Archives for July 2015

Fiasco: The Pentagon’s ill-conceived program to train anti-ISIS fighters

The New York Times reports: A Pentagon program to train moderate Syrian insurgents to fight the Islamic State has been vexed by problems of recruitment, screening, dismissals and desertions that have left only a tiny band of fighters ready to do battle.

Those fighters — 54 in all — suffered perhaps their most embarrassing setback yet on Thursday. One of their leaders, a Syrian Army defector who recruited them, was abducted in Syria near the Turkish border, along with his deputy who commands the trainees. They were seized not by the Islamic State but by its rival the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda that is another Islamist extremist byproduct of the four-year-old Syrian civil war.

The abductions illustrate the challenges confronting the Obama administration as it seeks to marshal local insurgents to fight the Islamic State, which it views as the region’s biggest threat.

After a year of trying, the Pentagon still struggles to find recruits to fight the Islamic State without also battling the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, their original foe. The willing few face vetting meant to weed out extremists, so stringent that only dozens have been approved, and they are bit players in the rebellion. The program has not engaged with the biggest, most powerful groups, Islamist factions that are better funded, better equipped and more motivated.

The setback for the American effort in Syria comes just as the United States and Turkey have undertaken a joint plan to create an “Islamic State free-zone” in northern Syria, using warplanes flown from Turkish air bases to take the area with a ground force of Syrian insurgents, presumably including trainees of the Pentagon’s program. [Continue reading…]


Despite bombing, ISIS is no weaker than a year ago

The Associated Press reports: After billions of dollars spent and more than 10,000 extremist fighters killed, the Islamic State group is fundamentally no weaker than it was when the U.S.-led bombing campaign began a year ago, American intelligence agencies have concluded.

The military campaign has prevented Iraq’s collapse and put the Islamic State under increasing pressure in northern Syria, particularly squeezing its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa. But intelligence analysts see the overall situation as a strategic stalemate: The Islamic State remains a well-funded extremist army able to replenish its ranks with foreign jihadis as quickly as the U.S. can eliminate them. Meanwhile, the group has expanded to other countries, including Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Afghanistan.

The assessments by the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and others appear to contradict the optimistic line taken by the Obama administration’s special envoy, retired Gen. John Allen, who told a forum in Aspen, Colorado, last week that “ISIS is losing” in Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was described by officials who would not be named because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. [Continue reading…]


Kurdish party chief dismisses Turkey anti-ISIS airstrikes as a ‘show’

AFP reports: The co-leader of Turkey’s main Kurdish party on Thursday dismissed air strikes and police raids by Ankara against Islamic State (IS) jihadists as a “show”, saying their real target was Kurdish militants.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Selahattin Demirtas of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) said the peace process between Turkey and Kurdish militants was now “in deep crisis” due to the offensive by Ankara against the separatist rebels but insisted it should not be written off.

Turkey has launched a two-pronged offensive against IS jihadists and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants but the strikes against the Kurdish rebels have been far the more frequent and intense.

Demirtas accused the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of using strikes against IS as “cover” for its main goal of striking the PKK and weakening the HDP’s major electoral gains.

“A few air raids were launched by Turkey against IS targets for show only and it is over,” he said.

“So-called IS suspects were detained with a few operations for show and most of them were released,” he said.

According to figures from the Turkish government, around one tenth of those arrested in raids against suspected militants were IS-linked and the rest largely Kurdish. [Continue reading…]


Turkey: Kurdish leaders face prosecution after end of peace process

Today’s Zaman reports: Following the end of the settlement process launched to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish issue, both co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which was a partner in the peace process, have been charged with incitement to violence and promoting a terrorist organization.

If the prosecutor’s offices conducting the investigations decide that the two co-chairs broke the law, they will submit a demand to the Ministry of Justice to strip the parliamentary immunity of the co-chairs, who are also deputies in Parliament.

HDP Co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ could be brought to trial if Parliament votes to lift their immunity. Demirtaş could receive a sentence of up to 24 years in prison for inciting people to take to the streets in violent demonstrations before the protests triggered by the siege of the Islamic State and the Levant (ISIL) on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in fall last year. [Continue reading…]


Iran has signed a historic nuclear deal — now it’s Israel’s turn

Javad Zarif writes: We – Iran and its interlocutors in the group of nations known as the P5+1 – have finally achieved the shared objective of turning the Iranian nuclear programme from an unnecessary crisis into a platform for cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation and beyond. The nuclear deal reached in Vienna this month is not a ceiling but a solid foundation on which we must build. The joint comprehensive plan of action, as the accord is officially known, cements Iran’s status as a zone free of nuclear weapons. Now it is high time that we expand that zone to encompass the entire Middle East.

Iran’s push for a ban on weapons of mass destruction in its regional neighbourhood has been consistent. The fact that it precedes Saddam Hussein’s systematic use of WMDs against Iran (never reciprocated in kind) is evidence of the depth of my country’s commitment to this noble cause. And while Iran has received the support of some of its Arab friends in this endeavour, Israel – home to the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons programme – has been the holdout. In the light of the historic nuclear deal, we must address this challenge head on.

One of the many ironies of history is that non-nuclear-weapon states, like Iran, have actually done far more for the cause of non-proliferation in practice than nuclear-weapon states have done on paper. Iran and other nuclear have-nots have genuinely “walked the walk” in seeking to consolidate the non-proliferation regime. Meanwhile, states actually possessing these destructive weapons have hardly even “talked the talk”, while completely brushing off their disarmament obligations under the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and customary international law. [Continue reading…]


Iranian dissidents explain why they support the nuclear deal

Danny Postel writes: The debate on the nuclear deal with Iran has revolved mainly around the geopolitics of the agreement. Is it good for the United States? Does the deal represent a defeat or a victory for the Islamic Republic? Does it make Israel more secure, or less? How will the Saudis respond? Will they pursue a nuclear program of their own? What will Washington do to placate its nervous allies in Riyadh (and other Gulf capitals) and Tel Aviv? What broader implications might the nuclear deal portend for US-Iranian relations, and for the regional politics of the Middle East?

These are hugely important questions, to be sure. But what does the nuclear agreement mean for internal Iranian politics? There’s been some excellent reporting on Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif’s diplomatic craftsmanship, which has inspired comparisons—arguably exalted—to Mohammad Mosaddeq, and speculation about whether Hassan Rouhani can parlay the nuclear deal into a domestic agenda, pursuing the kinds of reforms that the Iranians who voted for him in 2013 desperately crave and eagerly await.

But how does this historic development look from the perspective of Iran’s grassroots? We saw the jubilation in Iran’s streets, the euphoric popular reaction to the news of the deal. But these scenes lacked context. What do Iranian dissidents and civil society activists actually think of the nuclear deal? An in-depth report issued by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran provides a refreshingly vivid sense of what such Iranians have to say, in their own words. [Continue reading…]


How a nuclear deal helps democracy in Iran

Nader Hashemi writes: Most of the debate in the West on the Iran nuclear deal has focused on questions related to Western security interests in the Middle East. Will a deal ultimately prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? Will it significantly inhibit a nuclear arms race in the region? How will Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Countries be affected, and to what extent will Iran be able to expand its regional influence after the lifting of sanctions? Almost ignored in this discussion, however, are the effects that a nuclear accord might have on internal Iranian politics and society. Specifically, how might a final nuclear agreement between Iran and the West influence the prospects for democracy and democratization within the Islamic Republic?

June 2009 is a key reference point in the struggle for democracy within Iran. Fearing a return of the reformists to power, the Iranian regime falsified the presidential election results that would have removed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the presidency. As a result, a nonviolent mini-revolt known as the Green Movement demanded a vote recount, greater political transparency, and more broadly the democratization of Iran. Protests rocked the country for six months before they were violently suppressed. According the Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Green Movement posed a greater threat to the internal stability of the Islamic Republic than the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

As a result of this event, Iran’s post-revolutionary social contract lay in tatters. Until this point, Iran’s clerical leaders were able to carefully manage public demands for political change and factional rivalry via an electoral process that though never “free” was perceived to be “fair,” in the sense that the integrity of the ballot box was guaranteed. After the stolen election of 2009 and the ensuing crackdown, this consensus no longer existed. The base of support of the Islamic Republic narrowed considerably as a deep crisis of political legitimacy set in. [Continue reading…]


Jewish terrorism: Toddler dies in West Bank attack

The New York Times reports: A Palestinian toddler was burned to death and his 4-year-old brother critically injured early Friday morning in an arson attack on their home in the West Bank that witnesses and officials attributed to Jewish extremists because of Hebrew graffiti sprayed nearby. “Revenge!” was written on one wall, next to a Star of David.

The attack was branded as terrorism by Israeli and Palestinian politicians, and shocked consciences on both sides of the simmering conflict that has boiled into renewed violence in recent weeks.

Residents of Duma — a hilltop hamlet of 3,000, many of whose men, including the children’s father, work building homes in nearby Israeli settlements — milled with stony faces around the charred home, where relatives threw a baby bottle still sloshing with milk and photographs of the young family atop a pile of blackened furniture and burned blankets. The parents were also hurt in the fire.

“The atmosphere here is very grave,” Sakariya Shadeh, a human rights worker from a nearby village who was at the scene, said on Army Radio. “People are angry over what has happened, over what has brought upon this act.”

Officials and neighbors identified the dead child as 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsheh, and said his parents, Saad, 32, and Riham, a 27-year-old mathematics teacher, were being treated in Israeli hospitals along with their other son, Ahmad.

Witnesses said that they saw four masked men in black clothing throw firebombs through the windows of two homes near the village entrance around 2 a.m. and that Duma residents had chased them toward the nearby settlement of Maale Efraim; two witnesses said they saw two of the men standing over the burning bodies. [Continue reading…]


Why the fear over ubiquitous data encryption is overblown

Mike McConnell, former director of the National Security Agency and director of national intelligence, Michael Chertoff, former homeland security secretary, and William Lynn, former deputy defense secretary, write: More than three years ago, as former national security officials, we penned an op-ed to raise awareness among the public, the business community and Congress of the serious threat to the nation’s well-being posed by the massive theft of intellectual property, technology and business information by the Chinese government through cyberexploitation. Today, we write again to raise the level of thinking and debate about ubiquitous encryption to protect information from exploitation.

In the wake of global controversy over government surveillance, a number of U.S. technology companies have developed and are offering their users what we call ubiquitous encryption — that is, end-to-end encryption of data with only the sender and intended recipient possessing decryption keys. With this technology, the plain text of messages is inaccessible to the companies offering the products or services as well as to the government, even with lawfully authorized access for public safety or law enforcement purposes.

The FBI director and the Justice Department have raised serious and legitimate concerns that ubiquitous encryption without a second decryption key in the hands of a third party would allow criminals to keep their communications secret, even when law enforcement officials have court-approved authorization to access those communications. There also are concerns about such encryption providing secure communications to national security intelligence targets such as terrorist organizations and nations operating counter to U.S. national security interests.

Several other nations are pursuing access to encrypted communications. In Britain, Parliament is considering requiring technology companies to build decryption capabilities for authorized government access into products and services offered in that country. The Chinese have proposed similar approaches to ensure that the government can monitor the content and activities of their citizens. Pakistan has recently blocked BlackBerry services, which provide ubiquitous encryption by default.

We recognize the importance our officials attach to being able to decrypt a coded communication under a warrant or similar legal authority. But the issue that has not been addressed is the competing priorities that support the companies’ resistance to building in a back door or duplicated key for decryption. We believe that the greater public good is a secure communications infrastructure protected by ubiquitous encryption at the device, server and enterprise level without building in means for government monitoring. [Continue reading…]


Move to prohibit psychologists from involvement in national security interrogations

The New York Times reports: The board of the American Psychological Association plans to recommend a tough ethics policy that would prohibit psychologists from involvement in all national security interrogations, potentially creating a new obstacle to the Obama administration’s efforts to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects outside of the traditional criminal justice system.

The board of the of the A.P.A., the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists, is expected to recommend that members approve the ban at its annual meeting in Toronto next week, according to two members, Nadine Kaslow and Susan H. McDaniel, the group’s president-elect. The board’s proposal would make it a violation of the association’s ethical policies for psychologists to play a role in national security interrogations involving any military or intelligence personnel, even the noncoercive interrogations now conducted by the Obama administration. The board’s proposal must be voted on and approved by the members’ council to become a policy.

The board’s recommendation is a response to a report from earlier this month after an independent investigation into the involvement of prominent psychologists and association officials in the harsh interrogation programs operated by the C.I.A. and the Defense Department during the Bush administration. [Continue reading…]


Why investors can’t afford to ignore climate change

Barry Ritholtz writes: A new Mercer research report, “Investing in a Time of Climate Change,” is fascinating for what it is (and isn’t): a pure investment thesis, not a screed on science or politics.

The report is especially timely, given a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report showing the so-called global-warming hiatus was the result of an error in measuring ocean temperatures. There has been no slowdown in warming, according to the latest data.

I don’t want to debate the science, but rather to focus on the investment risks the report discusses. As we have noted before, this is a question of industry market share, corporate profits and investment performance — not science.

In the real world, climate-change deniers are and will be giant money losers. [Continue reading…]


Missing: One year’s worth of California rain

Climate Central reports: The amount of rain that California has missed out on since the beginning of its record-setting drought in 2012 is about the same amount it would see, on average, in a single year, a new study has concluded.

The study’s researchers pin the reason for the lack of rains, as others have, on the absence of the intense rainstorms ushered in by so-called atmospheric rivers, the ribbons of very moist air that can funnel water vapor from the tropics to California during its winter rainy season.

Overall, the study, accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres, found that California experiences multi-year dry periods, like the current one, and then periods where rains can vary by 30 percent from year to year. Those wet and dry years typically cancel each other out. [Continue reading…]


Music: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook — ‘Night Song’


For Turkish president, war may offer political rewards

The Wall Street Journal reports: Turkey’s government — which lost its parliamentary majority last month — bills its new two-front war against Kurdish militants and Islamic State as a much-overdue reaction to terrorism. But, on the third front of domestic politics, this violence could also help President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party regain control.

In the June 7 parliamentary elections, Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, lost its majority for the first time in 12 years, and has been in coalition talks since. If these negotiations fail in coming weeks, Mr. Erdogan has said he will send the country back to the polls.

A rise in nationalist feelings amid the bloodshed and an unfolding crackdown on the government’s Kurdish political foes could bolster AKP’s chances in such a new election, many analysts say.

A two-percentage point shift from the last election could restore AKP’s absolute majority, making concessions demanded by its potential coalition partners on press freedom, corruption prosecutions and foreign policy unnecessary. This could also allow Mr. Erdogan to proceed with controversial plans to turn Turkey into a presidential republic and solidify his personal power.

“Turkey’s domestic policy and foreign policy have become messily mixed together. It’s now very difficult to separate the domestic political considerations from the security and strategic considerations of those who have started the air strikes,” said Soli Ozel, a Turkish political commentator and professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. [Continue reading…]


Senior Western official: Links between Turkey and ISIS are now ‘undeniable’

The Observer reports: When US special forces raided the compound of an Islamic State leader in eastern Syria in May, they made sure not to tell the neighbours.

The target of that raid, the first of its kind since US jets returned to the skies over Iraq last August, was an Isis official responsible for oil smuggling, named Abu Sayyaf. He was almost unheard of outside the upper echelons of the terror group, but he was well known to Turkey. From mid-2013, the Tunisian fighter had been responsible for smuggling oil from Syria’s eastern fields, which the group had by then commandeered. Black market oil quickly became the main driver of Isis revenues – and Turkish buyers were its main clients.

As a result, the oil trade between the jihadis and the Turks was held up as evidence of an alliance between the two. It led to protests from Washington and Europe – both already wary of Turkey’s 900-mile border with Syria being used as a gateway by would-be jihadis from around the world.

The estimated $1m-$4m per day in oil revenues that was thought to have flowed into Isis coffers over at least six months from late 2013 helped to transform an ambitious force with limited means into a juggernaut that has been steadily drawing western forces back to the region and increasingly testing state borders.

Across the region, violence has been spreading across borders, scattering huge numbers of refugees and contributing to the turmoil in neighbouring regimes. Few countries – from Turkey to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel – remain unscathed by the tide of chaos spreading out from Syria.

Despite one year of air strikes aimed at crippling the group’s spread, Isis remains entrenched in northern and eastern Syria, in control of much of western Iraq and camped on Lebanon’s eastern border. Its offshoots are gathering steam in north Africa and now, more than at any time since the latest incarnation of Isis emerged, its leaders claim to be positioning the group for strikes well outside the territory that it now controls.

In the wake of the raid that killed Abu Sayyaf, suspicions of an undeclared alliance have hardened. One senior western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking Isis members was now “undeniable”.

“There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there,” the official told the Observer. “They are being analysed at the moment, but the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.” [Continue reading…]


Turkish airstrikes destroy clinic in Iraqi Kurdistan

Rudaw reports: Turkish airstrikes on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in the Kurdistan Region destroyed a health clinic in Duhok province Thursday, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Turkish warplanes have been launched a string of air raids on PKK sites in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan since Friday. Thursday’s attack struck a clinic in the Amediye district of Duhok.

The warplanes thrice struck the Geli Baze region in Amediye on Thursday, said Bakhtiyar Kadir, Rudaw’s reporter in the region.The destroyed clinic had been serving several villages, including Shinaw and Hiraspi. [Continue reading…]


Subhankar Banerjee: Fire at world’s end

Normally, Americans love breaking records. (“We’re number one! We’re number one!”) But the latest records to come out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should make anyone’s heart sink. Here’s how the World Meteorological Society put the news in a recent press release: “The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for January to June 2015, as well as for the month of June, was the hottest such period on record.” June itself was a global record-setter for warmth, as had been May and March in this thermometer-busting year, and February might also have squeaked into the number-one spot in recorded history. If so, four of the six months of this year were uniquely, grimly warm. And batten down the hatches since this is now officially an El Niño year in which surface water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean are heating up significantly, possibly to historic levels, and global weather and storm patterns could be affected in major ways.

Where’s that (discredited) “pause” in global warming now that we need it? In the American West, still gripped by a devastating drought, wildfires are raging from California to Western Canada to Alaska. Hundreds of those Canadian wildfires have been burning away and, as desperate people leave the fire areas, a new phrase has entered our language: “wildfire refugees.” Here are two more words that may become more commonplace in the future: “fleeing” (as in “from hotels and campgrounds”) and — in one of our great national parks, Glacier in Montana, part of which is now ablaze — “evacuation.”

TomDispatch regular and award-winning photographer Subhankar Banerjee lives on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington and has recently found himself on the frontlines of the present wildfire season and of climate change. In his latest piece, he takes us into perhaps the single place least likely to be ablaze in America and oh yes, if you haven’t already guessed, it’s on fire. Welcome to — if you’ll excuse my appropriation of a classic phrase from our past — the new world Tom Engelhardt

Paradise burning
Why we all need to learn the word “anthropogenic”
By Subhankar Banerjee

The wettest rainforest in the continental United States had gone up in flames and the smoke was so thick, so blanketing, that you could see it miles away. Deep in Washington’s Olympic National Park, the aptly named Paradise Fire, undaunted by the dampness of it all, was eating the forest alive and destroying an ecological Eden. In this season of drought across the West, there have been far bigger blazes but none quite so symbolic or offering quite such grim news. It isn’t the size of the fire (though it is the largest in the park’s history), nor its intensity. It’s something else entirely — the fact that it shouldn’t have been burning at all. When fire can eat a rainforest in a relatively cool climate, you know the Earth is beginning to burn.

And here’s the thing: the Olympic Peninsula is my home. Its destruction is my personal nightmare and I couldn’t stay away.

[Read more…]


Mullah Omar’s death revelation could divide Taliban, undermine peace talks

The Washington Post reports: By the time Mohammad Omar’s death in 2013 was confirmed Wednesday, he had long been the ghost leader of the Taliban. His Afghan acolytes had not seen or heard from him in more than two years, even as they continued to fight and die in the name of the Islamist movement he founded two decades before.

Like Osama bin Laden, confined to watching TV in a Pakistani safe house before he was killed by U.S. commandos in 2011, Omar was still an inspiring symbol for his followers but he was no longer calling the shots. All the messages he sent out were scripted by someone else — props in a campaign to keep the splintering insurgents united.

Now that the truth is out, analysts in Kabul said Wednesday, two questions loom for the Taliban and the future of Afghanistan. First, with no immediate successor in place, can anyone else keep the fractured insurgency unified, or will disillusionment and power struggles pull it apart? Second, with peace talks just beginning to gain momentum, will the sudden leadership vacuum bring them to a chaotic halt? [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: The Taliban have chosen late supreme leader Mullah Omar’s longtime deputy to replace him, two militant commanders said on Thursday, as Pakistan announced that peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government had been postponed.

Pakistan cited reports of Omar’s death as the reason for the delay in negotiations, amid fears they could trigger a potentially bloody succession battle and further deepen divisions within the militant movement.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was appointed leader at a meeting of the Taliban’s top representatives, many of whom are based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to the sources who were present at the shura, or gathering.

“The shura held outside Quetta unanimously elected Mullah Mansour as the new emir of the Taliban,” said one commander at the Wednesday night meeting.

“The shura will release a statement shortly.”

Siraj Haqqani, leader of the powerful Haqqani militant faction, will be a deputy to Mansour, both commanders added. [Continue reading…]