A ferocious assault on Aleppo suggests the U.S. may be wrong on Syria

The Washington Post reports: Syrian and Russian warplanes launched a ferocious assault against rebel-held Aleppo on Friday, burying any hopes that a U.S.-backed cease-fire could be salvaged and calling into question whether the deal would ever have worked.

Waves upon waves of planes relentlessly struck neighborhoods in the rebel-held east of the city on the first day of a new offensive announced by the government. Residents described the most intense airstrikes they had yet witnessed in a five-year-old war that has already claimed in excess of 300,000 lives.

By nightfall, more than 100 bombs had landed, and more than 80 people were dead, said Ammar al-Selmo, head of the Aleppo branch of the White Helmets civil defense group.

Rescuers don’t have the capacity to reach all the places that were hit because there are too many, he said. Three White Helmets bases were among the locations targeted, and two were destroyed, along with their equipment and fuel supplies, further diminishing the group’s ability to respond.

“It is a horrific situation now in Aleppo,” Selmo said. “There are dead people in the streets, and fires are burning without control.

“People don’t know what to do or where to go. There is no escape. It is like the end of the world.”

If there had been any doubt before that the cease-fire deal co-sponsored with Russia is dead, at least for the foreseeable future, the violence Friday put it to rest. A meeting in New York between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ended swiftly, without statements or discernible progress toward Kerry’s stated goal of reviving last week’s cease-fire.

Instead, the launch of the offensive called into question the entire premise of the agreement painstakingly negotiated by Kerry and Lavrov over the past eight months: that Russia shares the Obama administration’s view that there is no military solution to the conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Why we are protesting in Charlotte

Rev Dr William J Barber, II writes: Since a police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday afternoon, the ensuing protests have dominated national news. Provocateurs who attacked police officers and looted stores made headlines. Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency, and the National Guard joined police officers in riot gear, making the Queen City look like a war zone.

Speaking on the campaign trail in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Donald J. Trump offered a grave assessment: “Our country looks bad to the world, especially when we are supposed to be the world’s leader. How can we lead when we can’t even control our own cities?” Mr. Trump seems to want Americans to believe, as Representative Robert Pittenger, a Republican whose district includes areas in Charlotte, told the BBC, that black protesters in the city “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.

But Charlotte’s protests are not black people versus white people. They are not black people versus the police. The protesters are black, white and brown people, crying out against police brutality and systemic violence. If we can see them through the tear gas, they show us a way forward to peace with justice. [Continue reading…]

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Ancient Syrian sites: A different story of destruction

Hugh Eakin writes: Among the major turning points of the Syrian conflict, few have been laden with as much symbolism — or geopolitical posturing — as the recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra on March 27, 2016. After a weeks-long campaign by Russian bombers and Syrian regime soldiers, the withdrawal of ISIS forces from this extraordinary desert oasis was celebrated as bringing an end to an infamous reign of barbarism.

Connecting Rome and the civilizations of the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia and the empires of the East, Palmyra had been one of the great trading centers of antiquity; for centuries, its incomparable ruins had stood as monuments to Arab glory and Levantine cosmopolitanism. Over the previous ten months, however, the jihadists had reduced to rubble its most important shrine, a soaring, exquisitely decorated first-century-CE temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Bel, who was central to Palmyra’s religious cult.

ISIS also blew up a second temple, dedicated to the other supreme Palmyrene deity, Baalshamin; it toppled the triumphal arch on the colonnaded main street, which may have commemorated a Roman victory over the Parthians in the late second century CE; demolished several of the city’s distinctive tower tombs; and sacked the archaeological museum at the site. Most chillingly, it executed the eighty-one-year-old Syrian archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, who had for decades been in charge of the site. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. intel officials probe ties between Trump adviser and Kremlin

Michael Isikoff reports: U.S. intelligence officials are seeking to determine whether an American businessman identified by Donald Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers has opened up private communications with senior Russian officials — including talks about the possible lifting of economic sanctions if the Republican nominee becomes president, according to multiple sources who have been briefed on the issue.

The activities of Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business interests in Russia, have been discussed with senior members of Congress during recent briefings about suspected efforts by Moscow to influence the presidential election, the sources said. After one of those briefings, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.

Some of those briefed were “taken aback” when they learned about Page’s contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy, said a congressional source familiar with the briefings but who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. The source added that U.S. officials in the briefings indicated that intelligence reports about the adviser’s talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin were being “actively monitored and investigated.” [Continue reading…]

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The devastation of Syria will be Obama’s legacy

Natalie Nougayrède writes: The ceasefire in Syria may not have been formally pronounced dead, but hopes to resurrect it are fast dwindling. After an aid convoy was destroyed near Aleppo, fighting again intensified and the US and Russia exchanged accusations in the UN. But in reality US diplomacy had collapsed before these latest events.

Last week, just hours after western coalition airstrikes mistakenly targeted Syrian government forces, killing more than 60 people, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, made an extraordinary statement that served to highlight the contradictions at the heart of the Obama administration.

Power lambasted Russia’s “uniquely cynical and hypocritical stunt” for having convened an emergency UN security council meeting over the bombing of Syrian troops. She lashed out at how Russia had, over the past five years, consistently propped up the Assad regime and protected it from any consequences of its murderous policies. At length, she described Bashar al-Assad’s strategy of “death by a thousand paper cuts”: starvation sieges; the “horrifying, predictable regularity” of strikes on civilian targets; the “routine” use of chemical weapons; and “torture chambers” holding “tens of thousands of people”. Why, she asked, had Russia never once called an urgent security council meeting over such horrors?

There have long been two takes on Syria. One is the geopolitical realism line, which Barack Obama has chosen to follow largely because it fits with his reluctance to get involved in another war. The line is that US or western security interests are not at stake in an intractable, far-flung civil war that can more easily be contained than solved. The other is the moral imperative line that Power has repeatedly advocated within the administration. It refers to the doctrine of “responsibility to protect”, according to which a state’s sovereignty can be violated when a regime slaughters its own citizens. [Continue reading…]

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Syria ignores Kerry and launches an offensive to recapture Aleppo

The Washington Post reports: Violence surged in Syria on Thursday as Syria’s government made it clear it has no intention of abiding by U.S. calls for the restoration of the failed U.S.-Russian cease-fire deal.

Late Thursday night, the Syrian army announced the launch of an offensive to recapture the rebel held eastern portions of the city of Aleppo, which has been completely surrounded by government forces for the past three weeks.

Syrian rescue workers and activists reported heavy bombing in rebel controlled areas early on Friday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 40 air strikes from midnight onwards.

The head of civil defense, the acclaimed “White Helmets” rescue service, in the eastern part of the city said three of its four centers had been hit by bombs, knocking two of out commission.

“Today, we can say our work has stopped because of the lack of fuel, the destruction of the equipment and the intensity of the bombardment,” Ammar al-Selmo told Reuters news agency.

The announcement of the offensive suggested that Syria’s government has no intention of complying with any further cease-fire requests from the international community, despite appeals by Secretary of State John F. Kerry the day before to revive the failed attempt to stop the fighting.

In an interview with the Associated Press in Damascus, a defiant President Bashar al-Assad said he takes no notice of what U.S. government officials say.

“American officials — they say something in the morning and they do the opposite in the evening,” he said. “You cannot take them at their word, to be frank. We don’t listen to their statements, we don’t care about it, we don’t believe it.” [Continue reading…]

 

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Trump praises the ruthless authoritarian rule of Egypt’s al-Sisi

Politico reports: A day after autocratic Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he had “no doubt” Donald Trump would make a strong leader, the Republican nominee returned the favor, praising Sisi as a “fantastic guy.”

Sitting down with Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs, Trump touted the “chemistry” the two politicians shared during a special meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly Monday.

“I thought it was very productive. He’s a fantastic guy,” Trump said of Sisi. “I thought it was a great meeting. We met for a long time, actually. There was a good chemistry there. You know when you have good chemistry with people. There was a good feeling between us.”

Trump also praised the foreign leader’s handling of the Egyptian coup d’etat of 2013 that removed former President Mohamed Morsi from power, a bloody transition that saw thousands of dissidents and protesters killed.

“He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it,” Trump said.

Days prior, Trump lavished Sisi with praise, expressing support for the leader’s “strong support for Egypt’s war on terrorism, and how under a Trump administration, the United States of America will be a loyal friend, not simply an ally, that Egypt can count on in the days and years ahead.” [Continue reading…]

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Sisi is a dead man walking

David Hearst writes: “You want to be a first-class nation? Will you bear it if I make you walk on your own feet? When I wake you up at five in the morning every day? Will you bear cutting back on food, cutting back on air-conditioners? …People think I’m a soft man, Sisi is torture and suffering.”

So said the field marshal in a leaked recording of a conversation he had with a journalist shortly before he became president. Little did he know then how prescient his words would be. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule has indeed become torture and suffering for Egypt.

He has lurched from one promise to another, each one a glittering bauble dangled over a credulous and fearful nation. The first was the untold billions that Egypt would continue to get from the Gulf states who bankrolled his military coup. He boasted to his aides that their money was so plentiful it was “like rice”, a judgment that now looks dated after the collapse in the price of oil and the Yemen war. He burnt his way through up to $50bn of their cash, loans and oil guarantees.

The second was the international donors conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. More promises but nothing changed.

The third was mega infrastructure projects like the construction of a new capital city costing $45bn or the opening of the new Suez Canal. A year ago, state officials promised the $8bn project to widen the canal would triple revenue in just eight years. In fact, the number of ships has increased by 0.0033 percent, according to one count.

A fourth was the plan to cede two islands to Saudi Arabia, in hope of renewing Saudi financial support. The plan caused outrage, is stuck in parliament and the courts, which in turn has angered the Saudis. [Continue reading…]

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Chemical weapons are being used in Iraq – but the U.S. won’t raise hell about it

By Michelle Bentley, Royal Holloway

The group known as Islamic State (IS) reportedly used a sulpur-mustard gas against US troops in Iraq. It was detected in a black oily substance found on a rocket fired at an American airbase in Qayyarah, south of the city of Mosul.

None of the soldiers stationed at the airbase – deployed there to support a forthcoming Iraqi offensive to take back Mosul from IS – have suffered any symptoms of mustard gas poisoning. The base took decontamination measures after the rocket hit.

This is not the group’s first chemical strike. Reports are mounting up that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are now part of the organisation’s arsenal – and all thanks to US foreign policy.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the regional chaos that followed is a major reason why IS emerged in the first place; had the war never happened, the group might never have existed, and it certainly wouldn’t have been able to tear through and take control of huge swathes of the country.

So at last, the US has finally found WMD in Iraq, but only after its own actions allowed them to spring up there again.

[Read more…]

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Obama’s Syria strategy is the definition of insanity

Charles Lister writes: It is long past time for the United States to reassess its shameful approach to the Syrian crisis. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda are symptoms of the conflict, and the conflict itself is a symptom of fundamentally failed governance. In choosing to treat the symptoms, Washington continues to reduce its chances of resolving the larger issues at play in Syria.

It should now be patently clear that contrary to the hopes of some, the Russian government is not the key to controlling the Assad regime’s heinous behaviors. For a week straight, the Syrian government consistently ignored Moscow’s demands and destroyed a cease-fire deal that had been largely of Russia’s making. The regime also reinforced its troop positions around Aleppo and amassed forces opposite the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and its aircraft were blamed for bombings around Aleppo, north of the city of Homs, and in parts of southern Daraa governorate. And after the Assad government declared the cease-fire over, Russia ferociously destroyed an aid convoy intended for 78,000 civilians.

The Syrian regime’s decision to scuttle the latest diplomatic effort should drive home one simple point: Bashar al-Assad does not intend to step down from power, and he will use any means at his disposal to prevent that from happening. From industrialized arrest, torture, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and incendiary and cluster weapons to medieval-style sieges — no method is too severe if it helps him pursue his goal. Beyond feeble public appeals and a 2013 agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which appears to have left some behind and ignored the regime’s chlorine gas attacks, the United States has never chosen to challenge such brazen brutality. And that’s why these tactics remain decidedly in use by the Assad regime.

The United States can no longer continue its meek attempts to contain the Syrian crisis’s effects. Five years ago, Syria was a local problem; today it is an international one. U.S. indecision, risk aversion, a total divergence between rhetoric and policy, and a failure to uphold clearly stated “red lines” have all combined into what can best be described as a cold-hearted, hypocritical approach. At worst, Washington has indirectly abetted the wholesale destruction of a nation-state, in direct contradiction to its fundamental national security interests and its most tightly held values.

These failures began in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Though the Obama administration first proclaimed that Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, it took more than a year after that to develop a meaningful policy to assist the opposition. Even then, U.S. support consisted only of providing food and nonlethal equipment. Later, the CIA’s vet, train, and equip program to the Free Syrian Army found some minimal success, but U.S. commitment remained negligible when compared with our often uncoordinated regional allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It seems U.S. officials wanted Assad out but wanted others — whom administration officials would say in private they did not trust — to do it for them.

The result? Nearly half a million people dead, more than 1 million people living under siege, and 11 million people displaced. Catastrophic refugee flows have led to an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe and the rise of far-right politics while Syria is now home to perhaps the greatest concentration of jihadi militants in any single country ever. Put aside the threat posed by the Islamic State for a second: Syria now hosts a thriving de facto al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the Nusra Front — the most capable, politically savvy, and militarily powerful al Qaeda movement in history. Al Qaeda’s central leadership has also revitalized itself inside Syria, with the international terrorist organization’s newly named deputy leader almost certainly residing in the country. The correlation is simple: U.S. shortcomings equal al Qaeda’s success in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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After Kerry calls for grounding of military aircraft, Russia and Syrian government hit Aleppo with heaviest attack in months

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday called for an immediate grounding of all military aircraft in what he described as “key areas” of Syria — including where aid is delivered — as a last-ditch effort to save an agreement with Russia to reduce violence and ultimately halt a war that shows no sign of slowing.

Speaking in an unusually pointed and partly unscripted session at a United Nations Security Council meeting on the Syria crisis, Mr. Kerry angrily accused Russia of living “in a parallel universe” and allowing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to extend “the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since World War II.” [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Warplanes mounted the heaviest air strikes in months against rebel-held districts of the city of Aleppo overnight, as Russia and the Syrian government spurned a U.S. plea to halt flights, burying any hope for the revival of a doomed ceasefire.

Rebel officials and rescue workers said incendiary bombs were among the weapons that rained from the sky on the city. Hamza al-Khatib, the director of a hospital in the rebel-held east, told Reuters the death toll was 45.

“It’s as if the planes are trying to compensate for all the days they didn’t drop bombs” during the ceasefire, Ammar al-Selmo, the head of the civil defence rescue service in opposition-held eastern Aleppo told Reuters.

“It was like there was coordination between the planes and the artillery shelling, because the shells were hitting the same locations that the planes hit,” he said.

The assault, by aircraft from the Syrian government, its Russian allies or both, made clear that Moscow and Damascus had rejected a plea by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to halt flights so that aid could be delivered and a ceasefire salvaged. [Continue reading…]

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This is how Russia bombed the UN aid convoy near Aleppo

The Daily Beast reports: The international reaction to Monday night’s devastating attack on an aid convoy in the Syrian town of Urem al-Kubra has been swift and furious. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in an unusually forthright speech at the General Assembly, described the attack as “savage and apparently deliberate.” He concluded by saying the fate of Syria could not depend on the “future of one man,” namely Bashar al-Assad.

According to a statement released Wednesday by the Free Syrian Army, 31 people in total died—19 civilians and 12 aid workers. The director of the local branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Omar Barakat, was among those killed. At least 18 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were destroyed, along with a SARC warehouse and a health clinic.

While aid agencies are naturally hesitant to ascribe direct blame, suspicion fell at once upon the Assad regime and Russia, which are the only air powers operating in this area of Syria.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has gone to great lengths to deflect blame, even claiming that video of the aftermath of the attack shows no sign of damage from an air strike, and suggesting the convoy was attacked by Syrian rebel fighters on the ground. To lend weight to the latter scenario, the MOD released drone footage of a pickup truck towing what it said was a mortar, moving past the convoy in rebel-held territory.

The Russians also have claimed the trucks might have been destroyed by spontaneous combustion.

However, there is a mounting body of evidence that makes it clear the Syrian regime and, in particular, the Russian military, hold responsibility for the atrocity. [Continue reading…]

Bellingcat provides more analysis on the attack.

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