First, end the atrocities in Syria

As international talks in search of a cease-fire and regime change in Syria get under way this week in Switzerland, there is a humanitarian disaster unfolding that must take top priority.

Photos of the corpses of more than 11,000 people reportedly starved, tortured and executed in jails controlled by President Bashar Assad have been smuggled out of Syria by a police photographer. And fighting in the civil war has trapped tens of thousands of civilians without food, water and medicine now that Assad has unconscionably embraced starvation as a weapon of war.

Achieving the ultimate goal of the United Nations diplomatic summit in Geneva — easing Assad from power — is a long shot. So as direct talks begin Friday, the United States and its allies should demand a verifiable end to the systematic killing and press the Assad regime for a show of good faith: an agreement to allow convoys carrying humanitarian aid to reach suffering civilians.

About 250,000 civilians are isolated in rebel-held areas besieged by government forces, out of reach of aid deliveries, according to the United Nations. Millions more are in areas that are barely accessible. Aid workers have had little success negotiating access to the sick and starving in a country where about 9 million people — nearly half the population — have been driven from their homes since the civil war began in 2011.

Standing by as preventable tragedy claims innocent lives offends the conscience and could erode U.S. influence as the world's lone superpower. But military intervention is out of the question. The United States has no compelling national interest in this war, is repulsed by the bloodthirsty Assad regime and is sensibly unwilling to aid an opposition dominated by radical Islamists.

But now that both sides in the conflict have joined the United States and others in negotiations, the immediate priority must be ending the atrocities.

—Newsday, Jan. 23

EPA pans Bristol Bay mining

Three years of study and review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put science on the side of opponents of a massive copper and gold mine planned for Alaska's salmon-rich Bristol Bay.

EPA's final watershed assessment concludes the mine is a direct threat to the health of the source of 46 percent of the world's wild sockeye salmon.

The environmental and economic devastation at risk with the proposed Pebble Mine is on an epic scale.

The report helped move Alaska U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, to announce this week his opposition to it as the wrong mine in the wrong place.

EPA states that up to 94 miles of streams would be destroyed. Wastewater issues and treatment failures threaten an additional 48 to 62 miles of streams.

Add in 5,300 acres of wetlands that would be damaged by the mining proposal, according to the EPA's findings.

Economic trauma wrought by the Pebble Mine radiates out in the same concentric circles suffered by the environment.

The EPA report put a value of $674 million on the salmon fishing and processing spread across Washington, Oregon and California. That translates to 12,000 seasonal jobs and 6,000 full-time jobs. Bristol Bay's salmon fishery also powers trade with Japan and China. All that is put at risk.

Washington U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, noted last week that nearly 1,000 Washingtonians hold commercial fishing permits in Bristol Bay. Recreational fishing adds an additional $75 million for Washington business, Cantwell said in a statement.

Large-scale mining in Bristol Bay was a bad idea from the start. In September, one of the partners in the plan, London-based Anglo American, pulled out, leaving Canada's Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Though the EPA describes the assessment as a technical resource, and not a final decision, the warning lights are flashing.

Hard evidence on the environmental devastation and the economic losses, and the hardships for Alaska Native cultures, all work against a terrible idea.

—The Seattle Times, Jan. 22