U.S. and Iran unlikely allies in Iraq battle

The New York Times reports: With American bombs raining down from the sky, Shiite militia fighters aligned with Iran battled Sunni extremists over the weekend, punching through their defenses to break the weekslong siege of Amerli, a cluster of farming villages whose Shiite residents faced possible slaughter.

The fight in northern Iraq appeared to be the first time American warplanes and militias backed by Iran had worked with a common purpose on a battlefield against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, even though the Obama administration said there was no direct coordination with the militias.

Should such military actions continue, they could signal a dramatic shift for the United States and Iran, which have long vied for control in Iraq. They could also align the interests of the Americans with their longtime sworn enemies in the Shiite militias, whose fighters killed many United States soldiers during the long occupation of Iraq.

The latest expansion of American military operations reflects how seriously Iraq has deteriorated since the withdrawal of American forces in 2011. But any decision to support the Shiite militias, who have proven more adept than the American-trained Iraqi Army, would come with its own set of challenges. [Continue reading...]

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Most Americans now support airstrikes in Syria, poll shows

Huffington Post: A majority of Americans think the United States should expand its military campaign against ISIS insurgents in Iraq into Syria as well, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll shows.

According to the poll, 60 percent of Americans now support airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, while 20 percent are opposed. That level of support approached the 64 percent of Americans in the survey who said they support the current airstrike campaign in Iraq.

Fifty-six percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 79 percent of Republicans said they support airstrikes in Syria.

Support for intervening in Syria has grown dramatically in the past year. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted last September found that only 13 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should use airstrikes, while 62 percent said it should not. That poll was conducted after President Barack Obama had considered strikes in response to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. The plan was abandoned after Obama failed to win support for it in Congress.

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Britain ‘deplores’ Israel decision to seize West Bank land

Reuters reports: The British government said on Monday it deplored an Israeli decision to appropriate a large swathe of land inside the occupied West Bank, saying the move would seriously damage Israel’s international reputation.

On Sunday, Israel announced the appropriation of land in the Etzion Jewish settlement bloc near Bethlehem, a move which an anti-settlement group said was the biggest such claim in 30 years.

“The UK deplores the Israeli government’s expropriation of 988 acres (1.54 square miles) of land around the settlement of Etzion,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement which echoed U.S. calls to reverse the decision.

“This is a particularly ill-judged decision that comes at a time when the priority must be to build on the ceasefire in Gaza. It will do serious damage to Israel’s standing in the international community.”

Some 500,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, territory that the Jewish state captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

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True Darwinism is all about chance

Noah Berlatsky writes: Chance is an uncomfortable thing. So Curtis Johnson argues in Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin, and he makes a compelling case. The central controversy, and the central innovation, in Darwin’s work is not the theory of natural selection itself, according to Johnson, but Darwin’s more basic, and more innovative, turn to randomness as a way to explain natural phenomena. This application of randomness was so controversial, Johnson argues, that Darwin tried to cover it up, replacing words like “accident” and “chance” with terms like “spontaneous variation” in later editions of his work. Nonetheless, the terminological shift was cosmetic: Randomness remained, and still remains, the disturbing center of Darwin’s theories.

Johnson, a political theorist at Lewis & Clark College, explains that there are two basic kinds of chance in Darwin’s thought. The first—most familiar and least disconcerting—is chance as probability. According to the theory of natural selection, individuals with advantageous adaptations are most likely to survive. A giraffe with a longer neck has a better shot of reaching those lofty leaves and living to munch another day; a polar bear blessed with a warmer coat has a higher probability of surviving a frigid winter than one with less hair. The long-necked giraffe may not always win—it may, for example, be pulverized by a meteor before it can pass on its long-necked genes. But over time, the odds will go its way. There is randomness here, but it is controlled and predictable: It works in accordance with a rule. Natural selection makes sense.

The second kind of chance in Darwin’s work, though, is more mysterious. For natural selection to work, you need to have a range of traits to select among. That range is provided by individual variation, the fact that two different animals (whether giraffe or bear) are different from each other. Some giraffes have longer necks than others. Some bears have thicker fur than others. Why should this be? Darwin’s answer was chance. [Continue reading...]

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Music: Robert Wyatt — ‘Sea Song’

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Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS inside Syria

The Daily Beast reports: After a week of talk of eliminating the “cancer” of ISIS, President Obama said Thursday that he was not planning to significantly expand the war against the Islamic extremist movement anytime soon.

His remarks came after days of heated debate inside the top levels of his own national security bureaucracy about how, where, and whether to strike ISIS in Syria. But those deliberations – which included a bleak intelligence assessment of America’s potential allies in Syria — failed to produce a consensus battle plan. And so Obama, who has long been reluctant to enter into the Syrian conflict, told reporters Thursday that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for confronting ISIS on a regional level.

Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms.

“Senior strategists in the U.S. government have been working hard all week to gather multiple options that the president had asked for to strike ISIS in Syria. There was a deep rooted belief among many — especially among military circles — that the ISIS threat can’t be kicked down the road, that it needs to be confronted now, and in a holistic way,” said one Obama administration official who works on the Middle East. “This press conference is going to lead to even more doubt by those that thought that this White House was ready to take meaningful action against ISIS across the board.”

Obama addressed the White House press corps Thursday afternoon just before personally chairing a meeting of his National Security Council, his top cabinet members and national security staffers. The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well.

But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.

The President said that although he had ordered up options for striking ISIS in Syria, the administration’s priority was shoring up the integrity of Iraq, instead. Syria would have to wait. He also said he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region because “We don’t have a strategy yet,” to confront ISIS on a regional level.

To many outside the administration who have worked on Syria and the ISIS problem, Obama’s decision not to decide on a broader course of action will have negative implications for the war against ISIS. The administration raised expectations about altering its three-year policy of avoiding intervention in Syria, before Obama dashed those expectations Thursday.

“One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said,” said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. “It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that.” [Continue reading...]

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U.S. urges Israel to reverse planned West Bank land appropriation

Reuters reports: The United States sees Israel’s announcement on Sunday of a land appropriation for possible settlement construction in the occupied West Bank as “counterproductive” to peace efforts and urges the Israeli government to reverse the decision, a State Department official said.

Israel laid claim to nearly a thousand acres (400 hectares) in the Etzion settlement bloc near Bethlehem, a move which an anti-settlement group termed the biggest appropriation in 30 years and a Palestinian official said would cause only more friction after the Gaza war.

“We have long made clear our opposition to continued settlement activity,” the U.S. official said. “ This announcement, like every other settlement announcement Israel makes, planning step they approve and construction tender they issue is counterproductive to Israel’s stated goal of a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians.” [Continue reading...]

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Inside Fallujah: Crowded cemeteries, flattened buildings and potential revolution

For Niqash, Mustafa Habib reports: Recently most of the attention has been on northern Iraq. But military action in western Iraq has been going on for months, after areas came under control of Sunni Muslim extremists and other anti-government groups. Some, like the city of Fallujah, have been under constant attack from the Iraqi government. NIQASH went there to find a city demolished, people without hope – and another potential uprising.

Getting into Fallujah is far from easy. One must pass through dozens of Iraqi army checkpoints followed by dozens of checkpoints manned by the gunmen who now control the city. Unless one is doing humanitarian work one cannot enter or exit. And if the humanitarian aid workers don’t leave the city again at a pre-specified time, they are regarded with suspicion and may be detained.

Additionally two months ago, the extremists who control the city gave an order that all journalists inside Fallujah must stop working. Any violations would be heavily punished, they said.

So anyone who enters now – whether they are coming for humanitarian purposes or to visit a relative – is put under close surveillance. Masked gunmen on the streets observe visitors’ activities and communicate visitors’ movements through a radio network. They want to be sure that anyone coming into the city is not a government spy or a journalist.

The main streets leading into Fallujah from the four major entrances to the city are booby trapped with explosive devices. These are arranged in a complicated and random fashion and nobody other than the gunmen who control the city knows where they all are. That means that nobody can enter Fallujah unless they are guided by one of the fighters.

Once inside the city, you quickly see how exhausted everybody looks. Locals’ faces reflect myriad untold, sad stories. Most have lost at least one family member during this siege. There are also plenty of serious injuries on display. Many locals have now joined the armed groups controlling the city out of a desire for revenge.

Many of the buildings are damaged or completely destroyed. Anyone who manages to get into Fallujah will see a city that looks as though it’s out of a picture taken just after World War II. [Continue reading...] [H/t Juan Cole]

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Netanyahu shows why his claim — Hamas is ISIS — is BS

Eager to grasp a political opportunity that seemed to have been created by the murder of James Foley, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got busy on Twitter saying that “Hamas is ISIS.”

But Netanyahu seems to have changed his mind because he now says that it is the close proximity of the threat from ISIS — in the opposite direction from Gaza — that necessitated the ceasefire with Hamas. Otherwise Israel could have continued bombing Gaza for 500 days instead of stopping after 50 days.

In other words, even if Netanyahu won’t be tweeting this, Israel accepted a ceasefire with Hamas in part because Hamas is not ISIS.

AFP reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel agreed to a permanent truce in its 50-day Gaza war with Hamas in order to keep focused on the threat from regional militants.

“We fought for 50 days and we could have fought for 500 days, but we are in a situation where the Islamic State is at the gates of Jordan, Al-Qaeda is in the Golan and Hezbollah is at the border with Lebanon,” Netanyahu said in an address on public television.

He was referring to Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq — both neighbours of Jordan — Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front Syria rebels on the Israeli-annexed Golan and Lebanon’s Shiite movement Hezbollah.

“We decided not to get bogged down in Gaza, and we could have, but we decided to limit our objective and restore calm to Israeli citizens,” Netanyahu added.

His remarks come as the United States, Israel’s chief ally, is calling for a global coalition to fight the jihadists who have set up an Islamic “caliphate” in areas they have overrun in Syria and Iraq.

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Abbas may push for deadline to end occupation

The New York Times reports: President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority may use the global stage of the annual General Assembly here in a few weeks to publicly demand a deadline for ending Israel’s occupation, according to his ambassador, while expecting that the Israelis — and almost certainly their American allies — will oppose that demand.

“He wants the international community to agree on a date,” the ambassador, Riyad H. Mansour, said. Mr. Mansour called the demand part of what he described as a new strategy by Mr. Abbas to unilaterally advance the goal of Palestinian independence and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after a litany of frustrations, notably the collapse of American-brokered talks with Israel this year.

Mr. Abbas also is apparently hoping that the Palestinian Authority’s role in helping to halt the 50-day war in Gaza between Israeli forces and Hamas militants, achieved last Tuesday with an Egyptian brokered cease-fire agreement, has infused his position with new vitality and leverage.

If Mr. Abbas is denied an occupation end date, Mr. Mansour said, he will use the Palestine observer state status at the United Nations, an upgrade won nearly two years ago over Israeli and American objections, to make the occupied territories even more like the independent state he has sought.

The most coercive measure available to him is to make Palestine a member of the International Criminal Court, opening the way for possible prosecutions of Israeli actions as an occupying power. [Continue reading...]

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Israel plans to expropriate 988 acres of West Bank

AFP reports: Israel announced Sunday it will expropriate 400 hectares (988 acres) of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, angering the Palestinians and alarming Israeli peace campaigners.

The move to seize the land, in the Bethlehem area in the south of the territory, is the biggest of its kind in three decades, Peace Now said.

“On the instructions of the political echelon… 4,000 dunams at Gevaot (settlement) is declared as state land,” said the army department charged with administering civil affairs in occupied territory, laying down a 45-day period for any appeal.

It said the move stemmed from political decisions taken after the June killing of three Israeli teenagers snatched from a roadside in the same area, known to Israelis as the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. [Continue reading...]

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Putin ‘urges talks on statehood for east Ukraine’

BBC News reports: President Putin has called for talks to discuss “statehood” for eastern Ukraine, Russian media report.

He said the issue needed to be discussed to ensure the interests of local people “are definitely upheld”.

His comments came after the EU gave Russian a one-week ultimatum to reverse course in Ukraine or face sanctions.

Russia denies Western accusations that its forces have illegally crossed into eastern Ukraine to support separatists there.

Mr Putin said it was impossible to predict the end of crisis. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. airstrikes help Iraqi forces break ISIS siege of Amerli

The Washington Post reports: Iraqi troops aided by U.S. airstrikes entered the besieged town of Amerli Sunday, residents and Iraqi officials said, after a months-long blockade by Islamic State militants that had surrounded the Shiite Turkmen village and raised fears of an impending massacre.

“Amerli has been liberated,” said Mahdi Taqi, a local politician and Amerli resident who was inside the town during the siege. “There is so much joy and people are cheering in the streets.”

Jihadists had surrounded the town in June, preventing food and other aid from reaching the population there. Residents had armed themselves to fend off the militants, who have made sweeping gains across the country in recent months, but critical supplies began to run low.

The U.S. strikes around Amerli in support of Iraqi troops on Saturday, and which the Pentagon said would be “limited in their scope and duration,” appeared to swiftly tilt the balance in favor of Iraqi government forces.

Militia leaders aiding the offensive and Iraqi government officials had said that a coordinated assault to clear the Islamic State-controlled towns around Amerli – and eventually the siege’s front line – began after nightfall in Iraq on Saturday.

Karim al-Nouri, a high-ranking official in the Badr Brigades, a large Shiite militia, said that around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, thousands of the militia’s fighters moved toward the nearby Sunni town of Suleiman Beg, thought to be under the Islamic State’s control. Nouri said the operation was carried out in collaboration with other armed groups, the Iraqi air force and army.

The U.S. strikes and coordinated humanitarian aid drop marked the second time this month that the United States has intervened militarily in Iraq to prevent a jihadist attack on thousands of trapped civilians. [Continue reading...]

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James Foley’s parents on their son, faith and forgiveness

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Music: Matching Mole — ‘O Caroline’

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Iraq crisis: Sunni rebels ‘ready to turn on ISIS’

Jim Muir reports: Stifled by the Islamic State (IS) militants in their own areas, Iraqi Sunni rebels who took up arms against the Shia-dominated government of Nouri Maliki are signalling for the first time that they are ready to turn against IS if Sunni rights are enshrined in a reformed political order in Baghdad.

The rebels, including tribal militants and former army personnel organised in military councils throughout the Sunni areas, see American and international guarantees as crucial to any such deal.

“We don’t want guns from the Americans, we want a real political solution, which the US should impose on those people it installed in the Green Zone,” said Abu Muhammad al-Zubaai, referring to the Iraqi political leaders who took over after the US-led occupation in 2003.

“The IS problem would end. If they guarantee us this solution, we’ll guarantee to get rid of IS,” said Mr al-Zubaai, a tribal leader from Anbar province speaking on behalf of the rebels, using a nom de guerre.

The tribal and military rebels, who had been fighting government forces since January, played a role in the spectacular advances scored after IS – in its previous guise as Isis – erupted into Iraq from Syria in June and captured the second city, Mosul, among other mainly Sunni areas.

But since then, the Sunni groups have been suppressed, with IS ordering them to join its own ranks or disarm.

“Living with IS is like holding burning coals in your hand,” said Mr al-Zubaai. “They do not tolerate any other flag to be raised. They control all Sunni areas now.”

He said tribal militants from the military councils clashed with IS at Garma, near Falluja recently, killing 16 of the Islamic radicals.

“We had to choose between a comprehensive confrontation with IS, or ceding control of that area and keeping a low profile,” he said.

“We decided to stand down, because we are not ready to fight IS in the current circumstances – who would we be fighting for?” [Continue reading...]

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3 million Syrian refugees strain neighboring countries

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Russia pushing Ukraine conflict to ‘point of no return,’ EU leader says

The New York Times reports: Warning that Russia was pushing the conflict in Ukraine toward “the point of no return,” the president of the European Union’s executive arm said on Saturday that European leaders meeting in Brussels would probably endorse new and tougher sanctions in an effort to make Moscow “come to reason.”

After morning talks with the visiting president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, the head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, voiced Europe’s growing alarm and exasperation at Russian actions in Ukraine and the risks of a wider war.

Mr. Poroshenko, speaking at a joint news conference with Mr. Barroso, said Ukraine still hoped for a political settlement with Russian-backed rebels in the east of his country but said a flow of Russian troops and armored vehicles into Ukraine in recent days in support of rebels were stoking the fires of a broader conflict.

“We are too close to a border where there will be no return to the peace plan,” Mr. Poroshenko said, asserting that, since Wednesday, “thousands of foreign troops and hundreds of foreign tanks are now on the territory of Ukraine, with a very high risk not only for the peace and stability of Ukraine but for the peace and stability of the whole of Europe.” [Continue reading...]

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