Archives for September 2015

Russia’s first reported air strikes in Syria assist regime by targeting broader opposition

Institute for the Study of War reports: Syrian Civil Defense Forces reported 33 civilian casualties from the Russian airstrike in Talbisah in northern Homs. According to local sources, these Russian airstrikes have expanded into the provinces of Hama and Latakia, as well as other rebel-held areas in the northern countryside of Homs. These airstrikes continue to target areas held by Syrian rebels, including Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham, Western-backed TOW anti-tank missile recipients, and a number of other local rebel groups. Notably, the nearest positions held by ISIS are over 55 km from the areas targeted by the Russian airstrikes. No Russian airstrikes have yet been reported against ISIS’s positions in Syria.

Russia’s foreign ministry accused international media of conducting information warfare by reporting civilian casualties from Russian airstrikes in Syria. As Russian involvement in Syria continues to expand, Russian disinformation will come in direct conflict with the situation reported by ground forces inside Syria. In this instance, despite claims by Syrian sources that Russian airstrikes are exclusively targeting Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel locations, Russian officials claim that the airstrikes are only targeting ISIS in Syria.

After a vote in Russia’s upper house of parliament unanimously authorized President Vladimir Putin to conduct military operations in Syria, the head of President Putin’s administration stated that the military objective of the operation was “exclusively” to provide air support to the Syrian government forces in combatting ISIS. [Continue reading…]

Fox News reports: According to a U.S. senior official, Presidents Obama and Putin agreed on a process to “deconflict” military operations. The Russians on Wednesday “bypassed that process,” the official said.

“That’s not how responsible nations do business,” the official said.

The development came after Pentagon officials, in a development first reported by Fox News, brushed aside an official request, or “demarche,” from Russia to clear air space over northern Syria, where Moscow said it intended to conduct airstrikes against ISIS on behalf of Assad, according to sources who spoke to Fox News. The request was made in a heated discussion between a Russian three-star general and U.S. officials at the American Embassy in Baghdad, sources said.

“If you have forces in the area we request they leave,” said the general, who used the word “please” in the contentious encounter.

A senior Pentagon official said the U.S., which also has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS, but does not support Assad, said the request was not honored.

“We still conducted our normal strike operations in Syria today,” the official said. “We did not and have not changed our operations.” [Continue reading…]


Putin will not let Assad fall

Vali Nasr writes: In the four years of civil war, the United States has rebuffed calls to arm the rebels, establish a no fly zone or enforce its own red lines for use of chemical weapons. America’s impact on the civil war has been minimal. Russia, by contrast, has armed Assad’s military and now taken charge of defending the regime. It is clear to all stakeholders that the key to the resolution of the war is Moscow.

Washington’s ability to get regional actors to compromise on Syria is also hampered by domestic considerations. The political environments in both the United States and Iran preclude serious talks over regional issues, let alone the meaningful give and take that would make diplomacy possible. Iran’s Supreme Leader has said that for now talks with the United States will go no further than the nuclear deal, and the Obama administration speaks of containment rather than engagement when it comes to Iran’s regional role. The implementation of the nuclear deal will cast a shadow on all discussions over Syria, and even if Washington were to manage a breakthrough with Tehran, it is bound to face opposition from Israel, Persian Gulf monarchies and Congress.

Moscow is better situated to move Iran, Turkey and the Persian Gulf monarchies toward compromise. Secretary Kerry brought Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Jubair together last month in Qatar to discuss Syria. But Russia has been pursuing more direct bilateral talks. The list of dignitaries who have visited Moscow in recent months is long: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force Commander Qasim Suleimani, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, UAE’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan. After Muhammad Bin Salman returned from Moscow, Putin arranged for him to meet Assad’s intelligence chief, Ali Mamluk, in Jeddah. As Putin has ramped up his defense of Assad, Russia has been speaking to the biggest regional actors.

This diplomatic outreach has already had tangible effects. Just last week, after visiting Moscow, Erdogan changed his position and accepted that Assad could be part of a political solution to end the civil war. It must be clear to Erdogan and the Persian Gulf monarchies that Putin will not let Assad fall. These nations also run the risk of confrontation with Russia if they continue supporting anti-Assad forces. Nor do Turkey and Israel want to see prolonged Russian military presence next door. Israel would not be able to hit at Hezbollah and Iranian targets at will, and Turkey wouldn’t be able to react to the Kurdish challenge as freely it has thus far. The best course of action, these states could conclude, is to agree to a diplomatic solution that would send Russian forces home. [Continue reading…]


Putin hints Russia will clip Israel’s wings over Syrian skies

Haaretz reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama, during their one-on-one meeting in New York early Tuesday, that he was concerned about the Israeli attacks in Syria. He was apparently not referring to the Israeli missiles in the Golan Heights, fired earlier in the week at two artillery positions of the Syrian army in the wake of stray fire into Israeli territory from battles between the rebels and the Syrian army.

Rather, Putin’s statement was more general, referring to over 10 strikes in Syrian territory that have been attributed to Israel over the past two and a half years.

It showed that despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin in Moscow last week, Russia intends to create new facts on the ground in Syria that will include restricting Israel’s freedom of movement in Syrian skies.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday that Israel does not coordinate its actions in the north with Russia. “We have interests, and when they are threatened we act and we will continue to act, and that was also made clear to the president of Russia. We have no intention of giving up our ability to protect our interests and I advise that we not be tested,” Ya’alon said, adding, “We will continue to defend our red lines.” [Continue reading…]


Ukrainian president mocks Putin in front of United Nations

The Washington Post reports: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko sought to return his country’s long-running conflict with Russia to center stage Tuesday, telling the United Nations General Assembly that Russia has been waging an aggressive war of occupation against Ukraine.

The Russian delegation was not present in the General Assembly Hall for Poroshenko’s speech, an apparently deliberate boycott. On Monday, the Ukrainian delegation pointedly left the hall when Russian President Vladimir Putin started speaking.

Though he did not mention Putin by name, Poroshenko openly mocked the Russian president’s call for an anti-terrorism coalition to fight radicals in Syria, characterizing it as “double-tongued.”

“Cool story,” he said, his voice dripping in sarcasm. “But really hard to believe.

“How can you urge an anti-terrorism coalition if you inspire terrorism right in front of your own door? How can you talk peace and legitimacy if your policy is war via puppet government? How can you speak for freedom for nations if you punish your neighbor for this choice? How can you demand respect for all if you don’t have respect for anyone?”

Many Ukrainians fear their confrontation with Russia, which began in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, has been sidelined under a blizzard of international crises, particularly the war raging in Syria. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s call at UN to fight ISIS with ideas is largely seen as futile

The New York Times reports: At least eight Islamic State branches in the Middle East and Afghanistan have cropped up in recent years or have redefined themselves as allies, such as the Boko Haram insurgency group in Nigeria.

At the same time, international efforts to combat the Islamic State’s online propaganda messaging has been an abysmal failure, according to a recent State Department assessment.

So far, the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations, the State Department assessment said. [Continue reading…]


The terrible flight from the killing

Hugh Eakin writes: It is not quite clear when Europeans woke up to the largest movement of refugees on their soil since the upheavals of World War II, but Sunday, August 16, may have been a decisive turning point. In a television interview that day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, returning from her summer vacation, said that the European Union’s single greatest challenge was no longer the Greek debt crisis. It was the wave after wave of Syrians and others now trying to enter Europe’s eastern and southern borders. It is “the next major European project,” she said. It “will preoccupy Europe much, much more than…the stability of the euro.”

In the capitals of Western Europe, Merkel’s words seemed to come as a surprise. And yet across a long corridor of countries, from the Anatolian coast to Greece on up to Hungary and Austria, for anyone who cared to notice there were Syrians waiting to pay human smugglers in back alleys of Turkish beach towns. They were clinging, in the darkness, to hopelessly unseaworthy dinghies in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas; crouching in groups, thirsty and sunbaked, in trash-strewn holding areas on the Greek island of Kos; clamoring to get on rusty trains in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; trudging, in irregular lines, with young children on their shoulders, through the forests of the Serbian–Hungarian border. They were emptying their last savings so they could again pay smugglers to be stuffed into the backs of trucks for a harrowing journey further north to Vienna or even to Munich.

In fact, the new wave had already begun in late spring, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans began crossing from Turkey to Greece and continuing, as best they could, into Central Europe. Though it was little noted at the time, by July, well over a thousand people were arriving every day in the Greek islands closest to Turkey, which were woefully ill-equipped to receive them. [Continue reading…]


Islamophobia has a long history in the U.S.

Khaled Beydoun writes: On the morning of 19 April 1995, the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was rocked by a bomb. The domestic terrorist attack killed 168 people and injured 680 more. Minutes after, media reports speculated that “Islamic extremists” or “Arab radicals” were the culprits.

Ninety minutes after the explosions, Timothy McVeigh – a white, Christian male – was arrested and later linked to the attack. There had been no evidence to support the idea Muslims had anything to do with the bombing.

Despite people with similar ideologies to McVeigh were responsible for the majority of domestic terrorist attacks in 1995 – a figure still true today – the legislation that followed the Oklahoma city bombing did not place its focus there.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) was the beginning of policing of Muslim subjects and communities. One part of this legislation led to the disparate investigation of Muslim American political and social activity, while another led to the deportation of Muslims with links – real or fictive – to terrorist activity.

This policing was broadened and intensified after the 9/11 terrorists attacks. More recently, US Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme, as well as political demagoguery, further expands the suspicious focus on Muslims. [Continue reading…]


New poll highlights the depth of Islamophobia among Republicans

A poll of Republican primary voters in North Carolina included these findings: It’s safe to say Ben Carson and Donald Trump’s recent comments about Islam aren’t going to hurt them too much with their base of supporters. 44% of Carson voters think Islam should be illegal in the United States, to only 38% who think it should be legal. And with Trump voters the numbers are even more extreme — 52% think Islam should be illegal to just 31% that believe it should be allowed. Republican voters in the state as a whole are evenly divided with 40% thinking the practice of Islam should be legal and 40% thinking it should not.

Given those numbers it’s not surprising that on the more narrow issue of whether a Muslim should be allowed to serve as President, only 16% of Republicans say yes to 72% who say no. And this all feeds into a broader concern that President Obama is waging a war on Christianity — 72% express that sentiment to only 20% who disagree with it. [Continue reading…]


World Bank warns of ‘high risk’ of renewed Palestine-Israel conflict

Ma’an reports: The World Bank has warned of the “high risk” of renewed Palestine-Israel conflict following the third straight year of increasing poverty in the occupied Palestinian territory.

In a report released Tuesday, the World Bank pointed to war, reduced donor aid, the suspension of revenue payments, and ongoing restrictions by Israel as having had “a severe impact on the Palestinian economy.”

“The persistence of this situation could potentially lead to political and social unrest,” the report said.

“In short, the status quo is not sustainable and downside risks of further conflict and social unrest are high,” said the World Bank.

The percentage of the population living under the poverty line has reached 39 percent in Gaza and 16 percent in the West Bank. [Continue reading…]


Abbas says he’s no longer bound by Oslo Accords

The New York Times reports: Demonstrating a new level of tension with Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority declared Wednesday that it was no longer bound by the Oslo Accords that formed the basis for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his annual General Assembly speech, Mr. Abbas accused Israel of having violated the accords and subsequent agreements. He asserted that there was no reason the Palestinians should remain faithful to them as long as the Israelis were not.

“We cannot continue to be bound by these signed agreements with Israel and Israel must assume fully all its responsibility as an occupying power,” Mr. Abbas said.

There had been speculation fed by Mr. Abbas’s aides that he would drop a “bombshell” announcement during his speech. While the announcement sounded serious, the practical effects were not immediately clear. [Continue reading…]


The man who would be king of Kurdistan

Tanya Goudsouzian writes: By the time Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji declared himself king of Kurdistan in 1922, over an area that included the city of Sulaimania and its environs, he had already fought dozens of battles; some alongside the British against the Ottomans, others against the British alongside the Arabs, and then several more against the Arabs.

From March 1923 to mid-1924, the British retaliated against Sheikh Mahmud’s perceived insolence with aerial bombardment, and thus ended the Kurds’ first attempt at full-fledged sovereignty.

In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne had dealt a definitive blow to Kurdish aspirations for self-determination in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration. Three years earlier, the Treaty of Sevres stipulated that the oil-rich Mosul Vilayet be given to the Kurds. But at Lausanne, the British and the French changed their minds and drew up a very different map, which gave rise to the modern state of Iraq. [Continue reading…]


Music: Daby Touré — ‘Soninko’


Senior Saudi prince calls for regime change in Riyadh

The Guardian reports: A senior Saudi prince has launched an unprecedented call for change in the country’s leadership, as it faces its biggest challenge in years in the form of war, plummeting oil prices and criticism of its management of Mecca, scene of last week’s hajj tragedy.

The prince, one of the grandsons of the state’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, has told the Guardian that there is disquiet among the royal family – and among the wider public – at the leadership of King Salman, who acceded the throne in January.

The prince, who is not named for security reasons, wrote two letters earlier this month calling for the king to be removed.

“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom,” the prince said. “So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious.” [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia is worried – and not just about its king

Brian Whitaker writes: Extreme caution has long been the watchword of Saudi monarchs: caution in foreign policy, and caution especially when it comes to internal change. Since 2005, when the king nervously decided it was safe to allow elections for half the members of municipal councils (the other half were to be appointed by the king), it has taken a further 10 years to get around to letting women take part.

Of course, there are good reasons for this caution. Saudis often cite the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 as a warning, linking it to his attempts at reform and especially his introduction of television, which many at the time regarded as encouraging sin.

Large sections of Saudi society, and most notably the influential religious scholars, remain deeply conservative, and this social resistance means the rulers cannot implement change – supposing they actually want to – at anything like the pace needed in a rapidly changing world. To a large extent the rulers’ hands are tied, but this is something the House of Saud has brought upon itself by hitching its political legitimacy to the Wahhabi sect. If it can’t untie that knot, it is ultimately doomed. [Continue reading…]


Airstrikes hit wedding in Yemen; as many as 135 dead

The Los Angeles Times reports: Airstrikes devastated a wedding party in southern Yemen on Monday, killing and injuring dozens, witnesses said. Medics put the death toll as high as 135, including many women and children, in the latest bombardment reported to have caused large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries.

The Saudi-led air offensive in Yemen, now in its seventh month, has killed at least 3,500 people, perhaps half of them civilians, according to aid groups.

Some witnesses suggested that tents put up to accommodate guests at wedding festivities outside the Red Sea port of Mokha might have been mistaken for military encampments of pro-government troops and their allies. At least two tents were hit in a series of strikes.

The attack, one of a string involving large numbers of civilian casualties, came as the Yemen conflict was under scrutiny at the United Nations. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon blamed all combatants for demonstrating a “disregard for human life,” but said most fatalities and injuries were being caused by the campaign of airstrikes that began in March. [Continue reading…]


Russia orders removal of Syrian officers from Lattakia airport

AKI (translated and edited by The Syrian Observer) reports: Russia has prevented the entry of all Syrian military personnel to Lattakia airport, regardless of rank, sources close to the Assad regime said.

The sources told Italy’s AKI news agency on Monday, September 28, “The ban includes everyone, and no Syrian military personnel, whatever their rank, is permitted to remain in Lattakia airport or its surroundings.” The sources added that “any technician or civilian employee who enters the airport will be subjected to thorough inspection, and will not be permitted to move freely in the airport without being escorted by Russian soldiers.”

The news came after European diplomatic sources leaked information indicating “Russia has limited its communication with the Syrian regime regarding the location of Syrian opposition or ISIS fighters, even after the regime had requested the information on several occasions. This indicates Russia does not want the regime to hit opposition forces unless under its supervision,” according to AKI’s sources. [Continue reading…]

Russian aircraft in Syria filmed by French TV station TF1:


U.S. gives up effort to train Syrian opposition forces

CBS News reports: President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday met privately, about their opposite views of the 40-year-old war in Syria that has led to the rise of ISIS and set off an enormous refugee crisis.

All this on the same day the Pentagon was forced to concede a key part of the president’s Syria policy is a dismal failure. The program to train and equip Syrian opposition forces has been suspended.

The $500-million program had once been a linchpin of the strategy to defeat ISIS but so far has proved a fiasco. It was put on hold after a band of fighters turned over their U.S.-supplied equipment to terrorists linked to al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]


Obama has sold more arms globally than any president since World War II

CJ Werleman writes: Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a mere 12 days into his presidency. Never had a recipient achieved so little to be lauded so much. Essentially it was a pre-emptive award given on the presumption Obama’s foreign policy record would eventually meet its promise.

In the six-years since becoming planet earth’s most recognised agent for world peace, Obama has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, which remains the symbol of the darkest chapter in modern US history; has assassinated US citizens around the globe sans due process; has suspended habeas corpus; has terrorised villagers in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere with the incessant buzzing sound of weaponised drones; armed Israel in the midst of its brutal and bloody invasion of Gaza, which left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead; toppled a government in Libya without so much as a consideration for what might come next; supported the toppling of a democratically elected government in Egypt, and, in turn, armed arguably the most brutal dictator in that country’s history; and has coordinated and guided Saudi Arabia’s terrorist activities in Yemen, which has left more than 4,000 Yemeni civilians dead.

It’s a record to behold with some awe, and it gets worse.

A newly released report reveals Obama is the greatest arms exporter since the Second World War. The dollar value of all major arms deals overseen by the first five years of the Obama White House now exceeds the amount overseen by the Bush White House in its full eight years in office by nearly $30 billion.

America’s arms-dealer-in-chief has flooded the most volatile corner of the world, the Middle East, with guns, bombs, fighter jets, tanks and missiles. [Continue reading…]