Climate Change “Tipping Points” and the Fate of the Earth

By Michael T. Klare |

Not so long ago, it was science fiction. Now, it’s hard science — and that should frighten us all. The latest reports from the prestigious and sober Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) make increasingly hair-raising reading, suggesting that the planet is approaching possible moments of irreversible damage in a fashion and at a speed that had not been anticipated.


Scientists have long worried that climate change will not continue to advance in a “linear” fashion, with the planet getting a little bit hotter most years. Instead, they fear, humanity could someday experience “non-linear” climate shifts (also known as “singularities” or “tipping points”) after which there would be sudden and irreversible change of a catastrophic nature. This was the premise of the 2004 climate-disaster film The Day After Tomorrow. In that movie — most notable for its vivid scenes of a frozen-over New York City — melting polar ice causes a disruption in the North Atlantic Current, which in turn triggers a series of catastrophic storms and disasters. At the time of its release, many knowledgeable scientists derided the film’s premise, insisting that the confluence of events it portrayed was unlikely or simply impossible.

Fast forward 11 years and the prospect of such calamitous tipping points in the North Atlantic or elsewhere no longer looks improbable. In fact, climate scientists have begun to note early indicators of possible catastrophes.

Take the disruption of the North Atlantic Current, the pivotal event in The Day After Tomorrow. Essentially an extension of the Gulf Stream, that deep-sea current carries relatively warm salty water from the South Atlantic and the Caribbean to the northern reaches of the Atlantic. In the process, it helps keep Europe warmer than it would otherwise be. Once its salty water flows into sub-Arctic areas carried by this prolific stream, it gets colder and heavier, sinks to lower depths, and starts a return trip to warmer climes in the south where the whole process begins again.

So long as this “global conveyor belt” — known to scientists as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC — keeps functioning, the Gulf Stream will also continue to bring warmer waters to the eastern United States and Europe. Should it be disrupted, however, the whole system might break down, in which case the Euro-Atlantic climate could turn colder and more storm-prone. Such a disruption might occur if the vast Greenland ice sheet melts in a significant way, as indeed is already beginning to happen today, pouring large quantities of salt-free fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean. Because of its lighter weight, this newly introduced water will remain close to the surface, preventing the submergence of salty water from the south and so effectively shutting down the conveyor belt. Indeed, exactly this process now seems to be underway.

By all accounts, 2015 is likely to wind up as the hottest year on record, with large parts of the world suffering from severe heat waves and wildfires. Despite all this, however, a stretch of the North Atlantic below Iceland and Greenland is experiencing all-time cold temperatures, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. What explains this anomaly? According to scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Pennsylvania State University, among other institutions, the most likely explanation is the arrival in the area of cold water from the Greenland ice sheet that is melting ever more rapidly thanks to climate change. Because this meltwater starts out salt-free, it has remained near the surface and so, as predicted, is slowing the northern advance of warmer water from the North Atlantic Current.

So far, the AMOC has not suffered a dramatic shutdown, but it is slowing, and scientists worry that a rapid increase in Greenland ice melt as the Arctic continues to warm will pour ever more meltwater into the North Atlantic, severely disrupting the conveyor system. That would, indeed, constitute a major tipping point, with severe consequences for Europe and eastern North America. Not only would Europe experience colder temperatures on an otherwise warmer planet, but coastal North America could witness higher sea levels than those predicted from climate change alone because the Gulf Stream tends to pull sea water away from the eastern U.S. and push it toward Europe. If it were to fail, rising sea levels could endanger cities like New York and Boston. Indeed, scientists discovered that just such a slowing of the AMOC helped produce a sea-level rise of four inches from New York to Newfoundland in 2009 and 2010.

In its 2014 report on the status of global warming, the IPCC indicated that the likelihood of the AMOC collapsing before the end of this century remains relatively low. But some studies suggest that the conveyor system is already 15%-20% below normal with Greenland’s melting still in an early stage. Once that process switches into high gear, the potential for the sort of breakdown that was once science fiction starts to look all too real.

Tipping Points on the Horizon

In a 2014 report, “Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,” Working Group II of the IPCC identified three other natural systems already showing early-warning signs of catastrophic tipping points: the Arctic, coral reefs, and the Amazonian forest. All three, the report suggested, could experience massive and irreversible changes with profound implications for human societies.

The Arctic comes in for particular scrutiny because it has experienced more warming than any other region on the planet and because the impact of climate change there is already so obvious. As the report put it, “For the Arctic region, new evidence indicates a biophysical regime shift is taking place, with cascading impacts on physical systems, ecosystems, and human livelihoods.”

This has begun with a massive melt of sea ice in the region and a resulting threat to native marine species. “For Arctic marine biota,” the report notes, “the rapid reduction of summer ice covers causes a tipping element that is now severely affecting pelagic [sub-surface] ecosystems as well as ice-dependent mammals such as seals and polar bears.” Other flora and fauna of the Arctic biome are also demonstrating stress related to climate change. For example, vast areas of tundra are being invaded by shrubs and small trees, decimating the habitats of some animal species and increasing the risk of fires.

This Arctic “regime shift” affects many other aspects of the ecosystem as well. Higher temperatures, for instance, have meant widespread thawing and melting of permafrost, the frozen soil and water that undergirds much of the Arctic landmass. In this lies another possible tipping-point danger, since frozen soils contain more than twice the carbon now present in the atmosphere. As the permafrost melts, some of this carbon is released in the form of methane, a potent greenhouse gas with many times the warming potential of carbon dioxide and other such gases. In other words, as the IPCC noted, any significant melting of Arctic permafrost will “create a potentially strong positive feedback to accelerate Arctic (and global) warming.” This, in fact, could prove to be more than a tipping point. It could be a planetary catastrophe.

Along with these biophysical effects, the warming of the Arctic is threatening the livelihoods and lifestyles of the indigenous peoples of the region. The loss of summer sea ice, for example, has endangered the marine species on which many such communities depend for food and the preservation of their cultural traditions. Meanwhile, melting permafrost and coastal erosion due to sea-level rise have threatened the very existence of their coastal villages. In September, President Obama visited Kotzebue, a village in Alaska some 30 miles above the Arctic Circle that could disappear as a result of melting permafrost, rising sea levels, and ever bigger storm surges.

Coral Reefs at Risk

Another crucial ecosystem that’s showing signs of heading toward an irreversible tipping point is the world’s constellation of coral reefs. Remarkably enough, although such reefs make up less than 1% of the Earth’s surface area, they house up to 25% of all marine life. They are, that is, essential for both the health of the oceans and of fishing communities, as well as of those who depend on fish for a significant part of their diet. According to one estimate, some 850 million people rely on coral reefs for their food security.

Corals, which are colonies of tiny animals related to sea anemones, have proven highly sensitive to changes in the acidity and temperature of their surrounding waters, both of which are rising due to the absorption of excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As a result, in a visually dramatic process called “bleaching,” coral populations have been dying out globally. According to a recent study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, coral reef extent has declined by 50% in the last 30 years and all reefs could disappear as early as 2050 if current rates of ocean warming and acidification continue.

“This irreversible loss of biodiversity,” reports the IPCC, will have “significant consequences for regional marine ecosystems as well as the human livelihoods that depend on them.” Indeed, the growing evidence of such losses “strengthens the conclusion that increased mass bleaching of corals constitutes a strong warning signal for the singular event that would constitute the irreversible loss of an entire biome.”

Amazonian Dry-Out

The Amazon has long been viewed as the epitome of a tropical rainforest, with extraordinary plant and animal diversity. The Amazonian tree cover also plays a vital role in reducing the pace of global warming by absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis. For years, however, the Amazon has been increasingly devastated by a process of deforestation, as settlers from Brazil’s coastal regions clear land for farming and ranching, and loggers (many operating illegally) harvest timber for wood products. Now, as if to add insult to injury, the region faces a new threat from climate change: tree mortality due to a rise in severe drought and the increased forest fire risk that accompanies it.

Although it can rain year-round in the Amazon region, there is a distinct wet season with heavy rainfall and a dry season with much less of it. An extended dry season with little rain can endanger the survival of many trees and increase the risk of wildfires. Research conducted by scientists at the University of Texas has found that the dry season in the southern Amazonian region has grown by a week every decade since 1980 while the annual fire season has lengthened. “The dry season over the southern Amazon is already marginal for maintaining rainforest,” says Rong Fu, the leader of the research team. “At some point, if it becomes too long, the rainforest will reach a tipping point” and disappear.

Because the Amazon harbors perhaps the largest array of distinctive flora and fauna on the planet, its loss would represent an irreversible blow to global biodiversity. In addition, the region hosts some of the largest assemblages of indigenous peoples still practicing their traditional ways of life. Even if their lives were saved (through relocation to urban slums or government encampments), the loss of their cultures, representing thousands of years of adaptation to a demanding environment, would be a blow for all humankind.

As in the case of the Arctic and coral reefs, the collapse of the Amazon will have what the IPCC terms “cascading impacts,” devastating ecosystems, diminishing biodiversity, and destroying the ways of life of indigenous peoples. Worse yet, as with the melting of the Arctic, so the drying-out of Amazonia is likely to feed into climate change, heightening its intensity and so sparking yet more tipping points on a planet increasingly close to the brink.

In its report, the IPCC, whose analysis tends, if anything, to be on the conservative side of climate science, indicated that the Amazon faced a relatively low risk of dying out by 2100. However, a 2009 study conducted by Britain’s famed Meteorological (Met) Office suggests that the risk is far greater than previously assumed. Even if global temperatures were to be held to an increase of 2 degrees Celsius, the study notes, as much as 40% of the Amazon would perish within a century; with 3 degrees of warming, up to 75% would vanish; and with 4 degrees, 85% would die. “The forest as we know it would effectively be gone,” said Met researcher Vicky Pope.

Of Tipping Points and Singularities

These four natural systems are by no means the only ones that could face devastating tipping points in the years to come. The IPCC report and other scientific studies hint at further biomes that show early signs of potential catastrophe. But these four are sufficiently advanced to tell us that we need to look at climate change in a new way: not as a slow, linear process to which we can adapt over time, but as a non-linear set of events involving dramatic and irreversible changes to the global ecosphere.

The difference is critical: linear change gives us the luxury of time to devise and implement curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, and to construct protective measures such as sea walls. Non-linear change puts a crimp on time and confronts us with the possibility of relatively sudden, devastating climate shifts against which no defensive measures can protect us.

Were the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation to fail, for example, there would be nothing we could do to turn it back on, nor would we be able to recreate coral reefs or resurrect the Amazon. Add in one other factor: when natural systems of this magnitude fail, should we not expect human systems to fail as well? No one can answer this question with certainty, but we do know that earlier human societies collapsed when faced with other kinds of profound changes in climate.

All of this should be on the minds of delegates to the upcoming climate summit in Paris, a meeting focused on adopting an international set of restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. Each participating nation is obliged to submit a set of measures it is ready to take, known as “intended nationally determined contributions,” or INDCs, aimed at achieving the overall goal of preventing planetary warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. However, the INDCs submitted to date, including those from the United States and China, suggest a distinctly incremental approach to the problem. Unfortunately, if planetary tipping points are in our future, this mindset will not measure up. It’s time to start thinking instead in terms of civilizational survival.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Michael T. Klare


In final Failure for Bush/Cheney, many in Iraq seek Russian Alliance

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Iraqi government in Baghdad, threatened by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and frustrated by the Obama administration’s foot-dragging in taking it on, seems increasingly tempted by a Russia alliance.

Leaders of the Iraqi Shiite militias visited Moscow this week to seek Russian airstrikes against Daesh, according to the Egyptian newspaper Mada. Faleh al-Fayyadh, head of the Popular Mobilization Units or Shiite militias and Iraq’s national security adviser are said to have been among the delegation.

The US has been appalled by the notion that the Sunni cities of Iraq now under Daesh rule should be conquered, like Tikrit, mainly by hard line Shiite militias. The US has argued to PM Haydar al-Abadi that he should put off further big offensives until a much bigger Sunni contingent of troops can be recruited, who could take the lead in the fighting and so avoid inflaming sectarian tensions. But these Sunni troops have not actually materialized, and Daesh in Ramadi threatens Shiite cities such as Karbala, and some Iraqi Shiites are tired of waiting on the US.

Also this week the head of the Iraqi parliament’s Defense and Security Committee, Hakim al-Zimili said, “I think the upcoming few days or weeks Iraq will be forced to ask Russia to launch air strikes and that depends on their success in Syria. . . we are seeking to see Russia have a bigger role in Iraq . . . definitely a bigger role than the Americans [have now].” Al-Zimili had been a member of the Sadr Bloc, and was deputy head of the Health Ministry in 2006-2007, when it was accused of tracking Sunni insurgents who went to hospital and kidnapping them.

Saad Hadisi, a spokesman for the government in Baghdad of Haydar al-Abadi, said, “We need to develop cooperation with these countries [Russia, Iran, Syria] for the defense of Iraq and to protect our people.”

But Sunni parliamentarians are objecting to any Iraqi alliance with these three countries. Unfortunately for them, they can be voted down by the Shiite majority.

The socialist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan would be happy, spokesman Saadi Ahmad Pira, about a Russian air campaign against Daesh. The minions of the phoney caliphate are not far from PUK base Sulaymaniya. The Massoud Barzani-led Kurdistan Regional Government, on the other hand, worries about Great Power rivalries in Iraq and seems more cautious about a Russian intervention.


Related video:

Arirang News: “Iraq may soon request Russian airstrikes against Islamic State on its soil”

What is Russia’s Strategy in Syria & Why does Egypt Approve?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russian MiGs for the first time on Wednesday gave close air support to the Syrian Arab Army as it attacked rebels north of Homs. The Russians also continued their airstrikes against rebel-held Idlib Province. And, the Russians for the first time launched cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea on rebel targets. Over the past week and a half, Russian strategy is becoming apparent.

h/t Casteneda Collection U of Texas

The US State Department says it is bewildered by Egypt’s support for the Russian airstrikes on rebels in Syria. But virtually all the rebel groups who amount to anything militarily in Syria are hard line fundamentalists, and Egypt’s generals made a coup against Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. So the officers are not sympathetic to Syrian Muslim Brethren who have become more radical and are trying to overthrow a government. Since Saudi Arabia and its allies on the Gulf Cooperation Council bankroll the regime in Egypt and since they fund the Salafi hardliners in Syria, there may be some friction between Cairo and Riyadh over this difference. But the Saudis also did want the officers to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis see as a populist loose cannon, so the situation is very complex. Probably the Saudis don’t mind if the Russians bomb the Muslim Brotherhood groups, but do mind if they bomb the Salafis, who model themselves on Saudi Wahhabism and are loyal to the monarchy.

The Russian intervention was not provoked by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) but by the al-Qaeda-led coalition ‘the Army of Conquest’. It groups The Support Front or al-Qaeda in Syria– which reports to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the mastermind of 9/11 — with other hard line Salafi fundamentalist groups such as the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham). The latter rejects democracy and is willing to turn over religious minorities like the Druze to al-Qaeda, with predictable results.

Al-Qaeda and its allies took the northern province of Idlib away from more moderate rebels last November, and then this spring took the key cities of Idlib (the provincial capital) and Jisr al-Shughour, the town that serves as a gateway to Latakia to the West.

Latakia is Syria’s major port and is sort of like its mouth. The digestive track goes down to Hama, then Homs, then Damascus. If al-Qaeda and its allies can effectively move west to Latakia port, they can massacre the Alawites supporting the al-Assad regime, who predominate in that province, and then cut the capital of Damascus in the south off from resupply by port. Likely then the regime will fall. Jisr al-Shughour was taken by al-Qaeda and other groups, including a Chechen unit of hard line fundamentalists, which would have alarmed the Russians. Vladimir Putin made his bones by crushing the second Chechen uprising, which was led by fundamentalists seeking an emirate. He wouldn’t want another such emirate with Chechen high officials to grow up so close to Russia as Latakia.

So Russia has as its objective to keep Hama from falling to the rebels, which would begin the process of cutting off the southern capital of Damascus from northern supply lines. Hence Russia is bombing rebel positions north of Hama. Moreover, if the Syrian Arab Army could defeat the militants north of Hama, it could take Khan Shaykhoun, and then move on southern Idlib.

Al-Qaeda has fighters north of Hama but so do smaller, less radical guerrilla groups (though some of these have fought alongside al-Qaeda sometimes). Moscow does not care so much whether it is bombing al-Qaeda or Salafi Jihadis allied with al-Qaeda, or even what Washington is now calling “moderates,” though I doubt many genuine moderates are still in the field. Russia wants to break the northern siege of Hama by these fundamentalist rebels and by al-Qaeda and its allies, and then break out north toward Idlib. Hence it gave air support to the SAA in its offensive, though early reports are that this offensive failed to make much headway.

Likewise, Russia wants to forestall any al-Qaeda advance on the Alawites of Latakia from the east, so it is bombing Army of Conquest units and arms depots in Idlib. If Moscow can go beyond that goal and roll the group and its allies back from Idlib, from Putin’s point of view that would be all to the good.

US spokesmen and politicians who complain that Russia isn’t hitting Daesh/ ISIL don’t get it. Either they don’t understand that with al-Qaeda in Idlib, Latakia could fall. Or they are just lying. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Wednesday that 90% of Russian strikes were not on ISIL or al-Qaeda. I do not believe this is true, since Russia is clearly bombing a lot of Support Front and Army of Conquest positions. But anyway I think if we formulated the question differently, of how many strikes were on al-Qaeda and its allies, we’d find that the majority were.

I should explain that with Syria, I”m just trying to analyze. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I despise the al-Assad regime, which is genocidal and has engaged in mass torture. But I absolutely refuse to support any group allied with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda or which envisions Syria as a hardline Salafi emirate where Christians, Alawites, Druze and Kurds (altogether maybe 40% of the population) as well as secular Sunni Arabs (another 45%) are second class citizens ruled by a self-appointed morals police with machine guns.

I have a sinking suspicion that my position on al-Qaeda as a red line is not shared by some high US officials. If I am right about this, they should be ashamed of themselves and go back and read about the origins of al-Qaeda in 1980s Afghanistan. US-supported jihads have a way of biting us on the ass.

Good and bad in today’s Syria is also contextual. Having the Baath Party or its goons, the Shabiha, rule religious Sunnis is bound to cause inequities. But for the fundamentalists to conquer Alawite Latakia or the Druze regions would result in an enormous tragedy.

Ultimately Syria can only be healed by democracy and the separation of religion and state. Neither the regime nor the rebels get this, and there is no guarantee they ever will.


Related video:

Euronews: “Huge explosions as Russia allegedly strikes Hama region, Syria”

If Russia is Region’s new Gun for Hire, Afghanistan Warlord wants to Bring it In

By Frud Bezhan | (RFE/ RL) | – –

With the Taliban threatening to overrun large parts of Afghanistan, First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is seeking help from an old ally — Russia.

h/t Wikipedia

A graduate of the Soviet Military Academy and a general in the Soviet-backed Afghan army, Dostum is hoping his old links to Moscow will help him secure crucial military support for Afghanistan’s besieged security forces.

A trip to Russia took him to Moscow and Chechnya, where he met with Ramzan Kadyrov on the Kremlin-backed regional strongman’s birthday on October 5.

Dostum, who led an ethnic Uzbek militia during the civil war of the 1990s, landed in Moscow last week. He has held talks with top Russian security officials, pleading for heavy weapons and helicopter gunships for the 350,000-strong Afghan National Security Forces.

“The Russian side is committed to support and help Afghanistan in terms of helping its air and military forces,” Dostum’s spokesman, Sultan Faizy, told RFE/RL by telephone. “We’re lacking air support, weapons, ammunition. We need a lot of backing and support to fight against terrorism.”

But Faizy said that would not mean direct military intervention by Russia, which is still mindful of the 1979-89 war that killed some 15,000 Soviet soldiers and has repeatedly said it would not send troops to Afghanistan.

Faizy said that Moscow had promised to evaluate the situation in Afghanistan and “see what they can help with.”

Russia has also pledged to pressure the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, three of which border Afghanistan, to boost support for the country, Faizy said.

Looking For Help

Faizy said Russian officials told Dostum they were concerned about Islamic State (IS) militants gaining ground in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s brief capture last week of the northern city of Kunduz, the first time the militants have overrun a major urban center since being ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The Taliban’s capture of Kunduz was a major embarrassment to the U.S.-funded Afghan security forces, fueling questions over whether they can fend off militants without NATO troops, most of which pulled out of the country last year.

Dostum has urged the Central Asian countries — where he has visited regularly — to provide weapons and other military support.

Last year, Dostum made unofficial visits to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in order to negotiate potential deals for such assistance. But he came back empty-handed.

Dostum is now hoping his former connections with Moscow will translate into direct support.

The former strongman studied in the Soviet Military Academy in Moscow in the 1980s and then served as a general in the Afghan army, commanding his own militia battalion that fought against the mujahedin guerrillas. Dostum’s militias received extensive funding and weapons from Moscow.

After Moscow cut off aid to the communist regime in 1992, Dostum switched sides and joined the rebels until the Taliban seized Kabul. He would spend the intervening years in exile in Turkey and the Central Asian states before he returned to Kabul permanently in 2009.

Welcome In Grozny

While in Russia, Dostum paid a visit to the North Caucasus region of Chechnya — and posted a photo with his “friend” Kadyrov on Facebook on October 5. Kadyrov posted the same snapshot on Instagram.

Dostum said the two discussed “the fight against terrorism, especially against Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, which is also known as ISIS.

“Dostum noted that ISIS is trying to make Afghanistan into a bridgehead,” Kadyrov wrote on Instagram on October 5. “In order to prevent this threat, Kabul needs Russia’s support, as in Syria.”

Kadyrov added that he was confident that Moscow would make a “positive decision in response to this request.”

Local Chechen media quoted Dostum as praising Kadyrov’s own experience in battling terrorism. “Both Ramzan Kadyrov and I have been waging the struggle with international terrorism,” Dostum was quoted as saying by

“In this field we can make a substantive coalition. We can learn from each other. We don’t have concrete projects of cooperation yet, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any in the future.”

Rights activists accuse Kadyrov of condoning abuses, ignoring Russia’s constitution, and creating a climate of fear to suppress an Islamist insurgency and separatism in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars that revived memories of the Afghan conflict.
Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to


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

As Russia Strikes, Arab Twitter Wars over call for Jihad against “occupation” of Syria

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russian plans hit 20 targets in Syria on Tuesday according to the Ministry of Defense in Moscow. Among them were a training camp for terrorists in the countryside around the city of Idlib, and another facility in the outskirts of the port city of Latakia. The Russians were calling these “ISIL” targets (Daesh in Arabic), but seem to be confused about the meaning of this term. Daesh isn’t present in Idlib or Latakia. Idlib is now controlled by a coalition, the Army of Conquest, led by al-Qaeda in alliance with groups such as the Freemen of Syria.

Russian spokesmen seem to be confusing al-Qaeda and its hard line Salafi allies in places like Idlib with Daesh/ ISIL. Al-Qaeda is a much greater threat to Latakia and hence to the regime in the northwest of the country. If the port of Latakia fell to the al-Qaeda-led Army of Conquest, Damascus would be cut off from resupply by sea. It seems clear that the Russian intervention is in large part about defending Latakia for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Daesh is not important in that picture. Why exactly the Russian officials keep calling al-Qaeda or the Army of Conquest Daesh is not clear. Daesh or ISIL did begin as a faction within the Support Front or Syrian al-Qaeda, but its leaders were thrown out by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri (a mastermind of 9/11) because they kept attacking other radical fundamentalist groups instead of confining themselves to fighting the Syrian Arab Army.

The Russians say that they can see Daesh moving armored vehicles into populated areas or near mosques, knowing that Moscow won’t dare risk hitting religious edifices or residences. They allege that Daesh is blowing up mosques and blaming the damage on Russian airstrikes.

Also the Russians seriously need better English interpreters– some of the news conferences can barely be understood in translation.

Meanwhile, Khalid al-Shayeh in al-Arabi al-Jadid (The New Arab) writes that a Twitter war has broken out over the call by 52 clerics in the Gulf region for “a jihad in Syria to repulse the Russian and Iranian enemy from the country.”

The call generated half a million tweets in only 24 hours with hashtags like #bayan_52_`aliman_liljihad (but in Arabic characters).

Those criticizing the call characterized it as a repeat of the mistake made in Afghanistan 35 years ago, when Gulf countries backed the Afghan Mujahidin and sent volunteer Arab guerrillas to fight the Soviet occupation of that country. That intervention created al-Qaeda, endangered Gulf security, and threw Afghanistan into decades of turmoil from which it still has not emerged.

Some opponents said that the call played into the hands of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and that it constituted a form of incitement.

Others objected that no similar call was issued after major terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda or Daesh, such as the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Kuwait. That is, critics suggested that the document is soft on Sunni extremism and has a sectarian overtone. Dr. Turki al-Hamad, an academic, called it “a manifesto with ISIL tendencies, containing an instigation, which is sectarian in form and substance.”

Writer Ghassan Badkuk complained that the call lacked legitimacy, since only the ruler can call for jihad. “Are those he signed it,” he asked, “rulers?”

Anwar al-Rashid tweeted that he demanded of these missionaries of blood that their own children be the first to go fight this holy war.

Others accused the authors of wanting to turn Syria into another Afghanistan and of wanting to visit chaos on the whole Middle East.

The call’s defenders insisted that it doesn’t ask anyone to go fight in the jihad. This position seems hard to defend, however.

Meanwhile 40 Syrian rebel groups have denounced the “open occupation” of Syria by Russia and Iran. The document was not signed by Daesh or the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra– the al-Qaeda branch in Syria), the two that control the majority of rebel-held territory. But several of the 40 rebel groups have a tactical alliance with al-Qaeda.


Related video:

RT: “‘We don’t want Syria to be terrorist black hole, let us deal with ISIS’–Russia’s Foreign Ministry”

No, Donald Trump, Mideast wouldn’t be more Stable under Saddam & other Dictators

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump alleged this weekend that “of course” the Middle East would be more stable if dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still around or if Bashar al-Assad could be restored in Syria.

The mistake Mr. Trump is making is to think ahistorically, that is, to think as though societies do not change dramatically over time. The Neoconservatives thought they could install a king over Iraq in 2003. But Iraqi society had overthrown the kings in 1958, and there is no going back. History may not be dialectical in exactly the Hegelian sense, but any historical situation does produce other, different situations over time. Moreover, societies can change dramatically. History is not static. It is not like a slab of marble. Historical developments produce new and different historical situations over time, and new generations react to the previous ones by striking out in different direction, even at great risk.

How anyone in his right mind could think that Bashar al-Assad (r. 2000- present) brought stability to Syria just baffles me. He provoked the 2011 uprisings and he caused the civil war by deploying his military against the peaceful demonstrators. That’s stability? It is mostly his fault that over 200,000 Syrians are dead and 11 million out of 22 million are homeless. If you are president and your country is in this condition, you don’t get to say you brought stability. Nor is the problem outsiders. In 2011 there was almost no outside interference in Syria. Bashar drove the opposition to pick up arms. The largely rural and illiterate Syria of 1970 when Bashar’s father came to power is long gone. You can’t keep them on the farm once they have seen gay Paree.

Iraq was anything but stable under Saddam Hussein (r. 1979-2003). The country invaded two neighbors, Iran and Kuwait, in wars that killed perhaps a million Iraqis out of then 16 million! Thousands were bulldozed into mass graves for belonging to opposition parties. Does this sound stable to you? That the regime would have survived in the long term is highly unlikely. I did and do think the US invasion of Iraq a huge mistake (in early 2003 I compared the idea to that scene in Star Wars where they are in the trash compactor and it starts to move, and Harrison Ford says “I have a bad feeling about this.”) But that is because the war violated international law and brought absolute chaos to Iraq, not because the existing government was “stable” or good for the locals.

Gaddafi’s police state was unstable all along, but survived because of repression. By 2011 it was no longer surviving, because society had changed. In 1969 Libya was largely rural and illiterate. In 2011 it was largely urban and literate. In 1969 most people did not have telephones. In 2011 most people had cell phones. When Gaddafi cut off the internet, people just sent videos and messages by SMS on their phones. People were what Karl Deutsch called “socially mobilized” (urban, literate, connected by communications networks, etc.). Being socially mobilized is no guarantee of being politically mobilized. Lots of socially mobilized societies are politically quiescent. But in 2011 people in Libya became politically mobilized, and their high degree of social mobilization was a real asset in making the revolution. The UNO/ NATO intervention mainly leveled the playing field for the rebels by destroying regime arms depots out in the desert or targeting SCUD and tank convoys.

Libya under Gaddafi was not stable by 2011, and it was not the United Nations no-fly zone that made it unstable. It was unstable because Gaddafi’s secret police state had lost its authority for a majority of the population, which rose up against it. That is clear instability, and it was provoked by Gaddafi’s erratic and sclerotic dictatorship and by massive repression. I wandered the halls of the courthouse in Benghazi in May of 2011 and the walls were full of pitiful old black and white pictures of young men, including soldiers, whom Gaddafi had made to disappear, asking plaintively if anyone knew their fate (we know their fate).

But in the major city of Misrata, e.g., the local population defied the tank corps of Khamis Gaddafi for six months and never fell, even though parts of the city were reduced to rubble. Not a single NATO bombing raid was launched in Misrata against the Gaddafi tanks, apparently because the tanks were inside the city and NATO did not want to risk hitting a civilian apartment building. Those who are confident that the rebels would have been crushed without the intervention should look at the defense of Misrata, which was successful and local, though Gulf RPGs did come in. Without an intervention, likely Libya would have become Syria. In the past couple of years, about 3,000 people a year are dying in political violence, which is terrible. But during some years of the last decade 12,000 people a year were dying of political and drug gang violence in Mexico. And Libya hasn’t suffered anything like the death toll of Syria, even if we take into account the disparity in population size.

Had Gaddafi not been overthrown (and this was done by the people of Tripoli and Misrata and Zintan and Benghazi, not NATO), Libya would have become exactly like Syria, with 60,000 dead and 3 million homeless (the proporitional equivalents of the situation in Syria). The actual number of internally displaced people in Libya 2011-2015 is 400,000. That’s awful. It isn’t 50% the country, as it is in Syria, it is 6%. Removing the Gaddafi regime forestalled the displacement of the 50%, because it is the air force and tanks and heavy artillery that produce that kind of social apocalypse, and the militias in Syria, bad as they are, don’t have that kind of armament.

As of 2011, Gaddafi did not make Libya stable. He made it unstable. Because his rickety 1970s socialist police state could not survive in the modern world. It was modeled to some extent on Communist East Germany, which trained his domestic spies, and you will note that the DRG isn’t there any more, either.

Does Mr. Trump believe that Europe was more stable when Erich Honecker ruled significant swathes of Germany with an iron fist? Or when Tito headed Yugoslavia?

Inflexible dictatorships that cannot adapt to social change and the rise of new generations cause instability, Mr. Trump. They don’t forestall it. Or, they don’t forestall it for more than a generation.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Trump: Mideast Would Be More Stable With Saddam, Gadhafi

Facing ISIL Propaganda, Russia Denies its Syria Campaign is a “Holy War”

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Remember when George W. Bush lapsed and called his Iraq War a “crusade?” He had to back off that religious rhetoric really quickly because he needed Muslim allies.

Now the Russian Orthodox Church has made a similar error.

Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that his church supports Vladimir Putin’s aerial assaults on ISIL. He said, “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it. . . This decision corresponds with international law, the mentality of our people and the special role that our country has always played in the Middle East.”

The over-all leader of Russian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, echoed this sentiment:

“Russia has taken the responsible decision to use the armed forces for the protection of the Syrian people from the calamities wreaked by the tyranny of terrorists . . . We associate this decision with the approach of peace and fairness in this ancient land.”

Predictably, the Muslim fundamentalists on social media grabbed hold of these statements to depict the Syrian intervention as a holy war against Islam. The Saudi public was especially exercised.

The Russian Embassies replied to these stories, frantically circulating a fact sheet.

It denied that Russia is engaged in a holy war. “There are no religious factors,” it said, driving Syria’s participation in the war. Rather, it comes at the request of the Syrian government (i.e. the al-Assad regime). If the Russians were hoping they’d get points for the indigenous character of the invitation, they’ll be mistaken.

It also quoted Putin as praising the contributions of Russian Muslims but warning against extremism.

This episode shows how vulnerable Russia is to propaganda pushback in Syria. About 5% of Syrians, or one million people, are Christians, mostly Eastern Orthodox, i.e. they are technically coreligionists of the Russians. The Christian priests in Syria and Lebanon have often been quite vocal about their fear of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and their preference, if they had to choose, for Bashar al-Assad.

Russian church leaders just made the intervention sectarian, and gave a big helping hand to ISIL and al-Qaeda recruiting efforts..


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Russian air strike hits terrorist training camp in Syria, say defence officials”

Syria: Is there a Russian-Iranian Dispute over Fate of al-Assad?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Russia and Iran don’t see eye to eye about the future of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad after their military intervention in the civil war, according to correspondent Basil Muhammad of the Kuwaiti dailiy al-Siyasah (“Politics”).

Mr. Muhammad says he interviewed a member of the Iraqi parliament who declined to speak on the record. This individual maintained that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards want to turn the clock back to 2010 and entirely restore the power of Bashar al-Assad throughout Syria, ensuring that once Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) is defeated, it can’t have any resurgence. Unlike Russia, Iran is willing to send ground troops, according to this source.

The parliamentarian said that in contrast, Russia wants al-Assad to be moved out of the presidency to some ceremonial position.

He spoke of two other actors and their views– the Iraqi government of PM Haydar al-Abadi and the Shiite militias (the latter are said to have sent further forces to Syria).

The Iraqi government is said to prefer that al-Assad only remain if he can win a free election. This week PM Haydar al-Abadi said that Russia, Iran, Iraq and the Syrian regime were a Quadruple Alliance, and that the Russian air force is welcome to launch airstrikes on Daesh positions inside Iraq. The clerical leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ammar al-Hakim, gave an interview on Saturday giving his blessing to the Russian intervention and saying he has hopes it will produce peace and security in the end. The party’s paramilitary, the Badr Corps, is one of the Shiite militias fighting Daesh. Al-Hakim said Daesh was an international conspiracy (i.e. of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, though this allegation is a vast exaggeration).

Some of the Iraqi Shiite militias, in contrast, agree with the Iranian hardliners that al-Assad’s restoration is necessary to forestall any future resurgence of Daesh, according to the article in al-Siyasah. “Arabic Jerusalem” (al-Quds al-`Arabi) reports that one Muhammad al-Shabani, leader of the Iraqi Shiite militia “The Conquering Lion of God” (Asadu’llah al-Ghalib, a reference to Ali) has sent another consignment of men to Iraq to help guard Shiite holy sites there and to fight alongside regime troops. This militia is said by the article to have been implicated in indiscriminate rocket fire on the rebel stronghold of East Ghouta. The announcement gave no indication of how big the new set of volunteers is.

The al-Abadi government in Baghdad is said to have asked Iran and Russia to put off considering al-Assad’s fate for the moment, lest the dispute sap their will to roll up Daesh.

The foreign minister of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry, weighed in Saturday in favor of the Russian intervention, as well, saying it would curb terrorism in the region. The military-backed government of Egypt deeply dislikes political Islam and sees the Syrian opposition as generally on the religious Right.

The terms of the debate as revealed in the al-Siyasah article are astonishingly naive. Al-Assad is by now deeply hated throughout his country, with foes vilifying him for his crimes against humanity and even his supporters wearying of having to risk their lives for a sclerotic regime. That is, the hard line Iranian position is completely impractical.

Any you can’t exactly look to Vladimir Putin for wisdom about a peaceful democratic transition. Having al-Assad step down for some other position was the kind of tactic engaged in by Putin himself, when he served as prime minister for a while before returning as president. This article makes me think the Iranians and Russians really are setting themselves up for a quagmire.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Russia launches more air strikes in Syria”

Deal with Saudis? Why does the US care if Russia bombs al-Qaeda and its Allies in Syria?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

President Obama on Friday pledged not to turn Syria into an arena for a proxy war between the US and the Russian Federation. But he went on to criticize president Vladimir Putin for attempting to prop up Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad and predicted that Syria under these circumstances will turn into a “quagmire” for Moscow.

Russia began its own, direct bombing campaign this week. On Wednesday and Thursday it mainly lashed out at al-Qaeda in Syria (the Support Front) and its allies, though in doing so it may have hit some small remnants of the Free Syrian Army (though several of those elements have since allied with al-Qaeda). On Friday, Russia hit Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) targets in and around Raqqa, the capital of the phony caliphate.

Despite the squawking from the likes of Sen. John McCain, Russia mainly hit al-Qaeda in Syria and groups closely allied with it such as Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of Syria) and Suqour al-Jabal (Mountain Eagles)–which allied with al-Qaeda in an Aleppo campaign this last summer. Russia also may have hit some small independent groups left over from the old, collapsed Free Syrian Army along with these bigger targets.

Radio Free Europe reported, “The areas in northern Homs Province reportedly targeted by the Russian air strikes are controlled by a number of Syrian rebel groups — including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well as Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front), and hard-line Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, according to activists, locals, and experts.”

The Russias also hit Talbisa. RFE says “The U.S.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that the rebel-held town of Talbisah is controlled by the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and a number of other local rebel groups.” In other words, the Russians hit the Nusra Front/ al-Qaeda and its allies.

The fact is that the United States has bombed the Support Front/ al-Qaeda on several occasions, itself, so it is odd to criticize Russia for that. As for the others, if they are al-Qaeda allies sitting with al-Qaeda operatives they seem fair game for bombing. The United States has droned to death lots of people in northern Pakistan and Yemen for allying with al-Qaeda.

So why is President Obama really protesting? And note he isn’t protesting very loudly– promising no proxy war, and his officials are admitting they can’t protect the small number of US-backed Free Syrian Army troops from Russian airstrikes.

You could imagine the following scenario: The Free Syrian Army has largely collapsed and it holds almost no territory. Daesh has taken the east except for the Kurdish region.

The most effective fighters in the west and the south are the Support Front or al-Qaeda, which reports directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri (a 9/11 mastermind). Smaller hard line Salafi groups that reject democracy, such as Ahrar al-Sham/ The Freemen of Syria decided to make a coalition with al-Qaeda, rather as the Taliban had done in Afghanistan in the 1990s. They call this al-Qaeda-led coalition the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fateh), and use it as a smokescreen to deny that it is mainly al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey support the Army of Conquest, which is heavily al-Qaeda. And they have convinced Obama to support it too, at least rhetorically. That support may be a booby prize for Saudi Arabia, which lost its fight against the Iran deal.

But in my view it is both dangerous and shameful for the US to ally with groups that are in turn linked to al-Qaeda or have al-Zawahiri in their reporting line.

So that is why Obama took the odd stance of complaining about Russia bombing al-Qaeda and its allies but promising not to do anything about it. The first part was to mollify Saudi Arabia, angry about Russia coming into the Middle East. The second part (not doing anything about it) is just common sense when two well-armed nuclear states confront one another.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Russia defends air strikes in Syria”

Mercer, targeting Christians, kills 1/3 the annual gunshot death toll in England

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The shooter at Umpqua Community college in Roseberg, Oregon, Chris Harper Mercer, had three hand guns, likely semi-automatics, and an assault rifle. He killed 9 people on campus and wounded at least 7, before he was himself shot and killed. He asked people their religion and if they said “Christian,” he said Good, you’re about to meet your maker and then killed them. The Christian Right in the US is a main support for the lobbyists who stand in the way of sane gun laws.

I think the New Atheists like Bill Maher and Sam Harris have to take responsibility for their community (those who dislike Christianity) and issue an apology and condemnation of Mercer’s actions. Why don’t we ever hear them condemn terrorism by atheists?

The most popular hand gun is a Glock. It is not an automatic weapon, meaning you have to squeeze the trigger each time to fire. But it is much easier to get off many shots one after another than in the case of a traditional pistol. The magazine for the Glock 17 has 17 rounds; one can get a high capacity magazine of 33 rounds. High capacity magazines and some semi-automatic weapons were banned in the Clinton era. But the gun manufacturers have bought Congress, so that that ban could no longer be implemented.

Let us not pretend that this is about hunters and hunting, folks. Anyone who shoots deer with a Glock should be publicly shamed. Having a hand gun in the house also does not make anyone safer; family members shoot each other with them or commit suicide with them when temporarily depressed; and burglars wrestle them away and shoot the owners with their own weapon, or the owners end up being charged with murder for shooting an unarmed burglar. Plus people are not well. I figure at least 20 percent of the US population has mood disorders or other mental problems such that you really wouldn’t want to see a gun in their hands. Nor is it about the actual, historical, 2nd Amendment. Our current legislative program in the US is “a semi-automatic high capacity weapon in the hands of every mentally unstable person.” But since Congress is also determined to pump 50 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in the next decade, which will pretty much sink us, the mania about everyone having guns is not even the most dangerous hysteria currently gripping our country.

The United States continues to be peculiar in handing out powerful magazine-fed firearms to almost anyone who wants one and not requiring background checks on private purchases even if these are made at gun shows. 80% of civilian-owned firearms world-wide are in the US, and only Yemen vaguely competes with us for rates of firearm ownership; Yemen is a violent mess with Shiite insurgencies, al-Qaeda taking over cities from time to time, tribal feuding, southern separatism and US drone strikes. And even it has fewer guns per person than the USA.

It has gotten to the point where the increasing epidemic of mass shootings now threatens the US military, the most powerful military in the world.

The US is downright weird compared to civilized Western Europe or Australia (which enacted gun control after a mass shooting in 1996 and there have been no further such incidents).

In 2013-2014 (the twelve months beginning in March), there were 29 fatalities from gun-related crimes in England and Wales. Mr. Mercer killed 9 people at least, about 1/3 the total annual such deaths in those two parts of the UK.

Number of Murders by Firearms, US, 2012: 8,855

Percentage of all Murders that were committed by firearms in US: 69.3

Suicides in US 2011: 38,285

Gun Suicides in US, 2011: 19,766

Number of Murders by firearms, England and Wales, 2012-2013: 30 (equivalent to 164 US murders).

Percentage of all murders in England and Wales that were committed by firearm: 5.4 percent.

Number of suicides in England and Wales, 2011: 4871 (equivalent to about 25,818 in US or 31% lower)

Number of suicides by firearam in England and Wales, 2011: 84

For more on murder by firearms in Britain, see the BBC.

The US has the highest gun ownership in the world and the highest murder rate in the developed world.

There is some correlation between high rates of gun ownership and high rates of violent crime in general, globally (and also if you compare state by state inside the US):

h/t Christopher Majka

In the case of Britain, firearms murders are 53 times fewer than in the US per capita. [Don’t bother with flawed citations of Switzerland or Israel, where most citizens are the equivalent of military reservists.]

Do hunters really need semi-automatic AR-15 assault weapons? Is that how they roll in deer season? The US public doesn’t think so.

PS this is a revised version of an older column; if they keep refusing to legislate rationally and go on causing these massacres, I can keep writing a similar column.


Related video:

AFP: “Guns in the US”