ISIS vs the farmers. Who turned the field into a battlefield?

ISIS and its social media followers have been celebrating the death of a ten-year old boy with the nom de guerre Abu Ubaidah.


There are also Kurdish children fighting against ISIS.


Some observers in the West are perturbed by the idea that a double standard is being applied on the involvement of children in war based on whether they happen to be fighting with the “good guys.”

But this looks to me like one of those situations where allegiance to a particular principle (in this case, opposition to the use of child soldiers) is coming at the expense of common sense.

The difference between the armed jihadist father and son and the armed farmer and son is that it is the former who insisted on turning the latter’s field into a battlefield.

One was content to farm, while the other demanded to fight.

The farmer and his family could have fled, but they can hardly be faulted as they make a desperate effort to defend their land.

ISIS is an invading army on a ruthless campaign of conquest. Their actions are no more excusable than those of any imperial power.

Those who turn these combatants into equals just because both are using guns and arming their children are denying the fundamental inequality in this conflict.

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Kobane and the Kurds: Clueless at the New York Times

Turkish Inaction on ISIS Advance Dismays the U.S.,” a report in today’s New York Times identifies three reporters in the byline: Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt in Washington, and Anne Barnard in Beirut.

It sometimes seems like the more names there are in the byline, the worse the reporting and the less the accountability.

Even though international journalists are offered a grandstand view of the battle in Kobane from the relative safety of Turkey, the Times does not appear to currently have a staff reporter there. No disrespect to “news assistant” Karam Shoumali, but it’s hard to understand why they have no one else there right now.

Today’s report makes vague references to “Kurdish fighters” in Kobane but doesn’t identify them as belonging to the People’s Protection Committees, the YPG, until the penultimate paragraph.

As the headline suggests, the general narrative is of American “frustration” and “dismay” at Turkey’s unwillingness to defend Kobane.

The Kurds are crying for help, the Turks aren’t listening, and the Americans are wringing their hands (“the United States took pains to emphasize its support for the embattled Kurds in Kobani”).

Kurdish fighters in Kobani said they were running out of ammunition and could not prevail without infusions of troops and arms from Turkey.

The Guardian reports more accurately: “the US, reluctant to commit ground troops itself, wants Turkey to send in soldiers to confront Isis.”

But the point is this: unlike the U.S., the Kurds have no desire to see Turkish troops enter Kobane. Their arrival would be seen as having more to do with Turkey’s desire to suppress Kurdish autonomy than an effort to thwart ISIS.

As Jenan Moussa in the tweet above says, the appeal the Kurds are making is for their own fighters to be allowed to cross the border and for their dwindling supplies of ammunition to be replenished. Additional weapons, such as American TOW anti-tank missiles would help too.

As much as American officials may want to cast themselves as willing defenders of the Kurds as they face an ISIS onslaught, both the U.S. and the Kurds frustrated by a lack of support from Turkey, the lack of support has come just as much from Washington, hamstrung by its own anti-terrorism fundamentalism.

The New York Times peddles the administration’s excuses:

“We have anticipated that it will be easier to protect population centers and to support offensives on the ground in Iraq, where we have partners” in the Kurdish pesh merga fighters and the Iraqi Army, said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Clearly, in Syria, it will take more time to develop the type of partners on the ground with whom we can coordinate.”

For this reason, the official said, the military strategy in Syria so far has focused on “denying ISIL safe haven and degrading critical infrastructure — like command and control and mobile oil refineries — that they use to support their operations in Iraq.”

The report correctly notes that the Kurds have been left feeling abandoned: “even though they are the sort of vulnerable minority group that Mr. Obama has made a priority of protecting — political moderates who have women fighting alongside men and have provided refuge for internally displaced Syrians of many ethnicities.”

So when U.S. officials talk about the time needed to develop “partners on the ground,” they are trying to obscure the fact that the YPG is already qualified to serve as such a partner. In its gender equality, it’s even more progressive than the U.S. military itself!

Moreover, President Obama owes a personal debt of gratitude to the YPG because after he promised “to prevent a potential act of genocide” when in early August thousands of Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq were in peril from ISIS, it was the Syrian Kurdish fighters who enabled their escape by creating a safe corridor for their evacuation.

As Global Post reported:

Despite a widely publicized US bombing campaign to save them, family after family tells the same story of escape: While the Western media narrative has emphasized the US role and that of the Iraqi Kurds’ peshmerga fighters battling IS in recent weeks, it was instead the Kurds coming in from Syria and Turkey who saved the Yazidis’ lives. A limited number were airlifted off the mountain, but the mass exodus took place on foot. The much-vaunted peshmerga [in Iraq], meanwhile, initially ran.

“The PKK [a political and militant Kurdish party based in Turkey] saved us. They cleared a path for us so we could escape the Sinjar Mountains into Syria.”

“Thank God for the PKK and YPG [a Syrian branch of the PKK].”

“If it wasn’t for the Kurdish fighters, we would have died up there.”

For the U.S., the problem with the YPG is its affiliation with the PKK which has been designated as a terrorist organization. This has resulted in calls from some quarters that the PKK be delisted. Were that to happen, it would antagonize Turkey but also highlight the arbitrariness with which the U.S. labels terrorists.

The real problem is not that the YPG or the PKK can be linked to terrorism; it is that criminalizing membership of organizations is itself incompatible with the basic principles of democracy.

How can the United States on the one hand recognize the constitutional right of Americans to join anti-democratic extremist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, while at the same time refusing to partner with a group like the YPG that is genuinely and literally fighting for democracy?

The United States does not lack a partner on the ground in Kobane with which it could currently be coordinating its air strikes on ISIS. It lacks the willingness to discard a counterproductive security doctrine.

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First ISIS destroys Kobane and then Turkey can save it?

AFP reports that Turkey’s President Erdogan says Kobane is “about to fall” and that a ground operation is needed to defeat ISIS.

Of course Kurdish forces are already in the midst of a valiant ground operation — they just haven’t received the support they need.

Thus far, Turkey has appeared resolute in its military inaction as its armored forces have quietly watched ISIS advance on Kobane. Likewise, until the last few hours, U.S. airstrikes have been minimal.

An explanation of U.S. objectives with ISIS was provided by an official who said: “We’re not trying to take ground away from them [in Syria]. We’re trying to take capability away from them.”

That’s an ambiguous statement when it’s widely recognized that the territory ISIS holds in Syria is the foundation for its capabilities. So the official explanation about why the U.S. has not been more forceful in preventing ISIS from capturing Kobane really makes little sense.

At the same time, it’s been said by many that it looks like Turkey would prefer to see ISIS rather than the PKK-aligned YPG controlling this part of the Syrian border. But even though the Turkish government feels threatened by the presence of an emerging Syrian Kurdish state, Rojava, ISIS is surely an unacceptable neighbor.

Maybe — and this is just speculation — there has been some cunning in American and Turkish inaction and neither power has any intention of allowing ISIS to gain full control of Kobane.

A Kurdish fighter tells Jenan Moussa: “ISIS brought in 1000s of fighters to Kobane. Seems whole of Raqqa is standing at our gates.”

Might this be what the U.S. and Turkey have been hoping to see as the prelude to a joint U.S.-Turkish operation? Turkish ground forces “rescue” Kobane as high concentrations of ISIS fighters approaching the city make themselves easy targets for air strikes.

At the end of the battle and after the self-congratulatory statements about the devastating impact this has had on ISIS, Turkey then establishes what it calls a “buffer zone” and what Kurds will see as the occupation of Rojava.

If a scenario along these lines is unfolding, it probably means that in the eyes of the U.S. and Turkey, the Kurdish men and women fighting on the front lines against ISIS are not engaged in a heroic struggle — they are simply bait.

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Glenn Greenwald’s Khorasan conspiracy theory misses the point

Washington is often — and justifiably — criticized for viewing the world through a U.S.-centric prism. But many of the U.S. government’s fiercest critics are guilty of the same narrow orientation.

A case in point is an analysis provided by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain in The Intercept yesterday: “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria.”

Up until last week, hardly anyone, including seasoned Syria watchers and Syrians themselves, had heard of an outfit called the Khorasan Group and so sober warnings from high officials in the U.S. government that this group poses a greater threat to the U.S. than ISIS, were received by some observers with a measure of skepticism.

The Intercept analysis traces the recent evolution of the Khorasan narrative as presented by the servile American media and reaches this conclusion:

What happened here is all-too-familiar. The Obama administration needed propagandistic and legal rationale for bombing yet another predominantly Muslim country. While emotions over the ISIS beheading videos were high, they were not enough to sustain a lengthy new war.

So after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, they unveiled a new, never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™. Overnight, as the first bombs on Syria fell, the endlessly helpful U.S. media mindlessly circulated the script they were given: this new group was composed of “hardened terrorists,” posed an “imminent” threat to the U.S. homeland, was in the “final stages” of plots to take down U.S. civilian aircraft, and could “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001.””

As usual, anonymity was granted to U.S. officials to make these claims. As usual, there was almost no evidence for any of this. Nonetheless, American media outlets – eager, as always, to justify American wars – spewed all of this with very little skepticism. Worse, they did it by pretending that the U.S. Government was trying not to talk about all of this – too secret! – but they, as intrepid, digging journalists, managed to unearth it from their courageous “sources.” Once the damage was done, the evidence quickly emerged about what a sham this all was. But, as always with these government/media propaganda campaigns, the truth emerged only when it’s impotent.

The first problem with this conspiracy theory — its claim that the Khorasan Group was invented for domestic propaganda purposes — is that such an invention would largely be redundant.

Having successfully presented ISIS as worse than al Qaeda, why muddy the narrative by introducing into the picture a previously unheard of group? If a pretext for bombing Syria was being fabricated, why not posit an “imminent” threat to the U.S. coming from ISIS itself?

The actual story here is one that is somewhat more complex than appeals to conspiracy theorists like Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones and it requires giving as much attention to what is happening in Syria as to what is happening behind closed doors in the capital of the Evil Empire.

The invention of the Khorasan Group — which is to say, the creation of the name — seems to have been necessitated not by the desire to find a pretext for bombing another Muslim country, but instead the desire to avoid headlines which would identify the target of a cluster of airstrikes by its real name: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).

I dare say that the average American is no more familiar with the name Jabhat al-Nusra than they are with the Khorasan Group, so why construct a distinction between the two?

This actually has little to do with how expanding the airstrike targeting beyond ISIS would be perceived in the U.S. and everything to do with how it would be seen in Syria.

As was noted in a 2013 report “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment,” by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project chaired by Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, Jabhat al-Nusra is “widely acknowledged as the most effective fighting force in the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”

Unlike ISIS, JN has pursued a strategy designed to avoid alienating Syrians who oppose the Assad regime yet do not support JN’s Islamist ideology. The Syrian fighters at its core, having learned from the mistake of alienating the local population while they were fighting in Iraq as members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor of ISIS), made some strategic adjustments for JN.

As a Quilliam Foundation report notes, JN opted for:

  • predominantly military rather than civic targets, with no bombing of shrines and careful use of suicide bombs to minimise civilian casualties,
  • downplaying JN’s rhetoric concerning sectarianism and kuffar (labelling Alawites, Shiites and Sufis as non-Muslims)
  • the decision to use a different name to avoid preconceptions associated with Al Qaeda.

If the Obama administration chose for debatable reasons to target a unit inside JN and wanted to explain itself to the American public, it didn’t need to concoct a new name for this unit. It could simply present the same assertions about plots to attack the homeland and say that they emanate from Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

After all, Mohsin Al-Fadhli who in recent reports has been described as the leader of the Khorasan Group has also been referred to as the de facto leader of al Qaeda in Syria.

An Arab Times report in March this year said:

Al-Fadhli lives in north of Syria, where he is in control of al-Qaeda. He entices and recruits jihadists from among the European Muslim youths, or from those who embrace Islam. After choosing the youths, he trains them on how to execute terror operations in the western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes. His activities were also focused on directing the al-Qaeda elements to execute operations against four main targets, which are Assad’s military, the Free Syrian Army, the ‘Islamic Front’ and ‘Da’esh’ [ISIS]. Sources revealed that Al-Fadhli supports ‘Al-Nusra Front’ against ‘Da’esh’, especially after the Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani declared his loyalty to al- Qaeda group in April last year.

The decision taken by [Al Qaeda leader] Al-Zawahri to support ‘Al-Nusra Front’ to face ‘Da’esh’ was made after Al-Fadhli provided information about what is happening in Syria. Sources stressed that such a decision indicates the confidence al-Qaeda leadership has in Al-Fadhli. It also confirms that Al-Fadhli is the de facto leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, even though it has not been officially announced over fear of exposing him.

If the leader of the so-called Khorasan Group had such a central position in JN, why should the Obama administration see fit to try and educate the American public about some finer details in the organization’s internal structure?

It didn’t. The distinction between the Khorasan Group and Jabhat al-Nusra appears to have been contrived in a vain effort by Washington to fool Syrians rather than Americans. The U.S. hoped it could chop off one of JN’s limbs without appearing to strike its body.

The problem with a frontal attack on Jabhat al-Nusra is that this would inevitably be perceived in Syria as an attack on part of the opposition which has been on the frontline of the fight against ISIS and the regime — an attack that can thus only provide additional help to Bashar al-Assad.

President Obama says that the fight against ISIS will require ground forces drawn from the Syrian opposition, but by attacking JN the U.S. has swiftly alienated itself from the very fighters — the so-called moderates — on whose support the U.S. supposedly depends.

The ploy of inventing the Khorasan Group didn’t succeed in deceiving Syrians who knew that the men being killed in airstrikes in north-west Syria all belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra. Thus, by the end of last week instead of there being popular rallies welcoming a campaign to destroy the much-despised ISIS, ordinary Syrians were taking to the streets to protest against the U.S. airstrikes.

They already had reason to question American motives, given that Assad can be blamed for far more carnage and destruction than ISIS has wrought, and now it seems their worst fears have been confirmed — whether by design or sheer incompetence, the U.S. despite its oft-stated desire to hasten Assad’s departure seems to be doing more to ensure that he remains in power.

As for whether the U.S. truly has the desire to destroy ISIS remains far from clear. So far it has demonstrated a greater interest in destroying empty buildings than responding to desperate calls to block the ISIS assault on Kobane, the Kurdish city in northern Syria that truly faces an imminent threat to its survival.

Least of all is there any evidence that Obama has anything that barely resembles a coherent strategy.

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Assad regime strongly supports Obama’s war on ISIS

The New York Times reports: President Obama said the American-led airstrikes in Syria were intended to punish the terror organizations that threatened the United States — but would do nothing to aid President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is at war with the same groups.

But on the third day of strikes, it was increasingly uncertain whether the United States could maintain that delicate balance.

A Syrian diplomat crowed to a pro-government newspaper that “the U.S. military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria.” And in New York, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in an interview that he had delivered a private message to Mr. Assad on behalf of Washington, reassuring him that the Syrian government was not the target of American-led airstrikes.

The confident statements by Syrian leaders and their allies showed how difficult it already is for Mr. Obama to go after terrorists operating out of Syria without getting dragged more deeply into that nation’s three-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Indeed, the American strikes have provided some political cover for Mr. Assad, as pro-government Syrians have become increasingly, even publicly, angry at his inability to defeat the militants.

On the other side, Mr. Obama’s Persian Gulf allies, whom he has pointed to as crucial to the credibility of the air campaign, have expressed displeasure with the United States’ reluctance to go after Mr. Assad directly. For years, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pressed Washington to join the fight to oust the Syrian president.

And for years, the United States has demurred.

“We need to create an army to fight the terrorists, but we also have to fight the regime,” Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, emir of Qatar, said Thursday in an interview with New York Times editors. “We have to do both.”

Mr. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that the United States would work with its allies to roll back the Islamic State through military action and support for moderate rebels. But he added, “The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of creed.”

Yet as the Syrian conflict transformed from peaceful, popular calls for change to a bloody unraveling of the nation, it also became a proxy battlefield for regional and global interests. Iran and Russia sided with Mr. Assad. Arab Gulf nations sided with the rebels, though not always with the same rebels. The United States called for Mr. Assad to go, but never fully engaged.

The rise of the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, prompted Mr. Obama to jump in, but under the auspices of an antiterrorism campaign. The United States was not taking sides in the civil war, or at least it did not intend to. But the minute it entered the battlefield, it inevitably muddled its standing in Syria and across the Middle East, analysts and experts in the region said.

When American attacks, for example, killed militants with the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda, it angered some of the same Syrian insurgents who Mr. Obama has said will help make up a ground force against the Islamic State.

Some of the groups that had said they would support the United States’ mission have now issued statements condemning the American strikes on the Qaeda-linked militants. Those groups have also expressed concern that by making the Islamic State its priority, the United States has acknowledged that it does not seek to unseat Mr. Assad.

Conversely, supporters of the Syrian government say hitting the Nusra Front is proof that the United States has switched sides.

“Of course coordination exists,” said a pro-government Syrian journalist speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, who had criticized the prospect of the strikes but turned practically jubilant once they began. “How else do you explain the strikes on Nusra?” [Continue reading...]

Even if the U.S. is not officially coordinating its operations with the Syrian government, Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad is already viewed as serving as an intermediary between Damascus and Washington.

What was initially presented as a military operation to degrade and destroy ISIS, suddenly broadened in scope this week when it included strikes on Jabhat al Nusra. Given that the Obama administration refuses to refer to Nusra by its real name and has instead adopted the fictitious label the “Khorasan Group” in reference to a Nusra unit, it’s hardly surprising that the whole operation even after almost two months still has no official name.

The Pentagon has a page on its website called “Targeted Operations Against ISIL Terrorists” — a description of the operation which, even if it lacks the Marvel Comics-style hyperbolic language that the U.S. military favors in its choice of names, was until this week fairly accurate. But since Nusra got rolled onto the target list, it’s started to look more like Targeted Operations Against Assad’s Worst Enemies.

No surprise then that, at least so far, Assad likes the way the war is proceeding.

Obama has been described as a “realist” who “feels bad about it.”

But Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor and terrorism analyst, is the kind of realist willing to assert without apology that U.S. policy should be guided solely by self interest and thus not preclude a working relationship with the Syrian dictator:

“I know of no one who says that Assad ever posed a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. I’ve seen no evidence to ever suggest that, going back to his father. It makes obvious sense in my mind, if the U.S. is going to side with the militants or with Assad, for us to side with Assad.

“The big objection to that is a normative one. People are appalled by the suggestion of the US working with a dictator who’s massacred so many of his people. And yet Assad poses a threat to his own population, not to ours.

“I think there may be an opportunity for the US to work with Assad against ISIS.”

So, given that currently the U.S. appears to have a free hand conducting military operations inside Syria — the Syrian government has raised few objections — are we to imagine that Obama and Assad have formed some kind of secret alliance?

Probably not, but if America’s actions so clearly serve Assad’s interests why would the Syrian leader need a more formal arrangement?

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If the U.S. wants to destroy ISIS, why did it just attack the group’s arch rival?

“We don’t have any specific, credible information about specific plans that they [the "Khorasan Group"] had. On the other hand, the intelligence did lead us to believe that they were in the process of getting very close to the execution phase of general plans that we know that they were interested in,” said Attorney General Eric Holder in an interview today with Yahoo’s Katie Couric.

“So for some time now we’ve been tracking plots to conduct attacks in the United States or Europe. We believe that that attack plotting was imminent, in that they had plans to conduct attacks external to Syria,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser at the White House.

Close to the execution phase of general plans? Imminent plotting for an attack somewhere outside Syria?

The New York Times reports:

[O]ne senior counterterrorism official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the group might not have chosen the target, method or even the timing for a strike. An intelligence official said separately that the group was “reaching a stage where they might be able to do something.”

When government officials make vacuous statements like these and warn about the “imminent” threat posed by America’s latest diabolical foe, is it any wonder that conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones find it so easy to capture a mass audience?

Those Americans less inclined to question official statements and willing to accept that airstrikes against a terrorist group they never heard of must nevertheless be a good thing if that group was about to attack the U.S., would be well advised to ask this question: does an administration that just presented its strategy for degrading and destroying ISIS, actually have a clear strategy if its war against ISIS is now also targeting one of ISIS’s principal adversaries?

Aron Lund writes:

What is being discussed is not a “new terrorist group,” but rather a specialized cell that has gradually been established within, or on, the fringes of an already existing al-Qaeda franchise, the so-called Nusra Front. What this seems to be about is a jihadi cell consisting of veteran al-Qaeda members who have arrived to the Nusra Front in Syria from abroad, mainly via Iran, and who are in direct contact with al-Qaeda’s international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself believed to be based in Pakistan.

Lund continues:

Whatever one decides to call it, this is not likely to be an independent organization, but rather a network-within-the-network, assigned to deal with specific tasks. Most likely it has no fixed name at all, and the “Khorasan Group” label has simply been invented for convenience by U.S. intelligence or adopted from informal references within the Nusra Front to these men as being, for example, “our brothers from Khorasan.”

The issue of the name is significant because it appears that from the vantage point of most Syrians, the U.S. strikes were simply strikes on Nusra and the implications are clear:


U.S. officials have repeatedly said that a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS will not accomplish its ultimate goal of destroying the organization without a ground operation involving Syrian opposition fighters. How will those fighters be recruited if the U.S. is seen as having already further undermined the war against Assad?


Whatever the U.S. might claim about imminent plots being hatched by the Khorasan Group, its leader is apparently viewed as having played a crucial role in the fight against Assad. Indeed, it seems somewhat more plausible that a guy who trains snipers would be focused on the war in Syria rather than some vague plot directed elsewhere.

Whether attacking Jabhat al Nusra has made America any safer is highly debatable but it seems much more likely this will help ISIS — and Assad.

And lastly there’s this footnote: New evidence that Twitter obediently takes directions from the U.S. government:

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The fence around the White House needs to be raised — and removed

white-house-fence

Omar Gonzalez, who on Friday scaled a fence at the White House and sprinted across the lawn towards the Oval Office, is reported to have told a Secret Service agent that “he was concerned that the atmosphere was collapsing and needed to get the information to the president of the United States so that he could get the word out to the people.”

In New York City on Sunday, more than 300,000 people marched for similar reasons. Will their effort, unlike Gonzalez’s, have any tangible effect?

To describe the atmosphere as collapsing might be a technically inadequate description of climate change but it sounds like this is the issue that worried the army veteran. No doubt his fears had been compounded and distorted by traumas experienced while fighting in a war that served no purpose, along with the inadequate care that has been provided for soldiers returning from Iraq. His reasons to mistrust the way the government works certainly cut deeper than those that trouble the average American citizen.

Gonzalez’s action, not surprisingly, has provoked the wrong debate — a debate about whether the White House has adequate security.

But a reluctance to deal with a simple problem — replace a scalable six-foot fence with a much less scalable ten-foot fence — is itself a product of the desire to sustain an illusion: that American presidents have a keener desire to hear and respond to the voices of “ordinary folks” than pay heed to the White House’s regular and much more influential visitors.

We live in a world where the capacity of ordinary people to raise their voices has never been greater, yet with this has come an increasing sense that fewer and fewer people can make themselves heard.

If Gonzalez acted out in a delusional way, it sounds as though there was a kernel of sanity in his impulse.

The atmosphere is collapsing, the sky is falling, and this observation far from being emblematic of an hysterical unwarranted fear, is in fact a crude description of the precarious condition of our planet. The hysteria, in the few places where it is evident, is not an overreaction to the danger we all face, but is instead triggered by the lack of response from those invested with the powers to instigate global changes through the instruments of law and regulation.

Grassroots movements can shape and articulate popular will but that then has to be translated into actions taken by responsive governments — governments led by courageous leaders who do not hide behind unscalable fences.

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Turkey somehow secures release of 49 hostages held by ISIS

Not a shot fired, no ransom paid, no prisoners exchanged, but somehow Turkish intelligence (MİT) agents managed to escort 49 captives out of Syria and back to Turkey earlier today.

So far, the only clue on how Turkey managed to pull off this operation comes from Hurriyet Daily News reporting this: “there are indications of a kind of false flag, or deception operation by MİT. In answering such a question one ranking official said MİT ‘has tried every possible method and left no stone unturned’ to get the hostages alive.”

But the same report also describes ways in which the operation was coordinated with ISIS:

It was ISIL’s condition to give the hostages to Turkey at the border with Syria, “Because of their own security concerns due to their heavy clashes with Kurdish forces. They did not want to make the handover through the Kurdish region,” a security source told HDN.

The report also says: “One official source said ISIL might have ‘not wanted to get into a clash with Turkey’.”

As has widely been reported, a reluctance to put the lives of these hostages in jeopardy was one of Turkey’s main reasons for declining to join the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS — all the more reason to assume that ISIS must have believed that its interests would in some other way be served by releasing the hostages.

The PKK has called on Kurds in Turkey to join their comrades in Kobane, northern Syria, where they are fighting alone against ISIS. Perhaps Turkey threatened ISIS that if it did not free the hostages, Turkey would do nothing to prevent the flow of Kurdish recruits into Syria.

In spite of the suggestion that ISIS was deceived in some way, I’m inclined to believe that the group had reason to expect that it had more to gain by releasing its Turkish hostages than it could by holding on to them.

Slemani Times, an independent English language news publication, covering the Kurdistan Region, Iraq, and the Middle East, in an unsourced tweet offers this explanation for how Turkey successfully negotiated the release of the hostages:

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Harsh sentences for Happy Iranians

IranWire reports: It’s been a tense, worrying time for Iran’s “Happy” group, the seven young men and women arrested in May for posting their version of Pharrell Williams’ music video on YouTube. Over the last few days, they’ve been pacing up and down the hallways of the Tehran courthouse where their trial was due to take place , making sure all their legal papers were in order.

Today their lawyer, Farshid Rofugaran, told IranWire that six of his clients had been sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes. One of them was given a sentence of one year in prison and 91 lashes. “Fortunately,” said Rofugaran, “the sentences were suspended.” But he was quick to point out that, until he received official notification, he could not be 100 percent sure of his clients’ situation.

“A suspended sentence becomes null and void after a certain period of time,” Rofugaran said. For the Happy Group, that period will be three years. “When it’s a suspended sentence, the verdict is not carried out, but if during this period a similar offense is committed, then the accused is subject to legal punishment and the suspended sentence will then be carried out as well.” [Continue reading...]

I expect that among the anti-imperialist left, this story will pass without comment or perhaps without even being noticed — don’t expect it to be covered by Press TV.

Iran’s credentials as a resolute critic of American hegemony along with its vocal opposition to Zionism, means that for some in the West, the Islamic republic’s failings can mostly be forgiven.

There is in such an attitude a perverse contradiction.

On the one hand the West is viewed as fundamentally undemocratic, operating a system of rule in which the masses are pacified with distractions and trivial freedoms while their lives are controlled by corporate and political interests that are indifferent to the common good. But at the same time, political oppression in a state like Iran is largely ignored — as though, depending on the circumstances, oppression can be justified in the name of a noble cause.

What to my mind is inexcusable is that anyone, anywhere, should find it excusable that someone could be threatened with imprisonment and lashing because they were “guilty” of dancing and failing to follow a dress code.

If this kind of harmless self-expression is not viewed as a human right, it calls into question the very notion of human rights.

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‘Lend me your ears’ (and pay up) — an ISIS ransom note

john-cantlie

“After two disastrous and hugely unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why is it that our governments appear so keen to get involved in yet another unwinnable conflict?”

The question comes from a British journalist, John Cantlie, who has been a prisoner of ISIS for most of the last two years and who has now been compelled to become the organization’s spokesman.

In a newly released video he continues:

I’m going to show you the truth behind these systems and motivation of the Islamic State, and how the western media, the very organisation I used to work for can twist and manipulate that truth to the public back home.

There are two sides to every story – think you’re getting the whole picture? And I’ll show you the truth behind what happened when many European citizens were imprisoned and later released by the Islamic State and how the British and American governments thought they could do it differently to every other every other European country.

They negotiated with the Islamic state and got their people home while the British and Americans were left behind.

It’s very alarming to see where this is all headed and it looks like history repeating itself yet again. There is time to change this seemingly inevitable sequence of events, but only if you, the public act now. Join me for the next few programmes and I think you may be surprised by what you learn.

Stay tuned.

ISIS is frequently credited for its media sophistication, but its use of a prisoner to serve as a spokesman shows how impoverished the organization must be when from among its thousands of Western recruits apparently there aren’t any fit to represent and articulate the cause they are all fighting for. (Individuals like Moner Mohammad Abusalha from Florida might accurately represent the Western face of ISIS, but they also undermine the organization’s credibility.)

When we are told that several European governments successfully negotiated with ISIS and “got their people home,” no mention is made of ransoms being paid.

While ISIS’s latest message tries to leverage antiwar sentiment in the West, no one should mistake this as a wise warning whose purpose is to forestall another military misadventure.

Put most simply the message is: hold fire, pay up, or John Cantlie will meet the same fate as James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines.

Other commentators have argued that ISIS’s use of beheading videos has been designed to bait the West — to draw the U.S. and its allies into another unwinnable war — but the latest video seems to confirm what I have said repeatedly: ISIS wants to consolidate and expand its caliphate since its success in doing that serves as a much potent magnet for recruits than the prospect of being targeted in U.S. airstrikes.

In response to the start of U.S. military operations in Iraq, ISIS seems to have focused most of its efforts beyond America’s current reach by making gains in Syria.

Even though President Obama says he is ready to order airstrikes in Syria, there seems little reason to believe that these are imminent, and ISIS wants to use the intervening period to its full advantage.

The Cantlie video is the second ISIS releases this week.

flames-of-war

“Fighting has just begun” declares the “trailer” for its Hollywood-style “Flame of War,” but as it did in its other video release this week, Alhayat Media Center is addressing the public, rather than Western governments, in an effort to increase war fears more than war fever.

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Most Americans support war against ISIS but lack confidence it will achieve its goal

NBC News reports: Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they lack confidence that the U.S. will achieve its goals in fighting the terrorist group ISIS, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Annenberg poll. The findings come in the wake of President Barack Obama’s national address announcing new measures to combat the Sunni militants.

Pressure is mounting on the U.S. and its allies to cripple the militants, who have waged a brutal campaign across Syria and Iraq. ISIS already has beheaded two American journalists and on Saturday released a video showing the execution of a third Westerner, British aid worker David Haines.

The poll – conducted before the latest execution emerged – showed that a combined 68 percent of Americans say they have “very little” or “just some” confidence that Obama’s goals of degrading and eliminating the threat posed by ISIS will be achieved. Just 28 percent said they had “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of confidence. Still, 62 percent of voters say they support Obama’s decision to take action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while 22 percent oppose it. [Continue reading...]

There are lots of ways of reading these numbers and I imagine that all of the following explanations are applicable to varying degrees:

1. “Do you support the war?” A certain percentage of Americans would answer “yes” even if they didn’t know which war they were supporting.

2. “Do you believe it’s necessary to fight ISIS even if the outcome of this fight is uncertain?” In an era where wars all appear to be wars of choice, it’s easy to lose sight of the fundamental meaning of a war of necessity: there appears to be no alternative. For instance, Britain’s commitment to continue fighting against Germany even after the Nazis had taken control over all of the rest of Europe, might in 1940 have looked unrealistic, but it was a stance driven by necessity rather than confidence in the outcome. Likewise, it’s possible to believe that fighting against ISIS is a necessity, even if it remains unclear whether this fight will be successful. (And before anyone leaves a comment: No, I’m not comparing ISIS to the Third Reich.)

3. “Do you think this war will have any direct impact on your life?” Since most Americans can reasonably assume that a war on ISIS will affect them personally to no greater extent than it impacts what they see on television, it’s relatively easy to support a war whose costs are relatively intangible. Likewise, it matters less what the war’s outcome might be when it involves little sacrifice.

4. “Do you think President Obama presented a credible strategy for destroying ISIS?” If the answer’s “no” and this is why you lack confidence in this war, then I’d take that as a fairly good indication that you are following this story reasonably closely.

5. Of course the most obvious reason why Americans would be skeptical about the chances of success for a war against ISIS is the fact that after sinking trillions of dollars into wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terrorism, al Qaeda still exists.

As has happened so many times before, Obama formulates his policies in reaction to banal, superficial, political imperatives whose primary purpose is to fend off critics.

On Thursday he presented his strategy for destroying ISIS because only days before he got slammed for admitting he didn’t have a strategy.

After he made various comments suggesting that he only aimed to contain ISIS and was thus criticized for underestimating the threat it poses and for being too timid in his response, he answered critics by saying that his aim was to destroy ISIS.

After it was pointed out that fighting ISIS in Iraq would accomplish little if it could continue to consolidate its strength in Syria, Obama said the fight would be taken to Syria.

Each of his steps is reactive and political — as though the primary task at hand was to deflect criticism.

If there’s a vision that guides the Obama presidency, it seems to be one of utter cynicism: a recognition that whatever seems urgent today will soon be overshadowed by another urgent issue, accompanied by a quiet confidence that eventually everything will be forgotten.

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The latest message to America’s allies from ISIS

As has been widely reported, ISIS has released “a video that appears to show the execution of David Haines, a 44-year-old British aid worker kidnapped by the militant group last year in Syria.”

Understandably, a lot of people would like to see an #ISISmediaBlackout — to deprive ISIS the media attention it craves. Frankly, it’s too late for that.

Moreover, it’s a mistake to think that ISIS simply wants publicity or that its barbarity is intended purely as an act of provocation.

The previous two executions of American citizens came after President Obama had already committed U.S. forces to engage in military action against ISIS in Iraq. And the latest execution comes after his announcement that this operation is going to be extended into Syria.

The executions of Americans and now a British citizen have raised questions about the policies of each respective government and whether they did enough to protect their own citizens.

ISIS strategists understand perfectly well the principle of divide-and-rule and this is what they employ in their latest message, using Haines as their involuntary spokesman addressing British prime minister, David Cameron:

“You entered voluntarily into a coalition with the United States against the Islamic State, just as your predecessor, Tony Blair, did, following a trend amongst our British prime ministers who can’t find the courage to say no to the Americans.

“Unfortunately, it is we, the British public, that will in the end pay the price for our Parliament’s selfish decisions.”

If there’s a bait here, it’s not being dangled in front of any government — it’s being offered to the many in the public who are only too eager to echo ISIS’s demand that the U.S. and its allies intrude no further into the territory that ISIS has claimed as its own.

At some point, ISIS may engage in an act of pure provocation and if that happens, I don’t think anyone will be in any doubt — just as there was no doubt that the bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra on February 22, 2006, was intended to fuel a civil war.

The Guardian reports: After 12 years in the RAF, David Haines decided that he wanted to use his experience to work with NGOs who were operating in some of the world’s most turbulent regions. Over the next 15 years, as a security adviser and manager, he worked with refugees in the former Yugoslavia, disabled people in Libya and ceasefire monitors in South Sudan.

He had been in Syria for just three days when he was kidnapped and handed over to Islamic State militants. Along with an Italian aid worker, Federico Motka, and a Syrian driver and translator, Haines had been surveying possible sites for refugee camps that a French charity, Acted, the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, was planning to establish, near the Turkish border.

Their translator, who asked not be named, later described the moment the kidnapper struck. “Two very fast cars came up behind – one overtook and the other stayed behind. They shouted at us to get out of the car in formal Arabic. They were wearing black masks and were so professional. They knew that two of us were Syrians and they knew who else was in the car. One of them put a gun to my head and threatened me not to tell anyone what I had seen. They put [Haines and Motka] in the boot of their car and shot out the tyres of our car.”

That was in March last year. During that time Haines, 44, has seen a number of other hostages held by the Islamic State released in return for ransoms. Among them was Motka, freed in May this year with the Italian government reportedly handing over almost £5m. Motka later said that he had been tortured, and moved six times. Haines’ plight went unreported, however. The UK foreign office advised Haines’s family and friends to keep quiet about his ordeal. [Continue reading...]

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Will the U.S. launch airstrikes in Syria?

The New York Times reports: The prospect of the first American attacks on Syrian soil during three years of brutal civil war electrified Syrians on Thursday, prompting intense debate over whether airstrikes on the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria would help or harm President Bashar al-Assad, his armed Syrian opponents and war-weary civilians.

Raqqa, the northeastern city that ISIS has ruled for more than a year, was abuzz with the news. Civilians fled areas near ISIS headquarters. Anti-ISIS insurgents pronounced themselves energized by the prospect of new American aid and said Turkish officials had recently contacted them, promising new arms to fight the foreign-led Sunni group.

But even among fervent opponents of ISIS — including Syrian insurgents, some of whom stand to gain aid to battle the group — there was ambivalence over President Obama’s declaration that he would “not hesitate” to strike ISIS in Syria.

Many warned that if weakening ISIS strengthened Mr. Assad, allowing him to continue attacking opposition-held civilian areas with impunity, and was not accompanied by political enfranchisement of the Sunni majority in Syria, the strikes could backfire, driving more Sunnis to support or tolerate ISIS. Others worried that Syrian civilians could be killed in the attacks. [Continue reading...]

In his national address last night, President Obama said:

I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

In terms of military strategy, it’s well understood that ISIS will not be weakened, let alone destroyed, if it is pushed back in Iraq while consolidating its strength in Syria. But when Obama says he will not hesitate to strike ISIS in Syria, he is not tying that choice to the campaign in Iraq. Instead, he appears to be making it conditional on his assessment of the threat that ISIS poses to the United States.

He also said, “we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” and warned that ISIS fighters “could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

So, Obama appears not to see ISIS as posing an imminent threat to the U.S. and for as long as that remains the case, I’m doubtful that he will order airstrikes in Syria.

If the White House lawyers insist that an imminent threat is the required trigger, then identifying an imminent threat could simply be a matter of political convenience. But I really doubt that Obama is itching to launch such an attack, so I don’t think he’s actively looking for a pretext.

At the same time, if as many have argued, ISIS is trying to bait the U.S., then an adequate bait would involve nothing more than making a few phone calls (which can predictably be intercepted by the NSA) in which plotters discuss plans for attacking America.

As things stand right now, I believe that neither ISIS nor Obama are ready to see U.S. airstrikes on Raqqa.

Foreign Policy notes:

[T]here are good reasons American policymakers haven’t yet rushed to bomb Syria. “There’s a good risk of losses to the U.S. Air Force if we go into Syria without consent,” says Poss. “Syrian air defenses are among the best in the world because they have to go up against one of the best air forces in the world, the Israelis, almost daily.” Israel has managed to outwit its neighbor’s ground-to-air missile defenses a few times thanks to tactical surprise. But a concerted U.S. air campaign against IS in Syria would require multiple sorties every day. Syria’s foreign minister has already warned that the United States will need President Bashar al-Assad’s permission to carry out operations against the terrorist group — something few in Washington have the appetite for requesting. Even so, there’s a risk that bombing in Syria could open an unwanted front in the war.

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Is ISIS a terminal disease?

President Obama might have been slow to come up with a strategy for defeating ISIS but he seems to have been much more resolute in his choice of metaphor for describing the enemy.

After James Foley was murdered, Obama said, “there has to be a common effort to extract this cancer so it does not spread.” A few days later he said: “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick.” Again, last night he said: “it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL.”

I can see several reasons why Obama finds this cancer metaphor appealing.

Firstly, it avoids the language of George Bush fighting a war of good against evil — a war whose only acceptable conclusion is victory.

Secondly, it implies that there is likely to only be qualified success since cancer has a tendency to reappear.

Thirdly, it implies that “treatment” is likely to be prolonged or perhaps continue indefinitely, just as there is no certain cure for cancer.

Obama’s political goal appears to be to secure support for an open-ended relatively low-key military operation that will be of such little concern to most Americans that it can continue for years without any real accountability.

Even though Obama insists that ISIS must be destroyed, nearly everything he has said indicates his goal is containment.

Here’s most of his speech with a few observations of my own thrown in: [Read more...]

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America’s island mentality

“Traveling in Europe made me understand that America has an island mentality: No one exists except us. There’s a whole other world out there, but most Americans – all they know is America” — will.i.am

A recent Pew poll asked Americans about what they perceive as “global threats facing the U.S.” the threat from ISIS being among them. The news is that 67% of Americans view ISIS as a major threat to the U.S. — a threat only exceeded by the threat from “Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda.”

I guess that after more than a decade of indoctrination in which we have been led to regard Al Qaeda as the purest distillation of evil ever known, it will take some time for the average American to accept the idea that there could actually be anything worse than Al Qaeda.

Even so, the fact that most Americans now perceive ISIS as a major threat doesn’t really reveal a whole lot more than the fact that most Americans watch television.

What I find more interesting than the numbers is the premise behind the pollster’s question: that something could be a global threat and yet not necessarily be a threat to America.

This is a reflection of the prevailing mentality among Americans: that America and the world are in some sense separable.

America can be engaged with or disengaged from the rest of the world because, supposedly, if we are so inclined, the rest of the world can be shut out while America tends to its own affairs.

Is it any wonder that a nation that has such difficulty in seeing itself as part of and as inseparable from the world, also has difficulty viewing climate change — the greatest challenge facing our planet — as a threat?

The Pew poll found that 52% of Americans view the spread of infectious diseases as a threat to the U.S., lower, for instance, than the perceived threat from North Korea’s nuclear program.

No doubt for most people being questioned, when it comes to infectious diseases the issue of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will have been uppermost in their minds.

President Obama’s announcement on Sunday about a U.S. response to the crisis again reflects America’s island mentality. This is how he framed the urgency of the issue:

“If we don’t make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there’s the prospect then that the virus mutates. It becomes more easily transmittable. And then it could be a serious danger to the United States.”

He also said, “We have to make this a national security priority.”

For the United States, the Ebola outbreak is less of a humanitarian issue than it is a threat to America’s security.

It’s as though if health workers in Africa could guarantee that the disease was contained and there was no risk of it spreading overseas, then the U.S. would have no reason to be concerned.

America sees itself as a generous country, in part because Americans have a staggering level of ignorance about how much foreign aid the U.S. grants.

Americans on average believe that 28% of the federal budget — more than is spent on defense — is spent on foreign aid when in reality it is just 1%! When informed about actual spending, the majority of Americans say that 1% is about right or too much — only 28% say that 1% of the budget is too little.

What these numbers imply is that most Americans perceive the world as a drain on this nation’s resources. Having been led from birth to believe that this is the greatest nation on earth, how could the rest of the world be perceived otherwise?

When Obama lays out his strategy for dealing with ISIS this evening, it goes without saying that one of the central pillars of his argument will be that this organization poses a threat to America’s national security. To present ISIS in any other way would risk implying that the threat which ISIS poses across the Middle East constitutes a sufficiently urgent threat that even if it was to advance no further, this should nevertheless concern Americans. Such an argument would likely elicit a shrug — we don’t live in the Middle East so why should we care?

The idea that we might care because we all live on the same planet, breath the same air, and inhabit the same world, has little traction in the hearts and minds of Americans who see the world as somewhere else.

The idea that those whose lives are not in danger have a responsibility to pay attention to the needs of those in peril, is a humanitarian impulse which in an era of unquestioned realism, is always a lower priority than the national interest.

Returning to the question about global threats, rather than ask Americans a conceptually mangled question about threats to the U.S., it might have been more interesting to try and gauge awareness about actual global threats, which is to say, threats that are global in scale.

These would be — at least by my reckoning:

  • the excessive production of greenhouse gases by human activity resulting in climate change
  • the Holocene extinction — the mass extinction of species and loss of biodiversity that has resulted from human activity
  • population displacement which now exceeds 50 million people, the largest number since World War II
  • industrialized agriculture involving the use of toxic pesticides and genetically modified crops which poisons the food chain, degrades ecosystems, resulting in the loss of topsoil thereby undermining the basis for agriculture
  • nuclear weapons both in existing arsenals and through proliferation
  • infectious diseases including antibiotic resistant superbugs
  • chronic illness caused by unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, and profit driven pharmaceutical protocols promoted by the disease-maintenance industry
  • racism and other forms of intolerance which undermine the growth of political pluralism
  • the endangered ethnosphere in which the accumulated knowledge of indigenous peoples, their languages and cultures is rapidly being lost
  • homogenized global culture in which human aspirations are manipulated in the service of commerce
  • technological dependence through which intelligence is being displaced from minds into devices
  • inequality stemming from inadequate political representation and excessive corporate power
  • ignorance resulting in the proliferation of all the above threats.

Compared with these issues, I don’t believe that ISIS constitutes a global threat, yet it nevertheless poses an urgent threat calling for a global response — a response that should not be artificially separated from the need to envision a post-war Syria.

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Obama expects ISIS to still be in power when he leaves the White House

Rami Khouri: [C]ombining American militarism with Arab dictatorships is probably the stupidest recipe that anybody could possibly come up with to try to fight jihadi movements like al-Qaeda and Islamic State and others, because it was that combination of Arab autocracy and American militarism that actually nurtured and let these movements expand. There has to be a more intelligent, more realistic process that allows the people in the Middle East to roll back these threats. And these people need to be fought; I’m not saying you sit around and do nothing. You have to fight these people and eradicate them…

What do we do about this Islamic State? These guys are taking more territory. They’re enforcing their rule by force, by terrorizing people. And very few people are happily accepting them. They don’t — you know, ordinary people don’t have a choice. If the Islamic State comes in with their guns and chops people’s heads off or crucifies a couple of people, everybody else stays [inaudible]. And this should be a telltale sign that these groups only can operate in zones of chaos. And the United States and others, the British, have helped create these zones of chaos in the last 20 years in Afghanistan and in Iraq, most recently. So, there’s really a lot of shared responsibility for this terrible situation we’re in, but the bottom line is we need to figure out how to fight the two real problems, which Obama keeps repeating as his strategy, the two real problems of autocratic, nondemocratic, abusive, corrupt, pretty inefficient and mediocre Arab government systems, Arab regimes, across the board. And the other one is the repeated use of American, British, Israeli, other military power in the region to try to enforce an order that the West and the Israelis and others feel is suitable for them. Those two problems are two of the root causes of all of these issues that we’re seeing, and the Islamic State is simply a symptom of years and years of this, of these kinds of problems of bad governance.

The driving force behind President Obama’s formulation of a strategy for dealing with ISIS appears to have been the mere fact that he inadvertently revealed he lacked such a strategy.

In other words, the strategy he is about to unveil on Wednesday is not really a strategy for dealing with ISIS; it’s a strategy for dealing with the fact that he looked inept when he said he didn’t have a strategy.

Having been forced by embarrassment to quickly formulate this strategy, it appears to have been stitched together as an effort to deflect earlier criticisms. For instance, in Libya the administration was embarrassed by Obama’s reluctance to lead. This time, the New York Times reports, “the Obama administration is no longer ‘leading from behind,’ but plans to play the central role in building a coalition to counter ISIS.”

Still, by framing this as an operation likely to last longer than his administration, the president wants to insulate himself from the risk of personal failure, while most likely he passes on the most difficult phase to his successor:

The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation — destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration.

What do we do about ISIS?

This isn’t a debate about the pros and cons of military action. As Khouri says: “You have to fight these people and eradicate them.”

If Obama invests less time on message management and more on genuine strategic thinking, then he might see that the coalition he’s trying to build should place at its core the people who have the ability and desire to fight ISIS: Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurds who should not be used as proxy forces following the commands of the Pentagon, but fighters fighting their own war with U.S. and allied support.

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Kissinger still at work covering up his war crimes

In an interview broadcast on NPR on Saturday, “realist” supremo, Henry Kissinger, made this extraordinary statement:

I think we would find, if you study the conduct of [the military], that the Obama administration has hit more targets on a broader scale than the Nixon administration ever did. And, of course, B-52s have a different bombing pattern.

On the other hand, drones are far more deadly because they are much more accurate. And I think the principle is essentially the same. You attack locations where you believe people operate who are killing you. You do it in the most limited way possible. And I bet if one did an honest account, there were fewer civilian casualties in Cambodia than there have been from American drone attacks. [My emphasis.]

kissingerObviously, Kissinger’s purpose in making this claim is not to portray President Obama as a war criminal. After all, Obama often acts like one of Kissinger’s most devoted students.

Kissinger wants to be seen as having done during the Vietnam war what any American in his position would have done. And since from the American public there has been little opposition to Obama’s use of drones, Kissinger hopes to liken himself to Obama and thereby shed his image as a war criminal.

There’s no doubt that Obama’s use of drones has been cynical, counter-productive, and indeed a criminal exercise in extra-judicial killing. But for Kissinger to claim that more civilians have been killed by drones than he killed by carpet bombing Cambodia is outrageous, absurd, and patently false.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism has been the leader in documenting the effects of America’s drone wars. Its estimate of the number of casualties in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2002 is at least 571 and at most 1225 civilian deaths.

In the four-year secret bombing campaign of Cambodia which Kissinger instigated, “the U.S. dropped 540,000 tons of bombs, killing anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 civilians.”

The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) describes how this happened:

Kissinger is now 91 and no doubt increasingly preoccupied with how he will be remembered after his death. Americans born after the Vietnam era might view him as a figure from the past (if they view him in any way at all), but no one should underestimate his enduring influence. Ironically, his realist worldview has tacitly been accepted even by people who identify themselves as anti-interventionists and opponents of war and for whom Kissinger might be one of the despised characters in American history.

In post 9/11 America, even those who are willing to argue that U.S. foreign policy should be informed by humanitarian principles also feel compelled to bow towards U.S. national interests. For instance, in as much as there was any debate about military intervention in Syria after the chemical attacks a year ago, the element in the argument that carried more weight than any other was America’s national interest. The wide consensus that America had no appetite to become entangled in another war and that getting dragged into the war in Syria would not serve our interests, overshadowed any consideration about what might serve the interests of the Syrian people. Their appeals for international support in their struggle to overthrow Assad have fallen on deaf ears among those who believe that there is no cause greater than the pursuit of our national interests.

Likewise, when it comes to a global issue such as climate change, America’s role in having precipitated the crisis and the fact that world’s poor living in flood-prone countries such as Bangladesh will suffer the worst consequences, appear to be of less influence in shaping American public opinion than are perceptions of how much the U.S. will be affected. In other words, to the extent that Americans believe this country can adapt and even prosper, the expectation that we can live while millions of others die, makes climate change look like a manageable problem.

Kissinger doesn’t have to worry about his legacy because with very few exceptions, Americans are all Kissingers now.

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French jihadist, alleged ISIS torturer, ‘looking for a destiny of his own’

Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was released in April after being held hostage in Syria by ISIS, has identified Mehdi Nemmouche, who is also French, as one of his captors. Henin says that over a period of several months he was repeatedly tortured and beaten by Nemmouche.

In July, Nemmouche was charged with murder following the killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in Brussels, on May 24.

The case of Nemmouche raises concerns in at least two ways: firstly, because he is viewed as a fear come true by those who warn of the risk posed to the West by European passport holders returning from the war in Syria who, having been trained by ISIS, may bring their jihad home. Secondly, his violence is being linked to the rise of antisemitism across Europe, particularly in France.

Henin’s perspective on Nemmouche is interesting because unlike terrorism experts who maintain much more distance from their subjects, the French journalist got to know this individual in a much more intimate way: as his torturer.

It would be easy to conclude that the nature of this relationship would make it impossible for Henin to be objective. Maybe so. But I think it’s just as likely that a victim of torture would feel driven to try and understand the mind of his persecutor — especially when they were in the unusual situation of sharing the same first language.

For this reason, I find Henin’s brief psychological profile of Nemmouche particularly interesting.

Henin observed that Nemmouche “came to Syria not because he wanted to fight for a specific cause but because he was looking for a destiny of his own.”

The term “radicalization” appears in the media a lot these days and it conjures up images of empty vessels — young men susceptible to being radicalized.

While that might accurately describe the hapless path that leads some into jihad, there are others — and who’s to say which are more numerous — for whom jihad simply becomes the vehicle for a destiny they were already pursuing.

My hunch is that it is the latter kind of jihadist for whom ISIS has the greatest appeal — that they are pursuing destinies of their own for which they have been provided an ideological vehicle which legitimizes and articulates their visceral drives.

France has about 70,000 prisoners, 60-70% of whom are Muslim. However prevalent the radicalization of Muslim prisoners has become, only a small minority become jihadists. Given that only 5-10% of the French population is Muslim, France’s larger concern should be that so many Muslims are being thrown in jail.

The French journalist Marc Weitzmann recounts how one prisoner describes the system.

Karim Mokhtari, who was sentenced to 10 years in the mid-1990s after he tried to rob a drug trafficker and accidentally killed him with a shotgun, reveals in his book Redemption how easy it is to be approached by Islamists there. “In prison,” he told me, “there are two things you catch as soon as you get there. One is how lonely you are, and the other is how lonely you don’t want to be. So you look in the courtyard and you ask yourself, to which group do I belong? There are the junkies, there are the dealers, there are the rapists, and so forth. And there are the religious. Cleaner than the rest, they also seem to suffer less, they take care of each other. I watched them for a week, then the improvised Imam came to me to ask if I were a Muslim and I said no, not yet, and he introduced me to someone freshly converted — a European — who taught me the first rudiments of Arabic, the first prayers and rituals. And it went on from there.”

After the conversion rate started to turn the group into a force of some sort, the administration decided out of precaution to dismantle the religious group: The imam was transferred. He came to Mokhtari’s cell, as Mokhtari told me: “ ‘Listen’ he said, ‘I’m being transferred and I must leave. But you, your mission as a Muslim is to kill. Kill miscreants anywhere you find them. You need to keep in touch for that even when you’re out so do it. And if you need military training, we have places for that too.’ ”

“That’s when I realized what I was going into,” Mokhtari said. He was the son of a violent mixed marriage, and his French mother got divorced and remarried to a racist Frenchman who lived on welfare and off robbery. … Mokhtari started to get regularly beaten by the man, who also woke him up at 4.a.m. on Saturday nights to take him along with him on his robberies of villas and apartments while Karim kept watch. But despite an incomparably more violent background than Nemmouche endured, Karim Mokhtari never turned to terrorism.

In the following film, Mokhtari describes his own redemption.

Destiny is a dangerous and intoxicating idea. It empowers the individual by allowing him to shed doubt.

Where there is no internal struggle, conviction easily translates into action. Those pursuing their destiny, swiftly move forward, while those unsure of their destiny, are more inclined to waver, aware of their capacity to make mistakes. Destiny is dangerous both subjectively and objectively.

If we believe some individuals are destined to become to become terrorists, we’re also likely to view them as irredeemable.

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