A Day Late & a Dollar Short: Obama & China agree on Languid Climate Goals

By Juan Cole

The good news is that US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have reached an agreement on limiting carbon emissions in their two countries.

The US puts out 5.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, and China does 7 – 9 billion. The US did 5 billion metric tons in 1990 but went on up to 5.5 in 1996 and 6 in the mid-zeroes.

The US just agreed to reduce carbon emissions to as much as 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. But US emissions increased from 5 bn tons a year in 1990 to 6 bn in 2005, an increase of 20 percent. So the US is still only committed to being slightly below 1990 levels by 2025. In other words, it will go on spewing an average of 5 bn metric tons a year into the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking a dump in your kitchen sink, for over a decade into the future, getting down to like 4.5 billion metric tons in a decade. This is as close to doing nothing about the crisis as you could get. It is twice as ambitious a goal as the previous one in the US, but this is a country of oilmen and climate change denialists who really do want to increase emissions.

That US emissions have fallen back to 1996 levels is better than nothing, but that we never reduced from 1990 levels and have gone on putting 5 and 6 billion metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere for the last quarter century — even though all non-morons knew we were endangering the planet thereby — is a scandal comparable to the US commitment to slavery for its first decades.

The US output is much greater per person than China (every American emits on average 16 metric tons of CO2 every year), but these two countries are the biggest emitters. Neither country is willing to risk an economic slowdown by launching the kind of emergency shift to renewables that is needed to avert potential climate disruption. (In fact, studies show that turning to renewables won’t cause a slowdown but will rather add to economic growth; sun and wind as fuel are free).

Neither country has been willing to do all that much at all to reduce emissions. US emissions went up last year and are only slightly down from the highs of the zeroes, mainly because of the rise of wind power in Iowa, Texas, etc., switching a bit from coal to natural gas, and the economic turn down of 2009 and after. Less that one percent of US electricity generation is from solar, despite the country having enormous solar potential in the South and Southwest and despite the availability of large open spaces on which to mount the panels.

China actually pledged to go on increasing its carbon emissions until 2030, by which time it thinks it will hit its peak and after which its carbon emissions will begin falling. 2030! Game over, climate.

The world will likely put out 40 bn metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014, up from the 36 bn tons common only a few years ago. We’re going in the wrong direction and have been for a very long time. If another 1.2 trillion metric tons goes into the atmosphere, we’re locked into a roughly 4 degrees Fahrenheit increase. All we have to do is 40 bn tons for 30 years to ensure that, and likely soon we’ll be doing much more than 40 annually, so the cutoff will come much earlier than 30 years, maybe even 15. That would be around the time China thinks it might be able to arrange to start reducing its annual emissions.

Although China on the surface might seem to have advantages in moving to renewables, what with an authoritarian central government that can do as it pleases, in fact authoritarian governments also have constituencies. One of China’s is the coal workers and coal company bureaucracy, just like in capitalist Poland or West Virginia.

The tools Obama and Xi announced to get to their limp goals are also unimpressive. Research on carbon capture and sequestration, which is actually dangerous. What if the sequestered carbon leaks? Remember that Cameroon lake? This is just a sop to the coal industry. And research and green trade, which don’t amount to a serious commitment.

It is a sad commentary that this agreement is actually an improvement on previous goals of the two countries. And it is better to have an agreement with firm dates and targets than to have the two carbon monsters take turns hiding behind each other at climate talks. But this agreement isn’t a commitment to reduce carbon emissions on a timescale appropriate to the magnitude of the crisis. It mostly kicks the ball down the road.

The main hope for the world now is that solar panel efficiencies and costs, and battery efficiencies and costs, will fall fast enough to make the governments and their fossil constituencies irrelevant. That is, if solar panels become like iPhones, such that hundreds of millions of people suddenly want and acquire them, then there will be genuine CO2 emissions reductions. That is, if you get this kind of adoption, curve, then there is hope:

adoption

In my view, given the kind of research and development being done on photovoltaics and on batteries, this kind of adoption curve for solar panels could well occur starting in only a few years. Once the panels become must-haves, they can spread to millions of households very quickly.

My household has reduced its carbon emissions by several tons this year, between putting solar panels on the house and driving a Volt. If every American cut back 5 tons this year, that would be a reduction of 1.5 billion metric tons, taking us near Obama’s 2025 target ten years early. This reduction is technologically feasible and can be accomplished in ways that actually save a household money over a decade. I would argue that the main obstacle is lack of financing. Obama might want to think about low-interest instruments.

Governments have already proved themselves almost useless in this crisis with a few exceptions (Germany, Scotland and Ethiopia are among the virtuous ones). Much-vaunted corporate capitalism has shown itself sclerotic, leaden, slow and obstructionist rather than agile and efficient — with the exception of some green start-ups.

So if we’re to dodge this bullet it will have to be done from the lab on the one hand and grassroots consumers on the other.

In the meantime, churches, schools and universities ought to be getting their energy from wind turbines or solar panels or both, not coal. They would save money over time and teach congregations and students valuable moral lessons about being good stewards of this beautiful, unique planet.

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Related video:

Yingli Solar: “3,000 Solar PV Professionals to Fight Haze on “Singles Day” in China”

Internet Liberty at Stake in Obama World Wide Web Policy

By Juan Cole

President Barack Obama on Monday called on the Federal Communications Commission to treat Internet Service Providers (ISP’s) as common carriers, sort of like television networks such as NBC or CBS. The relevant law is called “Title II.”

As the world wide web was originally conceived by framers such as Tim Berners-Lee, it was characterized by a key, amazing feature. Everybody on the internet was the same distance from everyone else. Thus, whether you are reading this blog in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where my computer connects to the Web, or in Cairo or Jakarta, you have the same access to it. It loads just as fast for you, wherever you are. My blog is just as easy for you to browse as the internet portal of Fox Cable News, owned by billionaire press lord Rupert Murdoch.

This situation has two disadvantages for the wealthy who mostly run the United States. The first is that Internet Service Providers can’t make easy money by charging some publishers more than others, and setting up tiers of service. Thus, they could make it so it would take 60 seconds for my blog to load, since I can’t pay them very much. But then Rupert’s so-called “news” site could load immediately because he could give them millions and not even notice it. Studies have shown that readers won’t wait 60 seconds for a site to load, so this “tiered” service would destroy citizen journalism and leave us with only corporate news on the world wide web.

The second disadvantage for the wealthy of net neutrality is that they cannot use gate keepers like newspaper editors to control the free circulation of views and information on the World Wide Web. Everyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can publish, and publish for a mass audience. In the early 20th century there was a quip that anyone could own a newspaper, all you needed was a million dollars. Factory workers could publish cyclostyled (don’t ask) newsletters. But large-circulation newspapers were the province of the wealthy, and then information could be presented to the public from the point of view of the wealthy. (The wealthy don’t all agree with one another, so of course you still had liberal and conservative newspapers, but in the US you had few large-circulation socialist ones. The lines of acceptable viewpoints were drawn so as to position the public to the right of center, even though it wasn’t and isn’t if left to its own devices).

A tiered world wide web would restore some of the lost ability of the wealthy to control the spin put on news. We know what that spin typically is. There are no labor reporters at any major metropolitan newspaper. Major labor actions are often not reported on at any length. Nor are union workers much featured in the mass media such as television. Wars benefiting munitions corporations are reported on positively. The dangers of fossil fuel consumption are discounted. In a business-class world, it is people with capital who matter and on whom reporters are told to concentrate. We’ve all heard of Donald Trump or the Koch brothers. Richard L. Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson of the AFL CIO are, let us say, less prominent. Even less prominent are climate scientists like Michael Mann. And, of course, northern Europeans are generally more newsworthy than people originating in other parts of the world. Race and class are not evenly distributed in the informational world of US corporate media.

A lot of you have said how much you benefited from my own analyses of the Iraq War during the Bush administration. But in the 20th century I might not have been able to present that analysis to the public. I had trouble getting my op-eds published in newspapers in the old days. I wasn’t mainstream. This blog would not have existed without net neutrality, and if net neutrality ever goes away, probably so will the blog.

President Obama’s support of net neutrality is welcome, but there are many problems with it. He can’t order the FCC around, since it is an independent agency. Its head comes to us from the world of ISPs and we are suspicious of him. Title II would not necessarily in and of itself prevent a tiered web, though it might impede and constrain the degree of it. And, whatever Obama accomplishes by mere administrative regulation can be undone by the next president. Presumably he is hoping to create such a weight of bureaucratic practice and tradition that it will be difficult to overturn.

In the American system, the best guarantor of liberty of access to the internet and liberty of accessible publication on it is the rise of powerful economic interests that benefit from it. Thus, the guy in a white hat here is Netflix. In contrast, Comcast and other ISPs shot themselves in the foot by throttling Netflix and shaking it down, creating an ally for bloggers and civil libertarians. Senator Al Franken, with his ties to the entertainment industry (I remember when he was a comedian on Saturday Night Live), likewise has taken a powerful stand in favor of net neutrality.

Here’s a toast to Netflix, in hopes that it can bring sufficient pressure to bear to see Obama’s vision realized. The good lord knows that the bloggers are unlikely to be able to.

Related video:

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Net Neutrality (HBO) from 5 months ago

Ferguson & Israel? Netanyahu Calls for Stripping Palestinian-Israelis of Citizenship

By Juan Cole

On Sunday Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he was looking into whether Israel could strip citizenship from those who speak out against the continued statelessness of the Palestinians. (There are millions of stateless Palestinians outside Israel.

Netanyahu began his political career as a far-right Likud politician calling for the forced deportation of the 20% of the Israeli population that is of Palestinian heritage. He said Sunday,

“Israel is a nation of law. We will not tolerate disturbances and rioting. We will act against those who throw stones, block roads and call for the establishment of a Palestinian state in place of the State of Israel. Whoever does not honor Israeli law will be punished with utmost severity. I will instruct the Interior Minister to evaluate revoking the citizenship of those who call for the destruction of the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s remarks were made in the context of Palestinian-Israeli demonstrations in Kafr Kanna inside Israel, over a Ferguson, Mo., sort of incident. Police shot dead a 22 year old man whom they accuse of menacing them (videotape does not support the police story).

So this would be as though at the height of the Ferguson controversy, US leaders had threatened African-Americans with being declared stateless and being deported if they did not fall silent.

Netanyahu’s close colleague, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has proposed administering loyalty tests to Palestinian-Israelis and stripping of their citizenship anyone who declined.

The step of denaturalizing people is a very unfortunate throwback to the arbitrary policies of fascist and communist regimes of the 1930s. Franco stripped the Spanish leftists of their citizenship when he won the civil war. The Soviets stripped the White Russians of their citizenship. The Nazis denaturalized many groups, including German Jews. Arguably, taking their citizenship rights was what made it possible for the Nazis to carry out the Holocaust.

Stripping citizenship is forbidden by the International Declaration of Human Rights and other UN instruments and treaties.

There is an increasing move to take away citizenship rights. Dissidents have been punished in this way in Bahrain and Kuwait. But now Britain has joined them, and Canada may as well. The Israelis, if they take this weighty step will be on the same page as the King of Bahrain and the Emir of Kuwait, not to mention some pretty unsavory dictators of the interwar period in the 20th century.

It is Palestinian statelessness that is causing trouble in the Mideast to begin with. More stateless Palestinians won’t help resolve the problems.

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Related video:

PressTV: “Clashes between Israeli forces, Palestinians continue in kafr kanna”

Why it Isn’t that Important Whether ISIL Leader was Killed

By Juan Cole

Revised 11/10

Rumors are swirling that ISIL leader Ibrahim al-Samarra’i (who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) was severely wounded and that some of his chief lieutenants were killed by a US air strike on a meeting of ISIL leaders on Friday. (Update: ISIL is confirming the injury of al-Samarra’i)

The Iranian newspaper Tabnak quotes from al-Sumaria that it was US air strikes or those of coalition partners that killed 20 high ISIL leaders. It alleges that Umar al-Abasi, an ISIL bomb maker, was among those killed, along with Abu Hanifa al-Yamani, an aide to al-Samarra’i.

I caution everyone that such a contradictory set of narratives is obviously not very trustworthy, and no one know if the ISIL leader was actually hit.

Second, the US has killed a long line of al-Qaeda leaders by now, from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 to Bin Laden himself. The military’s theory that leadership is rare and attrition wrought on leaders is decisive in defeating a group is simply incorrect. ISIL’s toolbox of terrorizing and coercing people is available to large numbers of people. Plus, ISIL’s big advances in June of this year weren’t even military, but rather were political. They convinced the people of Mosul, a city of 2 million, to join them against the Shiite government in Baghdad.

There are plenty more potential ISIL leaders out there.

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BBC News: “US air strikes target Islamic State gathering in Iraq”

When will US admit Boots on Ground in Iraq (3000 Troops)?

By Juan Cole

President Obama’s announcement that he will send 1500 more troops to Iraq was made on a Friday, a day usually reserved in Washington for the release of bad or embarrassing news that officials hope won’t still be fresh enough for Monday’s newspapers and so will quietly sink.

That these troops will be sent with Iraqi soldiers to al-Anbar Province belies the administration’s repeated denial that it will put boots on the ground. There will soon be 3000 US troops in Iraq. They will be at the scene of battles, embedded with Iraqi units (apparently in the hope that the Iraqi troops will be too embarrassed to run away en masse again in front of foreign guests).

The growing size of the US contingent is not the only news. The US is reestablishing a “command” in Iraq, which administration officials view as necessary to rebuild, or more frankly to build, an Iraqi army. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (in office 2006-2014) appears to have installed so many corrupt and incompetent officers, on the grounds they were loyal to him, that the institution may as well not exist. Half of enlisted men are said to be ghosts, who don’t show up to their postings because they can bribe their commanding officer into letting them be absent.

If there are US troops on the front lines in al-Anbar, where ISIL has been expanding its reach in recent months, then unfortunately there are likely to be US casualties. These are boots on the ground, even if there are not combat platoons going into battle by themselves.

If ISIL really is a dire threat to US security, as administration officials maintain, then they should go to the US public with the news that they are going to have to put thousands of US forces on the ground in Iraq. So far they are trying to spin us, and to pretend that there are just some trainers and advisers. It is far more than that; US special operations forces will be operating in Iraq brigades, likely in part to paint lasers on targets for US warplanes to bomb.

In an age of weasel words and Orwellian diction, it would be refreshing to hear Mr. Obama call this escalation what it is. It is not as if he will be running for office again or needs to win a popularity contest.

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Related video:

AP: “Obama Authorizes 1,500 More Troops for Iraq”

Why McCain & GOP are Slamming Obama for Writing Iran re: ISIL

By Juan Cole

President Obama wrote a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the possibility of US-Iran non-military cooperation in defeating ISIL, as a sidebar to the ongoing negotiations with Tehran over the shape of its civilian nuclear enrichment program and ways of making sure the program is not militarized. The Wall Street Journal’s leak of the letter (the fourth Obama has written to the Iranian leader) provoked rage among Republicans in Congress and on Fox Cable News. Senator John McCain was especially incensed, and speaker of the House John Boehner said he doesn’t believe that the US should bring Iran into the fight against ISIL.

Shiite Iran, being the direct neighbor of Iraq, of course, is inevitably involved in the fight against ISIL (radical Sunnis) as a matter of its own national security and as a manifestation of its friendship with the Shiite government in Baghdad. Boehner has no say in it.

The US right wing views Iran as an enemy to be overthrown, on the grounds that it rejects Israel and supports Lebanon’s Hizbullah and the al-Assad government in Damascus. Obama in contrast sees Iran as a country that could be brought in from the cold.

The US strategy for fighting ISIL, which Washington has decided is a security challenge to the US despite the remoteness of its territory in places like al-Raqqah, Syria, has two major theaters.

The problem is that strategy in each of these theaters must differ, perhaps 180 degrees.

In Iraq, the Sunni Arab cities rose up against the Shiite-dominated Iraqi central government in alliance with ISIL. Mosul is a city of some 2 million. Some 5,000 ISIL fighters coming from Syria did not militarily conquer it in a conventional military attack. They were covert agents and infiltrated neighborhoods and coordinated a mass Sunni uprising.

The Shiite-dominated Iraqi military collapsed as a result.

In order to defeat ISIL in Iraq, the US has to coordinate with the Kurds and the Shiite government in Baghdad. But since the latter’s army is dysfunctional, Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has been constrained to depend on paramilitary forces, i.e. Shiite militias, as well as on covert aid from Iran. De facto, in Iraq the US is allied with Iran and has already given Shiite groups, at Amerli, that included Iranian special forces, close air support. The US also wants to convince Sunni tribes to join with Shiite Baghdad in helping defeat ISIL, but whether this can be done is still doubtful.

In contrast, in Syria the US has two goals, not one. Obama wants to weaken and help defeat ISIL and the Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) in Syria. It wants the weak and disorganized “Free Syrian Army” to pick up those pieces. And it wants the FSA ultimately to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Iran, which is a de facto potential ally against ISIL in Iraq, is allied with al-Assad in Syria.

This Syria plan is a mess and has way too many moving parts. Washington cannot directly attack the al-Assad government without angering Iran and risking losing its contributions to the defeat of ISIL. Therefore it has to concentrate on bombing ISIL and al-Qaeda. But so far that bombing has not allowed the Free Syrian Army to take any new territory away from the radicals. On the contrary, the Jabhat al-Nusra just took substantial territory away from groups coded by the US as ‘moderate’ in Idlib province. Al-Qaeda power is still growing in Syria.

In the MSNBC clip below, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) goes off on Obama mainly with regard to the Syria campaign. McCain is aware that a US rapprochement with Iran would weaken ISIL, but he is still convinced that the US should pull an Afghanistan_1980s and give arms and training to the Free Syrian Army. McCain clearly fears that an improvement in US-Iran relations could have as a side effect the retention in Syria of power by the Baath government of al-Assad.

But McCain is ignoring how weak the Iraqi government is at the moment. Without Iranian support, it is not clear that the Shiite government could survive. All the Sunnis in Iraq know that the al-Abadi government has friendly relations with Iran, and that Obama backs al-Abadi. So Obama’s letter changes nothing for them. Sunni tribes are perfectly capable of taking help from Iran– the sectarian divide is less important than money and a salary.

So the US needs Iran in Iraq, but views Iran as an enemy in Syria. McCain’s reaction is mainly about Syria, not Iraq. But if you look closely at the latter country, you can see that ISIL probably cannot be defeated without Iranian help. McCain has never appeared to meditate the mistakes he made in arming Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which led in some ways to the rise of al-Qaeda.

Great powers always have to make friends among states that are enemies of one another. The US has to have good relations with Greece and Turkey, and with Pakistan and India. Obama needs Iran in Iraq. It may be unpalatable, but the US needs Iran. Moreover, the US cannot defeat ISIL in Syria if it concentrates on bombing the al-Assad government, as McCain wants. McCain, who doesn’t usually show evidence of being capable of a nuanced or subtle foreign policy, doesn’t appreciate this need.

Obama’s last chance at a major foreign policy breakthrough is a treaty with Iran that forestalls a militarization of Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program. Obama brought up cooperation in Iraq in the context of those negotiations.

McCain’s policies in Afghanistan, of arming Muslim radicals and trying to destroy the Left there, left it a basket case decades later. McCain’s policies, if implemented, would end with al-Qaeda in charge of Damascus. That can’t possibly be a good thing.

MSNBC with Andrea Mitchell:

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Top 5 Reasons Obama is Seeking Congressional Approval for War on ISIL

By Juan Cole

President Obama said Wednesday that he would seek Congressional authorization for his war on ISIL or the “Islamic State” Group in Iraq and Syria. This statement comes after months of his administration maintaining that the AUMF of 2001 was still sufficient to underpin this effort. (In fact, it referred to war on those who planned and carried out 9/11, who are getting long in the tooth; it probably doesn’t actually cover radicals in al-Raqqah, Syria, today).

Why the about-face? Well of course we don’t know for sure or in detail. But here are some lively possibilities:

1. Obama may be trying to mollify Republicans so that they’ll cooperate with an extension of the aid program to train Syrian rebels, which runs out in December.

2. Obama is taking ISIL off the table as an issue during his last two years (and into the next presidential campaign) by this step. If the GOP Congress gives him the authorization, they will bear the blame if anything goes wrong. If they refuse, then everything that goes wrong will be their fault.

3. If they vote for an authorization for the use of military force, the GOP Congress won’t easily be able to blackmail Obama by threatening to withhold funding for the military effort against ISIL unless he gives in on some issue.

4. The GOP is internally deeply divided between establishment Republicans such as John McCain and libertarians or tea-partiers. The latter are often opposed to big US interventions abroad. Obama is throwing a pigeon among the cats by making the GOP debate the intervention among themselves, with all the internal rancor that might produce.

5. The way some potential GOP presidential candidates vote on the war on ISIL will become part of their record. If they vote for, they can’t run against a Democratic Party initiative in Iraq and Syria. If they vote against, they risk going against widespread public opinion in the US that Something Had to be Done.

Expect to see the Obama team put up a lot of laws and initiatives in hopes they can force the Republicans to take a stand on them one way or another, as a way of creating a narrative about them in the public mind leading up to 2016.

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Related video:

Wochit: “Obama Plans New Authorization for Military Force Against Islamic State”

How a Republican Congress could Entangle the US further in the Middle East

By Juan Cole

The midterm elections in a president’s second term have historically been a time when the president’s party lost seats in both houses of Congress. Only a little over a third of the electorate typically votes in these elections, and they are disproportionately white, wealthy and elderly. In short, a different country voted in 2014 than had voted in 2012, a deep red country. It is not surprising, then, that the GOP gained control of the Senate.

How could the change affect foreign policy? The president has wide latitude in making foreign policy and even in making war. Nevertheless, Congress is not helpless in that realm. It controls the purse strings via the budget and can forbid the president to spend money on some enterprise (that is how the GOP House blocked the closure of the Guantanamo facility). The Republican majority now does not have to negotiate with Democratic senators in crafting bills, and it can easily attach riders to key pieces of legislation, making it difficult for the president to veto them. That was how Congress made the Obama administration implement the financial blockade of Iran’s petroleum sales, by attaching it to the Defense Bill.

A Republican Congress can also put pressure on the president by allying with powerful lobbies in Washington. Bill Clinton’s 1998 attack on Iraq (Operation Desert Fox) was provoked in part by the Project for a New American Century (mostly made up of out-of-government Neoconservatives and former Reagan-Bush aides) and its Republican allies in Congress. The latter produced the “Iraq Liberation Act”. Clinton may have thought that the 1998 attack was a small bit of propitiation. But the president made the UN weapons inspectors leave Iraq so that he could bomb it, and they never went back in.

Once the West was thus blinded, the Neoconservatives could use their journalists such as Judith Miller to begin planting a narrative of renewed Iraqi unconventional weapons research and development programs. These programs did not exist, but the UN inspectors weren’t on the ground any more to contradict the ridiculous Neocon fairy tales about an imminent Iraqi nuclear bomb or biological weapons labs on Winnebagos on Iraq’s pot-holed streets. In short, by provoking Clinton to even a limited bombing run, the Neoconservatives severed this country from key intelligence that could contradict their war propaganda and so they paved the way to the 2003 war.

Barack Obama was convinced or bamboozled by the Pentagon to do the Afghanistan troop escalation in 2009, and he has conducted drone wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and some other countries.

The GOP may see him as not ultimately committed to keeping US troops out of Iraq and Syria, and will almost certainly attempt to force him to put more boots on the ground (John McCain will be chairman of the Armed Services Committee).

If the GOP Senate objected to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it could refuse to fund it (getting out will be expensive).

And, if Obama manages a breakthrough in negotiations with Iran that requires a reduction in US economic sanctions, the Republican House might be able to find ways to block that reduction, so as to go back on a war footing with Iran (war is good for the arms industry, which funds a lot of congressional campaigns).

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Related video:

CNN: “Sen. McCain: ISIS is winning”

American Weapons, provided to Syrian rebels, fall into Hands of al-Qaeda

By Juan Cole

The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front) not only took the territory of the moderate Muslim Syria Revolutionaries Front this weekend, it also polished off the Movement of the Resolute .

The Movement of the Resolute (Harakat al-Hazm) represented itself as secular, but had its roots in a fundamentalist group backed by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the “Time of Muhammad” Front.

Last spring the Movement of the Resolute revealed that it had American TOW anti-tank batteries and access to other weapons. The TOWs were apparently supplied to them via Qatar or Turkey with American acquiescence.

Syrian al-Qaeda has swept into rural Idlib Province, taking over the checkpoints of the Free Syrian Army miderates.

This development is so disturbing because the current Obama administration plan is to train and arm the very sorts of people who were just defeated by al-Qaeda. The introduction of American heavy weapons into the midst of a civil war is not a very healthy development, since weapons inevitably travel between groups (through graft or conquest). We have just been given a preview of something that could happen a lot– migration of US heavy weaponry and even “moderate” fighters– to ISIL and al-Qaeda.

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Related video:

America’s Weapons in al-Qaeda’s Hands

US Dilemma in Syria: Moderate Stronghold Falls to al-Qaeda, Fighters desert to Extremists

By Juan Cole

In a big setback for the Obama administration’s Syria policy, the al-Qaeda affiliate Succor Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) took the town of Deir Sunbul and its environs this weekend away from the Syria Revolutionaries Front, a relatively secular-minded group viewed as “moderates” by the United States. Deir Sunbul lies in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of the northwestern province of Idlib. The pan-Arab London daily al-Quds al-Arabi (Arab Jerusalem) says that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus is rubbing its hands with glee at the prospect of the rebels fighting one another to exhaustion.

Not only did Syria Revolutionaries Front leader Jamal Marouf have to flee his hometown, but some of his fighters actually turned on him and joined the Succor Front.

The Succor Front launched its attack with an armored convoy coming from the eastern desert and deployed tanks and armored vehicles against Deir Sunbul’s pitiful little machine gun batteries. This operation raises the question of why the US did not bomb the convoy.

Jamal Marouf pledged to return to the region of Jabal al-Zawiya. The Succor Front/ Nusra directed a broadside at him, on hearing of this intention, saying: “Jamal, you were a revolutionary fighter. But you deviated from that path and entered the wastelands of politics and were tempted by money and arms. Today you consider us infidels and you accuse us of being agents and being foreigners. The holy warriors of the Succor Front who battle you, however, are in fact the inhabitants of Jabal Zawiya, and they fight in the ranks of the brigades and the people there. It is not the Succor Front alone that fights you.”

The incident is disturbing because the Obama administration plans to train and arm fighters of the Syria Revolutionaries Front sort, on the theory that they are “moderates.” But a present Syrian moderate is all too often a future al-Qaeda member; many of these affiliations are not particularly ideological, but have to do with who is winning and who has more money. Last July, the Daoud Brigade of the Free Syrian Army joined ISIL.

Jamal Marouf’s group in any case had sometimes fought alongside Syria’s al-Qaeda and last April said al-Qaeda was the West’s problem, not his. (Ouch!) He complained that aside from a one time payment some time ago of $250,000, he hadn’t received any appreciable aid from the West.

The loyalties of fighters may also have to do with which group is seen as more indigenous and which as foreign agents. The Succor Front response to Jamal Marouf rebukes him for trying to code the al-Qaeda affiliate as foreign agents. But now that the US is openly siding with the Free Syrian Army and conducting bombing raids against ISIL and the Succor Front, it is moderates such as he that are in danger of being tagged as agents of Western imperialism. If he in fact hasn’t gotten much help from the US, this outcome would be unfortunate.

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Even more disturbing, McClatchy correspondents reported that the Succor Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) attack on Deir Sunbul was aided by ISIL fighters. ISIL and Succor, despite both being radical fundamentalists, have been alienated from one another and fighting one another for the past 18 months. ISIL has had a policy of attacking its fellow rebels more than it attacks the Syrian army, which has made it the skunk at the rebel Syrian party. But if it actually learns to be an ally, it could widen its coalition. A joint al-Qaeda – ISIL campaign against the Free Syrian Army groups in the northwest could cripple them.


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The infighting between the rebels has given hope to the Syrian Army. It has advanced on Khan Shaikhun in Rif Idlib, and has is eye on expanding its sway in Idlib and breaking the siege of its strategic Wadi al-Dayf military base. It now serves as a forward operating base in the region controlled by the Succor Front.

ISIL itself has faced a setback in the past few days, however, as a mini-civil war broke out among its ranks in its capital of al-Raqqa. There, says al-Quds al-Arabi, the Uzbek foreign fighters have been clashing with the Chechens over control of key buildings. The Uzbeks appear to have the upper hand because they are more numerous. ISIL leader Ibrahim al-Samarra’i, who styles himself a caliph, is said to have been forced to leave Mosul and return to Raqqa because of this crisis.

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From Reuters a week ago: Idlib under attack