Archives for November 2013

Out of Syria, into a European maze

The New York Times reports: Fifty miles off the southeastern coast of Sicily, the refugee boat first appeared as a gray spot on the horizon, rising up or dipping away with the churn of the Mediterranean. Then, as an Italian Coast Guard rescue ship drew closer, the small boat came fully into view, as did the dim figure of a man, standing on the bow, waving a white blanket.

Adrift at sea, the boat heaved with about 150 Syrians fleeing war. Mothers in head scarves clutched infants. A child wore a SpongeBob life jacket. Smugglers had left them alone with a satellite phone and an emergency number in Italy: Save us, they pleaded to the Italians before the phone went dead. We are lost.

Capt. Roberto Mangione shouted for everyone to stay calm as he positioned his Coast Guard ship alongside the listing trawler. The Syrians, pale and beleaguered, started clapping. They had been at sea for six days, drinking fetid water, enduring a terrifying storm. One man combed his hair, as if preparing to greet his new life. A woman named Abeer, dazed and exhausted, thought: salvation, at last.

“I had nothing left in Syria,” she explained after stepping onto the rescue boat. She had fled with her husband and three teenage children. “We came with nothing but ourselves to Europe.”

The Syrian exodus has become one of the gravest global refugee crises of recent decades. More than two million people have fled Syria’s civil war, most resettling in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But since this summer, refugees have also started pouring into Europe in what became for many weeks a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. Over five months, Italy’s Coast Guard rescued thousands of Syrians, even as hundreds of other migrants, including many Syrians, died in two major shipwrecks in October. [Continue reading…]

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23andMe’s goal is to hoard your DNA data

Charles Seife writes: If there’s a gene for hubris, the 23andMe crew has certainly got it. Last Friday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered the genetic-testing company immediately to stop selling its flagship product, its $99 “Personal Genome Service” kit. In response, the company cooed that its “relationship with the FDA is extremely important to us” and continued hawking its wares as if nothing had happened. Although the agency is right to sound a warning about 23andMe, it’s doing so for the wrong reasons.

Since late 2007, 23andMe has been known for offering cut-rate genetic testing. Spit in a vial, send it in, and the company will look at thousands of regions in your DNA that are known to vary from human to human—and which are responsible for some of our traits. For example a site in your genome named rs4481887 can come in three varieties. If you happen to have what is known as the GG variant, there is a good probability that you are unable to smell asparagus in your urine; those blessed with the GA or AG varieties are much more likely to be repulsed by their own pee after having a few spears at Spargelfest.

At first, 23andMe seemed to angle its kit as a fun way to learn a little genetics using yourself as a test subject. (“Our goal is to connect you to the 23 paired volumes of your own genetic blueprint… bringing you personal insight into ancestry, genealogy, and inherited traits,” read the company’s website.) The FDA had little problem with the company telling you why you had dry ear wax (rs17822931) or whether you’re likely to sneeze when you look at a bright light (rs10427255).

That phase didn’t last for long, because there is much more interesting stuff in your genome than novelty items. Certain regions signal an increased risk of breast cancer, the impending onset of metabolic diseases, and sensitivity to medications. 23andMe—as well as a number of other companies—edged closer and closer to marketing their services as a way of predicting and even preventing health problems. And any kit intended to cure, mitigate, treat, prevent, or diagnose a disease is, according to federal law, a “medical device” that needs to be deemed safe and effective by the FDA. Since mid-2009, 23andMe has been negotiating with the agency, and in July 2012, the company finally began the process of getting clearance from the FDA to sell the kit that it had already been selling for five years.

Everything seemed rosy until, in what a veteran Forbes reporter calls “the single dumbest regulatory strategy [he had] seen in 13 years of covering the Food and Drug Administration,” 23andMe changed its strategy. It apparently blew through its FDA deadlines, effectively annulling the clearance process, and abruptly cut off contact with the agency in May. Adding insult to injury the company started an aggressive advertising campaign (“Know more about your health!”), leaving little doubt about the underlying medical purpose of 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service. This left the agency with little alternative but to take action. “As part of our interactions with you, including more than 14 face-to-face and teleconference meetings, hundreds of email exchanges, and dozens of written communications,” the agency complained, “we provided you with… statistical advice, and discussed potential risk mitigation strategies.” It is the tone of a spurned spouse, exasperated and angry that 23andMe is putting no effort into salvaging their relationship.

But as the FDA frets about the accuracy of 23andMe’s tests, it is missing their true function, and consequently the agency has no clue about the real dangers they pose. The Personal Genome Service isn’t primarily intended to be a medical device. It is a mechanism meant to be a front end for a massive information-gathering operation against an unwitting public. [Continue reading…]

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For nearly two decades the nuclear launch code at all Minuteman silos in the United States was 00000000

Karl Smallwood writes: Today I found out that during the height of the Cold War, the US military put such an emphasis on a rapid response to an attack on American soil, that to minimize any foreseeable delay in launching a nuclear missile, for nearly two decades they intentionally set the launch codes at every silo in the US to 8 zeroes.

We guess the first thing we need to address is how this even came to be in the first place. Well, in 1962 JFK signed the National Security Action Memorandum 160, which was supposed to ensure that every nuclear weapon the US had be fitted with a Permissive Action Link (PAL), basically a small device that ensured that the missile could only be launched with the right code and with the right authority.

There was particularly a concern that the nuclear missiles the United States had stationed in other countries, some of which with somewhat unstable leadership, could potentially be seized by those governments and launched. With the PAL system, this became much less of a problem.

Beyond foreign seizure, there was also simply the problem that many U.S. commanders had the ability to launch nukes under their control at any time. Just one commanding officer who wasn’t quite right in the head and World War III begins. As U.S. General Horace M. Wade stated about General Thomas Power:

I used to worry about General Power. I used to worry that General Power was not stable. I used to worry about the fact that he had control over so many weapons and weapon systems and could, under certain conditions, launch the force. Back in the days before we had real positive control [i.e., PAL locks], SAC had the power to do a lot of things, and it was in his hands, and he knew it.

To give you an idea of how secure the PAL system was at this time, bypassing one was once described as being “about as complex as performing a tonsillectomy while entering the patient from the wrong end.” This system was supposed to be essentially hot-wire proof, making sure only people with the correct codes could activate the nuclear weapons and launch the missiles.

However, though the devices were supposed to be fitted on every nuclear missile after JFK issued his memorandum, the military continually dragged its heels on the matter. In fact, it was noted that a full 20 years after JFK had order PALs be fitted to every nuclear device, half of the missiles in Europe were still protected by simple mechanical locks. Most that did have the new system in place weren’t even activated until 1977.

Those in the U.S. that had been fitted with the devices, such as ones in the Minuteman Silos, were installed under the close scrutiny of Robert McNamara, JFK’s Secretary of Defence. However, The Strategic Air Command greatly resented McNamara’s presence and almost as soon as he left, the code to launch the missile’s, all 50 of them, was set to 00000000. [Continue reading…]

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NSA spying risks $35 billion in U.S. technology sales

Bloomberg reports: International anger over the National Security Agency’s Internet surveillance is hurting global sales by American technology companies and setting back U.S. efforts to promote Internet freedom.

Disclosures of spying abroad may cost U.S. companies as much as $35 billion in lost revenue through 2016 because of doubts about the security of information on their systems, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a policy research group in Washington whose board includes representatives of companies such as IBM and Intel.

“The potential fallout is pretty huge given how much our economy depends on the information economy for its growth,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington policy group. “It’s increasingly where the U.S. advantage lies.”

Any setback in the U.S. push to maintain an open Internet also could inflict indirect damage on companies such as Apple and Google that benefit from global networks with few national restrictions. [Continue reading…]

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Barack Obama’s on a diplomatic roll that shouldn’t end with Iran

Jonathan Freedland writes: There was no hesitation in pointing out the obvious loser from last weekend’s breakthrough deal between the world’s leading powers and Iran – and it wasn’t the scriptwriters of Homeland. True, the US drama has taken a blow: the current storyline centres on Tehran and its runaway nuclear programme, depicting a regime utterly beyond the reach of conventional diplomacy. Yet while Carrie and Saul plot and scheme, there’s secretary of state John Kerry shaking hands with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva – the actuality once again outdoing the talents of fiction, to paraphrase the great Philip Roth.

No, the obvious loser is Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. His driving mission, the raison d’être of this, his second spell as Israel’s prime minister, has been the total removal of what he sees as Iran’s nuclear threat. To Bibi, Iran is the existential issue to which all other questions – including Israel’s relationship with its neighbours, the Palestinians – are secondary. For two decades he has warned that Tehran is within touching distance of acquiring nuclear weapons – in 1992, he gave it five years, max, before Tehran had the bomb – and he has been bent ever since on the total eradication of that danger, almost certainly by force.

But the Geneva deal does not guarantee total Iranian disarmament. The pact struck last week is interim and incomplete: Iran retains some limited ability to enrich uranium and the like. It is not an Iranian surrender. Which is why Netanyahu denounced the agreement as a “historic mistake”, making him a lone public voice against the international chorus of celebration and relief. (As it happens, the Saudis and the Gulf states also oppose the deal, which they think lets Iran, their great regional rival, off the hook: but only Bibi said so out loud.)

Bibi-watchers are focused now on how the Israeli leader will play the next six months, in which the Geneva agreement will either blossom into a lasting accord or break apart. But it prompts another question: what will be the impact on Israel’s conflict closer to home? Could the breakthrough with Iran somehow presage a breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians?

The wisest bet would be on no. Peace talks are officially under way, Kerry having pushed both sides to the table in late July. What got Bibi there was, chiefly, Iran: participation in Kerry’s talks was the quid, US support for Israel on Iran the expected quo. But now that leverage has gone. Bibi no longer needs to make nice to Kerry or Barack Obama: as far as he’s concerned, they’ve betrayed him and he owes them nothing. One western diplomat sympathetic to Israel explains that no leader of that country will ever dare move in peace talks unless reassured that “the US president has his back”. Bibi, he says, has lost that confidence.

A similar dynamic could operate in reverse. Obama knows he has angered his Israeli ally and that might make him reluctant to do so a second time. The US president already has a job on his hands winning congressional blessing for the Geneva pact. Given the wide support Bibi enjoys on Capitol Hill, Obama will only make his task harder by demanding Israel concede to the Palestinians.

Add that Kerry’s “bandwidth” for the next six months will be consumed by closing the Iran deal, and that Israeli-Palestinian talks are said to be stalled anyway, and you can see why few expect a Geneva bounce. The safest wager would be on Bibi “managing” whatever pressure comes from Obama, going through the motions with the Palestinians and waiting for the US president to be a certified lame duck. Meanwhile, he’ll do what he can to undermine the accord with Iran.

But there’s another, riskier bet to make. It says that Obama now has momentum in the Middle East, using diplomacy to solve problems previously deemed soluble only through military action. [Continue reading…]

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Britain’s ill-informed friends of Israel are refusing to face facts on Iran nuclear deal

Peter Oborne writes: It was one of those coincidences that a novelist might hesitate to invent. One of William Hague’s first tasks after signing a historic nuclear agreement with Iran was to address the grandest and most important gathering of Britain’s pro-Israel lobby.

Having flown back into London from Geneva on the Sunday, the Foreign Secretary then turned up the next day at the Park Plaza hotel at Westminster for the annual lunch of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI). More than 100 Tory MPs, as well as hundreds more CFI supporters, were present to hear Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador, chide Mr Hague over Iran. One reporter present wrote that Mr Hague was “humiliated”, adding that when he rose to speak he was greeted with “light applause” and “heard in obvious silence”.

Some close to Mr Hague insist, by contrast, that it was a cheerful event. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was by no means as warm and easy as it was last year, when David Cameron was the guest of honour. At some tables, I am told, there was palpable resentment. Each guest had been given a briefing pack that included a caustic summary of the deal that Mr Hague had signed the previous day. A longer version of this document was then dispatched to Conservative MPs, ahead of the Foreign Secretary’s afternoon statement to the House of Commons on Iran.

I have obtained this briefing, which parroted the overblown rhetoric with which Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, responded to the deal in Geneva. The CFI warned Tory MPs that “the world’s most dangerous regime has taken a significant step towards obtaining the world’s most dangerous weapon” – echoing Mr Netanyahu almost verbatim.

This was not merely propaganda. It was ignorant and poorly informed. [Continue reading…]

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Human tragedy unfolds as Gaza runs on empty

The Telegraph reports: The horrific scars disfigure Mona Abu Mraleel’s otherwise strikingly beautiful face. Swathes of bandages cover the injuries the 17-year-old sustained to her arms and legs in a blaze from which she narrowly escaped with her life.

Still racked by pain from burns to 40 per cent of her body, she goes to hospital on a daily basis to have her dressings changed. Specialist doctors are preparing to carry out a delicate skin graft operation in the coming days.

Yet the hospital on which her recovery depends is woefully ill-fitted to the task – riddled by equipment failures, power cuts and shortages in a mounting crisis that doctors fear is leading to a “health catastrophe”.

Mona lives in Gaza, the impoverished Palestinian coastal enclave where chronic fuel shortages have led to electricity cuts of up to 18 hours a day and reduced ordinary life and public services to a standstill.

She is just one of many Gazans suffering in a rapidly worsening economic climate that this week prompted the British Foreign Office minister, Hugh Robertson, to demand urgent action to restore an adequate fuel supply to the territory. [Continue reading…]

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For Egypt’s new rulers, familiar scapegoats

Robert Mackey writes: This week, when Egypt’s military-backed government issued arrest warrants for Alaa Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Maher — two activist bloggers who helped drive the uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 only to find themselves blamed for inciting unrest by each successive government — the same thought occurred to several readers of their popular Twitter feeds. “The only stability and reliability we have in Egypt,” the journalist Sharif Kouddous joked, “is that successive rulers never fail to arrest @alaa.”

The mood among supporters of the two men turned much darker on Thursday night when Mr. Abd El Fattah’s wife, Manal Hassan, reported that the police had raided their home, dragging off her husband and leaving his blood on the floor. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Gerardo Frisina — ‘The 7th Day’

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The global land crisis and the very real threat of famine

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes: American scientists have made an unsettling discovery. Crop farming across the Prairies since the late 19th Century has caused a collapse of the soil microbia that holds the ecosystem together.

They do not know exactly what role is played by the bacteria. It is a new research field. Nor do they know where the tipping point lies, or how easily this can be reversed. Nobody yet knows whether this is happening in other parts of the world.

A team at the University of Colorado under Noah Fierer used DNA gene technology to test the ‘verrucomicrobia’ in Prairie soil, contrasting tilled land with the rare pockets of ancient tallgrass found in cemeteries and reservations. The paper published in the US journal Science found that crop agriculture has “drastically altered” the biology of the land. “The soils currently found throughout the region bear little resemblance to their pre-agricultural state,” it concluded.

You might say we already knew this. In fact we did not. There has never before been a metagenomic analysis of this kind and on this scale. Professor Fierer said mankind needs to watch its step. “We really know very little about one of the most productive soils on the planet, but we do know that soil microbes play a key role and we can’t just keep adding fertilizers,” he said.

The Colorado study has caused a stir in the soil world. It was accompanied by a sobering analysis in Science by academics from South Africa’s Witwatersrand University. They fear that we are repeating the mistakes of past civilisations, over-exploiting the land until it goes beyond the point of no return, and leads to a vicious circle of famine, and then social disintegration.

Entitled “Dust to Dust“, the paper argues that the erosion of soil fertility has been masked by a “soup of nutrients” poured over crop lands, giving us a false sense of security. It said 1pc of global land is being degraded each year, defined as a 70pc loss of the top soil.

Once the top soil crosses a crucial threshold, the recovery rate plunges. Chemicals can keep crop yields high for a while but the complex ecology beneath is being abused further. Yields have already fallen 8pc across Africa as a whole. The paper calls for a complete change of course as the “only viable route to feeding the world and keeping it habitable.” [Continue reading…]

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Pierre Omidyar, Glenn Greenwald and the ownership of the Snowden’s leaks

Mark Ames writes: Who “owns” the NSA secrets leaked by Edward Snowden to reporters Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras?

Given that eBay founder Pierre Omidyar just invested a quarter of a billion dollars to personally hire Greenwald and Poitras for his new for-profit media venture, it’s a question worth asking.

It’s especially worth asking since it became clear that Greenwald and Poitras are now the only two people with full access to the complete cache of NSA files, which are said to number anywhere from 50,000 to as many as 200,000 files. That’s right: Snowden doesn’t have the files any more, the Guardian doesn’t have them, the Washington Post doesn’t have them… just Glenn and Laura at the for-profit journalism company created by the founder of eBay.

Edward Snowden has popularly been compared to major whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Jeffrey Wigand. However, there is an important difference in the Snowden files that has so far gone largely unnoticed. Whistleblowing has traditionally served the public interest. In this case, it is about to serve the interests of a billionaire starting a for-profit media business venture. This is truly unprecedented. Never before has such a vast trove of public secrets been sold wholesale to a single billionaire as the foundation of a for-profit company.

Think about other famous leakers: Daniel Ellsberg neither monetized nor monopolized the Pentagon Papers. Instead, he leaked them to well over a dozen different newspapers and media outlets such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and to a handful of sitting senators — one of whom, Mike Gravel, read over 4,000 of the 7,000 pages into the Congressional record before collapsing from exhaustion. The Papers were published in book form by a small nonprofit run by the Unitarian Church, Beacon House Press.

Chelsea Manning, responsible for the largest mass leaks of government secrets ever, leaked everything to WikiLeaks, a nonprofit venture that has largely struggled to make ends meet in its seven years of existence. Julian Assange, for all of his flaws, cannot be accused of crudely enriching himself from his privileged access to Manning’s leaks; instead, he shared his entire trove with a number of established media outlets including the Guardian, New York Times, Le Monde and El Pais. Today, Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in a military prison, while the Private Manning Support Network constantly struggles to raise funds from donations; Assange has spent the last year and a half inside Ecuador’s embassy in London, also struggling to raise funds to run the WikiLeaks operation.

A similar story emerges in the biggest private sector analogy — the tobacco industry leaks by whistleblowers Merrell Williams and Jeffrey Wigand. After suffering lawsuits, harassment and attempts to destroy their livelihoods, both eventually won awards as part of the massive multibillion dollar settlements — but the millions of confidential tobacco documents now belong to the public, maintained by a nonprofit, the American Legacy Project, whose purpose is to help scholars and reporters and scientists fight tobacco propaganda and power. Every year, over 400,000 Americans die from tobacco-related illnesses.

The point is this: In the most successful whistleblower cases, the public has sided with the selfless whistleblower against the power- or profit-driven entity whose secrets were leaked. The Snowden case represents a new twist to the heroic whistleblower story arc: After successfully convincing a large part of the public and the American Establishment that Snowden’s leaks serve a higher public interest, Greenwald promptly sold those secrets to a billionaire. [Continue reading…]

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Iran — the next stage

David Ignatius writes: Now that the Obama administration has won its breakthrough first-step nuclear deal with Iran, officials are planning strategy for the decisive second round that, over the next six months, will seek a broader and tougher comprehensive agreement.

This “end state” negotiation, as officials describe it, promises to be more difficult because the United States and its negotiating partners will seek to dismantle parts of the Iranian program, rather than simply freeze them. Another complication is that negotiators will be fending off even more brickbats from hard-liners in Israel, Congress and Tehran.

If the interim deal was reached largely in secret, through a back channel provided by Oman, this one will have to be negotiated in the diplomatic equivalent of a circus ring, with hoots and catcalls from bystanders.

As administration strategists seek a comprehensive deal, they have several priorities. All will be harder to negotiate than was the limited six-month freeze on the Iranian program agreed to last weekend. Given the arduous bargaining ahead, the United States will need the leverage of the sanctions still in place after the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets — and the threat of more sanctions if negotiations break down.

The negotiators’ agenda: [Continue reading…]

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Ire in Canada over report NSA spied from Ottawa

The New York Times reports: Canadian opposition politicians expressed shock and anger on Thursday over a report that the National Security Agency conducted widespread surveillance during a summit meeting of world leaders in Canada in June 2010.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, citing a confidential briefing paper obtained by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, reported on Wednesday night that the N.S.A. turned the United States Embassy in Ottawa into a command post for a six-day surveillance operation that coincided with the Group of 20 summit meeting in Toronto and the Group of 8 meeting in Huntsville, Ontario.

According to the document, the operation was “closely coordinated with the Canadian partner,” an apparent reference to the Communications Security Establishment Canada, a Canadian electronic surveillance agency.

Exactly who or what the N.S.A. was monitoring, however, was unclear from the CBC’s description of the report. The document does indicate, however, that the N.S.A. believed that its mandate during the summit meetings included “providing support to policy makers.” [Continue reading…]

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Prominent Egyptian blogger arrested; whereabouts unknown

Jadaliyya reports: At around 10:00 p.m. on 28 November 2013, police forces stormed the home of activist Alaa Abd El Fattah. They had no search warrant. When his wife Manal demanded to see it they were both beaten up. Police personnel took their computers and their telephones. Their two-year old son, Khaled, was asleep in the next room.

An arrest warrant was issued for Abd El Fattah following Tuesday’s violent dispersal of protestors under a new law effectively banning street protest in Egypt. At least fifty-one people were arrested that day, among them several prominent activists. All were beaten and the women were sexually assaulted. Later that day, authorities issued an arrest warrant for Abd El Fattah’s for the alleged incitement and organization of the protest. A warrant for the arrest of Ahmed Maher, founder of the 6th April Youth Movement, was also issued.

Abd El Fattah had stated publicly that he would turn himself in on Saturday but the police violently raided his home earlier tonight.

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Disillusionment grows among Syrian opposition as fighting drags on

The New York Times reports: In a terrace cafe within earshot of army artillery, a 28-year-old graduate student wept as she confessed that she had stopped planning antigovernment protests and delivering medical supplies to rebel-held towns.

Khaled, 33, a former protester who fled Damascus after being tortured and fired from his bank post, quit his job in Turkey with the exile opposition, disillusioned and saying that he wished the uprising “had never happened.”

In the Syrian city of Homs, a rebel fighter, Abu Firas, 30, recently put down the gun his wife had sold her jewelry to buy, disgusted with his commanders, who, he said, focus on enriching themselves. Now he finds himself trapped under government shelling, broke and hopeless.

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

But the net effect is the same, as some of the Syrians who risked their lives for the fight are effectively giving up, finding themselves in a kind of checkmate born of Mr. Assad’s shrewdness and their own failures — though none interviewed say they are willing to return to his fold. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian war is making casualties of ‘a generation of innocents,’ warns UN

Al Jazeera America reports: School-age refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war to neighboring countries are cut off from education and are increasingly becoming primary providers for families who lack resources for basic survival, the United Nations said Friday.

A report published by the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) says children represent 52 percent of the total Syrian refugee population, which now exceeds 2.2 million. Seventy-five percent of those children are under the age of 12.

“If we do not act quickly, a generation of innocents will become lasting casualties of an appalling war,” Antonio Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in launching the report.

The UNHCR report found a majority of the refugee children live in Syria’s neighboring countries, with Jordan and Lebanon combined hosting more than 60 percent. As of the end of October, 291,238 Syrian refugee children were living in Jordan and 385,007 in Lebanon.

“This is the moment for the international community to fully understand that the support provided to the countries of the region needs to be strongly enhanced, needs to be really massive, because there is a risk for the asylum space if that doesn’t happen,” Guterres added. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s most powerful opposition groups unite

Jamestown Foundation: The leaders of seven Syrian militant Islamist armed opposition groups announced the formation of al-Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front) on November 22 with the stated purpose of uniting their disparate fighting groups into one coalition. The coalition has a strategy to present a popular political alternative to President Bashar al-Assad’s government, militarily defeat the al-Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in Syria. Al-Jabhat al-Islamiya includes several of the most powerful Syrian armed opposition groups currently fighting in the country’s civil war, including Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant); Liwa al-Islam (Islamic Brigade); Alwiya Suqur al-Sham (Hawks of the Levant Brigades); and Liwa al-Tawhid (Divine Unity Brigade). Three other armed opposition groups, Liwa al-Haqq (Divine Truth Brigade), Ansar al-Sham (Partisans of the Levant) and Jabhat al-Akrad al-Islamiya (Kurdish Islamic Front) have also joined the coalition. [1] Combined, the constituent fighting groups within al-Jabhat al-Islamiya are believed to have as many as 50,000 fighters (Janes Terrorism & Insurgency Centre, November 24). The armed opposition groups that are forming the coalition are actively engaged against the al-Assad government throughout Syria, particularly in and around the northwestern governorates of Idlib and Aleppo, in the central western governorates of Homs and Hama and in Damascus and its suburbs (al-Jazeera, November 22).

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Pope Francis recognizes that inequality is the biggest economic issue of our time

Heidi Moore writes: Pope Francis is a pontiff who has constructively broken all the rules of popery – so far to widespread acclaim. He’s faulted the Catholic church for its negative obsession with gays and birth control, and now he has expanded his mandate to economics with a groundbreaking screed denouncing “the new idolatry of money“.

As the Pope wrote in his “apostolic exhortation“:

The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings.

His thoughts on income inequality are searing:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality.

The pope’s screed on “the economy of exclusion and inequality” will disappoint those who considers themselves free-market capitalists, but they would do well to listen to the message. Francis gives form to the emotion and injustice of post-financial-crisis outrage in a way that has been rare since Occupy Wall Street disbanded. There has been a growing chorus of financial insiders – from the late Merrill Lynch executive Herb Allison to organizations like Better Markets – it’s time for a change in how we approach capitalism. It’s not about discarding capitalism, or hating money or profit; it’s about pursuing profits ethically, and rejecting the premise that exploitation is at the center of profit. When 53% of financial executives say they can’t get ahead without some cheating, even though they want to work for ethical organizations, there’s a real problem.

Unlike Occupy, which turned its rage outward, Pope Francis bolstered his anger with two inward-facing emotions familiar to any Catholic-school graduate: shame and guilt, to make the economy a matter of personal responsibility.

This is important. Income inequality is not someone else’s problem. Nearly all of us are likely to experience it. Inequality has been growing in the US since the 1970s. Economist Emmanuel Saez found that the incomes of the top 1% grew by 31.4% in the three years after the financial crisis, while the majority of people struggled with a disappointing economy. The other 99% of the population grew their incomes 0.4% during the same period.

As a result, federal and state spending on social welfare programs has been forced to grow to $1tn just to handle the volume of US households in trouble. Yet income inequality has been locked out of of the mainstream economic conversation, where it is seen largely as a sideshow for progressive bleeding hearts. [Continue reading…]

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