 260,000 people died. Adriane Ohanesian/IRIN News Ahmed, age two, who is malnourished, lies on the ground of his family's home in Uusgure, Puntland Last week, Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” declared the situation a national disaster and pleaded with international donors for increased funding.    Mariam Abdullahi is a mother of seven and a new arrival at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Shahda, 170 kilometres from Garowe. She and her husband lost more than 400 of their 500 goats to the drought and high temperatures.   “All of the animals are gone,” she said. “In two weeks, we will have no food or water left.”   For now, her family – and more than 300 other families at the camp – rely on the kindness of the surrounding community. They can only hope that food aid will arrive soon.   Price crash   “Sixty percent of our livestock has been lost in the past two months alone,” said Ahmed Abdullahi Abdirahman, manager of Puntland’s Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Agency. “That number is increasing day after day.”   Dead goats and camels litter the roadside across the semi-autonomous region, which is dependent on the federal government for emergency aid.   In the livestock markets, traders are frustrated and have little to sell – even though prices have crashed. The results have been devastating for a livestock-reliant economy, shrinking people’s purchasing power.    “Whether we are in urban settings or nomadic communities, it is all about livestock,” said Abdirahman.   To try and cope, families have maxed out their credit to cover rocketing food and water prices. Many IDPs are in debt to their host villagers, and if the rains due in April fail again, everyone will be further impoverished.   The government in Mogadishu and the humanitarian agencies are scrambling to coordinate the drought response, and to keep up with the pace of people moving across the country in search of aid.   Unlike in 2011, where the drought and famine affected particular areas, the majority of the country is in trouble this time.   On the move   “This drought has caused big shifts in demographics, with more people realising that they cannot sustain this lifestyle that is essentially weather-dependent,” said Michael Keating, special representative of the UN secretary-general.   “There are more people moving into urban areas than ever before,” he noted. These fresh influx[...]



Countdown to AMISOM withdrawal: Is Somalia ready?

Tue, 28 Feb 2017 17:17:13 +0000

The swearing-in last week of Somalia’s new President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” was greeted with a surge of optimism on the streets of Mogadishu that a new era of stability was on its way. He won by a landslide, on a wave of nationalist fervour. But the fact that the ceremony took place in a highly secured airport zone, under the control of African Union peacekeepers, in a city repeatedly bombed by the jihadist group al-Shabab, betrays how huge the task confronting him is. The International Crisis Group’s latest report said Farmajo had benefited from being seen as the right leader “to build a robust Somali National Army (SNA), speed up the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM)’s exit, stabilise security, curb interventions by neighbouring countries, and protect Somalia’s dignity and sovereignty.” But this is an ambitious wish list and the path ahead is fraught with danger. Countdown Central to Somalia’s security is the 22,000-strong AMISOM multinational force. It has been in Somalia for a decade, battling al-Shabab and helping slowly expand state authority. AMISOM is due to start withdrawing its troops from October next year and is expected to be fully out of the country by December 2020, handing over to the SNA, which will probably number just 20,000. “AMISOM alone cannot defeat al-Shabab,” said a report last year by Mogadishu’s Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS). “This can only happen if AMISOM can partner with a capable, legitimate and inclusive set of Somali security forces.” But the Somali National Army is a force beset with problems, particularly over corruption, capacity and its acceptance in regions beyond Mogadishu. At the moment, there are doubts it will be able to stand up to a degraded, but still dangerous, insurgency. Francisco Madeira, AU special representative to Somalia, is painfully aware of that challenge. “Building the capacity of the Somali National Security Forces is something that is central to the mandate of AMISOM, and we are doing this to the best of our ability and within the available resources,” he told IRIN. UN Photo/ Ilyas Ahmed President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo Too soon? Given this, and the historically weak and divided nature of the Somali state, experts fear AMISOM’s departure will be premature. “It seems highly unlikely to me that the Somali army [and state institutions] would be ready in just three years, given the current state of the security situation,” said Nina Wilen, a research fellow at Université Libre de Bruxelles. “A withdrawal of AMISOM in 2020 will be untimely,” agreed Christian Ani Ndubuisi, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies. A more viable option, he believes, is for international donors to support a longer transition, of five to 10 years. The challenge for AMISOM is that exiting Somalia with some honour hinges on several factors beyond its control. Crucially, it relies on international funding, and not enough has been forthcoming “to seriously degrade rather than simply displace al-Shabab”, said the HIPS report. AMISOM draws its main fighting forces from Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi. Allowances for the troops are paid by the EU, and logistical support – from food to medical supplies – is provided by the UN. The attack helicopters it desperately needs have not been available. There is also now trouble in the ranks of the troop-contributing nations, which have threatened to withdraw ever since the EU cut the monthly allowance paid to soldiers by 20 percent in January 2016, from $1,028 to $822. While the AU argues that its soldiers bleed and the West provides only money, the EU counters that there are other peace operations on the continent deserving of its support, including Central African Republic, Mali and the Lake Chad crisis. “AMISOM will celeb[...]



Lake Chad money, Oxfam-GOAL merger, and serial Syria talks: The Cheat Sheet

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:10:25 +0000

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors takes a look at what lies ahead on the humanitarian agenda and curates a selection of some of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed: What’s coming up? Finding $1.5 billion for Lake Chad The borders of Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad meet at Lake Chad. The region is now one of the most critical humanitarian hotspots in the world, with a food security ranking teetering on the edge of full-blown famine in some areas. The UN says it can help about eight million of those in need if it is sufficiently funded.  Attacks by the extremist Boko Haram and counter-insurgency operations against them have uprooted millions and disrupted social services, trade, and agriculture.  Strained relations between Nigerian authorities and the international aid community have also played a part, while formidable logistics and security challenges hamper operations in neighbouring countries.  With South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria all clamouring for media clicks and donor dollars, the "Lake Chad Basin" humanitarian situation has to fight for attention even while its capacity to respond faces setbacks. Last night, fresh attacks and clashes were reported in Maiduguri, the forward base for a still-fragile humanitarian operation in northeastern Nigeria.  A conference in Norway on 24 February aims to stimulate donor contributions and diplomatic attention. Thematic sessions will be held on food, protection, access, and education. The one-day event co-hosted by Nigeria, Norway, and the UN, will include ministers from the affected nations and the most important donor countries, leaders of relevant regional organisations, development finance institutions, and UN bodies. And the pledgers better pledge: the UN-led response plans are costed at $1.5 billion. Own GOAL? The Irish NGO GOAL, reeling from a corruption scandal, has started merger talks with Oxfam Ireland, the two agencies announced. Regular IRIN readers will need no reminding of GOAL's problems. A procurement fraud in Turkey lifted the lid on a shocking web of conflicts of interest that has taken the scalp of the CEO and the COO already, and triggered an investigation by the US government that is still ongoing. GOAL's donors got spooked and its income has collapsed. The latest news confirms that the chances of GOAL surviving in its current form are receding by the day. Is it game over for GOAL? Lost in Syria peace talks One round of Syria peace talks is delayed but under way in the capital of Kazakhstan this week and yet another is due to start the following week in Geneva. The Russia- and Turkey-brokered Astana talks began a day late thanks to disagreements over the agenda, and the UN-sponsored negotiations are on shaky ground too: A key Syrian opposition body has said it wants to talk transition with Damascus, which for its part has no interest in engineering President Bashar al-Assad’s exit from power. Nobody knows exactly who will show up in Geneva, or when, or if they’ll actually do much talking at all. But it’s probably safe to bet that Syria’s long-winded UN rep Bashar al-Jaafari will make an appearance, and that there will be further splits among the opposition delegation, which has presented itself as unified. If all this sounds like déjà vu all over again, you’ve clearly been paying attention for the past six years. With talk now of Pentagon plans for US troops on the ground, tune in next week for our update from Aron Lund on the post-Astana pre-Geneva lay of the land, and what it means for the future of Syria. The big Munich meet-up Conferences often mean strange bedfellows, and the Munich Security Conference that kicks off today is no exception. Participants include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, US Vice-President Mike Pence and, um, Bono, obviously. Russian Foreign Minist[...]