Archives for December 2015

Iran’s plan for Syria without Assad


Joyce Karam writes: On February 25, 1987, late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad sent his troops to the Fathallah barracks in West Beirut, where they killed twenty-seven members of Hezbollah in a move designed to show Syria’s upper hand over Iran in Lebanon. Almost three decades later, this modus operandi is completely reversed under Assad the son, as Syria sinks into a war of attrition and Tehran gains the upper hand in Damascus.

For Iran, Bashar al-Assad has been a valuable ally but not an indispensable one. His coming to power in 2000, followed by the Iraq war in 2003 and Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, freed Iran’s hand in the Levant. Hezbollah under Bashar al-Assad has received weaponry and political backing unthinkable in his father’s time, including long-range Scud missiles and a 2010 Damascus visit by the party’s chief Hassan Nasrallah. But while Tehran has worked since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 to prolong Assad’s hold on power, it has also planned from the very early stages of the conflict for the day after, should its ally fall or should the regime lose Damascus.

Even as Iran sits at the negotiating table in Vienna, its strategy overlooks the political debate and the successive failed processes. It is instead rooted in creating new realities and proxies on the ground in Syria, looking beyond Assad and preserving its core interests. These interests are defined today by three goals: (1) Ensuring arms shipments continue to Hezbollah; (2) Gaining a strategic foothold in Levant and against Israel; (3) Preventing a stable government opposed to Iran from fully ruling over Syria. [Continue reading…]


Will Green Movement haunt Iran’s upcoming elections?


Arash Karami reports: The registration process for the February 2016 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections has come to end with a record number of candidates: Nearly 12,000 individuals registered to compete for a seat in the 290-member parliament. It will be the job of the conservative Guardian Council to determine which candidates pass through their filters and ultimately will be allowed to run. While the council is not obligated to specify publicly why the candidates are qualified or disqualified, it seems the 2009 presidential elections will be a central factor in their decision-making process.

Guardian Council spokesman Nejatollah Ebrahimian told Tasnim News Agency on Dec. 27 that the council will review all the comments and actions of the candidates during 2009 postelection protests. He said that the behavior of the candidates should not have been such that it could be construed that they participated in the illegal activities during 2009, adding they should have “clear and specific lines drawn with the sedition of 2009.”

The contested 2009 presidential elections, which hard-liners refer to as the “2009 sedition,” was a turning point in Iranian elections. The incumbent, controversial hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was announced the victor. The Reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, challenged the results and encouraged their supporters to hold street protests — the largest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Despite hundreds of arrests, dozens of deaths and the house arrest of the so-called Green Movement leaders, Iranian officials responsible for the crackdown continue to raise the issue of the 2009 elections as a sort of dividing line between those who should be allowed to be part of the political process and those who should not. [Continue reading…]


Is U.S. Congress empowering Iranian hard-liners?


Mahmoud Pargoo writes: [In 2013] Hassan Rouhani, who sternly criticized Ahmadinejad’s nuclear policies, won the election and appointed Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Consequently, and as a result of the softening of the rhetoric and engagement in talks with the United States, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and six world powers in July. The agreement was seen as evidence that if Iran engages in serious talks with the United States, issues can be gradually solved. Even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pointed to the likelihood of extending negotiations to other non-nuclear issues if the United States proves to be trustworthy.

This line of thinking, however, is changing with the recent series of US measures — including the recent congressional vote to restrict visa-free travel to the United States for those who have visited Iran in the past five years. Indeed, many in Iran are coming to the conclusion that no matter what rhetoric or action the Islamic Republic may assume, the United States will continue its enmity with Iran. Thus, a new consensus is being formed — but this time, against the United States. People from almost all political orientations have interpreted the new Visa Waiver Program (VWP) changes as running counter to the JCPOA. Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker and a powerful conservative supporter of the nuclear negotiations, has criticized the law, while many Reformist politicians have also condemned it as being against Iranian goodwill in engaging with the United States. Zarif, the foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, has additionally said that the new law breaches the JCPOA.

When seen in the light of historical parallels, the recent developments could be an alarming sign that certain elements in the US foreign policy establishment are seeking to paralyze any effort to normalize relations with Iran. [Continue reading…]


Iran vows to respond to any new U.S. sanctions

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his defense minister to expedite Iran’s ballistic-missile program following newly planned U.S. sanctions, he said Thursday, casting fresh doubt on the implementation of a landmark nuclear accord reached in July.

Mr. Rouhani made the announcement on his official Twitter account, without elaborating on what steps he had ordered Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan to take.

“If [the] U.S. continues its illegitimate interference [with] Iran’s right to defend itself a new program will be devised to enhance missile capabilities,” Mr. Rouhani tweeted.

“We have never negotiated regarding our defense capabilities, including our missile program & will not accept any restrictions in this regard,” he said.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said earlier Thursday that Iran considered any new U.S. sanctions on its ballistic-missile program illegal and would respond accordingly.

“Such actions are unilateral, arbitrary and illegal and the Islamic Republic of Iran has warned the U.S. in this respect,” said spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

The Obama administration is planning new sanctions on Iran, targeting almost a dozen companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates, U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. The planned action by the Treasury Department is targeted at businesses and individuals for their alleged role in developing Iran’s ballistic-missile program and would represent the first new sanctions on Iran since six world powers, including the U.S., reached the nuclear deal with Tehran. [Continue reading…]


Months of fighting leaves 80% of Ramadi in ruins

Al Jazeera reports: Months of fighting and the recent pitched battle to take Iraq’s Ramadi from ISIL have levelled most of the key city as officials warned it was too soon for civilians to return after it was recaptured.

Local official Eid Amash said 80 percent of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, has been destroyed in the battles between Iraq’s army – backed by US air strikes – and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.

Amash, spokesman of Anbar’s provincial council, told Kurdish media network Rudaw that some districts of Ramadi were yet to be cleared of ISIL fighters. [Continue reading…]


Are clashes spreading to western Turkey?

Metin Gurcan writes: Clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish forces continue unabated in southeastern towns mostly inhabited by Kurds. But now the Kurds appear to be taking the battle to Istanbul and other western Turkey cities.

Despite increasing social and economic costs, the parties show no signs of cooling down. Ankara says it will continue to combat terrorism no matter the cost, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) issues stern warnings that the clashes could escalate and spread.

The latest such threat came from Cemil Bayik, co-chair of the Union of Kurdish Communities’ (KCK) executive council. KCK is a unit of the PKK. Bayik bluntly said, “We are heading to the establishment of a revolutionary resistance front with the participation of organizations that will come from inside and outside of Turkey.” [Continue reading…]


Leaked documents may reveal the inner workings of the ISIS — but what if they are fake?

The Washington Post reports: If you want to really understand the Islamic State and go beyond the propaganda, looking at the militant group’s internal documents might be a good place to start. As the group expanded over the past year and attempted to turn into a functioning state, it released several internal orders and decrees that seek to organize this “caliphate.” These documents offer a glimpse of not only the way the Islamic State organizes but also the anxiety and disorder in the group that lies under the surface.

One example of this comes from documents that were recently revealed by Reuters and that appear to show the Islamic State decreeing who can have sex with captured enslaved women and who cannot. The documents showed that a bureaucracy appears to underpin even the most brutal acts committed by the group and hinted that some of the extreme behavior by its fighters led even the group’s own religious authorities to balk.

On the other hand, some experts believe that some purported Islamic State internal documents shared online are hoaxes, deliberately designed to deceive. These fakes are widespread enough that Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a young British analyst who has made a name for himself with his analysis of extremist activity, recently published his own “guide to Islamic State document hoaxes.” [Continue reading…]


A Russian sentiment familiar to Americans: ‘It doesn’t concern me’

Zhanna Nemtsova writes: A public opinion survey recently asked Russians: “What was the main political event of the year?”

Events in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria featured prominently, but the most brutal political murder in modern Russia – the assassination of my father, Boris Nemtsov, a prominent opposition figure – didn’t even figure in the responses.

Another survey conducted by the independent Levada Centre in March, soon after he was shot dead on a bridge close to the Kremlin, found that one-third of the Russians polled had “no particular feelings” about his murder.

Taken together, these responses illustrate a broader problem with the current condition of Russian society, characterised by moral numbness and best illustrated by the popular Russian sentiment – “it doesn’t concern me”.

This climate has also compromised the quality of the opposition itself and made it a heroic feat to even take part in the opposition movement in Russia.

The political system that President Vladimir Putin has built relies on a lack of public thought, and on people’s reluctance to ask questions, formulate positions or remember the past. Putin’s Russia has no need of people who think for themselves. [Continue reading…]


Israel bans novel on Palestinian-Jewish romance, seen as threat to ‘national-ethnic identity’

Haaretz reports: Israel’s Education Ministry has disqualified a novel that describes a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from use by high schools around the country. The move comes even though the official responsible for literature instruction in secular state schools recommended the book for use in advanced literature classes, as did a professional committee of academics and educators, at the request of a number of teachers.

Among the reasons stated for the disqualification of Dorit Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” (literally “Hedgerow,” but known in English as “Borderlife”) is the need to maintain what was referred to as “the identity and the heritage of students in every sector,” and the belief that “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews threatens the separate identity.” The Education Ministry also expressed concern that “young people of adolescent age don’t have the systemic view that includes considerations involving maintaining the national-ethnic identity of the people and the significance of miscegenation.”

The book, published in Hebrew by Am Oved about a year and a half ago, tells the story of Liat, an Israeli translator, and Hilmi, a Palestinian artist, who meet and fall in love in New York, until they part ways for her to return to Tel Aviv and he to the West Bank city of Ramallah. The book was among this year’s winners of the Bernstein Prize for young writers.

A source familiar with the ministry’s approach to the book said that in recent months a large number of literature teachers asked that “Borderlife” be included in advanced literature classes. After consideration of the request, a professional committee headed by Prof. Rafi Weichert from the University of Haifa approved the request. The committee included academics, Education Ministry representatives and veteran teachers. The panel’s role is to advise the ministry on various educational issues, including approval of curriculum.

According to the source, members of the professional committee, as well as the person in charge of literature studies, “thought that the book is appropriate for students in the upper grades of high schools – both from an artistic and literary standpoint and regarding the topic it raises. Another thing to remember is that the number of students who study advanced literature classes is anyhow low, and the choice of books is very wide.”

Another source in the Education Ministry said that the process took a number of weeks, and that “it’s hard to believe that we reached a stage where there’s a need to apologize for wanting to include a new and excellent book into the curriculum.” [Continue reading…]


Are most Jewish terrorists ‘crazy Americans’?

Haaretz reports: Laura Wharton, an American-born political scientist who represents the left-wing Meretz party on the Jerusalem city council, is not surprised by the large number of children of English-speaking families among the terror suspects, noting that immigrants from these countries tend to be highly ideologically motivated, and are more likely to have radical extremists among their ranks. “I think in general people who immigrate to Israel from English-speaking countries, in fact from all wealthy countries, need a stronger incentive to make the move,” she says. “They also want to make their mark when they come here, for better or for worse.”

Sara Yael Hirschhorn, who has spent many years studying American immigrants living in the West Bank, believes the radicalism could reflect a failure to integrate smoothly into Israeli society. “I think it has to do with the fact that these people are not assimilated in the way that their native Israeli or perhaps other immigrant peers have managed to be,” she observes.

In some cases, she says, these teens may be acting out against their parents for not doing enough to make their mark on Israeli society. “It could be a rebellion against parents they thought had come to do some great ideological pioneering, but instead, turned out to be average suburbanites in places like Ma’aleh Adumim,” notes Hirschhorn, who serves as the University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford.

The author of the upcoming book “City on a Hilltop: Jewish-American Settlers in the Occupied Territories Since 1967,” Hirschhorn has concluded that roughly 60,000 American Jews live in West Bank settlements, where they account for 15 percent of the settler population.

The number of American immigrants living in Israel, including their children, has been estimated at about 170,000.

This is not the first time that U.S. citizens have been associated with or convicted of terror activities in Israel. In 1994, Brooklyn-born Baruch Goldstein, a physician from Kiryat Arba, massacred 29 Palestinians while they were worshipping in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Yaakov Teitel, originally from Florida, has been convicted of various acts of terrorism and hate crimes against Palestinians, homosexuals, Messianic Jews and left-wingers. Boston-born Baruch Marzel, a Kahane disciple, has a criminal record that includes assaults on Palestinians, policemen and left-wingers. Former New Yorker Ira Rappaport, a member of the Jewish Underground that emerged in the 1980s, was found guilty of involvement in a car bombing that left the former mayor of Nablus maimed.

Already back then, American immigrants had acquired a reputation as potential extremists.

Chaim Waxman, a retired professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, who has published extensively on immigration to Israel from the United State, recalls teaching a course at Tel Aviv University in the 1980s when reports about the Jewish Underground first started surfacing.  “I remember the students talking about those ‘crazy Americans,’ even though only one member of the Underground was an American,” he recounts. “But that is an impression that many Israelis have.” [Continue reading…]


The paranoid style of American policing

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: When I was around 10 years old, my father confronted a young man who was said to be “crazy.” The young man was always too quick to want to fight. A foul in a game of 21 was an insult to his honor. A cross word was cause for a duel, and you never knew what that cross word might be. One day, the young man got into it with one of my older brother’s friends. The young man pulled a metal stake out of the ground (there was some work being done nearby) and began swinging it wildly in a threatening manner. My father, my mother, or my older brother — I don’t recall which — told the other boy to go inside of our house. My dad then came outside. I don’t really remember what my father said to the young man. Perhaps he said something like “Go home,” or maybe something like, “Son, it’s over.” I don’t really recall. But what I do recall is that my dad did not shoot and kill the young man.

That wasn’t the first time I’d seen my father confront the violence of young people without resorting to killing them. This was not remarkable. When you live in communities like ours — or perhaps any community — mediating violence between young people is part of being an adult. Sometimes the young people are involved in scary behavior — like threatening people with metal objects. And yet the notion that it is permissible, wise, moral, or advisable to kill such a person as a method of de-escalation, to kill because one was afraid, did not really exist among parents in my community.

The same could not be said for those who came from outside of the community. [Continue reading…]


2015: A year of record heat shown in charts


The invasion of Antarctica


Simon Romero writes: On a glacier-filled island with fjords and elephant seals, Russia has built Antarctica’s first Orthodox church on a hill overlooking its research base, transporting the logs all the way from Siberia.

Less than an hour away by snowmobile, Chinese laborers have updated the Great Wall Station, a linchpin in China’s plan to operate five bases on Antarctica, complete with an indoor badminton court, domes to protect satellite stations and sleeping quarters for 150 people.

Not to be outdone, India’s futuristic new Bharathi base, built on stilts using 134 interlocking shipping containers, resembles a spaceship. Turkey and Iran have announced plans to build bases, too.

More than a century has passed since explorers raced to plant their flags at the bottom of the world, and for decades to come this continent is supposed to be protected as a scientific preserve, shielded from intrusions like military activities and mining.

But an array of countries are rushing to assert greater influence here, with an eye not just toward the day those protective treaties expire, but also for the strategic and commercial opportunities that exist right now.

“The newer players are stepping into what they view as a treasure house of resources,” said Anne-Marie Brady, a scholar at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury who specializes in Antarctic politics. [Continue reading…]


New human species may rewrite history

New Scientist reports: We may have lived alongside an archaic human species just 10,500 years ago in China. Controversial bone discoveries suggest we even interbred with and cannibalised these mystery hominins.

Some think the findings could overturn our understanding of what it means to be human. “If true, this would be rather spectacular and it would make the finds of truly global importance,” says Michael Petraglia at the University of Oxford, who wasn’t involved in the discoveries.

One of the most exciting finds is a hominin femur found in Muladong cave in south-west China, alongside other human and animal bones. It shows evidence of having been burned in a fire that was used for cooking other meat, and has marks consistent with it being butchered. It has also been broken in a way that is used to access bone marrow. Unusually, it has been painted with a red clay called ochre, associated with burial rituals (PLoS One,

Things got more interesting when the team tried to identify the bone. “Our work shows clearly that the femur resembles archaic humans,” says Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, who led the team behind the discoveries. Yet the sediment the bone was found in dates to just 14,000 years ago. This would make it the most recent human species to go extinct. [Continue reading…]


Music: Rostam Mirlashari — ‘Laila O Laila’


Middle East still rocking from First World War pacts made 100 years ago


Ian Black writes: In an idle moment between cocktail parties in the Arab capital where they served, a British and French diplomat were chatting recently about their respective countries’ legacies in the Middle East: why not commemorate them with a new rock band? And they could call it Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration.

It was just a joke. These first world war agreements cooked up in London and Paris in the dying days of the Ottoman empire paved the way for new Arab nation states, the creation of Israel and the continuing plight of the Palestinians. And if their memory has faded in the west as their centenaries approach, they are still widely blamed for the problems of the region at an unusually violent and troubled time.

“This is history that the Arab peoples will never forget because they see it as directly relevant to problems they face today,” argues Oxford University’s Eugene Rogan, author of several influential works on modern Middle Eastern history.

In 2014, when Islamic State fighters broke through the desert border between Iraq and Syria – flying black flags on their captured US-made Humvees – and announced the creation of a transnational caliphate, they triumphantly pronounced the death of Sykes-Picot. That gave a half-forgotten and much-misrepresented colonial-era deal a starring role in their propaganda war – and a new lease of life on Twitter. [Continue reading…]


Americans living in a fantasy world


Americans are famously ignorant about global geography. While many are apologetic about this deficit, it often gets waved off as a cultural gap that doesn’t really need filling — a bit like learning the metric system: useful in theory but something that most people are quite content to live without.

One of the latest widely cited examples speaks to the fact when it comes to acquiring knowledge about the world, the tutor that too many Americans rely on is Hollywood.

An editorial in Abu Dhabi’s The National (the English-language newspaper from the Gulf that mustn’t be called Persian) says:

A week of international ridicule over a poll that found about 30 per cent of Republican voters supported military aggression against the fictional Arab city of Agrabah has not sent the story away on a magic carpet. In a new poll conducted by WPA research, 44 per cent of Democratic voters questioned would support the United States taking in refugees from Agrabah, a made-up location from Disney’s Aladdin. Roughly 28 per cent said they were indifferent.

The latest poll sheds additional light on the mainstream American sentiment about the Middle East. It is clear that ignorance about the geography and people of the region extends across party lines.

It doesn’t just cut across party lines; it also unites some experts with those who naively view them as being reliably informed.

For instance, in an article on Clausewitz and ISIS that I posted here recently, David Johnson, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, was quoted, saying:

If you go to Istanbul and look south the Caliphate is right there. You can point to it. It’s a state that views us as an enemy. What’s the mystery?

Before joining RAND, Johnson had a 24-year U.S. Army career “in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Korea, and Europe,” so maybe he never went to Istanbul. If he had, he should have known that if you look south you will see the Sea of Marmara and beyond that, the southern half of the Marmara region of Turkey.

The territory under ISIS’s control is nowhere near in sight, being hundreds of miles off to the east-southeast, beyond Turkey’s borders in Syria and Iraq.

Call this an instance of matter-of-fact ignorance — which might be seen as an American specialty.

Ignorance is not a crime. Indeed, nothing is more important than recognizing the limits of ones knowledge if that knowledge is to be advanced. The worst mistake, however, is to imagine one knows (or be willing to pretend one knows) what one does not.

That is what leads to ill-conceived pronouncements on the fate of Agrabah and its imaginary residents.

Just imagine how much less raucous the internet would be (or how many more don’t knows pollsters would count) if everyone applied a bit more caution and discipline in differentiating between the known and the unknown, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and in acknowledging that what they may have chosen to repeat is merely hearsay.


As U.S. focuses on ISIS and the Taliban, Al Qaeda re-emerges

The New York Times reports: Even as the Obama administration scrambles to confront the Islamic State and a resurgent Taliban, an old enemy seems to be reappearing in Afghanistan: Qaeda training camps are sprouting up there, forcing the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies to assess whether they could again become a breeding ground for attacks on the United States.

Most of the handful of camps are not as big as those that Osama bin Laden built before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But had they re-emerged several years ago, they would have rocketed to the top of potential threats presented to President Obama in his daily intelligence briefing. Now, they are just one of many — and perhaps, American officials say, not even the most urgent on the Pentagon’s list in Afghanistan.

The scope of Al Qaeda’s deadly resilience in Afghanistan appears to have caught American and Afghan officials by surprise. Until this fall, American officials had largely focused on targeting the last remaining senior Qaeda leaders hiding along Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous border with Pakistan.

At least in public, the administration has said little about the new challenge or its strategy for confronting the threat from Al Qaeda, even as it rushes to help the Afghan government confront what has been viewed as the more imminent threat, the surge in violent attacks from the Taliban, the Haqqani network and a new offshoot of the Islamic State. Former administration officials have been more outspoken — especially those who were on the front lines of the original battle to destroy Al Qaeda’s central leadership. [Continue reading…]