• Archive of "Syria" Category

    Mini-World War Underway in Syria: The Players

    February 23, 2016 // 23 Comments »

    Peter_O'Toole_in_Lawrence_of_Arabia


    While Secretary of State John Kerry (personal slogan: “Did you know I was still Secretary of State?”) bleats about reaching some sort of imaginary ceasefire with the Russians during negotiations in Munich (optics, John, optics: you don’t negotiate a peace thing in Munich), what is basically a small version of world war continues unabated in Syria.


    Because the war, entering its sixth year, is so confusing, and the on-the-ground situation so complex, let’s look at it in simple digest form:


    Russian warplanes are bombing away, primarily in support of Syrian president Assad against a plethora of militias including ISIS, but also against Turkish proxy forces likely trying to slice off some tasty Syrian border territory.

    Iraqi and Lebanese militias aided by Iranian special forces are on the ground. An assortment of Syrian rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting to hold them back.

    Various Kurdish forces working with Washington and/or Moscow are taking advantage of the chaos to extend Kurdish territories, in Syria, Iraq and odd bits of Turkey. The Islamic State has snatched land while all the focus was on the other groups, and still holds substantial territory in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis have threatened to invade Syria with ground troops, which the Iranians say they will respond to militarily.

    Ahead of Kerry’s supposed ceasefire, the conflict is escalating. Turkey joined in over the weekend, firing artillery across its border at Kurdish positions, prompting appeals from the Obama administration to both Turks and Kurds to back down.

    The U.S. is supporting both sides as part of its anti-ISIS clusterfutz campaign.


    The current locus of the struggle is around the city of Aleppo, in Syria. As the Washington Post’s most excellent reporter Liz Sly describes it, “The Aleppo offensive is affirming Moscow’s stature as a dominant regional power across the heart of the Middle East. The advances by Shiite Iraqi and Lebanese militias are extending the sway of Iran far beyond the traditional Shiite axis of influence into Sunni areas of northern Syria. Although Syria’s army is claiming the victories, rebels, military experts and videos by the fighters themselves say almost all of the advances are being made by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Iraqi Badr Brigade, Harakat al-Nujaba and other Iraqi Shiite militias that are sponsored by Iran.”

    Back to those Russian airstrikes. With that help, Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militias are trying to besiege the rebel-held section of Aleppo to starve the rebels into submission. Using starvation as a weapon is a war crime, but it has been widely used in the Syrian war. Government-aligned forces have also severed the main supply route to Turkey that delivered food, weapons and aid to rebel-held areas, leaving one remaining route. The United Nations is warning that about 300,000 people in the rebel-held part of Aleppo could be at risk of starvation.


    Got it? If you think you do, please drop the White House a line and explain it to them.




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    U.S. Allies Have No Interest in Anti-ISIS Coalition

    February 10, 2016 // 11 Comments »

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    What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.


    Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.

    So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.

    “We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.


    Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.

    “What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.

    “And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”

    Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.


    A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.

    Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.



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    Virginia Man Is Accused of Trying to Join ISIS

    February 6, 2016 // 6 Comments »

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    Another day, another faux-terrorism arrest by the FBI. Who do we really need to be protected from anyway?



    Now watch the italics:

    The Justice Department charged two Virginia men with terrorism-related offenses, a day after FBI agents arrested one of them at an airport where officials believe he was planning to begin a journey to Syria to fight with the Islamic State.

    Both men, Joseph Hassan Farrokh and Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, are in FBI custody and face up to 20 years in prison if they are convicted.

    The department did not cite any evidence that the two men had direct contact with operatives for Islamic State, and based the terrorism charges on conversations they had with three informants.

    Farrokh, a 28-year-old native of Pennsylvania, was arrested at the airport in Richmond, Virginia, where he was planning to fly to Chicago and on to Amman, Jordan, according to a criminal complaint released on Saturday. During wiretapped conversations with an FBI informant, Farrokh discussed beginning his journey from a smaller airport to evade scrutiny.

    The complaint said that Elhassan, a 25-year-old permanent resident of the United States originally from Sudan, drove Farrokh to within a mile of the airport, and that Farrokh took a taxi the rest of the way. Elhassan is being charged with aiding and abetting Farrokh’s attempts to provide material support to a terrorist organization.

    The complaint said that Farrokh did not appear to want to return to the United States.


    Quick summation:

    — No terrorism committed, or even planned, inside America.

    — One guy arrested for trying to fly to Chicago.

    — Other guy arrested for driving Guy I to the airport.

    — 100% of “evidence” are conversations with informants.

    — No information on how the two arrested men came together with informants, or what the informants said that might have spurred the conversations.




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    A Soldier and His Dog Come Home for the Last Time

    February 2, 2016 // 8 Comments »

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    There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.



    One Way

    If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.



    At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.

    Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.



    Another Way

    No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.

    This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.

    Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”


    Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.



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    You Won’t Like It, But Here’s the Answer to ISIS

    January 25, 2016 // 11 Comments »

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    How can we stop the Islamic State?

    Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?


    What Hasn’t Worked

    You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)

    Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.

    Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.

    How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”

    Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.

    If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.


    How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?

    To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?

    Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).

    And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?

    Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.

    Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.


    Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World

    You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.

    So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”


    We Have to Do Something

    So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”

    Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.

    As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.

    As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.

    But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.

    Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.

    The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS.  That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.

    And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.

    You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.

    Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else?  There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”

    To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.

    In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.

    This is history talking to us.


    That Darn History Thing

    Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”

    In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.

    In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.

    It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.

    The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.

    There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.


    Fear Itself

    Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.

    And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.

    It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies.  This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.

    And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.


    At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”

    And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”




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    Petraeus: ‘It’s Time to Unleash America’s Airpower in Afghanistan’

    January 21, 2016 // 10 Comments »

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    In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”


    Petraeus went on to claim:

    At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.

    The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:

    We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.

    So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.



    To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.

    It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.

    And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?

    I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.

    Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.

    So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?



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    Top General Warns of New ISIS Threat… in Jamaica?

    January 15, 2016 // 5 Comments »

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    It appears America’s military fear-mongers have just about run out of new ways to try to frighten us into submission. So the best they are able to come up with now is to say the boogie men are heading south, to the blue waters and delightful beaches of the very un-Muslim Caribbean.

    Seriously. And the photo above is of an ISIS landing craft.


    The number of ISIS devotees living in or coming from the Caribbean is on the rise, according to U.S. Southern Command chief General John Kelly, who oversees “security” (and paranoia) throughout South America.

    Kelly said he has seen a shift in rhetoric by top ISIS leaders geared toward a “few very, very radical mosques” in the Caribbean, essentially directing would-be disciples to conduct attacks from their islands (a sort of “work from home” scheme) rather than trek to the Middle East and risk capture by law enforcement. Nonetheless, Kelly estimates that the number of radicals who left the region anyway to join ISIS has risen from 100 to 150 over the last year.

    “It seems like the Islamic extremists and terrorists have shifted a lot of their message, and that is, ‘Hey, rather than come to Syria, why don’t you stay at home and do San Bernardino, or do Boston, or do Fort Hood?’” Kelly said Friday at a Pentagon press briefing, reciting just about the only real terror actions in the Homeland over the past 14 years. Also, the Fort Hood shooter was motivated by al Qaeda; ISIS didn’t exist outside of Iraq at that time. Maybe a lesson in there, eh General?

    The Marine Corps four-star general said he was particularly worried that “nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean” because small island nations like Jamaica lack law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI or the Transportation Security Administration, and many of them have “very, very small militaries, if they have militaries at all.” Oh, if only they could be more like us…

    Now of course the question might be how will these new Islamic pirates of the caribbean infiltrate the United States? Perhaps by disguising themselves as bales of marijuana?



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    What’s the Real Story Behind Saudi Arabia’s Execution of Shia Cleric al-Nimr?

    January 11, 2016 // 9 Comments »

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    The execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 convicted al-Qaeda members by the Saudis triggered a still-unfolding crisis between the Kingdom and Iran. Protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Iranian government threatened that the Saudis will face “divine” revenge.

    Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations and ordering Iran’s ambassador to depart the Kingdom, followed by the cutting off of all commercial ties with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates made formal diplomatic protests to Iran. Additional acts of retaliation in a region that embraces the concept will no doubt follow, likely inside the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or Syria. There will be blood.

     

    But why execute al-Nimr now?

    The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for some years. In 2009 he went as far as threatening Shi’ite secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. The Saudis have had al-Nimr in custody since 2012, and he was sentenced to death in 2014.

    While there are external factors, particularly the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for power in the Persian Gulf, those are secondary. The execution of al-Nimr was a signal sent by the new King to his supporters and adversaries at home.

    The crucial point in understanding any part of Saudi politics is that the Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979 and as is fumbling forward in other nearby locations, such as Syria. Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades. The family’s rule has been made possible in part by fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimacy to the al-Saud family. Alongside all this were a series of strong, patriarchal Saudi kings to keep control of the military and security forces.

     

    Times have changed.

    Shi’ite Islam is on the move regionally, perhaps most significantly in Iraq. Following the American invasion of 2003, Iraq changed from a secular regime under Saddam that waged open war against Shi’ite Iran, to the largely Shi’ite regime now in power in Baghdad that openly welcomes Iranian special forces. Saudi Arabia’s steadiest partner, the United States, has become prone to erratic acts, naively bumbling into Iraq in 2003, demanding regime changes here and there, and unofficially partnering with the Iranians to defeat Islamic State.

    The U.S. is also far more energy independent than a decade ago and is slowly moving toward some form of new diplomatic relationship with Iran. Oil prices have also been falling. Many disgruntled Saudi Sunnis support Islamic State, an organization that has sworn to take down the al-Saud monarchy. These are all potentially destabilizing factors for the Saudis.

    But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family’s rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman’s newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first time since the country’s modern founder, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953 that power has been concentrated in the hands of just one branch of the family. This was done by the deceased King’s decision to bypass one of his brothers, the traditional successor, in favor of a nephew, who has set up his son as successor. There have been thus not surprisingly rumors of opposition to the son, even of a coup.

    It was also the son, who, as defense minister, oversaw the decision to go to war in Yemen, launching his country into an open-ended struggle he may sometime face the need to defend.

     

    The execution of al-Nimr send multiple signals. The most significant is a get-tough message to all inside the Kingdom, coupled with an assurance to the Iranians that Salman is firmly in charge and able to further prosecute the war in Yemen. The execution appeases the Wahhabists, and gives the government a chance to crackdown on Shi’ite dissent.

    Al-Nimr’s crime was described using terms normally reserved for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to include plotting to overthrow the Saudi government. In a region that pays particular attention to symbolism, executing al-Nimr as a terrorist, alongside 46 al-Qaeda members, is a crystalline example of how the Saudi authorities view a man seen by many Shi’ites inside the Kingdom as a freedom fighter of sorts, and as a religious figure in greater the Shi’ite world.

    And in case anyone still did not get the message, the Saudi government did not give al-Nimr’s body to his family, saying that they already buried all of the corpses.

    The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran plays right into this, though was unlikely to have been anticipated. But what better way to wag the dog for the war in Yemen and perhaps beyond then another example of the “out of control” Iranians, and the threat Shi’ites pose. It doesn’t hurt Saudi relations vis-a-vis the United States to see an embassy burn once again in the heart of Tehran, or for local Saudis angered by a 40 percent rise in gas prices to have an external enemy to distract them.

    Events set in motion are difficult to control, and things may yet spin out of Salman’s control, and the ploy backfire; for example, al-Nimr is now a martyr with an international profile.

    But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones.

     

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    New ‘Jihadi John?’ ISIS Video Features English-Speaker

    January 6, 2016 // 22 Comments »

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    For those who still don’t get why the War of Terror continues to fail after 14+ years, here is another lesson.

    We all remember “Jihadi John,” who of course was never called that except in the western media. John (real name: Mohammed Emwazi) was a British citizen who became radicalized, joined ISIS and went on to do horrible things, including beheadings. The media, in hand with the White House and Downing Street, fluffed this one loser guy up into an international super villain. So, when eventually the world’s most powerful nation finally killed him in November 2015 with million-dollars air sorties and drones, we were all supposed to go full-out-bin-Laden-celebration, on the road to victory over Islamic State, with a little old fashioned Wild West vengeance thrown in for the feel good.

    And so now guess what?

    There’s a new guy to replace Jihadi John. He doesn’t have a stupid nickname yet, so let’s be the first and call him Haji Hank. He executed five persons claimed to be British spies, creating the video you see above in the process.

    The U.S. strategy is called whack-a-mole. You smite bin Laden and someone takes over — al Qaeda is still around, people. You suppress al Qaeda to a certain extent, and ISIS pops up. There are lots and lots of Jihadi Johns and Haji Hanks out there, waiting in line. Even the world’s most powerful nation can’t kill them all. They do more than reproduce; they recruit.

    The video I could locate cuts off before the shooting. Those who have seen the whole thing say the five men are then all shot at point blank range. The video ends with a young child wearing military fatigues and speaking in English: “We are going to go kill the kafir [non-believers] over there.”

    U.K. security agencies immediately started to try to identify the man in the video and are working on the assumption that it is a real message from ISIS. “British investigators will have to rely on voice analysis to try to establish his identity and by monitoring chatter on Twitter and other social media as well as other electronic communication to see if there are any clues,” reports the Guardian.

    Twitter chatter. That’ll show them.






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    About That ISIS Plan to Attack Munich…

    January 4, 2016 // 7 Comments »

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    So while we huddled in drunken fear here in The Homeland, Germans in Das Homeland played out a similar game.


    You may have missed it among updates of our impending doom from terror attacks on New Year’s Eve, but in Munich two train stations were evacuated and closed after German officials had received a “very concrete” tip that suicide attacks were planned there. Everything got locked down and even the American Embassy in Germany Tweeted out an urgent bulletin to Americans.

    And yeah, I buried the lede: Nothing happened.


    Now, in the clearer light of morning, we learn more about that “very concrete” tip that set all this off.

    According to Reuters, a German policespokesperson said “We received names. We can’t say if they were in Munich or in fact in Germany. At this point we don’t know if these names are correct, if these people even exist, or where they might be. We have no information that these people are in Munich or in Germany.”

    Germany’s interior minister added “Security forces anticipate the high threat of international terrorism to persist.” Who knew?

    The train stations were reopened by morning and the police presence significantly reduced, apparently because the vague tip from the night before was seen as even more vague a little while later. I guess “very concrete” tips have limited life spans, or Germany is really sure terrorists are always right on time with their suicide bombs. Heck, maybe they missed their bus or something, or their watches were still set to Syrian time.


    Elsewhere in Europe, police in the Austrian capital Vienna said a “friendly” intelligence service had warned European capitals of the possibility of a shooting or bomb attack before New Year. Nothing happened.

    In Belgium, authorities off the usual New Year’s Eve fireworks display in the capital, citing fears of a possible militant attack. Nothing happened.

    Throughout the Munich alert, police kept up a stream of messages in several languages on Twitter, at times alternating incongruously between security warnings and New Year greetings. Reminder: Nothing happened.

    Time to get a new catchphrase Mr. War of Terror — “out of an abundance of caution” has worn out its welcome and means little more than over reaction. Yes, yes, of course something could always happen somewhere. But that’s the point, and panic, overreacting and crying wolf does nothing to protect against that.



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    Afghan Militia Loyal to Someone Behead Islamic State Fighters

    December 30, 2015 // 9 Comments »

    Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_CaravaggioHo, ho, ho, can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys. That might as well be America’s war of terror slogan (copyright, 2001-2015.)


    So see if you can sort out the Good from the Bad. Pretend you’re Secretary of State and this is a puzzle Barack has asked you to solve. Here are the facts:

    Afghan militiamen loyal to no government but currently used by Haji Zahir, deputy speaker of the U.S.-created Afghan parliament, beheaded four Islamic State fighters and publicly displayed their severed heads. This ultra-violence highlights an increasingly brutal conflict as ISIS makes inroads in Afghanistan.

    The beheadings by the Afghans of ISIS are in retaliation for ISIS earlier beheading four of Zahir’s own Afghan fighters. In what is a great statement, Zahir said “If they behead you, behead your son, do you expect us to cook sweets for them? Sweets are not distributed during war. People die.”

    To make his point crystal clear, Zahir’s men placed the severed heads of the four ISIS fighters atop stacks of stones on the side of a main road.

    ISIS, for its part, continues to scoop up disaffected Taliban fighters, who are unhappy with their own group’s level of violence and are increasingly lured by ISIS’ signature brutality.


    So:

    — ISIS is now a thing in Afghanistan, after 14+ years of American occupation and nation building there. Fun facts: ISIS did not even exist when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, and the younger American soldiers now deployed there were in First Grade when the initial U.S. invasion kicked off;

    — The deputy speaker of the U.S.-created Afghan parliament has his own militia;

    — People sort of on the good Afghan side are doing the same brutal things such as beheadings without U.S. condemnation, as ISIS is doing elsewhere with U.S. condemnation, but that’s OK;

    — Afghanistan is so f*cked;

    — And so sorry to the 3,512 American and coalition deaths expended to create that free Afghanistan! Things will work out better in Syria, we promise.






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    Washington to Whomever: Please Fight the Islamic State for Us

    December 17, 2015 // 5 Comments »

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    In the many strategies proposed to defeat the Islamic State (IS) by presidential candidates, policymakers, and media pundits alike across the American political spectrum, one common element stands out: someone else should really do it.

    The United States will send in planes, advisers, and special ops guys, but it would be best — and this varies depending on which pseudo-strategist you cite — if the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Sunnis, and/or Shias would please step in soon and get America off the hook.

    The idea of seeing other-than-American boots on the ground, like Washington’s recently deep-sixed scheme to create some “moderate” Syrian rebels out of whole cloth, is attractive on paper. Let someone else fight America’s wars for American goals. Put an Arab face on the conflict, or if not that at least a Kurdish one (since, though they may not be Arabs, they’re close enough in an American calculus). Let the U.S. focus on its “bloodless” use of air power and covert ops. Somebody else, Washington’s top brains repeatedly suggest, should put their feet on the embattled, contested ground of Syria and Iraq. Why, the U.S. might even gift them with nice, new boots as a thank-you.

    Is this, however, a realistic strategy for winning America’s war(s) in the Middle East?


    The Great Champions of the Grand Strategy

    Recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton openly called for the U.S. to round up some Arab allies, Kurds, and Iraqi Sunnis to drive the Islamic State’s fighters out of Iraq and Syria. On the same day that Clinton made her proposal, Bernie Sanders called for “destroying” the Islamic State, but suggested that it “must be done primarily by Muslim nations.” It’s doubtful he meant Indonesia or Malaysia.

    Among the Republican contenders, Marco Rubio proposed that the U.S. “provide arms directly to Sunni tribal and Kurdish forces.” Ted Cruz threw his support behind arming the Kurds, while Donald Trump appeared to favor more violence in the region by whoever might be willing to jump in.

    The Pentagon has long been in favor of arming both the Kurds and whatever Sunni tribal groups it could round up in Iraq or Syria. Various pundits across the political spectrum say much the same.

    They may all mean well, but their plans are guaranteed to fail. Here’s why, group by group.


    The Gulf Arabs

    Much of what the candidates demand is based one premise: that “the Arabs” see the Islamic State as the same sort of threat Washington does.

    It’s a position that, at first glance, would seem to make obvious sense. After all, while American politicians are fretting about whether patient IS assault teams can wind their way through this country’s two-year refugee screening process, countries like Saudi Arabia have them at their doorstep. Why wouldn’t they jump at the chance to lend a helping hand, including some planes and soldiers, to the task of destroying that outfit? “The Arabs,” by which the U.S. generally means a handful of Persian Gulf states and Jordan, should logically be demanding the chance to be deeply engaged in the fight.

    That was certainly one of the early themes the Obama administration promoted after it kicked off its bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq back in 2014. In reality, the Arab contribution to that “coalition” effort to date has been stunningly limited. Actual numbers can be slippery, but we know that American warplanes have carried out something like 90% of the air strikes against IS. Of those strikes that are not all-American, parsing out how many have been from Arab nations is beyond even Google search’s ability. The answer clearly seems to be not many.

    Keep in mind as well that the realities of the region seldom seem to play much of a part in Washington’s thinking. For the Gulf Arabs, all predominantly Sunni nations, the Islamic State and its al-Qaeda-linked Sunni ilk are little more than a distraction from what they fear most, the rise of Shia power in places like Iraq and the growing regional strength of Iran.

    In this context, imagining such Arab nations as a significant future anti-IS force is absurd. In fact, Sunni terror groups like IS and al-Qaeda have in part been funded by states like Saudi Arabia or at least rich supporters living in them. Direct funding links are often difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to publicly prove them. This is especially so because the money that flows into such terror outfits often comes from individual donors, not directly from national treasuries, or may even be routed through legitimate charitable organizations and front companies.

    However, one person concerned in an off-the-record way with such Saudi funding for terror groups was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009.  In a classified warning message (now posted on WikiLeaks), she suggested in blunt terms that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

    One who thinks the Saudis and other Gulf countries may be funding rather than fighting IS and is ready to say so is Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the recent G20 meeting, he announced that he had shared intelligence information revealing that 40 countries, including some belonging to the G20 itself, finance the majority of the Islamic State’s activities. Though Putin’s list of supposed funders was not made public, on the G20 side Saudi Arabia and Turkey are more likely candidates than South Korea and Japan.

    Most recently, the German vice chancellor has explicitly accused the Saudis of funding Sunni radical groups.

    Expecting the Gulf Arab states to fight IS also ignores the complex political relationship between those nations and Islamic fundamentalism generally. The situation is clearest in Saudi Arabia, where the secular royal family holds power only with the shadowy permission of Wahhabist religious leaders. The latter provide the former with legitimacy at the price of promoting Islamic fundamentalism abroad. From the royals’ point of view, abroad is the best place for it to be, as they fear an Islamic revolution at home. In a very real way, Saudi Arabia is supporting an ideology that threatens its own survival.


    The Kurds

    At the top of the list of groups included in the American dream of someone else fighting IS are the Kurds. And indeed, the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, are actually on the battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria, using American-supplied weapons and supported by American air power and advisers in their efforts to kill Islamic State fighters.

    But looks can be deceiving. While a Venn diagram would show an overlap between some U.S. and Kurdish aims, it’s important not to ignore the rest of the picture. The Kurds are fighting primarily for a homeland, parts of which are, for the time being, full of Islamic State fighters in need of killing. The Kurds may indeed destroy them, but only within the boundaries of what they imagine to be a future Kurdistan, not in the heartlands of the Syrian and Iraqi regions that IS now controls.

    Not only will the Kurds not fight America’s battles in parts of the region, no matter how we arm and advise them, but it seems unlikely that, once in control of extended swaths of northern Iraq and parts of Syria, they will simply abandon their designs on territory that is now a part of Turkey. It’s a dangerous American illusion to imagine that Washington can turn Kurdish nationalism on and off as needed.

    The Kurds, now well armed and battle-tested, are just one of the genies Washington released from that Middle Eastern bottle in 2003 when it invaded Iraq. Now, whatever hopes the U.S. might still have for future stability in the region shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Using the Kurds to fight IS is a devil’s bargain.


    The Turks

    And talking about devil’s bargains, don’t forget about Turkey. The Obama administration reached a deal to fly combat missions in its intensifying air war against the Islamic State from two bases in Turkey. In return, Washington essentially looked the other way while Turkish President Recep Erdogan re-launched a war against internal Kurdish rebels at least in part to rally nationalistic supporters and win an election. Similarly, the U.S. has supported Turkey’s recent shoot-down of a Russian aircraft.

    When it comes to the Islamic State, though, don’t hold your breath waiting for the Turks to lend a serious military hand. That country’s government has, at the very least, probably been turning a blind eye to the smuggling of arms into Syria for IS, and is clearly a conduit for smuggling its oil out onto world markets. American politicians seem to feel that, for now, it’s best to leave the Turks off to the side and simply be grateful to them for slapping the Russians down and opening their air space to American aircraft.

    That gratitude may be misplaced. Some 150 Turkish troops, supported by 20 to 25 tanks, have recently entered northern Iraq, prompting one Iraqi parliamentarian to label the action “switching out alien (IS) rule for other alien rule.” The Turks claim that they have had military trainers in the area for some time and that they are working with local Kurds to fight IS. It may also be that the Turks are simply taking a bite from a splintering Iraq. As with so many situations in the region, the details are murky, but the bottom line is the same: the Turks’ aims are their own and they are likely to contribute little either to regional stability or American war aims.


    The Sunnis

    Of the many sub-strategies proposed to deal with the Islamic State, the idea of recruiting and arming “the Sunnis” is among the most fantastical. It offers a striking illustration of the curious, somewhat delusional mindset that Washington policymakers, including undoubtedly the next president, live in.

    As a start, the thought that the U.S. can effectively fulfill its own goals by recruiting local Sunnis to take up arms against IS is based on a myth: that “the surge” during America’s previous Iraq War brought us a victory later squandered by the locals. With this goes a belief, demonstrably false, in the shallowness of the relationship between many Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis and the Islamic State.

    According to the Washington mythology that has grown up around that so-called surge of 2007-2008, the U.S. military used money, weapons, and clever persuasion to convince Iraq’s Sunni tribes to break with Iraq’s local al-Qaeda organization. The Sunnis were then energized to join the coalition government the U.S. had created. In this way, so the story goes, the U.S. arrived at a true “mission accomplished” moment in Iraq. Politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington still believe that the surge, led by General David Petraeus, swept to success by promoting and arming a “Sunni Awakening Movement,” only to see American plans thwarted by a too-speedy Obama administration withdrawal from the country and the intra-Iraqi squabbling that followed. So the question now is: why not “awaken” the Sunnis again?

    In reality, the surge involved almost 200,000 American soldiers, who put themselves temporarily between Sunni and Shia militias. It also involved untold millions of dollars of “payments” — what in another situation would be called bribes — that brought about temporary alliances between the U.S. and the Sunnis. The Shia-dominated Iraqi central government never signed onto the deal, which began to fall apart well before the American occupation ended. The replacement of al-Qaeda in Iraq by a newly birthed Islamic State movement was, of course, part and parcel of that falling-apart process.

    After the Iraqi government stopped making the payments to Sunni tribal groups first instituted by the Americans, those tribes felt betrayed. Still occupying Iraq, those Americans did nothing to help the Sunnis. History suggests that much of Sunni thinking in the region since then has been built around the motto of “won’t get fooled again.”

    So it is unlikely in the extreme that local Sunnis will buy into basically the same deal that gave them so little of lasting value the previous time around. This is especially so since there will be no new massive U.S. force to act as a buffer against resurgent Shia militias. Add to this mix a deep Sunni conviction that American commitments are never for the long term, at least when it comes to them. What, then, would be in it for the Sunnis if they were to again throw in their lot with the Americans? Another chance to be part of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that seeks to marginalize or destroy them, a government now strengthened by Iranian support, or a Syria whose chaos could easily yield a leadership with similar aims?

    In addition, a program to rally Sunnis to take up arms against the Islamic State presumes that significant numbers of them don’t support that movement, especially given their need for protection from the depredations of Shia militias. Add in religious and ethnic sentiments, anti-western feelings, tribal affiliations, and economic advantage — it is believed that IS kicks back a share of its oil revenues to compliant Sunni tribal leaders — and what exactly would motivate a large-scale Sunni transformation into an effective anti-Islamic State boots-on-the-ground force?


    Shias

    Not that they get mentioned all that often, being closely associated with acts of brutality against Sunnis and heavily supported by Iran, but Iraq’s Shia militias are quietly seen by some in Washington as a potent anti-IS force. They have, in Washington’s mindset, picked up the slack left after the Iraqi Army abandoned its equipment and fled the Islamic State’s fighters in northern Iraq in June 2014, and again in the Sunni city of Ramadi in May 2015.

    Yet even the militia strategy seems to be coming undone. Several powerful Shia militias recently announced, for instance, their opposition to any further deployment of U.S. forces to their country. This was after the U.S. Secretary of Defense unilaterally announced that an elite special operations unit would be sent to Iraq to combat the Islamic State. The militias just don’t trust Washington to have their long-term interests at heart (and in this they are in good company in the region). “We will chase and fight any American force deployed in Iraq,” said one militia spokesman. “We fought them before and we are ready to resume fighting.”


    Refusing to Recognize Reality

    The Obama/Clinton/Sanders/Cruz/Rubio/Pentagon/et al. solution — let someone else fight the ground war against IS — is based on what can only be called a delusion: that regional forces there believe in American goals (some variant of secular rule, disposing of evil dictators, perhaps some enduring U.S. military presence) enough to ignore their own varied, conflicting, aggrandizing, and often fluid interests. In this way, Washington continues to convince itself that local political goals are not in conflict with America’s strategic goals. This is a delusion.

    In fact, Washington’s goals in this whole process are unnervingly far-fetched. Overblown fears about the supposedly dire threats of the Islamic State to “the homeland” aside, the American solution to radical Islam is an ongoing disaster. It is based on the attempted revitalization of the collapsed or collapsing nation-state system at the heart of that region. The stark reality is that no one there — not the Gulf states, not the Kurds, not the Turks, not the Sunnis, nor even the Shia — is fighting for Iraq and Syria as the U.S. remembers them.

    Unworkable national boundaries were drawn up after World War I without regard for ethnic, sectarian, or tribal realities and dictatorships were then imposed or supported past their due dates. The Western answer that only secular governments are acceptable makes sad light of the power of Islam in a region that often sees little or no separation between church and state.

    Secretary of State John Kerry can join the calls for the use of “indigenous forces” as often as he wants, but the reality is clear: Washington’s policy in Syria and Iraq is bound to fail, no matter who does the fighting.




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    Syria: What Would Boots on the Ground Look Like?

    November 24, 2015 // 3 Comments »

    armyboots
    Pressure on the White House to escalate the Syria/Iraq war has no doubt intensified post-Paris.

    Should Islamic State take things further and strike an American civilian target, President Barack Obama would be all but forced to “do something.” What would that “something” likely look like, and what might be the pitfalls?

    Post-Paris, France and the United States immediately increased their air campaign in Syria. The visuals play well on television, as American audiences have seen over the last 24 years of airstrikes on Iraq. For an Obama appeared wary of deeper involvement in Syria, this may be enough to tamp down the pressure assuming no future attack on American civilians. France may also find a short and sharp set of revenge attacks enough for the near term, as Jordan did in at the beginning of this year, after the horrific burning alive of one its pilots captured by Islamic State. Things could settle back into a more routine fight.

    However, if Islamic State were to strike against Americans, President Obama would almost be required to escalate, and more of the same airstrikes and colorful missile launches would not satisfy demands for vengeance. They would not have been sufficient a year ago, and certainly not in the midst of a presidential campaign. Any perceived lack of resolve would hand the Republicans a red, white and blue issue to take them through the next 12 months, and Hillary Clinton would be forced to break with the White House.

    America’s escalation could take only one form: many more American boots on the ground.

    No one would call it an invasion, but that is what it would be, regardless of scale. The most likely paths into Syria would be through Turkey if that government blessed it (and remember, Turkey refused to open their borders for the 2003 American invasion of Iraq), or, most likely, via Jordan, with a smaller force from the northeast, across the Iraqi border.

    The United States has a notably infrastructure and a compliant government in place in Jordan. In May of this year, thousands of soldiers from 18 countries took part in war games in Jordan, overseen by the American Army. The Jordanians themselves are already considering a militarized “humanitarian corridor” into Syria that could easily morph into an invasion route.

    Since 2013, the United States has been growing its military presence in Jordan, to include strike aircraft, missle defenses and strategic planners, lots of planners, the infrastructure of war. An attack against Islamic State from the south might also isolate Damascus for follow-on action against Assad. From a military point of view, Israel and the Golan Heights it controls provide neat protection on the invasion’s left flank. Lastly, Jordanian involvement would help dress up the American invasion by giving it something of an Arab face.

    Sending large numbers of troops into Syria from the northeast, via Iraq, would likely encouch on Islamic State’s strongholds in northern Iraq and sandwich the United States between them and Islamic State fighters in northern Syria. Foreign fighters could also find their way in across the Turkish border. Still, moving airborne and special operations troops through Kurdish-held areas would be possible and necessary to reach Islamic State from another front.

    It would very surprising to see any significant American escalation in Iraq proper, absent perhaps inside the Kurdish confederacy. Americans dying once again in the Iraqi desert would be a tough sell domestically, the Iraqi government in Baghdad and its Iranian partners would be less than receptive, and militarily dividing Islamic State into a Syrian force and an Iraqi force would accomplish much on its own without re-inserting American troops into the Iraqi civil war.

    The problem with all this chess playing is the identical one that bred Islamic State into existence in the first place.

    As the United States saw in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, winning on the battlefield is the easy part. Assuming Islamic State could be physically destroyed (a big assumption itself given its diffuse nature and political support among many Sunnis), what follows? Who will govern “liberated” areas? How much land will the Kurds seize for themselves in northern Syria and how will Turkey react to that? Syria is a wrecked wasteland flooded with internally displaced persons. Who will pay for reconstruction, and why would anyone think it would work any better in Syria than it did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Will the Russians simply stand aside?

    Scenarios that put boots on the ground are easy to foresee, and the possible on-the-ground strategies are clear enough to speculate on. How to deal with the aftermath is what really matters, and what’s the plan for that?

     

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    US Special Forces in Combat: Nothing New for Iraq and Syria?

    November 20, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    sof

    The United States recently unveiled a new approach in Iraq and Syria it insists is not new at all: Special Forces will be sent into direct combat. “The fact is that our strategy… hasn’t changed,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said. “This is an intensification of a strategy that the president announced more than a year ago.”

    The press secretary is right if you take him at his exact words: the deployment of Special Forces does not change America’s grand strategy, it only changes the on-the-ground tactics.

    Something tactically new, something strategically old

    Tactically, downplaying these moves as intensification, or as somehow not boots on the ground (one imagines American Special Forces hopping from foot to foot to protect Washington’s rhetoric) is silly. America has entered a new stage, active ground combat, and anyone who thinks a handful of Special Forces is the end of this is probably among the same group who believed air power alone would resolve matters a year ago.

    However, in the bigger picture, the White House is spot-on. Broader strategy for the Middle East has not changed at all. That is baked into the American belief that there is an imposable solution to every foreign problem, and that it is the responsibility of the US to find and implement that solution. This thinking has rarely been even close to right since the Vietnam War, and is most certainly wrong when looking at the Middle East in 2015. It has led directly to the mess in Iraq and Syria, and remains tragically unchanged.

    Tactical

    The state of Iraq and Syria is not pretty.

    Iraq the nation is no more, replaced by a Kurdish confederacy in the north, a Shia-controlled south and a semi-governed ISIS-Sunni area to the west. Syria is divided into a northern area increasingly under Kurdish control, a southern section still under Assad’s rule, and a lot of contested space being fought over by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, Islamic State, its cohorts, Bashar Assad’s forces, the Kurds, and a complex mélange of local religious and tribal alliances.

    But no unicorns. Those mythical creatures, the moderate rebels of Syria, couldn’t be created via wishing, hoping or training, and the forces the US now supports in Syria are either Kurds out for their own interest in creating a nation-state (that the U.S. is facilitating the non-Arab Kurds to “liberate” Arab lands will be long-noted in the region) or the usual collection of thugs. America will no doubt soon dub them freedom fighters. Is the name “Sons of Syria” already taken?

    Strategic

    American goals in Iraq seem to be along the lines of destroy ISIS and unify the country. In Syria, the goals, as best as can be discerned, are to destroy ISIS and depose President Assad.

    The problem with “destroying ISIS” is that every time the United States kills off some fighters, ISIS simply gets more, using as their recruiting tool the American military’s return to Muslim lands. ISIS is the physical embodiment of a set of ideas – religious, anti-imperialist, anti-western – and one cannot blow up ideas. Unless a popular rebalancing of power likely favouring a version of Islamic fundamentalism is allowed to take hold and create some measure of stability, count on the US fighting the sons and grandsons of ISIS for years to come.

    The other American goals are equally far-fetched.

    Obama is the fourth American president to bomb Iraq, and inevitably his successor will be number five. Yet even after decades of bombing and years of occupation, fiddling, reconstructing and meddling, the United States has not pulled Iraq together. Special Forces cannot accomplish what all that already failed to do.

    An Assad-less Syria is possible, following an assassination, a coup, or perhaps a plane crash. However, removing one government, then hoping another will emerge Big Bang-like, has a very poor track record (see Iraq with Saddam and Libya with Qaddafi.) Any negotiated form of regime change in Syria, such as an offer of exile to Assad, is now subject to a Putin veto, given Russia’s military presence there.

    It is unlikely in the extreme that more American involvement, never mind a mere handful of Special Forces, will have much effect in either Iraq or Syria. But the US is escalating anyway.

    But the US must do something… right?

    But what if there is no “solution” in Iraq and Syria but to allow, however reluctantly, the forces now in play to find their own balance? The outcome will undoubtedly be distasteful to many in Washington, some sort of Syrian state with Russian allies, a Shia Iraq with Iranian supporters, an ISIS-Sunni statelet, and a trans-border powder keg of Kurdish nationalism on the loose.

    But whether America takes a deep breath of realism and steps back or not, there is little that can be done to change any of those things anyway; the Iraq invasion, if nothing else, made clear the American military cannot dictate policy outcomes in the Middle East. American force might postpone the changes, or allow friends like the Kurds a more favorable bargaining position, but that’s about it, Special Forces or no Special Forces.

    But what about ISIS?

    The idea that absent American intervention Islamic State will pop up in Times Square is simply a new flavor of the old scare tactic politicians have consistently used to cow the American public. The bogey man has just seamlessly changed from Communists to Sandinistas to post-9/11 al-Qaeda to Saddam to the Taliban to ISIS. Note that despite American intervention, Islamic State is as strong or stronger now than it ever has been, and yet has never directly struck outside its own neighborhood. Indeed, as a terror group, ISIS must know it is accomplishing most of its political goals vis-a-vis the US using only Twitter.

    As for Islamic State being evil, they are. Yet in a time when hospitals are bombed by America in Afghanistan and by its Saudi allies in Yemen, and when civilian areas in Gaza are shelled by ally Israel, one should be careful when invoking morality.

    Maybe they were right all along

    Ironically, after Syria’s Arab Spring became a civil war, the White House met with Pentagon planners, looking for options. They came up empty-handed. “Nobody could figure out what to do,” a senior Pentagon official said.

    They may have had it right from the beginning: there was nothing the U.S. could do. What some call Obama’s indecisiveness may have just been realism. History, as well as his political enemies, is likely to claim Obama “lost” Iraq and Syria. That is unfair, as it presumes that it was ever possible to win.

    And so perhaps the White House is right in characterizing the deployment of Special Forces into a combat role as nothing really so new. What is happening now in Iraq and Syria is just the dragging of the same decades old failed strategy forward.




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    The Price of ISIS

    November 19, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    kobane

    What is the price of America’s war against Islamic State? Higher than you think.

    Last week saw the first American ground combat death in Iraq since 2011. Sadly, such deaths are a price always paid in war. The cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.

    But costs should also be measured in the chaos the war has spawned, and in the additional problems for American foreign policy it has created.

    Vast areas of Syria have been reduced to rubble, and refugee flows have created a humanitarian disaster; more than 240,000 people have died in the conflict, and nearly 12 million people – half the country’s population – have been driven from their homes. Whereas at one point an American goal was to depose Bashar Assad because he (only) was bombing his own people, those same people now suffer attacks from the air and the ground by the United States, Russia, Britain, Jordan, Turkey, France, Canada, Australia, Iran, a handful of Gulf nations, and Islamic State and its cohorts.

    The de facto strategy seems to be evolving into a Vietnam War-era “destroying Syria in order to save it.” The reconstruction of Syria will be expensive, though it is unclear who will pay that bill. But allowing the country to become a failed state, a haven for terror groups like Sudan in the 1990s and Afghanistan post-9/11, will be even more expensive.

    The price being paid, however, extends beyond Syria’s borders.

    NATO ally Turkey has long supported Islamic State, leaving its border with Syria open as a transit point, and allowing Islamic State to broker oil on the black market. Turkey’s actions are intimately tied to its violent history with the Kurds. A weak Islamic State empowers the Kurds. Initial American efforts to enlist Turkey into the Islamic State fight thus met with little success.

    That appeared to change in August 2015, when Washington reached a deal allowing it to fly strike missions against Syria from inside Turkey. However, there appeared to be a quid pro quo: on the same day Turkey announced it would help fight Islamic State, it also began an air campaign against Kurdish groups tied to the only effective fighting force the United States has so far found – the unicorn – the peshmerga.

    The Kurds’ vision for their nation extends beyond their confederacy in Iraq, into Turkey and Syria. It endangers whatever hopes America may still have for a united Iraq. It also ensures Kurdish national ambitions denied since the end of World War I will need to be addressed alongside any resolution in Syria, as Kurdish forces occupy areas in the north of that country. That’s a tall diplomatic order.

    The fight against Islamic State is also playing out elsewhere in Iraq, as the United States has had to accept Iranian leadership, special forces, and weapons inside same the nation Americans died “saving” only a few years ago. The growing Iranian influence is closely coupled with American acceptance of Shi’ite militias now in the field, after the Iraqi Army ran away from Islamic State.

    The government in Iraq today is a collection of mostly Shi’ite factions, each with one of those militias on call. With a weak prime minister, and with Islamic State for the time being pushed back from the gates of Baghdad, the Shi’ites are free to maneuver for power. A price to be paid for the conflict with Islamic State could easily be a civil war inside a civil war.

    And of course there is Russia, who, under the loose cover of fighting Islamic State, quickly re-established itself as a military force in the heart of the Middle East. It is difficult to imagine them leaving. Until now, the United States has had a relatively free hand in the region as no one had the military power to seriously challenge an American move. That has changed. Any significant change in Syria is now subject to a Putin veto.

    Meanwhile, despite the costs, Islamic State remains as strong as it has ever been, with American actions serving as its best recruitment tool.

    Defeating Islamic State” is far too simplistic for a regional strategy. And who can really afford that?




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    Stopping ISIS: Follow the Money

    November 17, 2015 // 10 Comments »

    ISIS-Oil

    Wars are expensive. The recruitment and sustainment of fighters in the field, the ongoing purchases of weapons and munitions, as well as the myriad other costs of struggle, add up.

    So why isn’t the United States going after Islamic State’s funding sources as a way of lessening or eliminating their strength at making war? Follow the money back, cut it off, and you strike a blow much more devastating than an airstrike. But that has not happened. Why?


    Donations

    Many have long held that Sunni terror groups, ISIS now and al Qaeda before them, are funded via Gulf States, such as Saudi Arabia, who are also long-time American allies. Direct links are difficult to prove, particularly if the United States chooses not to prove them. The issue is exacerbated by suggestions that the money comes from “donors,” not directly from national treasuries, and may be routed through legitimate charitable organizations or front companies.

    In fact, one person concerned about Saudi funding was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who warned in a 2009 message on Wikileaks that donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

    At the G20, Russian President Vladimir Putin said out loud what has otherwise not been publicly discussed much in public. He announced that he has shared intelligence with the other G20 member states which reveals 40 countries from which ISIS finances the majority of its terrorist activities. The list reportedly included a number of G20 countries.

    Putin’s list of funders has not been made public. The G20, however, include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the European Union.



    Oil

    One source of income for ISIS is and has robustly been oil sales. In the early days of the air campaign, American officials made a point to say that the Islamic State’s oil drilling assets were high on the target list. Yet few sites have actually been targeted. A Pentagon spokesperson explained that the coalition has actually been trying to spare some of ISIS’s largest oil producing facilities, “recognizing that they remain the property of the Syrian people,” and to limit collateral damage to civilians nearby.

    The U.S. only this week began a slightly more aggressive approach toward the oil, albeit bombing tanker trucks, not the infrastructure behind them. The trucks were destroyed at the Abu Kamal oil collection point, near the Iraqi border.

    Conservative estimates are that Islamic State takes in one to two million dollars a day from oil sales; some see the number as high as four million a day. As recently as February, however, the Pentagon claimed oil was no longer ISIS’ main way to raise money, having been bypassed by those “donations” from unspecified sources, and smuggling.


    Turkey

    One of the issues with selling oil, by anyone, including ISIS, is bringing the stuff to market. Oil must be taken from the ground using heavy equipment, possibly refined, stored, loaded into trucks or pipelines, moved somewhere and then sold into the worldwide market. Large amounts of money must be exchanged, and one to four million dollars a day is a lot of cash to deal with on a daily basis. It may be that some sort of electronic transactions that have somehow to date eluded the United States are involved.

    Interestingly, The Guardian reported a U.S.-led raid on the compound housing the Islamic State’s chief financial officer produced evidence that Turkish officials directly dealt with ranking ISIS members, including the ISIS officer responsible for directing the terror army’s oil and gas operations in Syria.

    Turkey’s “open door policy,” in which it allowed its southern border to serve as an unofficial transit point in and out of Syria, has been said to be one of ISIS’ main routes for getting their oil to market. A Turkish apologist claimed the oil is moved only via small-diameter plastic irrigation pipes, and is thus hard to monitor.

    A smuggled barrel of oil is sold for about $50 on the black market. This means “>several million dollars a day worth of oil would require a very large number of very small pipes.

    Others believe Turkish and Iraqi oil buyers travel into Syria with their own trucks, and purchase the ISIS oil right at the refineries, transporting themselves out of Syria. Convoys of trucks are easy to spot from the air, and easy to destroy from the air, though up until now the U.S. does not seem to have done so.



    So as is said, ISIS’ sources of funding grow curious and curiouser the more one knows. Those seeking to destroy ISIS might well wish to look into where the money comes from, and ask why, after a year and three months of war, no one has bothered to follow the money.

    And cut it off.




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    Paris: You Don’t Want to Read This

    November 14, 2015 // 93 Comments »

    paris

    You don’t want to read this, and I take no pleasure in writing it, and no one really wants to hear it right now. But I believe it needs to be said.


    I join the world in grieving for the dead in Paris. I have grieved for the dead from 9/11 forward — the Australians who died in terror attacks on Bali in 2002, Londoners who died in terror attacks in 2005, the French citizens who died in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year, the Russians whose plane went down over the Sinai a week or so ago. So many more non-Western deaths barely noticed in the U.S. media. I grieve also for those killed in smaller attacks already smuggled deep into the obscurity of our memory.

    And so we Tweet hashtags and phrases in high school French and post GIFs to Facebook. We know what to do; we’ve done this before.

    But it has to be said, especially looking at the sick repetition of the same story, that despite fourteen plus years of a war on terror, terror seems to be with us as much as ever, maybe even more. It is time to rethink what we have done and are doing.


    Since that day in 2001, the one with those terrible sparkling blue skies in New York, we have spied on the world, Americans at home and foreigners abroad, yet no one detected anything that stopped the Paris attacks. We gave up much to that spying and got nothing in return.

    Since 2001, the United States has led nations like Britain, France, Australia and others into wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, with drone attacks on people from the Philippines to Pakistan to all parts of Africa. We have little to nothing to show for all that.

    Since 2001 the U.S. has expended enormous efforts to kill a handful of men — bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, al-Awlaki, and this weekend, Jihadi John. Others, many without names, were killed outside of media attention, or were tortured to death, or are still rotting in the offshore penal colony of Guantanamo, or the dark hell of the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.

    And it has not worked, and Paris this weekend, and the next one somewhere else sometime soon, are the proof.


    We gave up many of our freedoms in America to defeat the terrorists. It did not work. We gave the lives of over 4,000 American men and women in Iraq, and thousands more in Afghanistan, to defeat the terrorists, and refuse to ask what they died for. We killed tens of thousands or more in those countries. It did not work. We went to war again in Iraq, and now in Syria, before in Libya, and only created more failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide havens for terrorists and spilled terror like dropped paint across borders. We harass and discriminate against our own Muslim populations and then stand slack-jawed as they become radicalized, and all we do then is blame ISIS for Tweeting.

    Note that it is the strategy of Islamic terror to generate a crackdown in France in order to radicalise French Muslims. Hundreds of French citizens have already traveled to Syria to fight with groups including ISIS.

    As one of the most intelligent commentators on all this, Bill Johnson, said, terrorism is about killing pawns to affect the king. The attacks in Paris are not about the murder of 150 innocent people. Hell, that many die nearly every day in Iraq and Syria. The true test for France is how they respond to the terror attacks in the long-game — that’s the king in all this. America failed this test post-9/11; yet it does not sound like France understands anything more than America. “We are going to lead a war which will be pitiless,” French president Hollande said outside the Bataclan concert hall, scene of the most bloodshed.


    If I had exactly the right strategy, I’d tell you what it is, and I’d try and tell the people in Washington and Paris and everywhere else. But I don’t have the exact thing to do, and I doubt they’d listen to me anyway.

    But I do have this: stop what we have been doing for the last 14 years. It has not worked. There is nothing at all to suggest it ever will work. Whack-a-mole is a game, not a plan. Leave the Middle East alone. Stop creating more failed states. Stop throwing away our freedoms at home on falsehoods. Stop disenfranchising the Muslims who live with us. Understand the war, such as it is, is against a set of ideas — religious, anti-western, anti-imperialist — and you cannot bomb an idea. Putting western soldiers on the ground in the MidEast and western planes overhead fans the flames. Vengeance does not and cannot extinguish an idea.

    Start with those things and see, even if you won’t give it 14 years to succeed, if things improve. Other than the death tolls scaling up further, I can’t imagine we could be doing anything worse.




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    Who Benefits from the Tragedy? Tour Sales from Russia to Egypt Down 70 Percent

    November 9, 2015 // 2 Comments »

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    One of the most basic precepts of detective work is always to first ask, “who benefits from a crime (cui bono)?” That answer will often point you toward your perp, and his motive.

    With the downing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai, departing one Egyptian airport bound for another, a full list of who might benefit from the tragedy is long. Depending on your politics, some of these that seem like conspiracy theories to you will be likely culprits to others:

    — the U.S. could benefit by inflaming feelings worldwide about ISIS, reinforcing the narrative of how evil they are;

    — the U.S. could also benefit by sending a message to the Russians that they have chosen to play inside a dangerous sandbox;

    — the Russians could benefit by enraging their own people, prepping them for a longer fight in the region;

    — Chechnyan terrorists could benefit by carrying on their war against Russia, having found a security weak spot inside Egypt;

    But it is ISIS, or another of the radical Muslim terror groups at war with the pro-U.S. thugs now running Egypt, that seem to benefit the most. The downing of the airplane has hit tourism to Egypt very hard, a painful blow to an unpopular government given that tourism brings in $11 billion of revenue and employs 12 percent of the Egyptian workforce. This is a clearly destabilizing situation.

    And that’s just tourism in general in Egypt. The choice to down a Russian airplane does not seem random. Egypt is the most world’s most popular warm weather holiday spot for Russians. In the first half of 2015, over one million Russians visited the country, many to the same resort area from which the doomed plane departed. A clear signal was sent: Russians (and your money) stay away.

    It seems to be working. According to the New York Times, bookings from Russia to Egypt fell 70 percent overall in the aftermath of the Metrojet plane crash. Before the crash, more than 25 flights travelled from Egypt to Russia every day. To give you a better idea of the scope of tourism, suspension of scheduled service has stranded more than 45,000 Russians in Egypt.

    So perhaps there is more than a little validity to the idea that ISIS, or another radical Muslim group, is behind the downing of the Russian plane. But not for the crude narrative reasons the United States and Britain are pushing out. This is more about Egypt than anything else, and the real weapon being used is tourism dollars (rubles?)




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    What If They Gave a War and Everyone Came?

    November 3, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    army

    What if the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003? How would things be different in the Middle East today? Was Iraq, in the words of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the “worst foreign policy blunder” in American history?

    Let’s take a big-picture tour of the Middle East and try to answer those questions. But first, a request: after each paragraph that follows, could you make sure to add the question “What could possibly go wrong?”


    Let the History Begin

    In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, the region, though simmering as ever, looked like this: Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, formally becoming president in 1979; the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire; and Yemen was quiet enough, other than the terror attack on the USS Cole in 2000. Relations between the U.S. and most of these nations were so warm that Washington was routinely rendering “terrorists” to their dungeons for some outsourced torture.

    Soon after March 2003, when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, neighboring Iran faced two American armies at the peak of their strength. To the east, the U.S. military had effectively destroyed the Taliban and significantly weakened al-Qaeda, both enemies of Iran, but had replaced them as an occupying force. To the west, Iran’s decades-old enemy, Saddam, was gone, but similarly replaced by another massive occupying force. From this position of weakness, Iran’s leaders, no doubt terrified that the Americans would pour across its borders, sought real diplomatic rapprochement with Washington for the first time since 1979. The Iranian efforts were rebuffed by the Bush administration.


    The Precipitating Event

    Nailing down causation is a tricky thing. But like the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that kicked off the Great War, the one to end all others, America’s 2003 invasion was what novelists refer to as “the precipitating event,” the thing that may not actively cause every plot twist to come, but that certainly sets them in motion.

    There hadn’t been such an upset in the balance of power in the Middle East since, well, World War I, when Great Britain and France secretly reached the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which, among other things, divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Because the national boundaries created then did not respect on-the-ground tribal, political, ethnic, and religious realities, they could be said to have set the stage for much that was to come.

    Now, fast forward to 2003, as the Middle East we had come to know began to unravel. Those U.S. troops had rolled into Baghdad only to find themselves standing there, slack-jawed, gazing at the chaos. Now, fast forward one more time to 2015 and let the grand tour of the unraveling begin!


    The Sick Men of the Middle East: It’s easy enough to hustle through three countries in the region in various states of decay before heading into the heart of the chaos: Libya is a failed state, bleeding mayhem into northern Africa; Egypt failed its Arab Spring test and relies on the United States to support its anti-democratic (as well as anti-Islamic fundamentalist) militarized government; and Yemen is a disastrously failed state, now the scene of a proxy war between U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels (with a thriving al-Qaeda outfit and a small but growing arm of the Islamic State [ISIS] thrown into the bargain).


    Iraq: Obama is now the fourth American president in a row to have ordered the bombing of Iraq and his successor will almost certainly be the fifth. If ever a post-Vietnam American adventure deserved to inherit the moniker of quagmire, Iraq is it.

    And here’s the saddest part of the tale: the forces loosed there in 2003 have yet to reach their natural end point. Your money should be on the Shias, but imagining that there is only one Shia horse to bet on means missing just how broad the field really is. What passes for a Shia “government” in Baghdad today is a collection of interest groups, each with its own militia. Having replaced the old strongman prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, with a weak one, Haider al-Abadi, and with ISIS chased from the gates of Baghdad, each Shia faction is now free to jockey for position. The full impact of the cleaving of Iraq has yet to be felt. At some point expect a civil war inside a civil war.


    Iran: If there is any unifying authority left in Iraq, it is Iran. After the initial 2003 blitzkrieg, the Bush administration’s version of neocolonial management in Iraq resulted in the rise of Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and an influx of determined foreign fighters. Tehran rushed into the power vacuum, and, in 2011, in an agreement brokered by the departing Bush administration and carried out by President Obama, the Americans ran for the exits. The Iranians stayed. Now, they have entered an odd-couple marriage with the U.S. against what Washington pretends is a common foe — ISIS — but which the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad see as a war against the Sunnis in general. At this point, Washington has all but ceded Iraq to the new Persian Empire; everyone is just waiting for the paperwork to clear.

    The Iranians continue to meddle in Syria as well, supporting Bashar al-Assad. Under Russian air cover, Iran is increasing its troop presence there, too. According to a recent report, Tehran is sending 2,000 troops to Syria, along with 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan Shia fighters. Perhaps they’re already calling it “the Surge” in Farsi.


    The Kurds: The idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million angry Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    That American invasion of 2003, however, opened the way for the Kurds to form a virtual independent statelet, a confederacy if you will, even if still confined within Iraq’s borders. At the time, the Kurds were labeled America’s only true friends in Iraq and rewarded with many weapons and much looking the other way, even as Bush administration officials blathered on about the goal of a united Iraq.

    In 2014, the Kurds benefited from U.S. power a second time. Desperate for someone to fight ISIS after Iraq’s American-trained army turned tail (and before the Iranians and the Shia militias entered the fight in significant force), the Obama administration once again began sending arms and equipment to the Kurds while flying close air support for their militia, the peshmerga. The Kurds responded by fighting well, at least in what they considered the Kurdish part of Iraq. However, their interest in getting involved in the greater Sunni-Shia civil war was minimal. In a good turn for them, the U.S. military helped Kurdish forces move into northern Syria, right along the Turkish border. While fighting ISIS, the Kurds also began retaking territory they traditionally considered their own. They may yet be the true winners in all this, unless Turkey stands in their way.


    Turkey: Relations between the Turks and the Kurds have never been rosy, both inside Turkey and along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

    Inside Turkey, the primary Kurdish group calling for an independent state is the Kurdistan Workers party (also known as the PKK). Its first insurgency ran from 1984 until 1999, when the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire. The armed conflict broke out again in 2004, ending in a ceasefire in 2013, which was, in turn, broken recently. Over the years, the Turkish military also carried out repeated ground incursions and artillery strikes against the PKK inside Iraq.

    As for ISIS, the Turks long had a kind of one-way “open-door policy” on their border with Syria, allowing Islamic State fighters and foreign volunteers to transit into that country. ISIS also brokered significant amounts of black market oil in Turkey to fund itself, perhaps with the tacit support, or at least the willful ignorance, of the Turkish authorities. While the Turks claimed to see ISIS as an anti-Assad force, some felt Turkey’s generous stance toward the movement reflected the government’s preference for having anything but an expanded Kurdish presence on its border. In June of this year, Turkish President Recep Erdogan went as far as to say that he would “never allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Syria.”

    In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that early Obama administration efforts to draw Turkey into the fight against ISIS were unsuccessful. Things changed in August 2015, when a supposedly anti-ISIS cooperation deal was reached with Washington. The Turks agreed to allow the Americans to fly strike missions from two air bases in Turkey against ISIS in Syria. However, there appeared to be an unpublicized quid pro quo: the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish military action against its allies the Kurds. On the same day that Turkey announced that it would fight the Islamic State in earnest, it also began an air campaign against the PKK.

    Washington, for its part, claimed that it had been “tricked” by the wily Turks, while adding, “We fully respect our ally Turkey’s right to self-defense.” In the process, the Kurds found themselves supported by the U.S. in the struggle with ISIS, even as they were being thrown to the (Turkish) wolves. There is a Kurdish expression suggesting that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Should they ever achieve a trans-border Kurdistan, they will certainly have earned it.


    Syria: Through a series of events almost impossible to sort out, having essentially supported the Arab Spring nowhere else, the Obama administration chose to do so in Syria, attempting to use it to turn President Bashar al-Assad out of office. In the process, the Obama administration found itself ever deeper in a conflict it couldn’t control and eternally in search of that unicorn, the moderate Syrian rebel who could be trained to push Assad out without allowing Islamic fundamentalists in. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda spin-offs, including the Islamic State, found haven in the dissolving borderlands between Iraq and Syria, and in that country’s Sunni heartlands.

    An indecisive Barack Obama allowed America’s involvement in Syria to ebb and flow. In September 2013, on the verge of a massive strike against the forces of the Assad regime, Obama suddenly punted the decision to Congress, which, of course, proved capable of deciding nothing at all. In November 2013, again on the verge of attacking Syria, the president allowed himself to be talked down after a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to Russian diplomatic intercession. In September 2014, in a relatively sudden reversal, Obama launched a war against ISIS in Syria, which has proved at best indecisive.


    Russia: That brings us to Vladimir Putin, the Syrian game-changer of the moment. In September, the Russian president sent a small but powerful military force into a neglected airfield in Latakia, Syria. With “fighting ISIS” little more than their cover story, the Russians are now serving as Assad’s air force, as well as his chief weapons supplier and possible source of “volunteer” soldiers. 

    The thing that matters most, however, is those Russian planes. They have essentially been given a guarantee of immunity to being shot down by the more powerful U.S. Air Force presence in the region (as Washington has nothing to gain and much to worry about when it comes to entering into open conflict with the Russians). That allows them near-impunity to strike when and where they wish in support of whom they wish. It also negates any chance of the U.S. setting up a no-fly zone in parts of Syria.

    The Russians have little incentive to depart, given the free pass handed them by the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the Russian military is growing closer to the Iranians with whom they share common cause in Syria, and also the Shia government in Baghdad, which may soon invite them to join the fight there against ISIS. One can almost hear Putin chortling. He may not, in fact, be the most skilled strategist in the world, but he’s certainly the luckiest. When someone hands you the keys, you take the car.


    World War I

    As in imperial Europe in the period leading up to the First World War, the collapse of an entire order in the Middle East is in process, while forces long held in check are being released. In response, the former superpowers of the Cold War era have once again mobilized, at least modestly, even though both are fearful of a spark that could push them into direct conflict. Each has entangling regional relationships that could easily exacerbate the fight: Russia with Syria, the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and Israel, plus NATO obligations to Turkey. (The Russians have already probed Turkish airspace and the Turks recently shot down a drone coyly labeled of “unknown origin.”)

    Imagine a scenario that pulls any of those allies deeper into the mess: some Iranian move in Syria, which prompts a response by Israel in the Golan Heights, which prompts a Russian move in relation to Turkey, which prompts a call to NATO for help… you get the picture. Or imagine another scenario: with nearly every candidate running for president in the United States growling about the chance to confront Putin, what would happen if the Russians accidentally shot down an American plane? Could Obama resist calls for retaliation?

    As before World War I, the risk of setting something in motion that can’t be stopped does exist.


    What Is This All About Again?

    What if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Things would undoubtedly be very different in the Middle East today. America’s war in Afghanistan was unlikely to have been a big enough spark to set off the range of changes Iraq let loose. There were only some 10,000 America soldiers in Afghanistan in 2003 (5,200 in 2002) and there had not been any Abu Ghraib-like indiscriminate torture, no equivalent to the scorched earth policy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, nothing to spark a trans-border Sunni-Shia-Kurd struggle, no room for Iran to meddle. The Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, but they were not killing Arabs, and they were not occupying Arab lands.

    The invasion of Iraq, however, did happen. Now, some 12 years later, the most troubling thing about the current war in the Middle East, from an American perspective, is that no one here really knows why the country is still fighting. The commonly stated reason — “defeat ISIS” — is hardly either convincing or self-explanatory. Defeat ISIS why?

    The best Washington can come up with are the same vague threats of terrorism against the homeland that have fueled its disastrous wars since 9/11. The White House can stipulate that Assad is a bad guy and that the ISIS crew are really, really bad guys, but bad guys are hardly in short supply, including in countries the U.S. supports. In reality, the U.S. has few clear goals in the region, but is escalating anyway.

    Whatever world order the U.S. may be fighting for in the Middle East, it seems at least an empire or two out of date. Washington refuses to admit to itself that the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism resonate with vast numbers of people. At this point, even as U.S. TOW missiles are becoming as ubiquitous as iPads in the region, American military power can only delay changes, not stop them. Unless a rebalancing of power that would likely favor some version of Islamic fundamentalism takes hold and creates some measure of stability in the Middle East, count on one thing: the U.S. will be fighting the sons of ISIS years from now.

    Back to World War I. The last time Russia and the U.S. both had a powerful presence in the Middle East, the fate of their proxies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War almost brought on a nuclear exchange. No one is predicting a world war or a nuclear war from the mess in Syria. However, like those final days before the Great War, one finds a lot of pieces in play inside a tinderbox.


    Now, all together: What could possibly go wrong?




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    UK Unveils Latest Plans Destined to Fail in Fight Against Extremism in Young Muslims

    November 2, 2015 // 4 Comments »

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    UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced new plans to address the radicalization of young British Muslims, including measures to withdraw the passports of those believed to be at risk of joining jihadist groups abroad.

    As part of a strategy to tackle extremism, parents will be able to ask the government to seize the passports of 16- and 17-year-olds thought to be considering travel to Syria and Iraq. British parents can already request the cancellation of passports of those under 16. Another measure will ensure that anyone with a conviction for a “terrorist crime or extremist activity” will automatically be barred from working with children or other people regarded as vulnerable.

    Cameron’s critics worry that the new measures may be seen as heavy-handed and exacerbate the sense of alienation and resentment among young British Muslims, which is itself a driver of radicalization.


    Left unsaid is any tally of exactly how many 16- and 17-year-olds have traveled to join ISIS, the practicality of knowing where they are going since most would-be jihadis travel via a circuitous route, and the question of what happens to the 18-99-year-olds who want to join up. The vagueness of what constitutes a “terrorist crime or extremist activity” and who the hell are “other people regarded as vulnerable” is noted.

    Doubling down, Cameron described the battle against terrorism as the struggle of his generation. He is also expected to restate the case for expanding Britain’s laws on electronic surveillance, because why not throw that in while you’re on a roll.


    Apart from a natural desire to expand fascism, grow government power and try and tie himself to things like surviving WWII, an actual struggle of a generation, what might be driving Cameron (as well as his contemporaries in the U.S., who are frothing over similar ideas)?

    Simply this: pointless, knee-jerk reactions and security theatre are a whole lot easier to sell to the average frightened citizen than the idea that their safety actually depends on foreign policies that do not inspire rage and hatred in very large numbers of people.




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    Tell Us Why We’re At War in Iraq Again, Mr. President

    October 30, 2015 // 18 Comments »

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    When I was a kid, three presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.

    I was a teenager during the Cold War, and several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, invade Cuba, fight in odd little places and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.

    When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.

    The next president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.


    The one after him told us that because a group of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there. But we believed. It was a lie.

    After that we were told that Saddam Hussein threatened every one of us with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.

    In 2011 the president and his secretary of state told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.

    In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple act of humanness that only the United States could conduct, and then leave. We believed. It was a lie.

    Now we are told by that same president that Americans will again fight on the ground in Iraq, and Syria, and that Americans have and will die. He says that this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland.


    We want to believe, Mr. President. We want to know it is not a lie.

    So please address us, explain why what you are doing in Iraq is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time — because history says you lie.




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    U.S. to Iraq: If Russia Helps You Fight ISIS, We Won’t

    October 28, 2015 // 5 Comments »

    obama-mission-accomplished

    This. Is. Hilarious.

    Honestly, I can’t stop laughing. I gotta wipe the tears out of my eyes, seriously. I feel like I need to start including the line “This is real. It is not from the Onion” as a standard disclaimer.



    But They Promised

    So it seems the U.S. has told Iraq’s leaders they must choose between American support against Islamic State and Russian support. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqis “promised” they would not request any Russian airstrikes or support for the fight against IS.

    Dunford told reporters he had laid out a choice when he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. “I said it would make it very difficult for us to be able to provide the kind of support you need if the Russians were here conducting operations as well,” Dunford said. “We can’t conduct operations if the Russians were operating in Iraq right now.”

    He said there was “angst” in the U.S. when reports surfaced that al-Abadi had said he would welcome Russian airstrikes in Iraq. The U.S., Dunford said, “can’t have a relationship right now with Russia in the context of Iraq.”



    And Now, We Laugh

    We begin laughing in that the U.S. does not seem to have any problems with the Iranians (who are also active in Syria, supporting Assad) working out in Iraq. The Iranians overtly have special forces, leadership and trainers on the ground there, have sent in armor and by many accounts supplied limited numbers of ground troops. But that seems to be OK.

    The hilarity continues because the U.S. sort of started off welcoming the Russians into the fight against IS in Syria, at least until the U.S. realized it had been played by Putin, and that the Russians in fact did not share American goals (who would have thought it?) and instead supported Assad. I mean, Russia has been Assad’s only supporter, ally, and benefactor for decades, and the Russians maintained their only remaining overseas military base in Syria since forever, so it made perfect sense for the U.S. to believe they would not side with Assad, right?

    It is even funnier when you realize the U.S. has no real goals or business left in Iraq, except now to have hissy fits to make sure that it is Iran that retains defacto control there instead of the Russians.

    And of course, since the Iraqis “promised” not to take Russian help, well, that makes it a done deal, right?

    Plus if the Russians did step in, what would the U.S. really do? Pack everything up in Iraq and just come home? Leave the Russians to guard the American Embassy? Hah, as if the U.S. would just leave Iraq.

    But the true amusement is that if the Iraqis want the Russians to help — maybe as “volunteers” — there is not a damn thing the U.S. can do about that, other than move aside, as is happening in Syria.


    Seriously, this is what’s left of American foreign policy?




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    About That Delta Force Guy Killed in Iraq…

    October 27, 2015 // 23 Comments »

    joshua-wheeler-600x400

    The United States does not formally acknowledge the existence of Delta Force, and rarely mentions the names of any of its members, even after they leave the service.

    Unlike the SEALs, who seem to be prolific writers, Delta operators keep to themselves. Most of the unit’s actions abroad are never mentioned publicly, and when an operator is killed in combat, often the death goes unmentioned in the press, or attributed sometime later to a training accident.

    So the very public attention given at the highest levels in Washington to the combat death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was more than a little significant.

    Wheeler was not only acknowledged as having fought with Delta, but his photo was widely published. That in itself is usually a no-no, for fear of linking him to others and outing active duty Delta. His place of death, on the ground, deep inside Iraq, on a strike mission, was explicit, with only a little b.s. thrown in about how Delta was present to provide security for the Kurdish raiding forces seeking to free some hostages. Well, well, nobody in their right mind believes America’s finest special forces are sent out to provide security for a bunch of gussied up militiamen.

    That all within the context that the president of the United States has made it explicit that his war against Islamic State would not involve any American “boots on the ground.” Well, Sergeant Wheeler most definitely was an example of boots on the ground. There were an awful lot of reasons to have said nothing about Wheeler, and instead much has been said.



    So why all the public attention to Wheeler’s death, and why now?

    One reason stands out: we, the public, are being readied for a larger U.S. combat role in Iraq and Syria, one big enough that it will be hard to keep hidden.

    The circumstances of Wheeler’s death are picture perfect for such a plan. He was a revered hero simply by the nature of the unit he served with. He was fighting with about the only competent and pro-American force left in the Middle East, the Kurds. He was fighting the most evil enemy of America (for now), Islamic State. He was on a successful rescue mission; hostages were freed, prisoners released, some IS bad guys dispatched. And the whole thing was conveniently videotaped — a videotaped special forces raid. How often do you see that? You don’t.


    The whole could not be more palatable to an American public perhaps just a little bit weary of war in the Middle East.

    Now hear this: in an “exclusive,” meaning the entire story was handed intact to a single reporter to jot down and print, The Hill reports “top leaders at the Pentagon are considering a range of options to bolster the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including embedding some U.S. troops with Iraqi forces… A second option sent to Pentagon leaders would embed U.S. forces with Iraqis closer to the battlefield, at the level of a brigade or a battalion. Some of the options sent to Pentagon leaders would entail high risk for U.S. troops in Iraq and require more personnel.”


    Timing? Couldn’t be better. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine General Joseph Dunford (himself just back from Iraq) will discuss the options when they testify today, October 27, in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee. They will no doubt raise Wheeler’s name.

    I don’t like to traffic in conspiracy theories, but if you can put these pieces together in another way without having to use the word “coincidence” a couple of times, I’d be interesting in what you have to say. Otherwise, hang on, the United States is doubling down in the quagmire of Iraq. Again.




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    Merci, and Good Riddance – Canada Withdrawing Fighter Jets from Iraq, Syria

    October 26, 2015 // 3 Comments »

    justin

    America’s presidential candidates go on TV and brag about killing a man with their own hands (one guy) and froth over the idea of starting even more wars (all the others.) In Canada, they get a supermodel as their new king, who speaks French, looks like a young Matthew McConaughey, and who tells America to shove its stupid wars up its overweight *ss.

    Canada’s prime minister-elect, Justin Trudeau, pictured looking fabulous, said Tuesday he told Barack Obama that Canadian fighter jets would withdraw from fighting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

    Western nations only go to war when coerced by the United States in joining some coalition. No other nation on the planet makes war as often and as unsuccessfully as the United States. No other nation makes war its business.

    So you can imagine the huge hassle it is for Canada to have to suck up to its war-loving, gluten-free neighbor to the south, tossing in a few planes or troops whenever America has another hissy fit and has to invade somewhere. Canada famously refused to be sucked into the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example (though did play in Afghanistan.)

    Quick question: what about Mexico? They also share a border and NAFTA with America, plus America graciously buys up 99 percent of its dope crop, and thus has the same need to suck up, but they also always seem to duck these war calls. Hmmm.

    Anyway, Trudeau said “while Canada remains a strong member of the coalition against ISIL,” he made clear to Obama “the commitments I have made around ending the combat mission.”

    It was not immediately clear if Trudeau added “you warmongering bastard” and/or said he’d nail Michelle with his old man’s “moves like Jagger” at the next state dinner.

    Oh Canada!



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    Obama to Solve Syrian Refugee Problem with Kickstarter

    October 16, 2015 // 6 Comments »

    kickstarter


    If ever tragedy descended into sick comedy, here it is: Obama plans on solving the massive humanitarian refugee crisis in the Middle East via a Kickstarter campaign.

    I’m not kidding, though one can easily see the headline above on an Onion story.


    The U.S. government’s war in Iraq and Syria has already cost American taxpayers between $780 and $930 million, and could amount to over one billion dollars a month if U.S. efforts intensify on the scale demanded by many Congress. The wars are directly responsible for the flow of refugees out of the Middle East into Europe.

    But don’t worry. Obama is ready to help, but he wants you to pay for it. And no, not just with tax dollars. He wants you to pony up additional money via Kickstarter. The White House says “This isn’t just about what a government can do. It’s about what every single one of us — as a citizen, a company, or an organization — can do to make sure that those displaced or impacted by this crisis have everything they need to survive and find safe haven.”

    Also, and this is huge, Obama wants you to “Get involved: Spread the word using #AidRefugees on social media.” Because nothing can help people without food, water and in need of medical care better than knowing suburban Americans and privileged college kids are putting up hashtags. Here, kid, eat this Tweet.

    “We have a moral responsibility to do what we can for families forced from their homes,” Obama said about the crowdfunding campaign, in a cheerleader-in-chief effort to get people to donate to the crisis.


    As of this writing the Kickstarter campaign has yielded about $1.2 million, about the cost one a couple of bombs dropped on Syria or Iraq during time you’ve spent reading this.

    Over four million people are registered refugees. So the Kickstarter money works out to about 25 cents per person, Here, kid, eat this quarter.

    Lame and sad as all that is, the lamest and saddest thing is not that the U.S. government wants us to pay for this like it was some new dot com startup, but that the U.S. government knows damn well that what the refugees need more than anything is something money can’t buy: a safe place to immigrate to.

    As of September 2015, the U.S. had only accepted 1,500 Syrian refugees.


    Feel good yet about that $20 you just put on your credit card over at Kickstarter yet?



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    Confused About Syria and Iraq

    October 5, 2015 // 12 Comments »

    vintage-man-confused


    Why exactly again is the U.S. at war in Syria and Iraq? Here’s a potpourri of fun things.


    I heard it was something to do with Islamic State, a bunch of guys who have never done anything outside their own neighborhood but who we are afraid will strike inside the United States at any moment.

    They’ve never done that, anywhere, and seem to have their hands full in Syria and Iraq, plus most of their heavy weapons seem to come from American allies handing our stuff over to them. It is almost as if by elevating them to Bond-villain status they are able to use that notoriety to recruit more fighters.

    And of course to strike inside the U.S. ISIS would need to get in line behind our own mass shooters.

    We’re no longer really even giving lip service to saving Iraq, so why are we fighting over there?


    Now in Syria a couple of years ago we started our war there because Assad was butchering his own people, what with the barrel bombs and the chemical weapons and such. Well, we’ve shown him. He is no longer butchering his own people, others are. Currently the U.S., Russia, Turkey, UAE, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France and Jordan are bombing Syria.

    Also, the war to save the Syrians from their dictator has killed 250,000 people since March 2011 and sent millions of refugees fleeing to other countries in the Middle East and to Europe.



    Maybe I could check with the Iranians. They, too, are fighting in Iraq, but in order to maintain control over the Shiite government as their proxy, and to push aside or wipe out the Sunnis, all in contravention of American goals, except America is helping the Iranians because they are also killing them some ISIS.

    The Iranians are also fighting in Syria, on Assad’s side allied with the Russians. We help the Iranians in Iraq, but not in Syria.


    Now the Saudis, they know where they stand. They do sometimes do a little tiny bit of bombing stuff in Syria, and especially in Yemen, probably Islamic State, but who knows, because they live in literal terror about terrorism sweeping away their repressive monarchy. The Saudis are also bombing Syria because the Saudis are one of America’s closest allies in the region.

    Except that donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide. In fact, Hillary Clinton even said so, in a Wikileaks document from 2009 classified as secret, where she admonished her diplomats that “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups.”

    Oh, also, the Saudis may have helped fund 9/11. See, there was this disagreement between the secular monarchy and the religious side of the Kingdom, that resulted in Islamic religious zealots being assigned into Saudi embassies worldwide as part of the balancing act/compromise, including in the U.S. Some of those “diplomats” collected donations from within the Kingdom and funneled them to extremists in the the U.S. and elsewhere, such as the 9/11 guys. I heard.


    Also, we’re bombing hospitals and killing doctors in Afghanistan, apparently to prove the axiom that when we do it it’s an accident and when they do it it’s barbaric terrorism.


    Anyway, if anyone can straighten me out on all this, please, I need your help. Thanks!



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    America’s Response to the Middle East Refugee Crisis? Buried in Empty Rhetoric

    October 2, 2015 // 8 Comments »




    As the Middle East refugee crisis enters its fifth year, a single image of a child dead on a beach serves as its symbol. Yep, we’re gonna look at that kid again.


    But why is it that those that create refugees are the least likely to help them? The answer lies in empty rhetoric from those who begin America’s wars in the region under the guise of humanitarian intervention itself.

    A searing image of a refugee child lying dead on a beach finally alerted the world to a crisis now entering its fifth year. Awareness is never bad, but here it too easily bypasses the question of where all the refugees come from, in favor of a simpler meme. One is reminded of Malala, one story that pushes aside millions.


    Such narratives bait a familiar trap: the need to “do something.” That “something” in the Middle East is often the clumsy hand of military intervention under the thin cover of humanitarian rhetoric. Cries answered that way have a terrible history of exacerbating a problem they ostensibly set out to solve.

    The scope of the problem is staggering. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than three million Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Inside Syria itself, over 17 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including those internally displaced. Only 350,000 Syrians are estimated to have traveled to Europe. They are the ones you see on television.

    In Iraq, some 1.8 million people were displaced between January and September 2014, a declared United Nations emergency, and Iraqis are currently the second-largest refugee group in the world. Yet even now the New York Times speaks of a “new wave” of Iraqi refugees, driven in part by “years of violence and unmet promises for democracy by a corrupt political elite.”

    The situation in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere is much the same.


    There is a common denominator behind all of these refugee flows: they are, in whole or in part, the product of American “humanitarian interventions.”

    In 2003, President George W. Bush declared the goals of the United States in invading Iraq included freeing its people. In case that was not clear enough, in 2007 Bush proclaimed the American military the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Yet by 2007 the number of displaced persons in Iraq had grown by some 50%.

    President Barack Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014, when he revived the United States’ war in Iraq in response to a “humanitarian crisis that could turn into a genocide” for the Yazidi people. “One Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said at the time. “Well, today America is coming to help.” A senior administration official went on to explicitly describe the action as a humanitarian effort.

    Some 5,000 airstrikes later, that humanitarian effort is now a bloody war with Islamic State, metastasized across multiple nations, exacerbating the refugee flow. For the Yazidis, long-forgotten by Americans as the no longer needed casus belli, the war enveloped them in Islamic State’s slave trade.

    The conflict in Syria remains connected to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, in the form of militarized Sunnis, the elimination of any effective border between Iraq and Syria and, of course, Islamic State, birthed in the Iraqi sectarian conflict. American intervention in Syria ratcheted up seemingly on a schedule, all around the theme of saving the Syrian people from their dictator, Bashar al-Assad (similarities to George W. Bush’s 2003 wording in reference to Saddam Hussein are noted.)

    After it appeared Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, it was American Secretary of State John Kerry who insisted that it was “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” Airstrikes were forestalled for a time, then popped up in 2014 aimed not at Assad, but at Islamic State. Chaos has gone on to drawn numerous foreign powers into the conflict.

    With Libya in 2011, there was again a “humanitarian effort,” lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton sold intervention as a necessity: “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled. The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” That “doing something” helped push Libya into failed state status, feeding the refugee flow and bleeding conflict into neighboring countries.


    It is foolish to claim the United States alone “caused” all of these refugee flows; multiple factors, including the aggressiveness of Islamic State, are in play. But it would be equally foolish to ignore American culpability, directly in Iraq and in Libya, and via arms flows and the fanning of flames, in Syria and Yemen. The common element is a stated intent to make things better. The common result is the opposite.

    To many, particularly outside the United States, political rhetoric is just the aural garbage of imperialism. But inside the United States, military “humanitarian” intervention generally enjoys robust support. It may look like a shoddy product to some, but people continue to buy it, and thus it continues to happen. Politicians seem to know how to feed the public’s demands to “do something” triggered by an emotional photograph for their own purposes.

    There exists an inverse relationship between those that create refugees and those who help them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted only 1,500, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.

    But that was then, pre-photo.


    Post-photo, with no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”

    Right on schedule following Kerry’s remarks, President Obama promised, per the New York Times headline, to “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.” With the problem seemingly solved, albeit only 10,000 out of millions, the plight of the refugees disappeared from America’s front pages.

    Left unsaid was the emptiness of even such non-military humanitarian rhetoric. President Obama did not mention, nor was he asked about, the reality that refugees to the U.S. are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years (the average out of Syria is two years at present), indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed. If a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been left behind.

    There also remain voices calling for another escalation of war in the Middle East to deal with the “root causes” of the refugee crisis, loosely defined for now as Islamic State’s continued existence.


    There is an immediate need to do more to help the refugees moving into Europe, and those still in the Middle East. That, and that alone, should comprise the “do something” part of a solution. Long term, if the primary response is simply more military intervention in the name of humanitarianism, or more empty promises, the answer is best left as “doing less.”



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    ISIS Planning Nuclear Holocaust, Will Wipe ‘Millions from Face of the Earth’

    October 1, 2015 // 4 Comments »

    ISIS-New-York-Threat

    Lions and tigers and bears… and now IS will use nuclear weapons to destroy everythings and everybodys. You may all commence panicking now.



    Nuclear Holocaust

    Well, it is official. Islamic State terrorists want to wipe the west off the face of the earth with a nuclear holocaust, according to a journalist who spent ten days with the group while researching a book he is now promoting.

    The terror organization allowed 75-year-old former German legislator Jurgen Todenhofer to embed with the group because he has been a critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East. After ten whole days of deep bonding, IS revealed to the German its secret plans to launch a “nuclear tsunami” against the west and anyone else that opposes their plans for an Islamic caliphate. Todenhofer then wrote up his findings in a book he is pimping called Inside IS – Ten Days In The Islamic State.

    So it’s official.



    So Where Do You Get a Nuke?

    Now, the next questions are: how will IS get a nuclear weapon (or multiple nukes to create a nuclear tsunami), transport those nukes to their targets and then detonate them?

    John Cantlie, a British photojournalist has been held captive for more than two years by IS, knows. Apparently IS is pretty liberal about telling random Westerners their evil plans.

    A story by Cantlie, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” claims IS has billions of dollars in the bank and describes it buying a nuclear bomb “through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials” in Pakistan. IS will then smuggle the devices out of Pakistan, into Mexico by boat, and bring them undetected into American cities to set them off.

    Oh, and, right: Cantlie is still in IS custody, and the story he may or may not even have written was published in the terror group’s own magazine, Dabiq, so that makes it all credible.



    Nuke, Redux

    The thing is, we have heard this scary story so many times before.

    The first popular versions began circulating in the 1990’s, when the culprits were the old, crumbling Soviet Union. Desperate government officials there were going to sell nukes to the official bad guy of the day, Libya’s Qaddafi.

    That didn’t happen.

    The Bush administration revived the story as an excuse to invade Iraq in 2003 — remember Condoleezza Rice announcing the “smoking gun” was going to be a mushroom cloud over Washington DC?

    That didn’t happen.

    Somewhere in there when North Korea went nuclear they were going to sell nukes to maybe al Qaeda, for hard currency. Pakistan was going to do the same with their “Islamic Bomb.” And sure, Iran, which does not have a bomb, was also going to do it.

    None of that happened. But now IS will do it!!!



    Practical Considerations

    Anyway, so IS picks up a few nukes — somewhere, wherever — and then all they have to do is surreptitiously move nuclear weapons around the world undetected, off-shore them in Mexico, hire trucks and then drive those trucks across the U.S. border undetected (perhaps disguised as bales of marijuana) and place them in cities. Then set them off, maybe with a giant red button. Or maybe they could use the guy who couldn’t even set his own underwear on fire on a plane to do it.

    See, nukes are sort of big, heavy things that have to be properly transported, armed and triggered. It is possible that even before that happens, someone might wonder what is going on at the port, or the trucking depot.

    And note to IS: better hurry. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the world has more to fear from a nuclear-capable Iran than IS terrorists. This kind of nuclear tsunami only really counts if you do it first.

    Should we discard this all as more scary stories? Naw, it is easier to give in to this (repetitious) fear mongering. It worked to scare us many times in the past, so we might as well go along with it this time, too. And what if they are right? Who’ll be the first to laugh at this article following their nuclear destruction, hmmm? Boy, won’t I look stupid.



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    The Harsh Lessons of History: Faux Reports of Progress Against IS

    September 25, 2015 // 9 Comments »

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    (This article, written by me, originally appeared on Middle East Eye)

    Allegations that American military analysts may have “cooked the books” to skew intelligence assessments about the campaign against Islamic State (IS), providing a more optimistic account of progress, are a sign of bad things to come.

    Bad intel leads to bad decisions. Bad intel created purposefully suggests a war that is being lost, with the people in charge that loathe to admit it even as they continue to stumble forward, ever-more blind. And if that sounds like America’s previous war in Iraq, or its earlier one in Vietnam, you are not wrong.

    A Pentagon Inspector General’s investigation into allegations of overly optimistic intelligence reporting, first reported in the New York Times, began after at least one Defence Intelligence Agency analyst claimed officials overseeing the war against Islamic State were improperly reworking the assessments prepared for senior policy makers. The focus is on whether military officials changed the conclusions of draft intelligence assessments during a review process and then passed them on.

    Intelligence typically involves working with incomplete data (one analyst likens the process to turning over a small subset of rocks in a large field) to assess the present situation and then to predict the future.

    Anyone who claims to be certain about the future is more likely to be a fortune teller than a professional analyst, and so it is quite reasonable and common for a group of honest, well-meaning people to assess a data set and come to different conclusions. To be of value, however, legitimate differences of opinion must be played off one another in a non-politicised, intellectually vigorous check-and-balance fashion, as enshrined in Intelligence Community Directive 203.

    There is a wide gap between that, and what it appears the inspector general is now looking into.

    We can assume, arguendo, the inspector general knows a legitimate difference of opinion when he sees one, can easily rule out a sloppy supervisor, or spot a mid-level official rewriting things to pump up his own credentials. Investigations of the level leaked to the New York Times are not needed to deal with such situations. What appears to be under the microscope is whether or not the intelligence assessments headed to senior policy makers are purposely inaccurate.

    Cooking the intel has a sordid history in the annals of American warfare.

    Former CIA analyst Paul Pillar described the process in a postmortem on the 2003 Iraq intelligence failures, noting “Intelligence analysts and their managers knew that the United States was heading for war with Iraq. It was clear that the Bush administration would frown on or ignore analysis that called into question a decision to go to war and welcome analysis that supported such a decision.”

    Those factors led directly to the flawed if not outright fraudulent 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) supporting the narrative of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The NIE was used by the White House to press Congress into supporting war, and by Colin Powell to do the same at the United Nations. The so-called Downing Street Memo bluntly stated “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.

    Analysis during the Vietnam War also pushed forward a steady but false narrative of victory. Former CIA and US Army analyst Patrick Eddington notes analysts’ conclusions that the US would be unlikely to ever defeat North Vietnamese forces were repeatedly overruled by commanders certain the United States was winning. He cites a complex inter-agency process of manipulating data to match the needs of General William Westmoreland’s narrative that enemy morale and military structure were deteriorating.

    The CIA’s Paul Pillar again, stresses the difficulties of dissent, and speaking of truth to power: “You’re part of a large structure that does have a vested interest in portraying the overall mission as going well.” Compare that to what any journalist, graduate student or successful businessperson should be able to tell you, that information must drive conclusions, not the inverse. The more complex the problem, the higher the quality of information needed to successfully solve it.

    The situation with Islamic State is more complex than that faced by the United States in Iraq over a decade ago, or in Vietnam before that. IS is a trans-state, loosely-organised fighting force, whose defeat requires the United States to stitch together a collection of strange bedfellows, each with their own agendas, in hopes the sum will add up to victory.

    The Iranians support Iraq’s Shiite militias against IS, but not Iraq’s Sunni forces. Turkey is prepared to wage war only in equal dollops against America’s opponents IS, and America’s allies the Kurds. The Kurds themselves fight well in their own territories but are loathe to strike elsewhere in Iraq. Creating a unified strategy out of all that demands hard, objective reporting and courageous analysis.


    There are three positions on why the military might not be providing that courageous analysis, and instead substituting a more positive spin on events.

    The first is basic bureaucratic cover – saying things are going well is a neat way of telling the boss that the military is doing the job they were sent to do, a self-administered pat on the back. Such thinking should never be easily discarded. However, higher-ups in the military chain of command will eventually look askance at such tactics, fearful of blow-back if events on the battlefield turn sour.

    The second is of more concern. Imagine a scenario where the president is rejecting advice from his generals to continue the war against IS, and wants to tamp down the level of American involvement (as some say Kennedy wished to do in Vietnam before his assassination). The president pushes back, saying nothing has worked, that ongoing failure comes at great cost. A military that wishes to stay engaged, again, as in Vietnam, might want to create the appearance that current levels of involvement are good, and thus increased involvement will be even better.

    But it is the third position, reporting only the good news senior policy makers signal they want to hear, that history suggests is the dominant reason.


    If American military intelligence insists on pushing false narratives of progress up the chain of command, that strongly suggests someone higher up, afraid of the ground truth, is happy to receive only the palliative of good news. And that is bad news. The lessons of modern history make clear that misleading policy makers who themselves seek to be misled can only yield disastrous consequences.



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    Don’t Believe America About Syrian Refugees

    September 15, 2015 // 8 Comments »



    The world finally noticed that one Syrian refugee kid drowned on a beach, after failing to notice the Middle East refugee crisis has been an ongoing disaster for almost five years now.

    Same for the U.S.; Obama just announced he wants America to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, so this is all fixed now, we can go back to Miley and Katy, right? No.

    The Day Before

    Here was the state of affairs as of the day before Obama’s announcement.

    The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted 1,500, with formally announced plans to take in only another 1,800 by next year, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.

    With no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”

    Many in Washington likely felt that was enough. A token increase, some nice, high-flying language, a little sprinkle of freedom and respect. I think we’re done here.

    The Day After

    But, after seeing that it was a slow week and the media was still showing sad pictures of refugees on the TV box, it seemed more (rhetoric) was needed. So, on September 10, President Obama announced, per the New York Times headline, he will “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.”

    Well, that’s good, right? I mean, the estimates are that there are some four million Syrian refugees already out there, with another 10 million internally displaced, so even if it is 10,000 that’s hardly anything but still, better than nothing.



    What He Said, What He Meant

    Maybe. But let’s dig down one level deeper.

    To be precise, Obama did not say the U.S. is taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY2016. He did not say if the 10k were part of the U.S.’ overall 70k refugee cap, or in addition to it, meaning other refugees could be left behind to favor the flavor-of-the-moment out of Syria. Obama also did not explain that the United States processes refugees abroad (if the person is somehow in the U.S. physically, that’s asylum, different thing, done while the person is in the U.S.)

    Actually, have a look at the exact wording from the White House spokesperson (emphasis added): “The president has… informed his team that he would like them to accept, at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”

    Refugees are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years, indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed; there remains great fear in the U.S. government about terrorists sneaking into refugee flows, and so if a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been stuck left behind.

    As Representative Peter King said “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”

    There are also medical and other checks before a refugee is approved. With all the variables, there is no average processing time, but post-9/11 we can say the average is s-l-o-w. In the world of suffering, slow can often mean death.



    Bottom Line

    It appears the White House is taking full advantage of the media’s ignorance of how refugee processing works to create the appearance of doing something when little of a practical nature is being done, all sizzle and no meat. There is little help coming from the United States for any significant number of Syrian refugees. Sorry guys!



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