Archives for April 2015

U.S. allies in Middle East ramping up support for rebel forces in Syria

The Washington Post reports: U.S. allies in the Middle East have ramped up their support for rebels fighting against Syrian forces in recent months, potentially widening a gulf over strategy between the Obama administration and its regional partners.

The partners have grown increasingly impatient with the administration’s slow march toward training and equipping a viable Syrian opposition force, and its insistence that those fighters focus on the Islamic State, according to officials in the region. To facilitate their primary goal of removing President Bashar al-Assad from power, the allies have moved ahead with their own plans.

The delivery of additional weapons and financial aid from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have facilitated recent advances against government forces in northwest Syria by the Army of Conquest, a newly formed umbrella of diverse rebel groups, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate and other Islamist groups, along with “moderate” fighters.

Regional officials insist that the aid, including U.S.-made TOW missiles, is not going to the Islamists. Instead, they said, it is enabling moderates to enhance their stature among opposition fighters after years of being outgunned and out-financed by more militant groups.

The initiative comes amid a growing sense in the region that the United States is preoccupied with its nuclear negotiations with Iran and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. In the meantime, regional officials and experts said, the Obama administration has failed to come up with a comprehensive strategy that addresses the more immediate concerns of its allies. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS seems to be losing appeal and here’s why

Hassan Hassan writes: Two recent developments in the region appear to have caused more damage to ISIL’s popularity and relevance than nine months of air strikes and battles in Iraq and Syria.

The first is the Syrian rebels’ recent victories against Al Assad regime in northern, central and southern Syria. In the past four months, the anti-government forces have assumed control of key military bases (Wadi Al Dhaif, Hamidiya, Brick Factory), a provincial capital (Idlib), a strategic town (Jisr Al Shughour) and several villages in Hama. In the perception of many, ISIL is a has-been. In other words, the rebels have stolen ISIL’s thunder.

But make no mistake, ISIL remains capable of holding on to its territory for years. Even so, it’s worth noting reports from the ground that the group is losing some of its appeal among new recruits. The appeal of ISIL is multifaceted and the fight against it should capitalise on any trend, no matter how insignificant, to undermine the group.

Several people inside Syria have told me that ISIL started to lose some of its sympathisers after the rebels swept through significant regime bases in recent months. Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent writer from Saudi Arabia, has spoken of the same trend on Twitter.

The second development that is damaging to ISIL is the campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the way that people across the region are reacting to it. There is a decided drop in positive mentions of the group. Those who once subtly cheered for ISIL have shifted to enthusiastic support for the campaign against what they perceive as Iranian proxies in Yemen. This attitude is discerned in that section of the region’s population that believes in ISIL’s political project. The energy that often favours ISIL has shifted towards something else, at a time when ISIL is losing ground to Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s foreign minister is bullish on a nuclear pact

Barbara Slavin reports: With the final deadline just two months away, negotiators from Iran and six world powers get back around the table in New York on Thursday to begin drafting a comprehensive nuclear agreement. And as the parameters of that deal come into clearer focus, Iran’s foreign minister sounds confident about getting a deal done — and implementing it within a couple of weeks of signing.

“We have general agreement on the concepts … the parameters of an agreement,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a large crowd at New York University on Wednesday. But he said the current text contains brackets on “almost everything,” and the sides still need to resolve differences — which he declined to specify — on wording.

Still, Zarif asserted that all of those differences are surmountable. “I believe it can be done, I believe it should be done and this is an opportunity that should not be missed,” he said. Drafting the final accord will begin on the sidelines of a U.N. nuclear treaty review conference, and will continue next week in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Pope Francis steps up campaign on climate change, to conservatives’ alarm

The New York Times reports: Since his first homily in 2013, Pope Francis has preached about the need to protect the earth and all of creation as part of a broad message on the environment. It has caused little controversy so far.

But now, as Francis prepares to deliver what is likely to be a highly influential encyclical this summer on environmental degradation and the effects of human-caused climate change on the poor, he is alarming some conservatives in the United States who are loath to see the Catholic Church reposition itself as a mighty voice in a cause they do not believe in.

As part of the effort for the encyclical, top Vatican officials will hold a summit meeting Tuesday to build momentum for a campaign by Francis to urge world leaders to enact a sweeping United Nations climate change accord in Paris in December. The accord would for the first time commit every nation to enact tough new laws to cut the emissions that cause global warming.

The Vatican summit meeting will focus on the links between poverty, economic development and climate change, with speeches and panel discussions by climate scientists and religious leaders, and economists like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia. The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who is leading efforts to forge the Paris accord, will deliver the opening address.

Vatican officials, who have spent more than a year helping Francis prepare his message, have convened several meetings already on the topic. Last month, they met with the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

In the United States, the encyclical will be accompanied by a 12-week campaign, now being prepared with the participation of some Catholic bishops, to raise the issue of climate change and environmental stewardship in sermons, homilies, news media interviews and letters to newspaper editors, said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington.

But the effort is already angering a number of American conservatives, among them members of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group partly funded by the Charles G. Koch Foundation, run by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, who oppose climate policy. [Continue reading…]

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Dear Bill Gates: ‘Will you lead the fight against climate change?’

Alan Rusbridger writes: In 2009, nearly half of the world’s new polio cases were in India. The disease which can cause paralysis and death is highly infectious, but by January last year, thanks to a concerted vaccination programme, the country had gone three years without a single case of the virus. It was officially “polio-free”.

This immense achievement involved many people, including 2 million vaccinators fanning out across the vast country, but was due in no small part to the determination of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose resources helped make those vaccinations possible. Gates himself is now betting on eradicating polio entirely from the world by 2018 – and who would bet against him?

The polio story is one of countless other seemingly intractable global problems that the Gates Foundation has set its collective mind and resources to solving – HIV, malaria, sanitation, education, agriculture. All are in Gates’ sights.

So why would the Guardian launch a climate change campaign aimed at one of the world’s most valuable and far-sighted organisations? The answer is, precisely because of that far-sightedness. [Continue reading…]

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Sandy Tolan: The one-state conundrum

Here’s a punchline the Obama administration could affix to the Middle East right now: With allies like these, who needs enemies?

If you happen to be in that administration, that region must seem like an increasingly phantasmagorical place. America’s closest allies, Israel and the Saudis, have been expressing something close to loathing for President Obama and his policies. In fact, you could think of the Saudi rulers as the John McCains of the Arabian Peninsula. Appalled to find Washington in something approaching a tacit alliance with their Iranian enemies in Iraq and actively negotiating a no-sanctions-for-nuclear-restrictions deal with that country, the Saudis launched a war of their own in Yemen and essentially forced the Obama administration into supporting it. Then they visibly ignored Washington’s pressure to end their bombing campaign — or rather claimed they were cutting back on it without evidently doing so — which has been devastating to Yemeni civilians and ineffective in stopping the advances of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Though there’s been relatively little in-depth media coverage of this curious moment in Riyadh-Washington relations, when the inside story does come out, it will undoubtedly prove to be a spectacle.

On the other hand, coverage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hijinks vis-à-vis Washington and the president’s Iran policy has been unending, involving open hostility played out on a global stage as well as in front of the American Congress. No wonder that, at the recent White House Correspondents’ Association’s dinner, the president joked, “I look so old, John Boehner has already invited Netanyahu to speak at my funeral.”

While Secretary of State John Kerry publicly expresses a kind of fealty to the Saudi war effort in Yemen that a worried administration clearly doesn’t feel, its officials are now holding their noses, gagging a bit, and — to smooth the way for a possible future Iran nuclear deal — trying to tamp down the ongoing controversy with Netanyahu and the much-publicized rift with Israel.

Watching the Obama administration handle these strange new animosities and alliances is like seeing a contortionist tie himself in knots, while across the Middle East the chaos only increases on the principle of: every state a failed state. In such chaos, with its closest allies playing fast and loose with Washington, with terror groups rising and animosities swirling, it’s easy to lose sight of what might be considered the ur-struggle of our era in the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So today, TomDispatch turns back to that never-ending struggle, offering a report from Sandy Tolan on the aspect we in the U.S. hear least about: the increasing hemming in of Palestinians in what no longer looks like a future state, but a sliced and diced occupied land. Tolan’s new book, Children of the Stone: The Power of Music In a Hard Land, is a moving account of one Palestinian’s efforts to create a little breathing space in a landscape that otherwise couldn’t be more claustrophobic by founding a music school amid all the dissonance. Tom Engelhardt

The flute at the checkpoint
The everyday politics of confinement in Palestine
By Sandy Tolan

The SUV slows as it approaches a military kiosk at a break in a dull gray wall. Inside, Ramzi Aburedwan, a Palestinian musician, prepares his documents for the Israeli soldier standing guard. On the other side of this West Bank military checkpoint lies the young man’s destination, the ancient Palestinian town of Sebastia. Fellow musicians are gathering there that afternoon to perform in the ruins of an amphitheater built during Roman times. In the back seat, his wife, Celine, tends their one-year-old son, Hussein, his blond locks curling over the collar of his soccer jersey.

Ramzi is in a hurry to set up for the concert, but it doesn’t matter. The soldier promptly informs him that he cannot pass. “Those are the orders,” he adds without further explanation, directing him to another entrance 45 minutes away. Turning the car around, Ramzi then drives beneath Shavei Shomron, a red-roofed Israeli settlement perched high on a hill, and then an “outpost” of hilltop trailers planted by a new wave of settlers. Finally, he passes through a series of barriers and looping barbed wire, reaching the designated entrance, where another soldier waves him through. He arrives in time for the concert.

[Read more…]

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American dream is alive and well in Vietnam

Andrew Lam writes: The first time I returned to Vietnam, a customs officer looked at my American passport and asked, “Brother, when did you leave?”

“Two days before National Defeat Day,” I mumbled.

That day, April 30, 1975, marked the end of the Vietnam War. Its anniversary brings back bad memories: Saigon ransacked by the communist army, thousands fleeing in boats, helicopters hovering above a city wreathed in smoke. My family and I made our way first to Guam and then later to California. I was 11.

National Defeat Day turned into an unhealed wound for many who fled and some who were left behind. But the words are from an exile’s vocabulary.

“Brother,” the customs officer corrected me, “don’t you mean National Liberation Day?”

Last month, I was back again. No one questioned me when I went through customs. I was neither a prodigal nor a curiosity, just another traveler. No one remarked on the timing, so close to the 40th anniversary of defeat and liberation.

“Please, who wants to talk about stories of such ancient time?” was how Hoang Tran, 27, put it when I asked him what April 30 meant to him. We were in a bar in downtown Saigon. “No one pays attention to this kind of fairy tales,” said his drinking companion, Binh Nguyen, 24, who was on his fourth whiskey.

“How much did you pay for that iPhone 6? It’s so expensive here in Vietnam,” said Binh.

“Yeah, but I’m saving money for it,” added Hoang.

In 2015, Vietnam belongs to the young. And the young don’t look back. Two out of three Vietnamese were born after the war; most of the population is between 20 and 25 years old; they have no direct memory of the war America lost, the war that undid the South and reunited their country under a communist system more pragmatic than pure these days. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. government prefers to remember Vietnam in platitudes

By Andrew Priest, University of Essex

The Vietnam War ended 40 years ago – on 30 April 1975, tanks of the North Vietnamese Army rumbled onto the streets of the South Vietnamese capital Saigon and the country was unified after decades of conflict. Since then, thousands of books, articles and films have tried to explain every aspect of the war.

The 40th anniversary also coincides with the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s decision to send troops to Vietnam in the spring and summer of 1965. As part of the commemoration the Pentagon has created a website. Its stated aim is “to provide the American public with historically accurate materials to help Americans better understand and appreciate the service of our Vietnam War veterans and the history of the Vietnam War”.

But the Pentagon has taken a decidedly partial, heavily sanitised, and almost wholly American perspective on the war, one that fails to acknowledge the disastrous mistakes that Johnson and others made.

The site gives details of commemorations taking place around the United States, as well as “Fact Sheets” listing troop numbers, and brief narratives about the contributions of the branches of the US military. An “Interactive Timeline” follows the history of the conflict from the end of World War II to just beyond Vietnam’s reunification, while there are photographs, videos and transcripts of speeches. Aside from a few references to its allies, the Pentagon focuses almost entirely on the American perspective of the war, praising US veterans for what it calls their “service, valor, and sacrifice.”

Historian Stanley Kutler has even gone so far as to suggest that it has “hijacked” the war with this effort – and looking at the bland lists of dates and statistics that it has made available it is hard to disagree.

[Read more…]

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Life and death of an al Qaeda spokesman

Iona Craig writes: The voice on the phone was a mere whisper. The spokesman for al-Qaeda’s most notorious affiliate, AQAP, sounded nervous.

The man who scores of reporters around the world came to know over the last year under the alias of “Muhannad Ghallab” was not what I expected. One of the pictures he sent me showed him with long hair, dressed in a blue T-shirt with the words “Men gone surfing” printed across it.

Muhannad first contacted me in 2012 when I was living in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, working as a freelance journalist. I became, as he later joked, his personal “experiment” as AQAP’s initial attempt to reach out to the international media, putting up an English-speaking voice to counter the Washington and Western media narrative. Eventually, Muhannad would be quoted widely in international media outlets — usually just as a nameless spokesman — providing a rare insight into AQAP. [Continue reading…]

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Prisons and jails have become America’s ‘new asylums’

Ana Swanson writes: In New York, a man with schizophrenia spent 13 years of a 15-year prison sentence in solitary confinement. In a Minnesota county jail, a man with schizophrenia stabbed out both of his eyes with a pencil in his cell. A study of 132 suicide attempts in a county jail in Washington found that 77 percent of them had a “chronic psychiatric problem,” compared with 15 percent among the rest of the jail population.

In a country where the mentally ill are often incarcerated instead of treated, these kinds of incidents are far too common. According to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, which includes the anecdotes above, American prisons and jails housed an estimated 356,268 inmates with several mental illness in 2012—on par with the population of Anchorage, Alaska, or Trenton, New Jersey. That figure is more than 10 times the number of mentally ill patients in state psychiatric hospitals in the same year—about 35,000 people.

In a speech yesterday, Hillary Clinton urged the U.S. to reduce its prison population. “It’s a stark fact that the United Stations has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago, despite the fact that crime is at historic lows,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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Report says American Psychological Association collaborated on torture justification

The New York Times reports: The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners swept up in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.

The report is the first to examine the association’s role in the interrogation program. It contends, using newly disclosed emails, that the group’s actions to keep psychologists involved in the interrogation program coincided closely with efforts by senior Bush administration officials to salvage the program after the public disclosure in 2004 of graphic photos of prisoner abuse by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

“The A.P.A. secretly coordinated with officials from the C.I.A., White House and the Department of Defense to create an A.P.A. ethics policy on national security interrogations which comported with then-classified legal guidance authorizing the C.I.A. torture program,” the report’s authors conclude. [Continue reading…]

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Predator drone strikes: A cure worse than the disease

Bruce Fein writes: Something is rotten in President Barack Obama’s classified, programmatic use of predator drones to target suspected international terrorists for death anywhere on the planet.

The targeting intelligence is suspect.

The program is secret, lawless, and unaccountable to Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American people.

The killings pivot on a principle that will haunt the United States in the future as predator drone capability spreads to China, Russia or otherwise.

And the program is compounding rather than diminishing the international terrorist threat against the United States by creating more revenge-motivated terrorists than are being killing; and, by serving as a calling card for international terrorist recruitment. That explains why high level military and intelligence officials in the Obama administration concede that 14 years after 9/11 the United States is more imperiled by international terrorism than ever before.

Depend upon it. If the predator drone program were suspended for six months on a trial basis, international terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia aimed at the United States would contract. The foundation would be laid for terminating the entire program and making the United States safer. [Continue reading…]

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Putin needs neither war nor peace in Ukraine

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Russia’s toxicity for investors is suddenly so 2014. Western money is returning to Moscow’s equity and bond markets, and private Russian companies are again able to borrow, albeit at a premium to Western peers.

The main cause for this reversal of fortunes is the cease-fire in Ukraine, even though it isn’t really holding militarily or moving forward politically. That’s a paradox that may shed light on how events in eastern Ukraine will develop.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that “investors have taken Russia out of the penalty box.” According to the global fund tracker EPFR, the influx of cash into mutual and exchange-traded funds targeting Russian securities so far this year has almost wiped out last year’s outflow. Indeed, the rebound in the Russian stock and bond markets since December’s panic over a free-falling ruble has been spectacular: [Continue reading…]

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U.S. now sees Russia directing Ukraine’s rebels

The Associated Press: The United States now sees the Ukrainian rebels as a Russian force.

American officials briefed on intelligence from the region say Russia has significantly deepened its command and control of the militants in eastern Ukraine in recent months, leading the U.S. to quietly introduce a new term: “combined Russian-separatist forces.” The State Department used the expression three times in a single statement last week, lambasting Moscow and the insurgents for a series of cease-fire violations in Ukraine.

The shift in U.S. perceptions could have wide-ranging ramifications, even if the Obama administration has cited close linkages between the pro-Russian separatists and President Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow since violence flared up in Ukraine a year ago.

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Cleaning up Buddhism in Thailand

The Washington Post reports: Think Buddhist monk, and bodyguards and bomb threats probably don’t spring to mind. But that’s exactly what Phra Buddha Issara is dealing with as he mounts a campaign to overhaul Thailand’s religious institutions.

The activist monk has earned plenty of enemies since he launched a campaign to clean up Buddhism in Thailand, urging the country’s 300,000 monks to be more transparent in their financial dealings and the religion’s governing body, the Supreme Sangha Council, to crack down on wrongdoing.

Thai Buddhism, much like Thai democracy, is in a state of upheaval.

“There is more open crisis in the Sangha than has been seen in living memory,” said Michael Montesano, a Thailand expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “This is a crisis in yet another Thai institution.”

Monks have long been revered here, in a country where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist. They have their own fast-track lane at the airport and designated priority seats on the metro.

But in recent months, there have been tales of monastic misbehavior that would seem to belong in the most gossipy tabloids.

There have been monks with girlfriends (and boyfriends), drunk monks crashing cars, monks pocketing wads of cash meant for funerals or playing the stock market. And that’s not even mentioning the monks-on-meth or the selfie-snapping, Louis Vuitton bag-wielding, private jet-taking monk scandals of 2013. [Continue reading…]

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Resurrecting ancient proteins to illuminate the origins of life

Emily Singer writes: About 4 billion years ago, molecules began to make copies of themselves, an event that marked the beginning of life on Earth. A few hundred million years later, primitive organisms began to split into the different branches that make up the tree of life. In between those two seminal events, some of the greatest innovations in existence emerged: the cell, the genetic code and an energy system to fuel it all. All three of these are essential to life as we know it, yet scientists know disappointingly little about how any of these remarkable biological innovations came about.

“It’s very hard to infer even the relative ordering of evolutionary events before the last common ancestor,” said Greg Fournier, a geobiologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cells may have appeared before energy metabolism, or perhaps it was the other way around. Without fossils or DNA preserved from organisms living during this period, scientists have had little data to work from.

Fournier is leading an attempt to reconstruct the history of life in those evolutionary dark ages — the hundreds of millions of years between the time when life first emerged and when it split into what would become the endless tangle of existence.

He is using genomic data from living organisms to infer the DNA sequence of ancient genes as part of a growing field known as paleogenomics. In research published online in March in the Journal of Molecular Evolution, Fournier showed that the last chemical letter added to the code was a molecule called tryptophan — an amino acid most famous for its presence in turkey dinners. The work supports the idea that the genetic code evolved gradually. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Bossacucanova with Marcos Valle — ‘Samba de Verao’

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Syria’s revitalized rebels make big gains in Assad’s heartland

Hassan Hassan writes: The Syrian rebels are on a roll. Over the past four months, anti-government forces have made sweeping gains that may redraw the conflict map and shake President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The gains have come on both the war’s northern and southern fronts. On Dec. 15, the rebels took Wadi al-Dhaif, one of the country’s largest military encampments in the north. On Mar. 28, the regime lost the northern city of Idlib, only the second provincial capital to fall to the rebels. The gains continued last week, as rebel forces took the key town of Jisr al-Shugour, southeast of Idlib city, and then pushed further south to capture several villages in Hama province’s al-Ghab plain. On Monday, they seized the “Brick Factory,” one of the last remaining regime strongholds in Idlib province. The gains in the south have been equally impressive: Rebels overran the town of Busra al-Sham in the same week that they took Idlib, and managed to seize the Nassib crossing with Jordan in the following week.

The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles. In most cases, regime forces have only held out for hours or a few days before retreating. The rebels have also fought with rare harmony under the banner of Jaish al-Fateh (“the Army of Conquest”), a coalition made up of mostly Islamist forces led by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.

For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s heartlands in the western region seem exposed. Jisr al-Shugour lies roughly 45 miles to the northeast of the port city of Latakia, one of the keys to Assad’s strength; it is even closer to villages in Hama and Latakia that rebels often describe as “human reservoirs of shabiha,” referring to the high number of residents who join the pro-regime militias. This could be a game changer: As rebels edge closer to Assad’s heartlands, the regime will be forced to rely more heavily on local militias than on the army. Even though local militiamen tend to fight more fiercely than soldiers dispatched outside their areas, the toll of the conflict will likely increase anger against Assad as casualties rise.

These developments do not necessarily mean Assad is in serious trouble yet. His regime is still secure in Damascus; the urban centers of Homs, Hama, and Sweida; and the coastal areas. Even in the northwest, where the rebels are now better positioned than ever to drive out the government forces, the regime army can still put up a serious fight in Aleppo. The city of Hama will prove even tougher ground for the rebels, especially if find themselves fighting against both the regime and the Islamic State, which controls significant parts of the eastern countryside.

But even if the regime remains secure, these developments are shifting the conflict’s dynamics and heralding a new chapter in the country’s civil war. [Continue reading…]

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