Glaring contradictions in Obama’s ISIS and Syria policies

The New York Times reports: American and Syrian warplanes screamed over the Syrian city of Raqqa in separate raids this week, ostensibly against the same target, the Islamic State militants in control there.

In the first raid, on Sunday, United States warplanes hit an Islamic State building, with no report of civilian casualties. On Tuesday, Syrian jets struck 10 times, killing scores of civilians, according to residents and Islamic State videos.

The back-to-back strikes, coming just days after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria declared that the West needed to side with him in “real and sincere” cooperation to defeat the extremist group, infuriated Syrians who oppose both Mr. Assad and the Islamic State. They see American jets sharing the skies with the Syrians but doing nothing to stop them from indiscriminately bombing rebellious neighborhoods. They conclude, increasingly, that the Obama administration is siding with Mr. Assad, that by training United States firepower solely on the Islamic State it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, an American goal.

Their dismay reflects a broader sense on all sides that President Obama’s policies on Syria and the Islamic State remain contradictory, and the longer the fight goes on without the policies being resolved, the more damage is being done to America’s standing in the region.

More than two months after the campaign against the Islamic State plunged the United States into direct military involvement in Syria, something Mr. Obama had long avoided, the group has held its strongholds there and even expanded its reach. That has called into question basic assumptions of American strategy. [Continue reading…]

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What Obama doesn’t understand about Syria

Noah Bonsey writes: The current U.S. strategy to destroy the Islamic State is likely doomed to fail. In fact, it risks doing just the opposite of its intended goal: strengthening the jihadis’ appeal in Syria, Iraq, and far beyond, while leaving the door open for the Islamic State to expand into new areas.

This is in large part because the United States so far has addressed the problem of the Islamic State in isolation from other aspects of the trans-border conflict in Syria and Iraq. Unless Barack Obama’s administration takes a broader view, it will be unable to respond effectively to the deteriorating situation on the ground.

The good news is that the White House can still change course — and indeed, President Obama has reportedly requested a review of his administration’s strategy in Syria. In crafting a new way forward, the White House needs to understand three points about the Islamic State and the military landscape in which it operates. [Continue reading…]

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On trip to Turkey, Pope Francis calls for dialogue in battling ISIS

The New York Times reports: In his first visit as pope to a predominantly Muslim country, Pope Francis said in Turkey on Friday that interreligious dialogue, more than just military action, was required to combat Islamic State militants who are attacking Christians and other religious minorities along the country’s southern border.

“To this end, it is essential that all citizens — Muslim, Jewish and Christian — both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties,” the pope said in a televised speech from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presidential palace in Ankara. “They will then find it easier to see each other as brothers and sisters who are traveling the same path, seeking always to reject misunderstandings while promoting cooperation and concord.”

The pope emphasized the need to focus on commonalities of faith and the value of learning from religious differences to repair relations between Christians and Muslims. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Francis will also walk straight into another controversy when he visits the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s new palace built on once-protected farm and and forest in Ankara. He will the first foreign dignitary to be hosted at the lavish, 1,000-room complex.

The palace, which dwarfs the White House and other European government palaces, cost of £394m. It has drawn the ire of opposition parties, environmentalists, human rights activists and architects who say it is too extravagant, has damaged the environment and was built despite a court injunction against it.

Erdoğan brazenly dismissed the court ruling. “Let them knock it down if they have the power,” he said.

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The president who ate Turkey

Erdogan-palace

Steven Cook writes: Without fail every year, starting around November 10, my #Turkey Twitter feed is jammed with not just the latest news from Ankara and Istanbul, but also Auntie Jean’s turkey recipe and suggestions about how to deep fry the bird without blowing up your house. And every year, on behalf of Turks and Turkey scholars the world over, I plaintively ask the tweeting masses to change #Turkey to #Turkiye, the actual Turkish name for the country that borders Greece, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq and Syria—alas, with no success.

This year, however, basting and brining be damned, I am not going to make my annual plea. In an odd sort of way, #Turkey and #Turkiye have come together for me. That’s because after a mere 90 days as president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become the man who has eaten Turkey — the country. He is president and de facto prime minister, making him Turkey’s first “Primesident” — sort of like the political version of Turducken. Yet Erdogan’s powers run even further and deeper. He is also, effectively, the country’s foreign minister and chief judge, a prosecutor and big city mayor, university rector and father figure. There is nothing that better represents how Erdogan has gorged on Turkey than the president’s own newly unveiled Ak Saray, or White Palace, with its $350-$650 million price tag, 1,000 rooms and more than 2 million square feet. [Continue reading…]

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How ISIS has advanced Iran’s interests in Iraq

Ali Hashem writes: For years, Iraqi Shiites have been immune to the Iranian copy of Shiism; the chemistry didn’t work. Iranians strained for years during the post-Saddam Hussein era to establish a solid footprint, but they always failed to reach their goals due to differences in mentality, ethnicity, the approach to political Islam and the de facto hostility that ruled the relationship between both nations. That is not to say Iran wasn’t influential, but that it failed all this time to win the hearts and minds of its fellow Shiites.

Iran backed and financed several groups in Iraq, and was the main ally of the former prime minister and now vice president, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Dawa party. The cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was close to them, but not close enough to be their man in Iraq; he had his own way of thinking that agrees and deviates according to his interests. The same applies to many other prominent Iraqi leaders. That’s why there was no Iraqi copy of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. This was until the Islamic State (IS) led by self-titled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi invaded Mosul and reached only tens of meters from the shrine of the two Askari Imams in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

“That was another day,” an Iranian official with deep understanding of what’s going on in Iraq told me. “Hajj Qasem Soleimani [Quds Force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] and his men showed that Iran cares for Iraq as a nation. Our iconic commander himself went there and fought with the Iraqi volunteers who celebrated his presence,” the official said. “If it wasn’t for Hajj Qasem and his men, Daesh [IS] [would be] today destroying the shrines of the household of the Prophet Muhammad, and that’s why today is another day.” [Continue reading…]

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An inside view of Greece’s Golden Dawn

Alexander Clapp writes: In Kalamata I introduce myself as an American neo-fascist with a strong interest in Greek history. Sceptically at first, later with fervour, a few members of the Golden Dawn invite me to attend meetings. Their offices tend to be located off main squares, usually in residential buildings in quiet neighbourhoods. Large Greek flags hang on the walls, along with news clippings and redrawn maps: Greece in possession of Skopje and bits of Bulgaria, Greece in possession of northern Turkey, Greece in possession of Cyprus and southern Albania. Swastikas (‘ancient Greek symbols’) are everywhere: on pencil-holders, clock faces, a paperweight. On the walls of a room in Gytheio there are reproductions of Hitler’s watercolours. Last autumn, two Dawners were gunned down by Athenian anarchists. Their profiles are pasted on refrigerators and desk drawers. No one says their names. They are just the Athanatoi, the ‘deathless ones’. Kala palikaria itan, the older Dawners murmur. ‘Those were good lads.’ They cross themselves.

Meetings last two hours. Dawners spend the first hour talking and drinking instant coffee; a lecture follows. Some offices will play black metal albums by Naer Mataron, the unofficial party band. (Giorgos Germenis, a Golden Dawn MP, is the bassist; Dawners call him ‘Kaiadas’, after the gorge where the Spartans tossed their unfit newborn.) We gather in a few rows of chairs. The Dawn hymn is handed out, sometimes accompanied by a recent article by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, Dawn’s founder. The party’s website has been revived – WordPress shut it down after it kept posting threats to journalists – but the Dawners prefer print. There are two party weeklies, the Wednesday Chrysi Avgi and the Saturday Empros, as well as the Maiandros, a monthly cultural review. Each has a circulation of roughly 3500. Most Dawners wear black at meetings; shorts and sandals are prohibited. About one in four attendees is a woman; I’ve seen kids on two occasions: three teenage girls in Athens and a family of five in Gytheio. The men are big. Dawners like to stress the importance of exercise: they run martial arts camps in the Taygetos Mountains, send a team to the Athens marathon, and claim not to watch television. [Continue reading…]

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How Israel’s nationality bill mirrors the xenophobic nationality laws of 1930s Europe

Daniel Blatman writes: Quite a few states in the 20th century passed, or tried to pass, nationality laws, through efforts that share certain similarities. All took place in countries with at least one national minority (sometimes more than one) that sought full equality in the state or in a territory that had become part of the state and in which it had lived for generations.

Nationality laws were passed in societies that felt threatened by these minorities’ aspirations of integration and demands for equality, resulting in regimes that turned xenophobia into major tropes.

Nationality laws were passed in states that were grounded in one ethnic identity, defined in contrast to the identity of the other, leading to persecution of and codified discrimination against minorities. Jews were the first victims of these regimes, in which phobias and suspicion replaced the principles of social and political pluralism.

In 1937, the Polish economist Olgierd Górka wrote that the Polish state was an economic asset whose legal owners could do as they pleased with it. Decisions on national issues were thus similar to the choices made by a factory owner. The state belonged to the major group that shaped its essence and spirit, and which exercised its ownership of it — the ethnic Poles. Polish Catholicism gave the Poles the right to own the national asset known as the Polish state.

Knesset member Yariv Levin’s explanations of his nationality bill suggests that he is following Górka’s path. According to Levin, the state’s Jewish expressions reflect the fact that Israel is not only the Jews’ nation-state, but also a state whose very lifeblood is Judaism — a situation that is unique in all the world. A unique situation in the Western, democratic world, but it has a historical precedent in the Poles’ attempt to create a state that pushed its minorities out of the national partnership.

Romania, too — a state with many minorities, including a large Jewish one — was gripped by a fervor to be defined as the Romania nation-state.

In an essay, the national historian Constantin Giurescu wrote that the ideal of the resurgent Romanian nation was to ensure the optimal development of the most eminent population group, the Romanians. The Romanian nation-state must advance the dominant ethnic group, he wrote, while the minorities were a “problem” that should be seen as “guest groups” or groups under the protection of the true citizens. He did not specify the rights that would be granted to such groups.

Romania’s policy toward minorities became clearer after Ion Antonescu came to power. During World War II it went from attempting an “ethnic cleansing” of the Bulgarians to the expulsion and annihilation of the Jews and the Roma, also known as Gypsies. But few believed the debate over nationality laws in the interwar period would end in an effort to solve the nationality question by purging the nation of its minorities. [Continue reading…]

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Refugees from the world’s worst conflicts struggle to reach Britain

The Washington Post reports: Ibrahim’s odyssey has taken him over the hot sands of the Sahara and across the vast Mediterranean in a death-defying, thousands-of-miles-long quest.

Now the 21-year-old from the Sudanese region of Darfur is so close to his destination that he can see it shimmering on the horizon — his dream, his salvation, his England.

It beckons to him, and it taunts him.

If Ibrahim were a day-tripping tourist, a jaunt from this French port city across the English Channel would take 35 minutes in an underwater train. But because he’s an asylum-seeking refugee, getting to Britain means braving coils of barbed wire, clouds of tear gas and an illicit journey wedged between a truck’s axle and the racing pavement.

“It’s very dangerous,” Ibrahim said softly as he prepared for his latest attempt to cross. “Maybe I’m going to die.”

Whatever the risk, it has not deterred Ibrahim or the more than 2,500 other refugees who have made Calais their temporary home. Drawn from the world’s worst crisis zones, they are contributing to a new crisis in the heart of Europe, on the watery border between two of the planet’s most affluent nations. [Continue reading…]

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U.K. blamed Facebook to cover up the incompetence of its own intelligence services

Seumas Milne writes: It takes some mastery of spin to turn the litany of intelligence failures over last year’s butchery of the off-duty soldier Lee Rigby into a campaign against Facebook. But that’s exactly how David Cameron’s government and a pliant media have disposed of the report by Westminster’s committee of intelligence trusties.

You might have expected Whitehall’s security machine to be in the frame for its spectacular incompetence in spying on the two killers: from filling out surveillance applications wrongly and losing one suspect’s house number, to closing down the surveillance of another – just as the pair were preparing the Woolwich attack.

Centre stage might have been the admission that British intelligence could have been “complicit” in Michael Adebolajo’s torture in Kenya, and tried to cover that up. There is evidence that MI5’s attempts to recruit the Muslim convert on his return to Britain played a part in triggering the killing – though the trusties thought better than to inquire too closely into the matter.

Instead it was the US internet giant, Britain’s prime minister insisted, that was really to blame. Facebook had “blood on their hands”, the Sun declared, as the Daily Mail denounced the Mark Zuckerberg corporation’s “twisted libertarian ideology”.

It’s nonsense, of course, but it gets the authorities off the hook. [Continue reading…]

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Surviving the horrors of a war-torn Syria

Lina Sergie Attar writes: Tucked outside the walls of the old city of Aleppo, there is a hidden 800-year-old Ayyubid stone building called Madraset al-Firdaws, or the School of Paradise. The small architectural gem was the vision of Dayfa Khatoun, the Kurdish-Syrian niece of Saladin, who ruled Aleppo for seven years in the 13th century. She envisioned a modern complex dedicated to the study of Sufi Islam. Every element in the complex followed the ancient and strict “golden proportion,” from the overall floor plan to the smallest details on the ornamental columns with muqarnas capitals. The building with its 11 domes was designed — from concept to execution — to stand apart from the dozens of other religious monuments in Aleppo. It was built to be perfect.

I visited Madrasat al-Firdows in June 2011 during my last visit to Aleppo. At that time, the people of the city were still safe, far from the turmoil erupting across Syria. Protests raged outside Aleppo’s borders, but absolute stillness occupied the courtyard as it had for centuries.

It is no longer so. The cobblestoned streets of old Aleppo have been torn into piles of rubble. War has lodged itself in the heart of the city for over two years now, splitting it literally in half between rebel and regime forces. Now ISIL fighters encircle what remains of Free Syrian Army territory as the city’s fate hangs in the balance. Many of Aleppo’s ancient artifacts have been destroyed—burned, bombed, looted. The city that was once home to over four million people, is now ravaged by over two years of indiscriminate shelling and constant barrel bombs launched by the Assad regime that killed, injured, and displaced thousands of innocents along with their precious cultural heritage. Rebels on the front line retaliate with haphazard shells of their own that strike both army forces and civilian bystanders.

Miraculously, Madraset al-Firdows still stands intact although devastating loss surrounds it.

Loss permeates every Syrian family. Three and a half bloody years of conflict has taken over 200,000 lives and displaced millions. Loss is a word that defines Syria today. [Continue reading…]

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Probe into 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s Hariri to focus on Assad

The National reports: Prosecutors at a UN-backed tribunal have started presenting evidence that may point to Syrian complicity in the assassination of Lebanon’s top Sunni statesman.

The trial chamber of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) decided this month to hear the testimony of more than a dozen political witnesses.

They include politicians, journalists and advisers close to Rafik Hariri who will speak about how relations broke down between the former premier and Syrian president Bashar Al Assad in the months before the assassination.

“Let us not be coy about it: the prosecutor now is putting his case on the basis of Syria being behind the assassination of Rafik Hariri,” defence lawyer Iain Edwards told the court before the judges agreed to include the evidence. “Is Bashar Assad going to be formally named as a co-conspirator in the killing of Rafik Hariri? Rustom Ghazaleh? Are they going to be added to the indictment?” he asked, referring to Syria’s intelligence chief in Lebanon at the time of Hariri’s killing. “We are entitled to know.”

The tribunal is trying in absentia five members of Hizbollah accused of complicity in the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanon’s charismatic billionaire former prime minister.

The fresh focus on Syria comes after the investigation has for years stayed away from the involvement of Damascus in the attack that killed Hariri and 21 others. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. sending A-10 ‘Warthogs’ to attack ISIS

Stars and Stripes reports: An attack aircraft that the Pentagon is trying to get rid of has been deployed to the Middle East to take on the Islamic State.

A squadron-sized element of A-10 Thunderbolts arrived in the region during the week of Nov. 17-21, according to the Air Force. The aircraft were previously being used in Afghanistan.

The move marks the first time the ugly but battle-proven jet, also known as the “Warthog,” has been thrown into the fight against Islamic State, which controls much of Iraq and Syria. The A-10 is a slow, low-flying plane that can unleash massive amounts of firepower against enemy ground forces while conducting close-air-support missions.

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ISIS ‘outbidding’ al Qaeda in South Asia

Karl Kaltenthaler writes: The landscape of violent extremist Islamism is changing in Asia. Al-Qaida, once a growing and potent threat, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now a shadow of its former self.

In the late 1990s, al-Qaida co-ran Afghanistan with the Taliban. It also had a strong presence in Pakistan and close ties with many of that country’s myriad jihadi groups. Now al-Qaida’s core group is down to a few dozen members. Security operations against the group in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have cut its numbers and operational capacity substantially. The organization is fighting for survival in Pakistan, its last real refuge in Asia.

The same cannot be said of the Islamic State group. The militant group, which has had spectacular success in Syria and Iraq, is now making inroads in many parts of Asia, but particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [Continue reading…]

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Subcontracting repression in the West Bank and Gaza

Sabrien Amrov and Alaa Tartir write: Jerusalem is aflame with what the Israeli writer Uri Avnery has called an “intifada of individuals,” as outbreaks of deadly violence have followed what began with Palestinian protests over fears of encroachment by Jewish extremists on the site in the Old City known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Five Israelis were killed last week in an attack on a synagogue. Palestinian citizens of Israel, meanwhile, are in turmoil over the Nov. 8 police shooting in northern Israel of a 22-year-old protester, which was caught on videotape.

Yet the occupied West Bank shows no signs of an uprising, and the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared that there will be no third intifada. Under Mr. Abbas’s increasingly authoritarian rule, this guarantee is based largely on the authority’s close security collaboration with Israel.

The Palestinian security forces were created under the Oslo Accords, ostensibly to support the Palestinian state-building project. Initially, those forces were understood by the population to exist for its defense. During the second intifada in 2002, Palestinian security forces confronted the Israeli Army using their light weapons. Israel responded by largely destroying the Palestinian Authority’s security infrastructure. [Continue reading…]

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Swing sets and death in Syria: A visit to an Aleppo playground

Christoph Reuter reports: Every day, children from the Salaheddin district of Aleppo meet at the local playground. They play war as the real one rages just a few meters away. But the graves are slowly encroaching.

Majid, what are you doing? “I’m watering mommy.” Majid drags a large, blue bucket — so full that he can hardly carry it — across the withered grass. But why are you watering your mother?

The 13-year-old looks puzzled, as though it were the kind of idiotic question that only outsiders might ask. “Because she’s right here,” he says and pours the water onto a mound surrounded by a few stones meant to mark the site as a grave. An old pine tree offers a bit of shade, but so far, nothing seems to have taken root at the place where Majid’s mother is buried. “I have to water it. Then something will grow for sure,” he says with a steady voice as he heads back to refill his bucket.

Majid’s mother died in the summer, but nobody in the family had enough money for a proper gravestone or even a border for the site. She died “because of her heart,” Majid says “in her mid-30s.” He can’t be more precise than that; nobody in Aleppo really asks anymore why someone is dead. Majid drags a third bucket-full to the grave, as though seeking to atone for something he played no part in, as if he could score a tiny victory against all the dying. [Continue reading…]

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In Mosul, ISIS struggles to govern

The Washington Post reports: After storming the Iraqi city of Mosul in June, the brutal Islamic State quickly solidified its control. Gunmen enforced its laws, and supportive imams preached at the mosques.

But the jihadists were missing something — doctors. So last month, the Islamic State issued an ultimatum to physicians who had fled: Return to work, or we’ll seize your property and you can never come back.

The Islamic State’s efforts to run Mosul’s health-care system provide a glimpse into its efforts to build a caliphate, or Islamic state, in Iraq and Syria. Despite their victories on the battlefield, the jihadists have struggled as everyday administrators in Mosul, with the city’s hospitals grappling with daily power outages and shortages of medicine. The Sunni fighters have also imposed measures that have alienated staff and compromised the lives of patients, doctors say.

The Islamic State’s rigidity and inexperience may ultimately cost it support in areas where some Sunni residents initially welcomed the group as an alternative to the Shiite-led central government. Already, the Islamic State has been forced to give ground on some of its stringent policies, such as barring male and female doctors from working together. [Continue reading…]

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Putin suspected of investing in Europe’s far-right populist parties

The Independent reports: President Vladimir Putin is widely suspected of being behind an extraordinary Russian cash and charm offensive that is reported to be trying to woo Europe’s far-right populist parties in order to strengthen the Kremlin’s political influence within the European Union.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin’s targets have included France’s xenophobic Front National (FN) party, and politicians from three German parties including the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Social Democrats (SPD).

Marine Le Pen’s Front National was recently granted a €9m (£7m) loan by a small financial institution called the First Czech-Russian Bank. The cash will be used to fund the party’s campaign for next year’s regional elections.

French banks were unwilling to fund the FN. “We cast our the net wide: in Spain, in Italy, in Asia and in Russia,” Ms Le Pen told Le Monde. “We have signed with the first catch and we are very happy.” In the past, Ms Le Pen has made no secret of her support for Mr Putin.

The FN’s bank loan was followed this week by the release of details from a leaked Moscow strategy paper that suggests Mr Putin has been advised to try to influence European politics by such wooing. [Continue reading…]

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The refusal to talk to hostage-takers has sucked the U.S. and U.K. into war

Jonathan Littell writes: A few months ago, the New York Times published a lengthy piece of investigative journalism detailing different countries’ policies on paying ransoms for journalists, aid workers or ordinary citizens taken hostage throughout the world, in particular by Islamist militant groups. The article pressed the case for the US and British policy of never – ever – negotiating for hostages, while presenting the covert European policy of paying ransoms as perverse, self-defeating and possibly even criminal. Its headline made this conclusion clear: “By paying ransoms, Europe bankrolls Qaeda terror.”

The article was, of course, researched and written before James Foley, and after him Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig – four other US and British citizens their governments refused to negotiate for – had their heads sawn off in front of a video camera by a masked goon claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (Isis), thereby provoking the US to lead a major military intervention against the group.

France and several other countries who did negotiate on behalf of their hostages, and obtained their safe return home, have now also joined the coalition against Isis. These countries obviously believe, unlike the US and the UK, that they have a moral duty to protect their citizens, and that this principle on occasion can lead to unpleasant compromises (it might be added that Israel, a country no one would even remotely consider weak or soft on terrorism, adheres to a similar principle). However, what might be called their hostage “non-policy” (in most cases, paying ransoms and then denying it) has made it impossible for them to debate the matter constructively. While I would never advocate the systematic paying of ransoms, I feel it might be time to bring some nuance to the discussion: things are not simply black and white. [Continue reading…]

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