Finland says it is nearing security deal with U.S. amid concerns over Russia

The Guardian reports: Finland says it is close to concluding a defence cooperation agreement with the US, the latest in a series of steps the formally neutral Nordic country has taken to bolster its security in the face of heightened Russian military activity.

The country’s defence minister, Jussi Niinistö, said he hoped the deal – incorporating joint military training, information sharing and research – would be signed before the US presidential election in November.

“It’s one of the reasons to have it done this autumn. But I’m certain we will continue to work together with either one of main candidates winning,” Niinisto told Reuters news agency. There was no immediate response from the Pentagon on a potential agreement.

The deal would provide a framework for increased cooperation between the armed forces of the two nations but would not involve any binding commitment for either country to come to the defence of the other. Finland signed a similar agreement with the UK in July.

Sweden, the other Nordic country to have remained outside Nato, signed a defence cooperation agreement with the US in June. Leaders from both Sweden and Finland also took part in a Nato summit last month in Warsaw, and their armed forces have taken part in Nato military exercises in the region as nervousness has grown around the Baltic over an increasing number of Russian military drills in the air and sea following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Both Nordic states have already signed agreements that would make it easier for them to host Nato troops in a crisis, and they contributed troops to the Nato mission in Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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How corruption paved the way for the rise of ISIS and the failure of Iraq

Ken Silverstein writes: It is hard to overstate the devastating role that corruption has played in the failure of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. According to a report last March by the Iraqi parliament’s auditing committee, the country’s defense ministry has spent $150 billion on weapons during the past decade — but acquired only $20 billion worth of arms. Much of the equipment it did obtain was useless, 1970s-era matériel from former Soviet bloc states that was invoiced at up to four times its actual value. Late last year, well-placed sources tell me, the Pentagon delivered a shipment of new weapons to the Iraqi government, including .50-caliber sniper rifles, which were supposed to be sent to Sunni fighters in Anbar Province. Instead, corrupt officials in the Iraqi ministries of interior and defense sold the arms to ISIS, which is using them to kill Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

“The Kurds are still using equipment we gave them in 2003,” says a former CIA official who spends a good deal of time in Iraq. “They’re forced to buy ammo and weapons that the U.S. government gives to Baghdad from corrupt Iraqi government officials.”

Weapons aren’t the only target for corruption. When it comes to the vast sums of money that have flowed into Iraq for reconstruction and economic development, officials at every level of government have been more focused on lining their own pockets than rebuilding their ruined country. [Continue reading…]

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More than a third of all casualties in Aleppo are now children

Robin Wright writes: Last month, four newborns in incubators fought for their lives in a small hospital in Aleppo, the besieged Syrian city. Then a bomb hit the hospital and cut off power — and oxygen to the incubators. The babies suffocated. In a joint letter to President Obama this month, fifteen doctors described the infants’ deaths: “Gasping for air, their lives ended before they had really begun.” The doctors are among the last few in the eastern part of Aleppo, the historic former commercial center where a hundred thousand children are now trapped.

“Young children are sometimes brought into our emergency rooms so badly injured that we have to prioritize those with better chances, or simply don’t have the equipment to help them,” the doctors wrote. Only a trickle of food is making it through a land blockade imposed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Whether we live or die seems to be dependent on the ebbs and flows of the battlefield,” the doctors said. “For five years, we have faced death from above” — bombs — “on a daily basis. But we now face death from all around.”

More than a third of all casualties in Aleppo are now kids, according to Save the Children. Among them is Omran Daqneesh, the toddler with the moppish Beatles haircut whose picture captivated the world this week. He was shown covered with blood and dust after being dug from the debris of a bombing in Syria on Thursday. Rescuers placed him, alone, on an orange seat in an ambulance. His stunned, dazed expression mirrored the trauma of a war-ravaged generation. (On Saturday, we learned that Omran’s older brother Ali, who was ten, had died from wounds sustained in the attack.)[Continue reading…]

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Continued inaction in the face of an abomination shaped by Assad, Iran, and Russia is exacting too high a price

Fred Hof writes: No one in the history of the Syrian conflict has counseled Mr. Obama to invade and occupy Syria, fighting Iranian forces in the process. Fifty-one conscience-stricken State Department officers recently pressed upon him a variation of what others, in and out of government, have urged him for years to do: use limited military means to exact a price for mass homicide in an effort to deter it. For years the president has said no. The consequences for Syrians, their neighbors, and European allies have been staggering, as a country that began the war with 23 million people gradually empties itself. And ISIS — the author of heinous atrocities abroad — is in large measure a consequence of Assad regime mass homicide unchecked by the civilized world.

Yet whenever presented with modest proposals for measured pushback, Mr. Obama and his communications mavens deploy an army of straw men to counterattack. They have exploited the understandable, if misguided reluctance of Americans to do anything at all of a military nature in the Middle East after the experience of Iraq.

ISIS — partly the result of Assad-induced state failure in Syria — is the exception. But Assad himself — a protégé and employee of Iran — has been spared entirely, even though a straight line runs from his practice of mass homicide in Syria to the ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom and the rise of Vladimir Putin lookalikes in the politics of the West. Iran is the key to understanding why the Obama administration immolated its own reputation in the 2013 ‘red line’ fiasco, and why it continues to look the other way while Assad and his enablers enjoy an unrestrained crime spree. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia kills civilians, the U.S. looks the other way

Samuel Oakford writes: In the span of four days earlier this month, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen bombed a Doctors Without Borders-supported hospital, killing 19 people; a school, where 10 children, some as young as 8, died; and a vital bridge over which United Nations food supplies traveled, punishing millions.

In a war that has seen reports of human rights violations committed by every side, these three attacks stand out. But the Obama administration says these strikes, like previous ones that killed thousands of civilians since last March, will have no effect on the American support that is crucial for Saudi Arabia’s air war.

On the night of Aug. 11, coalition warplanes bombed the main bridge on the road from Hodeidah, along the Red Sea coast, to Sana, the capital. When it didn’t fully collapse, they returned the next day to destroy the bridge.

More than 14 million Yemenis suffer dangerous levels of food insecurity — a figure that dwarfs that of any other country in conflict, worsened by a Saudi-led and American-supported blockade. One in three children under the age of 5 reportedly suffers from acute malnutrition. An estimated 90 percent of food that the United Nation’s World Food Program transports to Sana traveled across the destroyed bridge. [Continue reading…]

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Inside the real U.S. ground war on ISIS

Mike Giglio reports: The Black Hawk helicopter pushed into ISIS territory through the pre-dawn sky. Joshua Wheeler, a veteran master sergeant with US special operations, was taking his men deep behind enemy lines. As the chopper descended on the ISIS stronghold of Hawija in northern Iraq, back in Washington, US president Barack Obama, who had been notified of the mission, waited for word of its fate.

Wheeler and his team were at the forefront of the hidden war US special operations troops are waging against ISIS. With him in the chopper were fellow members of the US Army’s elite Delta Force and some of the local commandos they had trained. Decked in desert camouflage and equipped with high-tech automatic weapons and night vision, the US and local soldiers looked almost identical.

Their mission, carried out on Oct. 22, was more dangerous than most. It called for the men to infiltrate a guarded compound that ISIS had converted into a prison and rescue dozens of men who, according to intelligence reports, were scheduled to be executed that day.

ISIS militants began firing on the helicopter as it lowered toward the compound. Wheeler shot back from the bay, recalled one of the local soldiers who was beside him, a captain with a specialized Kurdish force called the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), which is run by the security council of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Then — as Wheeler often did, his Kurdish partners said — he led the way.

Wheeler hit the ground first, said the 29-year-old captain, the ranking CTU officer on the chopper. Gunshots and calls of “Allahu Akbar” rang out as the militants tried to repel the commandos, firing with everything they had. The captain said he and Wheeler advanced together, “fighting side by side.”

By the time the operation was over three hours later, around 20 ISIS militants had been killed and 69 prisoners had been saved. And Wheeler was dead, struck down by an ISIS bullet, making him the first US service member to lose his life in the ISIS fight.

When his death became public, US officials painted the combat role of the US commandos on the mission as an anomaly. The Pentagon’s press secretary called it “a unique circumstance.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wheeler’s engagement with the enemy “wasn’t part of the plan.” These comments pushed Wheeler’s death into line with the narrative Obama had presented to the public when the new fight began. “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done,” he said in August 2014 as US airstrikes against ISIS began. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”

But the Kurdish soldiers who worked with Wheeler tell a different story. They say that Wheeler intended from the start to be up front in the operation — and that elite US troops like him often lead the charge against ISIS on the ground. [Continue reading…]

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The drone presidency

David Cole writes: On March 5, the United States used unmanned drones and manned aircraft to drop bombs on a group of what it described as al-Shabab militants at a camp about 120 miles north of Mogadishu, Somalia, killing approximately 150 of them. The administration claimed that the militants presented an imminent threat to African Union troops in the region with whom US advisers have been working, although it produced no evidence to support the claim. The news that the United States had killed 150 unnamed individuals in a country halfway around the world with which it is not at war generated barely a ripple of attention, much less any protest, here at home. Remote killing outside of war zones, it seems, has become business as usual.

This is a remarkable development, all the more noteworthy in that it has emerged under Barack Obama, who came to office as an antiwar president, so much so that he may be the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize based on wishful thinking. Our Peace Prize president has now been at war longer than any other American president, and has overseen the use of military force in seven countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. In the latter four countries, virtually all the force has come in the form of unmanned drones executing suspected terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaeda or its “associated forces.”

That an antiwar president has found the drone so tempting ought to be a warning sign. [Continue reading…]

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A former CIA asset has become a U.S. headache in Libya

The Washington Post reports: He’s a grandfather and longtime Washington suburbanite who now commands a powerful fighting force in northern Africa. He’s also a former CIA asset and anti-Islamist warrior who stands in the way of peace in Libya.

The United States and its allies can’t figure out what to do about Khalifa Hifter, the Libyan general whose refusal to support a fragile unity government has jeopardized hopes for stability in a country plagued by conflict.

Since he emerged as an important post-revolution figure in 2014, Western governments have struggled to define an effective policy to deal with Hifter, who has styled himself as an antidote to extremists while building his own power base and shunning the political process brokered by the United Nations.

“Hifter is threatening many of the Western-backed initiatives in Libya and the establishment of a recognized political power,” said Barak Barfi, a scholar at New America, a Washington think tank. “Hifter doesn’t have the strength on the battlefield to deliver on his promises to defeat Islamists, but he can act as a spoiler.”

Even as militia forces, backed by U.S. air power, make progress against the Islamic State in central Libya, Hifter looms as a primary impediment to White House hopes for restoring the democratic promise of the 2011 revolution that ended dictator Moammar Gaddafi’s long rule.

Hifter’s role in a much earlier, CIA-backed attempt to overthrow Gaddafi injects another element of complexity into American efforts to end Libya’s long crisis. [Continue reading…]

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As Aleppo is destroyed, Obama stands by

An editorial in the Washington Post says: “Devastating and overwhelming.” Those are the conditions in the ancient and once-great metropolis of Aleppo, according to the head of delegation for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Marianne Gasser, who was in the Syrian city recently.

“We hear that dozens of civilians are being killed every day and scores more injured from shells, mortars and rockets,” Ms. Gasser said. “The bombing is constant. The violence is threatening hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, homes and livelihoods.”

War crimes appear to be near-constant also. The air forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his chief backer, Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, target apartment buildings, bakeries and — this is their specialty — hospitals and clinics. The United Nations is investigating credible reports that Mr. Assad again has used chemical weapons, in this case chlorine gas. Water has been cut off from hundreds of thousands of people.

The last surviving physicians in the rebel-held half of Aleppo a few days ago begged President Obama to help. “The world has stood by and remarked how ‘complicated’ Syria is, while doing little to protect us,” they wrote. “The burden of responsibility for the crimes of the Syrian government and its Russian ally must therefore be shared by those, including the United States, who allow them to continue.”

Why would these brave, forlorn doctors look to Mr. Obama for rescue? Perhaps one of them, through the terrible din of war, remembers hearing the president promise to stand by the Syrian people as they were being “subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights.” [Continue reading…]

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Why the United States must change its failed policy in Syria

Hassan Hassan writes: Aleppo is a microcosm of the Syrian conflict. It is also a microcosm of the failures of American policy in this war-torn country.

The country’s second largest city has come to define everything that is wrong with the Syrian war: Indiscriminate violence, a siege, starvation, rising extremism, and crippling regional and international rivalries. In the midst of this mess, Washington is a bystander — even a contributor — to the worsening situation.

On Thursday, Aleppo’s last remaining doctors wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama highlighting a similar message: “We have seen no effort on behalf of the United States to lift the siege or even use its influence to push the parties to protect civilians,” the doctors, 15 in total, wrote.

The humanitarian crisis in Aleppo continues to make headlines as regime and Russian airstrikes often target the city’s infrastructure and provision of basic services. Each time, the lives of an estimated 300,000 civilians get worse in what CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward described as an “apocalyptic wasteland.”

But instead of responding to the worst disaster of our times, US policy is vindicating one of the most critical mantras of extremists: That the international community is not a friend to the Syrian people. [Continue reading…]

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America is complicit in the carnage in Yemen

An editorial in the New York Times says: A hospital associated with Doctors Without Borders. A school. A potato chip factory. Under international law, those facilities in Yemen are not legitimate military targets. Yet all were bombed in recent days by warplanes belonging to a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, killing more than 40 civilians.

The United States is complicit in this carnage. It has enabled the coalition in many ways, including selling arms to the Saudis to mollify them after the nuclear deal with Iran. Congress should put the arms sales on hold and President Obama should quietly inform Riyadh that the United States will withdraw crucial assistance if the Saudis do not stop targeting civilians and agree to negotiate peace.

The airstrikes are further evidence that the Saudis have escalated their bombing campaign against Houthi militias, which control the capital, Sana, since peace talks were suspended on Aug. 6, ending a cease-fire that was declared more than four months ago. They also suggest one of two unpleasant possibilities. One is that the Saudis and their coalition of mostly Sunni Arab partners have yet to learn how to identify permissible military targets. The other is that they simply do not care about killing innocent civilians. The bombing of the hospital, which alone killed 15 people, was the fourth attack on a facility supported by Doctors Without Borders in the past year even though all parties to the conflict were told exactly where the hospitals were located.

In all, the war has killed more than 6,500 people, displaced more than 2.5 million others and pushed one of the world’s poorest countries from deprivation to devastation. A recent United Nations report blamed the coalition for 60 percent of the deaths and injuries to children last year. Human rights groups and the United Nations have suggested that war crimes may have been committed. [Continue reading…]

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Promises unfulfilled: How a State Department plan to stabilize Iraq broke apart

The Washington Post reports: A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.

Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.

Iraq would see a “robust civilian presence,” Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. “We are working to achieve that,” she said.

Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all.

Clinton’s political foes would later seek to blame her, together with President Obama, for the Islamic State’s stunning takeover of western Iraq, saying the State Department failed to preserve fragile security gains achieved at great cost by U.S. troops. In a speech Monday on how he would deal with terrorist threats, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said, “The rise of ISIS is the direct result of policy decisions made by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.”

But an intensive review of the record during Clinton’s tenure presents a broader picture of missteps and miscalculations by multiple actors — including her State Department as well as the Maliki government, the White House and Congress — that left Iraqi security forces weakened and vulnerable to the Islamic State’s 2014 surge. [Continue reading…]

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