Barack Obama’s role in bringing peace to Syria

In an editorial, The Observer says: Just when it seemed it could not get any worse, it did. Syria’s partial “cessation of hostilities”, on which shaky hopes of peace rest, rapidly unravelled last week. Amid a suddenly mounting toll of dead and injured came reports of renewed atrocities. In Aleppo, a hospital was bombed, killing up to 27 people, including doctors and children. The attack by Bashar al-Assad’s air force fitted an established, pre-ceasefire pattern of deliberately targeting civilians in hospitals, schools and markets. What has changed now is that this murderous regime, buoyed by Russian support and reinvigorated by the ceasefire, barely bothers to deny it.

Aleppo’s plight captured attention, not least because senior UN officials used it to dramatise their pleas to the US and others to rescue the peace talks in Switzerland, described as all but dead. “The violence is soaring back to the levels prior to the cessation of hostilities. There are deeply disturbing reports of military build-ups indicating a lethal escalation,” said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s human rights chief. “The Geneva talks were the only game in town. If they are abandoned, I dread to think how much more horror we will see in Syria.”

Less fully reported was the plight of starving Syrians marooned and besieged elsewhere in the country. “Deliberately deprived of food and medicine, many face the most appalling conditions. We must all be ashamed that this is happening on our watch,” said Stephen O’Brien, head of UN relief operations, pointing to the dire situation in Homs, Idlib, Latakia and rural Damascus. Thanks partly to the ceasefire, 3.7 million people received food aid in March, he said. Cross-border convoys so far this year reached nearly twice as many people as in the same period in 2015.

This limited progress is now at risk from renewed fighting, with Assad’s forces, in particular, again obstructing aid convoys. “Last week, on the convoy to Rastan, the Syrian authorities removed medicines from supplies and scissors and anaesthetic medicines from midwifery kits. This inhumane practice directly leads to unnecessary suffering and loss of life,” O’Brien reported. Denial of medical supplies in time of war is a gross breach of humanitarian law, yet it is happening again. There can be no excuse. It is wholly monstrous. An accounting must be made. And, one day, the perpetrators will pay for their crimes.

Or so we say. Sadly, the unpalatable reality is that such vows and declarations, whether issued by UN officials, relief agencies, government ministers, MPs or newspaper editorials, will be contemptuously ignored, as they have been for the past five years, until the principal external actors in this tragedy stop playing power games and start taking responsibility. Foremost among them are Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers. [Continue reading…]


Aleppo braces for ‘war of all wars’ as regime prepares to retake key Syrian city

The Telegraph reports: Aleppo saw one of its bloodiest days since the ceasefire began on Friday, as government forces laid the groundwork for a “war of all wars” to retake Syria’s second city.

The carnage of the last few days has propelled Aleppo – bitterly contested since 2012 and considered the jewel of Syria – once again to the main battlefield in the civil war.

The Syrian regime pounded rebel areas in the city with air raids, including on another medical clinic, while opposition fighters hit government-held neighbourhoods with rocket and artillery fire.

Friday prayers were cancelled across Aleppo for only the second time during the five-year war, so worried were residents that they would be targeted if they gathered in groups.

With more than 100 killed in the past 48 hours, an average of one Syrian was dying every 25 minutes. [Continue reading…]


On the ground in Syria: Bloodshed, misery and hope

The New York Times reports: On the edge of Aleppo’s ancient citadel, Zahra and her family squatted in a once-grand apartment, now facing rebel lines. Plastic sheets covered its tall windows to shield the space from a sniper’s view; shelling boomed in the distance.

Zahra, 25, who gave just one name, flicked between two photos on her phone. The first showed her husband, a Syrian Army soldier and the father of her unborn child. “Seven months,” she said, touching her belly.

In the second, her husband was splayed on the ground, blood trickling from his nose. Two other fallen soldiers lay beside him. He died two weeks ago.

“May the men who did this also die,” she said with quiet determination.

Four years of war has hardened hearts in Aleppo, a divided city and, for the past week, the scene of merciless fighting.

A fragile truce, brokered by the United States and Russia, has crumbled in Syria, leading to the worst violence in months. Russian fighter jets roar through the sky, pounding targets in rebel-held areas. The rebels send barrages of mortar rounds and homemade missiles that land in crowded neighborhoods. The war has stoked sectarian tensions and become a proxy battle for regional and global interests. [Continue reading…]


Iraqi protesters end Green Zone sit-in for now after issuing demands

Reuters reports: Protesters camped out in Baghdad’s Green Zone for 24 hours left the heavily fortified government district on Sunday after issuing demands for political reform but they pledged to return by the end of the week to keep up the pressure.

Iraq has endured months of wrangling prompted by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s attempt to replace party-affiliated ministers with technocrats as part of an anti-corruption drive. A divided parliament has failed to approve the proposal amid scuffles and protests.

Deep frustration over the deadlock culminated in a dramatic breach on Saturday of the Green Zone by supporters of powerful Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr wants to see Abadi’s proposed technocrat government approved, ending a quota system blamed for rampant corruption. Powerful parties have resisted, fearing the dismantling of patronage networks that sustain their wealth and influence.

Abadi has warned continued turmoil could hamper the war against Islamic State, which controls large swathes of northern and western Iraq.

The Green Zone protesters issued an escalating set of demands, including a parliamentary vote on a technocrat government, the resignation of the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker and new elections.

If none of the demands are met, a spokeswoman for the protesters said in a televised speech that they would resort to “all legitimate means” including civil disobedience.

Hundreds of protesters peacefully exited the Green Zone moments later. [Continue reading…]


Daniel J. Berrigan, defiant priest who practiced pacifism, dies at 94

The New York Times reports: The Rev. Daniel J. Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and poet whose defiant protests helped shape the tactics of opposition to the Vietnam War and landed him in prison, died on Saturday in New York City. He was 94.

His death was confirmed by the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large at America magazine, a national Catholic magazine published by Jesuits. Father Berrigan died at Murray-Weigel Hall, the Jesuit infirmary at Fordham University in the Bronx.

The United States was tearing itself apart over civil rights and the war in Southeast Asia when Father Berrigan emerged in the 1960s as an intellectual star of the Roman Catholic “new left,” articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.

It was an essentially religious position, based on a stringent reading of the Scriptures that some called pure and others radical. But it would have explosive political consequences as Father Berrigan; his brother Philip, a Josephite priest; and their allies took their case to the streets with rising disregard for the law or their personal fortunes.

A defining point was the burning of Selective Service draft records in Catonsville, Md., and the subsequent trial of the so-called Catonsville Nine, a sequence of events that inspired an escalation of protests across the country; there were marches, sit-ins, the public burning of draft cards and other acts of civil disobedience. [Continue reading…]


David Vincenzetti: How the Italian mogul built a hacking empire

David Kushner reports: The Blackwater of surveillance, the Hacking Team is among the world’s few dozen private contractors feeding a clandestine, multibillion-dollar industry that arms the world’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies with spyware. Comprised of around 40 engineers and salespeople who peddle its goods to more than 40 nations, the Hacking Team epitomizes what Reporters Without Borders, the international anti-censorship group, dubs the “era of digital mercenaries.”

The Italian company’s tools — “the hacking suite for governmental interception,” its website claims — are marketed for fighting criminals and terrorists. But there, on Marquis-Boire’s computer screen, was chilling proof that the Hacking Team’s software was also being used against dissidents. It was just the latest example of what Marquis-Boire saw as a worrying trend: corrupt regimes using surveillance companies’ wares for anti-democratic purposes.

When Citizen Lab published its findings in the October 2012 report “Backdoors are Forever: Hacking Team and the Targeting of Dissent?” the group also documented traces of the company’s spyware in a document sent to Ahmed Mansoor, a pro-democracy activist in the United Arab Emirates. Privacy advocates and human rights organizations were alarmed. “By fueling and legitimizing this global trade, we are creating a Pandora’s box,” Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told Bloomberg.

The Hacking Team, however, showed no signs of standing down. “Frankly, the evidence that the Citizen Lab report presents in this case doesn’t suggest anything inappropriately done by us,” company spokesman Eric Rabe told the Globe and Mail.

As media and activists speculated about which countries the Italian firm served, the founder and CEO of the Hacking Team, David Vincenzetti — from his sleek, white office inside an unsuspecting residential building in Milan — took the bad press in stride. He joked with his colleagues in a private email that he was responsible for the “evilest technology” in the world.

A tall, lean 48-year-old Italian with a taste for expensive steak and designer suits, Vincenzetti has transformed himself over the past decade from an under-ground hacker working out of a windowless basement into a mogul worth millions. He is nothing if not militant about what he defines as justice: Julian Assange, the embattled founder of WikiLeaks, is “a criminal who by all means should be arrested, expatriated to the United States, and judged there”; whistleblower Chelsea Manning is “another lunatic”; Edward Snowden “should go to jail, absolutely.”

“Privacy is very important,” Vincenzetti says on a recent February morning in Milan, pausing to sip his espresso. “But national security is much more important.”

Vincenzetti’s position has come at a high cost. Disturbing incidents have been left in his wake: a spy’s suicide, dissidents’ arrests, and countless human rights abuses. “If I had known how crazy and dangerous he is,” Guido Landi, a former employee, says, “I would never have joined the Hacking Team.” [Continue reading…]


Music: Can — ‘Tango Whiskeyman’


Biden visits Baghdad at ‘good time’ then state of emergency declared as protesters take Iraqi parliament

The Washington Post reports: Protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament on Saturday, bursting into the capital’s fortified Green Zone, where other key buildings, including the U.S. Embassy, are located.

Live footage on Iraqi television showed swarms of protesters, who have been demanding government reform, inside the parliament building, waving flags and chanting. Lawmakers were berated and beaten with flags as they fled the building, while demonstrators smashed the windows of politicians’ cars.

Baghdad Operations Command declared a state of emergency and said all roads into the capital had been closed. A U.S. Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that staff were not being evacuated from their compound, which is about a mile away from the parliament building.

Iraq is in the grip of a political crisis, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi attempting to reshuffle his cabinet and meet the demands of the demonstrators, who have been spurred on by the powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But Abadi has been hampered by chaotic parliament sessions, where lawmakers have thrown water bottles and punches at one another.

The political unrest has brought a new level of instability to a country that is facing multiple crises, including the fight against the Islamic State militant group and the struggling economy. [Continue reading…]

Earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported: Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Baghdad on Thursday at a time of growing concern in the White House about the potential collapse of the government in Baghdad amid political turmoil.

Mr. Biden, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since the rise of Islamic State and the withdrawal of American troops in 2011, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other government officials. Afterward, he flew to Erbil to meet with Kurdish leaders.

President Barack Obama expressed concern about the stability of Mr. Abadi’s government last week, after meeting with Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Obama said the U.S. planned to “assess how the current government turmoil in Iraq plays itself out over the next couple of weeks” before deciding on new aid to Baghdad.

Senior administration officials briefing reporters on the Biden trip spoke more optimistically about developments in Baghdad. “In the last few days, things have trended in a more stabilizing direction,” one official said. “So it’s actually a good time to be here.”


Syria truce comes into effect but Aleppo excluded

Al Jazeera reports: The Syrian government has called local truces near Damascus and in the northern province of Latakia but has excluded the main battlefield in Aleppo.

A new “regime of calm” began at 1am on Saturday and is scheduled to last one day in the capital’s eastern Ghouta suburb and three days in the northern countryside of the coastal province of Latakia, the army said in a statement.

The truces seemed to be holding as of Saturday morning, but air strikes resumed in Aleppo, hitting at least two areas.

By excluding Aleppo, scene of the worst recent violence, the narrow truces were unlikely to resurrect a ceasefire and peace talks that have collapsed this week.

The surge in fighting in the city – home to more than two million people – showed “monstrous disregard” for civilian lives, the United Nations said. [Continue reading…]


Labour antisemitism row: There was nothing Zionist about Hitler’s plans for the Jews

By Rainer Schulze, University of Essex

When the former London mayor Ken Livingstone said in an interview that Hitler was “supporting Zionism” before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”, he was quickly suspended from the Labour Party, which was already in the throes of a painful row over anti-semitism. But while Livingstone’s tone-deaf comments came at a very politically sensitive moment, the historical error at their heart is all too familiar.

Claims that Hitler was a Zionist, or supported Zionism, before his anti-Jewish policies turned into murder and extermination flare up at regular intervals. They usually cite the controversial Haavara Agreement (Transfer Agreement) of August 1933 as the most potent evidence of a wilful cooperation between Hitler and the Zionist movement. When viewed in a certain way, this deal does superficially seem to show that Hitler’s government endorsed Zionism – but just because it was a mechanism to help German Jews relocate to Palestine it does not imply it was “Zionist”.

The Haavara Agreement was the only formal contract signed between Nazi Germany and a Zionist organisation. The signatories were the Reich Ministry of Economics, the Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland (Zionist Federation of Germany) and the Anglo-Palestine Bank (then under the directive of the Jewish Agency for Palestine).

Under the agreement Jewish emigrants had to hand over their possessions before they left Germany, and the proceeds were used by a company specifically set up for this purpose in Tel Aviv to purchase German goods for sale in Palestine. The proceeds of these sales were then paid in Palestinian currency to the emigrants in Palestine.

The agreement was immediately criticised from all sides. The Zionist Federation was accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and the Nazi authorities were criticised by fellow Nazis for helping Jews when their official policy was to “solve the Jewish question”. Still, at this point in time, both sides no doubt saw potential benefits for themselves in such an agreement.

For the Zionist Federation, it was a way to save Jews from the claws of an increasingly hostile regime and attract them to Palestine, while for the Nazi state signing an international agreement was further proof of its legitimacy, broke the Jewish movement of boycotting German goods, and helped the recovery of German exports at a time when the German economy was still in the depth of depression.

[Read more…]


Ken Livingstone blames ‘embittered Blairite MPs’ for antisemitism row

The Guardian reports: Ken Livingstone has refused to apologise to the Jewish community for insensitive comments linking Zionism to Adolf Hitler, claiming the crisis at the centre of the Labour party was caused by “embittered old Blairite MPs” and is “not about antisemitism”.

The former mayor of London, speaking on LBC, took the opportunity to publicly say sorry to the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the party for causing “disruption” but pointedly refused to apologise for his original comments, which he reasserted as “historical facts” on Saturday.

“I’m sorry to Jeremy and the Labour party that I am caught up in this but it wasn’t me that started this problem, this is embittered old Blairites bringing it up,” he said. “I’m sorry if anyone was upset by what I said, I’m sorry for that. But it happens to be a statement of fact.”

Pushed to say whether he regretted bringing the German dictator into the debate, Livingstone said: “I regret mentioning Hitler because it brought up this nonsense.

“I’m sorry that I said that because it’s wasted all this time but I can’t bring myself to deny the truth and I’m not going to do that. I’m sorry it’s caused disruption.”

Earlier in the interview, the former mayor of London appeared to mistakenly cite a statement by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, in his defence. “This is what annoys me about the degradation of British journalism, no one does any research,” he said.

“Two days before I did that interview [on Thursday], the prime minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu is addressing the World Zionist Congress, this is the sentence he says: ‘Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews but only to expel them.’ Now, I haven’t seen that in any British paper, I had to get it off the internet.”

In fact, Livingstone appears to be referring to Netanyahu’s address to the WZC in October last year, where the Israeli PM did not refer to Zionists collaborating with Hitler, but instead accused the second world war Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem of having suggested the genocide of the Jews to the Nazi leader. [Continue reading…]


Journalist who profiled Melania Trump hit with barrage of antisemitic abuse

The Guardian reports: Journalist Julia Ioffe has experienced this kind of harassment before: in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the 24 hours since her profile of Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, appeared in GQ magazine, the Russian-American journalist has received a torrent of antisemitic, vitriolic and threatening messages from supporters of the Republican frontrunner.

In the deeply disturbing response to her piece, Ioffe said she sees a frightening future of what freedom of the press – and the country – might look like under President Trump.

“What happens if Donald Trump is elected?” Ioffe said. “We’ve seen the way he bids his supporters to attack the media, his proposal to change libel laws to make it easier to sue journalists.” [Continue reading…]


Birmingham men in court accused of funding Paris attack suspect

The Guardian reports: Two men from Birmingham have appeared in court charged with giving £3,000 to Mohamed Abrini, who was allegedly involved in the terrorist attacks on Paris and Brussels.

Abrini, captured on camera wearing a hat during the bombing of the Brussels airport in March, got the cash for terrorist purposes, British prosecutors have said.

The claims of alleged British links to those behind the November 2015 attacks on Paris that killed 130 people and the attacks on Brussels earlier this year, came during the first court appearance of the two men. [Continue reading…]


VW and Shell accused of trying to block EU push for electric cars

The Guardian reports: VW and Shell have been accused of trying to block Europe’s push for electric cars and more efficient cars, by saying biofuels should be at heart of efforts to green the industry instead.

The EU is planning two new fuel efficiency targets for 2025 and 2030 to help meet promises made at the Paris climate summit last December.

But executives from the two industrial giants launched a study on Wednesday night proposing greater use of biofuels, CO2 car labelling, and the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) instead.

In reality, such a package would involve the end of meaningful new regulatory action on car emissions for more than a decade, EU sources say. But Shell insisted it is not trying to block an EU push for electric cars. [Continue reading…]


Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan: The world’s most-needed hospitals are under attack

The Washington Post reports: The al-Quds hospital in Aleppo targeted in Wednesday night’s attacks was one of 150 hospitals supported by Doctors Without Borders in Syria. The organization directly runs six in the country, but provides funding and medical supplies to other medical facilities.

The international charity group, also referred to as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in French, said the medical facility was directly hit and reduced to “rubble.” The organization has condemned the overnight attack, which also claimed the life of one of the area’s last pediatricians.

“Where is the outrage among those with the power and obligation to stop this carnage?” said Muskilda Zancada, the MSF head in Syria, in an online statement.

The United Nations estimates that at least half of Syria’s hospitals have been destroyed, and the spark of attacks on hospitals is an especially disturbing trend. In armed conflict, hospitals are protected by international law. Yet the facilities supported and run by the Nobel Prize-winning organization have frequently come under attack. And it’s not only medical structures. The group said five rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense organization have also been killed. [Continue reading…]