Syria ‘likely’ to have used chemical weapons: US

The United States has joined Britain, France and Israel in claiming it is likely that Syria

The United States has joined Britain, France and Israel in claiming it is likely that Syria has used chemical weapons against rebel forces.

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The White House has previously warned that the use of chemical arms by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could trigger possible military action.

 

However US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel has emphasised that U-S spy agencies are not 100 per cent sure of their assessment and can’t give firm details yet.

 

The comments come amid growing pressure from Republican politicians in the U-S for the Obama administration to provide weapons to rebel forces in Syria.

 

Michael Kenny has the details.

 

Mr Hagel says the US intelligence community assesses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.

 

Varying degrees of confidence is a phrase used by intelligence organisations to indicate disagreement among different agencies.

 

Mr Hagel believes the specific chemical agent used might be sarin, a man made nerve agent used in two attacks in Japan in the 1990s.

 

But the US Defence Secretary concedes more information is needed from intelligence agencies to confirm all the details.

 

“We need all the facts. We need all the information. What I’ve just given you is what our intelligence community has said they know. As I’ve also said, they’re still assessing and they’re still looking at what happened, who was responsible and the other specifics that we will need.”

 

The governments of Britain and France have also indicated they suspect the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but have not yet documented their information.

 

And the Israeli military released a report earlier this week, alleging that Syria has used chemical weapons more than once since the civil war began in March 2011.

 

For its part, the Syrian government has consistently denied using such weapons.

 

The United Nations estimates around 70,000 people have died since the conflict began.

 

And the growing loss of life has led to calls from some US Republicans for the Obama administration to provide weapons to the Syrian rebel forces trying to oust President Assad.

 

Republican Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain believes it is time for President Obama to adopt a tougher stance on Syria.

 

“Now I hope the administration will consider what we have been recommending now for over two years of this blood-letting and massacre and that is to provide a safe area for the opposition to operate, to establish a no fly zone and provide weapons to people in the resistance who we trust”.

 

But one expert on Middle Eastern politics believes providing weaponry to rebel forces in Syria may end up causing more problems for the United States in the longer term.

 

Associate Professor Matthew Gray from the Australian National University in Canberra says the rebels are not a cohesive group with a clear, united agenda.

 

“These are a whole bunch of different people. Everyone is there from defectors from the army to Islamic extremists in the opposition ranks. This is, I think the problem that Obama and his cabinet recognise, that it’s very, very risky to go and support the opposition too aggressively if you simply don’t know who is going to win any subsequent conflict over power in a post-Assad setting.”

 

Dr Gray also believes President Barack Obama is conscious of the mistakes made by his predecessor George W Bush in leading the country into a war in Iraq, based upon what turned out to be flawed intelligence on its weapons of mass destruction.

 

He says this explains the reluctance so far on the part of the Obama administration to display its full confidence in the intelligence assessments on chemical weapons in Syria.

 

Dr Gray also says the US would be more likely to seek an international mandate before it launched any military strike on Syria.

 

“I think they’re unlikely to launch large scale military operations without the backing of the UN which I don’t think they’re going to get for the time being. So it may be simply more aggressive support for the rebels if the regime was seen to have used chemical weapons. It may well be support to help those rebels destroy chemical weapons stocks or for the US Government to perhaps undertake some limited military operation in the air that destroys chemical weapons stocks.”

 

Leaders’ forum no turn-on in Sydney’s west

Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott could find it tough getting their message out to key western Sydney voters in Wednesday night’s people’s forum.

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Because they don’t appear too interested in tuning in.

Terry Simpkins, 75, says he’d rather watch a DVD than sit through the event, which will be broadcast from the Broncos Leagues Club in Brisbane.

“It won’t be on my television,” the Penrith resident said on one of the suburb’s main shopping strips.

“I’ve got a good collection of DVDs so I’ll whack one of those on.”

The retiree said he didn’t need to watch another debate to figure out how he’d vote.

“I’ll vote Liberal. Labor seem to have spent a hell of a lot of money and got us into a lot of debt.”

Down the street, local civil servant Kate said she’d be voting Labor because she was worried about the coalition cuts to the public sector.

“I’m concerned they’ll cut a lot of services, especially the public service where I work,” she told AAP.

She also wasn’t planning to watch the prime minister and the opposition leader face off on pay TV channel Sky News.

“I saw the other debate – I didn’t think it was very good,” she said on her way to work.

Penrith sits in the seat of Lindsay, which is held by Labor’s David Bradbury on a slim margin of 1.1 per cent.

The Liberal’s candidate is Fiona Scott, whom Mr Abbott controversially described as having “sex appeal” on a recent campaign stop in the seat.

Opinion polls show the ALP has fallen behind the coalition in the region.

Another Penrith local, Paul Fountain, said he’d probably vote for the coalition because of its record on healthcare.

But the leaders’ debate wasn’t on his radar either.

“What debate?” he said.

The first debate on ABC 1 came in at 12th place on the TV ratings, with 708,000 viewers, with Mr Rudd copping criticism for his use of notes.

Flybuys gets a makeover in the latest supermarket war

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The supermarket giant is relaunching the loyalty program and it has promised to make reaching reward levels easier and quicker.

I’ve got a flybuys card. Don’t know where it is though, and I haven’t used it in years.

That doesn’t matter though because on Monday, 8 million packs containing 16 million flybuys cards will be delivered to homes across the country, in what is one of Australia’s biggest mailings in history.

Coles says, customers will now earn 1 point per $1 they spend, which is 50 per cent more value than previously and will be able to earn bonus points on around 200 items across its stores.

It’s also launching, through flybuys, the my5 discount system, which will allow customers to receive 10 per cent off any 5 products of their choice, as long as they spend more than $50.

New partners like Telstra, Webjet and AGL will be joining existing partners like NAB and Kmart.

This project will cost Coles tens of millions of dollars and is the latest shot in the supermarket wars, which IGA also entered into today.

It’s launched a national advertising campaign targeting Coles’ and Woolworths’ home brands, reminding customers that they can purchase premium brands without settling for the products with the grocery store’s name’s sake.

Tomorrow, rival Woolworths, which has its own Everyday Rewards scheme with Qantas and Optus as its partners, will unveil its third quarter sales results.

And for the record, I also have an Everyday Rewards card. I don’t know where that one is either.

JB Hi-Fi defies retail gloom

B Hi-Fi has defied a difficult trading environment to lift sales and profit, and expects the trend to continue for the next 12 months.

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The electronics retailer made a net profit of $116.4 million in the 2012/13 financial year, up more than 11 per cent on the previous year.

Chief executive Terry Smart said the profit growth was the result of stronger sales and improved margins.

JB Hi-Fi recorded sales growth of 5.8 per cent for the year, and sales were up more than 10 per cent in the second six months.

Sales are expected to grow by between six and eight per cent in the 2013/14 financial year, Mr Smart said.

“We have seen a good start to FY14 with the continuation of the positive comparable sales seen in the second half of FY13,” he said in a statement.

“We see good growth opportunities ahead with a strong line up of new products planned for the first half of the year, growth from our new store roll out program and the expansion of the home appliance categories.”

JB Hi-Fi had posted a strong result given the difficulties retailers face from subdued consumer sentiment and ongoing pressure to discount prices, Invast chief market analyst Peter Esho said.

“They really could have blown up this year but JB Hi-Fi is in a much better position than other retailers,” he said.

“I can’t fault it at all.”

Low interest rates may have helped the company, but the sales growth experienced by the company shows the stores continued to lure customers in, Mr Esho said.

“Their sales line is growing at a pretty decent level which means they know what consumers want,” he said.

Mr Esho said the company should benefit from the release of several new smart phones and tablets ver the next year, as well as the growing market for smart TVs.

Obama: Greyer, wiser, but with a chance to claim ‘Yes, We Did’

“The problem is that the government doesn’t fear the people,” he began saying to another hotel guest in line to use the waffle maker.

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“The people should not fear the government. The government should fear the people. And this government is the most radical government we’ve ever had…”

Across the car park another hotel was hosting a gun show. There, fear was again a strong theme. A mile or so down the road, toward a small town that has a growing population of artists, musicians, and gay couples rather than camouflage-wearing gun enthusiasts, a huge roadside billboard splashed a photo of President Obama with the message: “Vote for Obama? Embarrassed yet?”

A few hours after this Pennsylvania breakfast conversation, President Obama was sworn in for his second term in a quiet ceremony in front of his family. It is fair to say that not everyone in America is a fan of the President. When the official website of the Republican Party pitches an opportunity to “help stop the radical Obama agenda” you can bet that political divisions across the US will continue to be just as deep as the past four years.

Not that there’s anything necessarily different about that. Polarised positions ran through Bill Clinton’s term in office and were at fever pitch during George W. Bush’s tenure that launched two major wars and oversaw a financial meltdown that wrecked global economies.

Obama’s second term will be about making his place in history. He begins the next four years with two lists: a “must-do” and a “can-do”.

The must-do includes leading the line in fixing America’s debt problem, immigration reform, and making sure Iran doesn’t become an out-of-control mess. Regardless of who is in office, these are issues that have to be tackled (although Mitt Romney had a very different way to approach those issues).

The can-do list are agenda items Obama can make his legacy. Climate change, energy, gun control in the wake of the Newtown shootings, and issues that are important to the coalition of minorities that got him reelected can now be pushed through with strong leadership.

There’s no guarantee that, even with no reelection campaign to face, Obama will be successful with any Big Ideas. Congress faces elections in 2014 and will be hesitant to pass any decisions that jeopardise its own chances of reelection.

As negotiations over the fiscal cliff demonstrated, the Republican Party intends to play the next four years as stubbornly as the last.

Obama’s push for gun control legislation – enabled by pursuing an executive order that does not require congressional approval – was criticised by the Republican Party as a “power grab”.

“He paid lip service to our fundamental constitutional rights but took actions that disregard the second amendment and legislative process,” said Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus.

“Representative government is meant to give voice to the people.”

Preibus is not wrong on his last line. Obama now has the opportunity to lead the country in the direction those who elected him for a second term would prefer. Obama is also four years wiser – as well as greyer – than he was in 2008.

He will still face battles and opposition to his ideas – from rural Pennsylvania to Congress – but has enough backing from Preibus’ “voice of the people” (even if they are not Preibus’ people) to leave office in 2017 claiming “Yes We Did”. Even if that’s with the caveat “more or less”.