Syria: Putin policy has become Obama policy because the U.S. has offered no serious alternative

Roger Cohen writes: the Obama administration still pays lip service to the notion that Assad is part of the problem and not the solution, and that if the Syrian leader may survive through some political transition period he cannot remain beyond that. But these are words. It is President Vladimir Putin and Russia who are “making the weather” in Syria absent any corresponding commitment or articulable policy from President Obama.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now virtually encircled by the Syrian Army. A war that has already produced a quarter of a million dead, more than 4.5 million refugees, some 6.5 million internally displaced, and the destabilization of Europe through a massive influx of terrorized people, is about to see further abominations as Aleppo agonizes.

Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria. It is already the Munich.

By which I mean that the city’s plight today, its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs, is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.

Where such feeble evasions masquerading as strategy lead is to United States policy becoming Putin’s policy in Syria, to awkward acquiescence to Moscow’s end game, and to embarrassed shrugs encapsulating the wish that — perhaps, somehow, with a little luck — Putin may crush ISIS. [Continue reading…]

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Kerry ‘blames opposition’ for continued Syria bombing

Middle East Eye reports: US Secretary of State John Kerry told Syrian aid workers, hours after the Geneva peace talks fell apart, that the country should expect another three months of bombing that would “decimate” the opposition.

During a conversation on the sidelines of this week’s Syria donor conference in London, sources say Kerry blamed the Syrian opposition for leaving the talks and paving the way for a joint offensive by the Syrian government and Russia on Aleppo.

“‘He said, ‘Don’t blame me – go and blame your opposition,’” one of the aid workers, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her organisation, told Middle East Eye.

Kerry told reporters on Friday, as tens of thousands fled the Syrian government and Russian bombardment of Aleppo, that both Russia and Iran, another of Syria’s allies, have told him that they are prepared for a ceasefire in Syria.

He said he would know “whether or not these parties are serious” after a meeting of the International Syria Support Group – 17 nations including the US and Russia – scheduled to be held in Munich next week.

But Kerry left the aid workers with the distinct impression that the US is abandoning efforts to support rebel fighters. [Continue reading…]

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Financial despair, addiction and the rise of suicide in white America

The Guardian reports: Kevin Lowney lies awake some nights wondering if he should kill himself.

“I am in such pain every night, suicide has on a regular basis crossed my mind just simply to ease the pain. If I did not have responsibilities, especially for my youngest daughter who has problems,” he said.

The 56-year-old former salesman’s struggle with chronic pain is bound up with an array of other issues – medical debts, impoverishment and the prospect of a bleak retirement – contributing to growing numbers of suicides in the US and helping drive a sharp and unusual increase in the mortality rate for middle-aged white Americans in recent years alongside premature deaths from alcohol and drugs.

A study released late last year by two Princeton academics, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who won the 2014 Nobel prize for economics, revealed that the death rate for white Americans aged 45 to 54 has risen sharply since 1999 after declining for decades. The increase, by 20% over the 14 years to 2013, represents about half a million lives cut short.

The uptick in the mortality rate is unique to that age and racial group. Death rates for African Americans of a similar age remain notably higher but continue to fall.

Neither was the increase seen in other developed countries. In the UK, the mortality rate for middle-aged people dropped by one third over the same period.

“This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,” the study said.

Deaths from poisonings by drugs or alcohol have risen dramatically to push lung cancer into second place as the major killer with a sharp increase in suicides now a close third. [Continue reading…]

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Trump to Syrian refugee children: ‘You can’t come here’

The Hill reports: Donald Trump said he’d be able to look into the eyes of Syrian refugee children to tell them they cannot come to schools in America in light of concerns about safely vetting refugees.

“We don’t know where their parents come from, they have no documentation whatsoever,” Trump said Monday during a town hall in New Hampshire.

“I’ve talked to the greatest legal people, spoken to the greatest security people. There’s absolutely no way of saying where these people come from. They may be from Syria, they may be ISIS, they may be ISIS related.”

During the event, a man who said he was from Connecticut told Trump about plans to relocate Syrian families into the community and let their children come to schools. When asked whether he’d be able to “look at these children” to tell them they couldn’t go to school, Trump said: “I can look in their faces and say, ‘You can’t come here.’”

The crowd applauded his answer. [Continue reading…]

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Under Sanders, income and jobs would soar, economist says

CNN reports: Median income would soar by more than $22,000. Nearly 26 million jobs would be created. The unemployment rate would fall to 3.8%.

Those are just a few of the things that would happen if Bernie Sanders became president and his ambitious economic program were put into effect, according to an analysis given exclusively to CNNMoney. The first comprehensive look at the impact of all of Sanders’ spending and tax proposals on the economy was done by Gerald Friedman, a University of Massachusetts Amherst economics professor.

Friedman found that if Sanders became president — and was able to push his plan through Congress — median household income would be $82,200 by 2026, far higher than the $59,300 projected by the Congressional Budget Office.

In addition, poverty would plummet to a record low 6%, as opposed to the CBO’s forecast of 13.9%. The U.S. economy would grow by 5.3% per year, instead of 2.1%, and the nation’s $1.3 trillion deficit would turn into a large surplus by Sanders’ second term [Continue reading…]

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Russian aggression drives Swedish defense spending

Defense News reports: Sweden’s discomfort over Russia’s long-term political and military ambitions in the Baltic Sea and High North has risen further after a senior military chief stated the Nordic state could find itself under attack “within a few years.”

The warning, made by Swedish Armed Forces’ Maj. Gen. Anders Brännström, came the same week that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed, in the organization’s Annual Report, that Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 bombers accompanied by Sukhoi Su-27 jets conducted a simulated “training” nuclear strike targeting key Swedish defense installations in March 2013.

Brännström stated, in an internal military document forwarded to officers and soldiers attending the armed forces’ Markstrids’ (Land Combat) conference in the sub-Arctic town of Boden, that the changed post-Cold War security landscape will require Sweden to downgrade international missions and prioritize reinforcing national defense readiness and capabilities. [Continue reading…]

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Marwan Bishara: Is America at war with Islam?

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Red carpet for President Sisi’s convoy criticised in Egypt

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BBC News reports: The use of a red carpet for the motorcade of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has provoked criticism in Egypt.

Cars carrying Mr Sisi and other officials drove down the red carpet on Saturday as they were visiting projects in 6 October City, a suburb of Cairo.

Several commentators questioned the apparent extravagance, just as the president was making a speech about the need to cut government subsidies.

The military said the carpet was meant to give joy to the Egyptian people. [Continue reading…]

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Invasion of the body snatchers

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? [Continue reading…]

As one of those eccentric, socially marginalized but not quite old aged people without a smartphone, it means I now live in a world where it seems the mass of humanity has become myopic.

A driver remains stationary in front of a green light.

A couple sit next to each other in an airport, wrapped in silence with attention directed elsewhere down their mutually exclusive wormholes.

A jogger in the woods, hears no birdsong because his ears are stuffed with plastic buds delivering private tunes.

Amidst all this divided attention, one thing seems abundantly clearly: devices tap into and amplify the desire to be some place else.

To be confined to the present place and the present time is to be trapped in a prison cell from which the smartphone offers escape — though of course it doesn’t.

What it does is produce an itch in time; a restless sense that we don’t have enough — that an elusive missing something might soon appear on that mesmerizing little touchscreen.

The effect of this refusal to be where we are is to impoverish life as our effort to make it larger ends up doing the reverse.

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World’s largest concentrated solar plant switches on in the Sahara

CNN reports: Morocco has switched on what will be the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant.

The new site near the city of Ouarzazate — famous as a filming location for Hollywood blockbusters like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Gladiator” — could produce enough energy to power over one million homes by 2018 and reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 760,000 tons per year, according to the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) finance group.

As His Majesty Mohammed VI of Morocco pressed a button on 4 February 2016, the first phase of the three-part project was set in motion. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Snarky Puppy — ‘Whitecap’

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Under the watchful Western eyes, Syria unravels

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Hisham Melhem writes: Once again tens of thousands of Syrians are being uprooted and forced to flee their ancestral lands around the ancient city of Aleppo by the incessant assaults waged against them by the government that claims to represent them in Damascus. The country roads leading to the Turkish borders are being traversed by haggard people carrying with them remnants of shattered lives, dragging little children shivering in February’s cold, wandering under the last skies of Syria, and wondering if they will ever return.

Syria’s northern skies have been given by the Assad regime to Russia’s prowling bombers which have been spewing deadly fires and cluster bombs indiscriminately against areas controlled by the opposition groups. The ground has been given to marauding fighters from neighboring Lebanon and Iraq and from as far away as Afghanistan and other Central Asian states, in what can only be called a new “Shiite Internationale”, to help a minority regime bereft of the manpower needed to retake and subdue the rebellious country.

Those in the West, particularly in the United States, who may have allowed themselves to entertain the scandalous notion that things could not get worse in Syria, should be forced to see the blank and numb faces of people on the move who are already beyond pain and hope, to realize the folly of their wishful thinking. Syria’s new tragic chapter is unfolding under watchful but impotent Western eyes.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has a deep and almost mystical belief in the power of diplomacy to settle violent disputes, a belief based on the naïve assumption that his peers are as rational and as well-meaning like him, found himself doing what he does best with Russia; pleading for cooperation, and reminding Russians of their obligation to enforce the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 that they co-sponsored to provide a roadmap to a political agreement.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest was truly earnest when he borrowed one of Kerry’s retorts, reminding the Russians that their “military strategy inside of Syria undermines the goals of their political strategy”. If only those obtuse Russians would listen to us explaining to them how best to reconcile their seemingly contradictory goals. The naiveté of this political position is matched only by the immense self-deception the Obama administration shared with many Syria “hands” in academe claiming that there is no ‘military’ solution to the civil war in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s disastrous betrayal of the Syrian rebels

Emile Hokayem writes: What a difference a year makes in Syria. And the introduction of massive Russian airpower.

Last February, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its Shiite auxiliaries mounted a large-scale attempt to encircle Aleppo, the northern city divided between regime and rebels since 2012 and battered by the dictator’s barrel bombs. Islamist and non-Islamist mainstream rebels — to the surprise of those who have derided their performance, let alone their existence — repelled the offensive at the time. What followed was a string of rebel advances across the country, which weakened Assad so much that they triggered Moscow’s direct intervention in September, in concert with an Iranian surge of forces, to secure his survival.

Fast-forward a year. After a slow start — and despite wishful Western assessments that Moscow could not sustain a meaningful military effort abroad — the Russian campaign is finally delivering results for the Assad regime. This week, Russian airpower allowed Assad and his allied paramilitary forces to finally cut off the narrow, rebel-held “Azaz corridor” that links the Turkish border to the city of Aleppo. The city’s full encirclement is now a distinct possibility, with regime troops and Shiite fighters moving from the south, the west, and the north. Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011.

In parallel, Russia has put Syria’s neighbors on notice of the new rules of the game. Jordan was spooked into downgrading its help for the Southern Front, the main non-Islamist alliance in the south of the country, which has so far prevented extremist presence along its border. Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military aircraft that crossed its airspace in November backfired: Moscow vengefully directed its firepower on Turkey’s rebel friends across Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Moscow also courted Syria’s Kurds, who found a new partner to play off the United States in their complex relations with Washington. And Russia has agreed to a temporary accommodation of Israel’s interests in southern Syria.

Inside Syria, and despite the polite wishes of Secretary of State John Kerry, the overwhelming majority of Russian strikes have hit non-Islamic State (IS) fighters. Indeed, Moscow and the Syrian regime are content to see the United States bear the lion’s share of the effort against the jihadi monster in the east, instead concentrating on mowing through the mainstream rebellion in western Syria. Their ultimate objective is to force the world to make an unconscionable choice between Assad and IS. [Continue reading…]

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Rebel setbacks in Syria have far reaching consequences

Hassan Hassan writes: Is Syrian president Bashar Al Assad finally winning? One can feel a deep sense of grief running through opposition factions whether inside or outside Syria over how events have unfolded over the past two weeks.

Pro-regime forces have made a series of major gains in northern, central and southern Syria over the past week.

More strikingly, they broke a three-year siege imposed by the rebels around the Shia towns of Nubbol and Zahraa, 20 kilometres from Aleppo city, which represents a major setback for the rebels especially as it could disrupt a game of encirclement and counter-encirclement that sustained the rebels’ control of much of Aleppo since 2012.

Five months after the regime’s forces seemed incapable of halting the string of victories achieved by the rebels in northern Syria, which led to the Russian military intervention to prop up their ally, the regime appears to be on the offensive. The offensive is seen n northern Latakia, the western Ghouta near Damascus, Deraa and in the rural areas of Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. The regime appears to have made an impressive comeback.

It is hard to judge how one side is doing through such tactical gains. The rebels were clearly on the winning side just a year ago, while the regime’s army suffered from a shortage in manpower, as admitted by Mr Al Assad himself during his last speech in August.

The breaking of the siege of Nubbol and Zahraa last week, as well as the siege of Kweiris airbase near Raqqa in November and the takeover of Sheikh Maskeen in Deraa last month, were spearheaded by foreign militias beholden to Iran.

The opposition’s real crisis is much deeper, hence the state of grieving widely felt by the rebels. These setbacks come amid profound internal, regional and international challenges that could tip the balance dramatically in favour of the regime. [Continue reading…]

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How popular are Britain First and its Islamophobic ‘Christian patrols’?

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The Washington Post reports: It’s a video that depicts just the sort of civilizational clash that extremists everywhere crave: Christians walking down a central shopping street in Britain. Muslim storekeepers and passerby hurling verbal abuse. A push. More abuse from both sides. And finally, police intervening to keep the warring clans apart.

The video, a slick propaganda job by the virulently anti-Muslim group Britain First, became a viral hit when the organization posted it to its Facebook page, racking up millions of views.

But there was more to the story than what the video showed.

The video was filmed on Jan. 23 in the multicultural British town of Luton, 30 miles north of London. The town, a former industrial powerhouse that is today known for its budget-flight-focused airport, has become a magnet for both Islamist and Islamophobic extremists. It’s often the canvas upon which hate groups unfurl their provocative displays.

And so it was when Britain First came to town for the fourth time in two years for what it termed a “Christian Patrol.”

The group — a far-right rival of the homegrown English Defense League — specializes in anti-Muslim street theater, while dressing itself in the garb of a devoutly Christian organization. Members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms, and march with oversized crosses through Muslim-majority areas, or even through mosques. [Continue reading…]

The garb of a devoutly Christian organization whose members wear dark green paramilitary-style uniforms?

Would the Washington Post refer to the Ku Klux Klan as bearing the symbols of a devoutly Christian organization because — like Britain First — its members like to march carrying large crosses?

There’s no question that these knuckleheads and self-described defenders of British culture have as little right to speak in the name of Christianity as Anjem Choudary has to present himself as the voice of Islam. But easy as Paul Golding and his rowdy followers might be to dismiss, do they actually stand at the vanguard of a much wider but less visible movement stretching across Britain?

The Washington Post picked up this story because Britain First’s recent Luton video went viral, but how much political significance derives from social media popularity?

Britain’s Labour Party, now under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn who enjoys more grass root support than he does in parliament, has a Facebook page with 422,000 likes.

Britain First’s Facebook page has 1,289,000 likes!

But what do all these “likes” actually mean?

Paul Golding probably thinks they mean a lot and this might explain why he felt confident enough to run in the upcoming election to become Mayor of London. Moreover, he probably thinks it’s imperative that he, or someone like him, be able to govern the British capital city given that his leading opponent, Sadiq Khan, is a Muslim.

The election will take place on May 5, and the most recent YouGov poll gives Khan a clear lead (45%) over his closest rival, Zac Goldsmith (35%).

Further down the field comes George Galloway (Respect Party), who is just one point ahead of British National Party candidate, David Furness, who is himself, one point ahead of Golding.

That is to say, 1% of London voters say they support the BNP while 0% support Britain First.

Maybe the antics of Golding and his motley crew deserve less attention than does the promise of what would surely be a victory for multiculturalism: the increasingly likely election of London’s first Muslim mayor.

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