Monday, January 11, 2016

Even I get it wrong on Syria sometimes (quite often)

There are 2 glaring mistakes in my previous post on the situation around Aleppo and to the North. But I have not really found anything that supports Juan Cole's assertion.  As Aron Lund says, it's actually a four-way fight, the fourth actor being the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish alliance (it includes the YPG, for example), which is also supported by the US.
As you can see from the map, there are areas that are disputed between the government and ISIL. There has been one recent offensive by  government forces towards ISIL territory, about 30 km east of Aleppo (north towards Al-Bab). By contrast, there have been 3 recent offensives from government territory south of Aleppo, north-west, west and south-west, onto the area controlled by the "rebels" (FSA & others).

 From rebel-controlled East Aleppo, there is a narrow exit from near-encirclement by government forces and then a narrow corridor to the Turkish border. There have been 2 recent offensives on this corridor: westwards by ISIL; and eastwards by the SDF (this is presumably the capture of the village of Tanab,  advancing towards  A'zaz, that I mentioned previously). The FSA have attacked out of this corridor, eastwards into ISIL territory, just south of the Turkish border.

The YPG have said that their first priority is to link the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the west with Kobane to the east, clearing the remaining 60 miles of the Syria–Turkey border  from ISIL control. To roll back ISIL is clearly understandable and unproblematic (except for Turkey). But to link up Afrin to Kobane, the SDF would need to cross or control the stretch of border currently controlled by the FSA (which is obviously their supply route to Turkey). This is not mentioned in the Wikipedia article, nor in Roy Gutman's report for McClatchy on which it is based  "U.S. begins airdrops of weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Syria", 12 October 2015).

Without wanting to make excuses, I think my errors are indicative of one thing: that the Syrian conflict is not always covered in sufficient depth by the "mainstream media".  I don't always have the time to dig out the truth from obscure Tweets.

Update: this is from Reuters' report, 1 Jan:
A U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters advanced against Islamist insurgents in the north of the country on Friday, capturing at least one village in Aleppo province  [..] Fighters from the Democratic Forces of Syria seized the village of Tanab near the town of Azaz after heavy clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the powerful Ahrar al Sham, spokesman Talal Selo told Reuters.  "We liberated Tanab," he said.[.. T]he Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Democratic Forces of Syria had also captured the village of Tat Mrash. Selo said he could not yet confirm its capture. 
The alliance has separately [from its fight against ISIL] been fighting in recent weeks against Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham and other insurgents in northern Aleppo province. .The Democratic Forces of Syria includes the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been the most effective partner on the ground for U.S.-led air strikes. 

More on Aleppo

Reporting by Rami Jarrah ‏ ( 2 Jan) :  according to one Aleppo citizen, ISIS (ISIL) is advancing against the FSA in the North because the Russian planes are helping them.  More on PBS Newshour:
JEFFREY BROWN: So, the Russians are saying that they are targeting ISIS and other — and strategic sites, but that’s not what you’re seeing.

RJ: No, Jeffrey, that’s definitely not what I’m seeing, and it’s definitely not what the civilians here in Aleppo are seeing.

I think this man in the video is a small example of what is actually happening. He is frantically trying to explain, it’s just civilians here. There’s no signs of ISIS here. Why are they attacking us? [..] This is what this man is saying. And it’s basically the language that you’re going to hear around Aleppo, because the people here are very much convinced that the Russian and Syrian airstrikes are meant and aimed to target civilians and to drive them either out of Aleppo or to kill them.

And this is something that they have come to believe because of the constant attacks. We’re witnessing between 10 to 15 airstrikes in central Aleppo alone on a daily basis. And these airstrikes, what we have been doing is trying to follow these airstrikes. I have gotten my hands on — access to information of when the strikes hit. So, I’m following the civil defense. I haven’t, until now, seen one attack that has landed on a military unit or a depot. And this is something that we’re trying to document and make clear. Now, the problem is that last year U.N. Security Council resolution actually allowed Russia to actually attack areas that have ISIS or al-Nusra in them.

But that’s on the basis that we’re taking Russia’s take on where those groups are located. But those groups are not located in these areas. And that’s the excuse that is being used to attack these areas. So, this is a major problem. It’s who decides where these groups are. We have been trying to prove that these groups are not located here. If they were, I wouldn’t be able to operate. I wouldn’t be able to do the reports I was doing.

JB: So, what are the biggest fears that you’re hearing from people now? Is it a government victory backed by Russia? Is it ISIS, especially, perhaps, as it’s driven more from Iraq, coming in even stronger in and around Aleppo? [..]

RJ:  The people here are not in any way worried that Assad or Assad’s army or Russia or Hezbollah forces are going to invade Aleppo. I haven’t heard this expressed once. The people here are worried that ISIS is going to, in fact, take over Aleppo, because of the fact that the — not only the Russian airstrikes, but in addition to the coalition airstrikes, they are actually forcing ISIS further away from Iraq and deeper into Syria. And what that means is past Raqqa, past Deir el-Zour, and into Aleppo. So there are no signs of ISIS in Aleppo. So, the fear here is that ISIS takes these areas and that there isn’t really much preventing that by Russia or the Syrian regime, who are actually more so accepting the idea of Aleppo being taken by ISIS, as a sort of an excuse that can be used at a later stage to allow the rest of the international community also to intervene against the opposition. [My emphasis]

Monday, January 04, 2016

Even Juan Cole gets it wrong on Syria sometimes (IMHO)

Yesterday (3 Jan 2016), I read this post from Juan Cole's blog.

This seems, on the whole, to be a sane and balanced piece. However, there is one point I disagree on (highlighted below):
In the past 18 months, Daesh [ISIL] has been contained and then rolled back. It was pushed back out of Samarra. It has lost Beiji and Tikrit. Falluja appears to be in play. It is losing Ramadi, which has been cut off from supply lines to Syria. Ramadi the most vulnerable of Sunni Arab cities in Iraq to attacks from the Shiite south and it was never likely Daesh could hold it in the long term.
On the Kurdish front, the Peshmerga have regrouped and gotten better training and arms. They pushed Daesh out of Kurdish areas in Diyala province. In Ninewah province, they took back Mt. Sinjar, hundreds of miles from Erbil, and then recently took back Sinjar city.
In Syria, Daesh was prevented from taking Kobane and has lost half of al-Raqqa Province, its base. It is being blocked by the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah and Russian fighter jets from moving into Aleppo (where even rebel-dominated east Aleppo rejects it).
The situation of Daesh in its capital, al-Raqqa, is so uncertain that there has been talk of them evacuating it toward Mosul. It is being bombed there now by the French and British, a new development this fall.
I don’t deny that the wheels have moved slowly. But you can’t say there has been no progress. There are a lot of problems with mainly enlisting Shiites and Kurds to crush Daesh. They can do it, and probably could do it on an accelerated schedule. But it is much better to have Sunni Arabs play a big role. Reports suggest that they are playing such a role in taking back Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, and have finally been armed by the government of Haydar al-Abadi. Contrary to what Lindsey Graham thinks, US troops would not be more welcome as liberators in the Sunni Arab cities than would Shiite or Kurdish troops.
Comments are now closed on Professor Cole's post, but this is an extraordinary remark, and I must say something about it.

In reality, Russian airstrikes in their early days allowed ISIL to advance around Aleppo and I have not seen anything to suggest they have had a different effect since. Let's look at the situation in the North, from Aleppo to the Turkish border, as I understand it.

The regime is in the West, its territory stretching back through Homs to Latakia, Damascus and the border with Lebanon; ISIL is in the East, back to Raqqa (Deir Ezzor) and Iraq. The rebels (the non-ISIL opposition) are in the middle. In other words, they are between the regime's forces and ISIL's. It is possible, I suppose, that Russian airstrikes are targeting ISIL here (on their frontline with the rebels near Aleppo), but highly unlikely: Putin has said that Russian forces would be prepared to co-operate with the Free Syrian Army, but I have not seen any evidence that they are doing so (*).

For example, regime forces recently captured the village of Tanab from 'rebels + Nusra & IF' , advancing towards  A'zaz  (SDF = Syrian government forces and its allies).

I may have said this before, but I'll repeat it. ISIL fights against everyone, but mainly against the rebels and generally not against the regime. The rebels are in a 2-way fight, against ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Hezbollah  and, recently, Russian airstrikes, on the other. There are exceptions to this, of course (**).

* Russian air strikes in Syria cause 'civilian deaths', 7.10 "On Tuesday, Russian jets hit areas under the control of the [ISIL] group in Palmyra and the northern outskirts of Aleppo.The attacks destroyed 20 vehicles and three weapons depots in ISIL-held Palmyra, Syrian state television said, quoting a military source. In Aleppo, Russian strikes targeted the towns of al-Bab and Deir Hafer, about 20km east of a military airport currently besieged by ISIL fighters." Nothing like the air campaigns co-ordinated with regime ground forces seen elsewhere in Syria (against the non-ISIL rebels).
US to scrap Syria rebel training programme, 9.10 "The [Syrian] Observatory [for Human Rights] reported that ISIL fighters have advanced and captured several villages in Aleppo province following deadly clashes with other armed groups. This offensive is one of ISIL's strongest advances towards Aleppo in months and puts them closer to government-controlled areas, the observatory said. This comes as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general was killed near Aleppo, where he was advising the Syrian army on their battle against the ISIL fighter." [my emphasis]

** In Deir Ezzor, ISIL has treated Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) with the same savagery it has shown to everyone else, but in the West and just over the border in Lebanon, in Arsal, it seems to have co-operated with Nusra. It has fought with the regime and captured territory from it around Palmyra.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

3 Tweets: Samir Kuntar

or Samir Kantar or Samir Qantar
BBC - Lebanon militant Samir Qantar killed in rocket strike in Syria …

Samir Kuntar was 1 of the 3 (or 1 and a half) prisoners Hezbollah went to war with Israel over in 2006.
Yossi Alpher in …

Jeff Weintraub:
When it gets specific, Hezbollah tends to mention three names (yes, that's 3), but there is no evidence that one of these has ever been an Israeli prisoner. So that leaves two.

One of these is a convicted murder, Samir Kuntar, who led a 1979 terrorist attack against Israeli civilians in the northern town of Nahariya that killed two children, their father, and two policeman. Kuntar personally shot the father in front of one daughter and then bludgeoned the 4-year-old girl to death by crushing her skull. The mother managed to hide in the attic with her other daughter, a 2-year-old, but in trying to keep the girl quiet she accidentally suffocated her.
Yossi Alpher:
In fact, there are not even three Lebanese in Israeli jails--only one and a half. One of the three names cited by Hizballah is a missing person but was never jailed by Israel. A second, a Lebanese born to a Jewish mother, immigrated to Israel in the 1990s in accordance with the law of return and was subsequently arrested and tried as an Israeli on charges of spying. The third is Samir Kuntar, a Druze who as a teenager participated in a murderous terrorist attack in Nahariya in 1979.
The 'prisoners' issue was one of two main pretexts Hezbollah used (the other was the 'sliver of land' known as Shebaa Farms).

Update 21 Dec 2015
Kuntar's killing took place in Damascus. Hezbollah has said that the fight to support the regime in Syria and the Alawites (as a Shi'a offshoot)  takes precedence over the fight against Israel. (Kuntar took part in the 1979 attack as member of a Palestinian group but later became an important figure in the Hezbollah hierarchy). But Israel, reportedly, prefers to have ISIL as a neighbour (in Syria) rather than Hezbollah.

Israel welcomed his death, but declined to confirm that it was responsible for the missile strike. The woman who survived the 1979 attack, Smadar Haran, thought it might have been carried out by any of the actors in the Syrian Civil War, but it seems to me likely that it was Israel.

The arguments convinced me, ultimately, that Hezbollah bore most of the blame for the 2006 war in Lebanon. But key aspects are omitted in many accounts in the British media, and  as I said at the time, Israeli propaganda was unspeakably bad - their spokesmen failed to highlight these aspects. This is what was said in the Channel 4 News report: "By 2006, as Hezbollah  and  Israel went to war over the capture of 2 Israeli soldiers, Kantar had become a legend to some in Lebanon, a propaganda poster boy. And in 2008, Israel traded its prisoner and 4 others, all of them alive, for the dead bodies of its captured soldiers. Kantar came home to a hero's welcome."

Smadar Haran  reminds us that it was in support of Kuntar (amongst others)  that the 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro  and murder of  Leon Klinghoffer was carried out (interview on BBC WS, Newshour, 21:06).

Kuntar was 16 years old at the time of the 1979 attack. In India, a 17-year-old was released after taking part in that horrendous rape 3years ago (admittedly provoking huge protests).

- Fire traded over Israel-Lebanon border after militant's death -

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Corbyn and the pacifists

(23 Aug) One interesting snippet regarding Jeremy Corbyn, who has become the leading contender for leadership of the UK Labour party (1), from the FT: "Born in Britain's West Country to idealistic parents – peace activists who met campaigning for an end to the Spanish civil war" (2). That raises an interesting question: how could the Spanish Civil War have ended earlier? By those who were fighting on the Republican side surrendering? It was not as if the fighters could simply lay down their arms and be "forgiven" by the dictatorship (forgiven that is for fighting in defence of a government that, for all its flaws, was democratically elected) and return to normal life. After the fascists captured Badajoz, men with rifle recoil marks on their shoulders were sought out for execution (3). 

In the last 5 years, a similar situation existed in Libya and still exists in Syria. In Libya in 2011, for example, some western journalists were detained and held where they could hear the sounds of captured opposition fighters being tortured by the Gaddafi regime. They knew what they were fighting against and that they had little option other than to continue. 

To return to Jeremy Corbyn, he has been criticised for sharing a platform with Hamas and Hezbollah, though he claims not to share their aims. Another leadership candidate says Corbyn was opposed to Poland joining NATO and he wants Britain to leave NATO. And of course he is against Trident, Britain's nuclear deterrent. The Times in its leader, 22 Aug ("Wrong again"), says that Corbyn opposed not only the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush in 2003, but also the intervention in Kosovo under Bill Clinton. There is another point that Corbyn has made, regarding Syria and Iran, but that requires a more detailed response.

(1) Corbyn has gained the support of the biggest Trades Unions, who seem to believe, following Labour's poor (disastrous in Scotland) performance in the May election, that having a clear-cut radical candidate is the best way forward. What should be remembered, though, is that, in the 2010 leadership contest, Ed Miliband adopted a position that was seen as more left-wing and thereby gained the support of the unions, enabling him to defeat his brother David, who was a far more credible Prime Ministerial candidate. 

(2) 'The far-left outsider leading the field', George Parker, Financial Times, 1 Aug 2015.

(3) Beevor, p148; See also ; Jay Allen's report in the Chigaco Tribune, 30 Aug 1936. After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, as many as 10,000 people are said to have been killed. Mussolini ordered that all Italians in the Republican army who were captured should be shot immediately" (Beevor, p367). After the "end of the war", it is estimated that the figure for executions and political killing up until 1943 was nearly 200,000 ( p390, Ch XXIX: "The Fate of the Defeated ..", Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War, 1982, Cassell Paperback, 1999). 
Update 12 Sep
(11:40) Corbyn wins (BBC R4).  

More details are coming out: Corbyn founded the Stop the war coalition in 2001 ahead of Afghanistan. The Argentinian president has congratulated him, since he would like to open negotiations on the Falkland / Malvinas Islands. Corbyn  is seen embracing Hugo Chavez in archive footage shown on BBC News.  

Earlier, The Times, unearthed various columns Corbyn wrote in the Morning Star: for example, he takes the view that NATO "is trying to find a role for itself". 

(23:20) The Morning Star is to publish a Sunday edition for the first time. The editor of the Morning Star:, described as a "left-wing paper" (formerly known as the mouthpiece of the British Communist Party), is featured on the BBC News24 review of the press.

Published 13 Sep 2015

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Charlie Hebdo (2): more double standards

Joe Sacco, in a full-page cartoon strip in The Guardian (10.1),  I think just about got the balance right.  He notes,  as does Tariq Ramadan, that Charlie Hebdo once sacked Maurice Siné (or Sinet) for an allegedly anti-semitic cartoon.

One aspect of the intellectual mood in France,  before the attacks,  was captured in Michel Houellebecq's latest novel,  which is due to be published in English later this year:  it envisages a future in which the "Islamic party" wins the 2022 presidential election.  This seems to me somewhat hysterical,  though some disagree.

As both Nabila Ramdani on BBC WS, Weekend 10.1,  and Abdullah al Andalusi on Channel 4 News, 12.1,  point out,  France is not consistent in allowing freedom of expression,  since muslims have restrictions imposed on their dress,  on schoolgirls wearing the hijab (headscarf) and more recently on the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public.

In a way that we anglo-saxones find difficult to understand,  many in France,  including "liberals" and those on the left,  worship secularism (or laïcité) as an end in itself,  making of it a kind of fourth pillar of the Republic along with liberty,  equality and fraternity. (1)

At the press conference for the first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the attack,  one of the editorial board said,  'If you say "I am Charlie, you should also say "I am secularism" ' (BBC WS, 13.1, 22:09).

You do not have to push this  much further to arrive at the position of the Front national. Marine Le Pen:  "we have to oppose all demands that aim to shatter secularism [..] Demands that create special rules that would allow Muslims to behave differently."  (interview on AJE, 13.1). (2)

(1) There is a small but articulate minority that opposes the dominant trend.  Here's Christine Delphy: "nous assistons depuis les massacres des 7, 8 et 9 janvier au retour en force d’un néo-laïcisme autoritaire".  And Pierre Tevanian: "« Laïcité sacrée » : cet invraisemblable slogan, figurant sur des autocollants arborés lors d’une manifestation commémorant le centenaire de la loi de 1905, indique à quel point la laïcité a été, au sens propre, sacralisée". He reminds us of Jacques Chirac's « on ne doit pas toucher aux piliers du temple ».

(2)  Ms Le Pen is leading in opinion polls since the attack,  but she would lose in the second round of the presidentielle (The Times, 31.1).

For more about how muslims feel about the "secular" state in France,  listen to or download Assignment from the BBC WS, broadcast last Sunday (2.2, also 29.1).

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Charlie Hebdo (1): double standards

Tariq Ramadan on Al Jazeera English, 8.1.2015, says: we must value Arab lives equally  - Syria, Iraq, Gaza ... Quite right. He continues in the same vein in The Guardian (The Paris attackers hijacked Islam but there is no war between Islam and the west, 10.1):
We are reacting emotionally because 12 people were killed in Paris,  but there are hundreds being killed day in,  day out in Syria and Iraq,  and still we send more bombs.
Oh dear,  that last phrase.  Most of the people killed in Syria are by bombs sent by the Assad government , while in Iraq and Syria,  ISIL are carrying out massacres and cold-blooded executions and it is against them that we are sending  bombs.

.Jonathan Freedland writes (Charlie Hebdo: first they came for the cartoonists, then they came for the Jews):
So far there have been mercifully few attempts to make the usual, kneejerk move, insisting that the animating grievance must be western foreign policy. It is hard to draw that conclusion when the targets have been a satirical magazine and a shop selling salt beef and pickles.
It did not take long for that to be done, by none other, perhaps unsurprisingly, than former French Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin. His views were echoed (again unsurprisingly) by Alain Gresh of Le Monde Diplomatique. This is de Villepin:
The West has created Islamic terrorism and ISIL is the nasty child of the arrogance of the West's policies.
The Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali has led to an increase in the number of the jihadists  (Inside Story, AJE, 11.1)
De Villepin's views on the 2003 intervention in Iraq are of course well known and often repeated.  There is a strong argument that the action was not justified,  was even counter-productive in terms of the fight against terrorism (or jihadists or violent islamism).  It is a well-worn refrain that "there was no al Qaeda in Iraq before 2003" (though there was some, near the Iranian border,  but probably not with the collusion of the regime).  But it should also not be forgotten that there was no al Qaeda in Syria before,  without any intervention from the West, its people carried out an uprising against a dictator,  which was brutally suppressed.

It is strange, though, that de Villepin lumps in Afghanistan and Mali.  In Afghanistan,  the US intervention in 2001  removed an AQ safe haven.  In Mali,  separatist rebels,  then islamists, took control of the North when government forces collapsed following a military coup.  Most people in towns like Gao and Timbuktu,  mainly non-Tuareg, were unhappy with being under the control of the rebels.  The French intervention (in January 2013) was again entirely justified,  as the rebels were moving into the centre and south of the country.

As for Libya,  no-one could deny that it now does not have an effective government.  But what would de Villepin have preferred?  That we stood by while Gaddafi suppressed the uprising?  That seems to me to be a counsel of despair:  al Qaeda was at a low ebb when the "Arab Spring" seemed to be going well.  There is an argument that is at least equally as strong that it was Western non-intervention in Syria that created the conditions for Al Qaeda in Iraq to come back as ISIL (or "Islamic State") and that tolerance of a military coup in Egypt facilitated the resurgence of jihadis generally.

Cherif Kouachi,  who is said to have been originally radicalised by the US abuses in Abu Ghraib,  interviewed by French TV, after the Charlie Hebdo attack: 
I,  Cherif Kouachi, was sent by al Qaeda in Yemen. ... Did we kill civilians during the two days you've been looking for us.
Interviewer: you killed journalists.
Kouachi:  But did we kill civilians?  Civilians or people during the two days that you looked for us?
Interviewer: Wait,  wait,  Cherif, Cherif,  did you kill this morning? Kouachi:  We are not killers. .. We don't kill women.  We kill no one. .. We are not like you. You are the ones killing [ inaudible] muslims [ or women and children, according to the English subtitles] in Syria,  Iraq and Afghanistan. [..]
Interviewer: But you took revenge there nonetheless,  you killed 12 people. 
Kouachi: Yes,  to take revenge , as you said.  That's it,  because we took revenge.
Amedy Coulibaly did kill a trainee policewoman in Montrouge in the South of Paris,  before killing 4 Jewish people at a kosher supermarket in porte de Vincennes in the east of the city (Coulibaly's partner and Chérif Kouachi's wife had exchanged more than 500 'phone calls the previous year,  French authorities revealed). Elsa Cayat ("Charlie Divan") was among those killed at Charlie Hebdo.  The Kouachis did spare Corinne Rey ("Coco"),  who was about to leave to pick up her daughter from kindergarten,  but threatened her with their guns,  forcing her to enter the security code giving them access to the magazine's offices.

(1) Incidentally,  in case you wondered who the man was on Francois Hollande's right at the rally in Paris on 11.1,  The Guardian provided this useful guide: it's Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (elected democratically following that French intervention);  Benjamin Netanyahu is on IBK's right,  Mahmoud Abbas is 3rd from Hollande's left.
And something I've just come across: Coulibaly's family was of Malian origin and there was some speculation that his body might go to Mali for burial.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The CIA: torture and the US

The US senate committee report was attacked by most Republicans as being politically motivated in the dying days of the Democrat controlled Senate.  An honourable exception was John McCain (again), almost unreported,  but I happened to catch him speaking (live on Al Jazeera English, 9.12, 17:30).

Leaving aside the debate over whether the methods used constituted torture or could be described as "extended interrogation techniques",  or EITs (they were torture - Geoff Dyer in the FT provides a useful summary (limited access)), the key question is whether the techniques were efficacious.  This matters because polls show that a majority in the US would support the use of these techniques,  provided they help prevent terrorist attacks.

John Brennan,  CIA director,  says it is "unknown and unknowable" whether the techniques can be shown to have provided useful and valuable information.  On the BBC WS, (Weekend, 13.12.2014, 08:06 +2:30) Philippe Sands says Brennan "confirms that he is unable to state categorically that the techniques produced information useful in the [..] war against terrorism", which Sands says supports the conclusion of the report (that the techniques were ineffective).  But it doesn't:  Brennan says that we cannot know whether the useful information given by detainees was as a result of the techniques being used on them.  Which is not the same thing.

Sands goes on to call for what amounts to a witch-hunt on any lawyer who gave advice that would have justified the techniques.

However,  the point that even if the techniques could be shown to work in the short term,  in preventing attacks,  this is outweighed by the immense damage to the US's reputation in the long term.

Also unanswerable is the point,  made by both Moazzam Begg and Clive Stafford Smith (*),  that the torture techniques provided incorrect information linking Saddam Hussein's Iraq with al Qaeda.

* AJE, 9.12 13:06; C4 News, 15.12 19:18.

Posted 29.12.2014

Update 29.12.2014.
Needless to say,  some of the reaction around the world has been of breathtaking hypocrisy

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Converting for ISIL ...

ISIL certainly seems to be attracting all sorts of nutcases and psychopaths to associate themselves with the group. That's a success of a sort, I suppose.  Most media (BBC, AJE) had extensive reports of the case of Man Haron Monis,  who killed 2 Australians in Sydney on Monday (early hours of Tuesday local time),  and mentioned that he was Iranian, but not what I was most interested in.

This from The Guardian:
As recently as last week on a website he used both to defend and promote himself, he announced that he had converted from Shia to Sunni Islam and pledged his allegiance to the caliphate declared by the militant group Islamic State [ISIL]. That website was shut down as Monday’s siege developed, and police asked media outlets to refrain from giving him a platform as he held 17 hostages in the Lindt cafe in Martin Place.
Sydney Shia leaders had apparently urged federal police to probe his claim to be a leading cleric, while he was ignored by the Sunni community. He had no links to the Islamic State terrorist group, and despite his criminal past was not seen as a likely exponent of the group’s ideology.
See also Jonathan Rugman's report on C4N (15/12).  According to C4N, Monis posted on his website:
 "I used to be a Rafidi, but not anymore. Now I am a Muslim, Alhamdu Lillah”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tweeting for ISIL?

It was quite a shock to see Channel 4 News on Thursday (11/12),   with ‏@ShamiWitness emblazoned across the  background.  I'd come across this userid myself on Twitter.  A look through the archive shows the odd retweet, but mainly tweets he was mentioned in.

Aymenn J. Al-Tamimi, writing on Joshua Landis's Syria Comment blog, has a detailed analysis:

he emerged on the Twitter scene around the beginning of 2013. At that time, he would often try to engage certain, more prominent Twitter users on issues related to the Islamic world, myself among them. For instance, one of his first tweets to me was to criticise a rather inane tweet I had written on a ‘Bangladesh Spring’ victory over Islamists.
His perspective was clearly that of an Islamist but- undoubtedly through prior tracking of social media- he seemed to have a broad knowledge of Syria’s Sunni insurgency with a particular focus on Salafi and jihadi groups, something that extended to Libya in particular and the wider Muslim world [..]. Other indications of his Islamist leanings in those earlier times were his support for the Ikhwan-led government in Egypt [i.e. the Morsi / Muslim Brotherhood government ] - his main line of defence being that none of the Ikhwan’s opponents could necessarily do a better job at governance (not an unreasonable argument)- and his cheering on of Erdogan during the Gezi Park protests that erupted in May 2013. It was of course during this same period (i.e. April 2013 onwards) that IS’ predecessor the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) emerged: at that early stage of ISIS’ existence it would not necessarily be fair to characterize him as an ISIS partisan. On the contrary he was more keen on the notion of ‘Islamic rebel/jihadi unity’, so to speak: something that could include ISIS. In short, his worldview was of an Islamist who at least had hope in the gradualist non-violent Islamisation projects of Erdogan and the Ikhwan in Egypt while showing sympathy for jihadis more generally. [..]
Two events mark key points in Shami’s transformation from an apparently rather standard Islamist to the IS fanboy as so many have come to know him. [..] The first event was the coup against the Ikhwan-led government, which enraged him considerably. Yet even after this point, he had not yet become a full-blown ISIS partisan, but rather was still willing to give credence to forces like Jabhat al-Nusra (Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate) and the Islamic Front coalition, which contrasts him with other prominent hardline ISIS fans at the time  [..]. Thus, the second main turning point was the outbreak of infighting between ISIS and rebel groups at the start of 2014. This completes his definite public transformation into the ISIS/IS fanboy. It is also this stage, it should be noted, where many of the other pro-jihadi Twitter users take more definite sides in contrast to a previous attempt at jihadi brotherology.
This is worth reading in full.

The Times,   on Saturday, described ShamiWitness as an "Isis spokesman" and got the timing slightly wrong: it says the unmasking was "last night";  in fact, the original story was run on C4N, Thursday (19:00),  with a followup on Friday (19:07).

Posted 16.12.2014

Update: 16.12.
Simon Israel's latest piece for C4N,  Sunday (14/12), can be found here

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Israeli shifts on Gaza?

An interesting piece from AJE (8/8):
the ceasefire has temporarily silenced critics on the right. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who last month called for a resumption of the occupation of the strip, now wants to hand it over to the United Nations - an organisation he has long demonised.
Hamas was pushed into inking a "unity deal" with Fatah, and a national consensus government was born. Netanyahu spent weeks trying to kill the deal, and was furious when the US and other nations endorsed the new government. He walked away from negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas precisely because of the agreement.
Netanyahu now wants to implement some of the terms of the deal in a permanent ceasefire with Hamas:  negotiators want the agreement to give the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces control of Rafah crossing. "We have cooperated, and are cooperating, with the PA on [these] matters," Netanyahu said on Wednesday. "We’re prepared to see a role for them."
(Dalia Hatuqa reporting from Ramallah and Gregg Carlstrom from Tel Aviv.)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Gaza / Israel vs the Rest of the World

On 17 July, late afternoon, Al Jazeera English already had one big story, the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine. By the end of the day, however, this was replaced by another story which required round the clock coverage (involving much repetition and conjecture). After several days of exchange of rockets into Israel and airstrikes into Gaza, Israel launched a full-scale ground offensive on the strip. By 6 August, more than 1850 Palestinians had been killed, together with over 50 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

For days, the BBC's coverage took up 10 minutes (of a 30 minute bulletin), Channel 4 News' 20 minutes (of a 55 minute bulletin). On 29 July, AJE spent all of one of its Newshour programmes on Gaza.

In Libya there were dramatic developments that were largely unremarked ('Dozens of bodies' at captured base in Benghazi). Some places that had their moment in the spotlight, such as the CAR, now receive less attention. Others have never had much attention: Eritrea is only mentioned when refugees from there are drowned or, sometimes, rescued, trying to reach Italy.

And then there's Syria: in one week at the end of July, it is believed that more than 1700 were killed. True, while the barrel-bombs no doubt continue to fall on Aleppo and elsewhere, many of the "extra" deaths seem to be due to greater intensity of fighting, between ISIL and other rebel groups, between ISIL and the regime.

To some extent, this is due to resources: where they are scarce, they are focused on "the big story" of the moment. But mainly it is a question of access. As C4News made clear on a couple of occasions, journalists are able to get into the Gaza strip via Israel ("eventually"). Hamas, after the 2007 kidnapping of the BBC's correspondent, Alan Johnston, also now sees its interest in allowing the story to be reported. 

In contrast, as one BBC man put it, western journalists who go into ISIL-controlled areas will be kidnapped and held for ransom. This is one reason, amongst others, that, pace Benjamin Netanyahu and various Israeli spokesmen, Hamas is not ISIL.

Eventually, the spotlight moved on: while violence resumed after the end of the first 72-hour ceasefire, it was at a lower level (more than 1,900 Palestinians now killed);  on 3 Aug, ISIL ("the Islamic State") captured Sinjar in Northern Iraq and the Yazidi population, faced with a choice of convert to Islam or die, fled to the mountain, where many died of thirst (Yazidis 'buried alive').

Few could argue that Israel matched this barbarity.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Gaza and Israel (2)

From the handbook for Israeli spokespersons, 2009 (via 
There is an immediate and clear distinction between the empathy Americans feel for the Palestinians and the scorn they direct at Palestinian leadership. Hamas is a terrorist organization – Americans get that already. But if it sounds like you are attacking the Palestinian people (even though they elected Hamas) rather than their leadership, you will lose public support.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

ISIL advances in Deir Ezzor

(15/7) 'Islamic State' expels rivals from Syria city: "Islamic State killed the Deir Ezzor chief of [Jabhat] al-Nusra and raised their flag in the city," according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group calling itself the Islamic State, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant [ISIL], has taken control of the rebel-held portion of the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor,  buoyed by advances in neighbouring Iraq  has said.  Rival rebel groups fighting against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad either changed sides or fled from the strategic Euphrates valley city.
According to the [SOHR], which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground, fighters from the Islamic State group were now in control of "95 to 98 percent of Deir Ezzor province". The regime-controls half of Deir Ezzor city, a handful of villages as well as the military airport.
The Observatory said that rivals of the Islamic State group,  including fighters of al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, lost control after negotiations failed with the Islamic State group whose leadership last month declared a "caliphate" straddling Syria and Iraq. "Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the [Islamist] rebel movement Ahrar al-Sham withdrew from their bases in the city, while others pledged their loyalty to [the] Islamic State," the Observatory said.
The rebel spokesman for Deir Ezzor confirmed the reports, blaming international backers of the anti-Assad opposition for a lack of support. Speaking to the AFP news agency via the Internet, Omar Abu Leyla said: "The withdrawal is a result of the lack of any formal financial backing [for the rebels] either from the [exiled] opposition or from the international community." [..]
[ISIL's] gains in Iraq have tipped the balance in the struggle for power in rebel-held areas of eastern and northern Syria where it has been fighting armed groups allied with al-Nusra since January. The Islamic State group already controls the city of Raqqa upstream from Deir Ezzor where it has enforced its hardline form of Islam,  with public executions,  including crucifixions. Abu Leyla added: "Islamic State has no shortage of weapons,  ammunition or fighters,  and the battle became totally asymmetrical, especially after its advance on Mosul and its capture of heavy weapons." (see also NGO: Jihadists expel rivals from Syria’s Deir Ezzor.)
It seems to me that, largely unnoticed, there is a tragedy unfolding for the Syrian people and the broad alliance of groups that are fighting the regime. 

In an earlier report, Omar Abu Leyla was described as a Free Syrian Army spokesman: "But in four months of fighting (in Deir Ezzor), the rebels who were fighting IS did not receive a single bullet" from countries that back the revolt, he complained. (Islamic State 'seizes key Syria oil field', 3/7)

Only 3 weeks previously, Syria Deeply published, "As ISIS Looks Deeper into Deir Ezzor, Nusra Remains Formidable Opponent" (27/6):
even before its Iraqi surge, ISIS was steadily gaining ground in Deir Ezzor, because that is where it has focused its main combat resources in Syria. ISIS pulled back months ago from the main fronts with the regime in the north, and it has focused on seizing control of Deir Ezzor rather than seeking to gain significant ground elsewhere in the country. In contrast,  al-Nusra and leading rebel factions fight ISIS in Deir while continuing to bear the burden of battles with the regime in Aleppo and throughout the north.
President Obama has asked the US Congress to approve $500m
 to train and equip what he described as "moderate" Syrian opposition forces.  The funds would help Syrians defend against forces aligned with President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said. The aid would also counter Islamist militants such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), it added.  [..] it is unclear whether and when Congress would act on his request. (26/6)
Update (2 Aug.)
Jeff Weintraub links to my post, with some comments:
what all this means is that the less extremist, non-jihadist groups in that area had already been forced into an alliance with the Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, in a last-ditch effort to resist ISIS,
I don't think they were forced into an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra because of the threat from ISIL: they have been fighting alongside JN against the regime for a while; when the US State Department designated JN as a terrorist organization in late 2012 / early 2013, the Syrian Opposition Coalition spoke out against the decision.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Gaza and Israel

From the ICG:
The U.S., by agreeing to work with the new Palestinian government, has set a positive precedent. Along with the EU and its regional allies, it should encourage the [Palestinian Authority (PA)] to return to Gaza, per the reconciliation agreement, and discourage Israel from getting in the way. None of these parties need publicly to reverse its policy of trying to isolate and topple Hamas – though all would be well advised to, because that policy is misguided and has been counterproductive since it was adopted in 2007 – but each should give the reconciliation deal a chance to work.
Update (31/7)
Jeff Weintraub, 12 Jul:  Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed? (Jeffrey Goldberg)
I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria.
The Gaza conflict has been featured quite prominently by the BBC, for example. By contrast, Syria is pretty under-reported. I tend to find out from Al Jazeera English that ISIL (IS) continues to make advances in Deir Az Zor province (at the expense of other opposition fighter groups).

On the Gaza situation, what needs to be mentioned is that from the beginning Netanyahu sought to undermine and destroy the Palestinian unity government agreement, reached with Hamas in April. But, as Palestinian spokesmen point out, the agreement sought to bring about elections and a representative government, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Some useful background from the BBC
In the past it had the backing of Iran and Syria. But Hamas is an offshoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood and when it sided with Sunni-led rebels opposed to the Alawite Bashar al-Assad and his Shia backers in Tehran, Iran responded by turning off the financial taps. Iran used to donate as much as $20m a month - enough to run the government in Gaza.
That didn't matter as long as Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was running Egypt. He strongly identified with Hamas and while he closed some tunnels which ran under the Gaza-Egypt border during his time in the presidential palace, others remained open. Those tunnels brought in weapons of course, but they were used to smuggle in consumer goods too, which Hamas was able to tax.
The new Egyptian government of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and sees Hamas as being cut from the same cloth. Many more smuggling tunnels have been closed down, and with them another source of revenue.
In desperation Hamas came to a sort of political reconciliation with its bitter rival Fatah which in its guise as the Palestinian Authority runs the West Bank under Israeli occupation.
Owen Jones, writing in the Guardian, demonstrates how to pretend you care about a war crime when you don't really give a damn
If you're interested, here is Owen Jones on Channel 4 News, talking about Iraq. I found his arguments there very glib, too.
Bradley Burston's historical sketch of how rockets explain the rise & fall of the Israel peace camp
Then, sit back and watch demographics and despair work their magic. No wonder Hamas officials who are seen as moderates urge a 50-year truce. By that time, Israeli Arabs will be able to simply vote the Jewish state off the map.
So that's the argument for Israeli settlements on Palestinian land? What arguments do the peace movement have against that?