Archives for August 2016

The disastrous nonintervention in Syria

Three years after President Obama erased his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Anne Applebaum writes: Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too. Three years on, we do know, after all, exactly what nonintervention has produced:

Deaths. Estimates of war casualties range from about 155,000 to 400,000, depending on who is counted. This month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had registered a total of 14,711 dead children. Since the Islamic State created its caliphate in Syria, an estimated 2,350 civilians have been executed by the group. Life expectancy in Syria has dropped from almost 80 to 55.

Refugees. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees as of Aug. 16. There are thought to be an additional 2 million refugees who remain inside Syria but are displaced from their homes. Three-quarters of those who have fled their homes are women and children. Most own nothing except what they are wearing. To give some perspective, the refugee crisis caused by the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s produced 2.3 million refugees, a number then considered to be the worst refugee crisis since the 1940s. The Syrian crisis is three times larger. [Continue reading…]

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UN says 10,000 killed in Yemen war, far more than other estimates

Reuters reports: At least 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen’s 18-month-old civil war, the United Nations on Tuesday, approaching double the estimates of more than 6,000 cited by officials and aid workers for much of 2016.

The war pits the Iran-allied Houthi group and supporters of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is supported by an alliance of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.

The new toll is based on official information from medical facilities in Yemen, U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Jamie McGoldrick told a news conference in the capital Sanaa. It might rise as some areas had no medical facilities, and people were often buried without official records.

The United Nations human rights office said last week that 3,799 civilians have been killed in the conflict, with air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition responsible for some 60 percent of deaths. [Continue reading…]

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Forget ideology, liberal democracy’s newest threats come from technology and bioscience

John Naughton writes: The BBC Reith Lectures in 1967 were given by Edmund Leach, a Cambridge social anthropologist. “Men have become like gods,” Leach began. “Isn’t it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid.”

That was nearly half a century ago, and yet Leach’s opening lines could easily apply to today. He was speaking before the internet had been built and long before the human genome had been decoded, and so his claim about men becoming “like gods” seems relatively modest compared with the capabilities that molecular biology and computing have subsequently bestowed upon us. Our science-based culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, exploring, developing and growing. But in recent times it seems to have also become plagued with existential angst as the implications of human ingenuity begin to be (dimly) glimpsed.

The title that Leach chose for his Reith Lecture – A Runaway World – captures our zeitgeist too. At any rate, we are also increasingly fretful about a world that seems to be running out of control, largely (but not solely) because of information technology and what the life sciences are making possible. But we seek consolation in the thought that “it was always thus”: people felt alarmed about steam in George Eliot’s time and got worked up about electricity, the telegraph and the telephone as they arrived on the scene. The reassuring implication is that we weathered those technological storms, and so we will weather this one too. Humankind will muddle through.

But in the last five years or so even that cautious, pragmatic optimism has begun to erode. There are several reasons for this loss of confidence. One is the sheer vertiginous pace of technological change. Another is that the new forces at loose in our society – particularly information technology and the life sciences – are potentially more far-reaching in their implications than steam or electricity ever were. And, thirdly, we have begun to see startling advances in these fields that have forced us to recalibrate our expectations.[Continue reading…]

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The twilight of Fox News

The Atlantic reports: October 7, 2016, will be the 20th birthday of the Fox News Channel, and at the moment, the network is experiencing the soap-operatic highs and lows typical of any teenager on television. In many ways, the summer of 2016 may go down in Fox News history as the company’s nadir. Its founder and leader Roger Ailes has been dishonorably dispatched, the remaining executives are dealing with a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, and one of its most public faces, Sean Hannity, has ignominiously remodeled himself as a gutless Trump whisperer.

And yet Fox News’ fortunes are ascendant, at least in the most quantifiable sense. The network’s annual profit in 2015 soared by about 20 percent. For the first time ever, Fox News has been the most-watched cable network among both primetime and daytime viewers for several months, with a larger audience than its nominal rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined. Led by “The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News doesn’t just have the best-rated news show on cable television; according to The Wrap, it has the 13 best-rated news shows on cable television.

With Ailes out, the future of the network is in the hands of the younger Murdochs, who take the helm of a network that seems to be both drowning and soaring, at a time when television audiences are fleeing the big screen of the living room for other devices. The dilemma: Does Fox change course to attract a broader audience in a period of fragmented viewership, or rededicate itself to the formula of hyperpartisan infotainment that made it the reigning emperor of cable? [Continue reading…]

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Why I go to Aleppo

Samer Attar writes: The hospital where I work in Aleppo, Syria, is in a basement. The building above has been bombarded so many times that the top floors are too dangerous to use. Barrels and sandbags line the entrance to fortify it as a bunker.

Aleppo is a long way from my home in Chicago. That city, too, has its share of human suffering. Any Chicago surgeon who takes emergency duty can attest to the gun violence that plagues local communities. But the hospital where I work has state-of-the-art resources and some of the best doctors and nurses in the world. Scalpels are sharp, operating rooms are sterile, and specialists are abundant.

Aleppo, too, has some of the best doctors and nurses in the world, but there are so few left. They are exhausted, endangered, and they need help. That is why I volunteer for medical work in Syria; even the few weeks a year that I can offer provide some respite for the handful of surgeons who serve a population of 300,000 in a war zone. It is a heavy responsibility, but I feel I cannot ask world leaders to risk their citizens’ lives to save people there if I myself am unwilling to take such risks. [Continue reading…]

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A revolution is not a dinner party

Meredith Tax writes: In the 20th century, it was clear what people meant when they used the word “revolution”. Mao Zedong said it as well as anyone: “A revolution is not a dinner party…it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another”.

The founders of Turkey’s PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) had this definition in mind in 1978 when they laid out a strategy of people’s war leading to an independent Kurdish state. They initially focused on “propaganda of the deed” and military training, building what eventually became an extremely capable force, as ISIS discovered in Syria. But their vision of revolution expanded enormously during the nineties, when a civil resistance movement called the Serhildan took off in the Kurdish areas of Turkey, along with efforts to build a parliamentary party that could combine electoral and advocacy work.

This wasn’t easy since every time the Kurds founded a parliamentary party and ran people for office, the Turkish state made their party illegal — this happened in 1993, 1994, 2003, and 2009 and is now happening to the HDP (Peoples Democratic Party), despite (or because of) the fact that it won 13.1% of the national vote in the parliamentary election of May 2015. Erdogan’s response to this election was to call another election, and at the same time begin an all out military assault on Kurdish cities in southeastern Turkey, where civilians were subjected to bombardment, depopulation, and massive war crimes, their homes and neighborhoods destroyed. This was in the name of fighting PKK terrorism.

In fact, the PKK rejected terrorism over twenty years ago, at their Fifth Congress in 1995, when they publicly swore to abide by the Geneva Convention and laws of war, disallowing crimes against civilians while maintaining the right of armed self-defense against the Turkish government. At the same Congress, they founded a separate women’s army to build women’s capacity for leadership in the struggle. Co-mayor of Diyarbakir Gültan Kişanak talked about the way the PKK transformed itself in a recent interview, saying that in the early days the perspective was to make a revolution first and then do something about women, but that changed in the nineties because of the influence of the international movement for women’s rights:

Within this new environment, women began to assume important roles and created their own separate branches, not just following what the general political movement says, but also creating alternative policies, which the party must follow…. These changes were not easy and the rights were not just given by men: Kurdish women have fought at all levels and achieved these changes despite barriers within patriarchal society and despite the resistance of some of our male comrades.

The Rojava Kurds follow the same political philosophy as those in the Turkish movement. Thus, despite the newness of Rojava, which became autonomous in 2012, the movement there draws on forty years of accumulated political experience, the last twenty of which have emphasized the development of local democracy, community organizing, and women’s leadership. [Continue reading…]

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Iran deploys S-300 air defense around nuclear site

The Associated Press reports: Iran has deployed a Russian-made S-300 air defense system around its underground Fordo nuclear facility, state TV reported.

Video footage posted late Sunday on state TV’s website showed trucks arriving at the site and missile launchers being aimed skyward. It did not say whether the system was fully operational.

Gen. Farzad Esmaili, Iran’s head of air defense, declined to comment on the report in an interview with another website affiliated with state news. “Maybe if you go to Fordo now, the system is not there,” he was quoted as saying Monday. He added that the S-300 is a mobile system that should be relocated often.

Russia began delivering the S-300 system to Iran earlier this year under a contract signed in 2007. The delivery had been held up by international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, which were lifted this year under an agreement with world powers. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Iran said on Sunday that a person close to the government team that negotiated its nuclear agreement with foreign powers had been arrested on accusations of espionage and released on bail.

The disclosure, reported in the state news media, appeared to be the latest sign of the Iranian leadership’s frustration over the agreement, which has failed so far to yield the significant economic benefits for the country that its advocates had promised. Iranian officials have blamed the United States for that problem.

Despite the relaxations of many sanctions under the accord, which took effect in January, Iran faces enormous obstacles in attracting new investments and moving its own money through the global financial system.

The Iranians are still blocked from using American banks, an important transit point for international capital, because of non-nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Days of rage

Kenan Malik writes: In the past, the distinction between political violence and sociopathic rage was relatively clear. No longer. There seems today almost a continuum between ideological violence, disjointed fury and some degree of sociopathy or mental illness. What constitutes ideological violence has decayed; instead, amorphous rage has become a persistent feature of public life.

One reason is the breakdown of social and moral boundaries that once acted as firewalls against such behavior. Western societies have become more socially atomized and more riven by identity politics. The influence of institutions from the church to labor unions that once helped socialize individuals and inculcate them with a sense of obligation to others has declined.

As broader identities have eroded, and traditional social networks and sources of authority have weakened, people’s sense of belonging has become more parochial. Progressive movements that gave social grievance a political form have faded. Instead, the new oppositional movements are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity and take sectarian or separatist forms.

There is a growing disaffection with anything “mainstream,” and a perception of the world as out of control and driven by malign forces. All this has helped incubate a sense of rage without an outlet, undermined people’s ties to others as human beings, and weakened the distinction between sociopathy and political violence. [Continue reading…]

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How victims of terror are remembered distorts perceptions of safety

By Richard Lachmann, University at Albany, State University of New York

Are Americans safe from terrorism?

Forty-nine dead in Orlando, five in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge in 2016. Twelve dead in San Bernardino, three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and nine at a church in Charleston in 2015.

In addition, Americans watched ample news coverage of the attacks in Nice and Brussels in 2016, and two far more deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Jihadist attacks are up dramatically in Europe, from four in 2014 to 17 in 2015. And, there are even more frequent deaths from terrorism elsewhere in the world, which usually receive less intense coverage in the U.S.

From 2002 through 2015, 80 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks. The 57 killed in 2016 almost equals the total of the previous 13 years. The totality of attacks worldwide can give Americans the impression that they are in escalating danger. An evolution in the way we remember the war dead since Vietnam may be one reason these deaths take up so much space in the public imagination.

In comparison to overall murders and auto accident fatalities, the deaths from terrorism are less significant. In 2013, the most recent year for which there are comprehensive statistics from the FBI, 13,716 Americans were murdered, the equivalent of an Orlando massacre every 32 hours.

In 2014, 32,675 Americans died in car accidents. In other words, the 57 Americans who died in terrorist attacks in 2016 were equal to 0.42 percent of all murders and 0.17 percent of all traffic deaths.

Why do the terrorist attacks get so much media coverage? Why is fear of terrorism a major issue in the current election? A Pew Research Center poll shows 80 percent of Americans see terrorism as “very important” to their vote this year, second only to the economy at 84 percent.

[Read more…]

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The secret U.S. prisons you’ve never heard of before

 

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It is not what you believe, but what you do that matters

Steven Nadler writes: In July 1656, the 23-year-old Bento de Spinoza was excommunicated from the Portuguese-Jewish congregation of Amsterdam. It was the harshest punishment of herem (ban) ever issued by that community. The extant document, a lengthy and vitriolic diatribe, refers to the young man’s ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. The leaders of the community, having consulted with the rabbis and using Spinoza’s Hebrew name, proclaim that they hereby ‘expel, excommunicate, curse, and damn Baruch de Spinoza’. He is to be ‘cast out from all the tribes of Israel’ and his name is to be ‘blotted out from under heaven’.

Over the centuries, there have been periodic calls for the herem against Spinoza to be lifted. Even David Ben-Gurion, when he was prime minister of Israel, issued a public plea for ‘amending the injustice’ done to Spinoza by the Amsterdam Portuguese community. It was not until early 2012, however, that the Amsterdam congregation, at the insistence of one of its members, formally took up the question of whether it was time to rehabilitate Spinoza and welcome him back into the congregation that had expelled him with such prejudice. There was, though, one thing that they needed to know: should we still regard Spinoza as a heretic?

Unfortunately, the herem document fails to mention specifically what Spinoza’s offences were – at the time he had not yet written anything – and so there is a mystery surrounding this seminal event in the future philosopher’s life. And yet, for anyone who is familiar with Spinoza’s mature philosophical ideas, which he began putting in writing a few years after the excommunication, there really is no such mystery. By the standards of early modern rabbinic Judaism – and especially among the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam, many of whom were descendants of converso refugees from the Iberian Inquisitions and who were still struggling to build a proper Jewish community on the banks of the Amstel River – Spinoza was a heretic, and a dangerous one at that.

What is remarkable is how popular this heretic remains nearly three and a half centuries after his death, and not just among scholars. Spinoza’s contemporaries, René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz, made enormously important and influential contributions to the rise of modern philosophy and science, but you won’t find many committed Cartesians or Leibnizians around today. The Spinozists, however, walk among us. They are non-academic devotees who form Spinoza societies and study groups, who gather to read him in public libraries and in synagogues and Jewish community centres. Hundreds of people, of various political and religious persuasions, will turn out for a day of lectures on Spinoza, whether or not they have ever read him. There have been novels, poems, sculptures, paintings, even plays and operas devoted to Spinoza. This is all a very good thing.

It is also a very curious thing. Why should a 17th-century Portuguese-Jewish philosopher whose dense and opaque writings are notoriously difficult to understand incite such passionate devotion, even obsession, among a lay audience in the 21st century? Part of the answer is the drama and mystery at the centre of his life: why exactly was Spinoza so harshly punished by the community that raised and nurtured him? Just as significant, I suspect, is that everyone loves an iconoclast – especially a radical and fearless one that suffered persecution in his lifetime for ideas and values that are still so important to us today. Spinoza is a model of intellectual courage. Like a prophet, he took on the powers-that-be with an unflinching honesty that revealed ugly truths about his fellow citizens and their society. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Refraction — ‘Musalette’

 

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Fight for Syria’s Aleppo exposes limits of Russian air power

Reuters reports: Russia’s politically-sensitive and ultimately fruitless decision to launch bombing missions on Syria from Iranian soil has exposed the limits to its air power, leaving Moscow in need of a new strategy to advance its aims.

People familiar with Russia’s military said Moscow opted for the sorties from Iran – and Tehran agreed to allow them – because they were struggling to achieve their aim of crushing rebels in the city of Aleppo.

The gamble failed and rebels fighting their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Aasad, remain ensconced in parts of Aleppo.

Russia began air strikes on Syria in support of Assad on Sept. 30 last year, launched from bases in government-held territory and from warships. Then this month, facing logistical problems in mounting an expensive campaign at a time of tight state finances, it intensified the bombing of Aleppo in what turned out to be a brief series of raids from Iran.

The strikes on the Aleppo rebels seem to have achieved little beyond stirring a political row in Iran, whose constitution forbids the establishment of any kind of foreign military base.

The fact that Russia went to such lengths to achieve its aims in Aleppo and still failed could strengthen the hand of those in Moscow who believe the operation in Syria has reached a watershed, and that it is time to seek a negotiated solution. [Continue reading…]

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‘Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s’

The New York Times reports: The rebel fighter, a former major in the Syrian Army, thought he had finally found what he was looking for: a group with strong international backing that was gearing up for an offensive against his two most hated enemies, the Syrian government and the Islamic State militant group.

But within days of crossing into Syria, backed by Turkish planes, tanks and special forces troops and American warplanes, the fighter, Saadeddine Somaa, found himself fighting Kurdish militias that, like him, counted the Islamic State and the government of President Bashar al-Assad among their foes.

That was because the Turks, who supplied the weapons and the cash, were calling the shots, and they considered the Kurds enemy No. 1. The Kurds, for their part, consider Turkey an enemy, and so as the Turkish-led troops advanced, the Kurdish militias attacked.

For all the hope the new offensive had inspired in Mr. Somaa and other Syrian insurgents, it showed once again how even rebels fighting against the Islamic State and Mr. Assad — both targets for defeat under stated American policy — remain dependent on backers who only partly share their goals.

“Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s,” he said in a long telephone interview from Jarabulus, the border town the Turkish-led force took from Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL, on the first day of the offensive. “The problem is the same everywhere in Syria.” [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The U.S. on Monday urged Turkish troops and Kurdish forces in northern Syria to halt their fighting, saying it hinders efforts to defeat the Islamic State group. But Turkey’s president vowed to press ahead with the military operation until the IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer pose a security threat to Ankara.

It was the first U.S. criticism of its NATO ally since it launched a U.S.-backed incursion into northern Syria to help Syrian rebels seize the town of Jarablus from the Islamic State group. They have been clashing with Kurdish Syrian forces around the town to try to halt their advance.

The battle now pits Turkey against the Kurdish-led force known as the Syria Democratic Forces— a U.S.-backed proxy that is the most effective ground force battling IS militants in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war. It puts Washington in the difficult spot of having to choose between two allies, and it is likely to divert resources from the fight against IS. [Continue reading…]

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Men who blame women for men’s failings

Olivia Nuzzi writes: If you were a presidential candidate who polled low among women, who was on your third wife, who had a reputation for womanizing and a professional relationship with a man who’d recently been axed from his job for sexual harassment, would you respond to the latest Anthony Weiner scandal by A. Staying out of it; B. Changing the subject; or C. Attacking your opponent by making a dubious connection between Weiner’s behavior and her own?

If you chose C, congratulations: This election has officially warped your sense of good judgment.

Donald Trump is blaming Hillary Clinton for the actions of her aide’s husband, bringing into focus his fraught relationship with the female sex and his history of marital infidelity—not to mention his own adviser with a “perv” problem, to adopt the language of the New York tabloids.

Trump’s argument is a good peek into his psyche, where a man can be absolved of wrongdoing so long as there’s a woman around to carry the blame. It’s also an example of why, thus far, his campaign against Clinton has been unsuccessful: First, because he’s accused her of anything and everything, regardless of its basis in reality (he claimed she founded ISIS before asserting it about President Obama), and rather than turn people against her, it’s had the effect of watering down her actual flaws. Second, because he lacks the self-awareness and political know-how to understand when he might be pushing away the voters he needs the most. [Continue reading…]

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Russian hackers targeted Arizona election system

The Washington Post reports: Hackers targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona, and the FBI alerted Arizona officials in June that Russians were behind the assault on the election system in that state.

The bureau described the threat as “credible” and significant, “an eight on a scale of one to 10,” Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan (R), said Monday. As a result, Reagan shut down the state’s voter registration system for nearly a week.

It turned out that the hackers had not compromised the state system or even any county system. They had, however, stolen the username and password of a single election official in Gila County.

Roberts said FBI investigators did not specify whether the hackers were criminals or employed by the Russian government. Bureau officials on Monday declined to comment, except to say that they routinely advise private industry of cyberthreats detected in investigations. [Continue reading…]

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Russia-backed DNC hackers strike Washington think tanks

Defense One reports: Last week, one of the Russia-backed hacker groups that attacked Democratic computer networks also attacked several Russia-focused think tanks in Washington, D.C., Defense One has learned.

The perpetrator is the group called COZY BEAR, or APT29, one of the two groups that cybersecurity company CrowdStrike blamed for the DNC hack, according to founder Dmitri Alperovitch. CrowdStrike discovered the attack on the DNC and provides security for the think tanks.

Alperovitch said fewer than five organizations and 10 staffers researching Russia were hit by the “highly targeted operation.” He declined to detail which think tanks and researchers were hit, out of concern for his clients’ interests and to avoid revealing tools and techniques or other data to hackers. CrowdStrike alerted the organizations immediately after the company detected the breaches and intruders were unable to exfiltrate any information, Alperovitch said.

Defense One reached out to several think tanks with programs in Russian research, one of which was the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS. “Last week we were under attack, but our small staff was very responsive. Beyond that, I’m not going to discuss the details because it is under active investigation,” the H. Andrew Schwartz, CSIS Senior Vice President for External Relations, said in an email. [Continue reading…]

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UN pays tens of millions to Assad regime under Syria aid programme

The Guardian reports: The UN has awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, as part of an aid programme that critics fear is increasingly at the whim of the government in Damascus, a Guardian investigation has found.

Businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions have been paid substantial sums by the UN mission, as have government departments and charities – including one set up by the president’s wife, Asma al-Assad, and another by his closest associate, Rami Makhlouf.

The UN says it can only work with a small number of partners approved by President Assad and that it does all it can to ensure the money is spent properly.

“Of paramount importance is reaching as many vulnerable civilians as possible,” a spokesman said. “Our choices in Syria are limited by a highly insecure context where finding companies and partners who operate in besieged and hard to reach areas is extremely challenging.”

However, critics believe the UN mission is in danger of being compromised.

They believe aid is being prioritised in government-held areas and argue UN money is effectively helping to prop up a regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. [Continue reading…]

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