How the U.S. government condemns or ignores indiscriminate bombing

Micah Zenko writes: If you watch U.S. government press conferences, you will occasionally come across a moment of incidental but illuminating honesty. Yesterday, one such moment occurred during a routine press briefing with Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the command element for the war against the self-declared Islamic State. Col Warren was asked about the growing number of disturbing allegations of Russia’s indiscriminate use of airpower in Syria. Just the day before, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “it appears the vast majority of [Russian] strikes, by some estimates as high as 85 percent to 90 percent, use dumb bombs.” Warren echoed Carter’s assessment, claiming that, “Russians have chosen to use a majority of really, just dumb bombs, just gravity bombs, push them out the back of an airplane, and let them fall where they will.”

Col. Warren went further to castigate Russia for its use of one particular type of ordinance: “You know, there’s been reporting that the Russians are using cluster munitions in Syria, which we also find to be irresponsible. These munitions have a high dud rate, they can cause damage and they can hurt civilians, and they’re just, you know, not good.”

That cluster munitions are “not good,” except as a reliable method for killing noncombatants outside of an intended target field, is a well-known and established fact. According to one UN estimate, the failure rates for cluster munitions vary from between 2 and 5 percent (according to manufacturers) to between 10 and 30 percent (according to mine clearance personnel). They were subsequently banned by the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions, which entered into force in August 2010 and has been endorsed by ninety-eight states parties. Notable states that have refused to sign and ratify the convention include those that consistently uses airpower to achieve their military objectives, such as Russia, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. [Continue reading…]


U.S. signals Bashar al-Assad can take part in political transition in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: On Thursday, Thomas Shannon, President Barack Obama’s nominee to be undersecretary of state, said Mr. Kerry is seeking to ascertain whether Russia and Iran are prepared “to convince Mr. Assad that during a political transition process, he will have to go.”

During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Shannon said Mr. Kerry “thought it was time to bring everybody together and effectively call their bluff.”

The U.S. diplomacy is placing the Arab states and Turkey in a bind, as many of them have provided significant arms and funding to the largely Sunni rebel forces seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has publicly criticized Russia’s military intervention in Syria, arguing it could strengthen Mr. Assad and Shiite-dominated Iran, his closest Middle East ally.

Still, Saudi Arabia is finding it difficult to oppose the new round of diplomacy because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heavy military investment in Syria. Saudi officials have been holding their own direct talks with the Kremlin and have also pressed for a clear time line for when Mr. Assad would be forced to stand down, senior Arab officials said.

Mr. Obama’s position in the early days of Syria’s civil war was that Mr. Assad had to step down immediately as part of any resolution to the conflict, but that position shifted as the regime held together and the spread of Islamic State has become a higher priority.

The administration’s primary aim now is to get warring parties to abide by a cease-fire, so the U.S. can more effectively zero in on Islamic State and give new momentum to the stalled fight.

As a result, the administration’s view is Mr. Assad’s future can be dealt with later.

Current and former U.S. officials say the White House’s acceptance of Russian and Iranian demands on keeping Mr. Assad in power at least temporarily will make it hard — if not impossible — for the administration to get the different rebel factions fighting the regime to sign on to a cease-fire. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia: Eight of King Salman’s 11 surviving brothers want to oust him

The Independent reports: Eight of the 12 surviving sons of Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch are supporting a move to oust King Salman, 79, the country’s ailing ruler, and replace him with his 73-year-old brother, according to a dissident prince.

The prince also claims that a clear majority of the country’s powerful Islamic clerics, known as the Ulama, would back a palace coup to oust the current King and install Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, a former Interior Minister, in his place. “The Ulama and religious people prefer Prince Ahmed – not all of them, but 75 per cent,” said the prince, himself a grandson of King Ibn Saud, who founded the ruling dynasty in 1932.

Support from the clerics would be vital for any change of monarch, since in the Saudi system only they have the power to confer religious and therefore political legitimacy on the leadership.

The revelation suggests there is increasing pressure within the normally secretive Saudi royal family to bring to a head the internal power struggle that has erupted since King Salman inherited the throne at the beginning of this year. The prince, who cannot be named for security reasons, is the author of two recently published letters calling for the royal family to replace the current Saudi leadership.

In 1964 King Saud was finally deposed after a long power struggle, when the majority of senior royal family members and the Kingdom’s religious establishment spoke with one voice and withdrew their support. The prince says something similar is going to happen again soon. [Continue reading…]


After a U.S. shift, Iran has a seat at talks on war in Syria

The New York Times reports: Just a few weeks ago, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said any new talks with the United States were forbidden. He described the United States as a persistent enemy of the Islamic revolution, and said that despite the nuclear agreement, it needed to be kept at a distance.

But participating in the multination Syria talks does not contradict Mr. Khamenei’s dictums, some Iranian analysts say.

“Our leader has banned the bilateral relations between Iran and America or any negotiation aimed at resuming relations,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a political analyst in Tehran considered close to the ayatollah. “Case-by-case negotiations or finding solutions for regional problems on a multilateral basis is all right.”

So, while publicly siding with the hard-liners, the Supreme Leader may well be giving more negotiating room to President Hassan Rouhani, who has advocated more open engagements with the rest of the world. There has already been an unspoken cooperation between Iran and the United States in Iraq, where both are fighting the Islamic State.

“We should thank President Rouhani for his efforts in reaching out to the international community, and the nuclear deal,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the government in Tehran. “Now we are seeing the rewards: We are playing an increasing active role in the international arena.”

That role is something that Iran has desperately sought: Diplomatic weight and respect that bolsters its claim that it, not Saudi Arabia, is the most influential power in the region. “It’s very important because it shows that, following the nuclear agreement, Iran is now ready to cooperate on crisis management in the Middle East,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator who now teaches at Princeton, said in a telephone interview. “I’m not surprised, because the leader had said that if the deal were done fairly, with face-saving for all parties, Iran would agree to next steps on other issues. This is a big step forward.”

Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist and chairman of the Eurasia Group, a Washington political consultancy, said that given Russia’s recent intervention in Syria to support Mr. Assad, it was clear he would remain in charge for a while, which meant Iran would be attending the Vienna talks from a position of strength.

Still, Mr. Kupchan said in an email, “as U.S.-Iran contacts spread to a broader array of issues, it will be harder and harder for Iranian conservatives to quarantine cooperation.” [Continue reading…]


Sentenced to be crucified in Saudi Arabia

Nicholas Kristof writes: Any day now, our Saudi Arabian allies may behead and crucify a young man named Ali al-Nimr.

His appeals following his court sentence for this grisly execution have been exhausted, so guards may lead Nimr to a public square and hack off his head with a sword as onlookers jeer. Then, following Saudi protocol for crucifixion, they would hang his body as a warning to others.

Nimr’s offense? He was arrested at age 17 for participating in anti-government protests. The government has said he attacked police officers and rioted, but the only known evidence is a confession apparently extracted under torture that left him a bloody mess.

“When I visited my son for the first time I didn’t recognize him,” his mother, Nusra al-Ahmed, told The Guardian. “I didn’t know whether this really was my son Ali or not.”

Nimr was recently moved to solitary confinement in preparation for execution. In Britain, where the sentence has received attention, the foreign secretary says he does “not expect” it to be carried out. But Nimr’s family fears execution could come any day.

Saudi Arabia’s medieval criminal justice system also executes “witches,” and flogs and imprisons gay people.

It’s time for a frank discussion about our ally Saudi Arabia and its role legitimizing fundamentalism and intolerance in the Islamic world. Western governments have tended to bite their tongues because they see Saudi Arabia as a pillar of stability in a turbulent region — but I’m not sure that’s right.

Saudi Arabia has supported Wahhabi madrasas in poor countries in Africa and Asia, exporting extremism and intolerance. Saudi Arabia also exports instability with its brutal war in Yemen, intended to check what it sees as Iranian influence. Saudi airstrikes have killed thousands, and the blockading of ports has been even more devastating. Some Yemeni children are starving, and 80 percent of Yemenis now need assistance.

There’s also an underlying hypocrisy in Saudi behavior. This is a country that sentenced a 74-year-old British man to 350 lashes for possessing alcohol (some British reports say he may be allowed to leave Saudi Arabia following international outrage), yet I’ve rarely seen as much hard liquor as at Riyadh parties attended by government officials.

A Saudi prince, Majed Abdulaziz al-Saud, was just arrested in Los Angeles in a $37 million mansion he had rented, after allegedly drinking heavily, hiring escorts, using cocaine, terrorizing women and threatening to kill people.

“I am a prince,” he declared, according to an account in The Los Angeles Times. “And I do what I want.” [Continue reading…]


New allies in northern Syria don’t seem to share U.S. goals

McClatchy reports: After the failure of its $500 million program to stand up a Syrian volunteer force to battle Islamic State extremists, the Obama administration has begun an effort to enable Arab militias to fight alongside a Kurdish force that has gotten U.S. air support for the past year.

The stated U.S. aim is to oust the Islamic State from its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria. But if the Shammar tribal militia, the biggest in Hasaka province, is any example, many Arab forces on the ground have a different agenda. For that matter, so does the Kurdish People’s Protection Force, or YPG, which dominates this area and has worked closely with the United States since the siege last year of the border town of Kobani.

The road to the palace of Sheikh Humaydi Daham al Hadi, the head of the Shammar tribe, winds through vast wheat fields in this isolated corner of eastern Syria, past checkpoints manned by YPG fighters, and then by his own guards.

Hasaka, an oil, gas and grain producing area, is now part of what the YPG calls Jazera, one of three cantons that comprise Rojava, or west Kurdistan, a 200-mile-long corridor on Syria’s border with Turkey. The Syrian government, which still has troops in at least two cities, has acquiesced to YPG control.

Because Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist group and has closed its borders because of the YPG’s affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, the only way into Rojava is by a ferry across the Tigris River from Iraq and hours of driving on secondary roads.

Welcoming visitors in his vast reception room, Sheikh Humaydi says his goal is to lead a Shammar tribal uprising against the Islamic State “to liberate Syria, Iraq and beyond.” But he also wants to carry on a 2-century-old struggle against conservative Wahabi Islam, which he said destroyed the last Shammar emirate, and he favors the breakup of Saudi Arabia, where the puritanical sect dominates. “We are already working on that,” he said. [Continue reading…]


Yemen hospital hit by Saudi-led air strike: Medecins Sans Frontieres

Reuters reports: A hospital in north Yemen run by medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was bombed in a Saudi-led air strike, wrecking the facility and lightly wounding two staff members, the group said on Tuesday.

A Saudi-led Arab coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war in March to try to restore its government after its toppling by Iran-allied Houthi forces, but a mounting civilian death toll has alarmed human rights groups.

“Our hospital in the Heedan district of Saada governorate was hit several times. Fortunately, the first hit damaged the operations theater while it was empty and the staff were busy with people in the emergency room. They just had time to run off as another missile hit the maternity ward,” MSF country director Hassan Boucenine told Reuters by telephone from Yemen.

“It could be a mistake, but the fact of the matter is it’s a war crime. There’s no reason to target a hospital. We provided (the coalition) with all of our GPS coordinates about two weeks ago,” he said. [Continue reading…]


Extreme heatwaves could push Gulf climate beyond human endurance, study shows

The Guardian reports: The Gulf in the Middle East, the heartland of the global oil industry, will suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked, according to a new scientific study.

The extreme heatwaves will affect Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha and coastal cities in Iran as well as posing a deadly threat to millions of Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia, when the religious festival falls in the summer. The study shows the extreme heatwaves, more intense than anything ever experienced on Earth, would kick in after 2070 and that the hottest days of today would by then be a near-daily occurrence.

“Our results expose a specific regional hotspot where climate change, in the absence of significant [carbon cuts], is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future,” said Prof Jeremy Pal and Prof Elfatih Eltahir, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writing in the journal Nature Climate Change.

They said the future climate for many locations in the Gulf would be like today’s extreme climate in the desert of Northern Afar, on the African side of the Red Sea, where there are no permanent human settlements at all. But the research also showed that cutting greenhouse gas emissions now could avoid this fate. [Continue reading…]


Yemen is shattered and peace seems a long way off. The world can’t just watch on

Farea Al-Muslimi and Rafat Al-Akhali write: “For us, the future is lost. There is no hope.” That’s what Ali Ahmad told BBC interviewers who were trying to find out what life was like under the current war in Yemen. Ali comes from Taiz, a governorate that has for months been under siege by the militias of former president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh, and those of the Houthi rebel movement.

Taiz epitomises the suffering of people across Yemen: as the city suffers not only from the shelling and siege of militias, but also from the airstrikes of the Saudi-led coalition (such as the airstrike targeting a wedding in September and killing more than 130 civilians, according to the UN high commissioner for human rights) and the wider blockade that the coalition is enforcing on commercialand humanitarian shipments to the country.

As the poorest country in the Arab world is collapsing in front of the world’s eyes, a whole generation of Yemeni youth and children are losing their future. The military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen is nearing its seven-month mark, with arms and wide-ranging logistical, technical, and intelligence support from the United Kingdom and the United States and otherwestern allies. This war has resulted in an “nearly incomprehensible” scale of human suffering, according to the UN humanitarian chief. [Continue reading…]


Saudis risk draining financial assets in 5 years, IMF says

Bloomberg reports: Saudi Arabia may run out of financial assets needed to support spending within five years if the government maintains current policies, the International Monetary Fund said, underscoring the need of measures to shore up public finances amid the drop in oil prices.

The same is true of Bahrain and Oman in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, the IMF said in a report on Wednesday. Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have relatively more financial assets that could support them for more than 20 years, the Washington-based lender said.

Saudi authorities are already planning spending cuts as the world’s biggest oil exporter seeks to cut its budget deficit. Officials have repeatedly said that the kingdom’s economy, the Arab world’s biggest, is strong enough to weather the plunge in crude prices as it did in similar crises, when its finances were under more strain. [Continue reading…]


Could the Saudis be dragging the U.S. into a war crimes scandal?

PRI reports: Thirteen liberal legislators have put President Barack Obama on the spot for his support of Saudi Arabia’s unchecked war in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has been guided by US intelligence, flying American fighter jets and dropping US-made bombs.

A Human Rights Watch researcher has put the death toll from the incursion at 2,355 civilians since March.

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingel and her colleagues reminded the president in a letter last week that Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest Arab ally and best weapons customer is behaving badly in Yemen, and could be dragging the US into a war crimes scandal. “With this level of active involvement in the campaign,” the letter reads, “we are concerned that some overseas may hold the United States responsible for any civilian casualties resulting from the bombing.”

Many Yemenis already hold America — and the UK — responsible for Saudi actions. [Continue reading…]


Across the Middle East, national and religious leaders fuel sectarianism

The New York Times reports: The Shiite leaders of Iran and the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia traded insults over the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims near Mecca. The government of Bahrain, long criticized for repressing the country’s Shiite majority, expelled the Iranian ambassador, after accusing Iran of shipping arms to Bahrain and trying to foment “sectarian strife.”

And a group of hard-line Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia, fired up by Russia’s intervention in Syria, issued a scathing sectarian call for holy war.

Events over the last few weeks have raised fears of an accelerating confrontation between the region’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims, with Saudi Arabia and Iran escalating their power struggle, extremists attacking Shiite mosques in the Persian Gulf and armed conflict aggravating religious differences in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen.

But as the violence flares and crosses borders, national and religious leaders seem as eager as ever to stoke the fires, mobilizing followers using implicit or naked sectarian appeals that are transforming political conflicts into religious struggles and making the bloodshed in the region harder to contain, scholars and analysts say.

“This is unprecedented, and we don’t have a road map,” said Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “When political dynamics fail, people turn back to religion. We are in this terrible moment of transition where sect is very high in people’s minds.” [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia targets Russia in battle for European oil market

Reuters reports: From global majors such as Shell and Total to more modest Polish energy firms, oil refiners in Europe are cutting their longstanding use of Russian crude in favour of Saudi grades as the world’s top exporters fight for market share.

Russia has for years been muscling in on Asian markets where Saudi Arabia was once the unchallenged dominant supplier. But now Riyadh is retaliating in Moscow’s backyard of Europe with aggressive price discounting.

This has nothing to do with Western sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine, which apply to energy industry equipment but not to oil or gas itself. Instead it is a commercial battle for customers as both exporters ramp up their output despite weak world oil prices. [Continue reading…]


Oil nations feel the strain of  OPEC’s continuing price war

The Telegraph reports: Oil is arguably Saudi Arabia’s best weapon against both Russia and Iran. Although the kingdom’s finances are under severe strain from the collapse in export revenues it can still fall back on its $655bn (£423bn) of foreign assets while Russia and Iran will feel the impact of another year of weak oil prices more acutely.

After a year of carnage in the oil industry, it is now clear that it will take more time for Al-Naimi’s strategy of allowing weaker prices to do the job of totally shutting down higher cost producers.

A 60pc slump in oil prices since last November has caused havoc but the main target of Opec ‘s campaign, shale oil in the US, has so far proved to be remarkably resilient.

Hardest hit have been the high cost producers in areas such as the North Sea where prices below $50 per barrel have placed the entire offshore industry at risk.

Energy consultant Wood Mackenzie now fears that 140 fields in the waters off north-east Scotland, where oil has been pumped since the 1970s, could be closed down over the next five years if oil prices remain so low. [Continue reading…]


Mother of Saudi man sentenced to crucifixion begs Obama to intervene

The Guardian reports: The mother of a Saudi protester sentenced to death by beheading and crucifixion has begged Barack Obama to intervene to save her son’s life.

In her first interview with foreign media, Nusra al-Ahmed, the mother of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, whose case has made headlines around the world, described the intended punishment as savage and “backwards in the extreme”.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Reprieve, the US talkshow host Bill Maher and the British prime minister, David Cameron, have all weighed in with calls for clemency to stop Nimr, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, from being beheaded and then crucified. [Continue reading…]


A cyclone brews over Saudi Arabia

David Ignatius writes: An internal political storm is roiling Saudi Arabia, as the crown prince and his deputy jockey for power under an aging King Salman — while some other members of the royal family agitate on behalf of a third senior prince who they claim would have wider family support.

For the secretive oil kingdom, whose internal debates are usually opaque to outsiders, the recent strife has been unusually open. The tension between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and his deputy, Mohammed bin Salman (the king’s son), is gossiped about across the Arab world. Dissenters from the royal family have begun circulating open letters that have drawn tens of thousands of readers online.

Succession worries were in the background in early September when Salman, 79, visited Washington, accompanied by son Mohammed bin Salman, 30. U.S. officials were eager to meet the young deputy crown prince. But they were concerned that “MBS,” as he’s known, might be challenging Mohammed bin Nayef, who is viewed in Washington as a reliable ally against al-Qaeda. [Continue reading…]


Russia doubles number of daily airstrikes in Syria as rebels intensify their attacks

The New York Times reports: Russian warplanes are carrying out more airstrikes in support of Syrian government ground troops as rebels are firing more American antitank weapons, deepening the impression that a proxy war between the United States and Russia is joining the list of interlocking conflicts in Syria.

Russia doubled the number of its airstrikes over the weekend to more than 60 a day, Russian state news media said, helping government troops take two villages on Monday.

Videos posted online by pro-Russian outlets, from an area above the village of Tal Skayk, in Hama Province, showed Syrian troops and allied militias watching as heavy barrages sent smoke towering from clusters of houses, while a narrator enthusiastically described progress in fighting “terrorists.”

At the same time, the handful of insurgent groups that received covert assistance from the United States have intensified their use of TOW antitank guided missiles, posting more than two dozen videos in the past few days of the missiles weaving over open fields before hitting their targets. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: It is unclear whether the TOWs will be able to change the course of the war, as did the Stinger antiaircraft missiles introduced in the 1980s by the CIA in Afghanistan, where they were used by the mujahideen to shoot down Russian helicopters and paralyze the Soviet army.

Now that the Russians have introduced more intensive and heavier airstrikes and, for the first time, combat helicopters have been seen in videos strafing villages in the Hama area, the TOW missiles may only be able to slow, but not block, government advances.

The rebels have appealed for the delivery of Stinger missiles or their equivalents to counter the new threat from the air, but U.S. officials say that is unlikely. The Obama administration has repeatedly vetoed past requests from the rebels, as well as their Turkish and Saudi allies, for the delivery of antiaircraft missiles, out of concerns that they could fall into extremist hands.

But the TOW missile program is already in progress, and all the indications are that it will continue. Saudi Arabia, the chief supplier, has pledged a “military” response to the Russian incursion, and rebel commanders say they have been assured more will arrive imminently.

Under the terms of the program, the missiles are delivered in limited quantities, and the rebel groups must return the used canisters to secure more, to avoid stockpiling or resale.

The supplies of the missiles, manufactured by Raytheon, are sourced mainly from stocks owned by the Saudi government, which purchased 13,795 of them in 2013, for expected delivery this year, according to Defense Department documents informing Congress of the sale. Because end-user agreements require that the buyer inform the United States of their ultimate destination, U.S. approval is implicit, said [Oubai ] Shahbandar, a former Pentagon adviser. [Continue reading…]


Syria: New Russian-made cluster munition reported

Human Rights Watch: An advanced type of Russian cluster munition was used in an airstrike southwest of Aleppo on October 4, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The use of the weapon near the village of Kafr Halab raises grave concerns that Russia is either using cluster munitions in Syria or providing the Syrian air force with new types of cluster munitions to use.

New photographs and videos also suggest renewed use of air-dropped cluster munitions as well as ground-fired Russian-made cluster munition rockets as part of the joint Russian-Syrian offensive in northern Syria.

“It’s disturbing that yet another type of cluster munition is being used in Syria given the harm they cause to civilians for years to come,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Neither Russia nor Syria should use cluster munitions, and both should join the international ban without delay.” [Continue reading…]

Last month, Human Rights Watch researcher, Ole Solvang, wrote about Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster bombs in Yemen: Cluster munitions were used in Yemen in past wars and now Saudi Arabia and members of its coalition are dropping bombs and launching rockets with this indiscriminate weapon on populated areas.

The U.S. is providing logistical and intelligence support for the coalition, and if it is providing targeting assistance for cluster munition strikes, it could be complicit in resulting laws-of-war violations. What’s more, the evidence we found of cluster rocket use just a few weeks ago showed that they were manufactured by U.S. companies. U.S. officials have expressed concern at the use of cluster munitions by Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, and Sudan yet when it comes to the use of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen, the U.S. has been silent. [Continue reading…]