TBR News November 22, 2015

Nov 22 2015

The Voice of the White House

Washington, D.C. November 21, 2015: “While Obama and his diverse clique stumble and bumble in Mid-East mass destruction, Putin is emerging as the dominent figure. Always one step ahead of others, he is establishing himself, and Russia, as a force against anarchy and Saudi- sponsored terrorism. He has become the beau ideal of the Shiite countries and the US is scrambling, and very late, to try to at least catch up with him. But we buy huge amounts of oil from Saudia Arabia so we are sensitive to their religious needs and these caused the Saudis to set up ISIS. The Saudis, after all, are Sunni Moslems and are at war with the Sunnis. Somehow the American media does not know this so the public is never informed.”

The Saudis Are Stumbling – They May Take the Middle East With Them

America’s leading Sunni ally is proving how easily hubris, delusion, and old-fashioned ineptitude can trump even bottomless wealth

November 14, 2015

by Conn Hallinan

Foreign Policy in Focus

For the past eight decades Saudi Arabia has been careful.

Using its vast oil wealth, it’s quietly spread its ultra-conservative brand of Islam throughout the Muslim world, secretly undermined secular regimes in its region, and prudently kept to the shadows while others did the fighting and dying. It was Saudi money that fueled the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, underwrote Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, and bankrolled Islamic movements and terrorist groups from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush.

It wasn’t a modest foreign policy, but it was a discreet one.

Today that circumspect diplomacy is in ruins, and the House of Saud looks more vulnerable than it has since the country was founded in 1926. Unraveling the reasons for the current train wreck is a study in how easily hubris, delusion, and old-fashioned ineptness can trump even bottomless wealth.

Oil Slick

The kingdom’s first stumble was a strategic decision last fall to undermine competitors by scaling up its oil production and thus lowering the global price.

They figured that if the price of a barrel of oil dropped from over $100 to around $80, it would strangle competitors that relied on more expensive sources and new technologies, including the U.S. fracking industry, companies exploring the Arctic, and emergent producers like Brazil. That, in turn, would allow Riyadh to reclaim its shrinking share of the energy market. There was also the added benefit that lower oil prices would damage oil-reliant countries that the Saudis didn’t like – including Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Iran.

In one sense it worked. The American fracking industry is scaling back, the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands has slowed, and many Arctic drillers have closed up shop. And indeed, countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Russia have taken serious economic hits.

But it may have worked a little too well, particularly with China’s economic slowdown reducing demand and further depressing the price – a result that should have been entirely foreseeable but that the Saudis somehow missed.

The price of oil dropped from $115 a barrel in June 2014 to around $44 today. While it costs less than $10 to produce a barrel of Saudi oil, the Saudis need a price between $95 and $105 to balance their budget. The country’s leaders, who figured that oil wouldn’t fall below $80 a barrel – and then only for a few months – are now burning through their foreign reserves to make up the difference.

While oil prices will likely rise over the next five years, projections are that the price per barrel won’t top $65 for the foreseeable future. Saudi debt is on schedule to rise from 6.7 percent of GDP this year to 17.3 percent next year, and its 2015 budget deficit is $130 billion.

The country is now spending $10 billion a month in foreign exchange reserves to pay the bills and has been forced to borrow money on the international financial market. Recently the International Monetary Fund’s regional director, Masood Ahmed, warned Riyadh that the country would deplete its financial reserves in five years unless it drastically cut its budget.

Buying the Peace (While Funding War)

But the kingdom can’t do that.

When the Arab Spring broke out in 2011, Saudi Arabia headed it off by pumping $130 billion into the economy, raising wages, improving services, and providing jobs for its growing population. Saudi Arabia has one of the youngest populations in the Middle East, many of whom are unemployed and poorly educated. Some 25 percent of the population lives in poverty. Money keeps the lid on, but – even with the heavy-handed repression that characterizes Saudi political life – for how long?

Meanwhile they’re racking up bills with ill-advised foreign interventions. In March, the kingdom intervened in Yemen’s civil conflict, launching an air war, a naval blockade, and partial ground campaign on the pretense that Iran was behind one of the war’s factions – a conclusion not even the Americans agree with.

Again, the Saudis miscalculated, even though one of their major allies, Pakistan, warned them they were headed for trouble. In part, the kingdom’s hubris was fed by the illusion that US support would make it a short war. The Americans are arming the Saudis, supplying them with bombing targets, backing up the naval blockade, and refueling their warplanes in midair.

But six months down the line the conflict has turned into a stalemate. The war has killed 5,000 people (including over 500 children), flattened cities, and alienated much of the local population. It’s also generated a horrendous food and medical crisis and created opportunities for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda to seize territory in southern Yemen. Efforts by the UN to investigate the possibility of war crimes were blocked by Saudi Arabia and the US

As the Saudis are finding out, war is a very expensive business – a burden they could meet under normal circumstances, but not when the price of the kingdom’s only commodity, oil, is plummeting.

Nor is Yemen the only war that the Saudis are involved in. Riyadh, along with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are underwriting many of the groups trying to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. When antigovernment demonstrations broke out there in 2011, the Saudis – along with the Americans and the Turks – calculated that Assad could be toppled in a few months.

But that was magical thinking. As bad as Assad is, a lot of Syrians – particularly minorities like Shiites, Christians, and Druze – were far more afraid of the Islamists from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State than they were of their own government. So the war has dragged on for four years and has now killed close to 250,000 people.

Once again, the Saudis miscalculated, though in this case they were hardly alone. The Syrian government turned out to be more resilient than it appeared. And Riyadh’s bottom line that Assad had to go just ended up bringing Iran and Russia into the picture, checkmating any direct intervention by the anti-Assad coalition. Any attempt to establish a no-fly zone against Assad will now have to confront the Russian air force – not something that anyone other than certain US presidential aspirants are eager to do.

The war has also generated a flood of refugees, deeply alarming the European Union, which finally seems to be listening to Moscow’s point about the consequences of overthrowing governments without a plan for who takes over. There’s nothing like millions of refugees headed in your direction to cause some serious rethinking of strategic goals.

The Saudis goal of isolating Iran, meanwhile, is rapidly collapsing. The P5+1 – the US, China, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany – successfully completed a nuclear agreement with Tehran, despite every effort by the Saudis and Israel to torpedo it. And at Moscow’s insistence, Washington has reversed its opposition to Iran being included in peace talks around Syria.

Bills Coming Due

Stymied in Syria, mired down in Yemen, and its finances increasingly fragile, the kingdom also faces internal unrest from its long marginalized Shia minority in the country’s east and south. To top it off, the Islamic State has called for the “liberation” of Mecca from the House of Saud and launched a bombing campaign aimed at the Kingdom’s Shiites.

This fall’s Hajj disaster – a stampede that killed more than 2,100 pilgrims and provoked anger at the Saudi authorities for their foot dragging on investigating it – have added to the royal family’s woes. The Saudis claim just 769 people were killed, a figure that no other country in the world accepts. And there are persistent rumors that the deadly stampede was caused when police blocked off an area in order to allow high-ranking Saudis special access to the holy sites.

Some of these missteps can be laid at the feet of the new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and of a younger, more aggressive generation of Saudis he’s appointed to key positions. But Saudi Arabia’s troubles are also a reflection of a Middle East in transition. Exactly where it’s headed is by no means clear, but change is in the wind.

Iran is breaking out of its isolation. With its large, well-educated population, strong industrial base, and plentiful energy resources, it’s poised to play a major regional, if not international, role. Turkey is in the midst of a political upheaval, and there’s growing opposition among Turks to Ankara’s meddling in the Syrian civil war.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is impaled on its own policies, both foreign and domestic. “The expensive social contract between the Royal family and Saudi citizens will get more difficult, and eventually impossible to sustain if oil prices don’t recover,” Meghan L. O’Sullivan, director of the Geopolitics of Energy project at Harvard, told the New York Times.

However, the House of Saud has little choice but to keep pumping oil to pay for its wars and keep the internal peace. Yet more production drives down prices even further. And once the sanctions come off Iran, the oil glut will become worse.

While it’s still immensely wealthy, there are lots of bills coming due. It’s not clear the kingdom has the capital or the ability to meet them.

Isis, of course, though some of its Gulf allies certainly played a role in it – as the US vice-president, Joe Biden, acknowledged last year. But there was no al-Qaida in Iraq until the US and Britain invaded. And the US has certainly exploited the existence of Isis against other forces in the region as part of a wider drive to maintain western control.

The calculus changed when Isis started beheading westerners and posting atrocities online, and the Gulf states are now backing other groups in the Syrian war, such as the Nusra Front. But this US and western habit of playing with jihadi groups, which then come back to bite them, goes back at least to the 1980s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which fostered the original al-Qaida under CIA tutelage.

It was recalibrated during the occupation of Iraq, when US forces led by General Petraeus sponsored an El Salvador-style dirty war of sectarian death squads to weaken the Iraqi resistance. And it was reprised in 2011 in the Nato-orchestrated war in Libya, where Isis last week took control of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.

In reality, US and western policy in the conflagration that is now the Middle East is in the classic mould of imperial divide-and-rule. American forces bomb one set of rebels while backing another in Syria, and mount what are effectively joint military operations with Iran against Isis in Iraq while supporting Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. However confused US policy may often be, a weak, partitioned Iraq and Syria fit such an approach perfectly.

What’s clear is that Isis and its monstrosities won’t be defeated by the same powers that brought it to Iraq and Syria in the first place, or whose open and covert war-making has fostered it in the years since. Endless western military interventions in the Middle East have brought only destruction and division. It’s the people of the region who can cure this disease – not those who incubated the virus.

Wake up, Europe: Russia is not the enemy

November 14, 2015

by Fanielle Ryan


In the aftermath of the slew of horrific terror attacks in Paris last night, European nations must come to admit that, with their continuous and blind support of US foreign policy, they are sowing the seeds of their own demise.

For more than a year and a half, Washington, with little concern for consequences, has used Europe as a tool in its futile attempts to batter Russia into submission. First in Ukraine, now in Syria — and each time Europe has sided with Washington against its own interests, it has suffered for it.

That US-driven rift between Europe and Russia must not be allowed to widen any further. The risks to Europe now are far too great for Paris, Brussels and Berlin to be squandering allies in favor of fickle friends — and Friday’s attacks in the French capital highlight the total absurdity of the West continuing to treat Russia as its enemy in the face of such a menacing common threat.

Threat of an overreaction looms

Naturally, the focus today remains on grief, anger and confusion. But as the dust settles over this latest tragedy, Europeans will continue to question the wisdom of foreign policy that results in this kind of bloody blowback in their capital cities. Whether their leaders can listen to reason is another question entirely.

Threats like IS cannot be dealt with until we are honest with ourselves about how they evolved, and the role we played in that evolution. There is, as we will no doubt hear many times in the coming days, no excuse for terror. That is true, but it is also unfortunately a simplistic and idealistic mentality — and when spouted from the mouths of missile-happy Western politicians, there is an almost macabre hypocrisy to it. It’s a mentality that makes us feel better in justifying our own terror and violence, in the name of combating the terror and violence of others — and it is a vicious circle.

Terror attacks like these allow the worst instincts of the Western establishment to rise to the surface. The collective fear and trauma caused by such horror is cynically harnessed by governments to shift public opinion towards supporting more war and violence, which results only in more fear, more death, more destruction and more terrorism. This cycle has become the new normal.

French President Francois Hollande’s first comments after the Paris attacks demonstrate as much: “We will continue to lead the fight, and it will be merciless,” he said. It’s sentences like that which should give Europeans even more reason to fear where this will all lead.

Attacks shift agenda at Vienna talks

As another round of multilateral talks on Syria begins in Vienna today, the agenda will surely be affected by this latest string of attacks. But there is an opportunity here for European nations, including France, to go against their worst instincts and orders from Washington, and to more seriously consider Russia’s recent eight-point plan for a Syria peace deal.

The alternative — supporting Washington’s failed policy of arming, training and aiding “moderate” rebel groups — has clearly not been in Europe’s best interests.

We have seen knee-jerk overreactions which exacerbate violence all before. We know where they lead. France’s response should not focus on exacting some sort of American-style ‘shock and awe’ revenge, but should be about doubling down on its efforts to achieve a peace deal in Syria. That must involve a broad reassessment of its strategy in the war-torn country and a serious reconsideration of Russia’s proposals — or at least a greater openness to cooperation with Moscow. Russia has not put forth its plan as an iron-clad ultimatum. It is open to suggestions.

The pressure from the US side however, might be too great. The Obama administration has demonstrated, for whatever reasons, that cooperating with Russia on an equal footing is not something they feel they can lower themselves to. Washington will attempt to seize the moment and dominate the Vienna talks. The fact that Barack Obama yesterday evening took to a podium to comment on the Paris attacks while the siege was still ongoing — and before even the French president himself had spoken publicly — is evidence enough of that.

But as Europe deals with the blowback that the US has avoided thus far, the balance may tip out of Washington’s favor. The French people are focused on mourning today, but soon they will begin asking questions. They will question the sanity of the government which flirted with radical groups in Syria at some other nation’s beck and call. They will question the competence of the security and intelligence services, which despite monitoring the hundreds of French citizens returning from Syria, still did not see this coming. They will question Europe’s open-doors policy to migrants and refugees, fearing justifiably, that among the mostly normal humans fleeing terror, there will be those intent on doing them harm.

The root of the problem

Of course, the roots of this go much further back than Syria. The US handed the EU the pen to sign its own death warrant when George Bush invaded Iraq and paved the way for a group as horrifically barbaric as the Islamic State to rise from the carnage and destruction.

Terrorism is a global threat. The heinous attacks in Paris prove that nowhere is safe from this menace. Not a small concert venue on a Friday night. Not a friendly football game between neighboring nations. Not an inconspicuous Cambodian restaurant in a Parisian neighborhood.

There is a lesson for France from last night’s horrible events. You cannot simultaneously publicly battle against extremism and cozy up to the worst extremists of all as a matter of foreign policy. Nor can you, to serve selfish geopolitical interests, pick and choose which terrorists are bad and which ones are good. It doesn’t work like that.

The US foreign policy class has an aversion to learning from its mistakes — whether that is intentional or not is a discussion for another day. Either way, Europe must not follow in its footsteps any longer.Truth be told, no one knows how to deal with ISIS. Not Washington, not Paris and not Moscow. There isn’t a rulebook — but there is certainly a list of tried and tested failures that can inform our decision making. What is also clear is that this threat does demand solidarity among nations who should be able to put their minor differences aside to face a common threat.

To allow Washington to fan the flames of a useless rift between Europe and Russia is pure insanity. The longer Europe remains blind to this reality, the longer we treat Russia as an enemy rather than a partner in dealing with IS, the longer we must prepare ourselves for endless violence — in Syria and in our own front yards.

Now the truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq

The sectarian terror group won’t be defeated by the western states that incubated it in the first place

by Seumas Milne

The Guardian

The war on terror, that campaign without end launched 14 years ago by George Bush, is tying itself up in ever more grotesque contortions. On Monday the trial in London of a Swedish man, Bherlin Gildo, accused of terrorism in Syria, collapsed after it became clear British intelligence had been arming the same rebel groups the defendant was charged with supporting.

The prosecution abandoned the case, apparently to avoid embarrassing the intelligence services. The defence argued that going ahead withthe trial would have been an “affront to justice” when there was plenty of evidence the British state was itself providing “extensive support” to the armed Syrian opposition.

That didn’t only include the “non-lethal assistance” boasted of by the government (including body armour and military vehicles), but training, logistical support and the secret supply of “arms on a massive scale”. Reports were cited that MI6 had cooperated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to the Syrian rebels in 2012 after the fall of the Gaddafi regime.

Clearly, the absurdity of sending someone to prison for doing what ministers and their security officials were up to themselves became too much. But it’s only the latest of a string of such cases. Less fortunate was a London cab driver Anis Sardar, who was given a life sentence a fortnight earlier for taking part in 2007 in resistance to the occupation of Iraq by US and British forces. Armed opposition to illegal invasion and occupation clearly doesn’t constitute terrorism or murder on most definitions, including the Geneva convention.

But terrorism is now squarely in the eye of the beholder. And nowhere is that more so than in the Middle East, where today’s terrorists are tomorrow’s fighters against tyranny – and allies are enemies – often at the bewildering whim of a western policymaker’s conference call.

For the past year, US, British and other western forces have been back in Iraq, supposedly in the cause of destroying the hyper-sectarian terror group Islamic State (formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq). This was after Isis overran huge chunks of Iraqi and Syrian territory and proclaimed a self-styled Islamic caliphate.

The campaign isn’t going well. Last month, Isis rolled into the Iraqi city of Ramadi, while on the other side of the now nonexistent border its forces conquered the Syrian town of Palmyra. Al-Qaida’s official franchise, the Nusra Front, has also been making gains in Syria.

Some Iraqis complain that the US sat on its hands while all this was going on. The Americans insist they are trying to avoid civilian casualties, and claim significant successes. Privately, officials say they don’t want to be seen hammering Sunni strongholds in a sectarian war and risk upsetting their Sunni allies in the Gulf.

A revealing light on how we got here has now been shone by a recently declassified secret US intelligence report, written in August 2012, which uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. In stark contrast to western claims at the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency document identifies al-Qaida in Iraq (which became Isis) and fellow Salafists as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” – and states that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” were supporting the opposition’s efforts to take control of eastern Syria.

Raising the “possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality”, the Pentagon report goes on, “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)”.

Which is pretty well exactly what happened two years later. The report isn’t a policy document. It’s heavily redacted and there are ambiguities in the language. But the implications are clear enough. A year into the Syrian rebellion, the US and its allies weren’t only supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups; they were prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of “Islamic state” – despite the “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity – as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria.

How Saudi/Gulf Money Fuels Terror

November 14, 2015

by Daniel Lazare

Consortium News

In the wake of the latest terrorist outrage in Paris, the big question is not which specific group is responsible for the attack, but who’s responsible for the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the first place. The answer that has grown increasingly clear in recent years is that it’s Western leaders who have used growing portions of the Muslim world as a playground for their military games and are now crying crocodile tears over the consequences.

This pattern had its beginnings in the 1980s in Afghanistan, where the Central Intelligence Agency and the Saudi royal family virtually invented modern jihadism in an effort to subject the Soviets to a Vietnam-style war in their own backyard. It was the case, too, in Iraq, which the United States and Great Britain invaded in 2003, triggering a vicious civil warfare between Shi‘ites and Sunnis.

Today, it’s the case in Yemen where the U.S. and France are helping Saudi Arabia in its massive air war against Houthi Shi‘ites. And it’s the case in Syria, the scene of the most destructive war game of them all, where Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states are channeling money and arms to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh), and similar forces with the full knowledge of the U.S.

Western leaders encourage this violence yet decry it in virtually the same breath. In April 2008, a Treasury official testified in a congressional hearing that “Saudi Arabia today remains the location from which more money is going to … Sunni terror groups and the Taliban than from any other place in the world.” [See Rachel Ehrenfeld, “Their Oil Is Thicker Than Our Blood,” in in Sarah N. Stern, ed., Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network: America and the West’s Fatal Embrace (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 127.]

In December 2009, Hillary Clinton noted in a confidential diplomatic memo that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In October 2014, Joe Biden told students at Harvard’s Kennedy School that “the Saudis, the emirates, etc. … were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war … [that] they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda.”

Just last month, a New York Times editorial complained that Saudis, Qataris and Kuwaitis were continuing to funnel donations not only to Al Qaeda but to Islamic State as well.

Yet despite countless promises to shut down such funding, the spigots have remained wide open. The U.S. has not only acquiesced in such activities, moreover, but has actively participated in them. In June 2012, the Times wrote that the C.I.A. was working with the Muslim Brotherhood to channel Turkish, Saudi and Qatari-supplied arms to anti-Assad rebels.

Two months later, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Al Qaeda, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood dominated the Syrian rebel movement, that their goal was to establish a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria” where Islamic State’s caliphate is now located, and that this is “exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition” – i.e. the West, Gulf states, and Turkey – “want in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”

More recently, the Obama administration made no objection when the Saudis supplied Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate, with high-tech TOW missiles in support of its offensive in Syria’s northern Idlib province. It did not complain when the Saudis vowed to step up aid to such groups in response to Russia’s intervention in support of the besieged Assad regime.

Two weeks ago, the Times’s Ben Hubbard noted that 50 American Special Operations troops injected into northern Syria have been assigned to work with Arab rebels who had previously collaborated with Al Nusra and – although Hubbard didn’t say so – would undoubtedly do so again as soon as the Americans had gone.

Working Hand-in-Glove

While vowing eternal enmity against Al Qaeda, the U.S. and its Gulf allies thus work hand-in-glove with the same forces in pursuit of other goals. Yet now leaders from Washington to Riyadh are beside themselves with grief that the same groups are biting the hand that feeds them.

This is a pattern that has grown all too familiar in recent years. “Terrorism” is a well-nigh meaningless word that obscures and confuses more than it illuminates. The 9/11 attacks led to a “global war on terror” and, simultaneously, to a vast cover-up concerning those who were actually responsible for the deed.

As a curtain of silence descended around the U.S.-Saudi role in Afghanistan, where the Osama bin Laden network originated, the Bush administration spirited 140 Saudis, including some two dozen members of the Bin Laden family, out of the country after no more than cursory questioning by the F.B.I.

When Saudi regent Abdullah bin Abdulaziz – he would not formally assume the throne for another three years – visited George W. Bush’s Texas ranch in April 2002, the President barely mentioned the World Trade Center and cut short a reporter who insisted on bringing it up:

Yes, I – the crown prince has been very strong in condemning those who committed the murder of U.S. citizens. We’re constantly working with him and his government on intelligence sharing and cutting off money … the government has been acting, and I appreciate that very much.”

What Bush said was a lie. Just a month earlier, former FBI assistant director Robert Kallstrom had complained that the Saudis were dragging their feet with regard to the investigation: “It doesn’t look like they’re doing much, and frankly it’s nothing new.”

In April 2003, Philip Zelikow, the 9/11 commission’s neocon executive director, fired an investigator, Dana Leseman, when she proved too vigorous in probing the Saudi connection. [See Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (New York: Twelve, 2008), pp. 110-13.]

Strangest of all is what has happened to a 28-page chapter in an earlier joint congressional report dealing with the question of the Saudi complicity. While the report as a whole was heavily redacted, the chapter itself wound up entirely suppressed. Although Obama promised 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser shortly after taking office to see to it that it was made public, it remains under wraps.

Rather than identifying those responsible, Washington preferred that the American people remain in the dark. Instead of identifying the actual culprits, the Bush administration, backed up by the Democrats and the press, preferred to blame it all on vague and formless “evildoers” from another realm. The same thing happened following the Charlie Hebdo massacre last January. Amid thousands of “Je Suis Charlie” signs and mass demonstrations — featuring Benjamin Netanyahu, Nicolas Sarkozy and the Saudi ambassador — persistent reports of Saudi donations flowing to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that trained gunman Chérif Kouachi and apparently sponsored the assault, were ignored.

Reports that Riyadh has since collaborated with AQAP in its war against Shi‘ite Houthis have met the same fate. As Saudi jets spread death and destruction across Yemen, Al Qaeda has gained control of the eastern city of Mukalla, an oil center and sea port with a population of 300,000, and has also taken control of portions of Aden as well, accumulating in the process an arsenal consisting of dozens of 55 armored vehicles and 22 tanks plus anti-aircraft missiles and other weaponry as well.

No Alarm Bells

One would think that this would set off alarm bells in Washington, yet the result has been a collective shrug. The Obama administration continues to back Saudi Arabia in its assault on the Middle East’s poorest nation, providing it with technical back-up and naval support, while France, eager to supplant the U.S. as the kingdom’s chief weapons supplier, backs it as well.

French President Francois Hollande thus backs the kingdom that backs the forces that backed those who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He also backs a kingdom that allows donations to flow to ISIS, which he now identifies as responsible for the latest atrocities.

Hollande prefers to beat his breast and issue ringing calls for “compassion and solidarity” rather than actually doing something about the relationships that generate such attacks in the first place.

At its most basic level, this is a problem of oil, money and an American empire that stands paralyzed before the disaster it has created in the Middle East. When Obama issued his famous August 2011 call for regime change in Damascus – “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside” – it seemed to be a no-brainer.

The insurgency was growing, the Ba’athists were hanging on by a thread, and it seemed only a matter of time before Assad met the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died,” Hillary Clinton would crow a few months later about Gaddafi, and so it seemed that Assad would soon meet his end at hands of a rebel mob, too.

But Assad proved more durable, mainly because he had the backing of a mass party that, despite corruption and ossification, still enjoyed a significant measure of popular support. The longer he has been able to stay in power, therefore, the more the U.S. has found itself caught up in an increasingly sectarian war by gulf-funded Sunni extremists.

Faced with a choice between Assad on one hand and ISIS and Al Qaeda on the other, Obama has dithered and delayed, refusing to commit himself wholeheartedly to the rebel cause but failing to object when his closest friends channel funds to groups that the U.S. officially regards as anathema.

Instead of defeating ISIS, this policy of neither-nor has allowed it fester and grow. The group is richer than ever, its troops travel about in shiny new Toyota pickups, and its technical prowess is also on the upswing. Two weeks ago, it apparently brought down a Russian airliner in the Sinai. On Thursday, it sent a pair of suicide bombers into a Shi‘ite neighborhood in Beirut, killing 43 people and wounding more than two hundred.

Now, according to French authorities, ISIS has sent a team of at least eight militants to shoot up various sites in Paris. In an apparent reference to Western bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria, one gunman reportedly shouted during the assault on the Bataclan music hall, “What you are doing in Syria, you are going to pay for it now.”

This is a horror show made in Washington, Riyadh and the Élysée.

The Rising Right

What is to be done? The events are a godsend for Marine Le Pen, who will undoubtedly use them to fuel the mass xenophobia that generates votes for the National Front. It is a boon as well for countless politicians in Eastern Europe, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Slovakia Prime Minister Robert Fico, who also benefits from growing anti-immigrant fervor.

In Poland, where President Andrzej Duda has denounced European Union refugee quotas and 25,000 ultra-right demonstrators recently paraded through Warsaw calling for “Poland for the Poles,” nationalists are also rubbing their hands with glee.

For weeks, right-wing websites and news outlets have been warning that ISIS was using the refugee wave to infiltrate fighters into the EU, and now they will be able to point to the Bataclan massacre and say that they were right.

It’s an argument that ordinary people will likely find compelling, which is why pointing out the role of Western governments in the debacle is vital. After raining down destruction on one Muslim nation after another, Western leaders can hardly be surprised when violence overflows into their own backyard.

Sealing off the borders à la Donald Trump or Nigel Farage may strike some voters as logical, but the more the U.S. and its allies impose “regime change” and mass terror on the Middle East, the greater will be the number of refugees seeking to escape. No matter how many barriers the EU puts up, growing numbers will find ways around them.

The same goes for the violence. No matter how hard the West tries to seal itself off against the disorders that it itself is creating, it will find that a cordon sanitaire is impossible to maintain. Saudi Arabia has quadrupled its arms purchases in recent years while the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council is now the third biggest military spender in the world.

This is wonderful news for arms manufacturers not to mention politicians desperate for an uptick in GDP, but somewhat less so for masses of ordinary people in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Paris who are now at the receiving end of all that weaponry and violence. The more the Western alliance and its Gulf “allies” insist on spreading chaos in the Middle East, the more xenophobia and right-wing reaction will be the upshot in Europe and the United States.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).

Paris attacks: The West’s fatal misunderstanding of Islamic State

November 15, 2015

by Rasha Elass


The horrendous attacks on Paris have an eerie resemblance to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in that they seem to have caught everyone off guard.

Until perhaps Friday, the main perception among Western intelligence agencies and Washington policymakers has been that Islamic State poses “no immediate threat” to the United States or the West.

Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS is more interested in establishing a Caliphate and not so interested in attacking the West,” a retired CIA officer explained during a closed meeting at one of Washington’s think tanks. He was echoing a common sentiment, and insisted that “Al Qaeda remains the main threat.” Even U.S. President Barack Obama recently said with confidence that Islamic State was being “contained.”

But we cannot forget that Islamic State came to the world stage barely over a year ago, when it took Mosul and subsequently one third of Iraq as well as one third of Syria in a matter of weeks. Some of the terror group’s major advances on the ground took mere hours, advances that Obama later said will take years to roll back.

I remember covering the war at that time from Damascus, Syria, and later from Beirut, where I kept in constant communication via the Internet with the Syrian rebels and civilians who had suddenly found themselves under Islamic State rule in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al Zor. During those first few days, many went underground, not sure what to do about their new, brutal occupier, who proceeded to slaughter more than 700 men from the Arab Sunni Muslim tribe of Shueitat because the tribe did not pledge allegiance to Islamic State. The militant group commanded all men of fighting age in Deir Al Zor to report to Islamic State checkpoints, surrender weapons, and either pledge allegiance to Islamic State or leave the territory immediately.

We never thought the West would allow a group like ISIS to expand, but now I know that we have been played. We have been extremely stupid,” one anti-Islamic State rebel told me on condition of anonymity to protect his family. He sounded embittered by what he called a shocking and swift victory for the group, and he spoke to me from his car, which he said he had parked just outside an Internet cafe to piggy-back on the Wi-Fi signal without anyone hearing our conversation. He said Islamic State had setup checkpoints everywhere.

The only thing that makes sense to us is that the world wants to dump all its trash here,” he said, referring to the Islamic State jihadists, whom he said were mainly non-Syrian, but other Arab nationals, Chechens, and Westerners. “And then the West will come and bomb them all. This must be the strategy because nothing else makes any sense.”

Conspiracy theories aside, there is some truth to the idea that some countries, as naive and misguided as they have been, privately sighed relief to see their own Islamist nationals travel to Islamist territory to meet their fate.

It’s better than having them stay in our country,” one Western diplomat told me on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. “Statistically, a newly arrived jihadist to ISIS territory is killed within weeks, so good riddance.” He added that all the West had to worry about were the “lone-wolf attacks” inspired by Islamic State.

Unfortunately, the Paris attacks have disproved this theory, and it is time to shed other falsely comforting illusions as well.

Namely, let us not forget that some of the United States’ staunchest allies have been, and remain, responsible for facilitating the arrival of money, materiel, and jihadists into Islamic State territory, not to mention providing the ideological guidance for the terror group. They have been doing so in the hopes of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Jihadists have crossed the borders of Jordan and Turkey into Syria, seemingly at will. Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have not stopped their private citizens from sending money to various Islamist brigades, including Islamic State. They also give airtime to the muftis who provide ideological guidance to Islamic State, religious scholars who condone sectarian killing, gruesome beheadings, and sexual slavery on theological grounds.

It has been too convenient a falsity also for the West to believe that Syria’s war is Syria’s problem, or at least someone else’s problem, when so many world players are already involved in the war there, either directly or by proxy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had strong words at the ongoing Vienna talks on Syria, attended by foreign ministers of some 20 nations. Standing next to his Russian counterpart, Kerry called the Paris attacks “the most vile, horrendous, outrageous, unacceptable acts on the planet.” But he added that they “encouraged us today to do even harder work to make progress and to help resolve the crises that we face.”

Peace and order in Syria are a long way off — Syrians are not even represented in Vienna — but if world players resolve to ensure that the Paris attacks become the nail in Islamic State’s coffin, then at least the Phoenix is already rising from the ashes.

Anonymous will hunt you down!’: Hacktivists declare ‘total war’ on ISIS after Paris attacks

November 16, 2015


The hacktivist group Anonymous, engaged in electronic warfare against Islamic State, has declared ‘total war’ on the terror group following the deadly attacks in France, while pledging to hunt down every single supporter of the jihadist group online.

The combat mission to root out terrorism propaganda and recruitment networks from the internet was announced via a YouTube video, where a spokesman wearing the group’s symbol – the iconic Guy Fawkes mask – promised to “launch the biggest operation ever” against Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

Pledging to use their skills to “unite humanity,” the group warned terrorists to “expect massive cyber attacks.”

Anonymous from all over the world will hunt you down,” the spokesman said. “You should know that we will find you and we will not let you go.”

War is declared. Get prepared,” the group said in the video post. “The French people are stronger than you and will come out of this atrocity even stronger.”

A loosely associated international network of hacktivists, known as the Anonymous group, have been defending French cyber-borders following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January under the #OpISIS online campaign.

Throughout the year, the group has tracked, hacked, unmasked, and reported thousands of Twitter accounts that were run by or associated with IS members.

The hactivists’ work this year resulted in the dismantling some 149 IS-linked websites, according to a recent report in Foreign Policy. Anonymous also flagged roughly 101,000 Twitter accounts and 5,900 propaganda videos.

Anonymous also announced this week that they were able to trace a pro-IS hacking group CyberCaliphate that uses at least at least 10 Twitter handles to a single IP address in Kuwait.

A hacker with Anonymous, speaking to Epoch Times revealed that IS accounts have a life span of about eight hours before Twitter suspends them. After 10 suspensions, the hacktivist claims, “they disappear for a few weeks, only to re-emerge,” under a different name, yet with CyberCaliphate banner and with the same IP address.

While the CyberCaliphate collective claims to be behind a number of cyber attacks, the activist told the Epoch Times that pro-IS hackers fake most of their attacks. 

ISIS video threatens attack on Washington, warns countries taking part in Syria airstrikes

November 16, 2015


A new Islamic State video has warned that countries taking part in Syria airstrikes will suffer the same fate as France, which was hit with multiple attacks on Friday. It specifically threatens an attack on Washington.

A man in the video states that just as the center of France was hit by terror attacks on Friday, the US capital of Washington DC will suffer the same outcome at the hands of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the video, Reuters reported.

ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris on Friday which left 129 people dead and 352 others wounded. Seven of the attackers blew themselves up, and police have been searching intensively for accomplices.

The assaults were the worst to take place on French soil since World War II.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic & International Studies on Monday, CIA director John Brennan said he wouldn’t consider the Paris attacks a “one-off event,” but added that he would never say attacks are “inevitable,” as the agency “works 24/7 to prevent attacks from taking place.”

ISIS also claimed it brought down a Russian airplane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 passengers onboard.

Moscow has not confirmed the militant group’s role in the crash, and an investigation is ongoing. Both Russia and Egypt previously stated that ISIS does not have the means to shoot down a plane.

Raqqa activists reveal details of French airstrikes on Syria

Dozen Isis targets bombed overnight in Raqqa include Isis political office, southern entrance to the city and military camp

November 16, 2015

by Kareem Shaheen in Beirut

The Guardian

French warplanes have launched 30 airstrikes on more than a dozen Islamic State targets in Raqqa, activists in the Syrian city have said.

The raids were France’s first retaliation to Friday’s coordinated attacks in Paris claimed by Isis, in which at least 129 people were killed.

Residents said the targets bombed in the de facto capital of the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate included the local Isis political office, the southern entrance to the city and a military camp.

The French airstrikes were precise and targeted Daesh positions,” said one activist, using an Arabic acronym for Isis. “They hit Isis headquarters and camps that have ammunition warehouses as well as vehicles and [Isis] members.”

Division 17, an army base to the north of the city, had been under Isis control since July 2014.

Isis claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks in Paris, saying it had targeted France because of its role in the coalition carrying out airstrikes in Syria and describing it as a haven for “crusaders”.

Raqqa activists said Isis members had distributed sweets in the city in the aftermath of the operation, and forced residents to give interviews endorsing the Paris attacks.

The French defence ministry said in a statement that the sites targeted had previously been identified on reconnaissance flights.

The decision to launch retaliatory airstrikes against the group was an act of self-defence, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has said.

France has always said that because she has been threatened and attacked by Daesh, it would be normal that she would react in the framework of self-defence. That’s what we did today with the strikes on Raqqa,” he said from the G20 summit in Turkey. “We can’t let Daesh act without reacting.”

The French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said the attack on Paris was masterminded by terrorist leaders within Syria, who “commissioned” operatives in Belgium to carry out the assault.

A group situated in Syria … is organising attacks [with] actors situated in Belgium who are not known to our services, and is inciting them to act on French territory, just like they incite them to act in other European cities,” Cazeneuve said in an interview on France 2 TV.

The French airstrikes were followed on Monday morning by US-led coalition raids that targeted positions around the city, including near Ain Issa, a town 30 miles (48km) from Raqqa that was seized by Kurdish fighters earlier this year.

Russian planes also bombed what activists said was a residential neighbourhood, killing five people. They said no civilians were reported killed in the French strikes.

The French raids were launched simultaneously from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan in coordination with US forces, the French defence ministry said.

France is part of a US-led coalition against Isis, and had taken a more active role than other members of the alliance in targeting the group. The country’s leaders are also staunch opponents of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

The retaliatory strikes were discussed between the French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drain, and the US defence secretary, Ash Carter, in phone calls on Saturday and Sunday.

U.S. Warplanes Strike ISIS Oil Trucks in Syria

November 16, 2015

by Michael R. Gordon

New Youk Times

ISTANBUL — Intensifying pressure on the Islamic State, United States warplanes for the first time attacked hundreds of trucks on Monday that the extremist group has been using to smuggle the crude oil it has been producing in Syria, American officials said.

According to an initial assessment, 116 trucks were destroyed in the attack, which took place near Deir al-Zour, an area in eastern Syria that is controlled by the Islamic State.

The airstrikes were carried out by four A-10 attack planes and two AC-130 gunships based in Turkey.

Plans for the strike were developed well before the terrorist attacks in and around Paris on Friday, officials familiar with the operation said, part of a broader operation to disrupt the ability of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to generate revenue to support its military operations and govern its territory.

American officials have long been frustrated by ability of ISIS to generate tens of million of dollars a month by producing and exporting oil.

To disrupt that source of revenue, American officials said last week that the United States had sharply stepped up its airstrikes against infrastructure that allows ISIS to pump oil in Syria.

Until Monday, the United States had refrained from striking the fleet used to transport oil, believed to include more than 1,000 tanker trucks, because of concerns about causing civilian casualties. As a result, the Islamic State’s distribution system for exporting oil had remained largely intact.

The new campaign is called Tidal Wave II. It is named after the World War II effort to counter Nazi Germany by striking Romania’s oil industry. Lt. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who in September assumed command of the international coalition’s campaign in Iraq and Syria, suggested the name.

To reduce the risk of harming civilians, two F-15 warplanes dropped leaflets about an hour before the attack warning drivers to abandon their vehicles, and strafing runs were conducted to reinforce the message.

The area where the trucks assemble in Syria has been closely monitored by reconnaissance drones. As many as 1,000 trucks have been observed there, waiting to receive their cargo of illicit oil.

On Monday, 295 trucks were in the area, and more than a third of them were destroyed, United States officials said. The A-10s dropped two dozen 500-pound bombs and conducted strafing runs with 30-millimeter Gatling guns. The AC-130s attacked with 30-millimeter Gatling guns and 105-millimeter cannons.

The pilots saw several drivers running to a nearby tent and did not attack them, an American official said, and there were no immediate reports of civilian casualties.

Col. Steven H. Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the American-led coalition, confirmed that A-10s and AC-130s had been used in the attack and that 116 tanker trucks had been destroyed.

This part of Tidal Wave II is designed to attack the distribution component of ISIL’s oil smuggling operation and degrade their capacity to fund their military operations,” Colonel Warren said.

The strike comes just days after Kurdish and Yazidi fighters, backed by American airstrikes, cut an important road, Highway 47, that ISIS has used to move supplies and fighters between Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which was captured by the militant group last year.

That road was cut on Thursday, and Kurdish and Yazidi fighters retook the Iraqi city of Sinjar the next day.

The American operation against the oil trucks followed a French on raid Sunday on two Islamic State targets in Raqqa, Syria, which allied officials identified as a headquarters building and a training camp.

More than 20 bombs were dropped by French planes in the attack, an allied official said. It is not clear how much damage was caused, and no secondary explosions were observed.

TSA fails to detect loaded gun at Atlanta airport

November 16, 2015


A traveler who flew from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago, Illinois says he accidentally carried a loaded semi-automatic handgun onto his plane his backpack. The Transportation Security Administration did not find the gun during pre-flight screening.

Blake Alford said over the weekend that he discovered the gun after he had landed in Chicago on a Southwest Airlines flight from Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on November 5.

Alford, a retired truck driver, said it was an innocent mistake, and that he wanted to speak out to ensure such a security breach does not happen again.

“People need to know TSA needs to tighten up,” Alford told WGCL. “If they’ll take toothpaste. They’ll make people get out of wheelchairs. They’ll make me take off my belt buckle and my shoes. How did my gun go through?”

The TSA said in a statement that it is investigating the incident “to determine what occurred and what steps, if any, need to be taken to ensure that security protocols are executed appropriately.

“If we find that standard procedures were not adhered to, we will retrain employees as necessary to ensure compliance with standard operating procedures. When our employees fail to meet standards, we hold them appropriately accountable,” the embattled federal agency said.

Southwest Airlines said it will “work alongside appropriate authorities” during the investigation.

The TSA, an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security, is infamous for allegations of misconduct and lackluster security protocol since its inception following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Among other issues, the TSA has been dogged by its use of invasive body scanners, theft, sexual assault and inappropriate touching, and behavioral detection schemes. An internal investigation, in which federal agents purposely attempted to smuggle prohibited items through airport checkpoints, revealed that the agency failed to uncover them 95 percent of time.

The TSA has insisted that it is “rigorous in its screening of passengers and their luggage” and that airport security they steer involves “multiple layers of security, both seen and unseen, to protect the traveling public.”

However, Hartsfield-Jackson Airport increased airport employee screenings last year following revelations that a Delta employee had been running a gun-running operation, local media reported

Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks in Paris over the weekend have also put airlines on heightened alert. The TSA has increased the number of random searches of carry-on luggage and passengers at American airports, according to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson. He said further security measures could be taken if necessary.

There is “no specific, credible intelligence of an attack of the kind in Paris last week being planned by terrorist organizations in this country,” Johnson said in a statement on Monday.

“Given world events,” he added, “this is a time for heightened vigilance.”

Nevertheless, security screeners at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey often fail to find weapons and bombs smuggled on flights by undercover agents, said sources of the New York Post in a new report.

“The abject and consistent failures of TSA screeners should frighten everyone, particularly when they are considered in terms of recent terrorist acts that occurred in Paris,” a NY Post source said.

Exclusive: Egypt detains two airport staff in connection with Russian air crash – sources

November 17, 2015

by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan


CAIRO | Egyptian authorities have detained two employees of Sharm al-Sheikh airport for questioning in connection with the downing of a Russian jet on Oct. 31 that killed all 224 people on board, two security officials and an airport employee said on Tuesday

“Seventeen people are being held, two of them are suspected of helping whoever planted the bomb on the plane at Sharm al-Sheikh airport,” said one of the security officials who both declined to be named.

One of the security officials said CCTV footage showed a baggage handler carrying a suitcase from an airport building to another man, who was loading luggage onto the doomed airliner from beneath the plane on the runway.

An employee at the airport media department, who also preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed two members of the ground crew had been detained for questioning on Monday night.

The interior and civil aviation ministries’ media departments denied in a statement that there had been any arrests.

Russia’s FSB security service said on Tuesday it was certain a bomb had brought down the plane, joining Britain and the United States in reaching that conclusion.

Egypt has not yet confirmed that a bomb was responsible, saying it wants to wait until all investigations are complete.

It was not immediately clear what role the employees had at the airport, which is Egypt’s third-busiest, handling a vast number of charter and budget flights for tourists seeking sea and sun in the southern Sinai peninsula.

Separately, other sources at the airport said security forces were searching for two employees who are suspected of leaving a baggage-scanning machine unattended for a period of time while passengers were boarding the doomed Russian plane.

CCTV footage was being examined to confirm what happened.

The sources said investigators had questioned all the airport staff involved with handling the Russian airplane, its passengers and bags after the crash. No arrests had been made in the search for the two employees who were believed to have stepped away from the baggage-scanning machine.

Since the disaster, many flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh have been suspended, raising concerns that Egypt’s tourism industry, worth about $7 billion a year and still a pillar of the economy despite having fallen sharply in recent years, will be further ravaged.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB, said the conclusion of Russian investigators was that a homemade bomb containing around 1 kg (2 lbs) of TNT had detonated during the flight, causing the plane to break up in mid-air.

“We can unequivocally say it was a terrorist act,” he said.

Egyptian ministers were meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh on Tuesday, with a news conference expected later in the day.

(Reporting by Cairo bureau; writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Michael Georgy and Richard Balmforth)

Vladimir Putin: from pariah to powerbroker in one year

At the 2014 G20 summit in Brisbane, the Russian president was browbeaten by western leaders. But now they know they need him

November 17, 2015

by Simon Tisdall

The Guardian

What a difference a war makes. Twelve months ago, Vladimir Putin was on the menu at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Western leaders queued up hungrily for a piece of Russia’s president following his armed intervention in Ukraine and illegal annexation of Crimea.

Barack Obama warned Putin he was isolated internationally; David Cameron said he did not trust the Russian leader; Stephen Harper, Canada’s then prime minister, told Putin bluntly: “Get out of Ukraine.”

Reacting angrily to the imposition of sanctions, Putin said western leaders had switched off their brains and were making matters worse by punishing Moscow. But the criticism continued unabated and he left the meeting early in a huff.

Fast-forward to this week’s G20 summit in Turkey and everything, it seems, has changed. Putin was pictured in a friendly huddle, chatting animatedly to Obama and the US national security adviser Susan Rice. He also held reportedly productive talks with Cameron and other leaders. No longer ostracised and browbeaten, Putin was the man everybody wanted to meet.

The reason is not a mystery. Under merciless attack from Islamic State, flailing on the refugee crisis, and consequently desperate to end the war in Syria, European leaders, backed by Obama, have come to an uncomfortable but, in historical terms, not wholly novel conclusion: they need Russia.

Speaking after Friday’s Isis terror attacks in Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s former – and possible future – president, called for a new, all-inclusive international coalition to fight Isis. “We must draw on the consequences of the situation in Syria, he said. “We need everyone in order to exterminate Daesh [Isis], including the Russians. There cannot be two coalitions in Syria.”

François Hollande echoed his predecessor’s call for united international military action in concert with Russia when he addressed the French parliament on Monday. Cameron took a similar line. He urged Putin to concentrate Russian fire on Isis targets rather than the western-backed Free Syrian Army, and told him Britain was ready to compromise on a framework peace agreement and transition period in Syria.

The White House said Obama and Putin had agreed on the need for a “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be preceded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire”.

This all boils down to a diplomatic hat-trick for Putin. First, he has gained western recognition that Russian military forces have a legitimate role to play in Syria, in exchange for vague promises to cooperate with the US-led coalition and not to shoot the “good guys”. This marks a complete reversal of the initial American position, which was that Moscow’s intervention was unwelcome and “doomed to failure”.

This new understanding gives Putin the political cover he needs at home after Moscow’s belated admission that an Isis bomb brought down the Russian Airbus over the Sinai – an attack that killed almost twice as many people as the Paris shootings.

Putin said on Tuesday that Russian combat operations would be intensified, and he quickly kept his word, launching cruise missile and long-range bomber attacks. He now has a free hand, and he will use it. “We will search for them [Isis] anywhere they might hide. We will find them in any part of the world and punish them,” he said. Though one worry is that massive Russian retaliation will fail to discriminate between jihadis and civilians.

Second, Obama and Cameron have been forced to accept that Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, may stay in office, possibly for the duration of the proposed 18-month, UN-supervised Syria peace negotiation, as Putin has insisted all along.

Until recently, western and Arab leaders had been demanding Assad’s immediate departure. Cameron has also offered explicit assurances that Russia’s strategic interests in Syria, which include its Mediterranean air and naval bases, would be fully recognised and protected in any settlement – another key Putin objective.

Third, Putin appears to have succeeded in gaining tacit acceptance of the de facto situation in Ukraine. The fighting in eastern Ukraine has in any case subsided following the Minsk accords. But Russia remains firmly in control of Crimea, and its illegal annexation now appears set to become an established fact of life.

Officials say Obama raised Ukraine with Putin at their G20 meeting. But the return of Crimea was not up for discussion. The conclusion must be that Putin’s gamble in flagrantly breaching international law has paid off and Crimea is now permanently lost to Kiev.

It would be a mistake to interpret all this as a rehabilitation of Vladimir Putin. Russia remains under sanctions. It faces growing economic problems, due partly to the low oil price. Putin remains a deeply suspect figure in the eyes of western leaders, who worry what he may get up to next, especially in post-occupation Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the smug American assessment that Putin is an able tactician and a poor strategist now looks hopelessly wide of the mark. His Syrian intervention, rather than weakening him, has returned Russia to its place at the top table. No longer on the menu, Putin is diplomacy’s new maitre d’.

What 100,000 U.S. boots on the ground get you in Syria

November 19, 201

by Michael O’Hanlon


Speaking in Turkey after the terrible Paris murders of last Friday, President Barack Obama recently opposed any fundamental change in U.S. strategy towards Syria — the hotbed and home headquarters of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and apparently a key node in the planning and preparation of the attack. He asked listeners to imagine what it would really accomplish to send, hypothetically, 50,000 U.S. troops to Syria to address the problem at its source–and further mused about whether, if we did so, we would also need to send large forces to any other country from which a future terrorist attack might emanate, like Yemen.

Obama was setting up a bit of a straw man because few politicians or scholars advocate a major invasion of Syria by American-led foreign forces. That said, it is interesting to think through the president’s ideas a bit more. What could we accomplish with different force packages? Today, the United States is sending up to 50 special operators to safer parts of Syria; it may have dozens of special operations forces and CIA personnel already working in or near Syria at present, and has perhaps 1,000 or more personnel contributing to aerial operations over Syria out of bases in Turkey and beyond. With that as the baseline, what else could we do — if we chose to?

Force Package One

50,000 troops

This was Obama’s figure. It is perhaps roughly the size of an invasion force that would be adequate to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to take Islamic State’s capital city of Raqqa out of that group’s hand, perhaps sequentially.

This would be a potent invasion force, certainly far stronger than anything found among Syria’s various fighting forces today. We used more than 100,000 troops to invade Iraq — but that was a larger country with a much larger military — back in 2003. Moreover, of those 100,000 troops, only a fraction were actually crucial in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; others were still maneuvering or preparing when Baghdad fell. So, even though he meant it as a notional or illustrative example, Mr. Obama’s figure of 50,000 is probably not an unfair estimate of what an invasion might require.

Force Package Two

100,000 troops

Even if 50,000 troops could allow us to destroy our enemies’ holds on power, it would likely NOT be enough to begin to stabilize the country. We found out the hard way in Afghanistan, Iraq, and more recently Libya, that getting rid of bad guys is sometimes easier than replacing them with anything better that can hold onto power and restore some semblance of normal, stable life.

The estimate of 100,000 troops accounts for the fact that, while we had 170,000 American GIs and a total of some 200,000 foreign troops in Iraq when the surge succeeded in 2007/2008, Syria is only about 3/4 as populous as Iraq. So a somewhat more modest force would likely be adequate. Still, such a force presupposes some additional foreign help from our allies as well as possibly Russia — and it would need to stay in place for years, as in Iraq, in all likelihood.

Force Package Three

5,000 troops

A relatively modest force of Americans would, however, be adequate to take the war effort to a much greater level today. This would entail widespread use of Special Forces and trainers, on the ground in relatively safer parts of Syria (starting with Kurdish areas in the north and regions next to Jordan in the south), to accelerate the growth of moderate Syrian opposition forces. The increase could also allow the United States and partners to impose a variant of a no-fly zone on the Syrian air force — not necessarily maintaining constant patrols (as we did in Iraq in the 1990s during the no-fly zone operations there), but retaliating at a time and place and fashion of our choosing against any Syrian (but not Russian) planes that bombed civilian populations going forward. This approach could gradually shift battlefield balances and dynamics — perhaps over the next year, if things went well — while also allowing us to deliver humanitarian relief in an increasingly large fraction of the country.

Force Package Four

25,000 troops

This is my rough estimate of what a U.S. contribution to an international peacekeeping force would entail once there is a peace deal to enforce. It assumes a total international presence approaching 100,000. It would not be an easy mission, and Syria is not ripe for such a peace deal or peacekeeping force now. I am assuming a “Bosnia model” — a confederation of largely autonomous zones, based largely on ethnicity and religion, in such a deal. It might follow the operation outlined in package three mentioned above.

These various concepts are not mutually exclusive. To my mind, some combination of the last two, in sequence, would be the most promising. The main point is that we are not in an either/or situation. There are several options to analyze and consider between the extremes of doing nothing and launching yet another big U.S.-led war in the Middle East.

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