Archives for August 2014

Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS inside Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inside Fallujah: Crowded cemeteries, flattened buildings and potential revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Abbas may push for deadline to end occupation

The New York Times reports: President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority may use the global stage of the annual General Assembly here in a few weeks to publicly demand a deadline for ending Israel’s occupation, according to his ambassador, while expecting that the Israelis — and almost certainly their American allies — will oppose that demand.

“He wants the international community to agree on a date,” the ambassador, Riyad H. Mansour, said. Mr. Mansour called the demand part of what he described as a new strategy by Mr. Abbas to unilaterally advance the goal of Palestinian independence and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a litany of frustrations, notably the collapse of American-brokered talks with Israel this year.

Mr. Abbas also is apparently hoping that the Palestinian Authority’s role in helping to halt the 50-day war in Gaza between Israeli forces and Hamas militants, achieved last Tuesday with an Egyptian brokered cease-fire agreement, has infused his position with new vitality and leverage.

If Mr. Abbas is denied an occupation end date, Mr. Mansour said, he will use the Palestine observer state status at the United Nations, an upgrade won nearly two years ago over Israeli and American objections, to make the occupied territories even more like the independent state he has sought.

The most coercive measure available to him is to make Palestine a member of the International Criminal Court, opening the way for possible prosecutions of Israeli actions as an occupying power. [Continue reading…]

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Israel plans to expropriate 988 acres of West Bank

AFP reports: Israel announced Sunday it will expropriate 400 hectares (988 acres) of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, angering the Palestinians and alarming Israeli peace campaigners.

The move to seize the land, in the Bethlehem area in the south of the territory, is the biggest of its kind in three decades, Peace Now said.

“On the instructions of the political echelon… 4,000 dunams at Gevaot (settlement) is declared as state land,” said the army department charged with administering civil affairs in occupied territory, laying down a 45-day period for any appeal.

It said the move stemmed from political decisions taken after the June killing of three Israeli teenagers snatched from a roadside in the same area, known to Israelis as the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. [Continue reading…]

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Putin ‘urges talks on statehood for east Ukraine’

BBC News reports: President Putin has called for talks to discuss “statehood” for eastern Ukraine, Russian media report.

He said the issue needed to be discussed to ensure the interests of local people “are definitely upheld”.

His comments came after the EU gave Russian a one-week ultimatum to reverse course in Ukraine or face sanctions.

Russia denies Western accusations that its forces have illegally crossed into eastern Ukraine to support separatists there.

Mr Putin said it was impossible to predict the end of crisis. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. airstrikes help Iraqi forces break ISIS siege of Amerli

The Washington Post reports: Iraqi troops aided by U.S. airstrikes entered the besieged town of Amerli Sunday, residents and Iraqi officials said, after a months-long blockade by Islamic State militants that had surrounded the Shiite Turkmen village and raised fears of an impending massacre.

“Amerli has been liberated,” said Mahdi Taqi, a local politician and Amerli resident who was inside the town during the siege. “There is so much joy and people are cheering in the streets.”

Jihadists had surrounded the town in June, preventing food and other aid from reaching the population there. Residents had armed themselves to fend off the militants, who have made sweeping gains across the country in recent months, but critical supplies began to run low.

The U.S. strikes around Amerli in support of Iraqi troops on Saturday, and which the Pentagon said would be “limited in their scope and duration,” appeared to swiftly tilt the balance in favor of Iraqi government forces.

Militia leaders aiding the offensive and Iraqi government officials had said that a coordinated assault to clear the Islamic State-controlled towns around Amerli – and eventually the siege’s front line – began after nightfall in Iraq on Saturday.

Karim al-Nouri, a high-ranking official in the Badr Brigades, a large Shiite militia, said that around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, thousands of the militia’s fighters moved toward the nearby Sunni town of Suleiman Beg, thought to be under the Islamic State’s control. Nouri said the operation was carried out in collaboration with other armed groups, the Iraqi air force and army.

The U.S. strikes and coordinated humanitarian aid drop marked the second time this month that the United States has intervened militarily in Iraq to prevent a jihadist attack on thousands of trapped civilians. [Continue reading…]

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James Foley’s parents on their son, faith and forgiveness

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Music: Matching Mole — ‘O Caroline’

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Iraq crisis: Sunni rebels ‘ready to turn on ISIS’

Jim Muir reports: Stifled by the Islamic State (IS) militants in their own areas, Iraqi Sunni rebels who took up arms against the Shia-dominated government of Nouri Maliki are signalling for the first time that they are ready to turn against IS if Sunni rights are enshrined in a reformed political order in Baghdad.

The rebels, including tribal militants and former army personnel organised in military councils throughout the Sunni areas, see American and international guarantees as crucial to any such deal.

“We don’t want guns from the Americans, we want a real political solution, which the US should impose on those people it installed in the Green Zone,” said Abu Muhammad al-Zubaai, referring to the Iraqi political leaders who took over after the US-led occupation in 2003.

“The IS problem would end. If they guarantee us this solution, we’ll guarantee to get rid of IS,” said Mr al-Zubaai, a tribal leader from Anbar province speaking on behalf of the rebels, using a nom de guerre.

The tribal and military rebels, who had been fighting government forces since January, played a role in the spectacular advances scored after IS – in its previous guise as Isis – erupted into Iraq from Syria in June and captured the second city, Mosul, among other mainly Sunni areas.

But since then, the Sunni groups have been suppressed, with IS ordering them to join its own ranks or disarm.

“Living with IS is like holding burning coals in your hand,” said Mr al-Zubaai. “They do not tolerate any other flag to be raised. They control all Sunni areas now.”

He said tribal militants from the military councils clashed with IS at Garma, near Falluja recently, killing 16 of the Islamic radicals.

“We had to choose between a comprehensive confrontation with IS, or ceding control of that area and keeping a low profile,” he said.

“We decided to stand down, because we are not ready to fight IS in the current circumstances – who would we be fighting for?” [Continue reading…]

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3 million Syrian refugees strain neighboring countries

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Russia pushing Ukraine conflict to ‘point of no return,’ EU leader says

The New York Times reports: Warning that Russia was pushing the conflict in Ukraine toward “the point of no return,” the president of the European Union’s executive arm said on Saturday that European leaders meeting in Brussels would probably endorse new and tougher sanctions in an effort to make Moscow “come to reason.”

After morning talks with the visiting president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, voiced Europe’s growing alarm and exasperation at Russian actions in Ukraine and the risks of a wider war.

Mr. Poroshenko, speaking at a joint news conference with Mr. Barroso, said Ukraine still hoped for a political settlement with Russian-backed rebels in the east of his country but said a flow of Russian troops and armored vehicles into Ukraine in recent days in support of rebels were stoking the fires of a broader conflict.

“We are too close to a border where there will be no return to the peace plan,” Mr. Poroshenko said, asserting that, since Wednesday, “thousands of foreign troops and hundreds of foreign tanks are now on the territory of Ukraine, with a very high risk not only for the peace and stability of Ukraine but for the peace and stability of the whole of Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Female fighters of the PKK may be the ISIS’s worst nightmare

Zekia Karhan

Stars and Stripes reports: It’s an Islamic State fighter’s worst fear: to be killed by a woman.

In northern Iraq, where Kurdish forces are rapidly regaining territory held by the Islamic State, that’s becoming real risk for the extremists.

There are plenty of female Kurdish soldiers on the front lines. They’re smaller than their male comrades, but they talk just as tough as they prowl the battlefield clutching automatic rifles and vowing vengeance for those victimized by the Islamic State.

“We are equal with the men,” said Zekia Karhan, 26, a female guerrilla from Turkey who is with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK. “Every responsibility for a man is the same for a woman. We are treated equally, and that is why we are fighting.”

The female PKK troops accessorize their olive drab uniforms with colorful scarfs, but they’re as thirsty for battle as anyone.

“I fired on this position from the mountain,” said Felice Budak, 24, another PKK fighter from Turkey, as she stood next to a window pierced by several bullet holes in Makhmur, a town that the PKK helped recapture from the Islamic State this month.

Budak said she wasn’t scared during the battle.

Islamic State fighters “are very scared of death because they are only here to kill people,” she said. “I don’t mind doing it over and over again. I’ve already fought in Turkey, Iran and Syria.”

The leftist PKK has been fighting the Turkish government for decades and is classed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. But its fighters have been going into battle alongside Kurdish peshmerga in recent weeks and are credited by some locals with turning the tide of battle in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Brutal rise of ISIS turns old enemies into new friends

The Wall Street Journal reports: In the brutal calculation of Middle East politics, the baseline for friendship has always been simple: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

By that standard, the Islamic State extremist group is creating friendships aplenty. An odd set of bedfellows or potential bedfellows, transcending geographical, ideological and alliance bounds, is emerging from the ranks of those threatened by what many see as the most dangerous militant movement in a generation.

Shiite Muslim Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, for instance, have been bitter foes since at least 1979, when the Iranian revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini hoped to inspire similar revolutions in the Sunni world. But both countries now fear Islamic State’s armed radical Islamist movement, which seeks to usurp their own claimed leadership of the Muslim world.

That led Iran and Saudi Arabia to independently back the same candidate to lead Iraq, in a push for a new government that might unite Sunnis and Shiites to battle Islamic State. This week, Iranian and Saudi diplomats held a rare meeting to consult.

Turkey has long distrusted and worked against ethnic Kurds, especially a violent splinter group known as the PKK that operates out of the mountainous environs of northern Iraq. But the Turks looked the other way when Syrian Kurdish militias affiliated with the PKK played a starring role in the rescue from Islamic State fighters of thousands of Yazidis stranded on a mountainside.

Russia and the U.S. are at loggerheads in Ukraine and elsewhere, including the Middle East. But they agree that the sort of violent Islam practiced by Islamic State, which now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, endangers the global order in which both countries compete for influence.

Islamic State even has had a falling out with al Qaeda, the group that spawned it. Al Qaeda’s official Syrian branch, known as the Nusra Front, is outflanked and mocked by Islamic State. So Nusra has joined the fight against Islamic State, clashing violently on the battlefields of Syria.

These countries and movements may be at odds over nearly everything else, but nothing focuses the mind like a mortal threat, say some analysts and former top security officials. Given not only Islamic State’s savagery but its potential to overthrow regimes and spill over borders, they all seem to agree on only one thing: It needs to be stopped.

Lacking a coalition of the willing, the Obama administration should muster up a sort of alliance of the unwilling, these analysts argue. Whether that is possible, and whether the U.S. has the guile and clout to unite such disparate forces—either formally, or more likely in a combination of overt, covert and arm’s-length arrangements—is an open question.

“It has to be patched together, somewhat ad hoc, with maybe some sort of informal and even clandestine agreements on who does what,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national-security adviser.

In a region where states such as Iraq and Syria are literally fragmenting, Mr. Brzezinski urges an approach focused on the handful of what he categorizes as truly “viable” states — Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia — to confront Islamic State, which also is known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. [Continue reading…]

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Where do foreign fighters in Syria come from?

The Economist: Poverty does not explain the lure of jihad for Western fighters. Many of them are quite middle-class. Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old Welshman who goes by the name Abu Muthana al-Yemeni in IS videos, had offers to study medicine from four universities. Nor does a failure to integrate into the societies around them. Photographs of Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, another British fighter thought to have recently been killed, show a young man in a snazzy suit with a slick hairstyle. He worked at Primark, a cheap retailer, in Portsmouth, a city on the English coast. His father ran a curry restaurant. Nor does religious piety. Before leaving for Syria, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, two young men from Birmingham who pleaded guilty to terrorism offences in July, ordered copies of “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” from Amazon. Some fighters are religious novices, says Mr [Shiraz] Maher [of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, in London].

More plausible explanations are the desire to escape the ennui of home and to find an identity. “Some individuals are drawn out there because there is not a lot going on in their own lives,” says Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank. Images of combatants playing snooker, eating sweets and splashing in swimming pools have sometimes suggested that jihad was not unlike a student holiday, without the booze. For young men working in dead-end jobs in drab towns, the brotherhood, glory and guns seem thrilling. Many of Belgium’s fighters come from the dullest of cities, where radicals have concentrated their efforts to get recruits.

Jihadist networks and radicals no longer need to base themselves in mosques. Some, such as the one in London’s Finsbury Park, where Abu Hamza shook his hook-hands and praised Osama bin Laden, is now under new management. Others are now more careful about whom they welcome. Small groups can meet instead in garages and flats, where their activities are harder to detect. Jihad-minded Europeans can find all the rabble-rousing they desire online. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter they do not even need to bother with password-protected specialist forums. [Continue reading…]

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Mass and length may not be fundamental properties of nature

Natalie Wolchover writes: Though galaxies look larger than atoms and elephants appear to outweigh ants, some physicists have begun to suspect that size differences are illusory. Perhaps the fundamental description of the universe does not include the concepts of “mass” and “length,” implying that at its core, nature lacks a sense of scale.

This little-explored idea, known as scale symmetry, constitutes a radical departure from long-standing assumptions about how elementary particles acquire their properties. But it has recently emerged as a common theme of numerous talks and papers by respected particle physicists. With their field stuck at a nasty impasse, the researchers have returned to the master equations that describe the known particles and their interactions, and are asking: What happens when you erase the terms in the equations having to do with mass and length?

Nature, at the deepest level, may not differentiate between scales. With scale symmetry, physicists start with a basic equation that sets forth a massless collection of particles, each a unique confluence of characteristics such as whether it is matter or antimatter and has positive or negative electric charge. As these particles attract and repel one another and the effects of their interactions cascade like dominoes through the calculations, scale symmetry “breaks,” and masses and lengths spontaneously arise.

Similar dynamical effects generate 99 percent of the mass in the visible universe. Protons and neutrons are amalgams — each one a trio of lightweight elementary particles called quarks. The energy used to hold these quarks together gives them a combined mass that is around 100 times more than the sum of the parts. “Most of the mass that we see is generated in this way, so we are interested in seeing if it’s possible to generate all mass in this way,” said Alberto Salvio, a particle physicist at the Autonomous University of Madrid and the co-author of a recent paper on a scale-symmetric theory of nature. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Jeffrey Iqbal with Shankar Tucker — ‘Allah Hu’

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