Saving our future on this planet


Pope Francis says failure of climate summit would be catastrophic

Reuters reports: World leaders must reach a historic agreement to fight climate change and poverty at coming talks in Paris, facing the stark choice to either “improve or destroy the environment”, Pope Francis said in Africa on Thursday.

Francis chose his first visit to the world’s poorest continent to issue a clarion call for the success of the two-week summit, known as COP21, that starts on Monday in the French capital still reeling from attacks that killed 130 people and were claimed by Islamic State.

In a long address in Spanish at the United Nations regional office, Francis said it would be “catastrophic” if particular interests prevailed over the common good of people and the planet or if the conference were manipulated by business interests. [Continue reading…]


Rojava: Kurdish democracy without a state

Wes Enzinna visited Rojava in northern Syria, to teach a crash course in journalism: ‘‘I’m an atheist,’’ said Ramah, an 18-year-old student with a neatly trimmed goatee. A crowd of students had circled around, curious about who I was, what music I liked, how I had ended up here. None of them had ever heard of Bob Dylan or Edward Snowden or Brooklyn, where I lived. They asked if Obama really was a Muslim. They asked if everyone in America was an atheist, like Ramah. I told them there were many Christians, Muslims and Jews, though I said I didn’t believe in God.

‘‘Were you afraid when you discovered that God didn’t exist?’’ Ramah asked, imploring me with earnest, walnut-brown eyes.

‘‘Why would I be afraid?’’ I said.

‘‘In a world where there’s no God,’’ he said, ‘‘how do you deal with the constant fear of dying?’’

The next morning, I met with a student named Sami Saeed Mirza. I had barely slept, kept up by the intermittent swoosh of fighter jets and a series of loud thuds, whether distant bombs or the innocuous din of street life, I couldn’t tell. At one point, I went onto the rooftop and looked out at the horizon, a squiggly line of undulating sand spotted with a few stone huts. It was beautiful, in its way, a whole world painted with a single brush stroke of brown. Somewhere out there was the front line.

Mirza, 29, had sad, drowsy eyes and wore thick spectacles perched low on his nose. He hadn’t noticed the commotion. ‘‘I’m used to the sound,’’ he said. Unlike other students at the academy, Mirza grew up outside Syria in a small village in western Iraq. He is not a Muslim or an atheist but a Yazidi, part of an ethnic and religious minority that practices a modern form of Zoroastrianism. He hadn’t heard of Abdullah Ocalan until recently. In August 2014, ISIS extremists attacked his village, near the city of Sinjar, and butchered as many as 5,000 of his neighbors. While Mirza and his family were trapped on a mountain for four days, waiting to die, a battalion of women — Y.P.J. soldiers — fought through the ISIS lines and created a path for them to escape. Mirza, severely dehydrated and on the verge of collapse, fled.

‘‘The battle made me think of women differently,’’ he told me. ‘‘Women fighters — they saved us. My society, Yazidi society, is more, let’s say, traditional. I’d never thought of women as leaders, as heroes, before.’’

Mirza heard about the academy at a refugee camp, and here his education in feminism had continued. He and his fellow students studied a text that Ocalan wrote on gender equality called ‘‘Liberating Life.’’ In it, Ocalan argues that problems of bad governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions in Middle Eastern societies can’t be solved without achieving full equality for women. He once told P.K.K. militants in Turkey, ‘‘You don’t need to be [men] now. You need to think like a woman, for men only fight for power. But women love nature, trees, the mountains. … That is how you can become a true patriot.’’

‘‘I’ve learned the truth,’’ Mirza said. ‘‘The leader has shown us the correct interpretation of society.’’ Rojava’s Constitution — its ‘‘social contract’’ — was ratified on Jan. 9, 2014, and it enshrines gender equality and freedom of religion as inviolable rights for all residents. The Sinjar massacre gave Rojavan authorities an opportunity to show that they were deadly serious about protecting these rights. Still, I wondered if the rescue of Yazidis like Mirza wasn’t also strategic, a way to enlist the minority group in the defense of Rojava.

‘‘Why do you think the Y.P.G. and Y.P.J. saved you?’’ I asked.

‘‘Maybe I know, maybe I don’t,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are the only ones who came to help us. America didn’t come. The pesh merga’’ — Iraqi Kurdistan’s military — ‘‘didn’t come.’’ Now he wanted to devote his life to the teachings of Ocalan. ‘‘I was nothing before coming to the academy,’’ he said. [Continue reading…]


What is to be done about Syria?

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes: After Paris, Syria can no longer be ignored. French president Francois Hollande has declared his country at war. World leaders are scrambling to find a strategy to confront ISIS. Former rivals are coming together to speak of coordination and “deconfliction”. Over two years after the British parliament decided against intervening in Syria, the government is once again proposing a military response.

But if global inaction after the August 2013 chemical massacre in Syria yielded a disaster—at the time of the attacks, 30 months into the conflict, close to a hundred thousand people had been killed; in the next 30 months, the number of the dead would treble—action now is unlikely to make things better. The action being considered in 2013 at least had the merit of good faith. The debate now is driven by fear and optics alone. The flawed logic guiding the rush to action might deliver some telegenic victories, but will certainly make things worse in the longer run.

In the autumn of 2013, violence in Syria had reached dramatic levels, but it could still be considered a remote conflict. Bashar al Assad’s regime might have killed over 1,400 civilians in a chemical but he didn’t pose a threat to London or Paris (indeed, he had been welcome in both). Today Syria has become synonymous with a different monster. ISIS poses a threat not just to Syrians but also to western capitals. Action is no longer a choice, but is deemed a necessity.

This has induced some to reconsider their former antagonisms. A gathering din of approval is converging around Russian and Iranian proposals for an anti-terror alliance with Assad against ISIS. The logic was best articulated by former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine who, even before the Paris attacks, justified the rapprochement to a radio audience: “Let’s not forget that in the fight against Hitler, we had to ally with Stalin, who killed more people than Hitler.”

This logic—which strains to convey the impression of hard-nosed realism—is dubious in fact and myopic in its counsels. By misdiagnosing the problem, it prescribes a medicine that will only inflame the fever. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia and ISIS: A false equation but troubling echoes

Hussein Ibish writes: A growing trope in mainstream Western analysis, which is also present in some parts of Arab and Muslim discourse, casts the kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the political and moral equivalent of the terrorist group ISIL (also known as ISIS, the “Islamic State,” and Daesh). This conflation is wrong regarding most aspects of conduct and policy, especially relations to the international and regional order. But it does evoke some troubling echoes and influences that must be of concern even to those who see the problems with this equation. The comparison does not arise within a total void. Although the analogy is unjustified, it does raise serious concerns that need to be addressed by mainstream Saudi society and its government.

The American “newspaper of record,” the New York Times, has been at the forefront of publicizing the notion that “ISIL equals Saudi Arabia” in recent weeks. A September 2 article by Times columnist Thomas Friedman promoted this metaphor. In “Our Radical Islamic BFF, Saudi Arabia,” Friedman opines that “several thousand Saudis have joined the Islamic State or that Arab Gulf charities have sent ISIS donations” because “all these Sunni jihadist groups — ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front — are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.”

This explicit cause-and-effect theory about the relationship between the mainstream civic, political, and religious culture in a society and the attraction to such terrorist groups in its population doesn’t scan well. Among the largest number, up to 3,000, of ISIL recruits have been from Tunisia. The Tunisian ISIL recruit rate is generally thought to be the highest of all, more than the Saudi estimate that tops off at about 2,000 – 2,500.

Yet, Tunisia is the most secular and least fundamentalist of all Arab societies, with the possible exception of Lebanon. This undermines Friedman’s claim that cultural and religious extremism in a given society, in this case the Saudi one, especially as promoted by culturally hegemonic national institutions, provides a strong correlation to participation in radical movements. The problem might be correctly seen, as he also suggests, in a global Islamic context, with Saudi and other promotion of intolerance and extremism as an important historical factor in creating the current wave of violent radicalism. But if ISIL recruitment draws most heavily on Tunisia, closely followed by Saudi Arabia — two countries in most ways on the opposite ends of the Arab cultural and political spectrum — that strongly suggests that there are broader explanations than a specific national cultural and religious atmosphere for the appeal of terrorism. [Continue reading…]


Outsourcing war: UAE secretly sends hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to fight in Yemen

The New York Times reports: The United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran.

It is the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years, according to several people currently or formerly involved with the project. The program was once managed by a private company connected to Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, but the people involved in the effort said that his role ended several years ago and that it has since been run by the Emirati military.

The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels who have pushed the Yemeni government out of the capital, Sana.

It is also a glimpse into the future of war. Wealthy Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, have in recent years embraced a more aggressive military strategy throughout the Middle East, trying to rein in the chaos unleashed by the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010. But these countries wade into the new conflicts — whether in Yemen, Syria or Libya — with militaries that are unused to sustained warfare and populations with generally little interest in military service.

“Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries who wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The Modern Mercenary.” [Continue reading…]


Hassan Hassan discusses plans for a coalition against ISIS


Assad’s officer ghetto: Why the Syrian army remains loyal

Kheder Khaddour writes: The Syrian army’s officer corps has remained intact despite the immense pressure of nearly four years of civil and military conflict, a fact that has prevented the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The military housing system is a crucial aspect of this cohesion: it reveals the world Syrian officers inhabit, their relations with the regime and wider Syrian society, and the reasons why so few have defected so far.

While there have been defections in the infantry, no major fighting unit has broken away en masse, as defection on this scale would have required the participation of middle- to high-ranking officers. Indeed, the core of the officer corps continues to stand by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fact that a majority of officers are drawn from Syria’s Alawite community has often been noted as the primary, even singular, factor in the army’s cohesion since 2011. But this explanation overstates the role of sectarian affiliation.
Khaddour is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. His research focuses on issues of identity and society in Syria.

Army officers have access to a benefits system that links nearly every aspect of their professional and personal lives to the regime, and this places them in an antagonistic relationship with the rest of society. Dahiet al-Assad, or “the suburb of Assad” northeast of Damascus and the site of the country’s largest military housing complex, reveals how this system works. Known colloquially as Dahia, the housing complex provides officers with the opportunity of owning property in Damascus. As many army officers come from impoverished rural backgrounds, home ownership in the capital would have been beyond their financial reach. Military housing has offered them an opportunity for social advancement, but the community that officers and their families inhabit within Dahia also fosters a distinct identity that segregates them from the rest of Syrian society, leaving them dependent on the regime. [Continue reading…]


Why Turkey’s downing of Russian jet will have limited fallout

Alex Rowell writes: Imaginations continued to run freely Wednesday, one day after a Russian fighter jet was shot down over Syria by Turkey after allegedly violating the latter’s airspace, leading to the killing by Syrian rebels of the pilot as well as a Russian marine sent by helicopter to search for the ejected co-pilot.

Fans of Russian President Vladimir Putin rushed to social media to declare the impending downfall of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while mainstream American media networks asked whether the incident may in fact “start World War III.” Such fancies were further propelled by the news that Russia is set to deploy high-tech S-400 air defense missiles to its Syrian air base, as well as to send an air defense ship to the edge of Turkish waters in the Mediterranean.

And yet, despite Putin’s threat of “serious consequences” for Ankara, both nations have in reality already retreated from any potential brink. “We have no intention to escalate this incident,” said Erdoğan in a televised speech. Similarly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov remarked, “We will not wage war with Turkey, and relations with the Turkish people have not changed.” Indeed, the mood in Turkey, according to analysts with whom NOW spoke, is largely placid, with the fallout from the incident widely expected to be confined to, and contained within, the Syrian warzone exclusively. [Continue reading…]


Donald Trump, meet a Syrian refugee named Heba

Nicholas Kristof writes: Ben Carson has compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. Donald Trump says that he would send them back.

Who are these Syrian refugee monsters who terrify American politicians?

Meet Heba, a frightened, desperate 20-year-old woman who dreams of being an artist and has just made a perilous escape from territory controlled by the Islamic State in northern Syria.

She was detained two months ago with her sister by Islamic State enforcers because her sister’s baby girl had too short a skirt — even though the baby was just 3 months old.

“That was crazy,” Heba said, shaking her head. “This was an infant!”

Heba says she and her sister argued that infant girls should have a little leeway in showing skin, and eventually the family was let off with a warning.

But Heba, strong-willed and self-confident, perhaps had been too outspoken or too sarcastic, and the police then cast a critical eye on her clothing. She was covering even her hands and face, but the authorities complained that her abaya cloak wasn’t loose enough to turn her into a black puff that concealed her form. The police detained her for hours until her family bailed her out by paying a $10 fine.

Heba was lucky, for other women have been flogged for violating clothing rules. Her sister saw a woman stoned to death after being accused of adultery.

“If I were wearing this,” Heba told me, pointing down at the tight jeans she was wearing as we spoke, “my head would come off.” She offered a hollow laugh.

I spoke to her after she left her mother and siblings behind in Syria (her father died years ago of natural causes) and fled with a handful of relatives on a perilous journey to Turkey, then on a dangerously overcrowded boat to this Greek island. I took Heba and her relatives to a dinner of pizza — Western food is banned by the Islamic State — and as we walked to the pizzeria she made a game of pointing out all the passers-by who would be decapitated by ISIS for improper dress, consorting with the opposite sex or sundry other offenses.

“It’s a million percent difference,” she exulted of life in the West. “Once you leave that area, you feel so good. Your whole body relaxes.”

Americans are understandably afraid of terrorism after the Paris attacks, and that fear is channeled at Syrian refugees. So pandering politicians portray the refugees as menaces whom the vetting process is unable to screen out, and Americans by nearly two to one oppose President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrians over a year.

In fact, despite the impressions left by American politicians and by the Islamic State, Syrians are in general more educated and middle class than many other people in the region, and the women more empowered. Heba’s aspirations to be an artist aren’t unusual. [Continue reading…]


Why is AIPAC silent on Syrian refugees?

Peter Beinart writes: The last two weeks have brought a festival of American ugliness. Since the attacks in Paris, virtually every Republican governor has declared their state off-limits to Syrian refugees. GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz has called for allowing in Syrians only if they’re Christian. Donald Trump has mused about registering American Muslims and falsely accused them of celebrating 9/11. The bigotry and cowardice are jaw dropping. France, which lost 130 lives on November 13, has nonetheless committed to accepting 30,000 desperate Syrians. Barack Obama wants to accept 10,000 and the Republican Party has erupted in nativist hysteria.

In this dark time, the organized American Jewish community has been a source of light. In 2011, during another spasm of Islamophobia, the Anti-Defamation League shamed itself by opposing the building of an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center. This time, by contrast, it has joined with nine other American Jewish groups to pen a letter to Congress declaring that, “To turn our back on refugees would be to betray our nation’s core values.” Even the right-leaning Orthodox Union has declared that, “While security concerns must be paramount, our focus as a nation should be on ‘getting to yes’” and accepting Syrian refugees.

Why is an American Jewish establishment so untroubled by the denial of Palestinian rights in Israel so concerned about America’s treatment of Syrian refugees? Because human beings think analogically. When new events arise we scan our brains for similar events in the past and then use the lessons of those past events to determine how to respond. If the last time you ate carrot cake you got sick, you’re unlikely to eat anything that looks like carrot cake again.

For American Jewish leaders, the most powerful analogy is the Holocaust. But it contains two, radically different, lessons. Lesson number one is to be on the lookout for Nazis. Thus, when Iranian leaders call for the elimination of Israel, American Jewish leaders assume that, like Adolf Hitler, they will use any weapons at their disposal, no matter the risk, to murder Jews. Lesson number two is that anyone suffering a Holocaust—or some lesser persecution–deserves help, as long as they are not Nazis themselves.

The first lesson is tribal; the second is universal. The first inclines Jewish organizations to take a hard line against Iranian’s nuclear program and Palestinian nationalism. The second inclines them toward empathy for Syrians fleeing persecution and gays and lesbians who want the right to marry.

This summer, during the Iran fight, most American Jewish organizations activated the right sides of their brain. Now, this fall, during the Syrian refugee controversy, they’re activating their left. And in the process, they’re showing compassion when it’s needed most.

But there’s a problem. While the organizations that petitioned Congress on behalf of Syrian refugees respond to both halves of the Holocaust analogy, they don’t wield much power in Washington. They’re far less influential than AIPAC, which focuses only on the first. AIPAC leaders invoke the Holocaust constantly, but only to imply that Israel’s enemies are Nazis, never to suggest that non-Jews suffering oppression deserve help. That’s why AIPAC won’t weigh in on Syrian refugees. It’s also why AIPAC has repeatedly hosted the Reverend John Hagee, even though he’s said Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans because the city was hosting a gay pride rally. For AIPAC, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Hagee supports Benjamin Netanyahu against Israel’s Nazi-like foes.

People in the American Jewish community take this for granted. But they shouldn’t. In the mid-twentieth century, the idea that American Jewry’s most powerful communal institution would ignore everything except Israel would have struck Jewish leaders as perverse. Back then, before AIPAC became the powerhouse it is today, America’s most influential Jewish groups cared about Israel. But they cared about civil rights and civil liberties inside the United States even more. J.J. Goldberg notes in his book, Jewish Power, that in the 1940s American Jewish Congress employed more lawyers fighting racial segregation than either the NAACP or the Department of Justice. [Continue reading…]


Beitar Jerusalem fans: ‘Here we are, the most racist football team in the country’


MSF calls for independent and impartial investigation of U.S. attack on Kunduz hospital

BBC News reports: A US aircraft attacked a Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) clinic in the Afghan city of Kunduz because of “human error”, a US military inquiry said.

The investigation found the crew of the AC-130 gunship mistook the clinic for a nearby government building that had been seized by Taliban fighters.

At least 30 civilians were killed in the 3 October attack, amid a campaign to retake Kunduz from Taliban forces.

MSF said the report demonstrates “gross negligence” by the US military.

The group said the incident constituted “violations of the rules of war” and reiterated calls for an “independent and impartial investigation into the attack”. [Continue reading…]


Music: Dino Saluzzi Group — ‘Milonga de mis amores’


Right-wing populism is surging on both sides of the Atlantic – here’s why

By Ruth Wodak, Lancaster University

On both sides of the Atlantic, right-wing populist parties are enjoying another moment in the sun. In Europe, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) recently doubled its vote in a state election. Fellow travellers are making headway across Europe – France’s Front National, Hungary’s Jobbik, Bulgaria’s Ataka, and the party formally known as True Finns.

Many explanations for the European surge point to a xenophobic knee-jerk reaction to the refugee crisis, but that’s far too simplistic; the phenomenon is hardly confined to Europe. Look at the surprising success of Donald Trump in the US’s Republican party primary campaign. Many of his fellow candidates are struggling to keep up with his firebrand pronouncements, not least his proposal to deport millions of illegal immigrants.

So why exactly are these leaders and parties enjoying such success – and are they really all birds of a feather?

[Read more…]