-SHOWDOWN LOOMS IN ALEPPO…It's the country's second-largest city - home to ancient cultural sites - and after a rebel attack, and an eerily quiet day, there are fears in Aleppo of a major counterpunch from Assad's armed forces. Rebels and government troops appear to be gearing up to battle over a half a dozen neighborhoods in the city, where rebels have attempted to assert control. Shelling has already begun this morning. Yesterday, rebels claimed to have attacked and burned down several police stations, like this one featured in graphic video posted to YouTube.
-DAMASCUS SHELLING?…Late word of shelling underway in Damascus - after a lull of several days…
-AFTER ASSAD?…The Wall Street Journal reports the Obama administration and its allies are discussing ways to place the highest-ranking Syrian defector, Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, at the center of a political transition. They believe General Tlass is one of the few figures in the opposition who could help restore order in Damascus and secure Syria's vast-chemical weapons stockpile. For his part, Tlass said in comments published Thursday he is working on a plan to end the conflict, save Syria from sectarianism and rebuild the country without a role for Bashar Assad. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Tlass said the roadmap he's working on would involve "honorable" Syrians, including members of the present regime whose hands are "not stained with blood." "I'm trying as much as I can to unite honorable Syrians inside and outside the country to create a roadmap that could end Syria's crisis," Tlass told the paper during a visit to Saudi Arabia. "We must preserve the state," he said, but added: "I do not see Syria with Bashar Assad" playing a role. The general who once shared a close friendship with Assad said the president would have remained in power if "he had not taken this security path… but security forces disrupted his views."
-BUFFER ZONE IN TURKEY?…More talk in the Turkish press today about a possible buffer zone inside Syrian territory if the refugee crisis continues to grow: The newspaper Zaman reports that the recent pounding of Aleppo by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces could be a harbinger of a refugee influx into the country, which could move Turkey close to its red line and force the country to weigh buffer zone plans along the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey has already signaled it would weigh plans to establish a safety zone within Syrian territory if it is faced with a massive influx of refugees. The current number of refugees in Turkey has already reached more than 44,000.
-ONE DAY TO GO…Today's the day for last-minute Olympic travel and preparation. It could be the busiest day in the history of Heathrow Airport which is expected to handle 250,000 passengers. So far, no reports of delays at immigration. It's also the last full day for the torch relay which is expected to pass Buckingham Palace where Prince William and Kate and Prince Harry will be on hand. Last night, a technical rehearsal for the opening ceremony wrapped up with two minutes of fireworks, caught on video.
-MORE BAD NEWS FOR GREECE…The country's world indoor high jump champion Dimitris Chondrokoukis has pulled out of the London Olympics after failing a drug test (yesterday you'll recall Greece removed triple jumper Voula Papachristou from the country's team over her comments on Twitter mocking African immigrants and expressing support for a far-right party).
-U.S. "THREAT INTEGRATION CENTER"…Jason RYAN reports: The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) says U.S. intelligence agencies have established a threat integration center with British Security officials to analyze threat information as the London games get underway. "For the past two years, NCTC, in coordination with our intelligence community and British partners, has been leading the U.S. effort to make sure that we are collecting and analyzing and sharing all potential threat information relating to the Olympics and that we are in a position to respond quickly to prevent any possible plotting tied to the games," Matthew Olsen, Director of the NCTC, testified Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee. The threat analysis center will be housed at the U.S. Embassy in London and staffed by officials from the CIA, NCTC and FBI as well as other U.S. intelligence services to review threat information and quickly share it with officials from Scotland Yard, MI-5 and MI-6. Sources said the FBI had a contingent of about 50 employees and agents working in the United Kingdom.
-WHO'LL LIGHT THE FLAME?…Paolo MARENGHI notes a bookmaker's odds on who will light the flame in tomorrow's opening ceremonies: Sir Steve Redgrave: 2/5; Daley Thompson: 7/2; Prince William: 5/1; Sir Roger Bannister: 6/1; Dame Kelly Holmes: 7/1; David Beckham: 14/1;
-HIGH-SECURITY DRUG TESTS…Nick SCHIFRIN reports: UPS is transporting the athletes' drug tests from the Athletes' Village to a lab - using as tight security as it does to deliver the medals. UPS says it keeps the blood and urine samples "locked down to a very few" drivers, who have been trained to use a series of "secret signals" so their cargo isn't revealed or tampered with. It's part of the largest doping tests ever conducted at any games.
-NIKE V. "BRANDING POLICE"…SCHIFRIN again: Nike has decided to thumb its nose at draconian sponsorship rules and is launching a marketing campaign using athletes in all the Londons around the world - except the one in England. Adidas has paid millions to sponsor the games, and the organizing committee here has gone to ridiculous lengths to protect their sponsors. One official even suggested spectators wouldn't be allowed in the park if they wore a Pepsi t-shirt, because Coke was the official sponsor. (He later backtracked.) Throughout the torch relay, organizers sent out a team of branding police to pull down posters from local cafés or bakeries that used "London 2012? or an image of the Olympic rings.
-OLYMPIC POLL…An ABC News/Washington Post poll out this morning finds 72 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the upcoming games, despite the many fiascos that have accompanied the run-up.
ROMNEY IN EUROPE: A BUMPY START?
With the Olympics Games as a backdrop, Mitt Romney has kicked off his overseas tour in London, meeting with some of Britain's most powerful people, as he seeks to project an image of leadership and to show that he knows his foreign policy. "We have a very special relationship between the United States and Great Britain," Romney said on the first day of a weeklong overseas trip that will also take him to Israel and Poland. Romney's first official appearances were with British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. He's also slated to meet with Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, and Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, and to raise campaign money as well. As Emily FRIEDMAN reports, a day after Romney was forced to distance himself from comments made by an unidentified adviser that the White House doesn't understand the shared "Anglo-Saxon" heritage between the U.S. and U.K., there's been "more bad British press for Romney today." The Times of London is seizing on Romney's remarks to NBC last night that there were some things about the Olympic games that were "disconcerting." And "The Brits also don't love Romney's stump speech line that the economy has two paths to take - one toward Europe and one toward American prosperity. The paper calls it an attack on Europe by Romney."
-DOW SOARS ON EURO PLEDGE…Seems to us like buying on rhetoric - not action - but here's the AP bulletin: Dow Jones average jumps 240 points after European Central Bank vows to keep the euro intact…
-COMPANIES FEEL THE PAIN…As Richard DAVIES writes, "What has the corporate earnings season told us so far? Europe is a big drag on profits and sales." That was clear from disappointing earnings at UPS. Ford and Apple have also blamed their less than stellar numbers on a decline in European demand. "The corporate alarm bells highlight how the miserable economic conditions in much of Europe are spilling onto the global stage," reports The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile European heavyweights including steelmaker ArcelorMittal and pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline PLC said they are suffering more than expected on their home turf. "I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Leif Östling, chief executive of Swedish truck maker Scania AB, which reported a 40% decline in profit Wednesday. With much of Europe in recession and unemployment soaring, spending is sliding on everything from big-ticket items like cars to everyday staples like yogurt.
CHINA: MURDER CHARGE IN U.K. BUSINESSMAN'S DEATH
From Karson YIU in Beijing: Breaking on Xinhua, disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai's wife and a family aide have been formally charged with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood: @XHNews: Bogu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun were prosecuted by a local procuratorate on charge of intentional homicide, Xinhua learnt Thursday.
RUSSIA/U.S.: ANOTHER ADOPTION MESS?
From Kirit RADIA in Moscow: Another adoption abuse scandal - as Kirit writes, "We'll see if this blows up here like previous cases have… An 8-year-old adopted Russian boy reportedly escaped from an abusive household in Virginia last week. His foster parents have apparently been arrested. More as we have it…
RUSSIAN SPY RING WANTED TO RECRUIT KIDS
A Russian spy ring busted in the U.S. two years ago planned to recruit members' children to become agents, and one had already agreed to his parents' request, current and former U.S. officials tell the Wall Street Journal. When the suspects were arrested in 2010 with much fanfare, official accounts suggested they were largely ineffectual. New details about their time in the U.S., however, suggest their work was more sophisticated and sometimes more successful than previously known. One of them infiltrated a well-connected consulting firm with offices in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., by working as the company's in-house computer expert, according to people familiar with the long-running U.S. investigation. The effort to bring children into the family business suggests the ring was thinking long term: Children born or reared in America were potentially more valuable espionage assets than their parents because when they grew up they would be more likely to pass a U.S. government background check.
MEET MR. AND MRS. KIM JONG UN
New pictures show a side of Kim Jong Un we've never seen - he and his new bride walking hand in hand and enjoying a rollercoaster. His bride is Ri Sol Ju, a singer who was formally introduced as the North Korean leader's wife Wednesday, at the opening of an amusement park. Joohee CHO in Seoul says there are questions about whether Ri Sol Ju is Kim Jong Un's first or second wife. His first bride may have been Hyun Song Wol, the mystery woman seen next to Jong Un at Kim Jong Il's funeral last December.
JAPANESE WOMEN NO LONGER LIVING THE LONGEST
From Akiko FUJITA: A blow for Japan's well-known and much-touted longevity: An annual report by Japan's health ministry out today finds Japanese women are no longer living the longest of any women in the world. That honor has gone to Hong Kong, with Japan slipping to second. It's the first time since 1985 that Japan has ranked second.
HUNTER GATHERER CLUES TO MODERN OBESITY?
From Bazi KANANI in Nairobi: Is a sedentary lifestyle to blame for the obesity epidemic in the modern Western world? Too much time sitting in front of computers and TVs instead of constantly moving to hunt for meat or forage for berries as our ancient ancestors would have done? According to a new study of a tribe of hunter gatherers in East Africa, that's not so. Researchers studied the Hadza people in rural Tanzania as a model of the ancient lifestyle. To their surprise, they found Hadza people burn the same amount of calories on average each day as people in Western countries. They concluded the real problem is how much we eat, not how little we move. The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.