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Sunday, April 30, 2017

US turns down Russian invitation to meet on Afghanistan

(April 16)Even though the U.S. was invited to a meeting on Afghanistan on Friday, it did not attend. The meeting in Moscow was aimed at facilitating peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The decision is just one more sign of the deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia. The meeting came just after the U.S. had dropped the Mother of All Bombs(MOAB) on a cave complex occupied by Islamic State fighters in a mountainous area near the border with Pakistan. The caves were apparently built with the help of the CIA during the battle against a Soviet-backed Afghan regime. The former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was highly critical of the bombing in a tweet: "This is not the war on terror, but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as testing ground for new and dangerous weapons." However, the present president, Ashraf Ghani said that the bombing was part of a joint operation between Afghan and international troops and were extra cautious in avoiding any civilian casualties.
The Moscow meeting was attended by senior diplomats from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan and several ex-Soviet central Asian nations. In a statement all supported the Afghan government's peace efforts. They urged the Taliban to stop fighting and engage in a dialogue with the Afghan government. A U.S. State Department spokesperson, Mark Toner, said skepticism about the aims of the conference was the reason for the US not attending: "I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks - it was unclear to us what the purpose was. It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn't constructive at this time." Toner did say, however, that the US did plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This makes no sense. All the other key stakeholders were at the Moscow meeting including Afghan diplomats and were discussing how to have peace talks with the Taliban.
The real aim of staying away, it would seem, is to refuse to attend a meeting led by Russia. This is just another sign of the worsening relationship between the US and Russia. The U.S. bombing of a Syrian airbase to punish the Assad government has already increased tension between Russia and the U.S. The bombing was made without UN authorization, before any independent investigation had been carried out into the chemical incident in northern Syria. The US, France, the UK and others blame the attack on Assad but Russia and Assad deny being involved. As a recent Digital Journal article points out there are many competing narratives still and there has been no independent investigation yet. Russia vetoed the most recent resolution on the issue in the UN. The motion was presented by the US, UK and France all of whom have already blamed Assad. The veto was discussed in a recent Digital Journal article.
The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the deteriorating relationship. After the meeting, Tillerson said that U.S.-Russia relations were at a low point. Nevertheless, the U.S. made no attempt to help improve relationships by at least taking part in these talks attended by representatives of all neighboring states.
The Russians have had contact with the Taliban. Experts agree that the Taliban need to participate in peace talks to reach a lasting peace. NATO is accusing Russia of supporting the Taliban with weapons. This would be ironic as the U.S. previously supported Islamic rebel groups against a Soviet-backed Afghan government back when the USSR was the Evil Empire. Like the Phoenix, the Evil Empire appears to be returning from the ashes of the Soviet Union. The fact that senior Afghan diplomats attended the Moscow meeting shows that the Afghans are unwilling to snub Russia as the US has done. One of the main reasons for an inability to come to a peace agreement with the Taliban is that they demand that all foreign troops leave the country before any talks. They also want some detained Taliban members to be released.


Fast food to be delivered by robots in San Francisco

Yelp's Eat24 has teamed up with Marble, a robot delivery startup, and will start delivering food in the evening in the relatively flat Mission and Potrero Hill districts in San Francisco California.

At present, the robots will have a person accompanying them in case something goes wrong, although the robots will be running autonomously. The Marble robots are larger than those of some competitors and take up about as much space as a mobility scooter and are about waist high. The much smaller robots of Starship Technology made in Estonia have also begun testing in Washington D.C. for Postmates and DoorDash in Redwood City California:
The six-wheeled robots are a little under two feet tall, weigh about 40 pounds empty and travel four miles per hour — walking speed. The idea is that one day soon these autonomous rovers will share sidewalk space with pedestrians on their own, but for now they’ll be accompanied by handlers — people walking alongside each robot as it makes its deliveries.The robots are discussed in a March Digital Journal article.
Only some of Eat24's take-out customers will be able to use the robot service. The eatery will first determine if the order is from an area the robot can go and if the robot can carry it. The customer will then be notified of the robot delivery option. Only less than 10 robots will participate in the trial. They will travel at walking speed. They have an an array of sensors plus lidar and also maps of the areas where the robots will deliver. Marble just received $4 million in seed money funding. Other delivery startups are also attracting investor interest. Dispatch a Marble competitor received $2 million startup funds and has already completed two pilot programs at the University of California. Starship said in January that it had received $17.2 million in seed funding. Starship is also to begin delivering pizzas for Dominos in Europe.
While the concept of robotic delivery appears to make sense, it has so far been found quite difficult to execute. The robotic ground delivery is also in competition with delivery by drone which has been taking place for some time and for a number of different items. In the United States a test project involves Virginia Tech's Project Wing in partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill to deliver fast food.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Eastern commander Haftar finally meets with UN envoy Kobler

For almost a year, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) associated with the eastern-based government of the House of Representatives (HoR) has refused to meet with Martin Kobler UN envoy to Libya.

However, there was a surprise meeting between the two at Haftar's Rajma Headquarter just outside of Benghazi. Kobler sent a message that it had been a good meeting that had focused on the obstacles facing implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement and what would happen afterwards. The two men are said to have had a cordial meeting. It was in December of 2015 that the two last met.
Haftar has been increasingly critical of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya that Kobler heads. He turned down several earlier requests for meetings as described here as a waster of time and here.
Last September, Kobler told the UN Security Council that Kobler had to have a role in the new Libya. It is not clear whether the present Presidential Council(PC) of the Libyan Government of National Accord(GNA) would agree to this. Many, especially in the Hight State Council, want Haftar to have no role in the new government. The present Libya Political Agreement (LPA) section 8, assigns the role of commander of the armed forces to the PC temporarily. The HoR has always demanded the section be deleted. They want Haftar to be commander of the armed forces. This is a position the PC are never likely to accept. Haftar and the HoR government rejected Kobler's suggestion and said he was part of the problem and had to go. The present GNA was rejected last August 22. At the time, a new cabinet was to be presented within ten days. There is still no new lineup. A dialogue meeting was held in Tunis in January but the HoR representatives failed to participate and still have not appointed new members.
On March 7, the HoR met and voted to suspend any participation in the dialogue. On April 7th the group met again and set forth a number of conditions for taking part in the dialogue. The conditions included removing section 8 of the LPA and retaining Haftar as the commander of the Libyan armed forces. Neither conditions would be acceptable to the PC or High State Council I expect.
It is not clear why Haftar decided to meet Kobler now. Perhaps it was pressure from Kobler's new deputy Maria Ribeiro who met with HoR head Ageela Saleh and a number of HoR members. Kobler is due to be replaced but his first replacement a Palestinian was rejected by the US and the next suggestion by the US was rejected by Russia. Kobler has been staying on but as a sort of lame-duck envoy.
Haftar's press office on Facebook also mentioned the meeting saying to two "faced topics regarding Libya's future, difficulties and obstacles on the path of the political accord." There were no further details. The talks appear to have accomplished nothing. Haftar has continual to stress, counter to Kobler's position that there is only a political solution to the Libyan political crisis, that there is also a military solution. The head of the HoR government, Ageela Saleh, has said that there is only a military solution to the problem. There are already clashes between forces loyal to the GNA and those loyal to Haftar in southern Libya near the city of Sabha. There is no sign that the meeting resulted in any new initiatives to solve the political crisis. A recent tweet noted: Haftar: We are seeking to consolidate disciplined forces under a legitimate banner. #Libya. Who knows what that means. Perhaps he is looking to recruit more members for his Libyan National Army. Meanwhile Saleh suggests, according to a tweet, a new mission for a renewed dialogue: Aghilah Salah " We will go back to dialogue to remove #PC as it failed to deliver " There is no sign of any new dialogue meeting as yet.


Giant Chinese online retailer to build 150 drone delivery launch centers

The giant Chinese online retailer JD.com, one of the country's largest internet shopping sites second only to Alibaba is to build 150 drone launch centers in Sichuan to deliver to rural areas CEO Richard Liu announced.

It is easy to buy goods online and have them delivered in cities but in rural areas choices are much more limited and local stores usually have higher prices. Liu said the new drone sites could reduce shipping costs as much as 70 percent. The firm has been holding talks with the government for a more extensive logistics agreement in the province.
JD.com has been developing it drone capacities since October of 2015 through its JDX innovation lab. A Wall Street Journal article at the end of January last year reported tests were already underway: "The Beijing-based company said Thursday it has started an experiment with bright red drones emblazoned with its logo to carry small packages to far-flung areas that are difficult to reach with regular truck routes." The article notes that Amazon.com is also planning a 30 minute Prime Air delivery service. JD.com's larger rival Alibaba Group Holding may also compete with JD.com.
company statement said:"In areas where complex terrain and poor infrastructure makes last mile logistics challenging, JD drones can deliver orders from regional delivery stations to JD's dedicated 'village promoters' in each village, who then distribute the orders directly to customers, shortening delivery times and reducing costs. Many rural residents have traditionally had far fewer buying choices than their urban counterparts. That's because they could purchase goods only from local stores, where they often find higher prices than are typically seen in the cities, and where counterfeit goods remain an issue,"
The company claimed it had about 300,000 village promoters of the delivery service. The company has five different drone models. Some can fly up to 100 kilometers per hour. They can carry a range of parcels weighing from 5 to 15 kilograms. They can travel a maximum of 50 kilometers before they need to be recharged. The company is hoping to have drones that can carry larger loads up to 500 kilograms.
An Amazon representative said last December: "We've started a new private trial in the Cambridge area of England, and on December 7, we completed our first delivery. We will use the data gathered during this beta test and the feedback provided by customers to expand the private trial to more customers over time. We're starting with two customers now, and in the coming months we'll offer participation to dozens of customers living within several miles of our UK facility. And then growing to hundreds more." Some UK citizens have complained about how drones are being used. Figures for April 2016 show there were 10 incidents a day, including allegations of snooping neighbors, burglary, and near-misses with aircraft. The Swiss postal service is already using drones to deliver lab samples.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Russia used veto on UN motion regarding Syria chemical attack

On Wednesday, Russia vetoed a resolution condemning the chemical attack in northern Syria that killed over 80 people. The resolution was sponsored by France, the UK and the US all of whom have claimed that Bashar Assad is responsible for the attack.

Earlier versions of the resolution had explicitly blamed Assad for the attack. This one does not explicitly do so but by its terms suggests that he was. The UN account of the Security Council meeting noted that the Russian representative Vladimir Safronkov said that the Russian delegation voted against the draft because of its "erroneous" contents, noting that his countries concerns and priorities were set aside. Safronkov said that the troika of the UK, France, and the US had already named a perpetrator before a proper investigation had been conducted. He said that by presenting a doomed resolution that they had undermined the unity of the Council. Council members agree that there should be an investigation and also agree to condemn any gas attack but they cannot agree on the words of a resolution.
Safronkov said the parties should have agreed upon a document that ensured the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) could conduct an impartial investigation. While the OPCW can go ahead and investigate without further guidance from the UN the west is clearly trying to steer the direction of the investigation towards an ultimate punishment of Assad. Safronikov noted that some countries expessed an anti-regime slant and were reluctant to allow a truly impartial investigation.
The motion found 10 votes in favor and 2 against, Bolivia and the Russian Federation. China, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan abstained. Prior to the vote Safronkov said that during recent negotiations between US Secretary of State Tillerson and his Russian Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Federation suggested a joint communication asking the OPCW Director-General to put together an international mission to visit the town where the incident took place Khan Shaykhun and the Shayrat air base from which the Syrian planes are said to have come. He said that Tillerson was considering the proposal and the issue would be discussed on the 13th of April in The Haque. There is as yet no report on the issue. Safronkov said there would be no purpose in putting the draft forward for a vote. Of course there is, the US and others can blame Russia for blocking progress on an investigation while at the same time demanding one. The Russian demand is that there be a resolution that everyone will agree to. The US, UK, and France knew full well that the motion would be vetoed.
The representative from Bolivia Sacha Llorentty Soliz condemned the use of chemical weapons and emphasized the need for an independent investigation into the incident:Bolivia had voted against the draft because the Council should not be used as a sounding board for war-related propaganda and interventionism, he said. Noting that some Council members had been excluded from negotiations on the text, he said the vote’s outcome had been known in advance. What was the point of the exercise? he asked, questioning whether the Council was a pawn in the negotiations between the Russian Federation and the United States. Were the sponsors acting for the benefit of the Syrian people or for their own political and military ends?This is in my opinion the most perceptive response to the situation. The US, France, and the UK are trying to steer the investigation towards blaming Assad and even putting in clauses that would see him punished for non-compliance with the terms whereas the rebels are subject to no such provisions.
While the resolution did not explicitly blame Assad for the attack its provisions are ludicrously weighted towards imposing demands on the Syrian government. The text said that inspectors chosen by the UN and the OPCW must be given prompt and unrestricted access to "any and all sites they choose." They must be provided with flight plans and logs they request , and given the names of military officers "in command of any aircraft" they probe. The Syrian government would be required to arrange meetings requested, including with generals or other officers, within no more than five days of such a meeting being requested. If the Syrian regime is not in compliance with its terms it could be exposed to military action mandated by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The rebels controlling Khan Shaykhun are asked only to "provide delay-free and safe access' to the site of the reported incident." There is nothing about subjecting them to UN military action even though the rebels who control the area are rebranded Nusra Front rebels I understand. The best that one can hope for is that Tillerson agrees to the Russian proposal in discussions at the Hague today.


Many contradictory accounts given by different parties of Syrian alleged sarin attack

(April 13) A US government report in a declassified intelligence assessment that it is confident that the Syrian regime conducted a chemical weapons attack using the nerve agent sarin.

The US report claims that the chemical agent was delivered by a Syrian Su-22 fixed wing aircraft that flew over the village of Khan Sheikhun at the time of the attack. The attack killed at least 87 civilians on the fourth of April including 31 children. The entire report can be found here.
The report presents evidence for Assad's responsibility that reads in part: "Additionally, our information indicates personnel historically associated with Syria's chemical weapons programme were at Shayrat airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack." The report says its conclusions relay on satellite imagery, laboratory analysis of physiological samples from victims and a "significant body of open source reporting" that the report claims could not have been fabricated. The report says that not all available intelligence was released to protect sources but it affirms that the sarin gas was released from a pipe dropped from the air.
An unidentified senior intelligence officer said that the US intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical weapons experts discussing plans for the poison gas attack in Idblib province. Of course the officer stressed that the US did not have prior knowledge of the tests. Yet if the talks were just discussing plans why were the talks discovered only after the attack took place? Given that the US knew that chemical weapons people were at the base, how is it they did not search for such communications right away and then they could have warned Assad what he could face if he carried out the attack? The US could have saved many lives.
There is some doubt about the story. The Russian Foreign Ministry has claimed that the chemical agents were dispersed as the result of an attack on a warehouse where the rebels stored chemicals. Recently Russian President Putin clamed that opposition forces had tried to frame the Syrian government by placing chemical weapons in civilian areas and then blame Assad's forces. Putin said: “We have information from various sources that similar provocations — and I have no other word for that — are being prepared in other regions of Syria, including southern suburbs of Damascus, where they intend to plant certain substance again and accuse official Syrian authorities of using it.” This may be said in order to forestall any rebel attempt to provide a justification for more bombing.
Syrian president Bashar Assad was also dismissive of the charge that he carried out the chemical attack: "Definitely, 100 percent for us, it's fabrication. Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists. They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack. " It seems highly unlikely that the attack was 100 percent fabrication. There is no doubt that over 80 were killed by whatever happened. There is simply disagreement as to how it happened.
Among the accounts contradicting the US official account is that of retired US intelligence officer Colonel Patrick Lang:The Russians briefed the United States on the proposed target. This is a process that started more than two months ago. [prior to the Chemical Weapons attack] There is a dedicated phone line that is being used to coordinate and deconflict (i.e., prevent US and Russian air assets from shooting at each other) the upcoming operation. The United States was fully briefed on the fact that there was a target in Idlib and that the Russians believed it was a weapons/explosives depot for Islamic rebels.
The Syrian Air Force hit the target with conventional weapons. All involved expected to see a massive secondary explosion. That did not happen. Instead, smoke, chemical smoke, began billowing from the site. It turns out that the Islamic rebels used that site to store chemicals, not sarin, that were deadly. The chemicals included organic phosphates and chlorine and they followed the wind and killed civilians.
Until we get an objective independent study of the event we are unlikely to find out what happened and it is quite probable that we will not find out even then as much of the evidence will have been destroyed, altered, or new evidence planted. Syria and Russia are asking for such an investigation but Russia vetoed the last draft resolution submitted by France, the UK, and the US on Wednesday. It is not surprising that it did so but that is another story. The US and allies can use the veto to claim that Russia and Syria do not want an objective investigation. The appended video shows an angry shocked CNN interviewer when a member of Congress expresses doubt about the official story.
UPDATE: Found this new article with an analysis by Dr. Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology, and national security policy at MIT. His main expertise is in ballistic missiles. He has a substantial background in air dispersal, including how toxic plumes move in the air. Postol has taught courses on weapons of mass destruction – including chemical and biological threats – at MIT.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Meeting between top US and Russian diplomats tense

(April 12) The meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was far from friendly. Later, Tillerson also met with Russian president Putin.

Lavrov warned Tillerson publicly against any further U.S. military strikes on the Syrian regime. No meeting with Russian president Putin was scheduled although after being kept waiting for two hours he finally did have a long meeting with Putin that lasted about two hours. Tillerson had a friendly relationship with Putin and Russia while he headed the oil giant Exxon but there was no friendliness on exhibit publicly at this meeting. Tillerson told reporters: “There is a low level of trust between our two countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Although Putin had a somewhat frosty relationship with Obama and Trump promised during his campaign that he would promote better relationships with Russia, Putin said: "One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated."
While Russia still claims that Assad was not guilty of the chemical attack near Idlib in Syria, Trump has not only blamed Assad but US officials have suggested that Russia was complicit knew of the attack and bombed a hospital in an attempt to cover up what happened. At the meeting, Tillerson stepped back from that accusation somewhat:Tillerson has in recent days blasted Russia for incompetence or complicity in the Syrian chemical attack, saying Moscow was not living up to the terms of a 2013 deal to help eliminate Assad’s stockpile of such weapons. But when pressed Wednesday, Tillerson said the U.S. had “no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia” in the specific attack on Idlib.
Trump has been trying to avoid the issue of Russian influence and interference in the election which he won. He has changed his tune entirely on Syria. During the election campaign he resolved not to become involved in costly foreign wars such as that in Syria. However, after the alleged chemical attack by Assad, he bombed Assad's airbase and now is returning to a position of supporting regime change, after just giving up the policy. As a result, instead of this meeting being the start of a detente between Russia and the U.S. it was a tense affair with neither side budging from their main positions. They both did agree that they should fight against the Islamic State but that is about all except that they would again activate mechanisms to ensure that U.S.-coalition, Syrian and Russian planes did not collide over Syria.
Tillerson held firm to the U.S. position that Assad was to blame for the chemical attack, while Lavrov just as firmly held that Assad was not responsible and that the gases could have been the result of the bombing of a rebel warehouse that contained chemicals stored by the rebels, or that somehow the rebels could have staged the event in an attempt to blame Assad and gain the support of the U.S. and other western countries for their cause. A variant on the Russian version is set out by retired U.S. intelligence officer Colonel Patrick Lang. Lang argues that the US had been contacted by the Russians and knew they intended to attack the chemical storage warehouse. Tillerson said: “That the recent chemical weapons attack carried out in Syria was planned, it was directed and executed by Syrian regime forces and we're quite confident of that. It's important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.” Lavrov put forth the Russian position: "With regard to the use of chemicals in the territory controlled by the opposition, on numerous occasions the Syrian government and the Syrian servicemen have given us absolute evidence about the use of chemical weapons. This was not some kind of distant information but information from the site.” It should be noted that both parties agree that there was a Syrian attack on the site. The disagreement is whether the Assad government carried out a chemical attack.
In other developments, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem is next to visit Moscow from April 13-15 for talks with Lavrov. Maria Zakharova a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said that the foreign minister of Iran would meet with the two on April 14 for a three-way talk. No doubt the three will be discussing a response to the actions of the U.S.


Tension increases between US and North Korea as egos clash

North Korea and the U.S. trade threats and provocations as tension between the leaders of the two countries increases creating the danger of disastrous clashes.

In the west, the press emphasis is on North Korean actions such as nuclear and missile tests. The North Koreans take these actions as defensive responses to U.S. and South Korean actions. The U.S. and others consider them as provocations. Such actions as a U.S. aircraft carrier steaming toward North Korea and joint war games with the South Koreans that involve a simulated attack on North Korea, nor the installation of the THAAD anit-missile system are not regarded as provocations but legitimate responses to the threat of North Korea in the western press.
North Korean rhetoric does not help the situation, as Kim Jong-un threatens nuclear attacks in response to any military action against it. However, many people are concerned that after the US strike in Syria, the U.S. may take unilateral military action against North Korea. Russian officials have voiced their concern. However, Defense Secretary James Mattis tried to downplay these concerns and insists that the carrier strike group is just in the western Pacific and is not going to South Korea for any particular reason and is not intending to do anything when it arrives. However, it is clearly a show of force. The Mattis explanation contradicts what President Trump told Fox Business news that the armada was full of powerful warships, that North Korea was looking for trouble, and the U.S. intended to solve the problem. The tabloid press jumped into the competing narratives and reports that the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden are now training to take out Kim Jong-Un!
China appears to have agreed with Donald Trump that North Korea is a threat but wants to deal with the situation through non-military means. China has already acted to ban coal shipments from North Korea:A fleet of North Korean cargo ships is heading home to the port of Nampo, the majority of it fully laden, after China ordered its trading companies to return coal from the isolated country, shipping data shows, China banned all imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off the country's most important export product. China's customs department issued an official order on April 7 telling trading companies to return their North Korean coal cargoes, said three trading sources with direct knowledge of the order.There are also reports that China is preparing for trouble on its 1420 kilometer border with North Korea.
China is said to be deploying about 150,000 Chinese troops to the area according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. However, China's Xinhua news agency has not reported this deployment. Russia also has a short border area with North Korea in the far north-west of the country. There is no land crossing except for a railway. There is actually a railway car that goes from Pyongyang the North Korean capital to Moscow a distance of 10,272 kilometers or 6,383 miles, the longest direct, one-seat ride, passenger rail service in the world.
Trump and others claim that everything has been tried to get North Korea to stop its nuclear program but nothing has worked. Nothing has worked permanently but as Noam Chomsky points out:1994, Clinton made—established what was called the Framework Agreement with North Korea. North Korea would terminate its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. would reduce hostile acts. It more or less worked, and neither side lived up to it totally, but, by 2000, North Korea had not proceeded with its nuclear weapons programs. George W. Bush came in and immediately launched an assault on North Korea—you know, "axis of evil," sanctions and so on. North Korea turned to producing nuclear weapons.Bush tore up another sensible proposal in 2005. What we have now is threats not suggestions for diplomatic solutions, as in the recent flurry of tweets by Donald Trump threatening North Korea.
We are faced with two leaders often characterized as mad with huge egos confronting one another. It is not a situation conducive to global security. Sorry, I forgo Trump is now "presidential", after attacking a Syrian air base with Tomahawk missiles, according to CNN's Farad Zakaria and many others. An attack on North Korea against a mad leader will no doubt be even more presidential.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Islamic State fighters launch attack on Syrian UK special forces camp

(April 11) Islamic State(IS) fighters have launched a wave of suicide attacks on a U.K. special forces training base in Syria, the al-Tanf garrison near the Syrian-Iraq-Jordan border.

The IS first used a vehicle bomb to get in to the al-Tanf base used by U.S. special forces to train Syrian rebels. The vehicle attack was followed by a ground attack that involved at least thirty IS fighters. The attackers were driven back by coalition air strikes and help from Western troops. The IS fighters were also able to ambush a rebel group convoy that was trying to relieve the base. Eight IS fighters and four rebels were said to have died in the battle. The raid is one of the fiercest counter-attacks waged against coalition forces in the area.
The IS jihadists apparently avoided aerial detection as they were using vehicles they had captured from rebels in a previous battle. Al-Tanf has been a heavily-fortified training hub used by both U.S. and U.K. special forces to help train Syrian rebel groups. US troops were understood to be at the base at the time but it was not confirmed that U.K. troops were there although they use al-Tanf as a mobile base. The U.K. ministry of defense said it would not comment on special forces operations and refused to confirm that it had troops there. The presence of U.K. special forces at the base was revealed only as the result of a leak. Russia actually bombed the base in June last year and U.S. jets were scrambled but did not stop the raid. No injuries were reported.
U.S. and U.K. troops are thought to be expanding the base to use as a launch pad to oust militants from Abu Kamal, that IS uses as a major conduit for travel and supplies to and from Syria to Iraq. As noted in a recent Digital Journal article, the rebels have recently taken control of a large desert area in the vicinity helping to maintain security along the Syria-Jordan border. Some IS fighters are thought to have regrouped further north and will reinforce their stronghold Raqqa as it may soon come under attack.
The IS attack may be intended to show that the group is still in the area and are capable of waging hit-and-run operations such as this one. A rebel commander said:"Their message is we are still present in the area and have not withdrawn and we still target us.” Some U.S.-backed groups claims the U.S. have provided them only lukewarm support.
The rebel New Syrian Army tried to retake the town of Abu Kamal long ago in June of last year. However, the IS ambushed the fighters killing several and seizing much of their equipment. The group complained that the U.S. did not provide air cover. U.S. jets were withdrawn to fight in Fallujah.


Amnesty International finds global capital punishment dropped in 2016

The 2016 review of capital punishment globally by Amnesty International found that worldwide executions had dropped by 37 percent compared to 2015.

China executes the most people by far far over a thousand and perhaps thousands. Amnesty believes that China executes more people than the entire rest of the world. Much of the information regarding the application of the death penalty is regarded as "state secrets". Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International said:
"China wants to be a leader on the world stage, but when it comes to the death penalty it is leading in the worst possible way - executing more people annually than any other country in the world. The Chinese government has recognized it is a laggard in terms of openness and judicial transparency, but it persists in actively concealing the true scale of executions. It is high time for China to lift the veil on this deadly secret and finally come clean about its death penalty system."
As a nominally communist state you would think that the Chinese Communist Party would pay some heed to Karl Marx's view on capital punishment. Reacting to a London Times article in support of capital punishment Marx wrote:It is astonishing that the article in question does not even produce a single argument or pretext for indulging in the savage theory therein propounded; and it would be very difficult, if not altogether impossible to establish any principle upon which the justice or expediency of capital punishment could be founded in a society glorifying in its civilization.While there was a revolutionary struggle going on no doubt capital punishment could be construed as part of the class struggle and a defense against enemies of the revolution, but China now has transformed itself into a basically capitalist society with considerable state ownership of the means of production still. The Chinese euphemistically call it "socialism with Chinese characteristics". There is no good reason why Chinese should not enjoy a level of legal rights and justice that at least matches that of advanced capitalist countries but that seems to be regarded as a threat to the monopoly power of the Chinese Communist Party.
After China, Iran had the highest level of executions although it is down considerably from last year. In 2015, 977 were executed but this year the number dropped to 567. Third in 2016 was Saudi Arabia with 154 executions. Irag was fourth with 88. Fifth was Pakistan with just 87 a huge drop from 326 in 2015. Sixth was Egypt with 44. The United States was seventh with just 20. This is the lowest US number since 1991.
There were execution in just 23 countries in 2016 that is two fewer than in 2015. There was in increase in executions in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The total number of people subject to capital punishment last year was 1,032 down from 1,634 in 2015. The decline in executions in Iran and Pakistan accounts for much of the drop..


US allies quickly fall in line echoing US line blaming Assad for alleged Syrian chemical attack

U.S. allies fall in line giving support for Trump's missile attack on a Syrian air base to punish Assad even though there was no independent investigation as to who was to blame, nor any UN motion of support, nor U.S. Congress approval either.

Trump acted solely on his own. He did not bother with the UN. He did not try to involve NATO, as often happens when the UN does not do what the U.S. wants. He did not create a coalition of allies to spread the responsibility. He did not consult his own Congress even though he claimed that president Obama had to do so when he was contemplating a strike. He also advised Obama not to bomb Syria. However, Trump now agrees with Hillary Clinton that bombing a Syrian air base is a good idea. All those supporting the U.S. simply assume Assad is guilty even though this has not been concluded through any objective investigation. I have argued in a recent Digital Journal article that Trump's action was against international law. There is evidence that does not fit with the U.S. evidence against Assad such as that of retired U.S. former intelligence officer Colonel Patrick Lang but it is studiously ignored by the mainstream press. The assumption of Assad's guilt in leaders' statements is just reported "objectively". They can also report objectively that Russia and Iran claim the strikes are against international law. No need to ascertain whether it is true or false since most people will reject the statements as simply propaganda that is not true. Amazingly, Trump, the mentally ill, moron, and inveterate liar suddenly has newspapers who had consistently condemned him singing his praises with the top five papers running 18 favorable opinion pieces on Trump's strikes and none against.
I already wrote an article about the response of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. After an earlier statement in which he suggested there needed to be an investigation and a number of questions needed to be answered after the strikes and a phone call from Trump he immediately came out in support of the attacks. It is almost as if he were acting under instruction. Trudeau said:Canada fully supports the United States’ limited and focused action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians, including many children. President Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the crimes the Syrian regime has committed against its own people cannot be ignored. These gruesome attacks cannot be permitted to continue with impunity."Note not the slightest suggestion that there might be any doubt about who is guilty. No talk of an investigation nor of lack of a UN motion nor the status of the attacks under international law.
Of course, Israel's Netanyahu who is able to carry out attacks on Syria almost below the radar of the press does not mention international law either. The Israeli PM said:“President Trump sent a strong and clear message today that the use and spread of chemical weapons will not be tolerated. Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision and hopes that this message of resolve in the face of the Assad regime’s horrific actions will resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”
Israel has both chemical and nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia joined in with Israel saying that it fully supported the missile strike and that Trump made a courageous decision in response to Assad's use of chemical weapons against citizens.
Some countries, such as China and Sweden did not approve or disapprove but Sweden at least raised questions about Trump's actions. Foreign Minister of Sweden Margot Wallstrom said that the attack "raises questions about how the attack could be compatible with international law". However, for those who favor the strikes that question is a non-starter as is the question of Assad's guilt. China's response by Hua Chunyung of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: “We hope all sides will stay calm and exercise restraint to prevent the escalation of tension.” A courageous response.
Iran, not surprisingly is opposed to the strikes and does bring up the question of Assad's guilt. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said "We strongly condemn any unilateral military action and the missile attack on the Al Shayrat air base in Syria by the U.S. Navy and believe that such actions, which use the excuse of a suspicious chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, whose timing and perpetrators are shrouded in a cloud of doubt, only strengthens terrorists who were already weak and adds to the complexity in Syria and the region."
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, put the Russian position succinctly as "an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law, and under a trumped-up pretext at that." So far the Russians have responded only by shutting down any cooperation with U.S. military forces, a move that makes accidents more probable
Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: "At the same time, Indonesia is concerned with unilateral actions by any parties, including the use of Tomahawk missiles, in responding to the chemical weapon attack tragedy in Syria. Military actions, undertaken without prior authorization of the U.N. Security Council, are not in line with international legal principles in the peaceful settlement of disputes, as stipulated in the U.N. Charter." Why is it Indonesia can see this while Canada and other supporters of the US are blind to what are obvious facts and choose to ignore them?
The Bolivian ambassador to the UN, Sacha Llorenti pointed out that the US had previously attacked and invaded Iraq on the basis of Hussein's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. He summed up the situation quite well: "Now the U.S. believe that they are investigators, they are attorneys, judges and they are the executioners." This is not that surprising but what is quite surprising, shameful, and dangerous for world peace is that US allies uncritically accept this situation. This can only encourage the U.S., especially under Donald Trump, to continue with its same policy without worrying about the response of its allies. The next move might be against North Korea.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Trump attack on Syrian airbase violated international law

(April 9) Very few commentators seem concerned about whether the actions of Trump in attacking an Assad regime air base in Syria were against international law. Most consideration of the legality of the action has to do with its constitutionality under U.S. law.

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The main debate in the U.S. appears to be about whether Trump needed authorization from the Congress for his actions. Almost all discussions simply assume that there is no question of Assad being guilty as in this article. The whole framing of discourse has been altered. The question of Assad's guilt has long been settled. The question now is how to punish him and what would be justified. I discussed this issue in a recent article.
Of course the bad guys such as the Assad regime, Russia and Iran deny that Assad is guilty and they see the missile attacks as obviously against international law:A Kremlin spokesperson said Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the missile strikes as an act of "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law." Iran issued a similar statement. A Kremlin spokesperson said Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the missile strikes as an act of "aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law." Iran issued a similar statement.This may be mentioned in mainstream press reports but that is all. It can be safely assumed that this will automatically be rejected by the reader as what Iran and the Russians would be expected to say. One would expect that Trump would blame Assad but of course that is not to be used as a reason to reject what is said since Trump is a good guy, even though a few days ago many called him a liar, moron, clown, Putin puppet etc. He is punishing that ogre Assad for killing beautiful babies as he saw on TV. A recent article headline shows the situation: 'Five Top Papers Run 18 Opinion Pieces Praising Syria Strikes —
Zero Are Critical'.
However, not everyone believes the issue of guilt is settled. In a recent article, Colonel Patrick Lang argues that there is plenty of evidence that the chemical attack did not involve sarin gas but chemical agents dispersed by an attack on a chemical warehouse in an area held by rebels, apparently rebranded Al-Nusra front rebels. The account can be found here. I found the account more persuasive than the Russian ministry statement. Lang argues that there was no sarin gas and this fits in with the testimony of technical experts that an attack on the warehouse would not likely produce any sarin gas. It also fits in with the fact that both sides admit that there was an attack by Syrian planes. It seems that the mainstream press have absolutely zero interest in talking about this issue. Lang's article no doubt could not be covered in one of the mainstream media just as has happened with articles from Seymour Hersh. Lang is not some wild conspiracy theorist. He is a retired senior officer who served in U.S. Military Intelligence and the U.S. Army Special Forces (The Green Berets). He is highly decorated and a veteran of several U.S. overseas battles. Lang concludes:This attack was violation of international law. Donald Trump authorized an unjustified attack on a sovereign country. What is even more disturbing is that people like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and NSA Director General McMaster went along with this charade. He committed an act of war without justification. But the fault is not his alone.
Harold Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law at Yale Law School, has long argued that international law should protect human rights not just sovereignty. Trump could argue that he is simply protecting Syrian's right not to be subject to a chemical attack. However, there are numerous issues involved aside from the fact that the whole idea of humanitarian intervention in international law has its problems. If one were to use this principle then surely one would need an international investigation and finding of Assad's guilt. Nothing of the sort happened. Secondly if it is to be a humanitarian justification surely it must be justified by a UN resolution but no such resolution has been passed.
A Newsweek article argues:The U.S. strike may be legal under Article 51 of the UN charter, which says, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”But there was no armed attack against a member of the UN. Syria has not attacked the U.S. The section simply does not apply.
Self-defence in international law is discussed in this Wikipedia article. The original Caroline case was very restrictive but it did go beyond the UN provision that required an armed attack: "The imminent threat is a standard criterion in international law, developed by Daniel Webster as he litigated the Caroline affair, described as being 'instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.'" There was no such threat to the U.S. even if Assad did carry out the gas attack. President Obama decided that the U.S. would redefine "imminent threat":President of the United States of America Barack Obama and his administration has defined "imminent" to mean that (they) have 60 days to find and kill an individual human being. Under this theory of law "imminent" therefore means that a threat over, at least, up to 60 days (two months) in the future is considered "imminent".
Trump accepted Hillary Clinton's advice to bomb Assad's airbase. Given the Obama administration's definition of "imminent" he would likely take the advice too — although there is no evidence that Assad intended to attack the U.S. within 60 days. The evidence is overwhelming that the U.S. act is against international law but no one is overwhelmed except the bad guys.