Archives for August 2015

As tragedies shock Europe, a bigger refugee crisis looms in the Middle East

The Washington Post reports: While the world’s attention is fixed on the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees swarming into Europe, a potentially far more profound crisis is unfolding in the countries of the Middle East that have borne the brunt of the world’s failure to resolve the Syrian war.

Those reaching Europe represent a small percentage of the 4 million Syrians who have fled into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, making Syria the biggest single source of refugees in the world and the worst humanitarian emergency in more than four decades.

As the fighting grinds into a fifth year, the realization is dawning on aid agencies, the countries hosting the refugees and the Syrians themselves that most won’t be going home anytime soon, presenting the international community with a long-term crisis that it is ill-equipped to address and that could prove deeply destabilizing, for the region and the wider world.

The failure is first and foremost one of diplomacy, said António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The conflict has left at least 250,000 people dead in the strategic heart of the Middle East and displaced more than 11 million overall, yet there is still no peace process, no discernible solution and no end in sight.

Now, the humanitarian effort is failing, too, ground down by dwindling interest, falling donations and spiraling needs. The United Nations has received less than half the amount it said was needed to care for the refugees over the past four years. Aid is being cut and programs are being suspended at the very moment when those who left Syria in haste, expecting they soon would go home, are running out of savings and wearing out the welcome they initially received.

“It is a tragedy without parallel in the recent past,” Guterres said in an interview, warning that millions could eventually end up without the help they need to stay alive.

“There are many battles being won,” he added. “Unfortunately, the number of battles being lost is more.”

It is a crisis whose true cost has yet to be realized. [Continue reading…]

A Syrian refugee, having reached Europe — where she hopes to find a doctor who can treat her two-year old daughter’s heart condition — told the New York Times: “I want to find somewhere where there are no Arabs. Europeans are better people. The Arabs hurt us a lot.”

Jenan Moussa, who reports for Al Aan TV, highlights the conflicted views on governance that are stifling the region’s political development.

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Smugglers who drove migrants to their deaths were part of a vast web

The Washington Post reports: The smugglers responsible for driving 71 migrants to their deaths in the back of a cramped, unventilated truck in Austria were part of a vast international syndicate that has been a subject of multiple criminal investigations, a leading European law enforcement official said Saturday.

Just four relatively low-level operatives have been arrested in connection with the deaths, which were discovered Thursday when authorities pried open the door to an abandoned truck emitting a noxious odor on the main highway between Budapest and Vienna.

But Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, said in an interview that his organization and national law enforcement agencies were “working urgently” to catch the ringleaders of an operation that epitomizes the rapid expansion and increasing sophistication of human smuggling networks across the continent.

“It was a direct hit in our systems,” said Wainwright, whose agency serves as the law enforcement arm of the 28-member European Union. “We were able to make intelligence connections with many other cases that we’re currently working on across Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Message to the West from ISIS suicide-bombing mastermind: ‘Islam is coming’

Martin Chulov in Baghdad interviews Abu Abdullah, known to his ISIS commanders as “the planner” – the man responsible for dispatching suicide bombers to attack mosques, universities, checkpoints and market places across the Iraqi capital: Throughout the past decade, Iraq’s prisons have been condemned by human rights groups as places where torture is routinely used on security prisoners. Abdullah winced when the guards approached him, and a block and chain sat in a plastic crate near the cell door. He bore no visible physical scars, though, and appeared well nourished – a legacy of what a senior officer said was an order from the government to keep all prisoners fed and in cells with constant electricity and air conditioning.

“Can you imagine that,” the officer sneered. “They have a better life than most people in Baghdad.”

When the guards left the room Abdullah appeared far more at ease, quickly switching from submission to defiance. “What is your message to the west?” he was asked. Abdullah paused briefly, then looked towards the door to see if we were alone. His eyes flashed: “Islam is coming. What the Islamic State has achieved in the past year cannot be undone. The caliphate is a reality.”

Abdullah, whose real name is Ibrahim Ammar Ali al-Khazali, claimed to have been a member of Isis and all of its earlier incarnations since 2004. His path to violent jihad was unorthodox: he was born a Shia Muslim and practised the faith until the late 1990s, when he converted to Sunni Islam and disavowed the teachings of the rival sect.

He said he had been active in the organisation’s earlier years until 2007 when he was shot in the head during a clash with Iraqi forces. Entry and exit scars were obvious near his left ear and he moved slowly, even taking into account the shackles and chains, as if he had lost some of his motor skills.

Whatever his injury, his resolve appeared to harden in recent years. “It was after 2011 that I got busy again,” he said. “I wanted to live in an Islamic state ruled by sharia. I want every thing that [Isis] wants. Their goals are my goals, there is no difference.” [Continue reading…]

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Growth of the new pragmatism in Iran depends on durable sanctions relief

Seyed Hossein Mousavian writes: With the ongoing domestic in-fighting in the United States and Iran over the nuclear deal — which has already become legally binding by way of a U.N. Security Council resolution — it has become clear that Congress poses the biggest risk for the deal falling through. Congress’s ability to play a spoiler role comes not only from the power it has to scuttle the deal altogether but also from its efforts at fostering an uncertain atmosphere regarding the removal of sanctions on Iran.

The effectiveness of the nuclear deal will rely largely on the P5+1 instilling confidence in the global business community that sanctions have been removed and the country is open for business. Truly removing sanctions in a way that would have tangible benefits for Iran would require shaping expectations in such a way that businesses do not feel their investments are precarious and susceptible to the political machinations of Congress or a future U.S. president.

For the deal to be successful, it is critical for Iran to derive real and substantial benefits from sanctions relief. President Hassan Rouhani’s administration has hedged its legacy, and by extension that of pragmatism in Iran, on being able to deliver economic prosperity to Iranians. The nuclear deal and normalizing Iran’s relations with the West have been viewed as the critical ingredient to accomplishing this goal.

Indeed, the successful conclusion of the nuclear talks has led to the development of a new pragmatism in Iran, personified by prominent decision-makers who have more sober and practical views on foreign and domestic policy. This phenomenon has seen the joining of political figures who hail from historically opposing camps, namely the moderate Rouhani and the principalist speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani. This heretofore unseen alliance is a significant development in Iran’s political landscape and has positioned pragmatism as a palpable political force in Iran. [Continue reading…]

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No escaping the Blue Marble

By Clive Hamilton

It is often said that the first full image of the Earth, “Blue Marble”, taken by the Apollo 17 space mission in December 1972, revealed Earth to be precious, fragile and protected only by a wafer-thin atmospheric layer. It reinforced the imperative for better stewardship of our “only home”.

But there was another way of seeing the Earth revealed by those photographs. For some the image showed the Earth as a total object, a knowable system, and validated the belief that the planet is there to be used for our own ends.

In this way, the “Blue Marble” image was not a break from technological thinking but its affirmation. A few years earlier, reflecting on the spiritual consequences of space flight, the theologian Paul Tillich wrote of how the possibility of looking down at the Earth gives rise to “a kind of estrangement between man and earth” so that the Earth is seen as a totally calculable material body.

For some, by objectifying the planet this way the Apollo 17 photograph legitimised the Earth as a domain of technological manipulation, a domain from which any unknowable and unanalysable element has been banished. It prompts the idea that the Earth as a whole could be subject to regulation.

This metaphysical possibility is today a physical reality in work now being carried out on geoengineering – technologies aimed at deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects.

While some proposed schemes are modest and relatively benign, the more ambitious ones – each now with a substantial scientific-commercial constituency – would see humanity mobilising its technological power to seize control of the climate system. And because the climate system cannot be separated from the rest of the Earth System, that means regulating the planet, probably in perpetuity.

[Read more…]

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Why the Earth is heating so fast

Bill McKibben writes: President Obama is visiting Alaska this week  — a territory changing as rapidly as any on earth thanks to global warming. He’s talking constantly about the danger that climate change poses to the planet (a welcome development given that he managed to go through virtually the entire 2012 election without even mentioning it). And everything he’s saying is right: we are a nation, and a planet, beset by fire, flood, drought. It’s the hottest year in earth’s recorded history. July was the hottest month ever measured on planet earth.

But of course the alarm he’s sounding is muffled by the fact that earlier this year he gave Shell Oil a permit to go drill in the Arctic, potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil.

To most of us this seems like a contradiction. But to the political mind it doesn’t, not really. In fact, here’s how David Balton, the State Department’s diplomat for ocean issues, explained it. On the one hand, he said, the idea that we should stop all Arctic drilling was “held by a lot of Americans. It’s not a radical view.” On the other hand, “there are plenty of people on the other side unhappy that areas of the Arctic, and areas on land, have been closed to hydrocarbon development by the very same president.”

So  —  and here’s the money quote  —  “Maybe that means we’re in the right place, given that people on both sides are unhappy with us.”

Maybe. But probably not. Because here’s the thing: Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with, the ones where compromise makes complete sense. [Continue reading…]

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Citi report: Slowing global warming would save tens of trillions of dollars

The Guardian reports: Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS), a division within Citbank (America’s third-largest bank), recently published a report looking at the economic costs and benefits of a low-carbon future. The report considered two scenarios: “Inaction,” which involves continuing on a business-as-usual path, and Action scenario which involves transitioning to a low-carbon energy mix.

One of the most interesting findings in the report is that the investment costs for the two scenarios are almost identical. In fact, because of savings due to reduced fuel costs and increased energy efficiency, the Action scenario is actually a bit cheaper than the Inaction scenario. [Continue reading…]

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Climate change has become the one thing all religions are preaching against

Nayantara Narayanan writes: When Pope Francis chose to champion the battle against climate change via papal encyclical in June this year, the act was lauded as the one that could galvanise the world community far more than 30 years of pleading by climate scientists. Now Muslim leaders across the world have echoed the moral call against climate change with their Islamic Climate Declaration issued last week calling for a fossil-fuel phase-out.

Pope Francis acknowledged, first of all, that climate change is real. He also said that technology alone would not solve the problem and human behaviour must change to ensure that the world’s poor don’t suffer due to the consumption of the rich. The Islamic Climate Declaration recognises the scientific consensus on climate change is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere so that global warming does not exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The declaration is clear that a 1.5 degree Celsius warming would be preferable. It calls on people and leaders of all nations to aim to phase out greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and commit themselves to 100% renewable energy at the earliest possible.

In a recent interview to American science magazine Popular Science, climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe explained why religion is backing the fight against climate change. “Science can tell us why climate change is happening, and what might happen next,” she said. “But what we should do about it isn’t a science question. It’s a question of values.” [Continue reading…]

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Music: Alif Tree — ‘Deadly Species’

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Four years after the U.S. assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, his influence on jihadists is greater than ever

The New York Times reports: Type “Anwar al-Awlaki” into YouTube’s search bar, and you get 40,000 hits. Most of them bring up the earnest, smiling face and placid voice of the first American citizen to be hunted and killed without trial by his own government since the Civil War. Here is Awlaki on what makes a good marriage; on the nature of paradise; on Jesus Christ, considered a prophet by Muslims; on tolerance; on the holy month of Ramadan; and, more quirkily, on ‘‘obesity and overeating in Islam.’’ Here is Awlaki, or Sheikh Anwar, as his many admirers still call him, easily mixing Quranic Arabic with American English in chapters from his 53-CD series on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, once a best seller among English-speaking Muslims.

But in the same queue of videos is material of an altogether different nature. You will find Awlaki explaining why you should never trust a non-Muslim; how the United States is at war with Islam; why Nidal Hasan, who fatally shot 13 people at Fort Hood, and Umar Farouk Abulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit, were heroes. There is, finally, his culminating ‘‘Call to Jihad,’’ recorded in 2010 when he was already on President Obama’s kill list and on the run in Yemen’s tribal badlands. In it, with the confidence and poise of a YouTube handyman explaining how to caulk a window, he details just why, exactly, it is every Muslim’s religious duty to kill Americans.

This is the digital legacy of Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Addressing a V.F.W. convention in Pittsburgh last month, President Obama championed the counterterrorism record of his administration. ‘‘I’ve shown,’’ he said, ‘‘I will not hesitate to use force to protect our nation, including from the threat of terrorism.’’ He listed some of the terrorists killed on his watch. ‘‘Anwar al-Awlaki, a leader of the Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen — gone,’’ Obama said to applause.

The government has a portentous euphemism — ‘‘removed from the battlefield’’ — for the targeted killing of terrorists. But Awlaki has by no means been removed from the most important battlefield in any ideological conflict, the battlefield of ideas. Five days before the president spoke, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a troubled 24-year-old electrical engineer, opened fire at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., killing four Marines and a sailor. F.B.I. investigators who examined his computer discovered that he had been watching Awlaki videos in the weeks before the shootings.

They could not have been surprised. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS employs Hollywood style to bring back the gold standard

It’s easy enough to mock the grandiosity of ISIS propaganda, but it should be just as easy to see how its slick video productions appeal to its targeted audience.

In its latest release, ISIS introduces its newly minted currency: the gold dinar (and explains why coins with a fixed value are useful because it’s impractical to pay for a house with dates). And, as though to signify its successful penetration across America’s borders, the message is delivered in an American accent.

At the same time as it appeals to dreams of a caliphate — dreams that increasingly take tangible forms — ISIS also taps into currents of dissent which resonate in many quarters across the globe, such as anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism, laced with anti-Semitism.

As much as ISIS is commonly condemned for its medieval barbarism, what receives less attention than it deserves is the degree to which the group in its propaganda is engaged in forms of populism that have social and political traction in the West far outside jihadist circles.

Within a few hours, the video had been removed from YouTube, but it can still be viewed here.

Bloomberg reports: Islamic State first announced its intention to issue its own money in November, five months after it seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced a caliphate. The move was seen by analysts as part of the group’s efforts to build the institutions of a functioning state.

The jihadists have amassed a war chest of millions of dollars, partly through collecting taxes, and by seizing oil refineries. Bank and jewelry store robberies, extortion, smuggling and kidnapping for ransom are other important sources of revenue for the group, which metes out brutal punishment to anyone who opposes its rule, including beheadings and crucifixions.

Baghdad-based economist Basim Jameel said the announcement is an attempt to boost the morale of Islamic State fighters, who have suffered battlefield setbacks in recent months, including the loss of Tikrit in March.
Minting the coins is relatively easy, Jameel said, as goldsmiths in Mosul imported machines from Italy in recent years, each one able to produce about 5,000 coins a day. The metals probably come from banks the group seized, ransoms, the homes of Christians and other minorities who fled, he said. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey carries out first air strikes as part of anti-ISIS US coalition

The Associated Press reports: Turkish fighter jets have carried out their first air strikes as part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria. A Turkish foreign ministry statement said that late on Friday the jets began attacking Isis targets across the border in Syria that were deemed to be threats to Turkey.

After months of hesitation, Turkey agreed last month to take a more active role in the fight against Isis. Turkish jets used smart bombs to attack Isis positions in Syria without crossing into Syrian airspace, and later Turkey granted US jets access to an airbase close to the Syrian border. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi Shia militia ‘Rambo’ mocks strength of ISIS

Middle East Eye reports: A video circulating on social media purportedly shows a renowned Iraqi Shia militiaman standing next to a charred body. The body is hung upside as the militiaman raises his sword and cuts a slice from the corpse of the unidentified dead man. The video has sparked wide debate in Iraq.

The militiaman – who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Azrael (or father of the Angel of Death) but whose real name is Ayoub Faleh Hassan al-Rubaie – claimed in the video that the body belonged to a dead fighter sent by the Islamic State group (IS) to the city of Baiji.

“Those [fighters] were sent by the supposed elites of IS [who boast of their strength] but end up like shawarma,” Abu Azrael said as he cut part of the dead man’s leg.

The video, which could not be independently verified, was shared by fans and critics of Abu Azrael alike.

Towards the end of the video, members of the anti-IS Shia militia – known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) – chanted “Where will you run to? [We will chase you until you are ground and become nothing] but flour.”

The chant, which Abu Azrael said in a separate video that it is derived from Shia religious heritage, has come to serve as a signature battle cry of the PMU against IS.

Abu Azrael has become well-known after he was portrayed by his supporters as a Rambo-like figure in the fight against IS. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. citizen, once held in Egypt’s crackdown, becomes voice for inmates

The New York Times reports: Mohamed Soltan knew he had one thing going for him when the Egyptian police came to his door: He was a United States citizen, raised primarily in Ohio.

It did not mean much in the moment. The police had come looking for his father, Salah Soltan, an outspoken member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But when they found only Mohamed Soltan and three friends, the police arrested them instead, along with tens of thousands of others thought to be Islamists or liberal dissidents who were rounded up after the military takeover here two years ago.

But his American citizenship helped embolden Mr. Soltan, then 25, to carry out a hunger strike for 16 of his 21 months in prison, shedding more than 160 of the original 272 pounds on his 5-foot-11-inch frame and risking organ failure in the belief that the United States government might come to his aid. [Continue reading…]

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Dark day for press freedom

Al Jazeera reports: Following today’s retrial verdict in Cairo, Al Jazeera Media Network’s Acting Director General Dr Mostefa Souag said: “Today’s verdict defies logic and common sense.

Our colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy will now have to return to prison, and Peter Greste is sentenced in absentia.”

The whole case has been heavily politicised and has not been conducted in a free and fair manner. There is no evidence proving that our colleagues in any way fabricated news or aided and abetted terrorist organisations and at no point during the long drawn out retrial did any of the unfounded allegations stand up to scrutiny. [Continue reading…]

Al Jazeera also reports: Egypt’s foreign ministry has summoned the British ambassador over comments he made on a court’s decision to hand down prison sentences for three Al Jazeera journalists, state television has reported.

Ahmed Abu Zeid, a spokesperson for the ministry, on Sunday tweeted that the ministry objected to John Casson’s comments, calling them “unacceptable intrusion” in the country’s judiciary. [Continue reading…]

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The pope and the planet

Bill McKibben writes: On a sprawling, multicultural, fractious planet, no person can be heard by everyone. But Pope Francis comes closer than anyone else. He heads the world’s largest religious denomination and so has 1.2 billion people in his flock, but even (maybe especially) outside the precincts of Catholicism his talent for the telling gesture has earned him the respect and affection of huge numbers of people. From his seat in Rome he addresses the developed world, much of which descended from the Christendom he represents; but from his Argentine roots he speaks to the developing world, and with firsthand knowledge of the poverty that is the fate of most on our planet.

So no one could have considered more usefully the first truly planetary question we’ve ever faced: the rapid heating of the earth from the consumption of fossil fuels. Scientists have done a remarkable job of getting the climate message out, reaching a workable consensus on the problem in relatively short order. But national political leaders, beholden to the fossil fuel industry, have been timid at best—Barack Obama, for instance, barely mentioned the question during the 2012 election campaign. Since Francis first announced plans for an encyclical on climate change, many have eagerly awaited his words.

And on those narrow grounds, Laudato Si’ does not disappoint. It does indeed accomplish all the things that the extensive news coverage highlighted: insist that climate change is the fault of man; call for rapid conversion of our economies from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy; and remind us that the first victims of the environmental crisis are the poor. (It also does Americans the service of putting climate-denier politicians—a fairly rare species in the rest of the world—in a difficult place. Jeb Bush, for example, was reduced to saying that in the case of climate the pope should butt out, leaving the issue to politicians. “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people,” he said, in words that may come back to haunt him.) [Continue reading…]

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Oliver Sacks, casting light on the interconnectedness of life

Michiko Kakutani writes: It’s no coincidence that so many of the qualities that made Oliver Sacks such a brilliant writer are the same qualities that made him an ideal doctor: keen powers of observation and a devotion to detail, deep reservoirs of sympathy, and an intuitive understanding of the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the intricate connections between the body and the mind.

Dr. Sacks, who died on Sunday at 82, was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life — the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.

In his writings, as he once said of his mentor, the great Soviet neuropsychologist and author A. R. Luria, “science became poetry.” [Continue reading…]

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Hawaii’s governor dumps oil and gas in favor of 100 percent renewables

Juan Cole reports: At the Asia Pacific Resilience Innovation Summit held in Honolulu, Hawaii, this week, Governor David Ige dropped a bombshell. His administration will not use natural gas to replace the state’s petroleum-fueled electricity plants, but will make a full-court press toward 100 percent renewables by 2045. Ige’s decisive and ambitious energy vision is making Hawaii into the world’s most important laboratory for humankind’s fight against climate change. He has, in addition, attracted an unlikely and enthusiastic partner in his embrace of green energy—the US military.

Ige said Monday that LNG (liquefied natural gas) will not save the state money over time, given the plummeting prices of renewables. Moreover, “it is a fossil fuel,” i.e., it emits dangerous greenhouse gases. He explained that local jurisdictions in Hawaii are putting up a fight against natural gas, making permitting difficult. Finally, any money put into retooling electric plants so as to run on gas, he said, is money that would better be invested in the transition to green energy.

Ige, trained as an electrical engineer, is leading his state in the most ambitious clean-energy program in the United States. On June 8, he signed into law a bill calling for Hawaii’s electricity to be entirely generated from renewables in only 30 years. He also directed that the University of Hawaii be net carbon zero in just 20 years. [Continue reading…]

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