The ISIS threat: How great is it, who should respond, and how?

The crisis in Iraq can be resolved quite easily. All we have to do is master time-travel.

There are differences of opinion on whether or not history has to be reversed back to 2003 or 1914, but either way, the ability to go back into the past is key.

If time-travel can be accomplished through an act of will, we can remain hopeful that this great challenge will soon be surmounted. After all, there is a growing movement of people who clearly want to re-live the past, so maybe we can all soon get back there, reverse the mistakes which were made and reset history on a more reliable course.

Meanwhile, just in case the time-travel solution happens not to bear fruit, it might be worth considering some kind of Plan B.

Among young Americans — those whose interest in the future can be assumed to be far greater than their interest in the past — the World Cup is apparently almost twice as interesting as events in Iraq. Maybe the 2018 World Cup in Russia will be a game-changer on the geopolitical landscape.

Maybe the assessment that the danger posed to America by ISIS is now greater than that posed by Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001 is an overstatement. After all, while Al Qaeda’s focus was on provoking and challenging American power, ISIS is much more intent on establishing and expanding its caliphate than in seeking military engagement with the U.S..

The fact that ISIS has already drawn the support of hundreds of Westerners flooding initially to Syria, does not necessarily mean many of these individuals will be returning to their countries of origin to engage in terrorism. After all, one of their favorite ways of declaring their commitment to their Islamic state is to destroy their passports. With a measure of realism, they seem to be showing that they have already arrived in the place where they expect to fight and die.

Among critics of the war in Iraq there seems to be far greater concern about the danger of the U.S. once again becoming militarily engaged in Iraq, than there is concern about ISIS. Indeed, few seem to want to say much about the group other than assert that it wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. True. But the invasion did happen and ISIS does now exist and is growing in strength — and the clock cannot be turned back.

Claims that ISIS poses a threat to the world may be viewed with some justified skepticism, but when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says that the group now threatens every state in the region, that sounds to me like an accurate assessment.

Iraq is a state on the brink of collapse. The Kurds are already constructing their own borders and there are no indications that a unifying government can be formed in Baghdad.

Military intervention by Russia and Iran might save Maliki yet destroy Iraq.

That an Iranian general has already promised to use “the same winning strategy used in Syria” sends a chilling message to Iraq’s Sunni population as a whole.

Americans who imagine that so long as our borders are secure, we can ignore what happens elsewhere in the world are living in denial about the interconnected planet on which we live.

Anti-interventionists who imagine that the only issue that matters in relation to Iraq is that the U.S. not get sucked in, are unwilling to confront the fact that ISIS will have to be confronted.

If you want to place your confidence in Russia and Iran, then remember Grozny and Aleppo and picture what might become of Mosul.

ISIS could not have advanced this far without the support of a wider Sunni insurgency and rather than the Russians, Iranians, Maliki’s security forces, Shia militias, or the U.S., it is the Sunnis who need expose the fact that this newly constructed Islamic state has no real foundations. But this isn’t going to happen without Iraq’s Sunni population receiving a tangible reward. The longer that takes to materialize, the less chance there is that it’s going to happen.


Russian intervention in Iraq

I guess this news won’t trouble the anti-interventionists too much — some forms of intervention seem more palatable than others.

The Associated Press reported over the weekend: Russia’s deputy foreign minister called on the United States and Europe to take “serious” steps to combat terrorism during a visit to Damascus on Saturday, warning that several Middle Eastern countries are threatened.

“Russia will not stand idle toward attempts by terrorist groups to spread terrorism in regional states,” Sergei Ryabkov told reporters, apparently referring to the rapid advance of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

The Daily Beast now reports: While the Obama administration struggles to speed up delivery of U.S. military assistance to the government of Iraq, Vladimir Putin has already delivered not only fighter jets but also the pilots needed to fly them, diplomatic sources told The Daily Beast.

On Monday, Russian television trumpeted the arrival of the first five of 12 promised Sukhoi Su-25 combat fighter jets to the Iraqi government, saying it had also sent “trainers” to help the Iraqis use them. Gen. Anwar Hama Ameen, the commander of the Iraqi Air Force, told The New York Times the fighter jets would enter the battle against ISIS within a few days, after which the Russian trainers would leave Iraq. He said Iraq had plenty of pilots with “long experience” flying the Su-25. The Russian ambassador to Iraq also said Russian pilots would not fly missions inside Iraq.

Perhaps. But diplomatic sources told The Daily Beast that Russian pilots will fly the planes due to a lack of Iraqi pilots with the proper training. Neither Russia nor Iraq as explained how the Iraqi air force could possibly have pilots trained and ready to fly the Russian fighters. The Su-25 planes were used in the Iraq-Iran war but have not been employed in Iraq since at least 2002, when Iraq’s military was controlled by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein.

Last week, Gen. Anwar Hama Ameen, the commander of the Iraqi Air Force, told the New York Times:

“We have pilots who have long experience in this plane and of course we have the help of the Russian friends and the experts who came with these aircraft to prepare them.”


Ukraine says Russia has 38,000 troops on border amid ‘invasion’

Bloomberg reports: Russia has amassed as many as 38,000 soldiers on its borders with Ukraine and continues to supply arms and personnel to rebel forces in the eastern part of the country, Ukraine’s National Security Council chief said.

Russia has moved about 16,000 troops to Ukraine’s eastern frontier and has another 22,000 in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that President Vladimir Putin annexed in March, Andriy Parubiy told reporters in the capital Kiev today.


Back in the USSR

Avedis Hadjian writes: A saying usually misattributed to Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” describes the Ukrainian conflict, which now has almost all the elements needed for a civil war: well-armed rival sides, opposing views of national history and destiny, and a foreign instigator and sponsor for eastern Urkaine’s separatists — Russia. Yet it lacks the critical ingredient of an appetite for fight among many of the population.

Most Ukrainians are doing their best to go about their business and, whatever their views, say they see Russians and Ukrainians as brotherly nations and do not want a war. In the presidential election of 25 May there was high voter turnout everywhere — except in the east, where pro-Russian separatists blocked polling stations — and Ukrainians gave a commanding victory to confectionary magnate Petro Poroshenko, with 54% of the votes. The Russian government said it would respect the will of Ukrainian voters and expressed its readiness to cooperate with the new administration in Kiev.

But it remains to be seen if Poroshenko’s election will help curb the violence. The pro-Russian separatists’ acts of intimidation, which prevented most people in the Donetsk region from voting (only 16% of registered voters cast ballots), and brazen attacks that have left dozens dead in recent weeks — including an all-out assault against the Donetsk airport, which they seized a day after the election — demonstrate that they are intent on undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity. [Continue reading...]


‘It’s hell down there’: Inside the battle for eastern Ukraine

CNN reports: In a forest of pines to the east of Slovyansk, Prapor and his seventy men were digging in Thursday. A man in his late-fifties with a magnificent beard and four different weapons, Prapor freely admitted he was not a local. But he was here — he said — to resist the “Ukrainian fascists” in Krasny Liman, a nearby town just recaptured by government forces.

He was dismissive of the group that had fled Krasny — “Cossacks,” he sneered. He had already lost seven men, but his fighters were the bravest. They would not run away.

Meeting Prapor was revealing in several ways. Pro-Russian separatists working in eastern Ukraine are better organized, better armed (Prapor’s group had a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun that was clearly working), and more of them appear to come from beyond Ukraine. And they are building a maze of roadblocks and defensive positions across the region.

But a few kilometers beyond, in rolling countryside under a hot sun, a very different group was setting up camp: a substantial force of Ukrainian paratroopers, with armored personnel carriers and artillery. Above, a reconnaissance plane drifted in loops.

Both sides look — at least militarily — more competent than they did a few weeks ago. Checkpoints used to be few and far between. Now there is a maze of them — more separatist than Ukrainian — dotted across both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The insignia of the “Vostok Battalion” — a group that includes both Russian and local fighters — is common at the roadblocks that have sprung up on the main roads leading into Donetsk.

A few weeks ago, we watched the bedraggled remnants of the Ukrainian army’s 25th Division surrounded and harangued by locals near Kramatorsk. Now there is a sense of purpose among the units newly deployed, and a greater readiness to use heavy armor. Throughout an extensive tour of the Slovyansk area, the crump of artillery and boom of tankfire sounded periodically.

But the targeting is sometimes puzzling.

Krasny Liman is a town of some 20,000 people and a major railway junction. But one of its two hospitals is in ruins, struck repeatedly by what appeared to have been mortars or shells. There was also evidence of strafing from the air. A tearful nurse approached us, saying that whoever had done this was not human. She — and others — thought Ukrainian forces were responsible, but they could not be sure. Patients had been evacuated, but one middle-aged man sat listlessly on a bench outside. He had nowhere to go, he told us; a doctor came past once a day to give him an injection.

The new mayor, installed Thursday as Kiev’s local appointee, said he would investigate the bombing of the hospital. But for the government, recovering Krasny Liman is a rare victory — and judging by the number of troops installed around the town, one it intends to protect. Now Ukrainian armor seems intent on squeezing separatist positions closer to Slovyansk.

It seems like eastern Ukraine is half-way through a game of chess, pieces scattered across the board in threatening positions, with neither black nor white close to checkmate. Civilians, whatever their allegiance, are suffering the consequences. [Continue reading...]


Documents show how Russia’s troll army hit America

BuzzFeed reports: Russia’s campaign to shape international opinion around its invasion of Ukraine has extended to recruiting and training a new cadre of online trolls that have been deployed to spread the Kremlin’s message on the comments section of top American websites.

Plans attached to emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker collective show IT managers reporting on a new ideological front against the West in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily.

The bizarre hive of social media activity appears to be part of a two-pronged Kremlin campaign to claim control over the internet, launching a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion as it cracks down on internet freedom at home.

“Foreign media are currently actively forming a negative image of the Russian Federation in the eyes of the global community,” one of the project’s team members, Svetlana Boiko, wrote in a strategy document. “Additionally, the discussions formed by comments to those articles are also negative in tone.

“Like any brand formed by popular opinion, Russia has its supporters (‘brand advocates’) and its opponents. The main problem is that in the foreign internet community, the ratio of supporters and opponents of Russia is about 20/80 respectively.”

The documents show instructions provided to the commenters that detail the workload expected of them. On an average working day, the Russians are to post on news articles 50 times. Each blogger is to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they are expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the bloggers are expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day. [Continue reading...]


Putin Forever? Russian President’s Ratings Skyrocket Over Ukraine

RFE/RL reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin is enjoying almost unprecedented job-approval ratings in his country.

And the only reason for this popularity surge, sociologists say, is Russia’s tough stance on Ukraine.

“A fierce anti-Ukrainian campaign was launched,” says leading sociologist Lev Gudkov, the head of Russia’s independent Levada polling center. “Authorities have used the language of war, the language of the ‘fight against fascism,’ of mass consolidation and unification.”

Despite Western anger at Russia’s role in fomenting separatist unrest in Ukraine – including its dramatic annexation of Crimea — Moscow’s crusade against what it portrays as a neo-Nazi threat emanating from Kyiv is paying off at home. [Continue reading...]


How the Kremlin is killing off the last of Russia’s independent media

Masha Gessen writes: A former colleague of mine claims she has made friends with an aging she-wolf and has generally grown to prefer animals to people. She also claims there is life after journalism: Following a decade as a reporter, she is running the public relations department of the Moscow Zoo. Another former colleague is raising money for a special education center in the city and gradually learning to work with the children. A third, a science reporter, is helping redesign a science-and-technology museum in Moscow. Roughly half of the members of an editorial team I led just a couple of years ago have left the profession; the other half are lucky enough to have jobs writing or editing for one of the few remaining independent media outlets in Moscow—and for each of them this is probably their last job in journalism. The death watch is on for Russia’s independent media.

There are many ways to kill a media outlet. The simplest is to pull the plug. But, as the independent-minded journalists in the Siberian city of Tomsk have learned, even this process isn’t quite so simple in Russia.

Tomsk’s TV-2 was Russia’s last remaining independent regional broadcast television channel—an anomaly, as it’s been over a decade since the Russian state took almost complete control of broadcast television, both federal and local. An unusually liberal city administration, an owner who was a masterful negotiator, and a versatile and energetic legal team had ensured the station’s survival.

But in mid-April, TV-2 went off the air. The government-owned service that controls broadcast technology in the city told the station that a segment of cable called the “feeder” had burned out and promised to have it fixed soon. Then, on May 15—which happened to be the station’s 23rd birthday—TV-2 got a notice from the regulatory authority that its license would be revoked if it did not immediately resume service. Since the mysterious “feeder” had still not been fixed by the other state agency, it couldn’t. As of this writing, TV-2 is off the air and unlikely ever to resume broadcasting. [Continue reading...]


Guns and fighters seep through Ukraine’s porous Russian border

The Guardian reports: In late April, 65 Russian men in groups of five to 10 crossed the border with Ukraine on foot, telling border guards they were going to visit relatives.

It wasn’t a fond babushka who picked them up at the border, however, but rather pro-Russian rebels from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. They bussed the Russian fighters to the regional capital, where they took up arms and last week engaged in the fiercest combat yet against forces loyal to Kiev.

“I was watching events in Odessa and was very upset about what was going on,” said one of the Russian fighters, who would give only his wartime nickname “Varan” or “Monitor Lizard”. Clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters in that city last month left more than 40 people dead. “I called up the military enlistment office and asked what I could do. They said people were gathering in Rostov and it may be possible to go to Ukraine. It’s not official; they whispered it in my ear, so to speak.”

The Russian fighters – including veterans of the military, intelligence services and riot police – formed the core of a new unit called the Vostok Battalion, which took a lead role in the bloody battle for the Donetsk airport last week, in which 33 Russian citizens were killed. [Continue reading...]


Southeast Ukraine is a war zone, in all but name

Tanya Lokshina writes: Last week, not far from Donetsk in southeastern Ukraine, a man wearing only camouflage underpants, with a stained sleeveless shirt, and brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle, demanded to see my passport. Over the past decade, lots of men with all sorts of weapons have asked me for my ID – some of them were far from pleasant, but at least they were all decently wearing trousers. My first impulse was to suggest that he get dressed before asking other people for identification documents. But his Kalashnikov made me reconsider, and I handed over the passport with a bright smile.

Southeast Ukraine, in the days before the May 25 presidential election made one think of those unforgettable documentaries from Darfur or Somali: people dressed in fatigues and swinging their guns out of car windows. In fact, my colleague and I saw one truly impressive vehicle in Slovyansk, the insurgent stronghold in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

The car, a local resident told us, had been ‘confiscated’ from a man who had dared break the curfew, and drive around at night. Anti-Kyiv insurgents spray-painted it in camouflage colours, smashed the windows, cut out a ‘skylight’ in the roof, and drove around at top speed, with their Kalashnikovs sticking out. It would have been funny if the place weren’t increasingly becoming more like a war zone, mortar strikes included. [Continue reading...]


Russians revealed among Ukraine fighters

The New York Times reports: For weeks, rumors have flown about the foreign fighters involved in the deepening conflict in Ukraine’s troubled east, each one stranger than the last: mercenaries from an American company, Blackwater; Russian special forces; and even Chechen soldiers of fortune.

Yet there they were on Tuesday afternoon, resting outside a hospital here: Chechen men with automatic rifles, some bearing bloodstained bandages, protecting their wounded comrades in a city hospital after a firefight with the Ukrainian Army.

“We received an invitation to help our brothers,” said one of the fighters in heavily accented Russian. He said he was from Grozny and had fought in the Chechen War that began in 1999. He said he arrived here last week with several dozen men to join a pro-Russian militia group.

The scene at the hospital was new evidence that fighters from Russia are an increasingly visible part of the conflict here, a development that raises new questions about that country’s role in the unrest. Moscow has denied that its regular soldiers are part of the conflict, and there is no evidence that they are. But motley assortments of fighters from other war zones that are intimately associated with Russia would be unlikely to surface against the powerful will of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, experts said. [Continue reading...]


Ukraine says hundreds of armed militants have crossed border from Russia

McClatchy reports: The Ukrainian army said Tuesday that it had evicted armed separatists from the international airport in Donetsk after a 24-hour gun battle, but the government in Kiev warned of a new threat as truckloads of armed Russian volunteers reportedly crossed the border.

Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko said 48 people were killed, including two civilians, in the fighting at Sergei Prokofiev International Airport.

The pro-Russian rebels said they had suffered more than 50 fatalities, many of them the result of an army attack on a truck evacuating wounded. A government spokesman said the incident was under investigation.

Shots still were being fired near the airport Tuesday afternoon, and it wasn’t clear when the facility would reopen. If the Ukraine military has cleared the facility of insurgents, it would mark a rare and swift success for a force that repeatedly has failed to dislodge separatists from city halls and police stations in eastern Ukraine.

The unity of Ukraine is riding on how the government handles the separatist uprising in the east, the latest installment of which began at 3 a.m. Monday, just hours after the conclusion of national elections that installed candy billionaire Petro Poroshenko as president. Dozens of armed insurgents of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic stormed the airport terminal, closed it to passenger traffic and then sent in a truckload of reinforcements. [Continue reading...]


Russia joins global dash for shale oil in policy volte-face

The Telegraph reports: Russia is launching a strategic drive to unlock its shale oil wealth as crude output stagnates and reserves run low in the West Siberian fields, aiming to replicate America’s technology leap in a near total reversal of policy.

The Kremlin has launched an “action plan” to master fracking methods and lure investors into the Bazhenov prospective, a shale basin the size of France to the east of the Urals. Officials are no longer dismissing shale’s promise as a mirage. “We are clearing away the administrative barriers to exploration. This is the urgent challenge we are now facing,” said Kirill Molodtsov, the deputy energy minister.

The US Energy Department estimates that Russia has 75bn barrels of recoverable shale oil resources, the world’s largest deposits. The Bazhenov field is 80 times bigger than the US Bakken field in North Dakota, which alone produces 1m barrels a day.

BP joined the scramble on Saturday by signing a deal to explore for shale in Volga Urals with Rosneft, even though Rosneft’s chairman Igor Sechin is on the US sanctions list. [Continue reading...]


Poroshenko a leader Moscow ‘ready’ to work with

AFP reports: Russia said Monday it was ready to talk to Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko, raising hopes that after months of tensions Moscow sees in the billionaire a leader it can work with.

“We are ready for dialogue with Kiev’s representatives, with Petro Poroshenko,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Russia’s first reaction to his victory in Sunday’s vote.

Lavrov was cautious, saying Moscow was ready for “pragmatic dialogue, on an equal footing” and warned that for Kiev to continue its military operations against pro-Russia rebels in the east would be a “colossal mistake”.

But Poroshenko — a billionaire with strong Russian business interests and a history of working with both pro-Western and Moscow-backed Ukrainian governments — is the kind of figure analysts say the Kremlin can see as a partner.

“Poroshenko is an extremely attractive president for the Kremlin… This is a person who will be able to negotiate with Moscow and find compromise,” said Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute of Strategic Assessments.

“There was a camp in the Kremlin that wanted to feed the fire in Ukraine. Now I think they will move into the shadows,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet reacted himself to Poroshenko’s victory, but he did say he will “respect” the result of the vote and promised to work with Kiev’s new authorities. [Continue reading...]

Meanwhile, Reuters reports: Ukrainian government warplanes carried out airstrikes against pro-Russian rebels who seized Donetsk international airport on Monday, triggering a battle in and around the complex in a show of force by both sides after the election of a new president.

Reuters journalists saw black smoke billowing from the area of the airport after repeated explosions and gunfire, while jets roared overhead. A security official also said paratroops had landed in one of the fiercest clashes since violence broke out in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine some two months ago.

Loud thuds sounded from the area but after four to five hours Ukrainian soldiers appeared to have pushed back at least some of the separatists towards the town, though it was not clear if the army had recovered control of the airport.

There was no full account from either side of casualties. But the press service of the regional administration said one man had been killed and two injured from shrapnel of a shell which struck a part of the railway station serving the airport.

Saying that a deadline had passed at 1 p.m. (1000 GMT) for separatist militants to lay down their arms, a spokesman for the Ukrainian joint forces’ security operation in the region said two Sukhoi Su-25 jets had carried out strafing runs, firing warning shots around Sergei Prokofiev International Airport. [Continue reading...]


How Ukrainian arms-dealing connects to Syria’s bloody civil war

Tim Fernholz reports: All the ingredients are there for a proper arms deal: A former government official with connections to the military-industrial complex. A stockpile of Soviet arms in Ukraine. Soldiers in Syria with a yen for ammo and cash to burn. The biggest problem? Getting the arms from eastern Europe to the battleground without alerting international authorities or tipping off your enemies.

The story isn’t about Russia or the United States. It’s about Russia and the United States.

This week, the Wall Street Journal shone a light (paywall) on one American’s thwarted effort to run guns into Syria for the anti-regime Free Syrian Army. Last fall, analysts at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) in Washington assembled public data to identify a network of businesses (pdf) in Ukraine and Russia at the heart of Russia’s efforts to arm the Syrian regime. The two stories have a lot in common, with a key difference being that Russia’s government is a lot more invested in arming its side of the conflict.

While weapons of all kinds have cropped up throughout the Syrian conflict, from the chemical weapons that made president Bashar Al-Assad an international pariah to homemade rockets, the rebels have two main problems: Getting enough rifles and ammunition to give them a basic infantry force, and—the bigger problem—countering the regime’s vast military advantage, especially as it has aircraft and the rebels don’t.

Many weapons in the conflict hail from the former eastern bloc, according to surveys of small arms in Syria (pdf) that are admittedly unscientific. There’s a reason for this: The Soviet Union cranked up a massive arms machine, and when it collapsed, the combination of chaos, weapons stockpiles and criminal entrepreneurship gave men like Viktor Bout and Leonard Minin careers as arms dealers. [Continue reading...]


Looking for Ukraine

Tim Judah writes: Every now and then I can hear distant explosions and bursts of gunfire. But most of the time, here in the center of Sloviansk, which since early April has become eastern Ukraine’s separatist stronghold, everything is quiet. Since the small town is chopped up by barricades and many businesses and factories have closed down, there is not much going on, so that when the wind blows you can hear it shimmer the leaves of the silver birches that line the streets. If you were looking for war here, it would be hard to find.

Ice creams are still getting through the checkpoints around town and there is a steady stream of people buying them. As I chose a chocolate bear, Irina, aged fifty, who sells them, told me that she liked being here among people, because the worst thing in this situation was being at home, alone and anxious.

When we come to look back on the Ukrainian conflict, it will be hard, if it moves from its current low-level state to a full-blown war, to say that such-and-such a date marked its beginning. Was it the day that some forty people died, many after being trapped in a building that then caught fire in Odessa? Was it the day that seven people or was it more than twenty or perhaps more than one hundred died in Mariupol, another Black Sea town? For people here the numbers they believe depend on whether they follow the Russian or Ukrainian press and, since both are lying and distorting slivers of truth, it is not surprising that people are being dragged down into a vortex of war.

But while it will be hard to agree on a date, it is already easy to say what is happening in people’s heads. Six months ago everyone here just went about their normal business. They were worried about the things that everyone worries about, and here especially: low salaries, scraping by, collecting money for all the bribes one has to pay, and so on. And then something snapped. The rotting ship of the Ukrainian state sprung a leak and everything began to go down. In people’s heads a new reality has gradually begun to take shape and, in this way, everyone is being prepared for war. [Continue reading...]