Showing posts with label Syria. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Syria. Show all posts

February 7, 2017

Syria is Hung Thousands at Saydnaya Prison

Undated aerial photograph of Saydnaya prison, north of Damascus, Syria

A new report by the human rights group alleges that mass hangings took place every week at Saydnaya prison between September 2011 and December 2015.
Amnesty says the alleged executions were authorised at the highest levels of the Syrian government.
The government has previously denied killing or mistreating detainees.
However, UN human rights experts said a year ago that witness accounts and documentary evidence strongly suggested that tens of thousands of people were being detained and that "deaths on a massive scale" were occurring in custody. 
Amnesty interviewed 84 people, including former guards, detainees and prison officials for its report.
It alleges that every week, and often twice a week, groups of between 20 and 50 people were executed in total secrecy at the facility, just north of Damascus.  Before their execution, detainees were brought before a "military field court" in the capital's Qaboun district for "trials" lasting between one and three minutes, the report says.
A former military court judge quoted by Amnesty said detainees would be asked if they had committed crimes alleged to have taken place. "Whether the answer is 'yes' or 'no', he will be convicted... This court has no relation with the rule of law," he said.
According to the report, detainees were told on the day of the hangings that they would be transferred to a civilian prison then taken to a basement cell and beaten over the course of two or three hours.

Map of Syria showing location of Saydnaya prison

Then in the middle of the night they were blindfolded and moved to another part of the prison, where they were taken into a room in the basement and told they had been sentenced to death just minutes before nooses were placed around their necks, the report adds.
The bodies of those killed were allegedly then loaded onto lorries, and transferred to Tishreen military hospital in Damascus for registration and burial in mass graves located on military land.
On the basis of evidence of the testimony of its witnesses, Amnesty estimates that between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Saydnaya over five years.

Witness accounts

A former judge who saw the hangings:
"They kept them [hanging] there for 10 to 15 minutes. Some didn't die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn't kill them. The officers' assistants would pull them down and break their necks." 
'Hamid', a former military officer who was detained at Saydnaya:
"If you put your ears on the floor, you could hear the sound of a kind of gurgling. This would last around 10 minutes… We were sleeping on top of the sound of people choking to death. This was normal for me then."
Former detainee 'Sameer' describes alleged abuse:
"The beating was so intense. It was as if you had a nail, and you were trying again and again to beat it into a rock. It was impossible, but they just kept going. I was wishing they would just cut off my legs instead of beating them any more."
Source: Amnesty International

Although it does not have evidence of executions taking place since December 2015, the group says it has no reason to believe they have stopped and that thousands more were likely to have died.
Amnesty says these practices amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It also notes that death sentences have to be approved by the grand mufti and by either the defence minister or the army's chief of staff, who are deputised to act on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad. 
The human rights group says it contacted the Syrian authorities about the allegations in early January but has received no response.
Last August, Amnesty reported that an estimated 17,723 people had died in custody as a result of torture and the deprivation of food, water and medical care between March 2011 - when the uprising against President Assad began - and December 2015. That figure did not include those allegedly hanged at Saydnaya.


February 6, 2017

Putin’s Ally Syria is Hanging Dissenters in Groups of 50

 King of Syria who together with Putin has killed more men, women and children than Isis or anyone else

They don't know they are to be hanged, not until the noose is placed around their necks. As they are moved in groups of up to 50 people, they are told they are being transferred to another prison. Some in the “execution room” may still harbor hopes they are to be released and freed from weeks of vicious beatings, sexual violence, starvation and humiliation. 
According to Amnesty International, week in, week out, a grotesque execution routine has been under way in the jail 30 kilometers from the capital Damascus, and has been since the earliest days of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The rights organization published a report Tuesday containing harrowing details on extrajudicial killings at Syria's Saydnaya prison.
'Human Slaughterhouse'
Amnesty calculates that from September 2011 to December 2015, between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Saydnaya. The number may well be higher, warn the researchers of the report, “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison.” The rights organization says it has no reason to believe the executions have ceased.
The 48-page report, which took a year to complete and is based on first-hand interviews with 84 witnesses, including former Saydnaya guards and officials, detainees, judges and lawyers, as well as national and international experts on detention in Syria, is the second study Amnesty has published about the prison.
In August 2016, Amnesty, in collaboration with Goldsmiths, University of London, pieced together an interactive digital model of the prison, part of a wider study on the extrajudicial killings by the Syrian government.
“Saydnaya is the end of life, the end of humanity," a guard told Amnesty's researchers.
No response from Syria
The rights organization asked the Syrian government to respond to allegations contained in the report, but received no response. VOA also emailed the Syrian Foreign Ministry, but to no avail.
The report reveals a routine of mass extrajudicial executions by hanging. Detainees included doctors, lawyers, activists, engineers and humanitarian workers, says Amnesty.
Besides the hangings, Amnesty says, “Large numbers of detainees have also been killed as a result of the authorities' extermination policies, which include repeated torture and the systematic deprivation of food, water, medicine and medical care.” 
Judge interviewed
One of the judges interviewed by Amnesty recalled the actual killing process inside the “execution room” in the prison's “white building,” one of Saydnaya's two main blocks.
"They kept them there [hanging] for 10 to 15 minutes. Some didn't die because they are light. For the young ones, their weight wouldn't kill them. The officers' assistants would pull them down and break their necks,” he said.
Before detainees are hanged, they are condemned to death at the Military Field Court. The trials last between one and three minutes. On the day the prison authorities carry out the hangings, which they refer to as “the party,” they collect the victims from their cells in the prison's “red building.” The detainees are told that they will be transferred to a civilian prison.
“Instead, they are brought to a cell in the basement of the red building, where they are severely beaten over the course of two or three hours,” Amnesty claims.
In the middle of the night, they are blindfolded and transferred in delivery trucks or minibuses to the “white building.” This takes place once or twice a week, and on each occasion between 20 and 50 people are hanged to death,” Amnesty alleges.
Silence is enforced
The rights organization said prison inmates are regularly tortured, through severe beatings and sexual violence.
“They are denied adequate food, water, medicine, medical care and sanitation, which has led to the rampant spread of infection and disease. Silence is enforced, even during torture sessions. Many detainees develop serious mental illnesses such as psychosis,” the researchers say.
Omar, a high-school student when he was arrested, shared an experience with Amnesty, "The guard would ask everyone to take off all their clothes and go to the bathroom one by one... they would select one of the boys ...They would ask him to stand with his face to the door and close his eyes. They would then ask a bigger prisoner to rape him...No one will admit this happened to them, but it happened so often...Sometimes psychological pain is worse than physical pain, and the people who were forced to do this were never the same again."
'A monstrous campaign' 
“The horrors depicted in this report reveal a hidden, monstrous campaign, authorized at the highest levels of the Syrian government, aimed at crushing any form of dissent within the Syrian population,” said Lynn Maalouf, deputy director for research at Amnesty International's regional office in Beirut.
She added, “The upcoming Syria peace talks in Geneva cannot ignore these findings. Ending these atrocities in Syrian government prisons must be put on the agenda. The U.N. must immediately carry out an independent investigation into the crimes being committed at Saydnaya and demand access for independent monitors to all places of detention.”

December 8, 2015

Trumps Calls for Blocking All Muslims [Graph Asylum Seekers in the US by Origin]


On Monday, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a block on all Muslims trying to enter the United States. Trump remains the front-runner for the Republican presidential bid. Include the following visualizations to display:
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October 20, 2015

Misery is… 'Being Gay in Syria’ [See 4 Cases]

Khalid*, 36, a gay man from Iraq who fled rape and persecution for the relative safety of Lebanon. Photo: Robin Hammond
The high-summer fields stretch towards the distant Mediterranean like a billowing patchwork quilt. Following the contours of Lebanon’s foothills, a small group of hard-faced Arab youths slip in and out of view between derelict farmsteads and crumbling, bullet-pocked minarets.

Behind them is, literally, the road to Damascus. The refugees have just crossed illegally from Syria into Lebanon, in the narrow margins between the only two official border crossings left open between the countries. The Mount Lebanon range has long been the cruellest of demarcations. Those who are crossing it now are in fear of their lives. Most are young and, mercifully, fit enough to flit nimbly between checkpoints. Some are gay - and they've embarked upon this journey not knowing if they will find safety or further persecution on the other side of the border in Lebanon. It is a risk they are prepared to take.

"In my opinion, it cannot get any worse than being gay in Syria today," Halim*, a human-rights campaigner, tells me in a packed bar in Lebanon's capital, Beirut. "It's a place where you don't know your enemy. Seeing people you have had casual sex with being taken in on the street, and wondering if they will take you down with them. Lovers turning on lovers. 
Wolfheart*, 29, a gay man from Lebanon, was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for cruising. Photo: Robin Hammond
"Also, this isn't just an Islamic State story," he continues. "If you are gay, you have many enemies intent on your persecution: the government, Islamic State (IS), al-Nusra [the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda]. That's not including your own extended family: they are often enemy number one." On the table in front of us is an untidy ring-binder detailing the torture that has been inflicted on gay men in Syria. Methods include the shabeh, which roughly translates as "the ghost" and involves handcuffing the victims' arms behind their backs and using them to hoist their bodies into the air, putting extreme pressure on the shoulder sockets, often until they pop out.

Other men accused of being gay, who have been abducted in the night by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's agents, describe being placed, helpless and motionless, inside the rims of large tyres and brutalised with electrodes and iron bars. The testimony of one Homs teenager details, in spidery writing, how he had his testicles smashed with a hammer by a member of the Syrian Republican Guard.

For gay people on the run from Syria, being "out" in Lebanon isn't an option, either. Lebanon now has the highest proportion of refugees in the world, with Syrian refugees making up a quarter of the country's population. "We know hundreds, thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] refugees are coming across, but if we start counting, it could be used against them and us," says Halim. "It's better they slip unnoticed into Lebanon. Prejudice against gay men and women doesn't stop at the border. The trouble is, they are being arrested and abused here in Lebanon, too.”
Sally*, a gay man who identifies as a woman, had to flee her Islamic State-held home town in Syria. Photo: Robin Hammond

Later, we sit in a cafe as it winds down for the night, restlessly sipping strong black coffee and examining a map showing routes across the border. Halim plays a video montage on his tablet. Frantic Arabic news commentators begin speaking over slow-motion footage of a masked IS executioner clutching what looks like a gleaming saif sword. In the dirt before him kneel four condemned souls, each accused of sodomy. An elderly man, a magistrate, steps up.

To me, he is familiar - I have seen him before in IS showreels. The magistrate uses a microphone to read to the crowd a few adulterated utterances from the Koran, and their fates are sealed.
I remain glued to the screen, waiting for the camera to pan away from the execution, but no respite comes. A head rolls in the dust, then a second and a third. Fountains of blood jerk from the necks of the men. As I give the tablet a final, reluctant glance, the camera pans to the crowd. No longer baying 
over the bodies, they have moved on, bored and traumatized all at once. 

Nathalie*, 41, who describes herself as a woman who used to be a man, is from Syria, where she was tortured. Photo: Robin Hammond
In recent months, the photojournalist Robin Hammond and I have interviewed gay citizens in Africa and the Middle East. Theirs is a narrative of great pain and desperate suffering. Here in the Middle East, it is clear that the taboo against same-sex activity is getting stronger, not weaker, and a corrupted version of Islam finds itself at the heart of much of this hatred.

Homosexuality is legal in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank, but not in Hamas-controlled Gaza. In nearly 50 Muslim-dominated countries, individuals face criminal sanctions for private consensual relations with another adult of the same sex. But in the IS-controlled regions of Syria and northern Iraq, the persecution of gay men and women has reached a new level of malice.
In the early evening in a crumbling tenement in Beirut's southern suburbs, we meet four gay Syrian men. Safehouses have a uniformity of sorts. There are always broken TVs. Strong black tea is offered. Furniture is sparse, curtains torn. Threadbare carpets are laid out with small low tables. Without exception, cigarettes are passed around to calm the nerves. A battered Toshiba laptop sits in the centre of the one-bedroom apartment. On its screen, another film is on a loop.

A middle-aged man, handsome, grey-bearded, hands bound, is being held by his ankles from a 10-storey building by IS thugs dressed in leather jackets and long blue tunics. The man is held for several minutes as he weeps, before he is dropped onto the concrete some 30 metres below. On impact the baying mob, including children, cheer and laugh. As has been the case in other rooftop-to-ground murders of allegedly gay men at the hands of IS, the victim survives the fall, twitching in the dirt, but is stoned to death by the bloodthirsty crowds. For their convenience, jagged rocks have been supplied and left in small piles.

"They are holding out his mobile phone on the ledge as evidence," says Sami*, a gay man in his early 30s, from Raqqa, the IS heartland in northern Syria. "They are using it to justify the execution. Social media is killing our brothers. It is the first thing IS are asking for at checkpoints now: 'Hand over your mobile!' If they find anything that links you to another man - photographs, your Facebook profile, a single text you cannot explain, anything - then you are dead. It is over for you."
To prove his point, Sami opens Manjam, which he describes as a popular gay "hook-up" app, adopted from Turkey into Syria and surrounding countries. "Look at this," he says. "In 2013, there were perhaps a few thousand Syrians active on Manjam. The Assad regime generally looked away - in the north, at least.”

Sami counts the active accounts within Syria and finds 26 profiles in use in Raqqa. "How many of those 26 are IS hunting?" he asks. "Who would have a death wish to use a gay app there?" The broader truth is that governments across the region are also using digital surveillance to entrap, detain and harass homosexuals.

Police in states where homosexuality is outlawed frequently use apps to convince men to meet them, before arresting them, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based NGO that monitors the use of technology in the violation of human rights. A 30-year-old man was recently arrested in Saudi Arabia after asking men out for dates on Facebook.

Everyone in this shabby room acknowledges that IS alone did not bring homophobia to Syria. Gay men there have long been the target of "honour killings", as they are considered a disgrace to their families. Others have been imprisoned.

The civil war, however, has intensified the persecution. At the heart of the IS plan to target and wipe out the LGBT community are the Hisbah - the religious police, named after a Muslim doctrine that translates roughly as “accountability".

"IS want the Muslim world to know that they are executing gays, because it displays their credentials as enforcers of sharia law," says Ryan Mauro, a security analyst at the Clarion Project, a US-based NGO that works to combat extremism. “There is widespread anti-homosexual sentiment in the Muslim world because of the belief that sharia requires the execution of gays."

The language of persecution comes from both sides. To prove his point, Sami recites a description of "gay traits" found in IS pamphlets in Raqqa, later discovered to have been taken from a government-controlled Syrian newspaper. " 'A gay man can have a loose wrist, a noticeable way of using the fingers, sitting and crossing the legs together in a feminine manner and an interest in gossip and whispers. These are among homosexuals’ main distinctive features.' "

Knowing who the enemy is has become increasingly difficult for gay people. From the ranks of its own religious police force, IS is believed to have deployed undercover agents to entrap those who have been accused by others of being gay.

Elmo*, a doctor now working in a call centre in Beirut, fled his IS-held town in Syria after a member of his family - a cousin attempting to curry favour with his new masters - betrayed him to the militants. Such betrayals are common.

"The attitude now if you are gay and trapped inside [Syria] is, 'Trust nobody', " says Elmo. "Not your mother, nor your closest friend. The only difference between all the factions is that some will torture you before they kill you if you are outed and caught.”

Testimonies gathered by Proud, a campaign group set up by Bertho Makso, a gay Lebanese man, include reports of decapitations, and one of a transgender woman in a Damascus suburb who was hanged by her breasts until she died.

A similar database compiled by New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) late last year detailed a male couple who were captured by the Syrian government after being identified as gay, based on text messages between them. The men were beaten, referred to pejoratively as tante (auntie), and for 10 nights were forced to strip and have sex with each other in front of their Syrian army interrogators, who used chalk to make up their faces.

Another man, who used to work in the fashion industry, was abducted by unidentified armed men in an area of Damascus controlled by the Syrian army. He said they similarly referred to him as tante, forced him to strip and raped him.

HRW says that the ordeal for gay men doesn't necessarily end at the Lebanese border. In a number of cases, the NGO has documented gay men being subjected to excruciating and abusive anal exams by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces. This, despite calls by Lebanese doctors and the justice minister in 2012 to abolish the practice, which amounts to torture.

The road back towards the Qalamoun mountains in Syria passes through Ersal. This town in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, whose name means "Throne of God" in Aramaic, has become one of the flashpoints of the region. This isn't my first time travelling along this confusing line in the sand. Here, portraits of Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fallen Hezbollah fighters dot the walls of residences.
Elsewhere, Sunni-populated areas have become de facto safe havens for Syrian rebel fighters. Equally, Shia areas of the northern Bekaa Valley look out with trepidation at the rise of extremist Sunni Salafi-jihadi groups. To the outsider, the whole area is impenetrable.
For the Syrian refugees who have made it to the fragile sanctuary of the Bekaa, the journeys of exile are far from tales of liberation.

"The road to the Lebanese border has become known as the Corridor of Death," says Sally*, a gay man who now identifies as a woman, whom I meet in Beirut. "There are perhaps 50 or 60 checkpoints. The soldiers are bored and isolated. They single out anyone they suspect of being gay.

"They keep us behind at night," she continues, looking away, wincing. Sally was living in Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, when IS entered her district. "I knew from reports that they were carrying out executions for 'crimes' like pre-marital sex and homosexuality. The Hisbah, their religious police, hunted from house to house. Families were turning on families. I knew it was only a matter of time before one of my relatives reported me. Because I am feminine, I knew I would be singled out.”

Sally details her journey, on which Syrian soldiers sexually abused her at a number of checkpoints. In return for "favours", she was allowed to pass. Eventually, she reached the Lebanese border. A journey that should have taken seven hours took almost a week.

increasingly, those in flight like sally have nowhere to run. Lebanon is turning the taps off, managing its borders through just two official crossings, Masnaa in the Bekaa Valley, and Arida, to the north. Lebanon's border with Syria stretches 375 kilometres and covers rough terrain that cannot be monitored through human efforts alone. Helicopters mounted with infrared cameras fly overhead. But those determined to cross still do, making their way across country to the suburbs of Beirut.

IS is not the first organisation to use barbarism against LGBT people as a weapon of war, and they won't be the last. But their levels of violence and depravity are unprecedented. Without some kind of intervention, this civil war will continue to drive Syria's gay men and women to make the perilous journey into Lebanon via the foothills of Mount Lebanon - or across the Kabir River, which forms the northern border of the two countries - with no guarantee of a safe haven on the other side. 

* Names have been changed
This is an edited version of a story first published in The Sunday Times Magazine, London.

  Sydney Morning Herald 

March 7, 2015

Amid Daily Attacks Syrian Gays Fear Isis the Worse


The photographs released by ISIS in its stronghold of Raqqa are dated March 2015. The first ones show a large crowd, mostly men, but also among them a handful of women and children, all looking up.

Three men on top of a building, faces covered in black balaclavas, stand on either side of their victim, while a fourth seems to be taking a photo or video.

Their victim is thrown off the building. In the last photograph, he is seen face down, surrounded by a small crowd of men, most carrying weapons, some with rocks in their hands. The caption reads "stoned to death."

The victim brutally killed because he was accused of being gay.

There are at least half a dozen documented cases of men being similarly killed by ISIS. What’s even more sickening for Nour, a gay Syrian man, is the onlookers’ reaction. 

"It's too much to watch, and people are just standing there in these images and watching, and they are not doing anything, and their facial expressions are really scary because they are not even scared of what is going on," says Nour, who's also an LGBT rights activist. "They might be a little bit excited or maybe happy to get rid of homosexuals in the city."

Though in Istanbul, fear of persecution continues to haunt Nour, who asked us to conceal his identity as he waits and hopes for asylum in America and continues to campaign for rights for people who are LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans.

A history of abuse
As a teenager, over a decade ago, Nour suffered because of his sexuality.

"The worst bullying was at school," he remembers. "I was approached in the street a number of times, verbally abused and sometimes physically abused."

There was no one to protect him. His family rejected his sexual orientation, his country criminalized it.

Article 520 of the Syrian Penal Code of 1949 states: "Any unnatural sexual intercourse shall be punished with a term of imprisonment of up to three years."

Nour left Syria in 2012, before ISIS took over huge swaths of the country, after seeing a video of two men being beheaded. According to the voice on the clip, they are accused of being spies. Then toward the end, the voice speaks about "shaking the throne of God."

"Whenever we hear this in video or audio, we know that this is exactly meant for gay people," he says. "It was the moment of clarity, the moment of understanding; this place is not safe anymore."

The pictures released by ISIS and other videos refer to gay men as the tribe of Lot, who, according to readings of the Quran and the hadith, or prophetic traditions, sinned by refusing Prophet Lot's call to cease their homosexual activity and led to the destruction of Sodom. One hadith states, "When a man mounts another man, the throne of God shakes."

Since the revolution turned war in Syria, the situation for the nation's LGBT community has become even more dire.

"LGBT people in Syria need help, and they need to be supported. We tried to reach out to some groups, international entities, and they said that LGBT people in Syria are not our priority, and that would mean that our lives are not worthy for them to rescue," Nour says.

This week, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a nongovernmental organization based in New York, started "Don't Turn Away," an awareness-raising campaign calling for action to protect LGBT Syrians and Iraqis from ISIS' merciless brutality.

On its website, the group states, "What is clear is the Islamic State's intent -- to spread terror among an already persecuted population in the region and to warn against any kind of 'moral' transgression."

The commission is calling on governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to expedite resettlement and refugee applications for LGBTs.

Driven away by threats
Sami and his partner are among those waiting. Dressed in matching outfits, they already consider themselves married, laughing about how they first met online. They too, like Nour, don't want their identities revealed.

When Sami's family found out about his relationship, he says, his brother tried to beat him up. He started to receive threatening phone calls from family and strangers.

This past summer, while the couple was walking in the streets in Damascus, a car tried to run them over.

"I was able to pull myself away, but my husband couldn't," Sami recalls. "The car hit his leg and he fell to the ground."

There is no doubt that it was a deliberate attempt to kill them. Two hours after the attack, Sami's phone rang.

"There was a man who said this time you could have made it, you could have survived, but the next time you will not."

The couple fled to Turkey a few months ago, but they can't shake the fear that their relationship could cost them their lives.

They share housing with other Syrian refugees, where they have to continue to pretend that they are straight. When the ISIS photographs emerged, one of their housemates made a sickening comment.

"He made an absurd joke about how he was so amused, had too much fun watching homosexuals. He says now gay men can fly."

They say they will never return to Syria. And neither will Nour.

"It's too damaging for my psychological state, because I have been abused too much from my family, friends, school. It’s not safe for me psychologically or physically," he says

By Arwa Damon and Zeynep Bilginsoy, CNN

February 4, 2015

Saudi Oil is Squeezing Putin away from Syria’s Assad


Saudi Arabia has been trying to pressure President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to abandon his support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, using its dominance of the global oil markets at a time when the Russian government is reeling from the effects of plummeting oil prices.

Saudi Arabia and Russia have had numerous discussions over the past several months that have yet to produce a significant breakthrough, according to American and Saudi officials. It is unclear how explicitly Saudi officials have linked oil to the issue of Syria during the talks, but Saudi officials say — and they have told the United States — that they think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability to reduce the supply of oil and possibly drive up prices.
“If oil can serve to bring peace in Syria, I don’t see how Saudi Arabia would back away from trying to reach a deal,” a Saudi diplomat said. An array of diplomatic, intelligence and political officials from the United States and Middle East spoke on the condition of anonymity to adhere to protocols of diplomacy.

Any weakening of Russian support for Mr. Assad could be one of the first signs that the recent tumult in the oil market is having an impact on global statecraft. Saudi officials have said publicly that the price of oil reflects only global supply and demand, and they have insisted that Saudi Arabia will not let geopolitics drive its economic agenda. But they believe that there could be ancillary diplomatic benefits to the country’s current strategy of allowing oil prices to stay low — including a chance to negotiate an exit for Mr. Assad. Mr. Putin, however, has frequently demonstrated that he would rather accept economic hardship than buckle to outside pressures to change his policies. Sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries have not prompted Moscow to end its military involvement in Ukraine, and Mr. Putin has remained steadfast in his support for Mr. Assad, whom he sees as a bulwark in a region made increasingly volatile by Islamic extremism.

Syria was a major topic for a Saudi delegation that went to Moscow in November, according to an Obama administration official, who said that there had been a steady dialogue between the two countries over the past several months. It is unclear what effect the Jan. 23 death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia might have on these discussions, which the Saudis have conducted in secret.
 If looks could kill……

Russia has been one of the Syrian president’s most steadfast supporters, selling military equipment to the government for years to bolster Mr. Assad’s forces in their battle against rebel groups, including the Islamic State, and supplying everything from spare parts and specialty fuels to sniper training and helicopter maintenance.

With a fifth of the world’s oil reserves, Saudi Arabia is the leading player in OPEC and has great sway over any move by the cartel to raise prices by cutting production. Its refusal to support such steps despite dizzying price declines has prompted myriad theories about the Saudi royal family’s agenda, and Saudi officials have hinted that the country is happy to let the low prices punish rival producers who use more expensive shale-fracking techniques.

“They have almost total leverage,” said Senator Angus King, an independent of Maine who recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia.

“They have more breathing room than these other countries,” he said. “It’s like the difference between someone having a million dollars in the bank and someone who is living paycheck to paycheck.”
Russia Outlines Prescription to Bolster Its Ailing Economy, but Experts ScoffFEB. 2, 2015
The drop in oil prices has been felt in Saudi Arabia, but the country’s vast oil reserves and accumulated wealth give it a far greater cushion than other oil-producing nations have. Saudi Arabia needs the price of oil to be over $100 a barrel to cover its federal spending, including a lavish budget for infrastructure projects. The current price is about $50 a barrel, and Saudi Arabia has projected a 2015 deficit of about $39 billion.

But the monarchy has about $733 billion in savings invested in low-risk assets abroad, and it can afford to dip into that for a few years without much pain. Russia and Iran have no such luxury, and neither do shale-fracking oil producers in North America.

The Saudis have offered economic enticements to Russian leaders in return for concessions on regional issues like Syria before, but never with oil prices so low. It is unclear what effect, if any, the discussions are having. While the United States would support initiatives to end Russian backing for Mr. Assad, any success by the Saudis to cut production and raise global oil prices could hurt many parts of the American economy.

After the meeting in Moscow in November between Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, and Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov rejected the idea that international politics should play a role in setting oil prices.

“We see eye to eye with our Saudi colleagues in that we believe the oil market should be based on the balance of supply and demand,” Mr. Lavrov said, “and that it should be free of any attempts to influence it for political or geopolitical purposes.”

Russia is feeling financial pain and diplomatic isolation because of international sanctions stemming from its incursion into Crimea and eastern Ukraine, American officials said. But Mr. Putin still wants to be viewed as a pivotal player in the Middle East. The Russians hosted a conference last week in Moscow between the Assad government and some of Syria’s opposition groups, though few analysts believe the talks will amount to much, especially since many of the opposition groups boycotted them. Some Russia experts expressed skepticism that Mr. Putin would be amenable to any deal that involved removing support for Mr. Assad.

September 15, 2014

US Can Destroy Islamic ISIL and Syria without Help from Iran but it Will Get Help from Some Allies

Contrary to this weekends American News channels there is a lot of support for the US to wipe out ISIL. Not only that, thanks to ISIL American and Iran’s interests are on the same side of the courtyard.

Is America at war with the Islamic State? On Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said as much. “In the same way that we are at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates around the globe, we are at war with ISIL,” he said, using the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. The remark set a thousand Washington keyboards aflutter, as Secretary of State John Kerry had said pretty much the opposite only a day earlier—and President Obama never used the word “war” in his primetime speech on Wednesday.

Washington loves nothing more than to oversimplify the complex. But the fight against the radical jihadist movement that has taken over large parts of Syria and Iraq is not simply a war. In a conventional war, you are fighting a massed army seeking to gain or hold territory; such an army can be destroyed by superior force and skilled tactics. In a civil war, you are fighting guerrillas or militias seeking to free themselves from the central government, or to take it over. They can be defeated by giving the central government military and financial support to defend itself, building up secure zones to protect civilians and killing or capturing rebel leaders. ISIL, by contrast, is conducting a revolutionary war, in which civilians are recruited to support an ideological cause and rallied to overturn and replace regimes that are widely seen as unjust and illegitimate.

The distinction matters. To destroy the threat embodied in ISIL requires approaching the task as one of counter-revolution. ISIL, after all, is at its core only about 30,000 fighters, tops; what has made them the group force that could take over much of two countries with a total population of more than 50 million people is that they are supported by millions as the vanguard of a revolutionary movement for justice. That support ranges from military recruits from former supporters of other rebel groups who are joining ISIL to financial support from conservative co-religionists in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states to the quiet support of tens of millions of Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis.

How could such a barbarous and brutal group as ISIL, as Obama described it Wednesday, earn the support of those millions? By promising to protect and avenge them against the Assad regime in Syria, which has slaughtered their children and gassed their relatives and fellow townspeople and tribesmen; and against the Shiite regime in Iraq, which has stolen their jobs and destroyed their livelihoods, contemptuously dashing the hopes and careers of Sunni Arabs in that country.

The history of revolutions shows that such ideologically extremist groups typically emerge from periods of chaos in the wake of weak or disrupted regimes. ISIL is, within its Islamic framework, the heir of the Jacobins of the French Revolution, and the Bolsheviks of the Russian Revolution, who engaged in terror tactics and the killing of tens of thousands to reinforce their power in the wake of regime collapse and civil war. We know from this history that if the extremist vanguard is able to win the support of the masses, and turn them against the elites and moderate leaders left over from the old regime, they will carry the day and create an expansionist revolutionary state. Only if the radicals can be separated from the broader population, and the latter brought within the framework of other institutions that can provide order, security and start to respond to the population’s legitimate goals, can the radicals be effectively hunted down and destroyed.
Now we start to grasp the size of the task. 

In the case of the French Revolution, it took the combination of Britain, Prussia and Russia cooperating to destroy Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo to finally end the threat of a revolutionary conquest of Europe. In the case of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, it took the combination of all NATO countries, with support from Australia and New Zealand and Japan, to contain the Soviet Union’s plans for global communist expansion and eventually produce its implosion and fall. Both of these cases show that revolutionary ideological states, once established, are robust; it took more than two decades of conflict on three continents to turn back Napoleon, and more than seven decades of global Cold War to turn back Soviet communism. To turn back ISIL and separate it from its supporters will likewise take a broad coalition and years of arduous effort, but failure to succeed now will likely mean many decades of further conflict ahead.

The difficulty lies in the dual nature of counter-revolution. It is necessary to do two things: First, isolate and weaken the revolutionary forces by attacking their military force and limiting their access to funding and to external allies. Second, and even more essential, displace their ideological appeal to the masses by providing an alternative regime that can offer security, opportunity and inclusion to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the people. Only then can military actions to destroy the radical forces be effective.
That is why the success of President Obama’s strategy to destroy ISIL depends on political solutions in both Iraq and Syria that provide inclusive and resilient civilian regimes. Yet so far unspoken is an essential fact of life in the Middle East: There can be no political solution in either Iraq or Syria without Iran’s assent.

Fortunately, events in both Iran and the Middle East have moved in a direction favorable to improved U.S.-Iranian relations. The new regime of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appears sincerely interested in negotiating limits on its nuclear program in order to obtain relief from international sanctions. Iran is now also deeply reliant on U.S. help to sustain a stable and friendly Iraq next door. And ISIL is a mortal threat to both U.S. interests and to Iran. Rarely have U.S. and Iranian interests aligned so cleanly.

Jack A. Goldstone is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University. He is the author of Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction.The views expressed in this article are those solely of the author. 
adamfoxie blog Int

"I think Iran now realises they cannot win the Syrian conflict whilst Assad is in power," said one. Another diplomat, who has recently held talks with Iranian leaders, said the rise of Isil had injected a new dynamic into the conflict, which Iran was no longer sure Mr Assad could win. He said he thought the Iranian government would now be prepared to "burn" Mr Assad, especially if it eased a broader deal on Tehran's nuclear programme. Western diplomats, who have supported the opposition to Mr Assad from the start, have a vested interest in hoping that Iran may ultimately drop its support for him.
But his defeats in recent weeks were the most humiliating since rebels swept into Aleppo two years ago.
Isil seized Tabqa military air base in the province of Raqqa last month, removing the last major government-held post in a province the extremists claim as part of their new "Islamic State". The jihadis tortured and summarily executed Syrian soldiers, publishing videos of a long line of men being led at a jog into the desert in their underwear, some still weeping and begging to be rescued. Meanwhile another band of extremists in Syria - a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe - poses a more direct and imminent threat to the United States, working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation, American officials say.
At the centre is a cell known as the Khorasan group, a cadre of veteran al-Qa'ida fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front.
But the Khorasan militants did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of Assad. Instead, they were sent by al-Qa'ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)
Irish Independent 

August 23, 2014

US Weighing Attacking Islamists Militants in Syria

Declaring that the beheading of an American journalist was a terrorist attack on the United States, the Obama administration said Friday that it was weighing how to confront Islamic State militants in Syria, in what would be a major escalation of U.S. efforts to defeat the extremists.

President Obama, who sought to build a legacy as a leader who ends wars rather than starts them, until now had resisted direct U.S. intervention in the more than 3-year-old Syrian civil war.

But he has reconsidered his position as Islamic State forces have grown stronger and issued threats against Americans, most recently in a video this week showing the killing of American journalist James Foley at the hands of a masked executioner who spoke with a British accent. That has heightened concern that hundreds of militants have passports that could allow them to easily travel to the U.S., Europe and elsewhere.

If you come after Americans, we're going to come after you wherever you are. And that's what's going to guide our planning in the days to come.
- Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor.
Infuriated by Foley's grisly death, Obama is considering all options that might protect Americans from a threat that could reach the United States and other Western nations, a top advisor said, insisting that the president wouldn't be "restricted by borders."

"If you come after Americans, we're going to come after you wherever you are," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor. "And that's what's going to guide our planning in the days to come."

So far, the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State has been contained to Iraq, where the group's stunningly fast takeover of a large swath of the country's north and west led Obama to order more than 90 airstrikes this month, reviving the American military presence in Iraq.

If Obama targets the militants in Syria, he’ll be doing so in response to a direct threat to Americans, Rhodes said. 

"The brutal execution of Jim Foley represented an affront," he said. "We see that as an attack on our country when one of our own is killed like that."

Over the last year, Islamic State militants have grown in capability, helped by money from criminal activity, donations and ransoms, as well as by the sanctuary of territory they have captured in Syria, said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby.

Though Kirby stopped short of saying there were any plans to attack the militants in Syria, he said that "all options remain available."

The option of striking in Syria has been discussed in recent weeks between White House and Pentagon officials as they considered possible military actions against the group, a senior U.S. official said.

The White House is not eager to broaden the conflict into Syria, the official said, but wants to "let people know that [this reluctance] isn't necessarily going to keep us from striking, if necessary," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

As part of the current operation in Iraq, the U.S. military said, it carried out three airstrikes Friday that destroyed two of the militants' armed vehicles and a machine gun nest that was firing on Iraqi forces.

The administration has described its effort in Iraq as both a humanitarian mission and a bid to protect Americans. To broaden the operation to include airstrikes in Syria, Pentagon lawyers are examining sources of authority that Obama could invoke, including the inherent right of self-defense against a group that has publicly threatened to attack the United States, the senior U.S. official said.

"Can the lawyers get to a solution? Probably," the official said.

The president also would have to decide whether to ask Congress for authorization or proceed without it, and probably would need to address whether the U.S. would take on the militants alone or build an international coalition. Obama is scheduled to attend a NATO summit next month in Wales.
Who is arming the resistance?

(The french have been actively arming the “resistance” even though Obama has been actively, for the last 3 years, not arming them.)  

If a decision is made to expand the air campaign in Syria, the White House prefers to have other countries involved militarily, but that might not be possible, the senior U.S. official said.

Bombing extremists' training camps and equipment in Syria could degrade their power and lessen the threat they pose in Iraq, the official said, but the gains would probably be temporary unless the U.S. continued bombing indefinitely. It would also extend U.S. military involvement in yet another chaotic, war-ridden country, one that Obama has sought for years to avoid.

Expanding U.S. airstrikes into Syria would present special challenges. With no ground presence there, the Pentagon might find it difficult to identify appropriate targets. That would especially be the case since administration officials have strictly ruled out any coordination with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government has fought Islamic State and other rebels, some backed by the U.S.

Last summer, Assad's forces were accused of using poison gas against civilians, killing more than 1,000 people. That attack touched off fierce debate in Congress and a political predicament for Obama, who threatened to launch airstrikes but backed down when Assad agreed to surrender his chemical weapons to avoid such an attack.

Rep. William M. "Mac" Thornberry (R-Texas) criticized the administration's "slow rolling" about involvement in Syria's civil war, saying it has enabled the militants to "grow and expand" into Iraq.

"The first thing we should do is quit talking about what we're not going to do," Thornberry, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN. "When the president takes options off the table, that only simplifies the planning of ISIS," he said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group.

U.S. intelligence proved faulty in Syria last month when a special forces team sought to rescue Foley and other captives held by Islamic State.

The hostages weren't at the site, and the group claimed responsibility for beheading Foley this week. It has threatened to execute another American captive, Steven Joel Sotloff, and are believed to be holding at least three other Americans.

Despite these challenges, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that Islamic State fighters couldn't be defeated unless they were confronted in Syria, although he did not spell out what needed to be done.

One option for attacking in Syria would be to use covert drone strikes, which Obama has turned to in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries where extremists have established bases.

U.S. intelligence officials have warned the White House that Islamic State has a strong base in Syria and that bombing its positions in neighboring Iraq can go only so far in diminishing the militants' ability to regroup and launch counterattacks.

There is a "cross-border safe haven" in Syria, said a U.S. intelligence official. The militants control a large piece of territory stretching from Aleppo in the northwest to the border crossing with Iraq at Al Qaim in eastern Syria, he said.

The Iraqi government can "make progress" against Islamic State militants, but "it is a lot easier if the safe haven can be eliminated," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments.

The official was not optimistic that the U.S. could do much to uproot the militants from Syria. "That safe haven will be there for a long time," he said.

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