Archives for April 2014

Ukraine and the fear of war in Europe

Der Spiegel reports: Following the apparent failure of the Geneva agreements, the inconceivable suddenly seems possible: the invasion of eastern Ukraine by the Russian army. Fears are growing in the West of the breakout of a new war in Europe.

These days, Heinz Otto Fausten, a 94-year-old retired high school principal from Sinzig, Germany, can’t bear to watch the news about Ukraine. Whenever he sees images of tanks on TV, he grabs the remote and switches channels. “I don’t want to be subjected to these images,” he says. “I can’t bear it.”

When he was deployed as a soldier in the Ukraine, in 1943, Fausten was struck by grenade shrapnel in the hollow of his knee, just outside Kiev, and lost his right leg. The German presence in Ukraine at the time was, of course, part of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But, even so, Fausten didn’t think he would ever again witness scenes from Ukraine hinting at the potential outbreak of war.

For anyone watching the news, these recent images, and the links between them, are hard to ignore. In eastern Ukraine, government troops could be seen battling separatists; burning barricades gave the impression of an impending civil war. On Wednesday, Russian long-range bombers entered into Dutch airspace — it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, but now it felt like a warning to the West. Don’t be so sure of yourselves, the message seemed to be, conjuring up the possibility of a larger war. [Continue reading…]

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How a passive police force is fueling Ukraine’s crisis

Dan Peleschuk reports: A rally by pro-Ukraine supporters here on Monday night got off to a smooth start.

Hordes of armored police were dispatched to guard protesters as they marched peacefully down the city’s main street.

But when pro-Russian thugs wearing masks and brandishing crude weapons caught up to them, mayhem ensued. The tight police cordon peeled away, leaving the pro-unity protesters open to vicious beatings.

It’s not the first time that’s happened.

Whether it’s protecting eastern Ukraine’s embattled pro-unity protesters or defending local administrative buildings from seizures by anti-government rebels, law enforcement here has proven largely useless. Instead, it’s playing into the hands of pro-Russian rebels, further inflaming a crisis that’s threatening to tear the country apart at the seams.

Observers say a mix of pervasive corruption, split loyalties and sense of self-preservation is to blame. [Continue reading…]

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The Kremlin’s marriage of convenience with the European far right

Anton Shekhovtsov writes: For its massive information war waged against the Euromaidan protests and the consequent revolution that has toppled the authoritarian regime of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin presumably mobilised all its lobbying networks in the West. This revealed what experts have long suspected, namely that today’s European extreme right parties and organisations are the most ardent supporters of Putin’s political agenda.

Crimea, 16 March. Here they are: international ‘observers’ at the illegal and illegitimate ‘referendum’ held in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea occupied by the Russian ‘little green men.’ The overwhelming majority of the ‘observers’ are representatives of a broad spectrum of European extreme-right parties and organisations: Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei (FPÖ) and Bündnis Zukunft, Belgian Vlaams Belang and Parti Communautaire National-Européen, Bulgarian Ataka, French Front National, Hungarian Jobbik, Italian Lega Nord and Fiamma Tricolore, Polish Samoobrona, Serbian ‘Dveri’ movement, Spanish Plataforma per Catalunya. They were invited to legitimise the ‘referendum’ by the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy & Elections (EODE) – a smart name for an ‘international NGO’ founded and headed by Belgian neo-Nazi Luc Michel, a loyal follower of Belgian convicted war-time collaborationist and neo-Nazi Jean-François Thiriart. Presented by Michel as ‘a non-aligned NGO’, the EODE does not conceal its anti-Westernism and loyalty to Putin, and is always there to put a stamp of ‘legitimacy’ on all illegitimate political developments, whether in Crimea, Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia. Moscow’s money talks.

Yet the EODE is only a drop in the ocean of extensive co-operation between the Kremlin and the European far right. Front National’s Marine Le Pen now visits Moscow on a seemingly regular basis: in August 2013 and April 2014 she had meetings with Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Speaker of the Russian parliament Sergey Naryshkin. Le Pen’s adviser on geopolitical matters Aymeric Chauprade participated, as an ‘expert’, in the meeting of the Committee for Family, Women and Children Issues in the Russian parliament to endorse the laws banning adoption of Russian orphan children by LGBT couples. Several former members of the Front National run ProRussia.TV, an extension of the Kremlin’s international PR instruments such as Russia Today and the Voice of Russia. [Continue reading…]

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Ukraine: Hate in progress

Tim Judah writes: From the cemetery in Khrestysche we could see for miles across the valley and the rolling green hills. Men from the village militia pointed to the horizon and said that their enemies were “over there,” somewhere. And then the funeral party came walking up the path from the village, bearing the open coffin of twenty-one-year-old Aleksandr Lubenets. “He was very cheerful. He loved life,” his father, Vladimir, told me. “And then some bastard decided to end it. They shot him in the back.”

Krestysche is on the outskirts of Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine. Aleksandr and two of his mates, were part of the local rebel militia, which has been ringed by anti-government barricades for the last few weeks. What exactly happened is unclear. Yevgeniy, the commander of Aleksandr’s group, said, “He wanted to be hero.” On April 24, the three friends ran into Ukrainian soldiers or police and that was the end of it.

On the same day, in the nearby town of Gorlovka, forty-two-year-old Volodymyr Rybak was buried. A policeman turned local councilman, he remonstrated with the men who had put up a rebel flag in town. A few days later he and a man later identified as a student from Kiev were found in a river near Sloviansk. Rybak’s body, which had been weighted down with a bag of sand, showed signs of torture. As mourners came to pay their respects at his home in Gorlovka, Elena, his widow, sat by his open coffin stroking his face.

If war is coming, which is the way it feels, Aleksandr and Volodymyr will be remembered and not just by their families and friends. When the Balkan conflict began in the early 1990s the names of the very first to die were engraved in everyone’s memory and later in the history books. Soon after, the individual names and faces gave way to the torrent of numbers. [Continue reading…]

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Portraits from Ukraine: A Crimean Tatar’s story

Jon Lee Anderson writes: “Step by step, we have led Crimeans to realize their dream of returning home to Russia,” Vladimir Konstantinov, the speaker of the breakaway Crimean legislature, told his colleagues recently, as they hastily voted in a new, Russia-friendly constitution. The dream was not universally shared, of course. During the March referendum to rubber-stamp the peninsula’s annexation by Russia, the region’s long-oppressed Tatar minority had launched a boycott. On the eve of the vote, a Tatar man was abducted and tortured to death, presumably by pro-Russian thugs. It was a warning—perhaps an intentional one — of the violence and provocation now occurring in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian paramilitaries are increasingly active, with the apparent connivance of the Kremlin. Last week, the Tatars’ historic leader, Mustafa Dzhemilev, who spent years in Soviet prisons for agitating on behalf of his people, went to Ukraine in an attempt to meet with Joe Biden; on the way home, he received papers informing him that he was barred from reëntering Crimea until 2019. The Kremlin and the regional government have denied the ban, and he was eventually let through. But it was a clear sign that the Russian-backed authorities have little sympathy for the Tatars. The acting Prime Minister, Sergei Aksyonov, a former gangster, noted on Twitter that any Tatars who were unhappy with the new order in Crimea should “leave if they don’t like it.”

For the second time in seventy years, the Crimean Tatars are forced to confront a complete upending of their lives. The Tatars, Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, saw virtually their entire community — some two hundred thousand people — uprooted in May, 1944, after Stalin’s forces took Crimea from the occupying Nazis. Stalin justified the occupation by pointing out that some Tatars had fought alongside the Nazis in the war — even though others had fought in the Red Army. Nearly half of the Tatars are thought to have died in the harsh conditions of their deportation and the early years of their exile.

In the late nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union opened up a bit, Tatars were allowed to return, and a trickle began coming back from Central Asia. Those who could afford it returned to their villages, but few provisions were made for their reintegration into Ukrainian society, and there was no compensation for the properties they had lost. Many ended up squatting on public lands, where they remain. Known as the “original inhabitants” of the peninsula, Crimea’s Tatars now constitute twelve per cent of the region’s population. They are the poorest and least educated section of society, and the least represented in local government. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin—and from Kiev—they are effectively the Ukraine’s Lakota Sioux. [Continue reading…]

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Report lists 13 times nuclear weapons were almost launched

The Guardian reports: A report recounting a litany of near-misses in which nuclear weapons came close to being launched by mistake concludes that the risk of potentially catastrophic accidents is higher than previously thought and appears to be rising.

Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy, published by Chatham House, says that “individual decision-making, often in disobedience of protocol and political guidance, has on several occasions saved the day”, preventing the launch of nuclear warheads.

The report lists 13 instances since 1962 when nuclear weapons were nearly used. In several cases the large-scale launch of nuclear weapons was nearly triggered by technical malfunctions or breakdowns in communication causing false alarms, in both the US and Russia. Disaster was averted only by cool-headed individuals gambling that the alert was caused by a glitch and not an actual attack. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Milton Nascimento — ‘Chamada’

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FBI keeps internet flaws secret to defend against hackers

Bloomberg reports: The Obama administration is letting law enforcement keep computer-security flaws secret in order to further U.S. investigations of cyberspies and hackers.

The White House has carved out an exception for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to keep information about software vulnerabilities from manufacturers and the public. Until now, most debate has focused on how the National Security Agency stockpiles and uses new-found Internet weaknesses, known as zero-day exploits, for offensive purposes, such as attacking the networks of adversaries.

The law enforcement operations expose a delicate and complicated balancing act when it comes to agencies using serious security flaws in investigations versus disclosing them to protect all Internet users, according to former government officials and privacy advocates. [Continue reading…]

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Stop using Microsoft’s IE browser until bug is fixed, U.S. and U.K. warn

If you don’t already use Firefox, it’s probably time to install it.

CNET reports: It’s not often that the US or UK governments weigh in on the browser wars, but a new Internet Explorer vulnerability — one that affects all major versions of the browser from the past decade — has forced them to raise an alarm: Stop using IE.

The zero-day exploit, the term given to a previously unknown, unpatched flaw, allows attackers to install malware on your computer without your permission. That malware could be used to steal personal data, track online behavior, or gain control of the computer. Security firm FireEye, which discovered the bug, said that the flaw is being used with a known Flash-based exploit technique to attack financial and defense organizations in the US via Internet Explorer 9, 10, and 11. Those versions of the browser run on Microsoft’s Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8, although the exploit is present in Internet Explorer 6 and above.

While the Computer Emergency Readiness Team in England and the US regularly issue browser advisories, this is one of the few times that the CERT team has recommended that people avoid using a specific browser. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. supreme court needs to keep up with our cellphones – and the NSA

Yochai Benkler writes: Tuesday’s US supreme court arguments involved a seemingly basic legal question about the future of the Fourth Amendment: do police officers need a warrant to search the cellphone of a person they arrest? But the two privacy cases pit against each other two very different conceptions of what it means to be a supreme court in the first place – and what it means to do constitutional law in the 21st century.

“With computers, it’s a new world,” several justices reportedly said in the chamber. Are they ready to be the kinds of justices who make sense of it?

Cellphones expose so much of our most personal data that the decision should be a 9-0 no-brainer. The basic problem that makes it a harder call is that lawyers and judges are by training and habit incrementalists, while information and communications technology moves too fast for incrementalism to keep up. [Continue reading…]

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How many have we killed with drones?

David Cole writes: On Monday, The New York Times reported that “the Senate has quietly stripped a provision from an intelligence bill that would have required President Obama to make public each year the number of people killed or injured in targeted killing operations in Pakistan and other countries where the United States uses lethal force.” National security officials in the Obama administration objected strongly to having to notify the public of the results and scope of their dirty work, and the Senate acceded. So much for what President Obama has called “the most transparent administration in history.”

The Senate’s decision is particularly troubling in view of how reticent the administration itself continues to be about the drone program. To date, Obama has publicly admitted to the deaths of only four people in targeted killing operations. That came in May 2013, when, in conjunction with a speech at the National Defense University, and, in his words, “to facilitate transparency and debate on the issue,” President Obama acknowledged for the first time that the United States had killed four Americans in drone strikes. But according to credible accounts, Obama has overseen the killing of several thousand people in drone strikes since taking office. Why only admit to the four Americans’ deaths? Is the issue of targeted killings only appropriate for debate when we kill our own citizens? Don’t all human beings have a right to life?

In the NDU speech, President Obama also announced new limits on the use of drones “beyond the Afghan theater.” He proclaimed that drone strikes would be authorized away from the battlefield only when necessary to respond to “continuing and imminent threats” posed by people who cannot be captured or otherwise countermanded. Most important, he said, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Yet in December, a US drone strike in Yemen reportedly struck a wedding party. The New York Times reported that while some of the victims may have been linked to al-Qaeda, the strike killed “at least a half dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses.” [Continue reading…]

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Mystery surrounds move of Afghan ‘torturer in chief’ to U.S. amid allegations of spy agency abuse

The Washington Post reports: In Afghanistan, his presence was enough to cause prisoners to tremble. Hundreds in his organization’s custody were beaten, shocked with electrical currents or subjected to other abuses documented in human rights reports. Some allegedly disappeared.

And then Haji Gulalai disappeared as well.

He had run Afghan intelligence operations in Kandahar after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and later served as head of the spy service’s detention and interrogation branch. After 2009, his whereabouts were unknown.

Because of his reputation for brutality, Gulalai was someone both sides of the war wanted gone. The Taliban tried at least twice to kill him. Despite Gulalai’s ties to the CIA and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, United Nations officials and U.S. coalition partners sought to rein him in or have him removed.

Today, Gulalai lives in a pink two-story house in Southern California, on a street of stucco homes on the outskirts of Los Angeles. [Continue reading…]

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Israel advanced some 14,000 West Bank apartments during talks

JTA reports: Israel promoted plans and tenders for nearly 14,000 housing units in the West Bank during the nine months of peace talks, the activist group Peace Now said.

An average of 50 apartments was built daily in the West Bank throughout the U.S.-backed negotiations launched last summer, the nongovernmental organization said in a report issued Tuesday.

Of the tenders issued for building new apartments, 2,248 were in the West Bank and 2,620 in eastern Jerusalem, according to Peace Now. In addition, tenders for another 1,235 were reissued for units that were not sold in previous tenders. [Continue reading…]

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Anand Gopal: How to lose a war that wasn’t there

You might think that 12-and-a-half years after it began, Washington would have learned something useful about its war on terror, but no such luck. If you remember, back in the distant days just after 9/11 when that war was launched (or, in a sense, “lost”), the Bush administration was readying itself to take out not just Osama bin Laden and his relatively small al-Qaeda outfit but “terror” itself, that amorphous monster of the twenty-first century. They were planning to do so in somewhere between 60 and 83 countries and, as they liked to say, “drain the swamp” globally.

In reality, they launched an overblown war not so much “on” terror, but “of” terror, one that, in place after place, from Afghanistan to Somalia, Pakistan to parts of Africa, destabilized regions and laid the basis for a spreading jihadist movement. In so many cases, as at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, they fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s wildest fantasies, creating the sort of recruiting posters from hell for future jihadists that al-Qaeda was itself incapable of.

So many years later, they seem to be repeating the process in Yemen. They are now escalating a “successful” drone and special operations war against a group in that impoverished land that calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  The drones turn out to be pretty good at knocking off various figures in that movement, but they are in another sense like a godsend for it. In what are called “targeted killings,” but might better be termed (as Paul Woodward has) “speculative murders,” they repeatedly wipe out civilians, including women, children, and in one recent case, part of a wedding party. They are Washington’s calling card of death and as such they only ensure that more Yemenis will join or support AQAP.

The process of creating ever more enemies you must then kill started in Afghanistan in 2001, even if that remains news to most Americans. Now, TomDispatch regular Anand Gopal in his new book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes offers a stunning history of how the U.S. fought its “war on terror” for almost a year in that country against — quite literally — ghosts. In the process, it resuscitated a Taliban movement that had ceased to exist and then found itself in a conflict it couldn’t win. It’s a story that’s never been told before, even if Washington’s second Afghan War makes no sense without it.

For many Americans, as Henry Ford so famously put it, history is bunk.  In this case, however, history turns out to be everything that matters, and the rest has proved to be bloody, painful, and costly bunk.  If you don’t believe me, read Gopal’s hidden history of the Afghan War at this website today and then get your hands on his book. Tom Engelhardt

How the U.S. created the Afghan war — and then lost it
The unreported story of how the Haqqani network became America’s greatest enemy
By Anand Gopal

It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans, and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.

He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white t-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about 50 meters away, I couldn’t quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn’t long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.

Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, U.S. authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis’ approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.

And so many years later, his followers are still fighting.  Even with the U.S. withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries, and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban, and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability — but it could all have gone so differently.

[Read more…]

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Kerry clarifies when, where, and how the words ‘Israel’ and ‘apartheid’ can be used in the same sentence

In a statement issued by the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry said: “I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one.” [Emphasis mine.]

In a closed-door meeting on Friday, Kerry had said:

“A two-state solution will be clearly underscored as the only real alternative. Because a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”

Kerry has now offered clarification to that statement by saying:

“I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional, and if I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word to describe my firm belief that the only way in the long term to have a Jewish state and two nations and two peoples living side by side in peace and security is through a two state solution. In the long term, a unitary, binational state cannot be the democratic Jewish state that Israel deserves or the prosperous state with full rights that the Palestinian people deserve. That’s what I said, and it’s also what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said. While Justice Minister Livni, former Prime Ministers Barak and Ohlmert have all invoked the specter of apartheid to underscore the dangers of a unitary state for the future, it is a word best left out of the debate here at home.”

In other words, in order to avoid startling and disappointing the likes of Abe Foxman, ‘apartheid’ is a word best reserved for conversations with Israelis.

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Why does life resist disorder?

Addy Pross writes: Biology is wondrously strange – so familiar, yet so strikingly different to physics and chemistry. We know where we are with inanimate matter. Ever since Isaac Newton, it has answered to a basically mechanical view of nature, blindly following its laws without regard for purposes. But could there be, as Immanuel Kant put it, a Newton of the blade of grass? Living things might be made of the same fundamental stuff as the rest of the material world – ‘dead’ atoms and molecules – but they do not behave in the same way at all. In fact, they seem so purposeful as to defy the materialist philosophy on which the rest of modern science was built.

Even after Charles Darwin, we continue to struggle with that difference. As any biologist will acknowledge, function and purpose remain central themes in the life sciences, though they have long been banished from the physical sciences. How, then, can living things be reconciled with our mechanical-mechanistic universe? This is a conceptual question, of course, but it has a historical dimension: how did life on Earth actually come about? How could it have? Both at the abstract level and in the particular story of our world, there seems to be a chasm between the animate and inanimate realms.

I believe that it is now possible to bridge that gap. [Continue reading…]

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War-ravaged Syria may face worst wheat harvest in 40 years

Reuters reports: War and drought have crippled Syria’s wheat crop, with some experts now forecasting output of the staple food could fall to around a third of pre-war levels, and possibly even below 1 million metric tons ( 1 metric ton = 1.1023 tons) for the first time in 40 years.

Agricultural experts, traders and Syrian farmers who talked to Reuters gave crop estimates ranging from one million metric tons to 1.7 million at best, a more pessimistic range than that given by the United Nations earlier this month.

Before the war, Syria produced around 3.5 million metric tons of wheat on average, enough to satisfy local demand and usually permit substantial exports, thanks in part to irrigation from the Euphrates river that waters its vast eastern desert.

The last time its wheat harvest failed to exceed 1 million metric tons was 1973, although catastrophic droughts have pushed the crop close to that level in 1989 and 2008. [Continue reading…]

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Western intel suggests Syria can still produce chemical arms

Reuters reports: Syria maintains an ability to deploy chemical weapons, diplomats say, citing intelligence from Britain, France and the United States that could strengthen allegations Syria’s military recently used chlorine gas in its bloody civil war.

The comments reflect a growing conviction among Western capitals that President Bashar al-Assad has failed to come clean about Syria’s chemical weapons program despite his promises to end it, and they insist the United States and its allies will resist calls by Assad to shut down a special international chemical disarmament mission set up to deal with Syria.

Syria denies it maintains the capacity to deploy chemical weapons, calling the allegation a U.S. and European attempt to use their “childish” policies to blackmail Assad’s government.

But in a tacit acknowledgement of the original declaration’s incompleteness, Syria earlier this month submitted a more specific list of its chemical weapons to the international disarmament mission after discrepancies were reported by inspectors on the ground, officials said. [Continue reading…]

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