Archives for November 2014

How Assad turned Yarmouk into a living hell

Shane Bauer writes: There was a circle of friends who lived on the southern edge of Damascus in a district called Yarmouk. They were artists, mainly. Actors, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians. Their neighborhood was a maze of alleys and tightly packed, four-story cement block buildings, and it smelled faintly sweet and dusty. On the roofs, the friends would sometimes sit to smoke cigarettes and look toward a horizon filled with rusted satellite dishes and rooftop water tanks. They could see laundry hung out of windows and rugs draped over balconies. In the evenings, they could watch men flying pigeons from their rooftop coops. Off to the west, they could see Mount Hermon, and if it was winter, there would be snow on it.

There were many sounds: children playing soccer in the alleys, men advertising the watermelons they pushed around on wooden carts, stereo-projected voices calling the devout to prayer. In between the honking of horns and vrooming of motorcycles there were the coos of pigeons, the dings of bicycle bells, the gossip of neighbors.

The scent of food always beckoned on Yarmouk Street: warm, cheese-filled pastries dripping with sugary syrup; the best falafel in Damascus; pizzalike things called fata’ir that came in 10 different varieties and cast tantalizing scents a block away. People were poor in Yarmouk, more so than in most of Damascus, but there was always much food. Many had large bellies.

Who then could conceive that imams would one day announce it was no longer religiously taboo to eat cats or donkeys? Women and children couldn’t yet dream they would soon be sifting through the grass for edible weeds. No one could imagine that on a street outside some apartments, there would be a little pile of cat heads next to men and children flaying the mangy animals and boiling them in a pot.

From the edge of Yarmouk, above the distant buildings miles away, the friends could see the house of Bashar al-Assad, sitting high up on a hill. They did not like him. People they knew had gone to prison for suggesting an alternative political vision, however subtly. They felt so choked by his secret police that when someone they didn’t know showed up at a party, they regarded him with suspicion and measured their words. Sharing a cigarette laced with hashish at the edge of Yarmouk, they would joke about the eyes of the dictator being upon them, and they would laugh cynically.


Among this group of friends were Hassan and Waed. (I’m withholding their last names to protect their families.) Hassan was a budding actor and playwright, and Waed had been a student of English literature. They were a handsome couple, both in their mid-20s. Waed was reserved compared to most of the group, but sharp and self-possessed, with gentle eyes and long, wavy hair. Hassan had a long face, a head of shiny black curls, and dense, dark eyebrows that arched high when he became excited. He loved to joke about things — ridiculous things, like the schlocky keyboard players who perform at weddings, and serious things, like how his grandparents’ honeymoon in 1948 consisted of being driven out of their homes in Palestine — “life’s a bitch” — and coming to Syria. [Continue reading…]


With Syria’s economy in a tailspin, Assad regime is in survival mode

The Washington Post reports: Syria’s economy is in a tailspin, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly struggling to find resources to quash the four-year-old rebellion, analysts say.

The government has had to scale back subsidies for citizens for goods ranging from water to heating oil over the last six months. That has angered Syrians, who already face crippling inflation, 50-percent unemployment and wide-scale damage to industry caused by the civil war. In addition, power outages have worsened recently and food shortages loom.

With the opposition weakened, the Syrian military should be able to deal knockout blows to the rebels. But Assad’s forces are too short on funds, analysts say.

“You’re seeing the continued splintering with these opposition groups, their weakness and vulnerability, but the regime is failing to capitalize on the shortcomings of its adversaries,” said Riad Kahwaji, an analyst and chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf ­Military Analysis. [Continue reading…]


Mexico’s missing students draw attention to 20,000 ‘vanished’ others

The Guardian reports: They found the first grave in a thicket of spiny huisache trees clinging to the hillside outside the town of Iguala.

Under a pounding midday sun, about a dozen men and women watched as an older man plunged a pickaxe into the heavy soil. Some offered advice on where and how to dig; mostly they looked on in silence

When he turned up a human femur, Mayra Vergara turned her back and broke into silent tears. She had hoped that today she might find some clue to the fate of her brother Tomás, a taxi driver who was kidnapped in July 2012, never to be seen again. But whoever lay in the shallow grave, she said, they deserved more than this.

“Even if it isn’t my brother in there, it is still a person. A person who deserved a proper burial,” she said, her face contorted in anger and grief. “And the question is when? When are they going to do something for us?”

The disappearance and probable massacre of 43 student teachers after they were attacked and arrested by Iguala’s municipal police two months ago has focused world attention on the horror of Mexico’s drug violence – and the official corruption that allows much of it to happen.

A wave of protests triggered by the massacre put President Enrique Peña Nieto under acute political pressure.

But the incident has also lifted the lid on the open secret of Mexico’s many other disappeared: amid the drug-fuelled violence of recent years, some 20,000 people have simply vanished. [Continue reading…]


U.S.-led coalition bombards ISIS at Raqqa with up to 30 air strikes

The Associated Press reports: US-led coalition warplanes carried out as many as 30 air strikes overnight against Islamic State (Isis) militants in and around the group’s de facto capital in north-eastern Syria, activists said on Sunday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes targeted Isis positions in the city of Raqqa as well as the Division 17 air base, which the militants seized earlier this year from government forces.

The monitoring group, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, reported at least 30 coalition strikes in all. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist collective, also confirmed the air strikes. Neither group had casualty figures. [Continue reading…]


Syrian rebels defending hold on strategic southern crossroads

The Los Angeles Times reports: Syrian government forces and rebels were waging a fierce battle Saturday for control of a strategic crossroads in a southern Syrian town, according to opposition activists and official accounts.

Fighters affiliated with the Southern Front, a West-backed grouping of rebel factions, say they have pushed back government forces attempting to wrest control of Sheik Maskin, a rebel-held town in Dara province about 50 miles south of Damascus, the capital and seat of power of embattled President Bashar Assad.

Syrian government forces have repeatedly thwarted rebels’ efforts to secure a corridor from the south to Damascus for an eventual assault on the heavily defended capital. [Continue reading…]


Open source analysis on yesterday’s ISIS attack on Kobane

Aaron Stein writes: Yesterday, the Islamic State detonated four suicide car bombs in the embattled town of Kobane. One VBIED detonated just inside the Mursitpinar border gate. After the explosion, clashes broke out between the YPG and the Islamic state in the area. The YPG has since claimed that the VBIED entered from Turkey. Ankara, in turn, has denied this.

I have done a brief open source analysis of the videos and imagery and have come to a few tentative conclusions. My analysis is far from definitive, but I think it deserves consideration. [Continue reading…]


Iraq’s divisions will delay counter-offensive on ISIS

Reuters reports: U.S. air support and pledges of weapons and training for Iraq’s army have raised expectations of a counter-offensive soon against Islamic State, but sectarian rifts will hamper efforts to forge a military strategy and may delay a full-scale assault.

The Sunni Islamists stormed through northern Iraq in a 48-hour offensive in June, charging virtually unopposed toward the outskirts of Baghdad, humiliating a U.S.-trained Iraqi army which surrendered both land and weapons as it retreated.

By contrast, even a successful effort by the Shi’ite-led government to dislodge Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from Sunni territory where it rules over millions of Iraqis would be fiercely fought and could stretch well beyond next year.

The Baghdad government relies on Shi’ite militias and Kurdish peshmerga to contain Islamic State – a dependence which underlines and may even exacerbate the sectarian rivalry which opened the door for the summer offensive. [Continue reading…]


Pope and patriarch condemn Middle East persecution of Christians

The Guardian reports: The pope has concluded a three-day trip to Turkey by attending a religious service in Istanbul led by the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the pre-eminent spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

Afterwards, both men condemned the violent persecution of many Christian communities in the Middle East, and called for peace in Ukraine.

In a joint declaration signed by Pope Francis and Bartholomew after the divine liturgy to commemorate the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the leaders expressed concern for the increasingly volatile situation in both Syria and Iraq, and urged the international community not to turn away from their responsibility to those being oppressed and driven from their homes. [Continue reading…]


Kurdish deal with Turkey within reach but legal guarantees key, says PKK leader

Reuters reports: A settlement to end a three-decade insurgency by Kurdish militants in Turkey could be reached within months if the government puts in place legal guarantees for Kurdish rights, a jailed militant leader was quoted as saying on Sunday.

The siege by Islamic State militants of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani on the Turkish border has risked derailing Turkey’s fragile peace process with its own Kurds, who have accused Ankara of failing to protect their ethnic kin.

Around 40 people were killed when thousands of Kurds took to the streets in October, mostly in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to demonstrate against what they saw as Ankara’s refusal to intervene in Kobani.

Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, nonetheless said agreement could be found within 4 to 5 months if Turkey showed it was serious, according to the pro-Kurdish HDP party, which visited him on his island prison. [Continue reading…]


Taliban brings war to Afghan capital, threatening stability and endangering foreigners

The Washington Post reports: Taliban insurgents have intensified their attacks on this besieged capital with a flurry of brazen bombings and afternoon raids targeting foreigners and Afghans, bringing the war into this city in a way not seen in any other year since the radical Islamists were ousted from power.

The latest assault occurred Saturday, when three militants clutching guns and grenades, including one who wore an explosives-packed vest, stormed a compound inhabited by foreigners in the middle-class Karte-e-Saay enclave. In a frenzy of explosions and gunfire, two foreigners were killed and seven were taken prisoner, said Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Ayub Salangi. All of the attackers died in clashes with Afghan security forces, and the hostages were eventually freed.

On Sunday, authorities raised the death toll to three foreigners — a South African aid worker and his two children — and an Afghan. And Kabul’s police chief, Gen. Mohammed Zahir, abruptly resigned amid the rising insecurity. [Continue reading…]


INCENSER, or how NSA and GCHQ are tapping internet cables

Peter Koop writes: Documents recently disclosed by Edward Snowden show that the NSA’s fourth-largest cable tapping program, codenamed INCENSER, pulls its data from just one single source: a submarine fiber optic cable linking Asia with Europe.

Until now, it was only known that INCENSER was a sub-program of WINDSTOP and that it collected some 14 billion pieces of internet data a month. The latest revelations now say that these data are collected with the help of the British company Cable & Wireless (codenamed GERONTIC, now part of Vodafone) at a location in Cornwall in the UK, codenamed NIGELLA.

For the first time, this gives us a view on the whole interception chain, from the parent program all the way down to the physical interception facility. Here we will piece together what is known about these different stages and programs from recent and earlier publications. [Continue reading…]


Who pays for us to browse the web? Be wary of Google’s latest answer

Evgeny Morozov writes: Google has quietly launched a new service, Google Contributor, and it’s based on an intriguing proposition: for a small monthly fee, you won’t see any ads on the websites of its partners. The fee, naturally, is split between Google and those sites – but only if they are actually visited. As Google puts it, this is all “an experiment in additional ways to fund the web”.

The experiment isn’t revolutionary. Wikipedia, with its ideological opposition to advertising, heavily relies on donations from readers. Premium members of Reddit, another popular site, could pay a fee and skip the ads. Google’s own YouTube channel has begun offering its paying customers an ad-free version – at a fee, of course. The fans can now also send money to their favourite artists.

Given that advertising remains Google’s main source of revenue, the new service has befuddled many analysts. Could Google really be worried about its future? It has had an amazing decade. But how long this financial bonanza will last is anyone’s guess; from an advertising viewpoint, browsing on smartphones is not as profitable. Besides, ad blockers – clever browser extensions for blocking intrusive ads – already allow users to cleanse their browsers of any unwanted clutter.

Google Contributor is certainly a clever publicity ploy. Giving publishers a simple tool to raise money can create some goodwill – which is exactly what Google needs as its advertising-based model gets hammered by Europe’s publishing industry. In France, Google has already had to open its coffers and promise French publishers to invest millions in new journalistic ventures. In the end, it’s becoming harder to accuse Google of destroying the media industry: the company can always turn the tables and accuse publishers of being too slow to embrace change.

More importantly, Google Contributor is probably part of Google’s delicate repositioning in the wake of the post-Snowden backlash. Advertising – rather than the messy entanglement between institutions of the deep state and those of digital hypercapitalism – has emerged as everyone’s favourite scapegoat. And more: we are assured that a world free of advertising could help us cash all those expired and bouncing cheques of the once-defunct cyber-utopian enterprise! [Continue reading…]


Music: AfroCubism — ‘Djelimady Rumba’


Islamists come out on top in new effort to unify Syrian rebel groups

McClatchy reports: Seventy-two Syrian rebel groups on Saturday announced a new coalition to battle the government of President Bashar Assad. But hopes that moderate rebels would dominate the meeting were dashed when extremists gained more of the 17 executive positions than had been expected.

Col. Muhammad Hallak, who represented a moderate faction attending the three-day organizational meeting, accused Islamists, especially Ahrar al Sham, which is known to work closely with al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, of capturing more positions than its influence in the rebellion deserved.

A review of the names by McClatchy indicated that moderates hold only six or seven of the 17 executive positions.

Hallak also expressed skepticism toward the October document on which the new group, the Revolutionary Command Council, is based, saying it was written to ensure an Islamist government after Assad is toppled.

The announcement of the new umbrella group comes at a time when moderate rebels have lost territory to the Nusra Front, especially in Idlib province, where groups associated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army coalition used to hold sway.

“The covenant itself doesn’t mention the idea of free elections and most of the groups represented in the executive office don’t believe in the original democratic values of the revolution,” Hallak said. [Continue reading…]


ISIS attacks Kobane from Turkey

The Associated Press reports: The Islamic State group launched an attack Saturday on the Syrian border town of Kobani from Turkey, a Kurdish official and activists said, although Turkey denied that the fighters had used its territory for the raid.

The assault began when a suicide bomber driving an armored vehicle detonated his explosives on the border crossing between Kobani and Turkey, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s powerful Kurdish Democratic Union Party.

The Islamic State group “used to attack the town from three sides,” Khalil said. “Today, they are attacking from four sides.” [Continue reading…]


Turkey shells Kobane injuring Kurdish civilians and fighters

Rudaw reports: Turkish bombardment of Kobane on Saturday has wounded a number of civilians and fighters inside the Kurdish city, the city administrator said.

“Under the pretense of stopping an ISIS attack on Turkey the Turkish army bombarded the center of Kobane with tanks and artillery,” Anwar Muslim, co-chair of the Kobane canton told Rudaw. “A number of civilians and fighters have been wounded.”

Muslim said that heavy fighting is going on between the Islamic State (ISIS) militants and the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and the Peshmerga forces in several parts of the city.

“The YPG and Peshmerga have countered all the attacks, the fighting is still going on and we have a number of wounded,” said Muslim.

He added that the Kurdish forces still control most of the city, but “the ISIS has mined the few parts of the city that are under their control.” [Continue reading…]


Egyptian activists protest Mubarak verdict online and outside sealed Tahrir Square

Robert Mackey reports: In the hours after an Egyptian court dropped all remaining charges against former President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday, activists who supported the uprising that drove him from power in 2011 jeered the ruling online and in the streets near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which was closed by the security forces.

After a judge acquitted Mr. Mubarak of corruption and dismissed murder charges against him for the killing of hundreds of protesters, relatives of those killed by the security forces in 2011 were outraged, but dozens of the former president’s supporters applauded in the courtroom and others cheered his return to the military hospital where he has been held. [Continue reading…]


The jihad cult: Why young Germans are answering call to holy war

Der Spiegel reports: Whenever Ismail Cetinkaya runs into one of those young men who want to leave Hamburg to fight in Syria, he asks: “Have you ever slept without heat in the winter? Do you know what it’s like to live without electricity and running water? Do you think a Kalashnikov works like the controller for your PlayStation 4?”

He also asks whether the young man is leaving his mother behind. And then he quotes the words of the Prophet Mohammed, and says: “Paradise lies at the feet of your mother.” The implication being that those who leave their weeping mothers behind won’t enter paradise.

Cetinkaya, 33, has a full beard and has been praying to Allah five times a day ever since he found himself, as he says. He’s the son of Turks from Mardin, a city on the Syrian border. He speaks fluent Arabic and doesn’t need a German imam or YouTube videos to understand what God wants from him.

God wants Cetinkaya to devote himself to “jihad.” But jihad is really just the Arab word for struggle, the struggle one endures while on the path to Allah. In the Koran, the “great jihad” is not the fight against non-believers, but each individual’s struggle against himself, against his own weaknesses, and against the evil that resides in every human being.

Cetinkaya is a successful fighter — in his struggle against himself, and against others he encounters in tournaments. In his sport of choice, Mixed Martial Arts, the combatants fight each other in a cage. It has its origins among the ancient Greeks, who called it Pankration. Even Socrates was a practitioner of Pankration, a full contact sport in which the combatants wrestled, boxed and kicked each other.

Cetinkaya is a popular trainer who runs his own martial arts school. When he walks through the streets of Hamburg, young men point at him or shake his hand. They tell him that they hope to be fighters like him one day. They have respect for Cetinkaya, who is a good fighter and a devout Muslim, a role model who dispenses advice.

He doesn’t like it when people do things half-heartedly. He wants young Muslims to read the Koran themselves and understand Islam. He doesn’t like it when they merely imitate what they hear in YouTube videos. Most of all, he doesn’t like it when they travel 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to fight “infidels,” behead people, quote verses from the Koran and capture it all on film. [Continue reading…]