Archives for November 2016

Aleppo’s ‘descent into hell’ as the world looks on, impotently

In an editorial, The Guardian says: Exhausted parents clutching terrified children in their arms, young people pushing the old in makeshift carts or wheelchairs and families pulling overstuffed suitcases: the scenes from east Aleppo are those of a new exodus. As Syrian government forces move on the last urban stronghold of the anti-Assad opposition, helped by Shia militias from Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, hundreds of men have been rounded up and disappeared. Their relatives, as well as human rights activists, fear they may already be dead, or have become victims of Assad’s network of jails and torture centres where thousands have been murdered.

The Syrian and Russian onslaught has been going on for weeks. But now it is at a new intensity, as it approaches what may be the end game. A strategy of indiscriminate bombing, terror and destruction, the UN was told, threatens to turn this part of Syria’s second city into a giant graveyard. Syrian army leaflets dropped on the city warn the inhabitants that they must flee, or face annihilation.

Rebel-held Aleppo seems condemned to utter destruction and defeat. Posted on social media, citizens’ desperate messages resemble final pleas, all hope gone. A UN representative has described the situation as a “descent into hell”. US Department of State officials have made it clear that nothing much can be done; western countries have convened an emergency security council meeting, but beyond words of condemnation and warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe in the making – France has spoken of “what could be the biggest massacres of civilian population since the second world war” – the powerlessness of UN institutions is obvious. In London, at prime minister’s questions, the SNP’s Angus Robertson at least got the Syrian crisis into the discussion. Labour again passed by on the other side. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Syria and its allies aim to drive rebels from Aleppo before Donald Trump takes office as U.S. President, a senior official in the pro-Damascus military alliance said, as pro-government forces surged to their biggest victories in the city for years.

Rebels face one of their gravest moments of the war after pro-government forces routed fighters over the past few days from more than a third of the territory they controlled in the city. Thousands of civilians have fled for safety.

The pro-government official, who declined to be identified in order to speak freely, nevertheless indicated that the next phase of the campaign could be more difficult as the army and its allies seek to capture more densely populated areas.

Rebel fighters fought fiercely to stop government forces advancing deeper into the opposition-held enclave on Tuesday, confronting pro-Assad militias who sought to move into the area from the southeast, a rebel official said.

The attack on eastern Aleppo threatens to snuff out the most important urban center of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, who has been firmly on the offensive for more than a year thanks to Russian and Iranian military support. [Continue reading…]

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Aleppo families fear for 500 men seized by forces loyal to Assad

The Guardian reports: Residents of east Aleppo have said they hold grave fears for as many as 500 men who were seized by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad as they overran opposition strongholds in the city.

Three families contacted by the Guardian said there had been no word from their sons and nephews who had been arrested in the Masakan Hanano district, which fell on Sunday to Iraqi and Lebanese militias within hours of the biggest ground offensive of the war being launched.

“They took my nephew and my uncle, one was 22 and the other 61,” said one man who fled Masakan Hanano. “I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.”

Recaptured neighbourhoods were handed over to the Syrian military, which detained the men across northern Aleppo. After capitulating as the pro-Assad forces arrived, rebel groups were frantically trying to defend what remained of their heartland in east Aleppo, a broken and twisted corner of Syria’s second city that has come to define their plight nationwide. [Continue reading…]

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Frightened by Donald Trump? You don’t know the half of it

George Monbiot writes: Yes, Donald Trump’s politics are incoherent. But those who surround him know just what they want, and his lack of clarity enhances their power. To understand what is coming, we need to understand who they are. I know all too well, because I have spent the past 15 years fighting them.

Over this time, I have watched as tobacco, coal, oil, chemicals and biotech companies have poured billions of dollars into an international misinformation machine composed of thinktanks, bloggers and fake citizens’ groups. Its purpose is to portray the interests of billionaires as the interests of the common people, to wage war against trade unions and beat down attempts to regulate business and tax the very rich. Now the people who helped run this machine are shaping the government.

I first encountered the machine when writing about climate change. The fury and loathing directed at climate scientists and campaigners seemed incomprehensible until I realised they were fake: the hatred had been paid for. The bloggers and institutes whipping up this anger were funded by oil and coal companies.

Among those I clashed with was Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). The CEI calls itself a thinktank, but looks to me like a corporate lobbying group. It is not transparent about its funding, but we now know it has received $2m from ExxonMobil, more than $4m from a group called the Donors Trust (which represents various corporations and billionaires), $800,000 from groups set up by the tycoons Charles and David Koch, and substantial sums from coal, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s coming witch hunt against political Islam

Eli Lake writes: On the day after Donald Trump won the election, one of his campaign’s advisers and endorsers made a prediction. “You are going to see a purging,” retired Lt. General Jerry Boykin told Frank Gaffney on his “Secure Freedom Radio” podcast. Boykin predicted that Trump as president would purge “people inside the government that are known to have connections to the Muslim Brotherhood and its front groups and its entities here in America.”

This kind of comment is expected from Boykin, one of the founders of the Army’s elite Delta Force. When he served in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon during George W. Bush’s administration, he boasted that his God was mightier than the one worshiped by Muslim terrorists. Since retiring from the Army, Boykin has been a leader of a movement fighting against what it calls a civilization jihad, a network of Muslim ideologues trying to take over American society.

Until now, this movement was largely ignored by elites in the Republican and Democratic parties. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have gone to great lengths to distinguish between Muslims who commit violence in the name of Islam and Muslims who seek to impose Islamic rule on secular societies through elections and free debate. In Iraq, Bush embraced Sunni and Shiite leaders from Islamist parties. Obama went further. His government eliminated terms like “jihad” and “radical Islam” from official FBI and Homeland Security documents. In his first term, Obama explored a deeper relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood abroad in places like Egypt and Turkey. [Continue reading…]

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Goldman Sachs poised for return to power in Trump White House

Politico reports: Government Sachs is returning to Washington.

After a decade in the wilderness, Wall Street’s most powerful firm, Goldman Sachs, is dominating the early days of the incoming Trump administration. The newly picked Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, spent 17 years at Goldman. Trump’s top incoming White House adviser, Steve Bannon, spent his early career at the bank. So did Anthony Scaramucci, one of Trump’s top transition advisers.

Goldman’s president, Gary Cohn, spent an hour schmoozing with President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday and could be up for an administration job, possibly as director of the Office of Management and Budget, people close to Cohn and the transition said. Cohn, a long-time commodities trader, is friendly with Trump’s powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

It’s a stunning reversal of fortune for Goldman, a long-time Washington power that fell out of favor following the financial crisis. CEO Lloyd Blankfein got hauled before Congress along with other Wall Street executives to account for their behavior. And Trump, who ran as a populist and bashed Wall Street on the campaign trail, featured Blankfein as a shady and dangerous character in his final campaign ad.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi famously labeled Goldman the “great Vampire Squid” on the face of America.

Had Hillary Clinton won the White House, Goldman faced a virtual lock-out from Washington with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders poised to block and major picks from the bank or any other firm on Wall Street. [Continue reading…]

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Just one Trump transition aide dealing with CIA and 16 other agencies in the intelligence community

Reuters reports: Only one member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is dealing with the CIA and the 16 other offices and agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, four U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Geoffrey Kahn, a former House intelligence committee staffer, is the only person named so far to Trump’s intelligence community “landing team,” they said. As a result, said one senior career intelligence officer, briefing books prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the National Counterterrorism Center, and 13 other agencies and organizations are “waiting for someone to read them.” “It seems like an odd time to put issues like cyber security and international terrorism on the back burner,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Previous administrations, the official said, were quicker to staff their intelligence teams, in part because they considered intelligence issues critical to setting foreign policy, defense and budget priorities.

The intelligence community has some 200,000 employees and contractors and an annual budget of more than $70 billion. It collects and analyzes information on a vast array of subjects, from national security threats such as terrorism and climate change to global conflicts and the foreign, defense and trade policies of foreign governments.

Kahn has been in periodic contact with the CIA, said two of the officials, adding that they did not know if he had been in touch with the other intelligence agencies. [Continue reading…]

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WTF just happened? Lessons from 2016’s bizarre presidential election

David Roberts writes: It’s been almost three weeks now. The news cycle has moved on. But I, for one, have not fully processed the news that Donald J. Trump is going to be president.

Those words still sound like nonsense to me. I can’t shake the sense of surreality. And I know I’m not alone.

Before we’re entirely swept up in the Trump Outrage of the Day, I want to at least pause, take stock, and attempt to answer a simple question: What the fuck just happened?

To begin, I should acknowledge just how wrong I was about this election. I never once questioned my confident prediction that Donald Trump would never become president. “Just because Trump makes no sense doesn’t mean common sense has become worthless,” I wrote after Trump won some early primaries. “One black swan does not foretell a flock of black swans.” (Yeah. About that.)

I was overconfident, even more so than most in media. US political and media institutions were just as unprepared for this result as UK elites were for the Brexit vote — but at least UK elites hadn’t already witnessed the Brexit vote. Almost no one really thought it could happen here, even after we watched it happen there. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Les Hommes — ‘Touched By The Hand Of Tenorio’

 

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François Fillon and France’s lurch towards Russia

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil writes: François Fillon has just won the French conservative primaries by a huge margin. Now, he will be trying to capitalise on the momentum he has gained from his win to deliver the result he wants in the upcoming presidential election. And with his foreign policy option, this presidential vote will pose a formidable challenge to Europe’s unity. Fillon’s views on Russia, in particular, fly in the face of the current European consensus. But neither foreign policy nor Europe are at the centre of the campaign, and domestic issues are much more likely to prevail when French voters make their choice in the spring of next year.

Fillon, a former prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, made his position on Russia clear long before the primary campaign even began, and he has stuck to it ever since. He believes French policy has been too aligned with the US, whether on Ukraine or the Middle East – in spite of the countries’ significant differences in opinion on these issues. And that, with ISIS and Islamism being the top security priorities for France following the terror attacks since January 2015, an alliance with Vladimir Putin’s Russia is badly needed, even at the price of conflating ISIS and other terrorist groups with any other forces fighting against the Assad government.

Worryingly, he calls not only for the ‘re-establishment’ of a political dialogue with Russia – a dialogue that was actually never interrupted – but also for the EU to lift all sanctions against Russia, including those adopted as a consequence of the forceful and unlawful Russian annexation of Crimea.

The French public’s opinion on the Russia question differs from Fillon’s. The majority have no confidence in Vladimir Putin and support maintaining economic sanctions against Russia on the Ukraine issue. Fillon’s critics add that, rather ironically, his desired relationship with Russia mirrors the alleged alignment with the US that he has attacked so fervently.

If both Fillon and the Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, reach the second round of the presidential election, a rapprochement with Putin’s Russia will become the order of the day for French foreign policy. At the moment it seems that a majority of presidential candidates will run on a pro-Russia or at least anti-sanctions platform. [Continue reading…]

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Russia has been in contact with Trump team over Syria, senior diplomat says

The Washington Post reports: Russia has been in contact over Syria with the team of President-elect Donald Trump, a senior Russian diplomat said Wednesday, suggesting that Moscow is already looking past the current administration when it comes to the crisis in Syria.

Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying that Russia had been in contact with “several people that we have known for a long time.”

Bogdanov, who is President Vladi­mir Putin’s special representative for the Middle East and Africa, declined to name specific Trump team members, adding only that Moscow hoped the relations with Washington over Syria would improve under the new administration.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was unable “to confirm information about contacts” between Russia and Trump’s team. “As far as we know, the new team of the president-elect has yet to be formed,” Peskov said. He added that negotiations about Syria and other conflict areas “are continuing with our partners of the current administration of the U.S. president.” [Continue reading…]

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Making Twitter secure for Trump is more difficult than modifying a Blackberry for Obama

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It was a rough day at the NSA when President Trump asked for his Twitter account to be made secure.

“It just really bothered a lot of people — nobody wanted to put anything out there that wasn’t completely secure,” said NSA technical director Richard “Dickie” George in an interview with CNNMoney.

George’s role was to review the president’s neural pathways and write and engineer diagrams for securing the commander in chief’s brain.

In response to Trump’s request, the NSA set up a lab where dozens of experts planned surgery for several months on a high-profile patient: the soon-to-be presidential Trump brain. The course of treatment was to manipulate the organ’s structure to weed out potential threats to secure communication.

The effort turned out to be fruitless. There would be only one possible solution, the NSA concluded: delete Trump’s Twitter account.

“This isn’t a flaw in the technology,” George said, “It’s a problem with the user: we can’t fix his brain.”

(As they say in Hollywood: based on a true story.)

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Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice as national security adviser, imagines China and North Korea have ties to jihadists

The New York Times reports: What if someone were to tell you that China and North Korea are allied with militant Islamists bent on imposing their religious ideology worldwide?

You might not agree. After all, China and North Korea are officially secular Communist states, and China has blamed religious extremists for violence in Muslim areas of its Xinjiang region.

But such an alliance is the framework through which retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the pick of President-elect Donald J. Trump for national security adviser, views the two East Asian countries. To the list of pro-jihadist anti-Western conspirators, General Flynn adds Russia, Cuba and Venezuela, among others. (Never mind that he has recently had close financial and lobbying relationships with conservative Russian and Turkish interests.)

By appointing General Flynn, Mr. Trump has signaled that he intends to prioritize policy on the Middle East and jihadist groups, though the Obama administration seems to have stressed to Mr. Trump the urgency of dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program. General Flynn is an outspoken critic of political Islam and has advocated a global campaign led by the United States against “radical Islam.” He once posted on Twitter that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”

General Flynn is about to take on what many consider the most important foreign policy job in the United States government. He is expected to coordinate policy-making agencies, manage competing voices and act as Mr. Trump’s main adviser, and perhaps arbiter, on foreign policy. [Continue reading…]

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How stable are democracies? ‘Warning signs are flashing red’

Amanda Taub writes: Yascha Mounk is used to being the most pessimistic person in the room. Mr. Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: that once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way.

His research suggests something quite different: that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline.

Mr. Mounk’s interest in the topic began rather unusually. In 2014, he published a book, “Stranger in My Own Country.” It started as a memoir of his experiences growing up as a Jew in Germany, but became a broader investigation of how contemporary European nations were struggling to construct new, multicultural national identities.

He concluded that the effort was not going very well. A populist backlash was rising. But was that just a new kind of politics, or a symptom of something deeper?

To answer that question, Mr. Mounk teamed up with Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. They have since gathered and crunched data on the strength of liberal democracies.

Their conclusion, to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, is that democracies are not as secure as people may think. Right now, Mr. Mounk said in an interview, “the warning signs are flashing red.” [Continue reading…]

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A national outbreak of hate inspired by Donald Trump’s victory

Southern Poverty Law Center reports: Just a week before the November 8th election, attackers set a church in Greenville, Mississippi, on fire. The historically black church was targeted in what authorities believe was an act of voter intimidation, its walls spray-painted with the phrase “Vote Trump.”

“This kind of attack happened in the 1950s and 1960s,” Greenville’s mayor said, “but it shouldn’t happen in 2016.”

The incident was just a harbinger of what has become a national outbreak of hate, as white supremacists celebrate Donald Trump’s victory.* In the ten days following the election, there were almost 900 reports of harassment and intimidation from across the nation. Many harassers invoked Trump’s name during assaults, making it clear that the outbreak of hate stemmed in large part from his electoral success.

People have experienced harassment at school, at work, at home, on the street, in public transportation, in their cars, in grocery stores and other places of business, and in their houses of worship. They most often have received messages of hate and intolerance through graffiti and verbal harassment, although a small number also have reported violent physical interactions. Some incidents were directed at the Trump campaign or his supporters.

Of course, hate crimes and lower-level incidents of racial or ethnically charged harassment have long been common in the United States. But the targets of post-election hate incidents report that they are experiencing something quite new.

“I have experienced discrimination in my life, but never in such a public and unashamed manner,” an Asian-American woman reported after a man told her to “go home” as she left an Oakland train station. Likewise, a black resident whose apartment was vandalized with the phrase “911 nigger” reported that he had “never witnessed anything like this.” A Los Angeles woman, who encountered a man who told her he was “Gonna beat [her] pussy,” stated that she was in this neighborhood “all the time and never experienced this type of language before.” Not far away in Sunnyvale, California, a transgender person reported being targeted with homophobic slurs at a bar where “I’ve been a regular customer for 3 years — never had any issues.” [Continue reading…]

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The coming war on ‘radical Islam’

Uri Friedman writes: Where Obama sees a weak enemy that is getting weaker, his critics see a strong enemy that is getting stronger. Where Obama sees limits to what the U.S. can do on its own to eradicate radical interpretations of Islam, his critics see an appalling lack of effort by the U.S. government. Where Obama sees a serious but manageable national-security threat, his critics see an ideological and civilizational challenge to the free world.

Trump has gone further than many other Republican leaders in advancing the counterargument to Obama — not just in his proposed policies, like banning or severely restricting Muslim immigration to the United States, but also in his rhetoric. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump said earlier this year. Asked if he was referring to “radical Islam,” he responded, “It’s radical, but it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”

Several members of Trump’s emerging team have described the threat in similarly stark and broad ways. “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture,” writes Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, in a book he published this summer with the conservative writer Michael Ledeen.

“I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us,” Flynn adds.

“Not all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are extremists or terrorists. Not by a long shot,” wrote Flynn’s incoming deputy, K.T. McFarland, in March. “But even if just 10 percent of 1 percent are radicalized, that’s a staggering 1.6 million people bent on destroying Western civilization and the values we hold dear. The fascists wanted to control the world. So did the communists. But the Islamists want to brutally kill a significant percentage of the world — and that is anyone standing in the way of their end-times caliphate.” Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general, has invoked America’s “containment” strategy during the Cold War, noting that there “can be no compromise with this form of radical Islam.”

As the head of Breitbart News, Steve Bannon hosted a radio show featuring numerous guests who claimed that radical Muslim ideologues were clandestinely infiltrating the U.S. government and trying to extend their belief system across the country. (Flynn has similarly warned, falsely, that Islamic Sharia law is encroaching on the U.S. legal system.) In a 2014 speech to the Human Dignity Institute in the Vatican, Bannon, who will be Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, characterized the current war against “jihadist Islamic fascism” as the latest stage of an existential, centuries-old struggle between the Judeo-Christian West and the Islamic world: [Continue reading…]

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Maneuvering a new reality for U.S. journalism

Nic Dawes writes: Dear friends in American journalism,

Ordinarily, it is you who offer the rest of the world advice about press freedom, and the accountability architecture of democratic societies, so I understand that it may be strange to hear it coming back at you, but this will not be the last inversion that the election of Donald Trump delivers.

You have some deep resources to draw on for the battle that is closing around you. For starters there is your Constitution, which offers stronger protections than just about any comparable legal framework. And your money, greatly diminished, and unevenly distributed to be sure, but orders of magnitude more plentiful than what your counterparts elsewhere have to call upon. You also have reserves of talent, creativity, and commitment far larger than you are given credit for by your critics, and right now by angry, bewildered, and wounded friends.

But one thing you don’t have, is experience of what to do when things start to get genuinely bad.

Take it from those of us who have worked in places where the institutional fabric is thinner, the legal protections less absolute, and the social license to operate less secure. Not outright dictatorships, but majoritarian democracies where big men—and they are usually men—polish their image in the mirror of state media or social media, while slowly squeezing the life out of independent institutions.

When Donald Trump ditched his press pool twice within days of being elected, and launched a series of Twitter attacks on The New York Times, a lot of you sounded surprised. As if you expected him to become a different person once the anointing oil of the Electoral College had touched his brow. Of course there was nothing surprising about his conduct. Rule number 1 of surviving autocracy, as Masha Gessen reminds us, is “Believe the Autocrat.”

When Mr. Trump threatened during the campaign to review America’s libel law framework, he was setting out his stall, not bluffing. When he threatened to sue, when he mocked a disabled reporter, when he made clear his affinity for Vladimir Putin and Peter Thiel, he was issuing a warning.

Of course, not being surprised doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be outraged. As Gessen also wrote, to survive autocracy, you have to preserve outrage, and your free press is a beautiful, important thing, even when it is besieged and bedraggled. Perhaps especially then.

The rest of us get irritated with you at times, in the manner of less privileged relatives, but you have given the rest of us a good deal over the years, standards to aspire to, innovation to build on, voices of great clarity. Here is some advice in return, mostly from India and South Africa, where an ostensibly free press is confronted with regulatory, economic, and political pressures that come with majoritarianism. [Continue reading…]

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Who made the Arab Spring into an Arab crisis?

Yezid Sayigh writes: A recent news item on the BBC’s English website neatly captured the sharp contrast in how, five years later, various Arab rulers, citizens and non-Arab observers view the popular uprisings that swept leaders from power in several Arab states and challenged others. The headline read “Arab Spring ‘cost region $600bn’ in lost growth, UN says”, but what the latter actually said differed substantially.

In its Survey of Economic and Social Developments in the Arab Region 2015-2016 (PDF), the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which covers 18 Arab countries, attributed a net loss of $613.8bn in economic activity and an aggregate fiscal deficit of $243.1bn not to the attempt to bring about democratic political transition, but to the armed conflicts now involving nearly a dozen Arab states.

Whether intentionally or not, the BBC’s headline echoes those who portray the chaos and bloodshed suffered by several Arab states since 2011 as the direct result – indeed the essence – of the Arab Spring. But, there was nothing inevitable about this.

Rather, the current reality, or potential threat of state failure and civil war in Arab states, is the outcome of their problematic past trajectories prior to 2011 and of the choices made by those in power on how to respond to evolving political, socioeconomic and institutional challenges since then. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s also winning in Damascus

The Daily Beast reports: The battle for eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is not even over yet but forces backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad already have their sights on their next target; the nation’s capital, Damascus.

Russia has ramped up its airstrikes and regime forces have more aggressively attacked rebel-held areas around Damascus, taking several villages and suburbs in the last week alone.

And yet, the growing regime grip around the capital has gone largely unnoticed as the focus has been on eastern Aleppo’s apparent imminent collapse. The regime is therefore poised to take new territory around Damascus regardless of whether its forces can seize and hold the rest of Aleppo city. If the regime can hold onto Aleppo, it would control nearly every major provincial capital in the country — Damascus, Homs, Hama and Latakia — and would be able to devote all its resources to taking the rural and suburbans towns around them, which opposition forces are in greater concentration. [Continue reading…]

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