As rich nations turn their backs on those in need

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In an editorial, the New York Times says: The world is witnessing the largest exodus of refugees in generations, spawned by armed conflicts in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But “witnessing” is perhaps the wrong word. Many world leaders, including those who run most of the richest countries, are choosing to look the other way. They are more interested in barricading their nations from the fallout of conflict than in investing in peacekeeping and stability.

This willful neglect was on display last week at the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit, convened to face the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people. Most heads of state from the richest nations — including the United States — didn’t bother to show up, drawing a rebuke from the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.

“It’s disappointing that some world leaders could not be here, especially from the G-7 countries,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We have reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations” 70 years ago. [Continue reading…]

Contrast Ki-moon’s words with the happy talk from Barack Obama two weeks ago when he gave the commencement address at Rutgers:

by almost every measure, America is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, or 30 years ago, or even eight years ago.

This assessment has I believe less to do with the dry statistical arguments made by the likes of Steven Pinker, than it has with the group-think inside the Obama administration.

The easiest way to counter criticism on Syria, with the refugee crisis, and elsewhere, is by insisting we did all that we could.

This self-administered anesthetic is designed to suppress remorse, guilt and a keen sense on personal responsibility.

Obama’s faith in inexorable progress derives from his refusal to “look backwards” — a conviction not unlike that of a hit-and-run driver who keeps his eyes firmly on the road ahead.

Likewise, the notion that the United States can extricate itself from its Middle East entanglements by simply walking away, is really no different from the attitude of a deadbeat father who thinks he can leave his past behind.

Our need to understand the past derives from our need to understand the present — it has nothing to do with (as Obama claims) a fear of the future.

The simplistic approach favored inside the White House reduces everything to a choice over which Obama had no control: the decision to invade Iraq.

Those who make that the beginning of history, have very often thereafter indulged in the conceit that by having personally opposed that misadventure, they can thereby shed any sense of collective responsibility for what followed — as though the neocons’ war never actually became America’s war.

What is ostensibly geographically circumscribed by a neat divide between domestic and foreign is really a separation between those things we claim as our own and those we don’t.

The convenient reflex to which most people are susceptible is simply to disown whatever becomes problematic.

We turn our backs on refugees because we prefer to believe that they are not our problem.

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Iran-led push to retake Falluja from ISIS worries U.S.

The New York Times reports: American commandos are on the front lines in Syria in a new push toward the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Raqqa, but in Iraq it is an entirely different story: Iran, not the United States, has become the face of an operation to retake the jihadist stronghold of Falluja from the militant group.

On the outskirts of Falluja, tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, police officers and Shiite militiamen backed by Iran are preparing for an assault on the Sunni city, raising fears of a sectarian blood bath. Iran has placed advisers, including its top spymaster, Qassim Suleimani, on the ground to assist in the operation.

The battle over Falluja has evolved into yet another example of how United States and Iranian interests seemingly converge and clash at the same time in Iraq. Both want to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. But the United States has long believed that Iran’s role, which relies on militias accused of sectarian abuses, can make matters worse by angering Sunnis and making them more sympathetic to the militants. [Continue reading…]

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Behind Venezuela’s looming collapse

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The Morning They Came For Us by Janine di Giovanni – heroic dispatches from Syria

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Reading this book by the war correspondent Janine di Giovanni is at once necessary, difficult and elating. Her reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political.

Giovanni’s account is deeply personal. She was once obsessed with Bosnian crimes; in the introduction, she says that Syria may similarly “engulf her”. She finds herself unable to trim her baby son’s nails for thinking of an Iraqi who’d had his ripped out. Later, accepting a cigarette pack from a student of human rights, she notes the old cigarette burns on his arms.

Her Syrian visits fell between March and December 2012. During the first, she describes an uneasy silence in central Damascus even as the suburbs burned. Class in this society is a more significant divider than religion, and the bi-national elite are in denial, spinning conspiracy theories and attending pool parties. In these “last days of a spoilt empire that was about to implode”, Giovanni delineates the two different kinds of regime “believer” – true devotees, and those simply scared of the alternatives. A few hundred frustrated UN monitors are confined to their hotel, and war is “descending with stunning velocity”.

The book continues by recounting the ramifications for Syrian civilians of Assad’s various scorched earth strategies. An estimated 200,000 people disappeared into the regime gulag. Most have experienced torture. “I struggle to remember a place where torture has been so widespread and systematic,” a Human Rights Watch official tells Giovanni, who sets about uncovering some of the individual stories, by means of interviews and recollections of beatings, burnings and cuttings, perpetrated to the torturer’s usual refrain: “You want freedom? Is this the freedom you want?” [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s Rouhani may now control parliament, but do his economic reforms stand a chance?

By Nader Habibi, Brandeis University

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his policies are set to get a boost this week after voters elected a parliament that favors reform.

While Rouhani’s reformists didn’t win a majority of seats, it appears likely that the “moderate” independents also elected will side with his faction, giving the reformists an effective majority in the parliament for the first time since 2004.

So now that Rouhani may finally have the backing of parliament, will he be able to pursue the economic and social reforms he has promised since first taking office in 2013? And does this mean the nuclear deal that he helped champion will lead to an Iran that’s more open to foreign businesses and the West?

While a parliamentary majority helps – along with his general popularity – other power centers have enormous influence over economic policy, constraining Rouhani’s ability to implement reforms. These powerful institutions, such as the judiciary and the Revolutionary Guards, remain under the strong influence of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also enjoys veto power over all executive and parliamentary decisions.

To reach these conclusions, I’ve drawn upon more than two decades of research on political and economic conditions in Iran.

[Read more…]

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The last remaining Pentagon-trained rebel group in Syria is now in jeopardy

The Washington Post reports: Throughout the fiasco of the Pentagon’s $500 million effort to train and equip a force of Syrian rebels to take on the Islamic State, one small group endured.

The New Syrian Army completed the U.S. training course in Jordan, infiltrated into Syria and then, in March, without fanfare or publicity, seized a pinprick of territory from the militants at the remote Tanaf border crossing with Iraq in the far southeast corner of the Syrian province of Homs.

There they have remained, holding their ground without deserting, defecting or getting kidnapped, unlike many of the other similarly trained rebels whose mishaps prompted the temporary suspension of the program last year.

Even this modest success is now in jeopardy, however, following an Islamic State suicide attack this month. An armored vehicle barreled into the rebels’ base shortly before dawn on May 7, killing a number of them, said Lt. Col. Mohammed Tallaa, a Syrian officer who defected and is the group’s commander. [Continue reading…]

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Brazil: ‘Unhappy is the nation that needs heroes’

Bruno Cava writes: The fall of Dilma seems to demand an obvious reading on the part of the left. Again in the history of Latin America, a national-popular government is overthrown by the neocolonial elites. Again, the geopolitical attempt to build an alternative axis to the imperialism of Washington, this time through the BRICs, ends up crushed by a restoration of the conservatives. The history of coups d’etat again returns to the stage in the subcontinent, and an echo is heard of the coups of 1964 (Brazil), 1973 (Chile) and 1976 (Argentina), and the military uprising against Chavez in Venezuela (2002), or again the so-called “soft coups” against Zelaya in Honduras (2009) and Lugo in Paraguay (2012). This time the victims have been the largest mass party in the Americas, the biggest domino piece that now threatens the entire wave of progressive governments. There are more than enough signs to reinforce that interpretation. Taking to the streets in favour of the Partido de Trabalhadores (PT) are Lula, the MST (Movimiento de los Trabajadores Sin-Tierra, Landless Workers’ Movement) and a pantheon of leftist intellectuals, along with stars and red flags, exposing the immediate ramifications of the coup and denouncing it.

The end of the Workers Party’s 2003 to 2016 hold on federal government affects the current situation of those who feel themselves to be directly involved in the project. Regardless of what this “project” may mean, to admit its collapse is interpreted as the end of a worldview. As truncated and full of contradictions as it may be, when the curtain falls to end the petista play, the feeling that manifests is a mixture of melancholy and rage. So great was the hope placed in the PT that the present moment feels like the end of an era, and, shipwrecked with it, the left, progressivism, and every possible horizon of struggle. Future, present and past come together at a point where everything appears to gain depth and everything is put in doubt: not only who occupies the governmental seat will be decided, but also the social gains of the past two decades, the institutional legacy of the 1988 Constitution, and the memory of the struggles against dictatorship.

During the impeachment vote in Congress, parliamentarians repeatedly invoked sacred values and patriotic institutions in dramatic speeches. A deputy praised a torturer colonel of the 1964 regime, another proclaimed the end of the “lulopetista dictatorship” grounded in the Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance programme), described by another deputy as “creating paid vagrants”. Time constraints also impelled the opposing deputies to invoke the martyrs of the resistance, from Zumbi, the insurgent leader of the slaves, to Olga Benário, the communist deported from the Vargas dictatorship to the Third Reich and subsequently gassed. The dramatised scenes of the Brazilian parliamentary representation’s tableau vivant sounded like successive blows of theatre, jumping uncharacteristically from scene to scene.

It should provoke at least curiosity, in those less easily persuaded by histrionics and melodramatic effects, to qualify as a coup the procedure carried out under the country’s presidential constitution, foreseen precisely for the removal of an elected president, when the procedure itself is carried out to the letter and under the supervision of a supreme court composed of eleven members, eight of whom proposed by the PT governments. Or, that the person who will take the place of Dilma, if the impeachment is confirmed in October, will be the vice president who was elected along with her in 2014 and 2010. More than two thirds of MPs in both Brazilian legislative chambers voted to open the impeachment process, with an interval of nearly a month between the first and second deliberation, during which time government forces exercised their defence in forums and media and in the appropriate bodies, before which appeal after appeal were filed, in a microscopic dissection of the ritual. [Continue reading…]

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On nuclear weapons, nations must cooperate to avoid catastrophe

Sam Nunn writes: President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima comes almost 71 years after the conclusion of a world war that was fought and ended with tremendous sacrifice, huge casualties and immense devastation. Today, global nuclear arsenals are capable of destroying not only cities but also civilization itself. Albert Einstein’s prophesy bears repeating: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”

Since the end of World War II, the United States and our allies have relied on the ultimate threat of mutual assured destruction for our security, as the Soviet Union did and Russia does now. Today, with nine nations possessing nuclear arms and terrorists seeking them, this strategy has become increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

Warren Buffett, a man who knows how to calculate risk, has reminded us that if the chance of an event occurring is 10 percent in a given year, and that same risk persists over 50 years, there is a 99.5 percent probability that it will happen during those 50 years. For more than 70 years, the United States and Russia have beaten the odds, avoiding a number of near-disasters. The recent deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia has greatly increased these risks.

The two nations still deploy thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire on a moment’s notice, risking a catastrophic accident or miscalculation based on a false warning. Cold War dangers compelled dialogue between Washington and Moscow on nuclear security and strategic stability. This dialogue is dangerously absent now, even as our planes and ships have close encounters in Europe and the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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In Syria, a slow-motion genocide while diplomats chatter

Janine di Giovanni writes: The International Syria Support Group, consisting of 20 countries and organizations, met in Vienna earlier this month to once again attempt to decide the fate of the Syrian people. Predictably, the diplomats left the Austrian capital with little more than promises for a “cessation of hostilities.”

“The challenge we face now is to transform these possibilities into the reality of an agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry declared, referring to a “basic framework” for a united, non-sectarian Syria.

Those words mean nothing to the fighters on the ground, who continue to push for more territory. In Aleppo, missiles fall and helicopters whir in the sky. In Daraya, a suburb of Damascus that has been besieged by Syrian government forces since 2012, 8,000 inhabitants are starving.

The Syria Campaign, an independent advocacy group, estimates that a Syrian dies every 51 minutes. On the day the diplomats gathered in Vienna, 28 civilians were killed, 94 rockets were launched and 40 barrel bombs dropped. There is a disconnect, to say the least, between the “peace process” and what is actually happening in real time. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s allies in the West

Shawn Carrié writes: If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Syria, it’s that nobody can agree on anything.

After five years of constantly evolving strife, the world still looks on in occasional waves of horror, pity, outrage and apathy – before returning to the stoic conclusion that the conflict is just too complicated to understand.

The laws of war, human rights and geopolitics have gone out the window. With them, regrettably, the rules of responsible journalism seem to have gone, too.

At one time, open-source activists and “Facebook revolutionaries” made the Arab Spring history’s most documented tectonic societal shift. Today, Syria’s war is a dangerously polarised nebula of partisans, as much in the media as on the battlegrounds.

Few non-aligned journalists remain to report unbiased and trustworthy news. Without credible information, it’s hard to understand anything that happens in Syria, contributing to a political and public consensus of apathy. What’s left is a news landscape driven less by actual events than by a narrow set of available perspectives.

“The Syrian conflict involves a public relations war with a level of sophistication we’ve never seen before,” American writer Patrick Henningsen said in an report published by Russia Today. Ironically, it’s an accurate assessment of a reality which Russia had a primary role in fostering.

In areas where Russian intervention hasn’t decisively turned the tide militarily in favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the allies’ powerful public relations machine has been working to pick up the slack.

The alliance with Putin has availed Assad of the full gauntlet of Moscow’s superior state-controlled media apparatus. The result: a highly efficient and centralised narrative spread throughout the international press. For every report, a favourable counter-narrative filters down from the regime megaphone to a wide network of smaller websites and blogs. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS advance traps 165,000 Syrians at closed Turkish border

Gerry Simpson, at Human Rights Watch, writes: There are two walls on the Turkey-Syria border.

One is manned by Turkish border guards enforcing Turkey’s 15 month-old border closure who, according to witnesses, have at times shot at and assaulted Syrian asylum seekers as they try to reach safety in Turkey – abuses strongly denied by the Turkish government.

The other is a wall of silence by the rest of the world, including the United Nations, which has chosen to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s breach of international law which prohibits forcing people back to places, including by rejecting them at the border, where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

Both walls are trapping 165,000 displaced Syrians now scattered in overcrowded informal settlements and fields just south of Turkey’s Öncupınar/Bab al-Salameh border crossing and in and around the nearby Syrian town of Azaz. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS, losing territory in Syria, signals strategic shift

Taylor Luck reports: With the territory of the Islamic State cut by a third and Kurdish militias launching an offensive into its proclaimed capital of Raqqa, the group appears to be preparing its followers for a new, drawn-out phase of warfare.

In a rare recorded audio message released May 21, IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani conceded that the group has lost territory to the US-backed international coalition and its allies, and vowed that IS will still strike the West even if it is “driven into the desert.”

He called on IS supporters across the world to carry out attacks during the month of Ramadan, which starts in early June.

“We will make this month, inshallah, a month of calamities for the infidels everywhere,” said Mr. Adnani, also known as Taha Subhi Falaha. “This call specifically goes out to the supporters of the Islamic Caliphate in Europe and America.”

The announcement signals a shift away from the traditional military campaign that enabled IS to rapidly capture large swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq and establish the so-called “Islamic Caliphate,” a jihadist’s utopia where its ultra-extremist interpretation of Islam is enforced in all aspects of life. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military special forces pictured aiding Kurdish fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: Elite US military forces have been photographed for the first time in Syria as they join largely Kurdish forces on an advance toward, Raqqa, the Islamic State terror group’s capital.

A photographer with Agence France-Presse captured US special operations forces with Kurdish forces known as the YPG, part of the US-mentored Syrian Democratic Forces, in a rural village less than 40 miles from Raqqa. Some US troops wear the insignia of the YPG in an apparent show of support.

Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, resisted commenting on the photographs and would only describe the US special operations forces’ mission in generic terms.

“Our special operations forces in the past have, yes, worn insignias and other identifying marks with their partner forces,” Cook told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: Turkey has hit out at the US over images said to show US special forces in Syria wearing insignia of Kurdish militia, during joint operations against so-called Islamic State (IS).

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the US “two-faced” and said the practice was “unacceptable”.

The images appear to show a US special forces soldier wearing the patch of the YPJ – a Kurdish militia group.

A Pentagon spokesman said troops often blended in with partners for safety. [Continue reading…]

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As Iraqi offensive unfolds, civilians trapped in Fallujah face multiple threats

The Washington Post reports: Civilians trapped in the Iraqi city of Fallujah face mounting threats as humanitarian conditions worsen and Iraqi forces­ press their offensive to oust the Islamic State, local and foreign officials said Thursday.

About 50,000 civilians are believed to remain in the city, which has been under Islamic State control since January 2014, living under the militants’ harsh and capricious rule. Conditions for residents have grown dire in recent months as a siege by government-aligned forces has aggravated shortages of food and medicine.

Now, officials from Fallujah fear that the ongoing operation designed to break the militants’ grip on the city will further endanger civilians. In recent days, a combined force of Iraqi army troops, police, Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribal fighters has made progress in clearing militants from areas around Fallujah, in preparation for a push into the city in western Anbar province. [Continue reading…]

Becky Bakr Abdulla, from the Norwegian Refugee Council, describes the impact on civilians: The first thing that struck me was the silence. On Tuesday, as I entered Al Iraq, a displacement camp in Amiriyat Al-Fallujah and the nearest to the besieged city of Fallujah, no one was outside their tents. As fighting raged just 30km away between armed opposition groups and the Iraqi military, it was strangely quiet.

The camp shelters some of the few families who have managed to escape the fighting in the city that has been under armed opposition groups control for the last two years. On Monday, as the Iraqi military began an offensive in the city, the atmosphere in our office in Baghdad became particularly tense, as the already dire humanitarian situation became critical. Staff shared the latest scraps of news. Some became particularly anxious about their friends and family among the estimated 50,000 civilians still trapped in the city.

The families I met were in a state of shock and spoke about the ordeal of their escape. They were among the 21 families in Al Iraq camp, out of approximately 114 who we believe have escaped the city so far. One woman, whose family was told by armed opposition groups that they would be shot if they tried to flee, waited until night-time to make a move. They removed their shoes and sandals so they were not heard as they started running. [Continue reading…]

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What will Netanyahu do with his expanded coalition?

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