The existential threat posed by ISIS to the Middle East and beyond

Gareth Stansfield writes: ISIS have exposed a great strategic illusion/miscalculation by Western powers. This is to say that the West is clinging to a traditional, statist response to a cross-border terrorist/insurgent threat from a non-state actor. This is actually a choice of the West not to recognise the expanding threat not because ‘we’ cannot see it, but because political leaders are scared to acknowledge it – scared by the still-fresh memories of the public backlash following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and scared by the prospect of engaging in the no-win world of Middle East politics. But the situation now is different to then. ISIS is a terrorist organisation (and a spectacularly effective one) and remains border-less. But it has also acquired a substantial chunk of territory (a development which is convincing – insofar as it substantiates the idea of the caliphate – to impressionable recruits). So we have supremely violent, ideologically rampant terrorism fused with a new, border-less version of something like a modern state. This is a new development and one that seems to be studiously, and perilously, ignored.

It is not possible to defeat ISIS by attacking their forward-placed troops on the Great Zab river as they look east towards Erbil: the ‘state’ itself would have to be targeted at its points of concentration – Mosul, Fallujah, Raqqa, Hassekeh – if the challenge of ISIS is to be met. If one were to be privy to ISIS strategy meetings around Ibrahim al-Baghdadi and his policy team in Raqqa, (and, unlike everyone else, they have articulated their vision, they do seem to have a strategy, and they certainly have policies) one would probably see a plan that sees ISIS grow in the Middle East through a combination of pushing the message of their success and thus seeing recruitment grow and neighbouring states undermined. It would be combined with an aggressive policy of territorial expansion, with Lebanon and Jordan both being prime targets. Indeed, the black flag of ISIS has already been raised in these countries.

ISIS therefore do not play by the rules of the game that still underpin much of the West’s responses to such challenges. They are making a new rule book – one that combines the most modern approaches of strategic planning, media messaging, psychological warfare, and counter-insurgency (consider how they have shut down opposition among their close partners/potential threats and implemented their own version of identifying those who could be ‘reconciled’, and those who are ‘irreconcilables’ – a technique perfected by the US in Iraq in 2007-8), with the most brutal, inhuman techniques of control imaginable. Their methods then see the organisation grow either because some followers are genuinely impressed by what is seem to be a strong organisation for once being able to stand up for them, or because some are simply too fearful of the consequences of not being in the biggest and nastiest gang around.

As their plan has unfolded, ISIS have brought two thresholds forward – one is their own advance and the reformation of realities on the ground on the Middle East; the second is the reaction of Western populations and the pressure they could bring to bear on their governments to take actions to roll back ISIS.

The question to ask now is simply which threshold will be passed first? Will ISIS succeed and strengthen the so-called Caliphate so it can no longer be dismissed as the fantasy of a self-proclaimed leader on a remarkably lucky streak, or will the international community recognise the threat of ISIS as being an actor with real agency and with aspirations that are absolutely antagonistic not only to Western interests, but to allies in the Middle East, and stop them? Neither prospect is palatable, but then neither, it seems, is muddling through and banally hoping for the best.

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Arm moderates to fight ISIS in Syria, not just in Iraq

Alistair Harris writes: The growth of ISIS is a product of four factors. The first is the enabling environment of the Syrian conflict, and the Syrian government’s cynical manipulation of extremists, enabling the latter to fight the regime’s enemies. The Al-Assad regime may intermittently be bombing ISIS now, much as the US are doing in Iraq, but that is simply an attempt to salvage its claim that the regime has been ‘fighting terrorists’ since the outbreak of the popular uprising against its excesses.

The second is the regime’s use of Hizbollah and other Iranian-backed militias to attack its predominantly Sunni Syrian opponents, thus stoking sectarianism that has been exploited by ISIS.

The third is the legacy of Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian politics, which drove disaffected and marginalised Sunni, tribal and ex-Baathist groups to make common cause with ISIS in Iraq.

The fourth is the vacuum created by the conflict in Syria and the lack of sustained international support, including militarily, to the Syrian opposition. ISIS in Syria was driven from many areas it controlled in Syria in January as a result of popular rejection and armed opposition activity.

The regime played no part in this roll back, and the failure to consolidate rebel gains against ISIS during the offensive allowed it to maintain a crucial foothold in northeastern Syria. Re-minted as ‘Islamic State’ and burnished with resources seized in Iraq, ISIS expanded its zone of control from its Syrian base in Raqqa to neighbouring Dayr aw-Zawr and beyond, with ISIS fighters even spilling over to Lebanon. As the Head of the Aleppo Provincial Council, Abdul-Rahman Dedem stated this week, forced to fight on two fronts against the regime and IS, the opposition forces in Aleppo may soon be encircled and then defeated. Some within the international community have suggested that we make common cause with the Syrian regime against IS. This is the dichotomy that Al-Assad has sought to posit from the outset; that the choice is between beheadings, crucifixions, the slaughter of minorities and the imposition of Manichean ISIS rule, and the regime as a bastion of security and a buffer against the worst excesses of the extremists. The majority of Syrians, however, reject this Faustian bargain, instead seeking peace, opportunity and a better future for themselves, their families and their country.
Contain ISIS by Supporting the Syrian Opposition

As the Syrian conflict has ground on, the international community has lacked a coherent, realistic strategy. There now needs to be an acceptance that the Syrian opposition can not defeat either ISIS or the Syrian regime without external military support. This may not and should not involve direct military intervention, but must involve an expansion of military assistance, principally with two aims. The first is to contain ISIS by supporting Syrian rebels willing to take the fight to ISIS. The opposition is already the principal target for ISIS, and is fighting (and losing) as its forces suffer at the hands of better armed ISIS fighters. The ironies are profound here. The international community baulked at providing weapons to the opposition for fear they might fall into the hands of extremists, only for ISIS to rise uncontested and seize US-supplied weapons in Iraq. The opposition has lamented that whilst they must contend with insufficient numbers of Soviet-era Kalashnikovs, ISIS enjoys access to US weaponry, courtesy of the Iraqi Army. The second objective of external military support is to create a military balance in Syria which will bring the regime to the negotiating table and hasten the end of this conflict. [Continue reading...]

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Challenges in fighting against ISIS

Reuters reports: At the start of the Islamic State offensive, Iraq’s air force was largely limited to attack helicopters and a handful of propeller-driven Cessna light aircraft firing Hellfire rockets.

By the end of June, however, Russia and Iraq announced a deal to supply the Iraqi air force with Su-25 attack jets. Simple, slow and unwieldy but heavily armored, they are ideal for attacking troop concentrations in the open.

A second batch of Su-25s arrived in July bearing the camouflage patterns and markings used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies said after examining assorted photographs. Neither the Iraqi nor Iranian governments have commented on their origin, or who is flying them.

Iraqi military officer Colonel Ali Abdulkareem said the jets halted the Islamic State’s advance on Baghdad last month.

Although Iraqi pilots were less experienced than their American counterparts and the weaponry less accurate, coordination with ground forces was improving, Abdulkareem said.

But it won’t be easy to defeat Islamic State in Iraq.

The U.S. air campaign appears to have provoked even more anger from the Islamic State against the Kurds. The Islamic State released a video on Thursday in which it showed 15 Kurdish prisoners and the apparent execution of one of the men. Three of the prisoners urge Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani to end his military alliance with the United States.

“What we are fighting now is a well-trained and well-armed terrorist army,” said a senior Kurdish official. “They are very clever in their fighting, we have to admit. They want to make us busy on many fronts. They come to one front, they want all of us to focus on that front, and then they penetrate through another front.”

Taking back ethnic Sunni areas looks difficult. During the 2007/08 “surge”, U.S. troops worked closely with some Sunni groups against al Qaeda. Some of those they trained now fight with Islamic State, say Sunni fighters and tribal leaders. [Continue reading...]

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Decaying Guantánamo defies closing plans

The New York Times reports: The prison facilities amid this harsh landscape of sun, scrub and dust have expanded, even as the detainee population has shrunk. In 2003, about 680 prisoners filled Camp Delta, a sprawling complex with three units of open-air cellblocks and another area of communal bunks.

Today, the remaining 149 detainees live in newer buildings, and Camp Delta sits empty. To the north, the original complex, Camp X-Ray — with kennel-like cages that were used for about four months in 2002 while Delta was built — is a ghost prison, overrun by vegetation and banana rats, tropical rodents the size of opossums.

Hidden in the hills about a half-mile back from the seacoast sits Camp 7, an intelligence operations center where a group of high-level terrorism suspects, like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, are imprisoned.

Last year, the Southern Command, or Southcom, requested about $200 million to rebuild that structure; to upgrade housing for the 2,000 troops participating in the prison task force; and to replace or repair other buildings, arguing that the compound was not designed for long-term use and patching up various buildings was no longer adequate.

The Pentagon rejected the request, but Congress may approve about $23 million for two wish-list items: replacing the kitchen building and moving the medical clinic closer to Camps 5 and 6, concrete-walled structures where most of the detainees now live surrounded by layers of high fences covered with concertina wire.

Moreover, military officials here say they are updating a 10-year budgeting “road map” to eventually build many of the other items. They would gradually tap general military construction funds, not seek line-item approval from lawmakers in spending bills.

“We are forced to at least forecast so that we’re prepared if this detention facility is open two years from now, 12 years from now, 22 years from now, so that we’re prepared to be able to continue to do the mission,” said Rear Adm. Kyle Cozad, who took over the prison task force in July. [Continue reading...]

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Leading British Muslims issue fatwa condemning ISIS

The Sunday Times reports: Some of Britain’s most influential imams have condemned British Muslims fighting alongside Isis extremists in Iraq and Syria.

They have issued a fatwa, or religious decree, describing them as “heretics”.

The fatwa ”religiously prohibits” would-be British jihadists from joining “oppressive and tyrannical” Isis, also known as Islamic State. The imams order all Muslims to oppose Isis’s “poisonous ideology” , especially when it is promoted within Britain.

The fatwa, the first of its kind issued by British Muslim scholars, follows the elevation of Britain’s terror threat from substantial to severe, meaning an attack is “highly likely”.

Senior officials revealed last night that the prime minister would announce plans tomorrow for laws to prevent British jihadists fighting in Iraq and Syria from re-entering Britain. Passports of UK citizens suspected of terrorist activity will be cancelled.

The fatwa has been issued after criticism that British Muslim leaders have not done enough to condemn aspiring jihadists who have travelled to fight for Isis, or those supporting its ideology in the UK.

It says Muslims have a “moral obligation” to help the Syrian and Iraqi people but “without betraying their own societies”.

It says: “British and other EU citizens are bound by their duties to their home countries according to Islamic theology and jurisprudence: it is therefore prohibited (haram) to travel to fight with any side in Syria.” The fatwa was written by Sheik Usama Hasan, a former imam at the Masjid Al-Tawhid Mosque in east London.

Six senior Islamic scholars from Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester and London have endorsed it. [Continue reading...]

FATWA ON THE SO-CALLED “ISLAMIC STATE” (FORMERLY “ISLAMIC STATE IN IRAQ & SYRIA”)

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds. Peace and blessings be upon His final messenger Muhammad.

Due to recent events in the Middle East and their impact on some people in Britain, we as imams and scholars based in the UK, would like to issue the following clarifications in the form of a fatwa:

1. There is no doubt that President Assad’s regime in Syria is oppressive, unjust and brutal, and has committed numerous atrocities against its own people.

2. The same is true of the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) or self-styled “Caliphate,” formerly known as “The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”: it is an oppressive and tyrannical group.

3. By murdering prisoners of war, journalists and civilians, including mosque imams who refused to endorse their campaign, and by enslaving the women and children of their opponents, ISIS has violated international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions and conventions on slavery that everyone, including Muslims, have signed up to. God says in the Qur’an, “Believers, fulfil your covenants!” (5:1)

4. The IS persecution and massacres of Shia Muslims, Christians and Yazidis is abhorrent and opposed to Islamic teachings and the Islamic tolerance displayed by great empires such as the Mughals and Ottomans.

5. Based on all of the above: IS is a heretical, extremist organisation and it is religiously prohibited (haram) to support or join it; furthermore, it is an obligation on British Muslims to actively oppose its poisonous ideology, especially when this is promoted within Britain.

6. British and other EU citizens are bound by their duties to their home countries according to Islamic theology and jurisprudence: it is therefore prohibited (haram) to travel to fight with any side in Syria, including non-state actors, since this is forbidden by laws in EU countries.

7. It is a moral obligation upon British Muslims to help the Syrian and Iraqi people without betraying their own societies: “If they ask for your help in religion, you must help, except against a people with whom you have a treaty.” (Qur’an 8:72)

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The impatient jihadist

With ISIS being infamous for its brutality, one might assume that anyone joining such an extreme organization would first have to go through the ill-defined process called “radicalization.” Not so.

The story of a young Bahraini man, appearing in the latest issue of CTC Sentinel, is perhaps more representative of the path leading to violent jihad than we might imagine.

Having received a short pep talk in an ISIS office in Syria, this man signs up and then gets instruction on the cause he’s about to fight for and for which he’s ready to sacrifice his life (and the lives of others).

The jihadists grabbing the headlines these days are commonly described as living out a kind of medieval fantasy. I’m not so sure. I wonder whether on the contrary their behavior is symptomatic of a thoroughly modern affliction: the death of the interior life.

When the means through which an individual understands their identity is wholly defined by outward forms and the perceptions of others, they lose their capacity for self knowledge. An inner vacuity then has to be filled by something from outside. Most people can be satisfied with a steady supply of pleasurable distractions, whereas for others their discontent is strong enough to drive them to take up a cause.

In both cases they are running away from themselves. Some run away to Syria.

BahriniAbu Thar al-Bahrini, from Bahrain, began his story by discussing how he was “not religiously committed” in high school, although he knew that this was “wrong.” After he graduated high school with high grades, his family assumed he would go to medical school. Al-Bahrini, however, had different ideas, as he thought that this was his chance to “repent” and the best way to do that was by joining a Shari`a school in Saudi Arabia. He changed his mind, however, after deciding that the path of studying Shari`a was too long, so he made a decision to join jihad in Syria instead. At the start, al-Bahrini mentioned that he did not “differentiate between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) or ISIL.” His main concern was finding a coordinator to show him the way to Syria, and collecting enough money to cover the expenses of his trip. He started to post photos of the FSA, JN and ISIL on his Instagram account, and during that time he was able to meet with a coordinator in Bahrain who linked recruits with the FSA. At this point, al-Bahrini had only 50 Bahraini dinar (about $130), and the coordinator told him that he needed at least 200 dinar (about $520) to cover his expenses. Al-Bahrini was able to convince only one of his friends to appeal to a wealthy individual on his behalf, and the affluent man agreed to cover all his expenses. For some unidentified reason, the agreement between the coordinator and al-Bahrini fell apart, so he decided to travel to Turkey alone.

“I didn’t know the route to take, didn’t have any recommendation letter, and didn’t know anything about my journey,” al-Bahrini said. “All what I knew is that I should fly to Istanbul airport, from there fly to one of the villages near the [Turkish-Syrian] borders, and then a car would take me from there to enter Syria.”

He flew to Istanbul as planned, purchased a ticket to a “bordering city,” and while he was waiting for the plane he saw “a man with a beard reading the Qur’an, and I knew that he was going to Syria.” Without hesitation, al-Bahrini approached the man, and said to him confidently: “you are going to Syria and I’m going with you.” After a short discussion, al-Bahrini convinced the man to help him. “The man was in touch with coordinators from the Free Syrian Army,” who were supposed to smuggle him into Syria to join JN. They went to a house used by the FSA as a clinic in Turkey, and on the second day a “brother from ISIL came to that house to visit his friends,” al-Bahrini explained. “We told him that we are going to join JN in Idlib, and he offered to take us to JN after we enter Syria.”

Two days after they entered Syria, the same person from ISIL came to them, explained the tensions between the two groups, and suggested they join ISIL instead of JN. They found the explanation complicated, as they knew little about the mujahidin, Usama bin Ladin or any basic jihadist issues, so he took them to one of ISIL’s headquarters so they could learn more about jihad in general and ISIL in particular. After a short interview with the group’s amir of that area, al-Bahrini was sent to a training camp and took military courses and a Shari`a class where he learned “the correct creed.”

Al-Bahrini’s parents were religiously committed, but in his opinion they “were not following the correct creed” because they believed that “jihad now is selective duty and not an individual duty.” Therefore, al-Bahrini decided not to inform them about his intentions to travel to Syria. Once he arrived at the Istanbul airport, al-Bahrini posted a scanned copy of his “ticket and passport on his Instagram account to inform his family about his real intentions to migrate to Syria.” Despite his family’s best efforts, they could not convince him to return to Bahrain. Al-Bahrini concluded his story by acknowledging that his mother and brother, who was a soldier in the Bahrain army, later visited him and were both convinced to join ISIL’s ranks in Syria.

Al-Bahrini appeared in the recently released ISIL video Salil al-Sawarim 4 (Sound of the Swords Clashing 4), in which he delivered a short and powerful speech followed by him ripping up his Bahraini passport and promising to “return to Bahrain not with this useless passport, but marching with ISIL army to liberate all Muslim lands.”

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ISIS’s political-military power in Iraq

Michael Knights write: The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has the world on edge. Since its nadir in the spring of 2010, ISIL is considered to have evolved from a terrorist group on-the-ropes to “a full-blown army,” in the words of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Brett McGurk. As the Institute for the Study of War noted, ISIL’s overall strategy of consolidating and expanding its caliphate “fundamentally relies upon military superiority to wrest control of land and cities from modern states.”

An analysis of ISIL’s recent military accomplishments is difficult due to the lack of confirmed facts about much of what has transpired in Iraq, particularly during the hectic months since the collapse of federal security forces in Mosul on June 10, 2014. Questions still remain over the actual contribution that ISIL made to the loss of federal control and over the mix of ISIL and non-ISIL forces fighting since June. Nevertheless, using a range of case studies from the Iraqi side of ISIL’s area of operations, this article explores what is currently known about the movement from a military standpoint. If ISIL is an army, what kind of army is it and what are its weaknesses?

This article finds that ISIL is a military power mostly because of the weakness and unpreparedness of its enemies. Lengthy shaping of the battlefield, surprise and mobility made its recent successes possible, but all these factors are diminishing. As a defensive force, ISIL may struggle to hold terrain if it is attacked simultaneously at multiple points or if its auxiliary allies begin to defect. [Continue reading...]

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UN says ISIS has carried out atrocities on ‘an unimaginable scale’ in Iraq

Reuters reports: Islamist fighters have carried out atrocities on “an unimaginable scale” in months of fighting with Iraqi forces, who have also killed detainees and shelled civilian areas, a U.N. official said on Monday.

There is “strong evidence” Islamic State and allied groups have carried out targeted killings, forced conversions, sexual abuse and torture in Iraq, U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri said, opening an emergency debate on the conflict in Geneva.

Iraq’s human rights minister, Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, told the session that Islamic State militants, “oozing with barbarity”, threatened his country and the world, but did not immediately respond to allegations against state troops.

Islamic State has grabbed large areas of Iraq and neighboring Syria, declaring a cross-border caliphate and driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. At least 1,420 people were killed in Iraq in August alone, U.N. figures showed on Monday. [Continue reading...]

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ISIS’s carefully crafted multimedia message

The New York Times reports: ISIS propaganda … has strikingly few calls for attacks on the West, even though its most notorious video, among Americans, released 12 days ago, showed the beheading of the American journalist James Foley, threatened another American hostage, and said that American attacks on ISIS “would result in the bloodshed” of Americans. This diverged from nearly all of ISIS’s varied output, which promotes its paramount goal: to secure and expand the Islamic state. Experts say that could change overnight, but for now it sharply distinguishes ISIS from Al Qaeda, which has long made attacks on the West its top priority.

And while ISIS may be built on bloodshed, it seems intent on demonstrating the bureaucratic acumen of the state that it claims to be building. Its two annual reports so far are replete with a sort of jihadist-style bookkeeping, tracking statistics on everything from “cities taken over” and “knife murders” committed by ISIS forces to “checkpoints set up” and even “apostates repented.”

ISIS media frames its campaign in epochal terms, mounting a frontal assault on the national divisions and boundaries in the Middle East drawn by Western powers after World War I. These “Crusader partitions” and their modern Arab leaders, ISIS argues in its English-language magazine, were a divide-and-conquer strategy intended to prevent Muslims from unifying “under one imam carrying the banner of truth.”

That sense of historical grievance is an old theme for Al Qaeda and more moderate Islamist groups. The difference is that by capturing expansive territory and heavy weaponry, and flush with wealth from kidnappings, oil piracy, bank robbery and extortion, ISIS claims to have taken a major first step toward righting what it sees as this ancient wrong, creating a unified Muslim state that will subsume existing nations. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. and Iran unlikely allies in Iraq battle

The New York Times reports: With American bombs raining down from the sky, Shiite militia fighters aligned with Iran battled Sunni extremists over the weekend, punching through their defenses to break the weekslong siege of Amerli, a cluster of farming villages whose Shiite residents faced possible slaughter.

The fight in northern Iraq appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias.

Should such military actions continue, they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq. They could also align the interests of the Americans with their longtime sworn enemies in the Shiite militias, whose fighters killed many United States soldiers during the long occupation of Iraq.

The latest expansion of American military operations reflects how seriously Iraq has deteriorated since the withdrawal of American forces in 2011. But any decision to support the Shiite militias, who have proven more adept than the American-trained Iraqi Army, would come with its own set of challenges. [Continue reading...]

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Most Americans now support airstrikes in Syria, poll shows

Huffington Post: A majority of Americans think the United States should expand its military campaign against ISIS insurgents in Iraq into Syria as well, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows.

According to the poll, 60 percent of Americans now support airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, while 20 percent are opposed. That level of support approached the 64 percent of Americans in the survey who said they support the current airstrike campaign in Iraq.

Fifty-six percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 79 percent of Republicans said they support airstrikes in Syria.

Support for intervening in Syria has grown dramatically in the past year. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted last September found that only 13 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should use airstrikes, while 62 percent said it should not. That poll was conducted after President Barack Obama had considered strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The plan was abandoned after Obama failed to win support for it in Congress.

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Britain ‘deplores’ Israel decision to seize West Bank land

Reuters reports: The British government said on Monday it deplored an Israeli decision to appropriate a large swathe of land inside the occupied West Bank, saying the move would seriously damage Israel’s international reputation.

On Sunday, Israel announced the appropriation of land in the Etzion Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem, a move which an anti-settlement group said was the biggest such claim in 30 years.

“The UK deplores the Israeli government’s expropriation of 988 acres (1.54 square miles) of land around the settlement of Etzion,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement which echoed U.S. calls to reverse the decision.

“This is a particularly ill-judged decision that comes at a time when the priority must be to build on the ceasefire in Gaza. It will do serious damage to Israel’s standing in the international community.”

Some 500,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory that the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

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True Darwinism is all about chance

Noah Berlatsky writes: Chance is an uncomfortable thing. So Curtis Johnson argues in Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin, and he makes a compelling case. The central controversy, and the central innovation, in Darwin’s work is not the theory of natural selection itself, according to Johnson, but Darwin’s more basic, and more innovative, turn to randomness as a way to explain natural phenomena. This application of randomness was so controversial, Johnson argues, that Darwin tried to cover it up, replacing words like “accident” and “chance” with terms like “spontaneous variation” in later editions of his work. Nonetheless, the terminological shift was cosmetic: Randomness remained, and still remains, the disturbing center of Darwin’s theories.

Johnson, a political theorist at Lewis & Clark College, explains that there are two basic kinds of chance in Darwin’s thought. The first—most familiar and least disconcerting—is chance as probability. According to the theory of natural selection, individuals with advantageous adaptations are most likely to survive. A giraffe with a longer neck has a better shot of reaching those lofty leaves and living to munch another day; a polar bear blessed with a warmer coat has a higher probability of surviving a frigid winter than one with less hair. The long-necked giraffe may not always win—it may, for example, be pulverized by a meteor before it can pass on its long-necked genes. But over time, the odds will go its way. There is randomness here, but it is controlled and predictable: It works in accordance with a rule. Natural selection makes sense.

The second kind of chance in Darwin’s work, though, is more mysterious. For natural selection to work, you need to have a range of traits to select among. That range is provided by individual variation, the fact that two different animals (whether giraffe or bear) are different from each other. Some giraffes have longer necks than others. Some bears have thicker fur than others. Why should this be? Darwin’s answer was chance. [Continue reading...]

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Music: Robert Wyatt — ‘Sea Song’

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Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS inside Syria

The Daily Beast reports: After a week of talk of eliminating the “cancer” of ISIS, President Obama said Thursday that he was not planning to significantly expand the war against the Islamic extremist movement anytime soon.

His remarks came after days of heated debate inside the top levels of his own national security bureaucracy about how, where, and whether to strike ISIS in Syria. But those deliberations – which included a bleak intelligence assessment of America’s potential allies in Syria — failed to produce a consensus battle plan. And so Obama, who has long been reluctant to enter into the Syrian conflict, told reporters Thursday that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for confronting ISIS on a regional level.

Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms.

“Senior strategists in the U.S. government have been working hard all week to gather multiple options that the president had asked for to strike ISIS in Syria. There was a deep rooted belief among many — especially among military circles — that the ISIS threat can’t be kicked down the road, that it needs to be confronted now, and in a holistic way,” said one Obama administration official who works on the Middle East. “This press conference is going to lead to even more doubt by those that thought that this White House was ready to take meaningful action against ISIS across the board.”

Obama addressed the White House press corps Thursday afternoon just before personally chairing a meeting of his National Security Council, his top cabinet members and national security staffers. The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well.

But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.

The President said that although he had ordered up options for striking ISIS in Syria, the administration’s priority was shoring up the integrity of Iraq, instead. Syria would have to wait. He also said he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region because “We don’t have a strategy yet,” to confront ISIS on a regional level.

To many outside the administration who have worked on Syria and the ISIS problem, Obama’s decision not to decide on a broader course of action will have negative implications for the war against ISIS. The administration raised expectations about altering its three-year policy of avoiding intervention in Syria, before Obama dashed those expectations Thursday.

“One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said,” said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. “It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that.” [Continue reading...]

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U.S. urges Israel to reverse planned West Bank land appropriation

Reuters reports: The United States sees Israel’s announcement on Sunday of a land appropriation for possible settlement construction in the occupied West Bank as “counterproductive” to peace efforts and urges the Israeli government to reverse the decision, a State Department official said.

Israel laid claim to nearly a thousand acres (400 hectares) in the Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem, a move which an anti-settlement group termed the biggest appropriation in 30 years and a Palestinian official said would cause only more friction after the Gaza war.

“We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity,” the U.S. official said. “ This announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes, planning step they approve and construction tender they issue is counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.” [Continue reading...]

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Inside Fallujah: Crowded cemeteries, flattened buildings and potential revolution

For Niqash, Mustafa Habib reports: Recently most of the attention has been on northern Iraq. But military action in western Iraq has been going on for months, after areas came under control of Sunni Muslim extremists and other anti-government groups. Some, like the city of Fallujah, have been under constant attack from the Iraqi government. NIQASH went there to find a city demolished, people without hope – and another potential uprising.

Getting into Fallujah is far from easy. One must pass through dozens of Iraqi army checkpoints followed by dozens of checkpoints manned by the gunmen who now control the city. Unless one is doing humanitarian work one cannot enter or exit. And if the humanitarian aid workers don’t leave the city again at a pre-specified time, they are regarded with suspicion and may be detained.

Additionally two months ago, the extremists who control the city gave an order that all journalists inside Fallujah must stop working. Any violations would be heavily punished, they said.

So anyone who enters now – whether they are coming for humanitarian purposes or to visit a relative – is put under close surveillance. Masked gunmen on the streets observe visitors’ activities and communicate visitors’ movements through a radio network. They want to be sure that anyone coming into the city is not a government spy or a journalist.

The main streets leading into Fallujah from the four major entrances to the city are booby trapped with explosive devices. These are arranged in a complicated and random fashion and nobody other than the gunmen who control the city knows where they all are. That means that nobody can enter Fallujah unless they are guided by one of the fighters.

Once inside the city, you quickly see how exhausted everybody looks. Locals’ faces reflect myriad untold, sad stories. Most have lost at least one family member during this siege. There are also plenty of serious injuries on display. Many locals have now joined the armed groups controlling the city out of a desire for revenge.

Many of the buildings are damaged or completely destroyed. Anyone who manages to get into Fallujah will see a city that looks as though it’s out of a picture taken just after World War II. [Continue reading...] [H/t Juan Cole]

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Netanyahu shows why his claim — Hamas is ISIS — is BS

Eager to grasp a political opportunity that seemed to have been created by the murder of James Foley, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got busy on Twitter saying that “Hamas is ISIS.”

But Netanyahu seems to have changed his mind because he now says that it is the close proximity of the threat from ISIS — in the opposite direction from Gaza — that necessitated the ceasefire with Hamas. Otherwise Israel could have continued bombing Gaza for 500 days instead of stopping after 50 days.

In other words, even if Netanyahu won’t be tweeting this, Israel accepted a ceasefire with Hamas in part because Hamas is not ISIS.

AFP reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel agreed to a permanent truce in its 50-day Gaza war with Hamas in order to keep focused on the threat from regional militants.

“We fought for 50 days and we could have fought for 500 days, but we are in a situation where the Islamic State is at the gates of Jordan, Al-Qaeda is in the Golan and Hezbollah is at the border with Lebanon,” Netanyahu said in an address on public television.

He was referring to Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq — both neighbours of Jordan — Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front Syria rebels on the Israeli-annexed Golan and Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah.

“We decided not to get bogged down in Gaza, and we could have, but we decided to limit our objective and restore calm to Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu added.

His remarks come as the United States, Israel’s chief ally, is calling for a global coalition to fight the jihadists who have set up an Islamic “caliphate” in areas they have overrun in Syria and Iraq.

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