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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Islamic State recruiting in Afghanistan and Pakistan


Kabul - General John Campbell, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan reports that the Islamic State is recruiting fighters in Afghanistan and next door in Pakistan as well.
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Campbell claims that recruiters have funds for recruiting. While he does not believe the Islamic State is fully operational in either country, in Afghanistan some Taliban have split off and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Campbell see this as an attempt for some Taliban to "rebrand" and as a way of bringing attention and resources to themselves. In other areas, this same type of change has led to a significant rise in Islamic State presence. In Libya, some members of Ansar al Sharia, an Al Qaeda-linked group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Subsequently their strength grew and they now control two coastal cities.
In Afghanistan's Helmand province, Mullah Abdul Rauf has pledged allegiance to the Ilamic State. He is a former senior Taliban commander and former Guantanamo inmate. An elder from the area told the BBC there had been a fight between the new group and the Taliban after they had replaced the Taliban white flags with the black flag of the Islamic State. The elder said about 20 people from both sides had been killed or injured in the clash. The governor of Nimruz province, Amir Mohammed, said the IS tried to recruit people in the south-western province of Farah but were driven out by local people with the help of the police. However, he said the group still had the same program, though they were changing their name.
The Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, has not been seen in public since 2001.There now appears to be a challenge to his leadership from the Islamic State not just in Afghanistan but in Pakistan too. In Pakistan an online video appeared in which several commanders claimed they had pledged allegiance to Abu Al-Baghdadi, the IS leader.
One Afghan news agency reported IS militants already were in control of most of the province of Nangahar in the north-east of Afghanistan, but General Campbell dismissed the report saying:"We are not seeing it operationalized to the point of like what you are seeing in Syria. But I think, given time, that is where they want to go, so I think we have to squash that out now while we can."
He did not deny the reports of Taliban and Islamic State fighters had fought with each other.
A suicide attack in the Afghan eastern city of Jalalabad killed 33 people and injured over a hundred last March. The Taliban condemned the attack but a former spokesperson for the Pakistan Taliban claimed the attack as the work of the Islamic State in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a visit to Washington last month Afghan president Ghani claimed that the Islamic State posed a "terrible threat" to Afghanistan

Iranian aid ship offloads Yemen aid in Djibouti while Iranian plane denied permission to land

An Iranian news agency said an Iranian Red Crescent plane carrying 20 tonnes of food for Yemen was denied permission to land in Djibouti the location of a UN food distribution hub.
The IRNA, official Iranian news agency, quoted the Red Crescent official as saying: “Despite coordination with the United Nations and the World Food Programme, the plane was not granted permission to land in Djibouti." The plane is now in south-eastern Iran awaiting authorization of the foreign affairs ministry of Djibouti to land. Djibouti is the site of a key U.S. military base, the only permanent U.S. base in Africa. Drone missions are launched from the base as well as other flights.
An Iranian cargo ship, the Nejat, carrying 2,500 tonnes of aid to Yemen that had been heading for the port of Hodeida held by the rebel Houthis, changed course and docked in Djibouti after arriving late Friday night. The cargo was being handed over to the World Food Program (WFP) in Djibouti. The port authority chief, Abur Hadi, said: “The ship will be completely unloaded and reloaded onto other vessels, everything is transparent." WFP spokesperson, Abber Etefa, said Saturday: "The ship carries 2,500 tonnes of humanitarian aid and that includes mainly rice and wheat flour, as well as medicine, water, tents and blankets."
The ship diverted from its route to Hodeida after warnings from both the U.S. and the Saudi-led coalition who feared that the ship might be delivering arms to the Houthi rebels.
The U.N. could have monitored the unloading at Hodeida and assured a quicker delivery of the aid instead of having to divert to Djibouti. However, it is clear that the U.S. and Saudis simply do not want any deliveries to be made by Iran of any kind to Houthi-controlled areas. When the ship arrived in Djibouti, it was not just inspected but unloaded and the aid given over to the WFP. There is no guarantee that the aid will even go to Hodeida now.
General Ali Ahmadi, Secretary of the Iranian Red Crescent Society (IRCS) said:“We are coordinating with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to deliver Iran’s humanitarian aid to the oppressed Yemeni people in Hudaydah port after making sure that the route is safe. The Nejat ship has been dispatched to Djibouti in order to assess the situation. We are sending humanitarian supplies to Yemen needed by its people and we do not want to face any problems in this regard,”There are a number of international journalists, doctors, and foreign anti-war activists aboard the ship.
I expect that the Nejat will not be allowed to journey to Hodeida at all. The aid has already been offloaded. If the UN, the US, and Saudi coalition were going to allow the Nejat to dock in Hodeida, they would have simply inspected the cargo in Djibouti and sent it on its way with perhaps UN monitors to ensure it did not pick up weapons on the way. The process is transparent. The powers that count, the US and Saudis, ensured that the ship not only did not sail directly to Hodeida but will never go there and will not deliver the aid. The aid could very well end up in Aden to be given to areas controlled by Hadi loyalists. As Etefa from the WFP put it:“The cargo of the ship will be handed over to WFP in Djibouti and will be transferred to WFP-chartered vessels for shipment to the Yemeni ports of Hudaydah and/or (the southern port city of) Aden, It will be delivered to humanitarian partners on the ground for distribution."Saudi Arabia has already stopped an Iranian cargo plane from delivering aid from landing in Sanaa by bombing the runway, preventing any aid planes from landing no matter where they were from. Clearly the aim is not just to prevent arms from being provided by Iran but humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas as well. Some aid will still get in because the UN will need to show some concern for the humanitarian needs of those in rebel areas.


Saudi Arabia considering purchase of nuclear weapons from Pakistan

Saudi Arabia is said to be engaged in a strategic review of its security that includes as one possibility acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan.
The Guardian reports that three options are being considered. One option is to acquire a nuclear capability as a deterrent. Another, to maintain or enter into an alliance with a nuclear power to offer it protection. Finally, to negotiate an agreement for a nuclear free Middle East. Washington until now has assumed that the Saudis were content to rely upon the U.S. with its nuclear arsenal for protection. Analysts say the review shows that the Saudis feel insecure in their relationship with the US and want to lessen their reliance on US protection. The Saudis worry not just about Iran but also Israel which appears to be under almost no international pressure to abandon its nuclear program or weapons except for Arab nations.
David Albright, of the Institute fo Science and International Security in Washington said:"There has always been worries that the Saudis would go down this path if provoked. There is growing US hostility which could lead to the removal of the US umbrella and will the Saudis be intimidated by Iran? They've got to be nervous."The Saudis bought intermediate range missiles from China back in 1988 that could carry nuclear bombs to any part of the middle east. Four years ago, a Saudi defence team toured Pakistani nuclear facilities. Albright doubted if anyone would sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. However, U.S. officials told a London newspaper that Saudi Arabia would buy atomic weapons from Pakistan "off the shelf." The Saudis provided considerable financial support for the Pakistani nuclear program.
A BBC Newsnight report citing various sources went further and a NATO official said "that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery." Amos Yadin, a former head of Israeli intelligence said that if Iran got the bomb, the Saudis would not wait one month: “They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring." In 2009, King Abdullah warned the visiting US envoy to the Middle East that if Iran were to cross the nuclear threshold that Saudi Arabia would get nuclear weapons.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Glenn Greenwald on western limitations on free speech

In a recent article in the Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald, argues that the greatest threat to free speech in the West at present comes not from Islamic fundamentalists but from western politicians who claim to fight them and to protect free speech.
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Greenwald notes the UK government is among many in the west suppressing free speech in the name of combating terrorism by disrupting the actions of those trying to radicalize people: "They would include a ban on broadcasting and a requirement to submit to the police in advance any proposed publication on the web and social media or in print."
In defence of this move to criminalize expression of ideas that the government authorities consider extremist Prime Minister David Cameron said: “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens ‘as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.'” The Home Secretary Theresa May tries to justify the bill in an interview shown in the appended video. She talks about undermining British values and the need to ensure that the UK is together as one nation.
The UK is not the only country in the west to pass legislation purportedly to counter extremism and terrorism that restricts freedom of speech and expression. Similar legislation can be found in the U.S., Australia, France, New Zealand, and Canada. The same politicians who marched in solidarity in defence of the anti-Muslim fundamentalist Charlie Hebdo cartoons supposedly to support the right to satire and free speech, now are marching together to suppress free speech. More and more laws restrict free expression not just to fight terrorism but to counter any "hate speech." French hate speech laws were used by a Muslim group to lay a criminal charge against Charlie Hebdo:In 2007 the Grand Mosque of Paris began criminal proceedings against the chief-editor of Charlie Hebdo, Philipe Val, under France's hate speech laws for publicly abusing a group on the ground of their religion. The lawsuit was limited to three specific cartoons, including one depicting Muhammad carrying a bomb in his turban. In March 2007 le tribunal de Paris acquitted Val, finding that it was fundamentalists, rather than Muslims, who were being ridiculed in the cartoons.[25]
The development of social media has led to an explosion of commentary often critical of governments and also often containing what many would call "hate speech." Commercial media filter out this type of material in a form of self censorship but for the most part it remains unfiltered on the Internet. Just read any comments on articles where there are not authorities censoring the material. This situation is seen as a threat by authorities who do their best to control it. In some authoritarian countries many social media outlets are simply banned. However, in western democracies where free speech is lauded other means of control must be found. Anti-terror and hate speech laws are the favored method along with vast data collection such as the US National Science Foundation, that is generating a data base of hate speech articles.
We think of criminalizing blogging as happening in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but it is also happening in the UK and the U.S. as well. In the UK last month a 35-year-old mother of six was sentenced to five years in prison for "promoting terrorism on Facebook." In the U.S. in 2011, a 24-year-old Pakistani resident of the US was convicted on terrorism charges after uploading a 5 minute video that shows photos of Abu Ghraib prison abuse, US armoured vehicles being blown up, and a prayer message by the leader of a designated terror group. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The Stephen Harper Conservative government in Canada is a great promoter of laws against hate speech and of anti-terror legislation. Aboriginal and environmental activists fear that they will be targeted using anti-terror legislation such as the new bill c-51. Groups critical of Israel fear that they may become targets of hate crime laws. The government has said that it has a "zero tolerance" attitude to any group participating in the loose coalition called Boycott, Divest, and Sanction(BDS). When asked by reporters to explain what that meant, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney replied by giving news media a detailed list of Canada's hate laws and the spokesperson noted that Canada has one of the most comprehensive set of hate laws anywhere in the world.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Yemen peace talks to be held in Geneva on May 28

The UN has set May 28 to begin Yemen peace talks in Geneva but only one party to the conflict may attend. The Hadi government based in Saudi Arabia demands that the rebel Houthis give up some of the territory they have taken as a condition of taking part.
Riad Yassine, the foreign minister, at first insisted the Houthis would need to implement all of UN Security Council Resolution 2216 in order for the Hadi government to agree to talks. Resolution 2216 was passed back on April 15th:Adopting resolution 2216 (2015) by 14 affirmative votes to none against, with one abstention (Russian Federation), the Council also demanded that the Houthis, withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict, relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions, cease all actions falling exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen and fully implement previous Council resolutions.
In other words, after driving the Hadi government into exile and setting up their own government as well as occupying much of the western part of Yemen, the Houthis are to give up the territory they have occupied and cede power to the government in exile operating from the Saudi capital, Ryadh.
Sometimes, it seems as if the UN operates in a different reality as it ignores what is happening on the ground. Instead it publishes moralistic rhetoric and issues demands or resolutions that are not kept. However, in this case the UN is simply pimping for the big powers that count in the area — the Gulf Cooperation Council including Saudi Arabia plus the U.S. Hadi is their man and even though he has been driven out of Yemen, even from his refuge in the south in Aden, he is still regarded as the rightful president. He has little real power on the ground in Yemen but that matters little if the legitimate use of force in Yemen is the coalition bombing Yemen to bits and any groups fighting the Houthis, who are claimed to be loyal to the Hadi government. Some in the south fighting the Houthis are probably loyal to the southern separatist movement and many fighting the Houthis in the east are loyal to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and at war with the Hadi government.
Powerful governments often believe that their power ensures that they can create the situation they want. In this case Gulf Arab countries including Saudi Arabia believe that the return of the Hadi government can be attained using their superior military power. As a result, they think it reasonable that negotiation means the surrender of their opponents instead of the each side recognizing the interests of the other side.
However, even Yassine appears to realize his original precondition did not have the slightest chance of being accepted. He later suggested that at least the Houthis should give back to the Hadi government a major city such as Aden or Taez. In the past, the Saudis have ruled out peace talks without a full disarmament and surrender. Yassine said a withdrawal from some captured territory by the Houthis would be a sign of goodwill. The April UN resolution placed an arms embargo on the rebels and also imposed sanctions on the son of Saleh the former president. It reiterated sanctions imposed last November on the ex-president and also two Houthi leaders. Given these moves it is not clear who would be able to negotiate on behalf of the Houthis or Saleh, who with his son controls much of the Yemeni armed forces. Saleh is allied with the Houthis.
Yemen's ambassador to the UN Khaled Alyemany said the talks in Geneva would be designed "to convince the Houthis to give up what they are doing and be part of the solution." These do not sound like "peace talks" but surrender talks. Given the situation on the ground there does not seem to be any motivation for the Houthis to surrender. Certainly many Yemenis hate the Houthis and want the conflict to stop but continued bombing by the Saudis directly supported by Hadi and other politicians from their safe haven in the Saudi capital will hardly generate support for the return of the previous government. For talks to have any chance of success they must begin with neither side placing preconditions on participation. Both sides have set preconditions for participation.
The Houthis have suggested as a condition for their attending that the two sides agree to the Peace and Partnership agreement the Hadi government signed when the Houthis took over the capital last September. The Houthis said: "The only way to solve the political problem is dialogue in a neutral country over what has been agreed upon in advance in the peace and partnership agreement," Maybe no one will show up for the peace talks.
The agreement did not result in a government the Houthis would approve and Hadi resigned. He was virtually under house arrest but escaped to Aden, claimed he was still president, and tried to set up a rival administration to the Houthis who took power when the negotiations failed. Hadi was driven out of Aden and took refuge in Ryadh where he enlisted Arab countries to try to put him back in power.


Islamic State captures many US-provided weapons and equipment as it retakes Ramadi

Iraqi troops retreating from Ramadi last Sunday left behind many U.S.-provided vehicles, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery for ISIS fighters.
Colonel Steve Warren, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, estimated that IS captured about a half dozen tanks, about the same number of artillery but almost 100 wheeled vehicles such as Humvees and a number of armored personnel carriers. Warren noted while some vehicles were operational, others were not as they had not been moved for months.
The capture of Ramadi is the worst defeat for central government forces since the IS offensive began last June. Apparently several hundred Iraqi soldiers were left in one area of Ramadi surrounded by IS fighters. Reinforcements had been trying to reach Ramadi but were kept away by fierce IS resistance. All contact with the Anbar Operations Center in the area where the soldiers were was cut off and IS later claimed they had overrun the center.
The retreat in Ramadi, follows a pattern that happened earlier in a number of places in which equipment is left behind when Iraqi forces retreat, to be destroyed by U.S.-led air strikes later. When Warren was asked if the vehicles should have been destroyed before the retreat, he said that was preferable but was not done in this case. While Warren was confident that Ramadi would be retaken he said it could be a difficult battle.
Derek Harvey, a retired colonel and former Defense Intelligence officer said of the Islamic State: "They are adaptive and they remain well-armed and well-resourced. The different lines of operation by the U.S. coalition remain disjointed, poorly resourced and lack an effective operational framework, in my view."
Given the difficulties in recovering territory from ISIS, some U.S. officials have suggested containment might be an alternative strategy. However, at the present time this is not being discussed. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said of Ramadi: "Setbacks are regrettable but not uncommon in warfare. Much effort will now be required to reclaim the city." The U.S. remains adamant that it will not commit substantial numbers of ground troops to the fight against the Islamic State although it is clear that there are a number of advisers, trainers, and special forces in both Iraq and Syria. Pentagon officials were quick to claim that the Ramadi defeat did not show any fatal weakness in the U.S. strategy but was just part of the inevitable "ebb and flow" of warfare. In some areas the Islamic State has lost ground. Tikrit was recaptured recently. However, the town of Baghdadi north of Ramadi is also reported to be surrounded by IS fighters and could also be captured without outside help.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Greek Prime Minister claims that deal with creditors is close

Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, insists he is close to a deal with the country's creditors that would result in the remainder of the bailout loan funds to be dispersed helping to ease the country's cash shortage.
This is not the first time Greek officials have said they are close to a deal. The same claim was made back on May 8. There are still key issues that are not resolved including pension and wage reforms, that is austerity measures. Tsipras claims that there is no possibility of retreat either on the wages issue or pensions. However, Greece has already caved on the issue of privatizations and tax reform another two issues that were previously said to be red lines. If there is to be a deal Tsipras would probably be required to yield on the pensions and wage issues as well. There will be virtually nothing left of the government's anti-austerity measures. Both the IMF and other EU creditors insist that the Greek reform proposals are still too vague. An EU official said that the Greek government needed to move beyong promising openings to final agreed upon wording and commitments.
EU leaders are holding a conference in Riga, Latvia, on May 21 and 22 to discuss eastern Europe. Tsipras will raise the bailout negotiations issue on the sidelines of that conference. The negotiations are now stretching beyond 100 days with little progress made until lately when Greece caved on key issues of taxation and privatization. Stephen Gallo, European head of currency strategy at the Bank of Montreal said in a TV interview: “Even if they have a deal before the bailout extension ends at the end of June, we don’t think they’ll get access to the full remaining 7.2 billion euros ($8.2 billion) of the current bailout extension.” He said the Greek crisis will not be over for a long time.
Meanwhile the Greek financial situation is getting worse as the government scrambles to raise 500 million euros in cash to pay for wages and pensions at the middle of the month. After raiding pension funds, and local governments the government is now asking that consulates and embassies cough up any cash reserves. The credit rating of government debt has plunged further into junk status. Greek banks have seen huge withdrawals of funds as nervous depositors worry that there may be a default and a return to the drachma. Money is flowing out of Greece as well. A leaked IMF document notes:“non-performing loans are at very high levels and – going forward – the system might suffer from important stress. The staff also noted a dramatic deterioration in the payment culture in the country”. This last refers to the near gridlock of the Greek system of inter-company payments as betwen €30 and €35bn has flowed out of the banking system – into the cash economy and abroad – since Syriza came to power.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Saudis to execute leading Shia cleric for leading protests

- Said to be the most respected Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sheik Al-Nimr's crime was to take part in and lead a protest by the Shia minority back in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Protests are forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
The ruling royal family are followers of a strict form of Sunni Islam. The Shia minority have long complained that the government discriminates against them. Along with other human rights organizations the Islamic Human Rights Commission(HRC), asked the UN to intervene and prevent him from being executed. All-Nimr is said to be the most respected Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia. Many fear his execution could set off violent demonstrations across the middle east and in particular in the areas of eastern Saudi Arabia where the Shia form a majority. The HRC, an NGO based in London, said: "It is a severe blight on the reputation of this office if it is not able to work to protect the rights of individuals to free speech, to protest, to practise their religion, to a fair trial, to not be subjected to torture, and the right to life."
The representative of Bahraini Shia leader, Shaykh Ali Salman said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was told of the execution at a meeting in Ryadh, the Saudi capital, on May 6: “John Kerry expressed his surprise to President Barack Obama over the decision made by the House of Saud, and by their silence they gave the green light to Saudi Arabia to go ahead with the execution.” Former Bahraini Shiite MP Jawad Fayruz claimed since Saudi Arabia is backed by the U.S. and the UK, just one word from officials from either country might very well save Nimr's life. He also said the case is politically oriented and related to the recent overthrow of President Hadi of Yemen who was supported by the Saudis, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United States. He was overthrown by Houthi Shiite rebels.
Al-Nimr was sentenced to death in October 2014 for "disobeying the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and encouraging, leading, and participating in demonstrations." Said Boumedouha, who is deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North African programme said “the death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shiite Muslim community.”
There have been protests against the execution in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, India, and Iraq. Iran saw large demonstrations in several cities. Al Nimr was to be executed on May 14 according to reports but it appears to have been postponed. An informed source told Iranian Fars news agency: "Saudi officials informed Sheikh Nimr's family that they have delayed the execution of Sheikh Nimr."


Turkey and Saudis backing extremist rebels in Syria including Al-Qaeda-linked group

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are now openly backing Islamic extremists including the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, part of the new coalition called the "Conquest Army."
The leader of another radical group in the coalition Ahrar al-Sham claimed previously that his group was the "real Al-Qaeda." The U.S. is said to be concerned that the new alliance between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will end up replacing Assad with a militant Islamic government, precisely the type of result the U.S. wants to avoid. The U.S. focus is on degrading the Islamic State but it has also attacked the Nusra Front in Syria angering rebels of all stripes since the group has been forcefully attacking the Assad regime. While the U.S. is planning to train and arm moderate rebels that it has vetted, the Pentagon wants them to concentrate on attacking the Islamic State. Most rebels together with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and many other Arab states think the first order of business should be defeating the Assad regime forces.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia have often been at odds as to whom they should support among the rebels. Turkey favours groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia opposes. Saudi Arabia has not officially supported radical groups at the urging of the U.S. However, both countries and others are fed up with the lack of U.S. action against Assad. Now the two countries are joined in support for radical groups that have already gained ground in Idlib province.
The present pact dates back to March, when Recep Erdogan, the Turkish president, flew to Saudi Arabia to meet the newly-crowned King Salman. In spite of differences over the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi king saw Turkey as an ally in his war against Iran and Shias in general that is evident in his leading in the bombing of the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen as well. In Syria, Saudi money together with Turkish logistical support can be used to defeat the Assad forces. Assad's government is dominated by members of a Shia sect although a majority in Syria are Sunni. Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma said:"It's a different world now in Syria, because the Saudi pocketbook has opened and the Americans can't tell them not to do it. It's quite clear that Salman has prioritized efforts against Iran over those against the Muslim Brotherhood."

The agreement has led to a new joint command center in the province of Idlib in northeast Syria. President Obama has not commented on the new Saudi-Turkish agreement. This is surprising since the alliance includes the Al Nusra Front, which is a target of the U.S. war on terror and has been bombed in Syria by the US. It is almost as if the US has accepted that there will be a dual fight in Syria. The U.S. will concentrate on aiding moderate rebels to tackle the Islamic State while the Saudis and Turks allied with radical Islamists will take on Assad's forces. Some in the media claim that Obama is taking a hands off approach and is disengaged. Yet he is arming and training moderate rebels and he is bombing the Islamic State constantly. What we are seeing is a dual thrust in Syria. and a division of tasks.
Some reports on the new alliance suggest even more involvement in Syria by Turkey and Saudi Arabia: "Turkey would provide ground troops supported by Saudi Arabian air strikes, to assist moderate Syrian opposition against the regime forces." The "moderate rebels" in this case involve Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra. The main Turkish opposition party also claims that Turkey is poised to send troops into Syria as soon as this weekend. The Turkish president has denied the claim as shown on the appended video. Conflict in Syria appears about to escalate and the tide could turn against Assad. Escalation is a dangerous move in an area that is already very unstable and filled with conflict. If Assad is overthrown, Syria may end up with numerous competing militias and a situation worse than Libya.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Turkish cargo ship bombed by internationally recognized Libyan government off Tobruk

The internationally-recognized Libyan government in Tobruk has warned countries not to enter its territorial waters without authorisation.
The warning comes after Libya bombed a Turkish-owned ship last weekend, killing the third captain and wounding several crew members. The ship flew the flag of the Cook Islands but is Turkish-owned and many of the crew were Turks. The government claimed in a statement: "The Turkish boat tried to enter Libyan territorial waters by force... ignoring international norms and maritime regulations." The rival Tripoli government called the Tobruk government's action "violent aggression" and claimed that the ship was in international waters, 13 nautical miles off Tobruk when the attack happened.
The UN Support Mission in Libya(UNSML) also condemned the attack . In a statement it said it regretted the loss of life and also called for a thorough investigation of the incident. The statement went on to urge that all military actions in Libya by either side be undertaken in a manner that does not target or harm civilians or civilian property.
The Libyan government claims the Tuna-1 was attacked about 10 miles from the coast and after it had been warned not to approach the city of Derna which is under control of a group linked to the Islamic State. The Turkish foreign ministry claims that it was attacked 13 miles from Tobruk and was actually bound for that port with plasterboard from Spain. The second captain, Zafer Kalayci, who was on board the ship when it was attacked denied that there was any warning about approaching Derna:“In no way did they warn us, What they may mean by a warning was probably a bomb. They warned us with bombs.”Kalayci also said that there was a second attack when they were about 18 miles off the coast almost an hour after the first attack.
This is not the first time the Tobruk government has been condemned for attacking a ship as it approached Derna. In January, its aircraft bombed a Greek-operated oil tanker off Derna. The attack killed two crewmen. One was Greek and one Romanian. The US condemned that attack.

Friday, May 15, 2015

IS in fierce battle with Iraqi forces to control town of Baiji and refinery

The battle for the town of Baiji and the nearby Baiji refinery, the largest in Iraq, began last year in December as Iraqi forces with US air support launched an offensive to retake the facility.
While the refinery was taken by Iraqi forces back in November, it was left with inadequate troops to guard it and was retaken by the Islamic State. The battle for control of the town and refinery began last December. The situation has remained fluid with different areas changing hands several times. On April 23, just shortly after the US and Iraqi government announced that the refinery had been secured and cleared of IS fighters, it was revealed that IS militants were actually still inside the facility. The situation is much worse now.
After an offensive, the IS controls large areas within the refinery and the Iraqi troops remaining are trapped and surrounded. All supply routes to the troops are now cut off. IS fighters have dug and occupied trenches around storage tanks and the refinery making it difficult to bomb them without destroying the facility completely and starting disastrous fires. The refinery has not been operating since last June and would require considerable repairs to restart. An Iraqi colonel said that up to two thirds of the refinery area was under IS control and air strikes could destroy the refinery. Pentagon spokesperson, Colonel Steve Warren, said that the fighting was "flowing in the wrong direction" but that it was impossible to predict how the battle would turn out. Those trapped in the facility include 200 policemen, soldiers, and elite special forces according to an officer at the scene. The appended video by the Islamic State shows them operating within the facility.
General Martin Dempsey stressed last month that the capture of the refinery and the nearby town of Baiji would not only deprive IS of revenue but the capture of the town was crucial for plans to capture the larger city of Mosul. Some analysts question the value of the facility given that it is not operational and is difficult for either side to hold. IS has lost many fighters and considerable equipment in their offensive.
A source within the Salahuddin Operations Command said:"We have to retake Siniya and Baiji towns to cut all supply routes coming from Anbar province and used by Daesh to send reinforcements whenever they need, What’s the point of retaking a location and suffering casualties while nearby areas and supply routes are still controlled by Daesh?""Daesh" is the Arabic term for the Islamic State or ISIS. Government forces last week started an operation to retake Baiji but have yet to dislodge the IS fighters and have met fierce resistance and appear to be no match for the large resources IS has committed to defend the town.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Naval escort to accompany Iran cargo ship to Yemen

Iranian Admiral Hossein Azad said that the 34th naval group was in the Gulf of Aden in the Bab-al-Mandab strait and had been given the task of protecting the Iranian aid ship.
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Azad claimed that the naval group included a destroyer and a logistic ship which were in the area on a 90 day anti-piracy assignment. Iranian state TV claimed the ship carried food, medicine, tents, and blankets, as well as reporters, rescue workers, and peace activists. It is expected to arrive at the port of Hodeida next week.
The Pentagon claims that an escort for the ship was not necessary and said that Iran was planning some sort of stunt. If the ship plans to land in Hodeida, held by the Houthis, and the nearest port to the capital Sanaa, they may need an escort. When an Iranian cargo plane tried to land in the capital, the Saudi coalition bombed the runway making it impossible for it to land and preventing any aid coming in to the airport. There is a scheduled five day lull in bombing and hostilities that started yesterday although there are reports of some continuing clashes on the ground.
Washington is not happy with Iran's plan. US Army Col. Steve Warren said that the US is monitoring the cargo ship and said that Iran should send the vessel to Djibouti where there is a hub being set up and Yemen aid efforts are being coordinated. The UN recently was able to dock an aid ship in the rebel-held port in spite of the coalition blockade but has complained about delays in many cases.
The Iranian cargo ship is flying the Red Crescent Society of Iran flag. The head of the Society in Iran, Amir Ziy'ee said that “based on international regulations, no one can inspect a vessel that is moving in international waters carrying the flag of a country,” according to a report on Iranian TV.
The Houthi's expanded their are of control last year including taking the capital Sanaa last September. When UN-sponsored negotiations between Houthis and the Hadi government failed to produce a government agreeable to the Houthi's, Hadi resigned and was put under virtual house arrest. However, he escaped to Aden and declared himself the legitimate president again and tried to set up his own government in Aden, only to be quickly driven out. He fled to the safety of the Saudi capital, Ryadh. Since then, a Saudi-led coalition started a military campaign of bombing and arming loyalists starting in March in a bid to restore Hadi to power. The conflict has killed more than 1,400 people many civilians and caused a humanitarian disaster as vital supplies dwindle.
Iran supports the Houthis, and the Saudis with their Sunni allies are attempting to retain their dominance in Yemen. However, the conflict goes beyond a sectarian issue. The Houthis could never have expanded their area of control to the south and many other areas without the support of ex-president Saleh who still has many in the armed forces loyal to him rather than Hadi. The conflict is further complicated by a strong southern separatist movement who are fighting the Houthis but want independence rather than rule by a Hadi government. The conflict has led to a huge growth in Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula(AQAP) and the area they control. AQAP hates both the Houthis and the Hadi government. There may be little support left in Yemen for Hadi. So far the Saudi campaign has produced even more bloodshed than before without defeating the Houthis, while strengthening the power of AQAP and southern separatists.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Arab states meet in Cairo to plan military intervention in Libya

An unpublicized meeting of Arab military chiefs of staff will take place in Cairo on May 18 and is designed to coordinate plans for an intervention in Libya. France and Italy may also play a part in any intervention.
The report is from an Arab League source in Defense News but can also be found in McClatchy.
The meeting includes not only high-ranking military officials from Egypt but also from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Sudan and the Libyan Tobruk government. Notice that there is no representation from the rival Tripoli government. The Arab League reports that talks between the head of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and Arab leaders have already resulted in arms purchases by the Libyan Army including helicopters delivered in late April from the UAE. The UAE and and Egypt were thought to be involved in earlier bombings of Tripoli and Egypt in Benghazi. There is a UN ban against the sale of arms to Libya. In addition to the helicopters the Tobruk government has bought anti-tank and armour-piercing weapons and munitions. Talks are ongoing with France and Italy to participate. France would supply logistic support and special forces and Italy will provide naval support.
The two former regional colonial powers are going to help out CIA-linked, Khalifa Haftar, in a civil war to defeat not just the Islamic State, which both governments are fighting, but also the rival Tripoli government with its militia the Libya Dawn. The negotiations for a unity government that the UN has sponsored since last September are supposed to reach an agreement by June 17, but it is not clear how that can take place when Haftar has consistently claimed that he will not talk with the Tripoli militia. He believes in a military solution and it appears he may get it. While all this is happening, the US and many European countries are still publicly touting a political solution through the formation of a unity government.
In a joint statement, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Britain and the US warned that the energy and financial institutions should in effect remain neutral in the conflict between the two governments and supported the UN peace negotiations for a unity government:They said that as hopes of a peace deal brokered by the United Nations were rising, "we express our concern at attempts to divert Libyan resources to the narrow benefit of any side in the conflict and to disrupt financial and economic institutions that belong to all Libyans."
Notice there is no mention of who is doing what. The internationally-recognized Tobruk government has formed its own oil company and intends to export oil through it rather than the Libyan National Oil Company. They have also attempted to fire the head of the National Bank and Haftar seized a branch in Benghazi. Italy and France signed this declaration at the same time as they are making plans for military intervention with the Arab League.
Egypt is also holding a forum for Libyan tribes which will be designed to get their support in helping to coordinate the operation and guarantee the safe passage of Arab troops. The forum is said to be designed to "unify the Libyan people". Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Badr Abdelatty, stressed the tribes were important to restoring stability in Libya by supporting Libya's "legitimate institutions' such as the House of Representatives and the legitimate government. This is meant to gain support for the Tobruk government not to unify the people through political negotiation to form a unity government agreeable to both conflicting parties. It is a recipe for outright civil war.
Naturally, there is a line-up of analysts to promote the Arab intervention including, Theodore Karasik, a Gulf-base analyst who says:"The threat from the Islamic State not only in Libya but also in Western Egypt is getting to be too great, so action is required. It is important to point out that after the Cairo meeting is a forum hosted by Justice First in the Egyptian capital that will bring together many of Libya's tribes to achieve a new unity that will act as a force multiplier for the Egyptian-led campaign."Notice that there is no mention of the Tripoli government. This is all just an operation against the Islamic State. Mimicking Sisi in Egypt and his former boss Gadaffi, Haftar classifies all rebels and opponents as terrorists. Any intervention would be against Tripoli as well as the Islamic State. Progress is being made it would seem not in peace talks and towards a political solution but towards a military intervention and a civil war designed to topple the rival government in Tripoli. Haftar continues to do whatever he pleases whether it contradicts UN wishes or even international law as shown by his latest act of attacking a Turkish cargo ship killing a crew member.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Minnesota Symphony Orchestra to play in Cuba this week

The Minnesota Symphony Orchestra led by its director, Osmo Vanska, will be the first to perform in Cuba since President Barack Obama announced he would be restoring full diplomatic relations last December.
The Minnesota Orchestra has just recovered from a long labor dispute. The last major orchestra to play in Cuba was the Milwaukee Symphony back in 1999. The predecessor to the Minnesota Orchestra, the Minneapolis Symphony, performed in Cuba in 1929 and 1930 to sold out concerts and cheering crowds.
In 2012 the musicians in the orchestra refused to accept severe cuts in their salary and were locked out for a total of 16 months, losing an entire season. Their renowned Finnish director, Osmo Vanska, had spent more than a decade making the orchestra into a one of the best in the US. He quit during the dispute. He has directed many orchestras during his career including the Iceland Symphony and has made many recording especially of Finnish composers. The Minnesota orchestra won a Grammy award in 2014. Vanska returned after the musicians signed a three-year contract in January last year even though he took the same pay cut as the musicians. He was able to demand a change in the top management of the orchestra however. Vanska said: "The orchestra was almost destroyed. We came to the edge,I'm so glad to say when we had the chance to start again, it came together so quickly and strongly, it was like a miracle."

The president of the Orchestra, Kevin Smith, said the orchestra saw an opening for a tour to Cuba in Mid-May during their regular vacation period. The Cuban Ministry of Culture invited the group to perform at the Havana International Cubasdisco Festival. The Minnesota Symphony was the only one invited from North America. Smith said that although the musicians had to postpone their vacations, the tour fits into their plans. The orchestra will perform in the Teatro Nacional in Havana on Friday and Saturday. On the program are Beethoven's third symphony the Eroica, and American composer, Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from the "West Side Story", and also the suite from Romeo and Juliet by Serge Prokofiev. Cuban artists will.also be featured, including pianist Frank Fernandez. The tour will last five days.
The orchestra has been invited to play in Carnegie Hall next year and next month is to continue with Sibelius recordings that have been much acclaimed. The appended video is from the last concert Vanska gave when he quit, but happily he is now back directing the orchestra again.

Tobruk Libyan government rejects EU plan to deal with migrant crisis

The ambassador to the UN of the internationally-recognized Libyan government, Ibrahim Dabbashi, rejected most of an EU plan to deal with the growing migrants crisis largely centered in Libya.
Dabbashi complained his government, even though it is Western-backed, was not even consulted on the issue. He ruled out any EU forces on the ground at this stage. He also said the best way to solve the crisis was to arm the "legitimate" Libyan government, that is the government in Tobruk rather than the rival government based in Tripoli.
He also warned if there is no progress in the UN-sponsored peace talks in the next few weeks, his own government would take the necessary steps to retake the capital by force. His government already is trying to do that and announced an offensive as the first peace talks began. The commander of the armed forces, Khalifa Haftar, has refused to meet with the militia on the other side, Libya Dawn. Dabbashi said his government had been left out of international discussions of the migrant crisis which has seen increasing numbers of desperate migrants die at sea.
Diplomats have been working on a draft Security Council resolution that would authorize a military operation to seize suspected migrant smuggling ships not only on the high seas but in Libyan territorial waters and even on the coast. Federica Mogherini, the EU policy chief, is to outline the plans to the Security Council on Monday. Diplomats claim that Libya's approval is needed for the operation in its territorial waters and on its coasts. Apparently, they were expecting a request that would allow the operation from the Tobruk government. There is no mention of the role or position of the Tripoli government in all of this. Apparently their position does not matter, actions would go ahead with or without their approval.
Dabbashi asked why Libya should send an approval letter to the Council when they had not been consulted. He said that Libya would not accept any boots on the ground. He also opposed sending more boats to patrol off the coast of Libya complaining that it would just mean more migrants remaining in Libya and being a huge burden on local authorities. He also objected to destroying the smuggling boats saying that it would be difficult to distinguish smuggling boats from other boats. Russia too has objected the destroying smuggling boats as "going too far". Dabbashi tied in the solution to the migrant crisis with the Tobruk government taking control of the whole country, completely rejecting the whole idea of the UN-sponsored peace talks which is to agree to a unity government and find a political not a military solution. Yet Dabbashi said:"Once the government retakes the capital, Tripoli, and controls the whole western area of Libya, I think it would be very easy to stop this flow of illegal immigrants to Europe because we know everyone who is involved in this business,"
The Tripoli-based government, or the Salvation Government as it describes itself, recently held a meeting of representatives from coastal cities in its area of control together with security agencies, to devise means of combating illegal migration. The government stressed the need to cooperate with the EU in fighting illegal migration and said it was trying to open mutual work-channels with the EU. There is no mention of the specific EU proposals presented to the UN Security Council. The Tripoli government has rejected the description of it as Islamist claiming that it represents all Libyans. The appended video shows a patrol from a Tripoli-controlled area