Russia aims to turn Aleppo into another Grozny

David Gardner writes: It looks as though Russia, having concluded that its Syrian and Iranian allies on the ground are unable to recapture rebel Aleppo, plans to raze it to the ground.

Moscow, whose nearly half century-long relationship with the Assad clan’s dictatorship has mainly been army-to-army, has had a year to conclude that the Syrian Arab Army has all but collapsed, and given way to a network of militias and private armies. A devastating assessment of the Assad army by a Russian military expert that appeared recently on a Kremlin-friendly outlet said “the Syrian armed forces have not conducted a single successful military offensive during the past year”, and echoed opposition claims they were basically running an extortion racket through a chain of sieges and network of thousands of checkpoints.

Unable to defeat an array of Sunni rebels, Russia has decided to destroy their civilian milieu on behalf of its Syrian ward, and drive them from the urban wasteland of what will constitute the perimeter of a rump Assad state in the coastal west of the country. All this amid the sort of double talk that enables Vitaly Churkin, the Russian envoy to the UN, to praise the Assad regime for its “admirable restraint”. Or, as Tacitus had it, “they make a desert and call it peace”. Will the world stand idly by in the face of this new Grozny, an extermination that will live in the annals of infamy? [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The two largest hospitals in the Syrian city of Aleppo were bombed Wednesday, knocking them out of service and worsening an already dire medical crisis in the besieged city, medical workers said.

Two patients were killed and three hospital staffers injured in the pre-dawn attacks, including a nurse and an ambulance driver, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which runs hospitals in opposition-controlled areas of Syria.

Since a cease-fire collapsed last week, the rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo has been subjected to what residents describe as the most intense bombardments yet of the five-year-old war, with waves of Syrian and Russian airstrikes sending sometimes hundreds of injured people streaming to the city’s few remaining hospitals in a day. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. believes hackers are shielded by Russia to hide its role in cyberintrusions

The Wall Street Journal reports: U.S. officials are increasingly confident that the hacker Guccifer 2.0 is part of a network of individuals and groups kept at arm’s length by Russia to mask its involvement in cyberintrusions such as the theft of thousands of Democratic Party documents, according to people familiar with the matter.

While the hacker denies working on behalf of the Russian government, U.S. officials and independent security experts say the syndicate is one of the most striking elements of what looks like an intensifying Russian campaign to target prominent American athletes, party officials and military leaders.

A fuller picture of the operation has come into focus in the past several weeks. U.S. officials believe that at least two hacking groups with ties to the Russian government, known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, are involved in the escalating data-theft efforts, according to people briefed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of the cyberattacks.

Following successful breaches, the stolen data are apparently transferred to three different websites for publication, these people say. The websites — WikiLeaks, DCLeaks.com and a blog run by Guccifer 2.0 — have posted batches of stolen data at least 42 times from April to last week.

WikiLeaks has published U.S. secrets for years but has recently taken an overtly adversarial tone toward Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Cybersecurity experts believe that DCLeaks.com and Guccifer 2.0 often work together and have direct ties to Russian hackers. [Continue reading…]

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The White House asked Congress to keep quiet on Russian hacking

BuzzFeed reports: The White House sought to muzzle two of Congress’s top intelligence officials when they decided to publicly accuse Russia of meddling in the US election last week, sources familiar with the matter told BuzzFeed News.

In a statement released Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam Schiff, the vice-chairmen of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees respectively, formally accused Russia of attempting to influence the US election. It was the first official, on-record confirmation from US government officials that the Kremlin is actively working to manipulate public confidence in the country’s election system.

But sources tell BuzzFeed News that the White House — which has stayed silent despite mounting pressure to call out its Moscow adversaries — tried to delay the statement’s release. The public accusation was of such concern to the administration that White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was personally involved in the negotiations over releasing it, according to a congressional source.

Feinstein and Schiff, both Democrats, agreed to omit part of their original statement for security reasons, according to another congressional source. That request, which stemmed from concerns over classification, came from the CIA, a congressional source added Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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FBI probes hacks targeting phones of Democratic Party officials

Reuters reports: The FBI is investigating suspected attempts to hack mobile phones used by Democratic Party officials as recently as the past month, four people with direct knowledge of the attack and the investigation told Reuters.

The revelation underscores the widening scope of the U.S. criminal inquiry into cyber attacks on Democratic Party organizations, including the presidential campaign of its candidate, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

U.S. officials have said they believe those attacks were orchestrated by hackers backed by the Russian government, possibly to disrupt the Nov. 8 election in which Clinton faces Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. Russia has dismissed allegations it was involved in cyber attacks on the organizations.

The more recent attempted phone hacking also appears to have been conducted by Russian-backed hackers, two people with knowledge of the situation said. [Continue reading…]

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Russia implicated in shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine

The New York Times reports: A Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system that was used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists and returned to Russia the same night.

The report largely confirmed the already widely documented Russian government role not only in the deployment of the missile system, called a Buk, or SA-11, but the subsequent cover up, which continues to this day.

The report by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court, while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle over the tragedy.

With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, Dutch prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempt to cover its tracks after the disaster. The inquiry did not name individual culprits and stopped short of saying that Russian soldiers were involved. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t defeat ISIS, yet

Ramzy Mardini writes: A military push to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the rest of Nineveh Province from the Islamic State is expected soon. Unfortunately, even if the campaign is successful, the liberation of Mosul will not stabilize the country. Nor will conquest resolve the underlying conditions that originally fueled the extremist insurgency.

Instead, the legacy of the Islamic State, or ISIS, will endure. Its rise and fall have altered the country’s society and politics in irreversible ways that threaten future cycles of conflict. Throughout history, victorious wars have often forged national identities, expanded state power and helped centralize political authority. But the war against the Islamic State is having the opposite effect: fragmentation.

In parts of Iraq recaptured from the militants where I’ve traveled, signs of any central authority are nonexistent. Instead, what has emerged from the conflict is a complex patchwork of ethnic, tribal and religious militias that claim fief over particular territories. [Continue reading…]

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The once and future Mosul

Rasha al-Aqeedi writes: On August 30, General Joe Votel of the U.S. Central Command told Middle Eastern reporters via a video call from CENTCOM Tampa that coalition-backed Iraqi forces could take Mosul back from the Islamic State before the end of the year. “[A]s the Prime Minister has said, it’s his intention to try to get through Mosul by the end of the year. My assessment over the course of my visits is that they are on track to achieve that objective…. We are at the point here where we are now really into the heart of the caliphate,” Votel said. Coalition forces have already begun “shaping operations” in the outskirts of Mosul.

The liberation of the town where I was born and raised seems to be at hand. So why do I have such mixed feelings, looking on from Dubai these days, about what is likely to happen by year’s end? Because I fear that the effort to retake the town will destroy much of it, and because I am skeptical that a post-combat governance arrangement will be easy to put together. Most of all, I fear that other Iraqis and some select group of non-Iraqis who may have a hand in trying to control Mosul in 2017 may not understand what makes the place tick. Mosul is not just any city. It has its own character, wonders, and distempers. To govern it requires first that one really know it. The details matter, but, alas, details are often ignored.

The aftershocks of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq included not least an overthrowing of the balance — or rather imbalance — of sectarian power that had characterized the country since the onset of its modern history. A minority of Sunnis governed a plurality if not an outright majority of Shi‘a. The invasion shifted that status quo almost immediately. In late April 2003, barely a month after the statue of Saddam Hussein was famously pulled from its pedestal in Baghdad, Iraqi Shi‘a marked the pilgrimage to Karbala. More than one million devotees marched toward their spiritual sanctuary in a ritual that had been suppressed by the Ba‘ath regime for decades. They carried colorful banners that bore names sacred to all Muslims: Fatima, Ali, and Hussein. My hometown of Mosul, like most Sunni-majority cities, observed the event with a mix of confusion and apprehension: Was the new Iraq a place that celebrated and implicitly acknowledged the ascent of a set of customs and beliefs foreign to Sunnis? [Continue reading…]

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The ebbing of democracy in the Western Balkans

Judy Dempsey writes: A meeting of international donors, foundations, and multilateral funders opened in the Serbian capital Belgrade on September 21 amid growing concern from young grassroots and philanthropic organizations that the Western Balkans are drifting backward. And in a dangerous way.

It is a backwardness characterized by growing corruption, increasing intimidation of the media, and political elites across the region who pay lip service to reform.

With the EU now focused on ensuring security, controlling its external borders, and stemming the flow of migrants reaching Europe, the union is paying little attention to the negative trends taking place in its immediate backyard. The emerging message from the Balkan Donors Forum, spearheaded by the European Fund for the Balkans and the Open Society Foundations, was that donors and NGOs need to rethink their role in this part of Europe.

The decision by Britain in June 2016 to quit the EU has dealt a blow to reformers in the Western Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. For reformers and those who support the region joining the EU, Brexit will mean a weaker Europe. Brexit also robs the EU of a strong advocate of further enlargement. [Continue reading…]

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Shimon Peres obituary: Peacemaker or war criminal?

Jonathan Cook writes: Famously in the late 1990s, [Shimon] Peres [the last major figure in Israel’s founding generation, who died today, age 93] made the mistake of asking a Labour party convention whether he was a “loser”. The delegates roared back: “Yes”.

Over two decades, Peres lost five elections in which he stood for prime minister.

Although he served in the top job on two occasions, he never won a popular mandate.

He briefly took over from Rabin after the latter was felled in 1995 by an assassin’s bullet. He was also prime minister in an unusual rotation agreement with his Likud rival Yitzhak Shamir after neither secured a parliamentary majority in the 1984 election.

Unlike Rabin and Ariel Sharon, two figures of his generation who enjoyed greater political acclaim, Peres suffered in part because he had not first made a name for himself in the Israeli army, Ezrahi observed.

He was seen as more uninspiring technocrat than earthy warrior.

Even on Israel’s left, said Roni Ben Efrat, an Israeli political analyst and editor of the website Challenge, he was viewed as an opportunist.

“His real obsession was with his own celebrity and prestige,” she said. “What he lacked was political principle. There was an air about him of plotting behind everyone’s backs. He was certainly no Nelson Mandela.”

Rabin, who tussled regularly with Peres for leadership of the Labour party, called him an “inveterate schemer”.

With Rabin’s victory in 1992, Peres was appointed number two and returned to what he did best: backroom deals, in this case a peace track in Norway that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

When Rabin was assassinated two years later, it was assumed that Peres would romp home in the general election a short time later, riding a wave of sympathy over Rabin’s death.

Instead he lost to Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who profited from the right’s campaign to discredit the peace process and its architects as “Oslo criminals”.

Peres would see out much of his remaining time in frontline politics providing a veneer of international respectability to right-wing Sharon governments through the second Intifada as they crushed the Palestinian leadership and built a steel and concrete barrier through the West Bank. [Continue reading…]

Anshel Pfeffer writes: Perhaps the final irony of Shimon Peres’ life was that his last act in the service of peace, remains secret and undocumented. As an octogenarian president, he observed the conventions of the ceremonial office and refrained from openly intervening in politics. That didn’t stop the commanders of the army and chiefs of the intelligence services turning to him for advice when they felt their political masters were dangerously wrong. Towards the end of his seven-year term, he was the secret leader of the faction within the defence establishment that successfully worked to block the plans of Netanyahu, the prime minister and the defence minister Ehud Barak to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, before it could build an atomic bomb.

Ultimately he had to rely on the generals and spy chiefs to avert war. He never convinced ordinary Israelis to make the same leap of faith he had. [Continue reading…]

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The extraordinary decoupling between economic growth and carbon pollution is happening

Quartz reports: Producing more stuff takes more energy. Using more energy means more pollution. That statement would once have seemed like common sense.

Because most of our energy has historically come from fossil fuels, rising economic growth has gone hand in hand with higher carbon emissions. But in 2014, something extraordinary happened. Globally, carbon emissions decoupled from GDP growth.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy-related CO2 emissions were flat that year, despite an increase of around 3% in global GDP. “This is the first time in at least 40 years that a halt or reduction in emissions has not been tied to an economic crisis,” the IEA said at the time. [Continue reading…]

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Watching evolution happen in two lifetimes

Emily Singer writes: When Rosemary and Peter Grant first set foot on Daphne Major, a tiny island in the Galápagos archipelago, in 1973, they had no idea it would become a second home. The husband and wife team, now emeritus biology professors at Princeton University, were looking for a pristine environment in which to study evolution. They hoped that the various species of finches on the island would provide the perfect means for uncovering the factors that drive the formation of new species.

The diminutive island wasn’t a particularly hospitable place for the Grants to spend their winters. At less than one-hundredth the size of Manhattan, Daphne resembles the tip of a volcano rising from the sea. Visitors must leap off the boat onto the edge of a steep ring of land that surrounds a central crater. The island’s vegetation is sparse. Herbs, cactus bushes and low trees provide food for finches — small, medium and large ground finches, as well as cactus finches — and other birds. The Grants brought with them all the food and water they would need and cooked meals in a shallow cave sheltered by a tarp from the baking sun. They camped on Daphne’s one tiny flat spot, barely larger than a picnic table.

Though lacking in creature comforts, Daphne proved to be a fruitful choice. The Galápagos’ extreme climate — swinging between periods of severe drought and bountiful rain — furnished ample natural selection. Rainfall varied from a meter of rain in 1983 to none in 1985. A severe drought in 1977 killed off many of Daphne’s finches, setting the stage for the Grants’ first major discovery. During the dry spell, large seeds became more plentiful than small ones. Birds with bigger beaks were more successful at cracking the large seeds. As a result, large finches and their offspring triumphed during the drought, triggering a lasting increase in the birds’ average size. The Grants had observed evolution in action.

That striking finding launched a prolific career for the pair. They visited Daphne for several months each year from 1973 to 2012, sometimes bringing their daughters. Over the course of their four-decade tenure, the couple tagged roughly 20,000 birds spanning at least eight generations. (The longest-lived bird on the Grants’ watch survived a whopping 17 years.) They tracked almost every mating and its offspring, creating large, multigenerational pedigrees for different finch species. They took blood samples and recorded the finches’ songs, which allowed them to track genetics and other factors long after the birds themselves died. They have confirmed some of Darwin’s most basic predictions and have earned a variety of prestigious science awards, including the Kyoto Prize in 2009.

Now nearly 80, the couple have slowed their visits to the Galápagos. These days, they are most excited about applying genomic tools to the data they collected. They are collaborating with other scientists to find the genetic variants that drove the changes in beak size and shape that they tracked over the past 40 years. Quanta Magazine spoke with the Grants about their time on Daphne; an edited and condensed version of the conversation follows. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Ivan Paduart Trio — ‘Ibiza’

 

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