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Updated: 20 hours 19 min ago

Yemenis living “hour to hour” as Houthis take Presidential Palace

Wed, 21 Jan 2015 - 1:18am

SANA’A (IRIN) – Muneer Asharby nearly didn’t go to work today. It wasn’t until after noon that he finally braved the walk. Even so, he kept half of his hardware shop closed in case he needed to make a fast exit.

The day before a mortar shell landed just in front of his shop, in the southern part of the Yemeni capital Sana’a.

Asharby’s Beit Al-Abatan neighbourhood sits in the shadows of a hill now under control of the Houthi rebel group from northern Yemen. They had been battling with government forces for two days, with both sides showing little concern for the civilian population.

“They [are] fighting for the chair,” he said, referring to the president’s seat.

Mid-afternoon, the gunshots again rang out across the city, but this time the outcome was more decisive. After brief clashes, Houthi fighters had stormed the presidential palace with relatively little bloodshed. Shortly after, the house of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi came under attack. Had the “chair” been toppled? 

It is not immediately clear if Hadi remains in power, but the Arab’s world’s poorest country has undoubtedly been again thrown into chaos.

Since late summer, the Houthis – made up of predominately Zaidi Shiite Muslims – have gradually increased their influence and reach, with the support of others – including, allegedly, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in 2011 after popular protests. In September, they claimed control of much of the capital, initially stressing they were not seeking to depose Hadi.

Yet in recent days they have made another power play, with government forces pegged back by the well-armed militia.

“The Houthi strategy is to take over Yemen slowly – shock and then stop, shock and then stop,” Said Farea al-Muslimi, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The Houthi takeover came after a ten-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) failed to produce a clear consensus on the future of the country. The NDC – a product of the 2011 revolution – aimed to prevent the state from fracturing further. But Yemen has instead been increasingly embroiled in regional and sectarian polarization.

Al-Muslimi expects the Houthi takeover of the presidential palace to lead to more violence. In recent months, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – the militant group’s Yemeni faction – has carried out a series of suicide bombings in Sana’a, attacking Houthi targets.

“It is worse than a [military] coup because it will increase the state of chaos,” al-Muslimi said.

Asked whether he thought Hadi could remain in power, he said: “He has not [been] in power, the Houthis are in power. They have just ended his symbolic political legitimacy.”


Turning on each other

This is the latest chapter in the ongoing story of Yemen’s unraveling: the government and aligned tribes have been battling the Houthis in the north on-and-off for more than a decade; AQAP is active in Yemen’s south, provoking regular US drone strikes; a southern secessionist movement has been gaining strength; and after street clashes and political manipulation, Yemen’s version of the Arab Spring led to an unstable political transition – never completed – that has now been thrown into question.

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), close to 16 million people in Yemen – more than half the population – will need humanitarian aid in 2015, of whom eight million are children.

More than 330,000 Yemenis are already displaced within the country due to pockets of conflict in both the north and south.

Around the Nahdayn hills that oversee the presidential palace, evidence of the more recent battles is clear: buildings hit with heavy artillery, others pockmarked by bullet holes. One resident pointed to a gaping hole in his gate caused by the crossfire.

“Everyone is armed.  You see weapons everywhere.  How can you feel safe?” said an employee at a construction company who did not want to share his name. Speaking in whispers, he said the violence has made old friends lose trust in one another.

“Everyone is lying.  You don’t know whom to believe,” said 26-year-old civil servant Ali Abdulla.

“It should be the government that is protecting us,” he added,  disparaging the lack of government presence nearby to provide a sense of safety.

Trond Jensen, head of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, said that the humanitarian impact had so far been relatively limited, but added: “We are concerned about the protection of civilians and ensuring civilian infrastructure is not damaged.” In particular, he highlighted the threat of hospitals and schools being hit during battles, with reports of one hospital having been damaged.

Up to a few hundred families have been displaced by the fighting, predominantly in the more affluent southern part of the city, Jensen said, stressing the numbers were not yet clear.

Yemen suffers from chronic poverty, with among the highest rates of malnutrition and stunting in the world. The political turmoil over the last few years had already made it harder for aid organisations to support those in need; this latest development will only make aid delivery even more difficult.

Adam Baron, a Yemen expert and visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), said he feared the worst. “It’s difficult to say how further conflict could be avoided. The real question is if wiser heads will prevail. Until now, it seems as if things truly are at risk of spiralling out of control.”

Until unification in 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) were two separate countries. Some have now raised concerns of a new split.

Al-Muslimi said he thought a clean break was impossible. “That is the best possible scenario. I think it will be a lot more chaotic than that. We are in a moment of change, but for now we are just going from hour to hour.”

Via Integrated Regional Information Networks, Humanitarian News

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Related video added by Juan Cole

Aljazeera America News: “Unrest in Yemen as Houthi rebels take control of Presidential palace”

Bobby Jindal Gets Called Out for Muslim “No-Go Zones”

Wed, 21 Jan 2015 - 12:36am

TheLipTV | —

“Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal continues to spread the myth of “no-go zones” after Fox News issued an on-air apology and correction for allowing its anchors to make the false claim about the Muslim-only areas in European countries that are not under the control of the state and are ruled according to Shariah law. Jindal missed the memo, expressing his outrage for the “no-go zones” without presenting any evidence to back up his claims. We take a look at Jindal’s discredited comments, in this Lip News clip with Mark Sovel and Elliot Hill.”

TheLipTV: “Bobby Jindal Gets Called Out for Muslim “No-Go Zones”

Dual Use: Solar Panels conserve Canal Water In India

Wed, 21 Jan 2015 - 12:31am

By Malini Shankar | (IPS)

Sunlight pours over a break in canal-top solar panels recently installed over the Vadodara branch of the Sardar Sarovar canal project in Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

BARODA, India (IPS) - It began with an experiment to install photovoltaic cells over an irrigation canal that forms part of the Sardar Sarovar canal network – a massive hydel power project across the River Narmada that irrigates some 1.8 million hectares of arable land in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

After a successful pilot project, the Government of Gujarat has now invested some 18.3 million dollars replicating the scheme over a 3.6-km stretch of the irrigation canal in the hopes of generating 10 MW of power.

The project received endorsement from U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 11, as it represents global efforts to move towards a new poverty-eradication framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the end of this year, putting sustainability at the heart of the global development agenda.

Given that no extra land had to be acquired for installation of the solar power panels, its uniqueness was lauded by the U.N. secretary-general.

“Looking out at the plant, I saw more than glittering panels—I saw the future of India and the future of our world,” Ban said, addressing the media at the site on Jan. 11.

With some 21,600 solar panels running over a length of the Vadodara branch of the canal, experts say the installation could generate power to the tune of 16.2 million units per annum, since the canal runs right over the Tropic of Cancer and receives bright sunlight for eight months out of the year.

Sceptics worry that without planning, the surplus power could be siphoned off by commercial enterprises unless there are concerted efforts to combine the sustainable energy initiative with poverty eradication.

All across India, stakeholders are taking stock of progress on the MDGs, keeping their eyes on the new era of sustainable development. Many gaps remain in the country’s efforts to improve the lives of millions, with water scarcity, lack of sanitation, and sprawling slums pointing to a need for better management of India’s human, economic and natural resources.

A view of the transformer, which transmits solar power generated at the canal-top solar power plant. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Such are the typical scenes in every slum area in India. Experts are hopeful that the post-2015 sustainable development agenda will succeed where the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Traditional systems of water harvesting and conservation have gained new-found respect in the era of sustainable development. Here, a woman uses her ox to churn a water mill in the north Indian state of Rajasthan. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Indigenous people, like this Soliga woman, all across India are in urgent need of far-reaching sustainable development plans that will improve the lives and livelihoods of forest-dwellers. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A water crisis continues to plague both urban and rural areas across India. As the U.N. gears up to implement a new sustainable development agenda, hopes are running high that gaps in the MDGs will now be filled. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Sunlight pours over a break in canal-top solar panels recently installed over the Vadodara branch of the Sardar Sarovar canal project in Gujarat. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

A view of a polluted stream in Bangalore, capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, points to an urgent need for better planning and management of the country’s scarce water sources. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

Licensed from Inter Press Service

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

DD News: “UN chief inaugurates canal top solar power plant in Gujarat”

Obama wants new Mil. Authority, but Special Ops already on Missions in 105 Countries in 2015

Wed, 21 Jan 2015 - 12:27am

By Nick Turse | (Tomdispatch.com) —

In the dead of night, they swept in aboard V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.  Landing in a remote region of one of the most volatile countries on the planet, they raided a village and soon found themselves in a life-or-death firefight.  It was the second time in two weeks that elite U.S. Navy SEALs had attempted to rescue American photojournalist Luke Somers.  And it was the second time they failed.

On December 6, 2014, approximately 36 of America’s top commandos, heavily armed, operating with intelligence from satellites, drones, and high-tech eavesdropping, outfitted with night vision goggles, and backed up by elite Yemeni troops, went toe-to-toe with about six militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  When it was over, Somers was dead, along with Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher due to be set free the next day.  Eight civilians were also killed by the commandos, according to local reports.  Most of the militants escaped.

That blood-soaked episode was, depending on your vantage point, an ignominious end to a year that saw U.S. Special Operations forces deployed at near record levels, or an inauspicious beginning to a new year already on track to reach similar heights, if not exceed them.

During the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries — roughly 70% of the nations on the planet — according to Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bockholt, a public affairs officer with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM).  This capped a three-year span in which the country’s most elite forces were active in more than 150 different countries around the world, conducting missions ranging from kill/capture night raids to training exercises.  And this year could be a record-breaker.  Only a day before the failed raid that ended Luke Somers life — just 66 days into fiscal 2015 — America’s most elite troops had already set foot in 105 nations, approximately 80% of 2014’s total.

Despite its massive scale and scope, this secret global war across much of the planet is unknown to most Americans.  Unlike the December debacle in Yemen, the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny.  In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, official White House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.        

The Golden Age

“The command is at its absolute zenith.  And it is indeed a golden age for special operations.”  Those were the words of Army General Joseph Votel III, a West Point graduate and Army Ranger, as he assumed command of SOCOM last August. 

His rhetoric may have been high-flown, but it wasn’t hyperbole.  Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, including their numbers, their budget, their clout in Washington, and their place in the country’s popular imagination.  The command has, for example, more than doubled its personnel from about 33,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 today, including a jump of roughly 8,000 during the three-year tenure of recently retired SOCOM chief Admiral William McRaven.

Those numbers, impressive as they are, don’t give a full sense of the nature of the expansion and growing global reach of America’s most elite forces in these years.  For that, a rundown of the acronym-ridden structure of the ever-expanding Special Operations Command is in order.  The list may be mind-numbing, but there is no other way to fully grasp its scope.   

The lion’s share of SOCOM’s troops are Rangers, Green Berets, and other soldiers from the Army, followed by Air Force air commandos, SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen and support personnel from the Navy, as well as a smaller contingent of Marines.  But you only get a sense of the expansiveness of the command when you consider the full range of “sub-unified commands” that these special ops troops are divided among: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; SOCEUR, the European contingent; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; SOCSOUTH, which conducts missions in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean; SOCCENT, the sub-unified command of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in the Middle East; SOCNORTH, which is devoted to “homeland defense”; and the globe-trotting Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC — a clandestine sub-command (formerly headed by McRaven and then Votel) made up of personnel from each service branch, including SEALs, Air Force special tactics airmen, and the Army’s Delta Force, that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists.

And don’t think that’s the end of it, either.  As a result of McRaven’s push to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners,” Special Operations liaison officers, or SOLOs, are now embedded in 14 key U.S. embassies to assist in advising the special forces of various allied nations.  Already operating in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Poland, Peru, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, the SOLO program is poised, according to Votel, to expand to 40 countries by 2019.  The command, and especially JSOC, has also forged close ties with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Security Agency, among others.

Shadow Ops

Special Operations Command’s global reach extends further still, with smaller, more agile elements operating in the shadows from bases in the United States to remote parts of Southeast Asia, from Middle Eastern outposts to austere African camps. Since 2002, SOCOM has also been authorized to create its own Joint Task Forces, a prerogative normally limited to larger combatant commands like CENTCOM.  Take, for instance, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) which, at its peak, had roughly 600 U.S. personnel supporting counterterrorist operations by Filipino allies against insurgent groups like Abu Sayyaf.  After more than a decade spent battling that group, its numbers have been diminished, but it continues to be active, while violence in the region remains virtually unaltered. 

A phase-out of the task force was actually announced in June 2014.  “JSOTF-P will deactivate and the named operation OEF-P [Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines] will conclude in Fiscal Year 2015,” Votel told the Senate Armed Services Committee the next month.  “A smaller number of U.S. military personnel operating as part of a PACOM [U.S. Pacific Command] Augmentation Team will continue to improve the abilities of the PSF [Philippine Special Forces] to conduct their CT [counterterrorism] missions…”  Months later, however, Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines remained up and running. “JSOTF-P is still active although the number of personnel assigned has been reduced,” Army spokesperson Kari McEwen told reporter Joseph Trevithick of War Is Boring.

Another unit, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Bragg, remained in the shadows for years before its first official mention by the Pentagon in early 2014.  Its role, according to SOCOM’s Bockholt, is to “train and equip U.S. service members preparing for deployment to Afghanistan to support Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan.”  That latter force, in turn, spent more than a decade conducting covert or “black” ops “to prevent insurgent activities from threatening the authority and sovereignty of” the Afghan government.  This meant night raids and kill/capture missions — often in concert with elite Afghan forces — that led to the deaths of unknown numbers of combatants and civilians.  In response to popular outrage against the raids, Afghan President Hamid Karzai largely banned them in 2013. 

U.S. Special Operations forces were to move into a support role in 2014, letting elite Afghan troops take charge.  “We’re trying to let them run the show,” Colonel Patrick Roberson of the Afghanistan task force told USA Today.  But according to LaDonna Davis, a spokesperson with the task force, America’s special operators were still leading missions last year.  The force refuses to say how many missions were led by Americans or even how many operations its commandos were involved in, though Afghan special operations forces reportedly carried out as many as 150 missions each month in 2014.  “I will not be able to discuss the specific number of operations that have taken place,” Major Loren Bymer of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan told TomDispatch. “However, Afghans currently lead 96% of special operations and we continue to train, advise, and assist our partners to ensure their success.”

And lest you think that that’s where the special forces organizational chart ends, Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan has five Special Operations Advisory Groups “focused on mentoring and advising our ASSF [Afghan Special Security Force] partners,” according to Votel.  “In order to ensure our ASSF partners continue to take the fight to our enemies, U.S. SOF must be able to continue to do some advising at the tactical level post-2014 with select units in select locations,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Indeed, last November, Karzai’s successor Ashraf Ghani quietly lifted the night raid ban, opening the door once again to missions with U.S. advisors in 2015.

There will, however, be fewer U.S. special ops troops available for tactical missions.  According to then Rear-, now Vice-Admiral Sean Pybus, SOCOM’s Deputy Commander, about half the SEAL platoons deployed in Afghanistan were, by the end of last month, to be withdrawn and redeployed to support “the pivot in Asia, or work the Mediterranean, or the Gulf of Guinea, or into the Persian Gulf.”  Still, Colonel Christopher Riga, commander of the 7th Special Forces Group, whose troops served with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan near Kandahar last year, vowed to soldier on.  “There’s a lot of fighting that is still going on in Afghanistan that is going to continue,” he said at an awards ceremony late last year.  “We’re still going to continue to kill the enemy, until we are told to leave.”

Add to those task forces the Special Operations Command Forward (SOC FWD) elements, small teams which, according to the military, “shape and coordinate special operations forces security cooperation and engagement in support of theater special operations command, geographic combatant command, and country team goals and objectives.”  SOCOM declined to confirm the existence of SOC FWDs, even though there has been ample official evidence on the subject and so it would not provide a count of how many teams are currently deployed across the world.  But those that are known are clustered in favored black ops stomping grounds, including SOC FWD Pakistan, SOC FWD Yemen, and SOC FWD Lebanon, as well as SOC FWD East Africa, SOC FWD Central Africa, and SOC FWD West Africa.

Africa has, in fact, become a prime locale for shadowy covert missions by America’s special operators.  “This particular unit has done impressive things. Whether it’s across Europe or Africa taking on a variety of contingencies, you are all contributing in a very significant way,” SOCOM’s commander, General Votel, told members of the 352nd Special Operations Group at their base in England last fall.

The Air Commandos are hardly alone in their exploits on that continent.  Over the last years, for example, SEALs carried out a successful hostage rescue mission in Somalia and a kidnap raid there that went awry.  In Libya, Delta Force commandos successfully captured an al-Qaeda militant in an early morning raid, while SEALs commandeered an oil tanker with cargo from Libya that the weak U.S.-backed government there considered stolen.  Additionally, SEALs conducted a failed evacuation mission in South Sudan in which its members were wounded when the aircraft in which they were flying was hit by small arms fire.  Meanwhile, an elite quick-response force known as Naval Special Warfare Unit 10 (NSWU-10) has been engaged with “strategic countries” such as Uganda, Somalia, and Nigeria. 

A clandestine Special Ops training effort in Libya imploded when militia or “terrorist” forces twice raided its camp, guarded by the Libyan military, and looted large quantities of high-tech American equipment, hundreds of weapons — including Glock pistols, and M4 rifles — as well as night vision devices and specialized lasers that can only be seen with such equipment.  As a result, the mission was scuttled and the camp was abandoned.  It was then reportedly taken over by a militia. 

In February of last year, elite troops traveled to Niger for three weeks of military drills as part of Flintlock 2014, an annual Special Ops counterterrorism exercise that brought together the forces of the host nation, Canada, Chad, France, Mauritania, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Senegal, the United Kingdom, and Burkina Faso.  Several months later, an officer from Burkina Faso, who received counterterrorism training in the U.S. under the auspices of SOCOM’s Joint Special Operations University in 2012, seized power in a coup.  Special Ops forces, however, remained undaunted.  Late last year, for example, under the auspices of SOC FWD West Africa, members of 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, partnered with elite Moroccan troops for training at a base outside of Marrakech. 

A World of Opportunities

Deployments to African nations have, however, been just a part of the rapid growth of the Special Operations Command’s overseas reach.  In the waning days of the Bush presidency, under then-SOCOM chief Admiral Eric Olson, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed in about 60 countries around the world.  By 2010, that number had swelled to 75, according to Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post.  In 2011, SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that the total would reach 120 by the end of the year.  With Admiral William McRaven in charge in 2013, then-Major Robert Bockholt told TomDispatch that the number had jumped to 134.  Under the command of McRaven and Votel in 2014, according to Bockholt, the total slipped ever-so-slightly to 133.  Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted, however, that under McRaven’s command — which lasted from August 2011 to August 2014 — special ops forces deployed to more than 150 different countries.  “In fact, SOCOM and the entire U.S. military are more engaged internationally than ever before — in more places and with a wider variety of missions,” he said in an August 2014 speech.

He wasn’t kidding.  Just over two months into fiscal 2015, the number of countries with Special Ops deployments has already clocked in at 105, according to Bockholt.

SOCOM refused to comment on the nature of its missions or the benefits of operating in so many nations.  The command would not even name a single country where U.S. special operations forces deployed in the last three years.  A glance at just some of the operations, exercises, and activities that have come to light, however, paints a picture of a globetrotting command in constant churn with alliances in every corner of the planet. 

In January and February, for example, members of the 7th Special Forces Group and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment conducted a month-long Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) with forces from Trinidad and Tobago, while troops from the 353rd Special Operations Group joined members of the Royal Thai Air Force for Exercise Teak Torch in Udon Thani, Thailand.  In February and March, Green Berets from the 20th Special Forces Group trained with elite troops in the Dominican Republic as part of a JCET.

In March, members of Marine Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Unit 1 took part in maneuvers aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Cowpens as part of Multi-Sail 2014, an annual exercise designed to support “security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”  That same month, elite soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines took part in a training exercise code-named Fused Response with members of the Belizean military.  “Exercises like this build rapport and bonds between U.S. forces and Belize,” said Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Heber Toro of Special Operations Command South afterward.

In April, soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group joined with Honduran airborne troops for jump training — parachuting over that country’s Soto Cano Air Base.  Soldiers from that same unit, serving with the Afghanistan task force, also carried out shadowy ops in the southern part of that country in the spring of 2014.  In June, members of the 19th Special Forces Group carried out a JCET in Albania, while operators from Delta Force took part in the mission that secured the release of Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.  That same month, Delta Force commandos helped kidnap Ahmed Abu Khattala, a suspected “ringleader” in the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, while Green Berets deployed to Iraq as advisors in the fight against the Islamic State.

In June and July, 26 members of the 522nd Special Operations Squadron carried out a 28,000-mile, four-week, five-continent mission which took them to Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Japan, among other nations, to escort three “single-engine [Air Force Special Operations Command] aircraft to a destination in the Pacific Area of Responsibility.”  In July, U.S. Special Operations forces traveled to Tolemaida, Colombia, to compete against elite troops from 16 other nations — in events like sniper stalking, shooting, and an obstacle course race — at the annual Fuerzas Comando competition.

In August, soldiers from the 20th Special Forces Group conducted a JCET with elite units from Suriname.  “We’ve made a lot of progress together in a month. If we ever have to operate together in the future, we know we’ve made partners and friends we can depend upon,” said a senior noncommissioned officer from that unit.  In Iraq that month, Green Berets conducted a reconnaissance mission on Mount Sinjar as part an effort to protect ethnic Yazidis from Islamic State militants, while Delta Force commandos raided an oil refinery in northern Syria in a bid to save American journalist James Foley and other hostages held by the same group.  That mission was a bust and Foley was brutally executed shortly thereafter.

In September, about 1,200 U.S. special operators and support personnel joined with elite troops from the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Great Britain, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and Slovenia for Jackal Stone, a training exercise that focused on everything from close quarters combat and sniper tactics to small boat operations and hostage rescue missions.  In September and October, Rangers from the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment deployed to South Korea to practice small unit tactics like clearing trenches and knocking out bunkers.  During October, Air Force air commandos also conducted simulated hostage rescue missions at the Stanford Training Area near Thetford, England.  Meanwhile, in international waters south of Cyprus, Navy SEALs commandeered that tanker full of oil loaded at a rebel-held port in Libya.  In November, U.S. commandos conducted a raid in Yemen that freed eight foreign hostages.  The next month, SEALs carried out the blood-soaked mission that left two hostages, including Luke Somers, and eight civilians dead.  And these, of course, are only some of the missions that managed to make it into the news or in some other way onto the record.

Everywhere They Want to Be

To America’s black ops chiefs, the globe is as unstable as it is interconnected.  “I guarantee you what happens in Latin America affects what happens in West Africa, which affects what happens in Southern Europe, which affects what happens in Southwest Asia,” McRaven told last year’s Geolnt, an annual gathering of surveillance-industry executives and military personnel.  Their solution to interlocked instability?  More missions in more nations — in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries, in fact — during McRaven’s tenure.  And the stage appears set for yet more of the same in the years ahead.  “We want to be everywhere,” said Votel at Geolnt.  His forces are already well on their way in 2015.

“Our nation has very high expectations of SOF,” he told special operators in England last fall. “They look to us to do the very hard missions in very difficult conditions.”  The nature and whereabouts of most of those “hard missions,” however, remain unknown to Americans.  And Votel apparently isn’t interested in shedding light on them.  “Sorry, but no,” was SOCOM’s response to TomDispatch’s request for an interview with the special ops chief about current and future operations.  In fact, the command refused to make any personnel available for a discussion of what it’s doing in America’s name and with taxpayer dollars.  It’s not hard to guess why.

Votel now sits atop one of the major success stories of a post-9/11 military that has been mired in winless wars, intervention blowback, rampant criminal activity, repeated leaks of embarrassing secrets, and all manner of shocking scandals.  Through a deft combination of bravado and secrecy, well-placed leaks, adroit marketing and public relations efforts, the skillful cultivation of a superman mystique (with a dollop of tortured fragility on the side), and one extremely popular, high-profile, targeted killing, Special Operations forces have become the darlings of American popular culture, while the command has been a consistent winner in Washington’s bare-knuckled budget battles

This is particularly striking given what’s actually occurred in the field: in Africa, the arming and outfitting of militants and the training of a coup leader; in Iraq, America’s most elite forces were implicated in torture, the destruction of homes, and the killing and wounding of innocents;  in Afghanistan, it was a similar story, with repeated reports of civilian deaths; while in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia it’s been more of the same.  And this only scratches the surface of special ops miscues.  

In 2001, before U.S. black ops forces began their massive, multi-front clandestine war against terrorism, there were 33,000 members of Special Operations Command and about 1,800 members of the elite of the elite, the Joint Special Operations Command.  There were then also 23 terrorist groups — from Hamas to the Real Irish Republican Army — as recognized by the State Department, including al-Qaeda, whose membership was estimated at anywhere from 200 to 1,000.  That group was primarily based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although small cells had operated in numerous countries including Germany and the United States

After more than a decade of secret wars, massive surveillance, untold numbers of night raids, detentions, and assassinations, not to mention billions upon billions of dollars spent, the results speak for themselves.  SOCOM has more than doubled in size and the secretive JSOC may be almost as large as SOCOM was in 2001.  Since September of that year, 36 new terror groups have sprung up, including multiple al-Qaeda franchises, offshoots, and allies.  Today, these groups still operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan — there are now 11 recognized al-Qaeda affiliates in the latter nation, five in the former — as well as in Mali and Tunisia, Libya and Morocco, Nigeria and Somalia, Lebanon and Yemen, among other countries.  One offshoot was born of the American invasion of Iraq, was nurtured in a U.S. prison camp, and, now known as the Islamic State, controls a wide swath of that country and neighboring Syria, a proto-caliphate in the heart of the Middle East that was only the stuff of jihadi dreams back in 2001.  That group, alone, has an estimated strength of around 30,000 and managed to take over a huge swath of territory, including Iraq’s second largest city, despite being relentlessly targeted in its infancy by JSOC.

“We need to continue to synchronize the deployment of SOF throughout the globe,” says Votel.  “We all need to be synched up, coordinated, and prepared throughout the command.”  Left out of sync are the American people who have consistently been kept in the dark about what America’s special operators are doing and where they’re doing it, not to mention the checkered results of, and blowback from, what they’ve done.  But if history is any guide, the black ops blackout will help ensure that this continues to be a “golden age” for U.S. Special Operations Command.

Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute.  A 2014 Izzy Award winner, he has reported from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa and his pieces have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. His New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam received a 2014 American Book Award.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Nick Turse

Via Tomdispatch.com

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wotchitgeneralnews: “As U.S. Troops Return to Iraq, More Private Contractors Follow”

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Warn Israel Following Strike That Killed General

Wed, 21 Jan 2015 - 12:24am

By Golnaz Esfandiari | (RFE/RL) —

The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) warned on January 20 that Israel should expect “devastating thunderbolts” in response to the January 18 air strike in Syria that killed an IRGC general and several members of the Lebanese Hizballah militia.

In a statement posted on Iranian news sites, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said the killing of Iranian and Hizballah forces in the Israeli attack, created “another starting point” in the collapse of the “Zionist regime.”

“They’ve seen our anger in the past,” Jafari said while promising continued support for “Muslim fighters in the region.”

Iran has said that Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi who was killed in the bombing in the Quneitra region of southern Syria, was giving “crucial advice” to Syrians fighting terrorists — a reference to Sunni rebels and Islamic extremists.

The strike also killed Jihad Mughniyeh, a field commander and the son of top Hizballah operative Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus. Israel was believed to have been behind his assassination.

Both men reportedly had ties with Iran.

IRGC commander Jafari said in his statement that, following the January 18 air strike, all young people in the Muslim world are “Jihad Mughniyeh” and all the members of the Revolutionary Guards are “Allahdadi.”

Khamenei.ir, the website of the Center for Preserving and Publishing the work of Iran’s Supreme Leader, posted two pictures of Jihad Mughniyeh with Khamenei, including one where the two men are embracing each other.

Israel has not confirmed that it carried out the air strike.

However, the Reuters news agency quoted an unidentified Israeli source as saying that the IRGC commander was not the intended target of the attack, and Israel believed it was attacking only low-ranking guerrillas.

The news agency said the comments appeared aimed at containing any escalation with Iran or the Lebanese Hizballah guerrilla group.

Iran supports the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hizballah through military and financial means.

Allahdadi is believed to be the second senior IRGC commander killed in Syria.

In February 2013, IRGC commander Hassan Shateri, was killed while traveling from Damascus to Beirut.

Iranian officials blamed the death of Shateri, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, on “mercenaries and supporters of the Zionist regime” while vowing revenge.

Via RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

—-

Related video added by Juan Cole:

PressTV: ” Iran’s top IRGC commander says Tel Aviv should await “crushing response””

Israel’s Syria Strike: Is it trying to Help al-Qaeda vs. Hizbullah & Iran?

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 - 2:04am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

There are several questions around the Israeli helicopter gunship strike on Mazari` al-Amal in Syria’s Quneitra Province, which killed Hizbullah personnel and an Iranian general. First, what were the latter doing there? Second, why did Israel strike them?

The Israeli cover story, that Hizbullah was planning attacks inside Syria from Quneitra, does not make any sense to me. Hizbullah does not control the Syrian territory abutting Israel. Rather, the Golan and much of Quneitra province have fallen to the al-Qaeda affiliate, the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) and a patchwork of other rebels, including some moderates. The Syrian army and its Lebanese and Iranian allies have been pushed northeast toward Damascus, and their counter-offensive this winter failed miserably. Hizbullah does control territory on the Lebanon-Israel border. So if the strike was out of fear of Hizbullah machinations against Israel, why hit them relatively deep in Syrian territory where they couldn’t do anything to Israel, rather than on the Lebanese border where they could?

Two explanations for the Israeli strike on Mazari` al-Amal occur to me:

1. It was merely opportunistic. The Israeli government has a vendetta with the Mughniya family, which Israeli forces pushed out of their farms in what is now northern Israel in 1948 (there were 7 Shiite villages that were erased in northern Israel). Imad Mughniya was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus, likely by Israeli intelligence, after a career as a sanguinary guerrilla who fought the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon 1982-2000. His son Jihad had recently emerged as a capable Hizbullah commander and was among those killed on Sunday. Hizbullah is notoriously penetrated by moles for Israel, and if one of them specified Mughniya’s location and that of an Iranian general, the Israelis may have felt that the opportunity was too good to pass up.

2. The Israelis are deliberately trying to throw the war to al-Qaeda by weakening Syrian defenses southwest of Damascus and helping the radical Support Front take territory nearer Damascus. Why they would want to do this is not clear (you’d think they’d be upset to have al-Qaeda as their direct neighbor in Golan, as they do now. They are always complaining about having Hamas-controlled Gaza as a neighbor but they aren’t fazed by having al-Qaeda as one?)

So personally I think the explanation that they just had an opportunity to take out people they saw as dangerous to them or to their goals in the long term is the more likely one. But they have at least to be all right with the likely outcome that al-Qaeda has been strengthened on their borders.

The Christian-owned Lebanese newspaper an-Nahar asks the essential question, of what in the world Hizbullah commanders and a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were up to in Quneitra Province (southwest of Damascus) near the Syrian part of the Golan Heights (part of Golan has been occupied by Israel since 1967).

The answer is that they were trying to roll back advances by al-Qaeda/Support Front and its radical and moderate de facto allies, southwest of the capital and near the border with Israel. As a result, an-Nahar reports, the rebel forces said they welcomed any strike on Hizbullah, from no matter where it originated (i.e. even if it was from their common enemy, Israel). A leader of the moderate Brigades of the Sword of Syria said the foreign Lebanese Hizbullah had come into Syria to help the al-Assad regime massacre the Syrian people.

A Syria Press bureau reporter and the Syrian activist Maher al-Hamdan told An-Nahar that Mazari` al-Amal, where the Lebanese and Iranians were located, is between the districts of al-Mashati and Hadar to the north, Tel al-Ahmar and `Ain al-Nuriya to the south, rebel-held Taranja to the west, and Nab` al-Fawwar and `Ain al-Nuriya to the east. It is a fertile agricultural region, inhabited by only about 100 persons. (Quneitra is a province southwest of the capital of Damascus, the southern 80% of which has fallen to al-Qaeda and the northeastern 20% of which is still in regime hands).

The area has a Syrian government military barricade belonging to the 220th unit of military security. Al-Hamdan said that the weapons there are machine guns and heavy artillery, and the Israeli strike targeted these Syrian forces, which are the first line of defense for the Bashar al-Assad regime.

The Israeli raid, then, was not limited to hitting Hizbullah, since this area is considered a target rich environment for Israel. Al-Hamdan remarked that the area had military equipment of Russian provenance to spot drones, as well as Russian advisers, a Hizbullah military unit, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards tasked with protecting the Russian advisers.

In the past 6 months, the regime had lost 80% of Quneitra province as well as the entirety of the Syrian-held portion of the Golan Heights, to al-Qaeda/Support Front and its allies. And then last October rebels took al-Hara and its strategic hilltop, Tel al-Hara. At the same time, the rebels captured modern Russian military equipment there. The al-Assad government then sent troops into the region in a counter-offensive.

The Damascus regime rushed to build military posts in Tel al-Sha`ar and Tellat Ahmar, as well as forward operating bases in Mazari` al-Amal and nearby places. Some 24 Syrian garrisons were reinforced in this way after the fall of Tel al-Hara, and the regime made an attempt to recover its lost territory in the area, supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbullah.

The counter-offensive failed, so the regime adopted a defensive posture in the area to protect the 20% of Quneitra province that had not fallen. Hizbullah commander Jihad Mughniya was in charge of this defensive effort.

An-Nahar’s sources allege that in addition to the 5 Hizbullah personnel and the one Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander killed, One Russian expert was lightly wounded, and 13 Hizbullah and IRGC personnel were wounded.

There had been no battles in Quneitra for about 20 days between the regime and al-Qaeda and other rebel forces, after the al-Assad loyalists had failed to take the town of al-Baath. The al-Assad forces had occasionally shelled al-Qaeda positions.

—-

Related video:

Reuters: “Thousands attend funeral for Hezbollah figure killed in air strike”

Israeli PM Netanyahu Campaigns to Discredit, Defund Int’l Criminal Court

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 - 12:31am

By Alexandra Halaby – (IMEMC & Agencies)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the ICC announcement by Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to initiate a preliminary investigation into Israel for possible war crimes committed in Gaza was “absurd” and a “perversion of justice.” Mr. Netanyahu went on to say that decision by the ICC was “the height of hypocrisy,” and the “opposite of justice.”

Netanyahu is said to have recently met with security officials and international law experts to sort out ways to discredit the ICC. Echoing remarks by the U.S. State Department that the Palestinian Authority is not a state, Israel is preparing to use the strategy of Palestinian statelessness to object to its accession to the ICC. The State of Palestine is recognized by more than 130 countries and holds non-Member Observer State status at the United Nations.

“The decision by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court to begin an inquiry against the State of Israel is the height of hypocrisy and the opposite of justice,” Netanyahu said at the Cabinet meeting Sunday. “I have already encountered such phenomena during my years of public service representing the State of Israel both as ambassador to the UN and as prime minister, but this decision by the prosecutor is in a category of its own. It gives legitimacy to international terrorism.”

After invoking the Holocaust, Netanyahu went on to accuse the Palestinian Authority of “manipulating the ICC to deny the Jewish state the right to defend itself against the very war crimes and the very terror that the court was established to prevent.”

The Prime Minister has said he will use all methods available to interrupt the ICC investigation. There is already a full-scale propaganda campaign in place that is known as hasbara. This technique of information disruption and selling a favorable image of Israel in the international media has been used for a number of years when Israel has been viewed negatively.

During the meeting Netanyahu continued to discuss the easing of restrictions on “immigration of Jews from France, Europe and wherever they may be.” Many in the international community have seen Israel’s facilitation of Jewish immigration from France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks as an exploitation of the tragedy.

Also on Sunday, Fateh Central Committee member, Jamal Muheissen, told Palestinian news agencies that the Palestinian Authority plans to request an ICC probe into the death of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

“This file will be presented to the International Criminal Court,” said Muheissen. “We want to bring the Israeli occupation to trial for every crime it committed against our people.”

Via IMEMC News

—-
Related video added by Juan Cole:

PressTV: “Israel to ask key members to stop funding ICC”

Why solar power is spreading so fast in Africa

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 - 12:28am

The Economist | —

“Africans have been waiting for decades for the mains electricity which the rich world takes for granted. Sub-Saharan Africa’s 910m people consume less electricity each year than the 4.8m people of Alabama. Many more who are on the grid suffer brown-outs and dangerous surges in current. But a solar revolution is afoot.

In 2009 just 1% of sub-Saharan Africans used solar lighting. Now it is nearly 5% or 11m people. The International Energy Agency, a Paris-based government think-tank, reckons that 500m more people will have solar electricity by 2030,

Why is solar power spreading so fast in Africa? There are three main reasons.

First, solar panel technology has improved. Efficiency gains and mass production mean that modern photovoltaic panels have plunged in price per watt – to around 30 cents.

Second, low-energy bulbs have got better and cheaper. Modern solar lamps cost as little as $8—they charge by day and give light by night. They replace costly and dangerous alternatives – Africans waste $10 billion a year on kerosene. Even worse are candles, open fires—or darkness, which hurts productivity and encourages crime.

The third, crucial development is in storage, as lamps are needed at night and solar power is collected in the daytime. Old nickel cadmium batteries wore out after 500 recharges; lithium-based ones can manage 2,000 and store much more electricity

Additionally, solar power is increasingly well-financed in Africa. Aid donors are sponsoring more ambitious projects – specially designed fridges and televisions, for example. Bigger solar systems can run a school or clinic, a grain mill or irrigation pump, or even a whole village.

Some dismiss solar as a second-best solution. But conventional, centralised electrical grids have proved unreliable and inefficient in the past — and solar is much better than nothing.”

The Economist: “Why solar power is spreading so fast in Africa”

The real Meaning of Fox’s “Fair and Balanced”

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 - 12:25am

Paul Jamiol | (Jamiol’s World)

Via Jamiol’s World

Richest 1% will have more Wealth than rest of Humankind by 2016

Tue, 20 Jan 2015 - 12:25am

BBC | —

“Wealth amassed by the richest 1% will overtake the amount owned by the rest of the people in the world, according to a study by charity group Oxfam.

The richest 1% of people will see their share of global wealth increase to more than 50% in 2016 at the current rate of growth.

Their wealth increased from 44% in 2009 to 48% last year, said the group.

Oxfam’s report warns that the “explosion in inequality” is holding back the fight against global poverty.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International asked whether people really wanted to live in a world where the 1% own more than the rest of the people combined.

“The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast,” she said in a statement on Monday ahead of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

Rich getting richer

Of the remaining 52% of global wealth, almost 46% is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population, Oxfam said.

The remaining population account for just 5.5% of global wealth and their average wealth was $3,851 (£2,544) per adult in 2014.

That compares to an average wealth of $2.7m per adult for the elite 1%.

Ofxam said it will push for urgent action to stem the “rising tide of inequality”, starting with a crackdown on tax evasion by companies.

The study comes just a day before US President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he is expected to call for tax increases on the wealthy to help the middle class.

In October, a report from banking giant Credit Suisse also said that the richest 1% of people own nearly half of the world’s wealth.”

BBC: “Richest 1% to own half of world’s wealth by 2016, says Oxfam”

Why Martin Luther King would support Pres. Obama’s Tax on Super-Rich

Mon, 19 Jan 2015 - 3:45am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

In one of his last speeches, at Grosse Point, MI., the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., laid out his next campaign, the one he died pursuing. It was not about civil rights for minorities but economic rights for “the other America” (the title of a book by Michael Harrington that influence Pres. Johnson to launch the war on poverty).

King said at Grosse Point:

“…I want to use as a title for my lecture tonight, “The Other America.” And I use this title because there are literally two Americas. Every city in our country ha s this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America children grow up in the sunli ght of opportunity.

But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that tr ansforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wa ll-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions.

In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportuni ty to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high sc hool reading at a seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grade level. Not because they’re dumb, not because they don’t have th e native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. Probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic probl em. There are so many other people in the other America who can never make ends meet because their incomes are far too low if they have incomes, and their jobs ar e so devoid of quality. And so in th is other America, unemployment is a reality and under-employment is a reality.

King saw African-American unemployment as key to their being stuck in the Other America:

“The unemployment rate on the basis of statistics from the labor department is about 8.8 per cent in the black community. But these statistics only take under consideration indi viduals who were once in the labor market, or individuals who go to employment o ffices to seek employment. But they do not take under consideration the thousands of people who have given up, who have lost motivation, the thousands of people who have had so many doors closed in their faces that they feel def eated and they no longer go out and look for jobs, the thousands who’ve come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. These people are considered the discouraged and when you add the disc ouraged to the individuals who can’t be calculated through statistics in the unemployment category, the unemploym ent rate in the negro community probably goes to 16 or 17 percent. And among black youth, it is in some communities as high as 40 and 45 percent.

If anything the African-American real unemployment statistics are higher today than they were then. Here is a graph:

Martin Luther King died while in Memphis campaigning for better wages for sanitation workers.

Obama’s proposals to raise capital gains taxes (from unearned income via investing) back to 28%, The top 1% have monopolized most of the new wealth created in recent years, whereas the wages of most salary earners have been flat for the past decade and a half. There is a relationship between the way the wealthy have received the benefits of the recovery and the way that workers have not.

King was cut down before he could make his plea. It is for progressives to continue the dream.

It is Failed State in Yemen that permitted al-Qaeda to Train Paris Terrorists

Mon, 19 Jan 2015 - 3:02am

CCTV America | —

“CCTV America’s Susan Roberts interviewed Yemen correspondent for The Times of London Iona Craig about how Yemen has played a role in al-Qaida training and the Charlie Hebdo killings. Craig is an independent journalist and discussed the stability of Yemen, what makes it a hub for al-Qaida and how the West’s involvement may change conditions.

“Iona Craig explains the role of Yemen in al-Qaida trainings, Charlie Hebdo killings”

We must Support Palestinians’ Decision to Join the Int’l Criminal Court

Mon, 19 Jan 2015 - 2:49am

By Kenneth Roth | (Human Rights Watch)–

Published in: Los Angeles Times

The Israel exception to Western governments’ human rights principles has been starkly on display in the reaction to the Palestinian Authority’s decision to join the International Criminal Court. In Washington, Ottawa, Paris and London, as well as Tel Aviv, the response has ranged from discouraging to condemnatory. The Palestinian move has been seen as “counterproductive,” “deeply troubl[ing],” “a concerning and dangerous development” that could make a “return to negotiations impossible.” Before accepting these howls of protest, we should ask why, exactly, the Palestinian move is supposed to be bad.

Given the outcry, one would think this move targets only Israel, but the ICC doesn’t work that way. Rather, the court will be empowered to prosecute war crimes committed in or from Palestinian territory — that is, crimes committed by Israelis or Palestinians. The court’s prosecutor is not dependent on formal complaints by ICC members but can now initiate cases on her own.

Many of the Western objections are based on the argument that having the Palestinians in the ICC will somehow undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations — moribund as they have been. The U.S. State Department opined that it would “damage the atmosphere” for peace.

But the broad parameters for peace have been known for years. What has been lacking is the trust between the two sides to make the painful decisions necessary for a peace accord. Nothing undermines that trust more than impunity for the war crimes that Human Rights Watch has found continue to characterize the conflict, whether settlement expansion, Hamas rocket strikes or Israel’s lax attitude toward civilian casualties in Gaza. By helping to deter these crimes, the ICC could discourage these major impediments to peace.

Moreover, the Palestinians’ willingness to embrace the ICC should be applauded for what it says about their tactics. Hamas is rightfully condemned for its rocket attacks on Israeli population centers. Yet Hamas signed off on joining the ICC, even though its leaders could now face prosecution. Indeed, because these war crimes are factually and legally among the easiest to prove, they may stand the greatest chance of ICC prosecution.

The ICC is no guarantee that such attacks will cease, but it provides a disincentive, as well as an avenue of redress for victims. Why is it bad for the Palestinians to pursue such legal avenues rather than more rocket attacks?

But isn’t the ICC another U.N. institution that will focus excessively on Israel? No. Unlike political bodies composed of governments, such as the U.N. General Assembly or Human Rights Council, the court’s investigations and prosecutions are led by an independent, professional prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of Gambia. She has earned a reputation as a sober, dispassionate, no-nonsense lawyer with no evidence of anti-Israel animus. In decisions she has made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she declined a Palestinian request to assume jurisdiction made before statehood was recognized and, in a case brought by another government, decided against opening an formal investigation because the alleged crime in question was not serious enough.

Given Palestinian vulnerability to prosecution, the West’s reaction suggests an interest not in seeing impartial justice done but in keeping Israelis out of the dock in The Hague. Yet the ICC is a court of last resort. It is empowered to act only when national authorities have not. So the easiest way for any government to avoid ICC prosecution of its citizens is to conscientiously and credibly investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes by its forces.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments have an abysmal record in this regard. The Palestinian Authority is not known to have initiated any such investigations. The Israeli military prosecutor occasionally conducts investigations but hardly ever prosecutes anyone. The most serious punishment imposed in recent years for abuse against Palestinians was a 7 1/2-month prison term for an Israeli soldier who stole a credit card. The ICC provides a strong reason for both sides to break this pattern of impunity. Again, what is wrong with that?

But what if Israel does not change? If it continues to expand settlements and to use methods of warfare that impose an unacceptably high civilian toll while refusing to prosecute offenders, that is not a path that Western governments should endorse. Keeping the ICC out at all costs may be good for the Israeli leaders who fear ICC prosecution, but it is hardly good for Israelis, Palestinians, peace in the region or global justice.

It is not too late for Western governments to change course. Obligatory condemnations are one thing, but Israel is pushing to punish the Palestinian Authority. It already is threatening to withhold tax revenues collected in the West Bank on the Palestinians’ behalf. Western governments should refuse to follow suit with their own sanctions. The Palestinians’ landmark decision to face down misguided threats and embrace the ICC should be bolstered, not undermined.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. Twitter: @KenRoth.

Via Human Rights Watch

Related video added by Juan Cole:

TeleSur: “ICC opens inquiry into possible war crimes in Palestine”

Gaza: Bringing War-Disabled Palestinian Youth back into Society

Mon, 19 Jan 2015 - 1:43am

By Khaled Alashqar | (IPS) —

Samah Shaheen (right), one of Gaza’s many disabled young people, joined the Irada programme to acquire expertise, learn computerised wood carving and escape social marginalisation. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

GAZA CITY, Jan 17 2015 (IPS) – The Israeli attacks that the Gaza Strip has suffered in recent years have left in their wake a large number of young people who have come up against a further barrier to their creative energies – physical disability caused by military aggression.

Institutions here are increasingly facing the challenge of developing rehabilitation programmes to help support these physically disabled Gazan youth cope with living under the existing harsh political, economic and social conditions.

One of these programmes – known as “Irada” (“will” in Arabic) – is providing young people who have been disabled by war with vocational training with the ultimate objective of helping them earn their own livelihoods.

Launched by the Islamic University of Gaza, the Irada programme aims to support, train and reintegrate physically challenged young people in social and economic terms and boost community trust in the abilities of this so far marginalised group. More than 400 persons with all types of disabilities have already received rehabilitation and training.

Irada project director Emad Al Masri told IPS that the project concept was initially developed for the massive number of young people who became disabled as a result of the Israeli war against Gaza in 2008. The project received support from the government of Turkey for the building construction to house Irada’s academic and vocational training programmes.

“The basic idea of the project is to help disabled people and reintegrate them into the community and help them to be productive instead of being seen as a burden,” Al Masri said.

Samah Shaheen, a 33-year-old from Al-Bureij refugee camp, has a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to engage in community activities. She joined the Irada programme in an attempt to acquire expertise and learn computerised wood carving. She spent more than six months in training before moving on to practice her new skills within the community under Irada supervision.

“I spent several years of my life jobless due to my disability, and also because I had no experience,” Samah told IPS. “After I joined the [Irada] programme and learnt computer skills for carving and decoration on wood, I now have a career, earn well and I am seriously thinking of opening a workshop because of the overwhelming response to the ornate wood furniture products that I have made.”

Central to the Irada rehabilitation programme is to follow up with the disabled people who have received training after leaving the programme in order to ensure their integration and participation in the labour market. Part of this follow-up strategy also includes monitoring their progress in the workshops and factories where they are employed, and offering professional support if needed.

Because of its success, the Irada programme has been awarded funding by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help programme graduates start up small business projects, develop their economic independence and enhance their production profile.

Tariq Sha’at, NGO Coordinator for UNDP, told IPS that “UNDP allocated 150,000 dollars to establish centres for the production of home furniture throughout the governorates of the Gaza Strip and help 90 disabled trainees to manage their own businesses, continue their lives and reintegrate into the society naturally.”

Adding further success to the promising and successful Irada programme, three female information technology (IT) students from the Islamic University of Gaza have designed the first application to enable visually impaired people to write in Braille language on smart phones in Arabic.

Seen as a major breakthrough, visually impaired people can now download and install the application for performing all operations, including calls and text messaging. It also allows physically impaired people to use smart phones with high efficacy and facilitates communications with people in the wider society.

Dr. Tawfiq Barhom, Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology, explained to IPS that “this group of female students was able to provide a great service to the community of visually impaired people, in addition to winning a global competition in which the application was selected as one of the five best projects for developers from among 2500 projects.”

Students are now trying to develop this application even further by increasing the number of languages supported to facilitate use by larger groups worldwide. Israa Al Ashqar, one of the students on the project team told IPS that the project came about because of the marginalisation experienced by visually impaired people in society and their increased isolation as a result of their inability to use social media and smart phone applications.

“The application will provide a Braille keyboard for every programme used by visually impaired people on mobile phones which will allow them to use social media and communicate with their community naturally. This will in turn increase the chances for this marginalised group to integrate into local and global society,” she said.

Together, the Irada programme and the Braille smart phone application represent a serious attempt by universities and students in Gaza to support an important section of the community that has not only suffered from wars and traumas but also hopelessness and isolation within Gazan society.

They are a tangible demonstration that the people of Gaza have the will and the talent to work together and develop opportunities, where possible, for an inclusive society.

Edited by Phil Harris

Licensed from Inter Press Service

Ocean Life on the Verge of Mass Extinction

Mon, 19 Jan 2015 - 1:17am

TheLipTV | —

“Humans are leading us to unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them potentially putting us on the verge of a major extinction event, according to Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California. However, while the damage is accelerating, it’s not irreversible, according to Malin Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University. We take a look at the impacts, in this Lip News clip with Jackie Koppell.”

[N.B. McCauley’s article is available here. It argues, re: climate change and extinctions in the oceans:

“Ocean warming presents obvious challenges to polar marine fauna trapped in thermal dead ends (73). Tropical marine species are, however, also highly sensitive to small increases in temperature. For example, coastal crabs on tropical shores live closer to their upper thermal maxima than do similar temperate species (74). Likewise, the symbiosis of corals and dinoflagellates is famously sensitive to rapid increases of only 1° to 2°C (75). Even though corals exhibit the capacity for adaptation (47), coral bleaching events are expected to be more common and consequently more stressful by the end of the century (76). The effects of rising ocean temperature extend well beyond coral reefs and are predicted to affect both the adult and juvenile stages of a diverse set of marine species (77), to reshuffle marine community composition (78), and to potentially alter the overall structure and dynamics of entire marine faunal communities (79).

The wide range of other climate change-associated alterations in seawater chemistry and physics—including ocean acidification, anoxia, ocean circulation shifts, changes in stratification, and changes in primary productivity—will fundamentally influence marine fauna. Ocean acidification, for example, makes marine animal shell building more physiologically costly, can diminish animal sensory abilities, and can alter growth trajectories (80, 81). Climate change impacts on phytoplankton can further accentuate defaunation risk (82). At the same time that humans are reducing the abundance of marine forage fish through direct harvest, we also may be indirectly reducing the planktonic food for forage fish and related consumers in many regions.”

TheLipTV: “Ocean Life on the Verge of Mass Extinction?”

Amazing Green Cars at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show

Sun, 18 Jan 2015 - 4:45am

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) —

I caught the Detroit Auto Show on Saturday afternoon. As always, it was great to see the concept cars of the future. But if you know me, you know I was there for news about electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids. This is mostly just window shopping — most of the EV concept cars there are beyond a middle class budget. But then window shopping is fun, and there are some models that are becoming affordable.

Electric vehicles are best paired with rooftop solar panels, both for price reasons and to reduce hydrocarbon use (the combination typically pays for itself in 6 years, after which the free fuel is cream). I know everyone can’t afford an EV, though they are coming down fast in price, and nor can everyone put solar panels on their roof — even assuming that they are homeowners. But for those who can, it is really important to make this switch as quickly as possible. And better, it is a quite pleasurable switch that saves a lot of money, in my experience.

This is Chevrolet’s 2016 Volt, which gets 50 miles on an electric charge and has been redesigned very pleasingly. It has the longest range of any plug-in hybrid (it goes to gasoline when the battery runs down). You can now fit 5 in the car, something families with 3 children had been asking for. I have the older model and I think it is a dream car– and much more affordable, with the dealer price drop the Federal tax break, than is commonly believed. I love the way it handles on the road, and the new version is even better.

And here is Chevrolet’s sporty little electric Bolt concept car, which will go 200 miles on a charge and will cost $30,000 after rebates.

Ford has a good position as you enter the hall, so this model caught my eye first– the Fusion Energi:

The innovative thing here is that you can choose among 3 modes in which to drive, including electric-only. This is an in-city commuter car, getting about 19 miles on electricity, after which it runs like an ordinary non-EV gasoline hybrid. It says it gets 88 m/gallon equivalent when operating in the joint EV/ gasoline motor mode.

Ford also displayed a purely electric Focus, which is still only a concept car and apparently won’t be on the road very soon:

Of course, they had a Tesla S:

It goes an average 209 miles on a charge but starts at like $80,000. Tesla is putting in free fast-charge stations around the country. Dan Sparks recently wrote about his experiences with this dream car.

They also had the Model S P85D, with its dual motor and 3.2 second acceleration from 0 to 60. This electric automobile can give a sports car a run for its money.

The Tesla Model 3, scheduled for 2017, will cost $35,000 and that will come down to $27,500 with the Federal tax break. I want one.

Mercedes Benz weighed in with the C350 Plug-in Hybrid

Gizmag explains:

“The C350 Plug-In Hybrid is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor, producing 211 hp (155 kW) and 350 Nm (258 lb.ft) of torque – slightly more than the base C200’s engine produces. Supplementing the petrol engine is an electric motor, which draws its power from a 6.2 kw/h lithium-ion battery mounted under the rear axle. Mercedes says this battery can be charged directly from a wall socket in just under two hours.

When fully charged, the C-Class’ battery pack will allow drivers to travel up to 31 km (19 mi) without help from the petrol engine, perfect for people who commute short distances around the city on a daily basis. As with plenty of other modern hybrids, the electric motor can also provide a handy power boost to the petrol engine when you want to pick up the pace.”

Here’s a BMW i8 plug-in hybrid with the DeLorean wing doors (not visible in this picture):

An all-electric Nissan Leaf with a range of around 80 miles, though the next generation will get 200 miles on a full charge so as to compete with the Chevy Bolt (due in 2017):

And here is a Volkswagon concept car, a mid-size plug-in hybrid SUV, the Cross Coupe, with four wheel drive. It will get 20 miles running just on electricity:

Personally I doubt very many people will be buying gasoline cars ten years from now. With the fall in prices of EVs and more efficient batteries (something Tesla’s gigafactory will probably accelerate), it will make more sense to go electric. And, as solar and wind energy become dominant, the fuel will be virtually free in EV’s. Why pay for gas?

The US produces 5.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. It is causing dangerous global warming. That needs to become zero as soon as humanly possible. Automobiles are one of the major polluters, and a quick move to EVs is essential. People are always alleging to me that it is better to have everyone move downtown in a city and use public transport. This is true, but it isn’t going to happen or at least not quickly. But, the number of EVs on the road can increase exponentially and if they are fueled from renewables, we can cut a billion or two tons of our CO2 production this way. We should.

PS: For the cavilers, here is a piece that has some links showing that, yes, over their lifetime electric cars do have a low carbon footprint. This includes their manufacture and their own on-road performance. The Nissan Leaf has the very lowest carbon footprint at the moment. Estimates of how green a car is by which state it operates in (some states are high-coal at the moment) ignore the ability of the owner and municipalities to put up solar panels and sidestep the coal. Also, new EPA rules are likely to close most coal plants soon. As for the making of the car, note that it will also become less carbon intensive, as factories are driven by solar power, as new materials such as perovskites are deployed. Even steel-making might be made more green soon.

50+ anti-Muslim attacks across France in Charlie Hebdo aftermath

Sun, 18 Jan 2015 - 2:16am

RT | —

“France is suffering a wave of hate attacks against Muslims in the wake of last week’s Islamic extremist attacks in and around Paris. Monitors of Islamophobia are reporting scores of incidents.”

RT: “50+ anti-Muslim attacks across France in Charlie Hebdo aftermath”

Iraqi Shiites, Fuming over Slow US Fight against ISIL, threaten to Revoke Agreement

Sun, 18 Jan 2015 - 1:58am

By Mustafa Habib | Baghdad | (Niqash.org) –

Four months have passed since the US began to work with an international alliance to confront the threat of the extremist group, the Islamic State, in Iraq. Yet for many locals, there don’t seem to be any obvious results.

The Islamic State, or IS, group still has control of over around 70 percent of the province of Anbar as well as other cities, like Tikrit and Baiji in Salahaddin province as well as parts of Diyala and Kirkuk.

As a result of what appears to be something of a stalemate, some Iraqi politicians have started to question an essential agreement between Iraq and the US, known as the Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States and the Republic of Iraq. It’s known as the SFA for short.

As the US Embassy in Iraq’s website describes the agreement, which was signed in November 2008, it, “guides our overall political, economic, cultural, and security ties with Iraq”. 

Section 3 of the SFA describes the close cooperation between the two signatories on defence and security in Iraq. Yet slowly but surely Iraqis are starting to question: Why can’t a superpower like the US defeat the IS group? 

And last week Iraqi MPs began to push for answers, with some even suggesting a cancellation of the SFA. Among them was Alia Nassif, an MP for the ruling State of Law party, a Shiite Muslim-majority party headed by both the current and former Prime Ministers of Iraq. “Iraq does not benefit from the security agreement with the US,” a statement from Nassif’s office said. “On the contrary the agreement has become a heavy burden on us because the US has not fulfilled one of its stated obligations – strengthening and supporting the democratic system in Iraq. The IS group threatens the whole existence of the Iraqi state.”

Nassif also noted that the international alliance fighting against the IS group, which is being led by the US, isn’t large enough or consistent with the strength of the American nation, which could defeat the extremists within weeks if it wanted to.

Niazi Mimar Oglu, the MP representing the interests of Turkmen in Iraq’s Parliament, was another politician calling for the end of the SFA. “This agreement prevents Iraq from getting weapons from other countries because the US promised to give Iraq arms,” Oglu told NIQASH. “But the US hasn’t kept its promise, especially at a time when we are in desperate need.”

These kinds of criticisms appeared to be the motivation that the Ahrar block in Baghdad – the political wing of the movement led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was always vehemently opposed to the US presence in Iraq – needed to start collecting signatures so that the proposed end of the SFA could be discussed in Parliament.

The Iraqi Constitution says that if 25 MPs can agree, they can propose a general topic for discussion in Parliament. If MPS can win over 215 others in the 328-seat Iraqi Parliament then they can also overturn agreements like the SFA.

However, as Ahmed al-Rubaie, an expert on international law*, points out, most of the politicians calling for the end of the SFA don’t really understand what it’s about.

“The agreement isn’t actually binding for either party,” he says. “And it doesn’t define the size or nature of US support to Iraq in security-related issues. The agreement contains expressions of support but it in no way defines what the size of, or nature of, this support should be.”

Al-Rubaie says that either party could do everything – or nothing – and there would be no legal consequences. There are no punitive clauses in the SFA if either party doesn’t abide by it. So putting the words into action is optional, for both Iraq and the US.

Besides the growing political opposition to the SFA, locals have also been perturbed by recent reports coming from unofficial Shiite Muslim militias fighting alongside the regular Iraqi army. They say that the US has managed to drop weapons and supplies to areas controlled by the IS group. So the extremists are getting these supplies, they say.

The Ali al-Akbar Brigade, a Shiite Muslim militia fighting in Salahaddin province, said they saw a US military helicopter throw weapons into the Yathrib area occupied by the IS group. Additionally two other militias – the League of the Righteous and the Peace Brigades – reported similar events.

However it is also important to consider where these complaints are coming from. Most of them originate from Shiite Muslim politicians and militias, who may well be more influenced by aid from Iran than from the US. Both nations are helping Iraqis in the fight against the IS group – the Iranian assistance has gone from slightly more covert to very much overt in recent days with leading Shiite Muslim militia commander, Hadi al-Ameri, declaring his thanks for Iranian salvation.

Via Niqash.org

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Wotchit: “Iraq Says U.S.-led Coalition not Doing Enough Against Islamic State”

As ICC launches Israel War Crimes Probe, PLO & Hamas Applaud

Sun, 18 Jan 2015 - 1:40am

RAMALLAH (Ma’an) — The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Saturday said it welcomed the decision to open an initial probe on Israeli war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

The ministry said in a statement that the ICC decision was a positive and important step towards achieving justice and guaranteeing respect of international law.

Palestine will fully cooperate with the ICC and facilitate its mission until justice is achieved, the statement said.

“The State of Palestine has signed the Rome Statue to guarantee an end to war crimes and crimes against humanity, which Israel, the occupying authority, has committed and is still committing against our people,” it added.

The Hamas movement also applauded the decision, saying it was ready to present thousands of documents to the ICC that prove Israeli war crimes have taken place.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in a statement that the war crimes probe was an important, long-awaited step.

“This step will be a spark of hope that Palestinians will be able to see the Israeli leadership prosecuted and held accountable for their crimes,” Barhoum said.

On Friday, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened an initial probe to see if war crimes have been committed against Palestinians, including during Israel’s military assault on Gaza last summer.

via Ma’an News Agency

—-

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “ICC opens inquiry into Israeli-Palestinian conflict”

As Obama warns of veto re: GOP Sanctions, Iran says ‘Political Will’ can aid Nuclear Talks

Sun, 18 Jan 2015 - 12:52am

By RFE/RL | —

GENEVA — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says "political will" is needed to make progress in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program but that he believes such progress is "possible."

Zarif returned to Geneva late on January 16 following talks in Paris with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

He told journalists he had also spoken with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and that he would speak by telephone on January 17 with British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond.

Representatives of Iran and the United States are continuing talks in Geneva on January 17 in the presence of a delegation from the European Union.

Further talks involving all parties are expected on January 18.

U.S. President Barack Obama on January 16 asked Congress to refrain from imposing fresh sanctions against Iran while negotiations on a permanent nuclear deal are under way.

Obama said he will veto a bill on more sanctions against Iran if it comes to his desk while negotiations are continuing between Tehran and six world powers.

But Obama said if Iran ultimately refuses to "say yes" and provide assurance that they are not secretly developing nuclear weapons, he would go to the U.S. Congress and ask them to "tighten the screws."

Speaking at a joint press conference at the White House with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama said there is probably less than a 50 percent chance of a diplomatic deal with Iran.

Iran is in talks with the so-called P5+1 group of nations — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany — aimed at limiting Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for an easing of international sanctions.

Iran denies that it is attempting to build nuclear weapons.

Based on reporting by Radio Farda's Hannah Kaviani​

Via RFE/RL

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

RT: “‘More sanctions on Iran would play against US’