Archives for July 2012

Inside Syria’s guerilla war

While the Syrian army is not technically an army of occupation, it faces some of the same disadvantages that every occupation force faces:

  • while its own soldiers are obedient to a government, its opponent’s are obedient to a cause — their drive comes from within rather than above;
  • while it possesses a disproportionate amount of military strength, it lacks the flexibility of its opponent;
  • most importantly, it can never thwart the ‘home team’ advantage — local civilian support and an intimate knowledge of the terrain.

An example of the kind of local knowledge being successfully employed by rebels in Idlib is their use of an ancient network of tunnels, reminiscent of the tunnels that helped the Viet Cong win the war against the United States.

Yaara Bou Melhem, reporting for Australia’s SBS Dateline, was given a tour of the tunnels and she also interviewed Free Syrian Army leader, Colonel Riad al-Asaad.

Ian Black reports: Syria’s opposition fighters are increasingly using Iraqi-style roadside bombs in their war against Bashar al-Assad, most recently blowing up tanks in a large convoy travelling to attack rebels inside Aleppo.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders told the Guardian the use of improvised explosive devices has gone up in recent months, with fighters growing increasingly adept at bomb-making. Iraqi insurgents used roadside bombs extensively in their campaign against the US military.

FSA commanders said a secret network of informers inside the Syrian army and other parts of the regime passed on regular information on troop movements, allowing the rebels to strike at the army.

Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that government forces were inflicting heavy losses on “terrorist groups” in and around Aleppo.

FSA sources said they had captured several police stations in the city. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network, reported shelling in several areas. The UN said thousands of people were trapped.

Government forces were also reported to have shelled targets in Damascus and the surrounding region as well as Deir el-Zour, Deraa, Homs, Idlib and Latakia.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have asked Haitham al-Maleh, a veteran dissident, to lead a government-in-exile that will replace Assad when he falls. The decision to set up a rebel-led administration reflects the end of hopes for a negotiated transition, part of Kofi Annan’s now moribund UN-backed peace plan.

The mood on the ground is increasingly that Syria’s future will be settled by war. Mohamad Baree, a commander in the northern town of Korkanaya, said his fighters ambushed a tank column at 5am on 29 July as it left Idlib. The 20 tanks and armoured vehicles had been sent to reinforce government positions in Aleppo, part-seized by the rebels nine days earlier.

“We used five or six self-made bombs and destroyed two of the tanks. The other 18 returned to Idlib,” he said. The bombs were set off remotely by rebels hidden behind rocks.

The operation, though a success, had tragic consequences: a retreating tank fired a shell into a fifth-storey flat in Idlib, killing five members of a family. “They [the regime soldiers] were afraid. They didn’t know what was happening. They wanted revenge,” Baree said.

The commander, a pharmacist who spent seven years living in Ukraine, said he personally lacked the skills to make bombs. But he said that a “professor of chemistry” was aiding the rebels, and that other members of his unit who had served in the Syrian military possessed bomb-making skills. “We also take bombs from army bases. They are better than ours,” he admitted.

His remarks are evidence that the FSA is becoming more professional. It began as a disparate group of volunteers, many of them with no military experience. But after 16 months of operations against the Damascus government it now resembles a formidable military force.

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Syrian rebels say Aleppo theirs ‘within days’

Reuters reports: Syrian rebels aim to push towards central Aleppo, capturing the country’s biggest city within days despite being outgunned by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a local rebel commander said.

Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, who defected from the Syrian army six months ago, told Reuters government troops had tried for three days to capture the south-western Aleppo neighbourhood of Salaheddine, and Assad’s soldiers were increasingly demoralised.

The fight for Syria’s second city has become the focus of the 16-month-old rebellion against Assad, with rebel fighters confronting government forces backed by artillery and helicopter gunships.

“We don’t have goals for the coming months. We have goals for the coming days. Within days, God willing, Aleppo will be liberated,” said Oqaidi, dressed in green camouflage uniform at an Aleppo school which has been turned into a rebel base.

Describing the growing conflict which has engulfed Aleppo in the last few days as “street war”, he said the rebel aim was to capture districts one by one and establish control over them, before taking more territory from the army.

“We secure our areas and then move to other neighbourhoods, pushing towards the city centre,” he said, speaking in an interview late on Monday. “God willing, we will liberate Aleppo and its military and security sites.”

“The regime’s capabilities are also being weakened. They can shell us from afar with tanks and helicopters. But inside their morale is zero,” said Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.

An unidentified Syrian army officer told state television on Sunday that his forces had recaptured Salaheddine, which lies on the south-western entrance to Aleppo, and the rest of the city would be under government control within days.

But on Tuesday Syrian television said the army was still chasing what it called “armed terrorists” in Salaheddine.

“The regime has tried for three days to recapture Salaheddine but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks. It has been forced to withdraw,” Oqaidi said.

AFP reports: Syrian rebels attacked key military targets and overran two police stations in Aleppo, killing 40 officers, a watchdog said, as the pivotal battle for the commercial capital raged on Tuesday.

Clashes between the rebels and loyalists of President Bashar al-Assad were also reported in the capital Damascus, the eastern city of Deir Ezzor and Daraa in the south, cradle of the more than 16-month uprising.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Aleppo was on Tuesday rocked by the fiercest fighting of a military offensive on rebels in the city, which came after the government had warned of a looming “mother of all battles.”

Rebels used rocket-propelled grenades in pre-dawn attacks on a military court, an air force intelligence headquarters and a branch of the ruling Baath Party in Aleppo, said the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman.

Later, “hundreds of rebels attacked the police stations in Salhin and Bab al-Nayrab (neighbourhoods) and at least 40 policemen were killed during the fighting, which lasted for hours,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The police chief was among those killed at the Salhin station in the south of the city, while three vehicles were destroyed, he added.

The attacks came as the UN observer mission said government forces were using helicopters, tanks and artillery to fight the rebels, while appealing for both sides to protect civilians in the city of 2.7 million people.

Through the night, government troops had shelled the neighbourhoods of Salaheddin, Marjeh, Firdoss, Al-Mashhad, Sakhur, Al-Shaar and Ansari, before the army and rebels clashed at dawn in Al-Meesr and Al-Adaa.

A security official in Damascus told AFP on Monday that the army had regained some of Salaheddin but it was facing “a very strong resistance.” The rebels, however, denied that the army had advanced even “one metre” (yard).

“The fierce fighting in Aleppo shows how crucial this city is for a regime that does not want a Benghazi in Syria,” said Abdel Rahman, referring to the coastal city secured by Libyan rebels as a base in their fight to bring down strongman Moamer Kadhafi.

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Video: Dutch photographer held by ‘Jihadis’ on Turkey-Syria border

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Syria opposition figure says to lead government in exile

AFP reports: Syrian opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh told reporters on Tuesday that he has been tasked with forming a government in exile based in Cairo.

“I have been tasked with leading a transitional government,” Maleh said, adding that he will begin consultations “with the opposition inside and outside” the country.

Maleh, a conservative Muslim, said he was named by a Syrian coalition of “independents with no political affiliation”.

More than 20,000 people have been killed in Syria since a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule began in March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. There is no way to independently verify the figure, while the UN has stopped keeping count.

There have been repeated calls on Assad to step down.

When that happens, “we don’t want to find ourselves in a political or administrative vacuum,” Maleh said.

“This phase calls for cooperation from all sides,” he said.

Maleh, 81, is a Syrian laywer and human rights activist who has spent several years in prison in his homeland.

He was jailed in October 2009 and released in March 2011 by presidential pardon, just days before the revolt against Assad erupted.

Maleh has worked for Amnesty International since 1989 and helped found the Syrian Association for Human Rights.

He was also imprisoned in 1980 for six years along with a number of trade unionists and political dissidents.

There have been other attempts by the Syrian opposition to prepare for a post-Assad future.

On Monday, Syrian rebels distributed what they called a “national salvation draft” proposal for a political transition, bringing together military and civilian figures.

The draft by the joint command of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) proposes the establishment of a higher defence council charged with creating a presidential council, which in turn would bring together six military and civilian figures to lead a future transition.

The proposal “meets all the revolution’s demands,” said the umbrella Military Council Joint Command, based in the central province of Homs.

When Syria’s uprising first turned into an armed insurgency, rebel factions had little or no coordination with each other as they separately battled Assad’s forces.

Over time, the Joint Command, headed by Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, has emerged as an increasingly influential coordinating body among rebel commanders inside Syria.

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Video: Iraq: After the Americans (Parts One and Two)

Part Two:

Part One:

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Power outage in India and the risk of a climate change tipping point

A power failure in North India has left 620 million people without electricity. That’s a 100 million more than the total population of North America. That’s like the lights going out from Anchorage in Alaska all the way down to Caracas in Venezuela.

The Associated Press reports:

The massive failure — a day after a similar, but smaller power failure — has raised serious concerns about India’s outdated infrastructure and the government’s inability to meet its huge appetite for energy as the country aspires to become a regional economic superpower.

But what’s driving that growing energy demand is not simply economic growth but also a warming planet evident in “a booming market for air conditioning — world sales in 2011 were up 13 percent over 2010, and that growth is expected to accelerate in coming decades.”

The United States has long consumed more energy each year for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined. In fact, we use more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa, home to a billion people, consumes for all purposes. Between 1993 and 2005, with summers growing hotter and homes larger, energy consumed by residential air conditioning in the U.S. doubled, and it leaped another 20 percent by 2010. The climate impact of air conditioning our buildings and vehicles is now that of almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.

China is already sprinting forward and is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020. Consider this: The number of U.S. homes equipped with air conditioning rose from 64 to 100 million between 1993 and 2009, whereas 50 million air-conditioning units were sold in China in 2010 alone. And it is projected that the number of air-conditioned vehicles in China will reach 100 million in 2015, having more than doubled in just five years.

As urban China, Japan, and South Korea approach the air-conditioning saturation point, the greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere, most prominently in South and Southeast Asia. India will predominate — already, about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning. The Middle East is already heavily climate-controlled, but growth is expected to continue there as well. Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning. And with summers warming, the United States and Mexico will continue increasing their heavy consumption of cool.

Kurt Cobb notes:

It’s easy to forget that every piece of our current infrastructure — roads, rails, runways, bridges, industrial plants, housing — was built with a certain temperature range in mind. Our agricultural system and much of our electrical generating system (including dams, nuclear power stations and conventional thermal electric plants which burn coal and natural gas) were created not only with a certain temperature range in mind, but also a certain range of rainfall. Rainfall, whether it is excessive or absent, can become a problem if it creates 1) floods that damage and sweep away buildings and crops or 2) if there isn’t enough water to quench crops and supply industrial and utility operating needs.

This summer has shown just what can happen when those built-in tolerances for heat, moisture (or lack of it) and wind are exceeded. The New York Times did an excellent short piece providing examples of some of those effects:

  1. A jet stuck on the tarmac as its wheels sank into asphalt softened by 100-degree heat.
  2. A subway train derailed by a kink in the track due to excessive heat.
  3. A power plant that had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water when the water level dropped below the intake pipe.
  4. A “derecho“, a severe weather pattern of thunderstorms and very high straight-line winds, that deprived 4.3 million people of power in the eastern part of the United States, some for eight days.
  5. Drainage culverts destroyed by excessive rains.

Past attempts to forecast the possible costs of climate change have been largely inadequate. They failed because of unanticipated effects on and complex interconnections among various parts of critical infrastructure.

Back in 2007 Yale economist William Nordhaus wrote in a paper that “[e]conomic studies suggest that those parts of the economy that are insulated from climate, such as air-conditioned houses or most manufacturing operations, will be little affected directly by climatic change over the next century or so.” Having air-conditioning does not do you much good, however, if the electricity is out. And, manufacturing operations depend on reliable electric service. Many manufacturing operations are also water-intensive and so will be affected by water shortages.

India’s current energy demands have been worsened by this year’s weak monsoon and consequent higher temperatures — in some states rainfall has been 70% below average. Monsoons are erratic in four years out of ten, but as Fred Guterl explains, the Indian monsoon may be subject to a much greater vulnerability: the dynamics of a climate change tipping point in which the monsoons could be here one year and then gone the next. In that event, the effects will be devastating not only across India but far beyond.

So far 2012 is on pace to be the hottest year on record. But does this mean that we’ve reached a threshold — a tipping point that signals a climate disaster?

For those warning of global warming, it would be tempting to say so. The problem is, no one knows if there is a point at which a climate system shifts abruptly. But some scientists are now bringing mathematical rigor to the tipping-point argument. Their findings give us fresh cause to worry that sudden changes are in our future.

One of them is Marten Scheffer, a biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, who grew up swimming in clear lowland ponds. In the 1980s, many of these ponds turned turbid. The plants would die, algae would cover the surface, and only bottom-feeding fish remained. The cause — fertilizer runoff from nearby farms — was well known, but even after you stopped the runoff, replanted the lilies and restocked the trout, the ponds would stay dark and scummy.

Mr. Scheffer solved this problem with a key insight: the ponds behaved according to a branch of mathematics called “dynamical systems,” which deals with sudden changes. Once you reach a tipping point, it’s very difficult to return things to how they used to be. It’s easy to roll a boulder off a cliff, for instance, but much harder to roll it back. Once the ponds turned turbid, it wasn’t enough to just replant and restock. You had get them back to their original, clear state.

Science is a graveyard of grand principles that fail in the end to explain the real world. So it is all the more surprising that Mr. Scheffer’s idea worked.

By applying the principles of dynamical systems, Mr. Scheffer was able to figure out that to fix the ponds, he had to remove the fish that thrive in the turbid water. They stir up sediment, which blocks sunlight from plants, and eat the zooplankton that keep the water clear. His program of fixing the Netherlands’ ponds and lakes is legendary in ecology.

Mr. Scheffer and other scientists are now trying to identify the early-warning signals for climate that precede abrupt transitions. Tim Lenton, a climate scientist at the University of Exeter in England, has identified a handful of climate systems that could reach tipping points in the not-too-distant future. These are not so much related to global average temperatures — the main metric for climate-change arguments — as they are to patterns of climate that repeat themselves each year.

El Niño is one such pattern — a gigantic blob of warm water that sloshes around in the Pacific Ocean, causing weather changes across wide swaths of the globe. Another is the West African monsoon, which brings rain to the west coast of the continent. Each is subject to behaving like dynamical systems — which means they are prone to “flip” from one state to another, like one of Mr. Scheffer’s ponds, over time periods that vary from a year to a few hundred.

The most frightening prospect that Mr. Lenton has found is the vulnerability of the Indian monsoon. More than a billion people depend on this weather pattern each year for the rain it brings to crops. The monsoon, though, is being affected by two conflicting forces: the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is adding energy to the monsoons, making them more powerful. On the other hand, soot from fires and coal plants acts to blocks the sun’s energy, weakening the monsoons.

This opposition creates potential instability and the possibility that the atmospheric dynamics that bring the monsoons could change suddenly. Mr. Lenton’s analysis shows this could occur in a remarkably short time. The monsoons could be here one year, then gone the next year.

Other possible tipping points are the melting of the North Pole’s sea ice, Greenland’s glaciers and the Antarctic ice sheets, and the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and Canada’s boreal forests.

We know that the dynamical-systems idea worked for Mr. Scheffer’s ponds because he achieved real-world results. But why should we believe that the principle explains things like El Niño and the Indian monsoon? The acid test will be whether the real world behaves the way Mr. Lenton says it will. If the Indian monsoon disappears, we’ll know he is right.

What then? The real worst-case scenario would have one such event triggering others, until you have a cascade of weather flips from one end of the planet to another. It wouldn’t be quite as dramatic as Hollywood might want to depict, perhaps, but it would be dramatic enough to rewrite the predictions for sea level and temperature rises that are part of the current consensus. This worst case is highly speculative, but sudden shifts in climate patterns may already be happening.

The policy makers aren’t likely to be discussing dynamical-systems theory anytime soon. Fortunately, scientists like Mr. Scheffer and Mr. Lenton are trying to work out the details of how closely nature hews to these mathematics, what a true tipping point would look like and what we might do if and when we face one.

We need a tipping point in climate politics, where all of a sudden we start paying attention.

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The conversion of a climate-change skeptic

Richard A. Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, writes: Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.

My total turnaround, in such a short time, is the result of careful and objective analysis by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, which I founded with my daughter Elizabeth. Our results show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.

These findings are stronger than those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations group that defines the scientific and diplomatic consensus on global warming. In its 2007 report, the I.P.C.C. concluded only that most of the warming of the prior 50 years could be attributed to humans. It was possible, according to the I.P.C.C. consensus statement, that the warming before 1956 could be because of changes in solar activity, and that even a substantial part of the more recent warming could be natural. [Continue reading…]

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Will Syria remain fragmented for years?

Joshua Landis writes: A friend flew into Aleppo’s airport 3 days ago from Germany where he had been on business. On his drive into the city, he was shocked to run into a FSA roadblock. The militiamen who greeted him were polite. After asking him where he had been and where he was going, they sent him on his way. A kilometer down the road, he passed through a government check point run by Air-force Intelligence.

Such reports remind me of Lebanon, where I lived for a few years during the civil war. A simple trip could send one through a series of roadblocks run by competing forces. As an American in Lebanon before the Israeli invasion of 1982, I was not a person of interest to any of the warring factions and thus could pass through them unmolested. My Lebanon memories make me wonder whether the expectation of an imminent victory in Syria by one side is realistic.

Militias may well impose control in their areas but find themselves unable to dislodge or overcome competing militias. Some may simply find it more convenient to make deals with rivals than to fight them. Syria could well become a “deeply penetrated society,” as political scientists named Lebanon: a society in which competing factions are largely dependent on external support.

We are all so accustomed to thinking of Syria as DAMASCUS. The capital has been favored by successive governments since independence that it is natural for Syrians to expect the capital to be the axis about which all Syria revolves. That expectation may be misleading. Whomever owns Damascus may no longer own Syria. I have told many journalists that once Damascus falls to rebels, the Assad regime will be effectively dead. That may be true, but the remaining body of the Syrian Army, which is rapidly turning into an Alawite militia, could live on for some time. Various regions of Syria are re-establishing a degree of autonomy and self governance now that Syria is being overrun by militias of many different stripes.

Assad and his men will work for a fragmented Syria. It may be their only path to survival. If the Free Syrian Army can conquer all of Syria, most regime principals will be executed.

I don’t expect Syria to break up as some do, but it may be a long while before one militia or a unified political organization is able to impose its control over the country. Road-blocks were a common feature of Lebanon’s political landscape for fifteen long years.

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President in name only, Assad plays for time

David Blair writes that: “Assad has effectively become the embattled mayor of Damascus and Aleppo, plus the policeman of the road that joins them. As the war has escalated, so his realistic objectives have been downgraded.”

Syria’s armed forces have clearly been stretched to breaking point by this crisis. On paper, the army has 220,000 soldiers, but most of the rank-and-file are Sunnis – and their loyalty to Mr Assad, whose regime is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, is not always guaranteed. Consequently, the burden of the fighting has fallen on two dependable units: the 4th division, under the de facto command of his brother, Maher, and the Republican Guard.

Together, these formations have no more than 30,000 men – less than 14 per cent of the army’s total strength – and they have borne the lion’s share of the task of combating a national insurrection. Their soldiers have fought from Deraa in the south to Idlib in the north, and they have paid a grievous price: at least 5,000 Syrian troops are believed to have been killed by the rebels in the past 16 months. By way of comparison, America has lost 1,939 men in Afghanistan during almost 11 years of war.

Mr Assad’s foes, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have directly armed those responsible for this bloodshed, while America and Britain have provided non-lethal help. In the process, the rebels have clearly become far more capable, particularly in the past few months. Western and Arab opponents of the regime will argue that they are saving lives by hastening Mr Assad’s downfall – and they could be right. But no one should be under any illusions about the suffering inflicted by this course.

Reduced to defending a handful of cities, and confident of the loyalty of only a fraction of his army, Mr Assad is no longer bidding for outright victory. A core of his security forces can still be counted on to obey orders and defeat the rebels in pitched battles, but the clock is clearly ticking. He can still buy time – perhaps measured in months – but he cannot win.

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Syria’s top diplomat in U.K. defects as battle for Aleppo rages

The Associated Press reports: Syria’s top diplomat in London said he could no longer represent the regime and defected Monday, as civilians fled the commercial hub of Aleppo in droves amid 10 days of fierce battles between rebels and government forces.

Britain’s Foreign Office said that Khaled al-Ayoubi, the charge d’affaires, told officials that he wasn’t willing to represent the regime any longer, the latest high-profile defection of a diplomat from Syria over the bloody crackdown on the opposition since March 2011.

Fighting is heating up in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city with 3 million people. The U.N. said 200,000 Syrians have left over the past 10 days as the government trains its mortars, tank and helicopter gunships on the neighborhoods seized by the rebels.

“I am extremely concerned by the impact of shelling and use of tanks and other heavy weapons on people in Aleppo,” Valerie Amos, the top U.N. official for humanitarian affairs, said in a statement late Sunday. “Many people have sought temporary shelter in schools and other public buildings in safer areas,” she added. “They urgently need food, mattresses and blankets, hygiene supplies and drinking water.”

Amos said U.N. agencies and the Syrian Red Crescent are working together on supplying those affected by the fighting with blankets and humanitarian supplies, but many remain out of their reach because of the violence.

“It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today,” she warned. Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and commercial hub with about 3 million inhabitants.

Aleppo is some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away from the Turkish border and some of those fleeing the city are headed for Turkey, where tens of thousands of Syrians have already found refuge during the 17-month uprising against authoritarian President Bashar Assad’s rule.

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Romney equates economic success with cultural superiority

The Associated Press reports: Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who suggested his comments were racist and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East. His campaign later said his remarks were mischaracterized.

Casino boss and cultural icon, Sheldon Adelson, attending Romney's speech.

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who ate breakfast at the luxurious King David Hotel.

Romney said some economic histories have theorized that “culture makes all the difference.”

“And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things,” Romney said, citing an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances and the “hand of providence.” He said similar disparity exists between neighboring countries, like Mexico and the United States.

Palestinian reaction to Romney was swift and pointed.

“It is a racist statement and this man doesn’t realize that the Palestinian economy cannot reach its potential because there is an Israeli occupation,” said Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“It seems to me this man lacks information, knowledge, vision and understanding of this region and its people,” Erekat added. “He also lacks knowledge about the Israelis themselves. I have not heard any Israeli official speak about cultural superiority.”

As criticism mounted while Romney traveled to Poland, campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said: “His comments were grossly mischaracterized.” The Republican’s campaign contends Romney’s comparison of countries that are close to each other and have wide income disparities – the U.S. and Mexico, Chile and Ecuador – shows his comments were broader than just the comparison between Israel and Palestine.

While speaking to U.S. audiences, Romney often highlights culture as a key to economic success and emphasizes the power of the American entrepreneurial spirit compared to the values of other countries. But his decision to highlight cultural differences in a region where such differences have helped fuel violence for generations raises new questions about the former businessman’s diplomacy skills. [Continue reading…]

As Think Progress notes, Romney was way off the mark in outlining the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians — Israel’s GDP of US$31,000 compared to the West Bank and Gaza’s US$1,500. And then of course there is the question as to how economically vibrant Israel would be if it faced military occupation, the relentless confiscation of property, restrictions on freedom of movement, and inadequate infrastructure.

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Free Syrian Army issues military-led transition plan

AFP reports: Syria’s rebels distributed on Monday a “national salvation draft” proposal for a political transition in the country, bringing together military and civilian figures for a post-Bashar Al-Assad phase.

The draft by the joint command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) proposes the establishment of a higher defence council charged with creating a presidential council, which in turn would bring together a total of six military and civilian figures to lead a future transition.

The proposal “meets all the revolution’s demands,” said the umbrella Military Council Joint Command, based in the central province of Homs.

When Syria’s uprising first turned into an armed insurgency, various factions of fighters generally had little or no coordination with each other as they separately battled President Assad’s forces.

This has changed with time, with the Joint Command, headed by Colonel Kassem Saadeddine, emerging as an increasingly representative coordination body for the FSA inside Syria.

Officially, the FSA is under the command of defected Colonel Riad al-Assaad, who is based in Turkey. However, FSA commanders inside Syria have frequently said they would not take orders from a leader based outside the strife-torn country.

The transition-phase higher defence council should include “all Military Council leaders in Syria’s cities and provinces, as well as all the high-profile defected officers and others who have contributed to the revolution,” the Joint Command statement said.

Among the proposed presidential council’s responsibilities would be “to put forward draft laws for referendum and (…) to restructure the security and military apparatus,” the statement said.

The FSA also envisaged “the development of solutions for civilians who took up arms during the revolution,” adding that they “could be incorporated in new security and military institutions.”

The transition would also feature the “establishment of a higher national council to protect the Syrian revolution,” whose role would be to “monitor the work of the executive.”

Alongside all major opposition forces — including activist networks the Syrian Revolution General Commission and the Local Coordination Committees — the FSA and the new national council should participate “in the creation of new institutions,” the statement said.

In the transition, the FSA should head both the interior and defence ministries, according to the draft. “The minister of presidential affairs should be a civilian appointed by the revolution’s military wing,” the statement added.

The draft aims to take Syria through “a safe and balanced transition period,” the FSA said, describing it as a “road map that can be accepted by all parties on the path to liberation and independence, and the building of a new Syria.”

The FSA also warned that “any government that is created anywhere… that lacks national and revolutionary legitimacy, that does not fully meet all the demands of the revolution, and that lacks the approval of the Joint Command and all the revolutionary forces on the ground, will not see the light.”

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Rebels now control a strategic land corridor in northern Syria

Luke Harding reports: Speaking to the Guardian, the commander in charge of the Aleppo battle confirmed that his troops had seized a key checkpoint north-west of the city early today. Col Abdel Naser said Free Syrian Army fighters had overwhelmed the Hryatan army base, 5km from the city and next to the Andadan checkpoint, at around 5am this morning.

“It was a successful operation. We took eight tanks and 10 armoured vehicles, as well as mortars and lots of weapons. We also took prisoners. One of our fighters was killed,” he said. He added: “Two tanks and one armoured vehicle managed to escape.”

Col Naser said the Syrian army had responded to the defeat with “light shelling”, on the town of Hryatan and neighbouring Anadan, the FSA’s previous forward position. “We expect more shelling tonight,” he said.

The capture of the Anadan checkpoint is a major boost for the rebels, who now control a strategic land corridor in northern Syria from Turkey all the way to Aleppo’s outskirts. Another FSA officer said theroute would be useful for resupplying FSA fighters inside the city – and as a haven for refugees seeking to flee. Tens of thousands have already left for safer areas.

It also bolsters opposition claims that the rebels are now encircling regime forces rather than the other way round. The regime still has 100 tanks and 400 armoured vehicles inside Aleppo. But Col Naser suggested government forces were now defending their positions in the centre of the city.

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Is the threat from foreign jihadists in Syria being overstated?

The Guardian reports: Scores of foreign jihadists have crossed into Syria from Turkey in the past two weeks, some of them telling Syrians that they are planning to travel to Aleppo to join a decisive battle against regime troops.

Syrian residents and a Turkish smuggler interviewed by the Guardian say many of the men have come from the Caucasus, while others had arrived from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Gulf Arab states.

According to locals who have dealt with them, the new arrivals embrace a global jihadist worldview that sets them apart from most leaders in the armed Syrian opposition and is stirring deep discontent among the rebel leadership.

Rebel leaders inside Syria say about 15-20 foreign fighters have been crossing each day since mid-July, trying to join up with an estimated 200-300 foreigners in Syria.

The New York Times reports, however: [T]here is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The … commander [with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo] estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey. The foreigners included Libyans, Algerians and one Spaniard, he said, adding that he much preferred them over homegrown jihadists. They were both less aggressive and less cagey than the locals, said the commander, interviewed in Turkey and via Skype and declining to be further identified.

An activist helping to organize the Syrian military councils said there were roughly 50,000 fighters in total, and far fewer than 1,000 were foreigners, who often have trouble gaining local support. “If there were 10,000, you would know, and less than 1,000 is nothing,” said the activist, Rami, declining for safety reasons to use more than one name.

Not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either. One Libyan-Irish fighter, Mahdi al-Harati, who helped lead the battle for Tripoli, Libya, organized a group of volunteers for Syria, noted Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Syrian Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “He is not a jihadi; he sees himself as a Libyan revolutionary there to help the Syrian revolution,” Mr. Pierret said.

Fighters, activists and analysts say that jihadi groups are emerging now for several reasons. They generally stand apart from the Free Syrian Army, the loose national coalition of local militias made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Significantly, most of the money flowing to the Syrian opposition is coming from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.

A recent report in Time magazine included the following observation about the Free Syrian Army:

Interestingly, many FSA members have taken to wearing Salafi-style beards while not adopting the ideology. “It’s just a fashion,” one person told me, by way of explanation.

Besides the fact that regular shaving probably falls very low among the priorities of men engaged in urban warfare, there may be another more compelling reason why Salafi-style beards have become fashionable in Syria. As the NYT notes, religious donors in the Gulf want to support Salafists. For groups struggling to arm themselves, the allure of the Salafi style may amount to nothing more than the desire to be better armed.

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Amid the ruins in Aleppo, Syrian rebels say victory is near

Reuters reports: The rebel banner of independence waves over the scorched streets and gutted cars that litter the urban battlegrounds of Aleppo, scars of a struggle in Syria’s second largest city that fighters believe they are destined to win within weeks.

The scruffy, rifle-wielding youths are undeterred by the fate of equally bold, but ultimately crushed campaigns by rebels in the capital Damascus or in Homs, the bloody epicenter of the 16-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

Careening through streets ripped up by army tanks on their motorbikes and flatbed trucks, young rebels with camouflage pants and Kalashnikovs patrol their newly acquired territory, which stretches from the outskirts of Aleppo in the northeast and sweeps around the city down to the southwestern corner.

“We always knew the regime’s grave would be Aleppo. Damascus is the capital, but here we have a fourth of the country’s population and the entire force of its economy. Bashar’s forces will be buried here,” said Mohammed, a young fighter, fingering the bullets in his tattered brown ammunition vest.

The government has also predicted victory in the fight to control Syria’s main commercial city. For days, the government has massed its forces for a major onslaught that has yet to come. Rebels say it is proof the government doesn’t have the ability to storm their territory.

The truth could lie somewhere in between: A state of limbo in Syria’s economic centre, paralyzed by artillery fire and an insurgency that has made its home in the narrow, ramshackle alleyways on the poor outskirts of the ancient city.

Mohammed and a group of fighters take refuge from the stifling heat in a dark safe house hidden down a crumbling Aleppo alleyway. They pore over a map of the city spread over the floor, tracing the neighborhoods controlled by rebels.

“We have made a semicircle around the city, and we can push in to the centre. Up in the north, the Kurdish groups are running two neighborhoods in the northern central part of the city. We don’t work together, but we don’t fight,” said a fighter called Bara.

“I really believe that within ten days or more, we have a chance to take the city.”

But across town, the smoking wreckage of the Salaheddine district in the south tells a different story. Bodies lay in the streets on Sunday as the army pounded fighters with artillery and mortars and helicopter gunships fired from above.

“We don’t know if they are going to try to finish the area off or if they are distracting us, and then come shell us again here in the east of town,” said Ahmed, a chain smoking activist, cigarettes as he debated with fighters insisting victory was near.

Salaheddine is the main artery out of the city and onto the highway that leads south to Damascus. State troops seem to have concentrated all their forces on wresting it from the rebels.

If the army, which retains overwhelming military superiority with helicopter gunships, rockets, artillery and tanks, cannot secure Salaheddine enough to get tanks on the ground, it would have to bring tanks into the city by going all the way around the province and entering from the other side, because minor roads on the city outskirts are mined by the rebels.

Both sides are trying to avoid using manpower. The army bombards from afar with its tanks or its helicopters hovering overhead. Rebels set up homemade bombs to blow up the tanks when they try to roll in. [Continue reading…]

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FSA fighter in Aleppo with kitten. Assad can’t compete in this propaganda war

A member of the Free Syrian Army holds a kitten at Anadan in Aleppo July 29, 2012. Reuters-Shaam News Network

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Syrian refugees are stung by a hostile reception in Iraq

The New York Times reports: Muhammed Muafak decided he had had enough when Syrian Army mortar shells struck near his house while his family was having the iftar meal to end the daily Ramadan fast. He packed up his 10-member household in Bukamal, the Syrian border town where they lived, and fled here to this Iraqi border town.

He expected a warm welcome. After all, his country had taken in 1.2 million Iraqis during their recent war, far more than any of Iraq’s other neighbors, and had allowed them to work, send their children to public schools and receive state medical care.

Instead, Mr. Muafak found himself and his family locked up in a school under guard with several hundred other Syrians, forbidden to leave to visit relatives in Iraq or to do anything else.

“We wish to go back to Syria and die there instead of living here in this prison,” said Abdul Hay Majeed, another Syrian held in a school building, along with 11 family members. Mr. Majeed was refused permission for that either, he and other refugees said.

Alone among Syria’s Muslim neighbors, Iraq is resisting receiving refugees from the conflict, and is making those who do arrive anything but comfortable. Baghdad is worried about the fighters of a newly resurgent Al Qaeda flowing both ways across the border, and about the Sunni opponents of the two governments making common cause.

The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq, while officially neutral, has been supportive of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose ruling Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Last week, for instance, Iraq abstained from supporting a resolution by the Arab League calling for Mr. Assad to step down, calling it unwarranted interference in Syria’s internal affairs.

Though Syrians have been fleeing the unrest in their country for months, Iraq did not open its borders to refugees until last week, after protests from the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province. The Bukamal border crossing, near this city, is the most problematic one for Iraq, with the Syrian side now under the control of opposition forces.

The restrictions Baghdad has imposed on refugees proved so severe that on Friday, representatives of the Anbar tribes and hundreds of followers took to the streets in the 125-degree midday heat to protest the treatment of the newly arriving Syrians, many of whom have family and tribal connections with Iraqis here.

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Jordan’s desert camp for Syrian refugees

BBC News reports: A dry, hot wind blows across the Jordanian desert, coating a freshly pitched city of tents with a fine film of dust.

“No-one would want to live in a tent here,” admits Andrew Harper, head of the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, in Jordan.

But for hundreds of Syrians fleeing across the border every day, Jordan’s first official refugee camp is their only safe haven from the growing violence at home.

On Saturday night, nearly 2,000 Syrians are reported to have made the increasingly dangerous escape to Jordan, marking what officials describe as a dramatic increase in the exodus.

“We tried for months to delay the opening of official camps,” reflected Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. “We have our conscience…but we also have our realities on the ground.

“A lot of Syrians came here over the past 15 to 16 months and stayed with family and friends, but it puts a burden on resources like water, health, education and energy, ” he told me, against the backdrop of a long straight line of empty, cream coloured tents flapping in the desert wind.

Mr Judeh and Interior Minister Ghalib Al Zu’abi joined several ambassadors under a rough tarpaulin marquee in the scorching summer heat to mark a new, more visible, phase in Jordan’s response to a deepening humanitarian crisis.

The authorities will gradually begin moving the first 5-600 refugees from some of the overcrowded “transit camps” into this new facility.
Ramadan appeal

Initially, the UN expects to house 10,000 refugees here, but it has been given enough land to eventually provide for 100,000 people.

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