Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion 2016-08-26T04:43:15Z WordPress Juan Cole <![CDATA[ISIL sends families out of Mosul as Kurdish, Shiite Forces advance]]> 2016-08-26T04:43:15Z 2016-08-26T04:43:15Z By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Iraqi military forces have taken the strategic town of al-Qayarah near the major city of Mosul from Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). Mosul is the last major city in the hands of the apocalyptic, brutal cult as it has lost almost all the territory it took in 2014.

Al-Qayarah is 60 km from Mosul. Gen. Riyadh Jalal Tawfiq, commander of Iraqi land forces, told France24, “we have established domination over the city from every side and have expeditiously cleared out pockets within it.” He added, “Military engineers are currently clearing the town of improvised explosive devices.”

The counter-terrorism units of the Iraqi army led the charge as they began their assault on al-Qayyarah on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi welcomed the victory, calling it an important step toward the liberation of Mosul. He looked forward to the day when Mosul would be rescued from the criminal gangs now terrorizing its population and would be returned to the bosom of the Iraqi nation.

The air above al-Qayarah turned black as Daesh saboteurs set fire to its oil wells.

Al-Quds al-Arabi reports that in the wake of the Iraqi military’s rapid advance into al-Qayarah and the beginning of the assault on Mosul itself, a source inside Mosul maintains that Daesh fighters took the unusual step of sending hundreds of their family members, as well as widows and orphans of those Daesh guerrillas killed at al-Qayyarah, out of the city with fake i.d.s. Most of these family members made it to al-Raqqa in eastern Syria over secret routes, or to Kirkuk, Salahudddin Province or even slipped in among the refugees headed for the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Aljazeera reports that as the Mosul campaign gears up there is increasing tension between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army.

One source of tension was a communique issued by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s ministry of Peshmerga, which said that the Peshmerga would not obey orders from the Iraqi defense establishment.

PM al-Abadi ruffled feathers recently when he said that the Peshmerga would not be permitted to enter Mosul city.

Iraqi Kurdistan began with three Kurdish-majority provinces (Iraq had 18 provinces), but in summer of 2014, it unilaterally annexed the more mixed province of Kirkuk, subjecting its Arab and Turkmen populations. Kurdish nationalists have expressed a desire for Mosul, and it is controversial among Arab populations to have Kurdish fighters lead the charge.

Meanwhile, Rudaw is reporting that Usama al-Nujayfi, a prominent Mosul politician, is heading to Turkey for consultations at the end of this month. Sunni politicians are restive about their future place in Iraq once Daesh is rolled up as a territorial force.

Related video added by Juan Cole

EuroNews: Iraq forces retake key town south of Mosul

contributors <![CDATA[The Great Mexican Wall Deception]]> 2016-08-25T04:32:31Z 2016-08-25T04:32:31Z By Todd Miller | ( | – –

At the federal courthouse, Ignacio Sarabia asks the magistrate judge, Jacqueline Rateau, if he can explain why he crossed the international boundary between the two countries without authorization. He has already pleaded guilty to the federal misdemeanor commonly known as “illegal entry” and is about to receive a prison sentence. On either side of him are eight men in the same predicament, all still sunburned, all in the same ripped, soiled clothes they were wearing when arrested in the Arizona desert by agents of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Once again, the zero tolerance border enforcement program known as Operation Streamline has unfolded just as it always does here in Tucson, Arizona. Close to 60 people have already approached the judge in groups of seven or eight, their heads bowed submissively, their bodies weighed down by shackles and chains around wrists, waists, and ankles. The judge has handed out the requisite prison sentences in quick succession — 180 days, 60 days, 90 days, 30 days.

On and on it goes, day-in, day-out. Like so many meals served in fast-food restaurants, 750,000 prison sentences of this sort have been handed down since Operation Streamline was launched in 2005. This mass prosecution of undocumented border crossers has become so much the norm that one report concluded it is now a “driving force in mass incarceration” in the United States. Yet it is but a single program among many overseen by the massive U.S. border enforcement and incarceration regime that has developed during the last two decades, particularly in the post-9/11 era.

Sarabia takes a half-step forward. “My infant is four months old,” he tells the judge in Spanish. The baby was, he assures her, born with a heart condition and is a U.S. citizen. They have no option but to operate. This is the reason, he says, that “I’m here before you.” He pauses.

“I want to be with my child, who is in the United States.”

It’s clear that Sarabia would like to gesture emphatically as he speaks, but that’s difficult, thanks to the shackles that constrain him. Rateau fills her coffee cup as she waits for his comments to be translated into English.

Earlier in April 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, still in the heat of his primary campaign, stated once again that he would build a massive concrete border wall towering 30 (or, depending on the moment, 55) feet high along the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border. He would, he insisted, force Mexico to pay for the $8 billion to $10 billion barrier. Repeatedly throwing such red meat into the gaping jaws of nativism, he has over these last months also announced that he would create a major “deportation force,” repeatedly sworn that he would ban Muslims from entering the country (a position that he regularly revises), and most recently, that he would institute an “extreme vetting” process for foreign nationals arriving in the United States.

In June 2015, when he rode a Trump Tower escalator into the presidential campaign, among his initial promises was the building of a “great” and “beautiful” wall on the border. (“And no one builds walls better than me, believe me. I will do it very inexpensively. I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”)  As he pulled that promise out of a hat with a magician’s flair, the actual history of the border disappeared. From then on in Election 2016, there was just empty desert and Donald Trump.

Suddenly, there hadn’t been a bipartisan government effort over the last quarter-century to put in place an unprecedented array of walls, detection systems, and guards for that southern border. In those years, the number of Border Patrol agents had, in fact, quintupled from 4,000 to more than 21,000, while Customs and Border Protection became the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country with more than 60,000 agents. The annual budget for border and immigration enforcement went from $1.5 to $19.5 billion, a more than 12-fold increase. By 2016, federal government funding of border and immigration enforcement added up to $5 billion more than that for all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Operation Streamline, a cornerstone program in the “Consequence Delivery System,” part of a broader Border Patrol deterrence strategy for stopping undocumented immigration, is just one part of a vast enforcement-incarceration-deportation machine. The program is as no-nonsense as its name suggests. It’s not The Wall, but it embodies the logic of the wall: either you crossed “illegally” or you didn’t. It doesn’t matter why, or whether you lost your job, or if you’ve had to skip meals to feed your kids. It doesn’t matter if your house was flooded or the drought dried up your fields. It doesn’t matter if you’re running for your life from drug cartel gunmen or the very army and police forces that are supposed to protect you.

This system was what Ignacio Sarabia faced a few months ago in a Tucson court.  His tragedy is one that plays out so many times daily a mere seven blocks from where I live.

Before I tell you how the judge responded to his plea, it’s important to understand Sarabia’s journey, and that of so many thousands like him who end up in this federal courthouse day after day. As he pleads to be with his newborn son, his voice cracking with emotion, his story catches the already Trumpian-style of border enforcement — both the pain and suffering it has caused, and the strategy and massive build-up behind it — in ways that the campaign rhetoric of both parties and the reporting on it doesn’t. As reporters chase their tails attempting to explain Trump’s wild and often unfounded claims and declarations, the on-the-ground border reality goes unreported. Indeed, one of the greatest “secrets” of the 2016 election campaign (though it should be common knowledge) is that the border wall already exists.  It has for years and the fingerprints all over it aren’t Donald Trump’s but the Clintons’, both Bill’s and Hillary’s.

The Wall That Already Exists

Twenty-one years before Trump’s wall-building promise (and seven years before the 9/11 attacks), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to replace the chain link fence that separated Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico from Nogales, Arizona, in the United States with a wall built of rusty landing mats from the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. Although there had been various half-hearted attempts at building border walls throughout the twentieth century, this was the first true effort to build a barrier of what might now be called Trumpian magnitude.

That rusty, towering wall snaked through the hills and canyons of northern Sonora and southern Arizona forever deranging a world that, given cross-border familial and community ties, then considered itself one. At the time, who could have known that the strategy the first wall embodied would still be the model for today’s massive system of exclusion.

In 1994, the threat wasn’t “terrorism.” In part, the call for more hardened, militarized borders came in response, among other things, to a never-ending drug war.  It also came from U.S. officials who anticipated the displacement of millions of Mexicans after the implementation of the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which, ironically, was aimed at eliminating barriers to trade and investment across North America.

And the expectations of those officials proved well justified. The ensuing upheavals in Mexico, as analyst Marco Antonio Velázquez Navarrete explained to me, were like the aftermath of a war or natural disaster. Small farmers couldn’t compete against highly subsidized U.S. agribusiness giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Mexican small business owners were bankrupted by the likes of Walmart, Sam’s Club, and other corporate powers. Mining by foreign companies extended across vast swaths of Mexico, causing territorial conflicts and poisoning the land. The unprecedented and desperate migration that followed came up against what might be considered the other side of the Clinton doctrine of open trade: walls, increased border agents, increased patrolling, and new surveillance technologies meant to cut off traditional crossing spots in urban areas like El Paso, San Diego, Brownsville, and Nogales.

“This administration has taken a strong stand to stiffen the protection of our borders,” President Bill Clinton said in 1996. “We are increasing border controls by fifty percent.”

Over the next 20 years, that border apparatus would expand exponentially in terms of personnel, resources, and geographic reach, but the central strategy of the 1990s (labeled “Prevention Through Deterrence”) remained the same. The ever-increasing border policing and militarization funneled desperate migrants into remote locations like the Arizona desert where temperatures can soar to 120 degrees in the summer heat.

The first U.S. border strategy memorandum in 1994 predicted the tragic future we now have. “Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger,” it stated.

Twenty years later, more than 6,000 remains have been found in the desert borderlands of the United States. Hundreds of families continue to search for disappeared loved ones. The Colibri Center for Human Rights has records for more than 2,500 missing people last seen crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. In other words, that border has become a graveyard of bones and sadness.

Despite all the attention given to the wall and the border this election season, neither the Trump nor Clinton campaigns have mentioned “Prevention Through Deterrence,” nor the subsequent border deaths. Not once. The same goes for the establishment media that can’t stop talking about Trump’s wall. There has been little or no mention of what border groups have long called a “humanitarian crisis” of deaths that have increased five-fold over the last decade, thanks, in part, to a wall that already exists. (If the people dying were Canadians or Europeans, attention would, of course, be paid.)

Although wall construction began during Bill Clinton’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) built most of the approximately 700 miles of fencing after the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed. At the time, Senator Hillary Clinton voted in favor of that Republican-introduced bill, along with 26 other Democrats. “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in,” she commented at one 2015 campaign event, “and I do think you have to control your borders.”

The 2006 wall-building project was expected to be so environmentally destructive that homeland security chief Michael Chertoff waived 37 environmental and cultural laws in the name of national security.  In this way, he allowed Border Patrol bulldozers to desecrate protected wilderness and sacred land.

“Imagine a bulldozer parking in your family graveyard, turning up bones,” Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., of the Tohono O’odham Nation (a Native American tribe whose original land was cut in half by the U.S. border) told Congress in 2008. “This is our reality.”

With a price tag of, on average, $4 million a mile, these border walls, barriers, and fences have proven to be one of the costliest border infrastructure projects undertaken by the United States. For private border contractors, on the other hand, it’s the gift that just keeps on giving. In 2011, for example, the DHS granted Kellogg, Brown, and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, one of our “warrior corporations,” a $24.4 million upkeep contract.

In Tucson in early August, Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence looked out over a sea of red “Make America Great Again” caps and t-shirts and said, “We will secure our border. Donald Trump will build that wall.”  He would be met with roaring applause, even though his statement made no sense at all.

Should Trump actually win, how could he build something that already exists? Indeed, for all practical purposes, the “Great Wall” that Trump talks about may, by January 2017, be as antiquated as the Great Wall of China given the new high-tech surveillance methods now coming on the market.  These are being developed in a major way and on a regular basis by a booming border techno-surveillance industry.

The twenty-first-century border is no longer just about walls; it’s about biometrics and drones. It’s about a “layered approach to national security,” given that, as former Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher has put it, “the international boundary is no longer the first or last line of defense, but one of many.”  Hillary Clinton’s promise of “comprehensive immigration reform” — to be introduced within 100 days of her entering the Oval Office — is a much more reliable guide than Trump’s wall to our grim immigration future. If her bill follows the pattern of previous ones, as it surely will, an increasingly weaponized, privatized, high-tech, layered border regime, increasingly dangerous to future Ignacio Sarabias, will continue to be a priority of the federal government.

On the surface, there are important differences between Clinton’s and Trump’s immigration platforms. Trump’s wildly xenophobic comments and declarations are well known, and Clinton claims that she will, among other things, fight for family unity for those forcibly separated by deportation and enact “humane” immigration enforcement.  Yet deep down, the policies of the two candidates are far more similar than they might at first appear.

Navigating Donald Trump’s Borderlands Now

That April day, only one bit of information about Ignacio Sarabia’s border crossing to reunite with his wife and newborn child was available at the Tucson federal courthouse. He had entered the United States “near Nogales.”  Most likely, he circumvented the wall first started during the Clinton administration, like most immigrants do, by making his way through the potentially treacherous canyons that surround that border town.

If his experience was typical, he probably didn’t have enough water or food, and suffered some physical woe like large, painful blisters on his feet. Certainly, he wasn’t atypical in trying to reunite with loved ones. After all, more than 2.5 million people have been expelled from the country by the Obama administration, an average annual deportation rate of close to 400,000 people.  This was, by the way, only possible thanks to laws signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 and meant to burnish his legacy.  They vastly expanded the government’s deportation powers.  

In 2013 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out 72,000 deportations of parents who said that their children were U.S.-born. And many of them are likely to try to cross that dangerous southern border again to reunite with their families.

The enforcement landscape Sarabia faced has changed drastically since that first wall was built in 1994. The post-9/11 border is now both a war zone and a showcase for corporate surveillance.  It represents, according to Border Patrol agent Felix Chavez,  an “unprecedented deployment of resources,” any of which could have led to Sarabia’s capture. It could have been one of the hundreds of remote video or mobile surveillance systems, or one of the more than 12,000 implanted motion sensors that set off alarms in hidden operational control rooms where agents stare into large monitors.

It could have been the spy towers made by the Israeli company Elbit Systems that spotted him, or Predator B drones built by General Atomics, or VADER radar systems manufactured by the defense giant Northrup Grumman that, like so many similar technologies, have been transported from the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq to the U.S. border.

If the comprehensive immigration reform that Hillary Clinton pledges to introduce as president is based on the already existing bipartisan Senate package, as has been indicated, then this corporate-enforcement landscape will be significantly bolstered and reinforced. There will be 19,000 more Border Patrol agents in roving patrols throughout “border enforcement jurisdictions” that extend up to 100 miles inland. More F-150 trucks and all-terrain vehicles will rumble through and, at times, tear up the desert. There will be more Blackhawk helicopters, flying low, their propellers dusting groups of scattering migrants, many of them already lost in the vast, parched desert.

If such a package passes the next Congress, up to $46 billion could be slated to go into more of all of this, including funding for hundreds of miles of new walls. Corporate vendors are salivating at the thought of such a future and in a visible state of elation at homeland security tradeshows across the globe.

The 2013 bill that passed in the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives also included a process of legalization for the millions of undocumented people living in the United States. It maintained programs that will grant legal residence for children who came to the United States at a young age and their parents. Odds are that a comprehensive reform bill in a Clinton presidency would be similar.

Included in that bill was, of course, funding to bolster Operation Streamline. The Evo A. DeConcini Federal Courthouse in Tucson would then have the capacity to prosecute triple the number of people it deals with at present.

After taking a sip from her coffee and listening to the translation of Ignacio Sarabia’s comments, the magistrate judge looks at him and says she’s sorry for his predicament.

Personally, I’m mesmerized by his story as I sit on a wooden bench at the back of the court. I have a child the same age as his son. I can’t imagine his predicament.  Not once while he talks does it leave my mind that my child might even have the same birthday as his.

The judge then looks directly at Sarabia and tells him that he can’t just come here “illegally,” that he has to find a “legal way” (highly unlikely, given the criminal conviction that will now be on his record).  “Your son,” she says, “when he gets better, and his mother, can visit you where you are in Mexico.”

“Otherwise,” she adds, he’ll be “visiting you in prison” — not exactly, she points out, an appealing scenario: seeing your father in a prison where he will be “locked away for a very long time.”

She then sentences the nine men standing side by side in front of her for periods ranging from 60 days to 180 days for the crime of crossing an international border without proper documents. Sarabia receives a 60-day sentence.

Next, armed guards from G4S — the private contractor that once employed Omar Mateen (the Pulse nightclub killer) and has a lucrative quarter-billion-dollar border contract with Customs and Border Protection — will transport each of the shackled prisoners to a Corrections Corporation of America private prison in Florence, Arizona. It is there that Sarabia will think about his child’s endangered heart from behind layers of coiled razor wire, while the corporation that runs the prison makes $124 per day for incarcerating him.

Indeed, Donald Trump’s United States doesn’t await his presidency. It’s already laid out before us, and one place it’s happening every single day is in Tucson, only seven blocks from my house.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog Border Wars. You can follow him on twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at 

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Todd Miller


Juan Cole <![CDATA[Is Turkey’s incursion into Syria about Daesh, or about the Kurds?]]> 2016-08-25T04:20:10Z 2016-08-25T04:20:10Z By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkish military sources told the Anadol news agency that Wednesday’s military attack on the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, held for years by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), involved hitting 82 targets. The objective, Ankara said, was to secure the Turkish border and to support the US-led Coalition in its war on Daesh and guarantee the unity of Syrian territory.

The Turkish military chief of staff and his deputy said they followed the course of the operation from their operations room in Ankara.

Daesh fighters withdrew from much of Jarabulus and surrounding villages, heading south to al-Bab, now the northernmost Daesh outpost in Syria.

The YPG leftist Kurds alleged that Turkey is using fighting Daesh as a pretext to destroy what it called the Democratic project of Rojava (the Kurdish mini-state in northern Syria). Aranews said, “the co-head of the Democratic Union Party in Syria (PYD) Salih Muslim said that Turkey is entering a Syrian quagmire, and ‘will be defeated as Daesh’.”

However, the YPG leftist Kurdish forces that recently took Manbij away from Daesh is said to have withdrawn to the east of the Euphrates and is considering taking al-Bab as their next target. US Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Ankara, asked the YPG to withdraw from west of the Euphrates. The YPG is part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, among whom some 200 US special operations troops are embedded. They have been effective in attacking Daesh but have an ulterior motive in wanting to establish their own Kurdish mini-state in northern Syria, which they call Rojava. They have 400 km of the 500 km border region that they envision for Rojava. Jarabulus would have been part of it, but they have now been blocked by the Turkish incursion into that zone (with 10 tanks).

A spokesman of the Kurdish YPG or People’s Protection Units, Reidar Khalil, said that the Turkish military incursion into Syria constituted a naked act of aggression and intervention into the internal affairs of Syria. He claimed that it derived from an agreement among Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government.

(Khalil is alleging that all three of these regional powers have large Kurdish populations and none wants to see the emergence of another Kurdish mini-state, this time in Syria, since that might encourage further Kurdish separatism ).

Khalil said that “Turkish demands that the YPG withdraw to the east of the Euphrates cannot be acquiesced in, except by the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition supported by the United States.”

For its part, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus condemned the Turkish incursion, deploring “the crossing of Turkish tanks and armor of the Syrian border and into Jarabulus under air cover by the American coalition” and describing it as “a stark violation of Syrian sovereignty.”

A spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry said, “combating terrorism on Syrian soil, no matter who does it, needs to be coordinated with the Syrian government and the Syrian Arab Army, which has been engaged in these battles for five years now.”

He added, “you can’t fight terrorism by expelling Daesh and replacing it with other terrorist organizations directly supported by Turkey.”

Syria views the Muslim-Brotherhood-linked remnants of the Free Syrian Army as terrorist organizations, while the US CIA maintains that it has vetted some 30 of them and found no sign of terrorist activities or ties. (This CIA line is clearly at least somewhat inaccurate, since some “vetted” groups have cooperated on the battlefield with al-Qaeda operative Abu Muhammad al-Julani (who now leads the Army of Conquest but has not renounced his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks).

So to sum up: The YPG Kurds are upset about being blocked from going into Jarabulus, which would have allowed them to knit together the cantons of Afrin and Kobane and finally achieve Rojava. However, they likely will in fact withdraw east of the Euphrates, since they value their alliance with the US and Washington has asked them to do this.

The Syrian government says it upset that Turkey is not coordinating with it and that Turkey is bringing in fundamentalist militias to run Jarabulus. (Damascus appears to have long valued Daesh as a distraction from its own use of torture and its reckless endangering of civilian populations. The Syrian Arab Army has seldom fought Daesh head on). So I don’t think Ankara is likely all that upset about Daesh losing Jarabulus, but it might be apprehensive about what comes next.


Via France 24: ” Syria: Turkey launches vast military operation to retake Islamic state stronghold of Jarablus ”

Juan Cole <![CDATA[Top 6 Reasons Turkey is Finally attacking ISIL in Syria’s Jarabulus]]> 2016-08-24T05:44:06Z 2016-08-24T05:44:06Z By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey and coalition allies launch air strikes Wednesday morning against the Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) stronghold of Jarabulus, on the Syrian side near the Turkish border. At the same time, Turkish artillery on the ground pounded the town. With Manbij in the hands of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Jarabulus is the last town affording a smuggling route for men and arms from Turkey into Syria’s al-Raqqa, the HQ of Daesh in the country. Turkey has left Jarabulus alone for years and winked at the Daesh smugglers. Why is it acting now?

1. There was a danger that if Turkey did not help Syrian Arab fundamentalists in the remnants of the Free Syrian Army take Jarabulus, it would also fall to the Syrian Democratic Forces over time. The core of the US-backed SDF is the leftwing Kurdish nationalist YPG militia, which Turkey fears is a violent separatist movement linked to the PKK or Kurdistan Workers Party, a notorious terrorist group. If the YPG took Jarabulus, it would be in a position to close the gap between two Kurdish cantons in the north of Syria and create a united strip of Kurdish control along the Turkish border, which Syrian Kurds refer to as Rojava. Turkey is desperate to halt that attempt at Syrian Kurdish consolidation of territory. And, indeed, there are reports that Turkey also shelled Syrian Kurds even as it finally went after Daesh.

2. The bombing on Sunday in Gaziantep was probably an Daesh operation, but in any case there have been a string of Daesh bombings, in Ankara and elsewhere, over the past year. Turkey’s tourism industry has been deeply hurt, and the government risks public opprobrium if it can’t provide security. The Justice and Development (AKP) government’s earlier insouciance toward Daesh is no longer viable as a policy.

3. President Tayyib Erdogan’s outreach to Russia requires that Ankara step up to take on Daesh, which has a strong Chechen contingent of which the government of Vladimir Putin is deeply afraid.

4. Vice President Joe Biden is in Ankara bearing several messages for Erdogan. They include assurances that the Obama administration was not behind the July 15 coup attempt and a plea to cease the massive government crackdown and purge that has put tens of thousands of people in jail or out of work. But they also involve a continued request that Turkey step up to do its part against Daesh, a group that seemed to worry Ankara not at all even as the Turkish air force concentrated on bombing PKK and YPG positions. The latter airstrikes were considered especially unhelpful by Washington, since the YPG is a US ally against Daesh.

5. Turkey is likely eager to take advantage of the renunciation of al-Qaeda by the Nusra Front, now rebranded the Syrian Army of Conquest, to encourage the fundamentalist Sunni militias to unite and try to hold territory in northern Syria. Turkey seems to have given up on trying directly to overthrow the Syrian government, but it does want to keep the pressure up against secular strong man Bashar al-Assad, whom the Turks want to force out of office. Establishing a Turkey-backed FSA enclave at Jarabulus that is teflon against Western criticism because it is also anti-Daesh is a way to kill a dozen birds with one stone.

6. Daesh militants in Jarabulus had sent mortar shells on Turkish territory last week, prompting a strong Turkish response.


Related video:

Turkey shells positions in northern Syria | DW News

contributors <![CDATA[It Could Happen To You: How Trump Could Make America Less Democratic]]> 2016-08-23T04:19:38Z 2016-08-24T04:04:41Z By David M. Faris

| (Informed Comment) | – –

Could Donald Trump destroy American democracy? While he muses carelessly about assassinating Hillary Clinton and frequently spitballs plainly illegal ideas like inviting foreign powers to intervene in American elections, it is less clear exactly how Trump would threaten the basic institutions of U.S. democracy. But with the real estate magnate and former reality-TV star still polling around 40% despite a litany of gaffes, embarrassments and provocations, it is imperative that we assess the threat.

h/t Free Online Photo Editor

Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: U.S. democracy is robust enough that Trump would be unlikely to obliterate it overnight even if he tried. Americans continue to express overwhelming support for the idea of democracy, and the spectacle of a strongman usurping sovereign authority would likely be met with a mass mobilization that would make the Iraq War protests look like flash mobs.

But we should not be especially comforted that Trump will not try to ride an Abrams tank into the White House, bomb the Senate building and announce his appointment as President Winner For Life. As Oxford’s Nancy Bermeo argues, since the turn of the century countries have rarely gone from perfectly democratic to perfectly autocratic overnight via coups. A more frequent occurrence in the post-Cold War era has been for governments to become incrementally less free over time, resulting in what scholars have termed “hybrid regimes” – countries that feature an unsteady mixture of democratic and authoritarian practices.

This slower process is known as “democratic backsliding,” and there is fierce debate over its causes. What scholars do agree on, generally, is what constitutes a step backward for democratic function and legitimacy. There are many ingredients in the stew of representative democracy, and eliminating any of them – such as diminishing the independence of media organizations, restricting access to the ballot, or eliminating safeguards against the indefinite tenure of presidents – can ruin the dish.

Recent events in Turkey are a good example of the kind of slow motion democratic implosion of that a Trump presidency threatens. Turkish Prime Minister (and now President) Raccip Tayyep Erdogan has gradually chipped away at key features of Turkish democracy over the past 13 years, including restricting free speech, harassing members of the political opposition, and in the wake of July’s failed coup attempt, purging the judiciary of his opponents and critics. Trump’s open threats to news organizations and casual belittling of an unfriendly judge are therefore not just “gaffes” but, like Erdogan’s machinations, rather ominous warnings about his fundamental lack of respect for key institutions of democracy.

Could this really happen here? Americans have enjoyed well over a century and a half of uninterrupted democratic rule – (or more, depending on how you view the Civil War) and are justifiably confident about the basic integrity of the whole operation. But perhaps they shouldn’t be. Democracy is a much more fragile enterprise than most people understand. For most of modern history, before the word itself became de rigueur even in the capitals of the most flagrantly tyrannical societies, democracy has had more enemies – on both the right and the left – than friends.

Democracies are frustrating, slow-moving and imperfect even in the best of times – especially the U.S. version. They are nevertheless the only functional alternative to arbitrary rule by self-appointed elites. This is why they have increased in number in “waves” only to fall victim to backlash, disillusionment and authoritarian resurgence. There are a number of groups that maintain long-term data about democracy around the world, including the Polity Project at the Center For Systemic Peace. The most prominent and well known is Freedom House, which has since 1972 produced one of the most thorough accountings of the state of democracy in every country, with dozens of variables factoring into their calculations.

While the United States has always enjoyed the organization’s highest total ranking, we have also witnessed a little-talked-about decline in political rights since the turn of the century, largely attributable to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, ill treatment of minorities in the justice system and the post-Citizens United bacchanal of untraceable political spending.

As the U.S. has experienced this modest democratic decline, it has also become gripped with a deep and pervasive cynicism about politics and politicians. Trust in institutions is one of the critical ingredients of democratic legitimacy – the sense that authority in a democratic society is wielded rightly. Once the trust sutures have been torn out, it is very difficult to heal the wounds. Ask the Somalis, or the Syrians. The mundane magic of one political party dutifully packing up its belongings and departing peacefully from the halls of power to make way for another group is something that many citizens of the world have never experienced, and that many others now seem to take for granted.

What should particularly scare Americans who are concerned about the long-term future of our democracy is that large year-to-year declines in democracy scores are often preceded by a collapse of public support for democracy or institutions like the legislature. For example, 75% of Venezuelans reported satisfaction with democracy in 1996, but by 2003 that number had collapsed to 38%. Between 2003 and 2016, Venezuela proceeded to bleed out 11 points in its political rights score. In Turkey, the sharp decline in political rights since 2009 recorded by Freedom House was preceded by a precipitous drop in public confidence in Turkey’s government and legislature, as measured by the Eurobarometer.

Is something similar happening here? Gallup has tracked Americans’ attitudes about democracy for decades. Their data shows an unmistakable and precipitous drop in confidence and trust across a long list of institutions. Confidence in the Supreme Court has dropped from 50% in 2002 to 36% in 2016. Confidence in Congress has cratered from 29% in 2002 to 9% in 2016 while the presidency has gone from 58% to 36%.

Most problematically, only the military has maintained most of its public trust across this time period. Americans now express their automatic fealty to martial leaders while regarding nearly every other civic institution with contempt. It is dangerous that the institution most capable of eliminating democratic rule is now the only institution that commands public respect.

It is this context of frayed legitimacy and shattered trust that makes a Trump presidency particularly horrifying. He seems eager to chip away at core freedoms and democratic safeguards bit by bit. His penchant for banning unfriendly news organizations from his terrifying rallies, and his frequent jeremiads against journalists and judges suggest he would be perfectly comfortable using legal or extralegal means to shutter dissent and remake the judiciary in his image.

If American democracy was otherwise healthy, this menace would be marginal. But our democratic crisis is not only about Donald Trump. It is also about voters who – despite legitimate grievances about our political processes and policies –appear not to appreciate the importance of democratic rule, from a tiny but loud minority of Sanders supporters endorsing “Nazi-type change” to Trump voters willing to entrap Mexican immigrants in port-a-potties and forcibly ship them across the border. While one should be careful not to read too much into man-on-the-street shenanigans, there is no question that the mood on our political margins is dark.

The political theorist Matthew Flinders once wrote that “too many disaffected democrats take what politics delivers for granted.” Let us hope that democracy’s supporters are numerous enough to defeat both Trump and Trumpism – and to address the many shortcomings of American democracy that threaten its survival.

David M. Faris is a professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. He is also the director of Roosevelt’s interdisciplinary International Studies Program. His book Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) focuses on the use of digital media by Egyptian opposition movements.

contributors <![CDATA[The Short-Lived Russia-Iran Axis]]> 2016-08-23T03:55:05Z 2016-08-23T04:21:36Z By Michael G. Roskin | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russian use of an Iranian airbase led some to see a Russia-Iran axis. They jumped the gun and surmised too much. In less than a week, Tehran, perhaps remembering that the constitution of the Islamic Republic prohibits foreign bases on Iranian soil, pulled Iranian permission.

Russians proudly publicized their arrival at a northwest Iranian airbase; it showed they were a major Mideast player. Iran was humiliated by this publicity because it suggested they were under Russia’s thumb. Russian bombers could save about 1,000 air miles to deliver heavier bomb loads than flying from Russia. They had to transit Iraqi airspace, which Baghdad allowed because its Shia regime takes instructions from Tehran, not from the U.S.
History and geography suggest that Iranians’ long-term resentments will override formation of any alliance, especially one with Russia.

Much of the Caucasus and Central Asia was under Persian suzerainty until Russian conquest in the nineteenth century. The Tobacco Rebellion of 1891-92 ended Britain’s tobacco monopoly in Iran. In 1901, Britons bought rights to oil that turned into the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and eventually British Petroleum. Iranians always felt they were robbed.

In 1911, Russia and Britain recognized each other’s spheres of interest in a weakened Persia, the Russians in the north and the British in the south. During World War I, each occupied their zones lest Persia align with Germany (as Turkey had). The Russians trained a Persian Cossack brigade; in 1921 its chief, Reza Khan, seized power and in 1925 proclaimed himself shah of the new Pahlavi dynasty. In 1935, he made Iran the country’s name, evoking the ancient Aryans, Hitler’s favorite people.

World War II repeated the World War I takeover. The shah warmed to Nazi Germany until the Soviets and British occupied Iran in 1941 and exiled him to South Africa, where he died. The U.S. made Iran a major supply corridor into the Soviet Union, which set up two puppet republics in northern Iran. Under pressure, in 1946 the Soviets left, and the U.S. became Iran’s protective power. Some peg this as the first crisis of the Cold War.
Iranians still hated the British oil concession and cheered as populist Premier Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized it in 1951. The young shah fled to Italy, and London screamed “communism.” The CIA underwrote the 1953 coup that ousted Mosaddegh and brought back the shah, who, years later, nationalized Iran’s oil anyway.

The Point: Iran, with two centuries of rage against foreign domination, will use whatever third power comes along to gain some freedom of action. Fight Russian and British domination by turning to Germany. Fight Soviet domination by turning to America. Now fight America by turning to Putin. No Iranian alignment with a major power is permanent. Iran dodges and weaves to keep its independence.

It looks like some Iranian generals—now rebuked—supposed the Russian airbase would strengthen Iran’s Shia corridor through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon and could protect Iran against a Saudi showdown (which the Saudis also want to avoid). But the relationship with Russia is limited because Tehran will not be subservient to Moscow.

And what did Putin think he would get out of it? He has already aligned with Iranian/Hezbullah forces in Syria and got Tehran’s permission to fly cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea through Iranian airspace on the way to Syria (an expensive vehicle to deliver ordnance). He thought he was deepening that relationship but picked up some liabilities.

Russia has muscled back into the Middle East but strictly on the Shia side in a world where 85 percent of Muslims—-including those of Russia’s restive North Caucasus—are Sunni. Some ISIS fighters from the North Caucasus are called “al-Shishani” (the Chechen). Fundamentalist Sunnis make rule by Shia one of the pretexts for their militancy in Iraq and Syria.

Last week’s heartbreaking photo of a bloodied Syrian 5-year-old went viral. Rescuers in Aleppo said it was from a Russian airstrike, but Moscow denies it. We don’t know for sure but should not give the Russians the benefit of the doubt. It’s now their war, and they should bear the blame for the dead and dazed children. Putin’s war on behalf of Assad may last for years and, even if victorious, would leave Syria a smoldering conquered province.

A temporary Russian airbase does not indicate an extensive, formal alliance with Iran, but much depends on how the US handles the situation. The US must avoid provocative actions that will push the two closer together. Potentially, a China-Russia-Iran bloc could form at some point, but let’s be frank: It would likely not long endure; their interests would quickly diverge.

Michael G. Roskin has been a Professor of Political Science at Lycoming College since 1972 and has authored five political science textbooks. Professor Roskin earlier worked as a newsman and foreign service officer for the U.S. Information Agency before earning a Ph.D. in international studies at American University.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CCTV: “Iran revokes Russia’s use of air base”

Juan Cole <![CDATA[Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising]]> 2016-08-24T23:04:09Z 2016-08-23T04:17:58Z Notice: Gilbert Achcar, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising

In this eagerly awaited book, foremost Arab world and international affairs specialist Gilbert Achcar analyzes the factors of the regional relapse. Focusing on Syria and Egypt, Achcar assesses the present stage of the uprising and the main obstacles, both regional and international, that prevent any resolution. In Syria, the regime’s brutality has fostered the rise of jihadist forces, among which the so-called Islamic State emerged as the most ruthless and powerful.


In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power was ultimately terminated by the contradictory conjunction of a second revolutionary wave and a bloody reactionary coup. Events in Syria and Egypt offer salient examples of a pattern of events happening across the Middle East.

Morbid Symptoms offers a timely analysis of the ongoing Arab uprising that will engage experts and general readers alike. Drawing on a unique combination of scholarly and political knowledge of the Arab region, Achcar argues that, short of radical social change, the region will not achieve stability any time soon.

About the author

Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon. He is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His publications include The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (2002), published in 15 languages; Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy (2008), with Noam Chomsky; the critically acclaimed The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab–Israeli War of Narratives (2010); and The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013).

Via Stanford University Press

Juan Cole <![CDATA[Is Turkey’s Pivot to Russia about Erdogan’s Survival?]]> 2016-08-23T01:16:03Z 2016-08-23T04:05:47Z By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Turkey’s prime minister, Yildirim Binali, has announced a significant about-face in Turkey’s Syria policy. Murat Yetkin writes:

“The most important priority for us is to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible,” Yıldırım said at a press conference in Istanbul on Aug. 20, later adding that the rest amounted to irrelevant “details.” He also said that the U.S. and Russia agree that al-Assad cannot hold Syria together in the long run but he could be considered for the transition. Upon a question, Yıldırım said Turkey’s deal with Russia to normalize relations had an “important share” in this policy shift.”

The attempted coup of July 15, 2016 in Turkey shook that country’s political system to the core. Although President Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) had broken in 2013 with his former allies, the right wing religious cult around Fethullah Gulen, he appears to have believed that he had tamed it. He survived the members’ leak of recorded conversations pointing to AKP corruption and support of fundamentalist militias in Syria. His party went on winning elections without the Gulenists, who were revealed to have less popular support than they had imagined.

So the coup attempt appears to have taken Erdogan by surprise. One important but neglected report suggests that it was the Russians who informed him of the chatter their cyber-spies had picked up from Turkish officers, a few hours before the coup was launched. Russia intensified its cyber surveillance of the Turkish military after it shot down a Russian fight-jet in November of 2015.

Several members of Erdogan’s circle, including cabinet ministers, have blamed the United States for the coup, since Gulen lives in the US. Personally, I find the idea that President Obama plotted a coup against the Turkish government implausible (Joe Biden frankly calls the notion “bonkers.”) But that I find it implausible does not stop the AKP elite from believing in it. (I’m also not sure that Gulenist sleeper cells in the officer corps were the only or main element in the plot).

It has to be admitted that elements of the US foreign policy elite find Erdogan extremely inconvenient. He did not step up to combat Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), which contributed to its ability to hit Paris, Brussels and Baghdad. He has bombed the YPG Kurds in Syria, which have been the only reliable and effective allies of the US against Daesh. And he has tangled with the Israelis over Gaza, and tangling with the Israelis is not allowed according to the Washington consensus. But it should be remembered that many NATO allies have been inconvenient for Washington at one point or another over the decades (Charles De Gaulle used to give them conniption fits) and it hasn’t been US policy to overthrow those allies in coups. (The US did stage coups, but I doubt any among NATO allies).

But let’s just imagine that Erdogan does think that the US was either behind the coup or at least was willing to wink at it (Washington didn’t at the time seem all broken up at the idea), whereas Putin actively intervened to warn him about the plotters’ chatter. Remember that the coup-makers were trying to kill Erdogan, and they could easily have succeeded. This coup was personal. Erdogan would be grateful to Putin, would have gained a degree of trust in his intentions, and inclined to show some gratitude. Erdogan seems to think he can go on winning elections the rest of his life (he is 63) and will have an opportunity to transform Turkey into a presidential system. Those ambitions were almost cut short by mutinying soldiers of his own military.

Erdogan is embarked upon a massive purge of oppositionists (they cannot all be Gulenists), with tens of thousands of people detained or charged, including journalists, academics, minor bureaucrats, and even soccer players and others Obviously not involved in the coup.

NATO countries are democracies and generally object to mass round-ups with no habeas corpus more redolent of Zimbabwe than Western Europe, and their criticism has stung and inconvenienced Erdogan in his apparent march to a presidency for life unencumbered by a rule of law or grassroots democratic processes. (Admittedly, his enemies, whether the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] or the Gulenists, have far less respect for both).

Then there is the problem for the AKP government that the US Department of Defense is actively allied with the YPG Kurds of northern Syria and is de facto helping them establish their Rojava, or an ethnic Kurdish mini-state on the Turkish border, in return for YPG help in rolling up Daesh. This policy seems in part to be Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s revenge on Erdogan for refusing to destroy Daesh.

But from Ankara’s point of view, the YPG is a terrorist group. It would be as though a foreign country helped an anti-American Mexican cartel take over Tijuana, posing a perceived threat to San Diego. (I don’t myself see any sign that the YPG has ambitions outside Syria or that it has a command structure in common with the brutal PKK group from which it is descended, but we’re talking about how Ankara sees thing).

So Erdogan is pretty done out with Washington. But despite his enormous ambition, he cannot make Turkey, a middle income country of 75 million, into a global power by wishing it so, and needs other countries for trade, technology and military help.

On top of Putin’s assistance, then you have the series of Daesh bombings in Ankara, Istanbul and elsewhere, which should have made anyone begin to rethink whether backing or winking at the radical Muslim militias in Syria is really a wise idea, and whether having them come to power in Damascus would really benefit Turkey.

Russia sees Daesh in al-Raqqa, Syria, as an extension of radical Muslim rebelliousness that has affected Chechnya and the Caucasus. Google maps says you could drive from Aleppo through Turkey to Grozny in Chechnya in less than 24 hours. And, there are Russian Chechen nationals forming regiments in al-Raqqa. For Daesh to take over Syria (or for the Army of Conquest to do so) would create a radical Chechen base from which Russia could be attacked.

Another thing. Erdogan’s arrogance toward Russia in the wake of the plane shoot-down last fall was ill-advised. Putin’s consequent economic sanctions deeply harmed Turkish exporters of fruits and vegetables and entrepreneurs connected to the tourism industry (Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast, had become virtually a Russian city in the summer, but abruptly was turned into a ghost town). Middle class businessmen are one of the AKP’s primary constituencies, and part of the rationale of the party is to enhance their profit opportunities, not drive them into bankruptcy.

So Erdogan’s break with the more ideological former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his replacement with the pragmatist Yildirim Binali on 24 May was perhaps already a sign that a more pragmatic Syria policy was in the offing. But after the coup, there was every reason to make a new opening to Russia. And you couldn’t do that without adjusting Syria policy.

The Turkish government has thus adopted the position that US Secretary of State John Kerry was forced into last February, in the lead-up to the now-lapsed cessation of hostilities. That is, that he dropped the demand for an immediate resignation of Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria in preparation for new elections. Apparently at some points Russia had been willing to consider forcing al-Assad out, but Iran, Russia’s strategic partner in Syria, refused to budge on this issue.

The compromise for those who insist on a change of personnel at the top is to say, ‘no al-Assad’ in the long run, but he can stay during this interim or transition period (the US does not want the Syrian government to collapse, given what happened in Iraq and Libya after such a collapse)

And that is what Prime Minister Binali now says is Turkish policy as well.

There are other impetuses for the Turkish pivot to Russia. Yeni Safak reported on 19 August that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tod Sputnik, “Without Russia’s contribution, there cannot be a permanent solution in Syria. We keep saying this. The same goes for Iran, too, with which we also have to boost our relations in this regard.”

It continued that “Cavusoglu said Moscow could not find a ‘more loyal’ friend than Turkey.”

He admitted that Russia and Turkey have differences of opinion (like, who should win the war in Syria!) but that nevertheless Turkey wanted to increase relations with Russia “to a level that is even better than before.”

Cavusoglu also underlined that Turkey is going to Russia to build up its military capabilities beyond what NATO is willing to help with. NATO has been worried about what it sees as Erdogan’s steady move to authoritarianism, which has cooled technology interchange. Cavusoglu admitted this drawback: “Unfortunately, we see countries in NATO are a bit hesitant when it comes to exchange of technology and joint investments.”

I think all this pivot to Russia business can easily be exaggerated. Turkey has been in NATO a long time and the Turkish officer corps has deep ties with Brussels and Washington. Some of what is going on may be Erdogan flirting with Putin to signal to Washington, Berlin, Paris and London to leave him alone about the mass arrests Or Else. And, ultimately, Moscow and Ankara do not at all see the future of Syria the same way. There will be continued frictions. But it is also undeniable that Turkey’s foreign policy in the wake of the coup is accelerating its pragmatist direction. Better relations with the Russian Federation is part of that process.

Related video:

RT: “Ankara considers military ties with Russia as NATO shies away – Turkish FM ”