Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent write: American warplanes have begun bombing the Islamic State-held Iraqi city of Tikrit in order to bail out the embattled, stalled ground campaign launched by Baghdad and Tehran two weeks ago. This operation, billed as “revenge” for the Islamic State (IS) massacre of 1,700 Shiite soldiers at Camp Speicher last June, was launched without any consultation with Washington and was meant to be over by now, three weeks after much triumphalism by the Iraqi government about how swiftly the terrorist redoubt in Saddam Hussein’s hometown was going to be retaken.
U.S. officials have variously estimated that either 23,000 or 30,000 “pro-government” forces were marshaled for the job, of which only slender minority were actual Iraqi soldiers. The rest consisted of a consortium of Shiite militia groups operating under the banner of Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Population Mobilization Units (PMU), which was assembled in answer to a fatwah issued by Iraq’s revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani in June 2014 following ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq. To give you a sense of the force disparity, the PMUs are said to command 120,000 fighters, whereas the Iraqi Army has only got 48,000 troops.
Against this impressive array of paramilitaries, a mere 400 to 1,000 IS fighters have managed to hold their ground in Tikrit, driving major combat operations to a halt. This is because the Islamic State is resorting to exactly the kinds of lethal insurgency tactics which al Qaeda in Iraq (its earlier incarnation) used against the more professional and better-equipped U.S. forces. BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio has ably documented the extent to which IS has relied upon improvised explosive devices, and just how sophisticated these have been. Even skilled explosive ordnance disposal teams — many guided by Iranian specialists — are being ripped apart by what one termed the “hidden enemy” in Tikrit. [Continue reading…]
Diana Pinto writes: Europeans, especially European Jews, are used to being treated as museum pieces and historical relics by Americans. We are the object of extensive commentary but rarely regarded as possessing any living voice worth engaging with. I recently had the strange experience of listening to myself and other European Jews talked about as if we were already as silent as a Pompeian plaster cast while reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” in the April issue of The Atlantic and watching his accompanying video chat with James Bennet and Leon Wieseltier. If a plaster cast may be permitted to speak, I would say that Goldberg and his colleagues aren’t describing my reality; the world I come from isn’t already destroyed; and the story of the Jews in Europe isn’t yet ready to be relegated to museums or to antiquarian sites like Pompeii.
The implicit assumption in Goldberg’s piece, and in many articles going back to at least the end of the Cold War in 1989, is that Europe’s Jews, if they had an iota of common sense and dignity, would not be in Europe. [Continue reading…]
Judith Thurman writes: It is a singular fate to be the last of one’s kind. That is the fate of the men and women, nearly all of them elderly, who are — like Marie Wilcox, of California; Gyani Maiya Sen, of Nepal; Verdena Parker, of Oregon; and Charlie Mungulda, of Australia — the last known speakers of a language: Wukchumni, Kusunda, Hupa, and Amurdag, respectively. But a few years ago, in Chile, I met Joubert Yanten Gomez, who told me he was “the world’s only speaker of Selk’nam.” He was twenty-one.
Yanten Gomez, who uses the tribal name Keyuk, grew up modestly, in Santiago. His father, Blas Yanten, is a woodworker, and his mother, Ivonne Gomez Castro, practices traditional medicine. As a young girl, she was mocked at school for her mestizo looks, so she hesitated to tell her children — Keyuk and an older sister — about their ancestry. They hadn’t known that their maternal relatives descended from the Selk’nam, a nomadic tribe of unknown origin that settled in Tierra del Fuego. The first Europeans to encounter the Selk’nam, in the sixteenth century, were astonished by their height and their hardiness — they braved the frigid climate by coating their bodies with whale fat. The tribe lived mostly undisturbed until the late eighteen-hundreds, when an influx of sheep ranchers and gold prospectors who coveted their land put bounties on their heads. (One hunter boasted that he had received a pound sterling per corpse, redeemable with a pair of ears.) The survivors of the Selk’nam Genocide, as it is called — a population of about four thousand was reduced to some three hundred — were resettled on reservations run by missionaries. The last known fluent speaker of the language, Angela Loij, a laundress and farmer, died forty years ago.
Many children are natural mimics, but Keyuk could imitate speech like a mynah. His father, who is white, had spent part of his childhood in the Arauco region, which is home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest native community, and he taught Keyuk their language, Mapudungun. The boy, a bookworm and an A student, easily became fluent. A third-grade research project impassioned him about indigenous peoples, and Ivonne, who descends from a line of shamans, took this as a sign that his ancestors were speaking through him. When she told him of their heritage, Keyuk vowed that he would master Selk’nam and also, eventually, Yagán — the nearly extinct language of a neighboring people in the far south — reckoning that he could pass them down to his children and perhaps reseed the languages among the tribes’ descendants. At fourteen, he travelled with his father to Puerto Williams, a town in Chile’s Antarctic province that calls itself “the world’s southernmost city,” to meet Cristina Calderón, the last native Yagán speaker. She subsequently tutored him by phone. [Continue reading…]
Simond DeGalbert, a former French diplomat and former member of the French negotiating team in the P5+1 discussions with Iran, writes: A comprehensive Iran deal looks ever more likely today than it did recently, even if many issues remain to be solved. Western leaders have repeatedly stated their view that no deal would be preferable to a bad one—a point that’s yielded intense debate about what exactly would constitute a good deal versus a bad deal. Considering the highly technical nature of the issues at stake, it’s no surprise the devil will be in the details. It will be hard to assess the deal before every provision of the last annex to the comprehensive agreement is signed on, if it ever happens. But assuming we do, assessing the quality of the agreement should mostly be done in light of its objectives and of the agreement’s ability to fulfil them.
If a comprehensive deal is struck, it’s important to remember that the deal is just the beginning. As hard as the negotiations have been, the implementation and enforcement of the deal over the coming years will be an ongoing challenge—but it can be surmountable as long as the P5+1 set clear enforcement mechanisms.
To understand what a deal will mean in the years ahead, it’s important to understand how the negotiations unfolded. As a matter of fact, our expectations about what a comprehensive agreement could achieve have changed over time. Since 2002, concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program have mostly been fueled by the covert development of enrichment activities, but also by their obvious inconsistency with any identifiable civilian needs and the acquisition of nuclear militarization know-how. Hence the long-term objective, enshrined in United Nations Security Council resolutions, to establish the exclusively peaceful nature of the program, through a full suspension of enrichment in Iran.
It is the assumption that this prerequisite would prevent a negotiated breakthrough that led P5+1 to alter the terms of their negotiation with Iran in the 2013 Joint Plan of Action. From that point forward, an agreement was not to be based on an unambiguous Iranian strategic shift, but rather on the insurance that Tehran’s program would not be turned from its existing dual nature to an entirely military one. Such “constructive” ambiguity about Iran’s program and intentions could be achieved through agreed upon enrichment restrictions, the conversion of the heavy-water reactor of Arak and intrusive monitoring and verification. [Continue reading…]
Earlier this month, Daevid Allen died at the age of 77. Even though (to my surprise) he got an obituary in the New York Times, his name will not have been widely known among Americans.
He was an Australian Beat poet, latter-day minstrel and co-founder of Soft Machine and Gong. Upon his arrival in England in the mid-60s, he helped give birth to what would later become known as the Canterbury Scene.
For centuries, Canterbury was known as a place of pilgrimage in South East England, but during the late ’60s and early ’70s the name began to signal something else: a new musical culture.
Like many forms of creativity this didn’t fit neatly inside a ready-made niche.
In the era of record stores, albums had to be racked somewhere and the Canterbury groups would usually get shoved under Progressive Rock, but what they really represented was a meeting place between rock, jazz, classical, avant-garde, and what had yet to be dubbed World music.
But the Canterbury Scene couldn’t exactly be defined in stylistic terms. It was more of a tribe of musicians engaged in fluid collaborations, forming bands which had a habit of gaining their widest recognition after they had already dissolved.
Inventive, dense, complex, eccentric, lyrical, classical, experimental, psychedelic, romantic — the Canterbury sound had all these qualities. And the musicians creating this sound tended to express a particular constellation of English values: non-conformist, whimsical, innovative and yet unpretentious.
For readers here who find my choices of music and even the fact that I post any music, strange, the Canterbury Scene is part of the explanation why — which is to say, while as a teenager my friends were listening to Led Zepplin, The Who, and Deep Purple, I was engrossed with the offbeat creations of the likes of Matching Mole, Gong, and Hatfield and the North.
Here, and for the next few days, is an introduction to the Canterbury scene and the music which — at least to my ear — remains as original and inspiring now as it was when it was recorded over 40 years ago.
Egg — ‘Enneagram’ (from The Civil Surface, 1974)
Gong – ‘Love is How U Make It’ (from Angel’s Egg, 1973)
Mark Perry writes: Early in the afternoon of Monday, February 23–the day following the anniversary of George Washington’s birth—North Dakota Republican John Hoeven rose from his seat, walked to the podium of the U.S. Senate, and began to read George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” In his seminal good-bye to the nation, the first president condemned the rise of political parties because they “distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration,” and warned against “a passionate attachment of one Nation for another,” which “produces a variety of evils.”
What’s striking about the latest recitation of the Farewell Address—a tradition followed in the Senate since 1896—is how little has changed since Washington wrote it (helped by Madison and Hamilton). The ills and controversies that so beset the father of the nation are still on full display in early 2015, dogging the 44th man in succession, Barack Obama. President Washington was lamenting the inordinate influence and arrogance of a French diplomat he had come to detest, known as “Citizen Genet,” who had rallied cheering American supporters into backing the French war against the British and had played havoc with U.S. foreign policy. President Obama is now lamenting the inordinate influence of one Citizen Netanyahu, who according to some Obama administration officials is up to pretty much the same mischief. And very gingerly, Obama appears to trying to pry America away from its “passionate attachment” to Israel. [Continue reading…]
“Ask not what disease the person has, but what person the disease has,” the Canadian physician William Osler would often say.
Although he is often described as the father of modern medicine, that particular lesson has not been deeply learned either by medical practitioners or the public at large.
Andreas Lubitz, the 27-year-old German pilot who is believed to have deliberately crashed a Germanwings Airbus A320 airliner in the French Alps, is now reported to have been suffering from depression.
Depression has thus been turned into a one-word explanation for what led to the catastrophic end of Flight 9525.
In the world of simplistic narratives in which we live, a lot of people will now imagine that anyone with depression has the potential to become a mass killer.
But the true story of what led a young man to end his own life and at the same time kill another 149 people, may never be known. It’s quite possible that his deadly impulse did not coalesce into a firm intention until he found himself alone in the cockpit.
William Saletan assumes the dubious role of a fatalistic suicide counselor when writing:
If a person is determined to kill himself, telling him to abstain isn’t enough. The least he can do — and perhaps the most he can do — is to spare the lives of others.
That’s a bit like talking someone down by imploring them not to jump off a building until passersby have cleared the sidewalk. It might sound like a reasonable request, yet it overlooks the tunnel vision of despair. It’s an attempt to appeal to a person’s sense that life is precious when that is the very sense that they have already lost.
In the aftermath of any catastrophic event, we always crave an explanation — a way of understanding what happened, and in this case, a way of becoming confident that something similar will not happen again.
Aircraft crews wear uniforms for a very good reason: we entrust ourselves to their safe care with the expectation that they follow something akin to military discipline in their allegiance to procedure. Uniformity in appearance helps reinforce the expectation of uniformity in behavior. That’s why no airline will ever introduce “casual Friday” where the flight and cabin crews can show up however they please. Even though we know each individual has their own personal life, as passengers we rely on their personal lives not intruding on their work.
Lubitz may have foreseen that his diagnosis was going to destroy his career and concluded that if he couldn’t work as a pilot — if he had to abandon his life’s dream — he had no reason to live. That might explain his suicidal intention, but it wouldn’t explain why he chose to end the lives of everyone around him.
To understand that choice, we might need to understand why he chose to become a pilot in the first place.
Since in piloting the emphasis is on technical proficiency, as passengers we tend not to be too concerned about the pilot’s people skills. Can he land the aircraft safely is all we care — and at least 95% of the time it will be he.
But flying a passenger aircraft doesn’t only require skill in its operation, it also requires a deep sense of responsibility. No doubt most pilots take on and carry that responsibility in an admirable way, but I have to wonder whether in an age of paranoia, the ability and perceived need to isolate the flight crew from the passengers has come at the expense of the human factor.
The flight crew need to be just as concerned about the welfare of the people on board as do the cabin crew and yet within the post 9/11 security constraints it’s common for pilots to get no more than a fleeting glimpse of their own passengers as they pass through the departure gate.
Within the prevailing security mindset, airlines are now being required to consider implementing a rule that many already apply: that whenever a pilot leaves the cockpit another crew member should stand in so that a single pilot is never left alone.
But there might be other procedural changes not directly related to security that could have reduced the risk of the Germanwings tragedy.
Flight crews could just as easily receive passengers and point them to their seats as does the cabin crew. If Andreas Lubitz had met and made eye contact with everyone on the aircraft in this way, he might not have chosen to end their lives — he might even have had second thoughts about ending his own.
Frederic Wehrey writes: Citing a request for outside intervention by Yemen’s deposed President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan have launched an aerial intervention against the so-called Houthi movement in Yemen. Egypt has four warships en route to Aden in southern Yemen and has expressed willingness to “send ground troops if necessary,” while Turkey is considering providing logistical support. Sudan and Pakistan are also reportedly joining the operation.
The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah in Arabic, or God’s Partisans, are a Zaidi Shia movement that began a rebellion in northern Yemen in 2003–2004. In the chaos following the Arab Spring revolutions and the internationally overseen removal of Yemen’s long-serving authoritarian ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, the Houthis expanded their power base—apparently with Iranian support—to undermine the Saudi-backed Hadi government.
In 2014, the Houthis linked up with allies of the Saleh family, which is still angling for a way to recapture power, and rapidly pushed south, capturing the capital, Sanaa. They then moved on to Aden, where Hadi had fled before leaving the country by sea on March 25 (it was announced that he arrived in Riyadh on March 26). Meanwhile, a separate Salafi-Sunni insurgency led by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to rage in the south and east of the country, with the self-proclaimed Islamic State having recently raised its own profile in Yemen by publicizing a string of gruesome massacres. [Continue reading…]
Reuters: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran on Thursday of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts have begun annoying Ankara, as well as Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries.
Turkey earlier said it supports the Saudi-led military operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen and called on the militia group and its “foreign supporters” to abandon acts which threaten peace and security in the region.
“Iran is trying to dominate the region,” said Erdogan, who is due to visit Tehran in early April. “Could this be allowed? This has begun annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is really not tolerable and Iran has to see this,” he added in a press conference.
The New York Times reports: Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.
Egypt must “fulfill the calls of the Yemeni people for the return of stability and the preservation of the Arab identity,” he said, alluding to the specter of Iranian influence.
His comments were one of several indications on Thursday that the antagonists on either side of the Yemeni conflict are bracing for a prolonged battle as Yemen — like Iraq, Libya and Syria — is consumed by civil conflict, regional proxy wars and the expansion of extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]
Reporting on the perception that “U.S. policies there are partly to blame for the spreading anarchy” in the Middle East, Michael Crowley writes:
Ultimately, senior Obama officials say, there are limits to what the U.S. can accomplish in the region. They argue that the chaos is fueled by ethnic and religious forces largely beyond America’s control.
And they warn against overreacting to the roller coaster of daily news headlines in an area that rarely knows calm.
“There’s a sense that the only view worth having on the Middle East is the long view,” said the State Department official. “We’ve painfully seen that good can turn to bad and bad can turn to good in an instant, which might be a sobriety worth holding on to at moments like this.”
The official offered a hopeful note, adding that a nuclear deal with Iran — which some reports say could come as soon as Sunday — could be a turning point for the region.
“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.
Let’s suppose that Obama seals the deal with Iran, it probably will be a legacy-setting accomplishment and true to form, like every other president facing the end of his second term, Obama is no doubt increasingly concerned about his legacy.
But if he thinks this accord is really going to be a game-changer, I’m not so sure he’s holding on to the “long view” — unless “long” is supposed to mean all the way until he leaves office. Or, to put it another way, unless inside the Obama administration what they mean when they talk about the long view is, all the way until this mess becomes someone else’s mess.
Reuters: Iran’s president spoke with the leaders of France, Britain, China and Russia on Thursday in an apparent effort to break an impasse to a nuclear deal between Tehran and major world powers.
He also raised the Saudi-led military operation against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters in Yemen, as did U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ahead of nuclear negotiations in Switzerland with Tehran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
The United States is pushing for a nuclear deal between Iran and major powers before a March 31 deadline, and officials close to the talks said some kind of preliminary agreement was possible.
However, a senior British diplomat acknowledged: “There are still important issues where no agreement has so far been possible.
“Our task, therefore, for the next few days is to see if we can bridge the gaps and arrive at a political framework which could then be turned into an agreement,” the diplomat told reporters on the sidelines of negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Nicholas Blanford reports: The United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in support of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) operations against Sunni militant groups dug into mountains along the country’s northeast border with Syria, several diplomatic and military sources have confirmed to IHS Jane’s.
Two Aerosonde Mk 4.7 UAVs are being flown out of the LAF’s Hamat Air Base on the coast, 45 km north of Beirut, the sources said.
The area of operational activity is in the northeast corner of the country, a region of arid mountainous terrain that spans the Lebanon-Syria border where militant groups such as the Islamic State and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra are based.
“The LAF has been very aggressive in tasking Aerosonde [UAVs] to fly missions,” a diplomatic source told IHS Jane’s on condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: More than 100 Saudi Arabian jets pounded Yemeni targets early Thursday in a drive to stop the Houthi advance through the country, and the Saudi news media declared that the first night of the offensive had fully disabled the Houthi-aligned air force.
Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival and the Houthis’ main ally, denounced the assault as an American-backed attempt “to foment civil war in Yemen or disintegrate the country.” Houthi-controlled television channels broadcast footage of dead bodies and wounded civilians, blaming “American-backed aggression.”
The movement’s leaders warned that the battle could widen into a regional conflict, but they also vowed to overcome the Saudi attacks without Iranian help. “The Yemeni people are prepared to face this aggression without any foreign interference,” Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a Houthi spokesman, told Reuters.
The price of crude oil spiked about 4 percent on Thursday on concerns that the fighting in Yemen might affect the passage of tankers through the Bab el Mandeb strait, a narrow chokepoint between Yemen and Africa that is the entrance to the Red Sea.
The United States and most of the Arab nations moved quickly to support the Saudi-led operation in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia has called Operation Decisive Storm.
The White House said in a statement that the United States would provide “logistical and intelligence support” to the Saudi-led military operations. “While U.S. forces are not taking direct military action in Yemen in support of this effort, we are establishing a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement. [Continue reading…]
NBC News reports that Saudi Arabia has mobilized 150,000 troops to support its airstrikes on Yemen.
Instead of letting the Huthis attempt to govern and inevitably fail, which would force them into a power sharing agreement 1/2
— GregorydJohnsen (@gregorydjohnsen) March 26, 2015
Saudi Arabia has decided to bomb Yemen, which will only entrench their position and drive more fighters into their ranks. 2/2
— GregorydJohnsen (@gregorydjohnsen) March 26, 2015
@omeisy we hate dogs & always stone them, but when wolves attack our village ,we feed dogs & pray 4 them 2 kick wolves out
— Ahmad Ali Ahmad (@jaguarofYemen) March 26, 2015
Right before Saudi Arabia started bombing Yemen, Adam Baron wrote: While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.
The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.
The roots of Yemen’s current conflict date back more than a decade, to a little-covered series of six brutal wars fought by the government of Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the aim of defeating an insurgent group—widely referred to as the Houthis—based in the country’s far north. The Houthis’ founder, firebrand cleric Hussein al-Houthi, hailed from a prominent Zaidi Shi’a family and was a leader of the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shi’a sect found nearly exclusively in Yemen’s mountainous north. Notably the group’s foundation was, itself, rooted in a reaction to foreign intervention: a key aspect of the Houthis ideology was shoring up Zaidism against the perceived threat of the influence of Saudi-influenced ideologies and a general condemnation of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, which, along with complaints regarding . the government’s corruption and the marginalization of much of the Houthis’ home areas in Saada constituted the group’s key grievances. [Continue reading…]