Friday, February 06, 2015

Planning Scorched Earth for East Ukraine (and Russia?)

The Fallujah Option for East Ukraine

by Mike Whitney - CounterPunch

“I want to appeal to the Ukrainian people, to the mothers, the fathers, the sisters and the grandparents. Stop sending your sons and brothers to this pointless, merciless slaughter. The interests of the Ukrainian government are not your interests. I beg of you: Come to your senses. You do not have to water Donbass fields with Ukrainian blood. It’s not worth it.”     Alexander Zakharchenko, Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic

Washington needs a war in Ukraine to achieve its strategic objectives. This point cannot be overstated.

The US wants to push NATO to Russia’s western border. It wants a land-bridge to Asia to spread US military bases across the continent. It wants to control the pipeline corridors from Russia to Europe to monitor Moscow’s revenues and to ensure that gas continues to be denominated in dollars.

And it wants a weaker, unstable Russia that is more prone to regime change, fragmentation and, ultimately, foreign control. These objectives cannot be achieved peacefully, indeed, if the fighting stopped tomorrow, the sanctions would be lifted shortly after, and the Russian economy would begin to recover.

How would that benefit Washington?

It wouldn’t. It would undermine Washington’s broader plan to integrate China and Russia into the prevailing economic system, the dollar system. Powerbrokers in the US realize that the present system must either expand or collapse. Either China and Russia are brought to heel and persuaded to accept a subordinate role in the US-led global order or Washington’s tenure as global hegemon will come to an end.

This is why hostilities in East Ukraine have escalated and will continue to escalate. This is why the U.S. Congress approved a bill for tougher sanctions on Russia’s energy sector and lethal aid for Ukraine’s military. This is why Washington has sent military trainers to Ukraine and is preparing to provide $3 billion in “anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, armored Humvees, and radars that can determine the location of enemy rocket and artillery fire.” All of Washington’s actions are designed with one purpose in mind, to intensify the fighting and escalate the conflict. The heavy losses sustained by Ukraine’s inexperienced army and the terrible suffering of the civilians in Lugansk and Donetsk are of no interest to US war-planners. Their job is to make sure that peace is avoided at all cost because peace would derail US plans to pivot to Asia and remain the world’s only superpower.

Here’s an except from an article in the WSWS:

“The ultimate aim of the US and its allies is to reduce Russia to an impoverished and semi-colonial status. Such a strategy, historically associated with Carter administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, is again being openly promoted.

In a speech last year at the Wilson Center, Brzezinski called on Washington to provide Kiev with “weapons designed particularly to permit the Ukrainians to engage in effective urban warfare of resistance.” In line with the policies now recommended in the report by the Brookings Institution and other think tanks calling for US arms to the Kiev regime, Brzezinski called for providing “anti-tank weapons…weapons capable for use in urban short-range fighting.”

While the strategy outlined by Brzezinski is politically criminal—trapping Russia in an ethnic urban war in Ukraine that would threaten the deaths of millions, if not billions of people—it is fully aligned with the policies he has promoted against Russia for decades.”
(“The US arming of Ukraine and the danger of World War III“, World Socialist Web Site)

Non-lethal military aid will inevitably lead to lethal military aid, sophisticated weaponry, no-fly zones, covert assistance, foreign contractors, Special ops, and boots on the ground. We’ve seen it all before. There is no popular opposition to the war in the US, no thriving antiwar movement that can shut down cities, order a general strike or disrupt the status quo. So there’s no way to stop the persistent drive to war. The media and the political class have given Obama carte blanche, the authority to prosecute the conflict as he sees fit. That increases the probability of a broader war by this summer following the spring thaw.

While the possibility of a nuclear conflagration cannot be excluded, it won’t effect US plans for the near future. No one thinks that Putin will launch a nuclear war to protect the Donbass, so the deterrent value of the weapons is lost.

And Washington isn’t worried about the costs either. Despite botched military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and half a dozen other countries around the world; US stocks are still soaring, foreign investment in US Treasuries is at record levels,, the US economy is growing at a faster pace than any of its global competitors, and the dollar has risen an eye-watering 13 percent against a basket of foreign currencies since last June. America has paid nothing for decimating vast swathes of the planet and killing more than a million people. Why would they stop now?

They won’t, which is why the fighting in Ukraine is going to escalate. Check this out from the WSWS:

“On Monday, the New York Times announced that the Obama administration is moving to directly arm the Ukrainian army and the fascistic militias supporting the NATO-backed regime in Kiev, after its recent setbacks in the offensive against pro-Russian separatist forces in east Ukraine.

The article cites a joint report issued Monday by the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and delivered to President Obama, advising the White House and NATO on the best way to escalate the war in Ukraine….

According to the Times, US officials are rapidly shifting to support the report’s proposals. NATO military commander in Europe General Philip M. Breedlove, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey all supported discussions on directly arming Kiev. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is reconsidering her opposition to arming Kiev, paving the way for Obama’s approval.”
(“Washington moves toward arming Ukrainian regime“, World Socialist Web Site)

See what’s going on? The die is already cast. There will be a war with Russia because that’s what the political establishment wants. It’s that simple. And while previous provocations failed to lure Putin into the Ukrainian cauldron, this new surge of violence–a spring offensive– is bound to do the trick. Putin is not going to sit on his hands while proxies armed with US weapons and US logistical support pound the Donbass to Fallujah-type rubble. He’ll do what any responsible leader would do. He’ll protect his people. That means war. (See the vast damage that Obama’s proxy war has done to E. Ukraine here: “An overview of the socio – humanitarian situation on the territory of Donetsk People’s Republic as a consequence of military action from 17 to 23 January 2015“)

Asymmetrical Warfare: Falling Oil Prices

Keep in mind, that the Russian economy has already been battered by economic sanctions, oil price manipulation, and a vicious attack of the ruble. Until this week, the mainstream media dismissed the idea that the Saudis were deliberately pushing down oil prices to hurt Russia. They said the Saudis were merely trying to retain “market share” by maintaining current production levels and letting prices fall naturally. But it was all bunkum as the New York Times finally admitted on Tuesday in an article titled: “Saudi Oil Is Seen as Lever to Pry Russian Support From Syria’s Assad”. Here’s a clip from the article:

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

Saudi officials say — and they have told the United States — that they think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability to reduce the supply of oil and possibly drive up prices….Any weakening of Russian support for Mr. Assad could be one of the first signs that the recent tumult in the oil market is having an impact on global statecraft…..

Saudi Arabia’s leverage depends on how seriously Moscow views its declining oil revenue. “If they are hurting so bad that they need the oil deal right away, the Saudis are in a good position to make them pay a geopolitical price as well,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a Middle East specialist at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service
(“Saudi Oil Is Seen as Lever to Pry Russian Support From Syria’s Assad“, New York Times)

The Saudis “think they have some leverage over Mr. Putin because of their ability” to manipulate prices?

That says it all, doesn’t it?

What’s interesting about this article is the way it conflicts with previous pieces in the Times. For example, just two weeks ago, in an article titled “Who Will Rule the Oil Market?” the author failed to see any political motive behind the Saudi’s action. According to the narrative, the Saudis were just afraid that “they would lose market share permanently” if they cut production and kept prices high. Now the Times has done a 180 and joined the so called conspiracy nuts who said that prices were manipulated for political reasons. In fact, the sudden price plunge had nothing to do with deflationary pressures, supply-demand dynamics, or any other mumbo-jumbo market forces. It was 100 percent politics.

The attack on the ruble was also politically motivated, although the details are much more sketchy. There’s an interesting interview with Alistair Crooke that’s worth a read for those who are curious about how the Pentagon’s “full spectrum dominance” applies to financial warfare. According to Crooke:

“…with Ukraine, we have entered a new era: We have a substantial, geostrategic conflict taking place, but it’s effectively a geo-financial war between the US and Russia. We have the collapse in the oil prices; we have the currency wars; we have the contrived “shorting” — selling short — of the ruble. We have a geo-financial war, and what we are seeing as a consequence of this geo-financial war is that first of all, it has brought about a close alliance between Russia and China.

China understands that Russia constitutes the first domino; if Russia is to fall, China will be next. These two states are together moving to create a parallel financial system, disentangled from the Western financial system. ……

For some time, the international order was structured around the United Nations and the corpus of international law, but more and more the West has tended to bypass the UN as an institution designed to maintain the international order, and instead relies on economic sanctions to pressure some countries. We have a dollar-based financial system, and through instrumentalizing America’s position as controller of all dollar transactions, the US has been able to bypass the old tools of diplomacy and the UN — in order to further its aims.

But increasingly, this monopoly over the reserve currency has become the unilateral tool of the United States — displacing multilateral action at the UN. The US claims jurisdiction over any dollar-denominated transaction that takes place anywhere in the world. And most business and trading transactions in the world are denominated in dollars. This essentially constitutes the financialization of the global order: The International Order depends more on control by the US Treasury and Federal Reserve than on the UN as before.”
(“Turkey might become hostage to ISIL just like Pakistan did“, Today’s Zaman)

Financial warfare, asymmetrical warfare, Forth Generation warfare, space warfare, information warfare, nuclear warfare, laser, chemical, and biological warfare. The US has expanded its arsenal well beyond the traditional range of conventional weaponry. The goal, of course, is to preserve the post-1991 world order (The dissolution up of the Soviet Union) and maintain full spectrum dominance. The emergence of a multi-polar world order spearheaded by Moscow poses the greatest single threat to Washington’s plans for continued domination. The first significant clash between these two competing world views will likely take place sometime this summer in East Ukraine. God help us.

NOTE: The Novorussia Armed Forces (NAF) currently have 8,000 Ukrainian regulars surrounded in Debaltsevo, East Ukraine. This is a very big deal although the media has been (predictably) keeping the story out of the headlines.

Evacuation corridors have been opened to allow civilians to leave the area. Fighting could break out at anytime. At present, it looks like a good part of the Kiev’s Nazi army could be destroyed in one fell swoop. This is why Merkel and Hollande have taken an emergency flight to Moscow to talk with Putin. They are not interested in peace. They merely want to save their proxy army from annihilation.

I expect Putin may intervene on behalf of the Ukrainian soldiers, but I think commander Zakharchenko will resist. If he lets these troops go now, what assurance does he have that they won’t be back in a month or so with high-powered weaponry provided by our war-mongering congress and White House?

Tell me; what choice does Zakharchenko really have? If his comrades are killed in future combat because he let Kiev’s army escape, who can he blame but himself?

There are no good choices.

Check here for updates: Ukraine SITREP: *Extremely* dangerous situation in Debaltsevo

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at

Obama's Twist on Plan Colombia Promises No Relief for Central American Violence

The Alliance for Prosperity Won't Help Central American Violence

by Dawn Paley  - The New Republic

When Americans began noticing a deluge of unaccompanied migrant children flooding to the U.S.-Mexico border, the immediate U.S. response was a stopgap. Youth were placed in shelters by the thousands, sometimes set up on military bases, which critics likened to detention centers and emergency hurricane shelters. Later, kids were placed with sponsors while their cases were processed.

Now, a longer-term response is taking shape. The Obama administration has recently jumped on board with the Alliance for Prosperity, a plan that touts development and peace for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. It promises to address the violence that's forcing children to flee in such Biblical numbers. Vice President Joe Biden's op-ed in the New York Times last week confirmed that President Obama would ask Congress for $1 billion to fund the Alliance For Prosperity, a name that recalls JFK's controversial Alliance for Progress. "Confronting these challenges," Biden wrote, "requires nothing less than systemic change …"

But the essence of what the Alliance for Prosperity promises is that more of the same—more local spending on infrastructure to facilitate foreign investment, more corporate tax breaks and free trade zones and more regulatory harmonization—will allow Central America to pull itself up by its bootstraps. And, yes, that outcome is as unlikely as it sounds.

Driving the public U.S. support for the Alliance for Progress is the ongoing humanitarian crisis of children fleeing their home countries. Between October 2013 and October 2014, 60,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Most of them were from Honduras, followed by Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. These arrivals marked a spike in Central American minors trying to cross the border. (The number of Mexican minors has remained relatively stable; Mexican children are deported without a court hearing and thus not detained for significant lengths of time.)

Many of the youth held in custody by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) were subjected to measures that would be considered objectionable against anyone, convicted adults or otherwise. Accusations against the CPB, in a complaint filed in June on behalf of 100 children by the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups are truly grotesque. They include "denying necessary medical care to children as young as five-months-old, refusing to provide diapers for infants, confiscating and not returning legal documents and personal belongings, making racially charged insults and death threats, and strip searching and shackling children in three-point restraints during transport." The ACLU proceeded to file a class action lawsuit in October challenging the federal government's failure to provide legal representation to the youth.

After reaching a peak in June of 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving to the United States has fallen off from more than 10,000 to a few thousand a month. This owes in large part to Mexico deporting more Central American minors. As fewer Central American kids arrived at the U.S. border, the issue and the plight of these children slid out of view.

Enter the Alliance for Prosperity. In his op-ed, Biden wrote that the Alliance for Prosperity promotes security, good governance and economic growth in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. (The plan was authored this past fall by those countries' presidents.) The security proposal is thin on specifics, but aims to train and equip police, something the United States has been doing in the region for decades. The plan trots out classic promises to increase tax collection and transparency, toward improving government. It describes a renewed effort to invest in education, a sector decimated by austerity programs, including by promising cash to students who stay in school.

But by far the most polished segment of the document details the sweetheart deals the three countries will roll out for international investors. Biden compared the Alliance to a kind of Plan Colombia for Central America. Plan Colombia was a six-year, $9 billion experiment that used anti-drugs policy as a pretext for bettering investment conditions in Colombia, both through militarization and political reforms. In short, this is not a comparison that should necessarily inspire confidence for Central Americans.

In my book Drug War Capitalism, I explore how Plan Colombia was a foreign policy innovation that created a new blueprint for U.S. intervention on behalf of the corporate sector, guised as an anti-drugs initiative. In fact the success of Plan Colombia has little to nothing to do with drugs, but could be measured by examining growing levels of foreign direct investment and investor security. Biden's memory of Plan Colombia confirms my argument. Far from recalling an anti-drugs program, he lauds Plan Colombia such: "The Colombian government cleaned up its courts, vetted its police force and reformed its rules of commerce to open up its economy."

Today's measure of success is distinct from the messaging about Plan Colombia at the time. It is also distinct from what we are told today about the Merida Initiative, the first re-incarnation of Plan Colombia, this time in Mexico. In an interview in 2007, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Charles explained: "The aim of 'Plan Colombia' was to reduce overall cultivation in the country in the first five years by 50 percent. We've actually reduced it by more than 50 percent." Plan Colombia began in 2000, and ran through to 2006, after which U.S. funding to Colombia began to decrease and shift towards Mexico and the Merida Initiative, beginning in 2008.

The U.S. State Department hawked the Merida Initiative as a way to strengthen courts and improve police odds in their fight against drug traffickers. Instead, those institutions' failures and cruelties have only deepened as U.S. largesse, to the tune of over $2.35 billion, has fostered increased violence across the country. Meanwhile, on the metrics that matter most directly to investors and politicians, the Merida Initiative has been a success: Mexico has passed reforms in finance, education, labor and energy that have cleared the way for foreign investment. But to people living here in Mexico, the Merida Initiative has only exacerbated an already grim daily reality.

Biden's op-ed failed to mention the Merida Initiative, or its current incarnate in Central America, the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). When the Merida Initiative began, part of the funding was destined for Central America. In 2010, the Central America program was separated from the Merida Initiative, and re-packaged as CARSI. But CARSI did little to stem the violence or to reduce the tide of migrants. If anything, it did the opposite. In Honduras and Guatemala, homicide rates climbed steadily as U.S. funding for militarization via CARSI began to flow. Remember that Honduras sent the largest number of kids to the U.S. border, followed by Guatemala. In 2012, two solid years into CARSI, there were 7,172 recorded homicides in Honduras, marking the most violent year in the country's recent history. (That is, a country with 5 percent of the United States's population generated 56 percent as many murders as the United States saw that year.)

Central America has been here before. Many of the features of CARSI and previous U.S. initiatives in Central America are recycled in the Alliance for Prosperity, albeit with a bigger budget and a more explicit focus on improving conditions for foreign investors. "Obviously the neoliberal program was not structured to reduce poverty, or to generate employment, or so that there would be no migrants," Guatemalan researcher Luis Solano wrote in an email interview. "But the public discourse was that of the famous 'trickle down policy,' a trickle down that never arrived except to the handful who benefited."

Far from providing new opportunities for regular people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the measures proposed in the Alliance for Prosperity are likely to worsen the social and economic realities for the region's poor majority. This is likely to lead Central Americans—adults and children alike—to continue to seek out survival by heading north.

Dawn Paley is a writer based in Mexico and the author of Drug War Capitalism.

"Honest" Abe Seeks WWII Historical Rewrite for Japan

Japanese government pushes to revise US history text

by Ben McGrath - WSWS

6 February 2015

The Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has extended its campaign to whitewash the crimes of the Japanese military in the 1930s and 1940s to the international level. Last week, Abe took issue with an American history textbook and its treatment of so-called “comfort women.”

“Comfort women” is a euphemism coined by the Japanese military for its practice of forcing women to act as sex slaves for soldiers prior to and during World War II. Approximately 200,000 women in Asian countries occupied by Japan were herded into “comfort stations” where the brutal conditions led many to commit suicide. Women were often lured with phony promises of work in factories.

Abe criticized history textbooks printed by McGraw-Hill Education dealing with the issue. “I just looked at a document, McGraw-Hill’s textbook, and I was shocked,” the prime minister said. “This kind of textbook is being used in the United States, as we did not protest the things we should have, or we failed to correct the things we should have.”

The Japanese government has demanded that McGraw Hill revise the books. Officials from Japan’s Consulate General in New York met with the publishing company in December to voice their complaints. The company rejected Tokyo’s objections saying, “Scholars are aligned behind the historical fact of ‘comfort women’ and we unequivocally stand behind the writing, research and presentation of our authors.”

A large number of the women forced to serve as sex slaves came from Korea, but others were from China, the Philippines, Indonesia, and other countries. Many were too ashamed to speak about their horrific experiences and only began coming forward in the early 1990s. In 1993, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a formal but limited apology—known as the Kono Statement—to the victims.

Abe, who came to office in 2012, has been pressing for a revision of the Kono Statement. His government established a panel of so-called experts to examine the testimonies of former comfort women that formed the basis of the Kono Statement. Last June, the panel claimed that there was a lack of evidence that the women had been “forced” to serve as sex slaves. While not formally calling for the repeal of the Kono Statement, the purpose was clearly to cast doubt on the crimes of imperial Japan.

Right-wing apologists for the Japanese military have long claimed that the comfort women were not sex slaves, but were prostitutes. As a result, they conclude, the Japanese army was no different from other armed forces. In reality, the Japanese military organised and ran the “comfort stations.” Whether or not women were tricked or coerced into these hell-holes, they were not free to leave or to refuse to have sex with the soldiers.

Within Japan, extreme nationalists have targeted the liberal Asahi Shimbun over the issue. The newspaper last year retracted 18 articles published in the 1980s and 1990s dealing with comfort women. The articles were based on the testimony of Seiji Yoshida, a soldier who claimed to have rounded up women on Jeju Island in South Korea for the military brothels. Before his death in 2000, Yoshida admitted to changing certain aspects of his story.

The Abe government and its right-wing ideological allies have seized on the Asahi Shimbun’s retractions to claim all evidence of the crimes against comfort women is false. Led by Shoichi Watanabe, a professor at Sofia University, more than 10,000 have joined a lawsuit against the paper. Watanabe not only denies that women were forced into sexual slavery but also that the 1937 Rape of Nanking occurred, during which 300,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were massacred by the Japanese army.

These attempts to justify the past crimes of Japanese imperialism are in order to prepare for future wars. Last summer, Abe’s cabinet approved the “reinterpretation” of the constitution to allow for “collective self-defense.” This would enable Japan to take part in US wars of aggression particularly aimed against China. The United States is pushing Japan to play a larger role in Asia as part of the US “pivot to Asia” which is aimed at subordinating China to Washington’s economic and strategic interests.

Abe’s cabinet is stacked with ultra-right wing officials with connections to Nippon Kaigi, or Japan Conference, which promotes the lie that Japan went to war in the 1930s to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. It intends to revise textbooks in Japan to promote “patriotic values,” opposes gender equality, and erase war crimes such as the Rape of Nanking.

To serve this agenda, Abe also stated last week that a new, litigation bureau in the Justice Ministry would be created to handle lawsuits against Japan, claiming that they “seriously affected the nation’s honor.” While former comfort women have filed lawsuits against Japan, people forced to work as unpaid laborers in factories have also filed suits against Japanese companies. In May 2013, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that a 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo did not bar individuals from filing compensation claims.

A study released in January by the South Korean government found that 7.82 million Koreans were forced to work in Japanese factories between 1931 and 1945 at companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toyota, Nikon, and Nissan. In November 2013, the Gwangju Local Court in South Korea ruled against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after several women filed compensation claims. Nippon Steel Corporation lost a similar case that year in Seoul and Busan high courts. Both companies have appealed.

South Korean governments regularly exploit Japanese war crimes to engage in its own historical revisionism to cover up the role of Korean leaders in collaborating with Imperial Japan. Many within the South Korean elite enjoy their positions today thanks to their families’ willingness to serve Japanese colonial rule, which lasted from 1910–1945. This includes President Park Geun-hye whose father, the military dictator Park Chung-hee, was an officer in Japan’s Kwantung Army.

South Korean politicians often attempt to paint their anti-Japanese denunciations in progressive terms, by claiming to be seeking justice for victims. In reality, there is nothing progressive about this campaign. Its purpose is to whip up anti-Japanese chauvinism to distract from declining economic conditions like growing unemployment, particularly amongst youth. It drives a wedge between Korean and Japanese workers who suffered and continue to suffer from the same assaults on their rights and working conditions.

Pushing Putin to the Brink: A Dance with Death in Ukraine

Waltzing to Armageddon: The West's Dance with Death in Ukraine

by Chris Floyd - Empire Burlesque

Last week, the Obama Administration announced it is sending troops to Ukraine to "train" the Ukrainian National Guard. The folly of this move -- which, as later stories showed, is only the beginning of a much larger U.S. military involvement in Ukraine -- is so astounding and appalling as to defy comprehension.

What it amounts to, in essence, is deliberately provoking a crisis that will bring the world closer to a nuclear war than it has been since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, all for the sake of a territorial and political dispute in one corner of Ukraine. In following this insane policy, Obama is backed by the full weight of the entire bipartisan political establishment -- and by the media establishment, which is eagerly pushing a maniacal anti-Russianism unseen since the McCarthy era.

Nowhere is the latter more true than among many "progressive" writers -- people who easily saw the catastrophic danger of the push to war with Iraq, but are now championing an identical advance to an unnecessary war. Whereas before they rightly resisted the primitive "humanitarian intervention" argument that "Saddam is bad, therefore the war is good" -- even it is carried out by a transparently rapacious imperial system which had already killed, by its own admission, more than half a million Iraqi children through years of murderous, senseless sanctions -- now they swallow that specious argument whole: "Putin is bad, ergo we must now trust that same transparently rapacious imperial system to pursue the same policies and propaganda and demonization against Putin and Russia that it did against Saddam and Iraq -- but this time, everything will turn out fine! This time, we'll be the good guys! This time, we'll be on the right side of history!"

In many cases, the demonization of Putin seems to surpass that of Saddam. For our new-style Liberal war hawks, it is not enough that Putin is ruthless, authoritarian and heedless of law and morality in his exercise of power; he must be an inhuman monster, a "psychopath," mentally unstable, impossible to deal with in any rational manner, fit only to be gotten rid of, like a rabid dog. Yet in being ruthless, authoritarian, heedless of law and morality, Putin is exactly like his counterparts in the West -- especially the "leader of the free world" who meets with his security bosses every single week and ticks off names on a list of people to be assassinated without mercy, outside all legal process. Putin's regime also assassinates arbitrarily designated enemies, but on a scale and with a frequency that is several orders of magnitude below that of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in the White House.

But wait; Putin is notoriously corrupt, right, running the country for the benefit of a few well-connected oligarchs? That's bad! Yes, he is, and yes, it is. But even the Kremlin's epic corruption can hardly match that of Washington, which has given $14 trillion in bailouts and "guarantees" to the few well-connected oligarchs who run Wall Street. Trillions more have gone to the war profiteers who have benefited from the gargantuan corruption in the War on Terror's military operations. Likewise, Putin's repressive domestic regime finds strong echoes in America's militarized police forces, who routinely -- almost every week -- kill innocent people without any consequences. The Kremlin stifles dissent, cracks down any protest not specifically authorized by law; this is shocking, but -- where are America's "Occupy" encampments today? What happened to them? Where are the mass, permit-less protests, like those which evoked such furious repression in Russia? They don't exist in America either; protest is limited to specially designated, heavily policed "free speech zones." Anyone straying outside these strict limits risks a bashed head and a spell in stir.

None of these parallels excuse atrocious behavior on either side. The fact that the United States government has killed hundreds of thousands more innocent people than the Russian government has in the last 12 years does not make Putin a moral exemplar, or make him any less culpable for crimes carried out by his regime. But it does mean that all those who declare that Putin is a "psychopath" who cannot be reasoned with and who can only be resisted by military force must also apply those same epithets and approaches to the leaders of the West, especially the United States. But I see nothing of that among the liberal demonizers. At most, you might see a criticism or two of Obama, offered more in sorrow than in anger, and always mitigated with anecdotes about some cool thing he did, or some cool dig he made at the nasty Republicans -- who are, of course, entirely to blame for any bad thing that Obama might have been "forced" to do. (Oh, that awful Ted Cruz, breaking into the Oval Office every week and forcing Obama to murder people all over the world! Oh, that evil John Boehner, literally putting a gun to Obama's head and forcing him to prosecute people who reveal government crimes and to protect torturers and war criminals from any harm! And oh my god, that beastly Sarah Palin, who stuck Obama with a cattle prod and made him save the criminal bankers instead of the millions of people they ruined! O that poor man! O that poor, sweet, helpless man, who only wanted to do good!)

But enough of that for now. The folly of arming the Ukrainian National Guard is compounded by the prominent role played in that organization by avowedly neo-fascist groups like the Azov Battalion. I wrote recently of the disturbing neo-fascist elements now in ascendance in Ukraine; Chris Ernesto at focuses on the Azov Battalion in particular. These are the people that American taxpayers will soon be funding and arming and training:

According to the BBC, Azov’s aims are stated in one of their online publications: "To prepare Ukraine for further expansion and to struggle for the liberation of the entire White Race from the domination of the internationalist speculative capital," and "to punish severely sexual perversions and any interracial contacts that lead to the extinction of the white man."

"Run by the extremist Patriot of Ukraine organization, which considers Jews and other minorities "sub-human" and calls for a white, Christian crusade against them, it sports three Nazi symbols on its insignia: a modified Wolf’s Hook, a black sun (or "Hakensonne") and the title Black Corps, which was used by the Waffen SS," stated the BBC.

…Vadim Troyan, an Azov deputy commander was appointed as Police Chief of Kiev Oblast (Region). "If they are appointing people like this to positions of such importance and power it is a very dangerous signal to the Jewish community of Ukraine," said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office. "This is a very strange way of convincing the justifiably concerned Jewish world that there is no intention to encourage fascist sympathies or neo-Nazi activities."

…Azov’s founder, Andriy Biletsky, who also heads two neo-Nazi political groups, was elected to serve in Ukraine’s parliament while the battalion itself has been integrated into the country’s National Guard, according to Sky News’ Kemp.

Biletsky, who was given an "Order For Courage" award by Poroshenko, recently wrote, "The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival. A crusade against the Semite-led sub-humans. The task of the present generation is to create a Third Empire."

This is the mentality that American money is empowering in a region that has become the most volatile and dangerous place on earth. These are the people acting as America's proxies in what is increasingly becoming a direct military confrontation between the world's two largest nuclear arsenals. This is an act of monstrous, murderous, mind-boggling folly.

It precisely parallels the creation of the international jihadi movement by the United States and Saudi Arabia in order to goad the Kremlin in Afghanistan. We are still dealing with the ever-worsening consequences of that moral insanity more than 35 years later. The latest ISIS atrocity is a direct result of that policy, which originated in the Oval Office of yet another Nobel Peace Prize-winning "centrist" Democrat, Jimmy Carter. Now we are planting the seeds of another generation of evil, arming and funding violent extremists -- and for the same reason: to goad the Kremlin! -- who, like the jihadi "freedom fighters" of yore, will go on to pursue their own agendas.


Patrick Smith continues to write with depth and fervor on the West's drive to war with Russia. His latest piece gives a sharp and disturbing look at how the warmongers in Washington are working in happy tandem with the media -- particularly the New York Times -- in the Potomac Empire's latest Drang mach Osten:

As of Monday—as of Monday’s New York Times, to be precise—we are now on notice. In all probability, in a matter of months the U.S. will begin sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military. Those named as part of the deliberations for this turn in policy include Secretary of State Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Defense Secretary Hagel, Joint Chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey, and Philip Breedlove, the American commander of NATO’s military forces.

Look at the list. Two soldiers, who by training and tradition think in terms of military capability alone, a Vietnam veteran turned Republican hawk who is not noted for his field of vision, and two Democrats of the breed lately achieving egregious prominence, the liberal interventionists. The take-homes here are two: One, be on notice, too, that there is little consequential opposition, if any, as Washington once more reiterates America’s right to pursue the providential mission in every corner of the planet. Two, this is not about Ukraine: It is about a greatly craved face-off with Russia with a long history behind it.

I stand astonished we are hurtling toward armed confrontation at this speed, with no one in sight to check what starts to look like an obsessive-compulsive addiction to some kind of regeneration through violence.

“The U.S. has already dragged us into a new Cold War, trying to openly implement its idea of triumphalism,” Mikhail Gorbachev, whose subtle grasp of the divide between East and West is second to nobody’s, said in an interview last week. “Where will that lead all of us? Have they totally lost their heads?”

On this side of the concertina wire, we are amid a propaganda campaign that exceeds itself as we speak. The latest is an old Pentagon “study” leaked to the networks Wednesday —and dutifully reported in grave tones—purporting to establish that Vladimir Putin suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Any younger reader who does not understand why this column brays regularly about a return to the suffocating absurdities of the 1950s, now you know. Future generations will laugh, but we cannot now.

Along with the above-named officials, eight others gathered separately to publish a report urging—you will never guess—arming Ukraine against its rebellious population in the East and countering the yet-to-be-demonstrated Russian presence behind them. Here we have a retired Air Force general, a retired admiral, two former ambassadors to Ukraine and one to NATO, two former Pentagon officials (Michèle Flournoy could be defense secretary were Hillary Clinton to win in 2016), and Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton’s deputy defense secretary. Talbott now presides at the Brookings Institution, one of three think tanks to issue the report. ...The report recommends the U.S. send Ukraine $3 billion worth of anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, armored vehicles and radar systems to identify the source of rocket and artillery fire.

The choreography at work in the Times report is remarkable even for a paper accustomed to doing what it is told. Michael Gordon, a long-serving defense and security correspondent noted for his obedience, reported the deliberations in Washington (without naming a single source) the same day the Brookings report appeared (and in the same story).

First, anyone who continues to mistake a clerk such as Gordon for a journalist must by now be judged irredeemably naive. … Second and more important, the careful coordination of the disclosures spoon-fed Gordon suggests very strongly that a) public opinion is now being prepared for a new military intervention and b) planning for this intervention is in all likelihood already in motion.

And here we go. On Wednesday the defense secretary-designate, Ashton Carter, testified at his confirmation hearings that arming Ukraine would be fine with him. On Thursday Secretary Kerry arrived in Kiev to confer with the Poroshenko government. It will be interesting to read the reporting on this curiously timed visit in light of the artlessly artful manner in which we seem to be advised of our next war in the making.

It will also be interesting to see what, if anything, comes from the summit between Putin, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande who are meeting today (Friday) to discuss a peace plan. Will the Europeans be able to derail -- or at least delay -- the American drive for confrontation? Or has the bloodlust gone too far, as it did with Iraq? (You might recall the fate of the many diplomatic initiatives that tried to avert that war -- including Saddam's complete capitulation to all terms for unbridled inspection by the UN.)

Either way, with the entire American power structure now lined up for more conflict with the "psychopath" in the Kremlin, we have a treacherous path ahead of us.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Sinai's Secret War

The 'Great War' of Sinai: How to Lose a 'War on Terror'

by Ramzy Baroud  - Palestine Chronicle

The Sinai Peninsula has moved from the margins of the Egyptian body politic to the uncontested centre, as Egypt’s strong man – President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – finds himself greatly undercut by the rise of an insurgency that seems to be growing stronger with time.

Another series of deadly and coordinated attacks, on 29 January, shattered the Egyptian army’s confidence, pushing it further into a deadly course of war that can only be won by political sagacity, not bigger guns.

The latest attack was a blow to a short-lived sense of gratification felt by the regime that militancy in Sinai had been waning, thanks to a decisive military response that lasted for months. When militants carried out a multistage attack on an Egyptian military checkpoint in Sinai, on 24 October, killing 31 and wounding many, the Egyptian government and media lines were most predictable. They blamed “foreigners” for what was essentially a homegrown security and political crisis.

Instead of reexamining Egypt’s entire approach to the poor region of North Sinai, the army moved to further isolate Gaza, which has been under a very strict Israeli-Egyptian siege since 2007.

What has taken place in Sinai since last October was predictably shattering. It was seen by some as ethnic cleansing in the name of fighting terror. Thousands of families were being forced to evacuate their homes to watch them being detonated in the middle of the night, and resentment grew as a consequence.

And with resentment comes defiance. A Sinai resident, Abu Musallam, summed up his people’s attitude towards government violence: “They bomb the house; we build a hut. They burn the hut; we build another hut. They kill; we give birth.”

Yet despite a media blackout in Sinai, the scene of devastation created by the military campaign was becoming palpable. “Using bulldozers and dynamite” the army has demolished as many as 800 houses and displaced up to 10,000 people, the New York Times reported. Sisi spokesman referred to the demolished neighbourhoods as terrorist “hotbeds”. The long-discussed plan for a “buffer zone” between Egypt and Gaza was carried out, and to a more devastating degree than expected.

The Jerusalem Post quoted the Egyptian publication Al-Yom a-Sab’a, reporting that “the security forces will work to clear the area of underground tunnels leading to Gaza and it will also level any buildings and structures that could be used to conceal smuggling activity.”

But no Gaza connection was ever found. The logic of a Gaza connection was bewildering to begin with. Attacks of this nature are more likely to worsen Gaza’s plight and tighten the siege, since the tunnels serve as a major lifeline for the besieged Palestinians. If the attacks carry a political message, it would be one that serves the interest of Gaza’s enemies, Israel and rival Palestinian factions, for example, not Hamas.

But no matter, Sisi, who rarely paused to consider Sinai’s extreme poverty and near-total negligence by Cairo, was quick to point the finger. Then, he called on Egyptians to “be aware of what is being hatched against us. All that is happening to us is known to us and we expected it and talked about it before 3 July,” he said, referring to the day the military overthrew Mohammed Morsi.

In a televised speech, he blamed “foreign hands” that are “trying to break Egypt’s back,” vowing to fight extremism in a long-term campaign. Considering the simmering anger and sorrow felt by Egyptians, the attacks were an opportunity to acquire a political mandate that would allow him to carry whatever military policy that suited his interests in Sinai, starting with a buffer zone with Gaza.

While awaiting the bodies of the dead soldiers in Almaza military airport in Cairo, Sisi spoke of a “great war” that his army is fighting in the Sinai. “These violent incidents are a reaction to our efforts to combat terrorism. The toll during the last few months has been very high and every day there are scores of terrorists who are killed and hundreds of them have already been liquidated.”

Without much monitoring in Sinai, and with occasional horror stories leaking out of the hermetically sealed desert of 60,000 square kilometres, and the admission of “scores” killed “everyday,” Sinai is reeling in a vicious cycle.

Resentment of the government in Sinai goes back many years, but it has peaked since the ousting of President Morsi. True, his one year in power also witnessed much violence, but not at the same level as today’s.

Since the January 2011 revolution, Egypt was ruled by four different regimes: the supreme military council, the administration of Mohammed Morsi, a transitional government led by Adli Mansour, and finally the return of the military to civilian clothes under Sisi. None have managed to control the violence in Sinai.

Sisi, however, insists on using the violence, including the most recent attacks that struck three different cities at once – Arish, Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah – for limited political gain. He blamed the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) once more without providing much evidence. The MB, in turn, released a short statement blaming government neglect and brutality in Sinai for the violence, which promises to increase.

Following the October killings, I wrote: “If the intentions are to truly curb attacks in Sinai, knee-jerk military solutions will backfire.” Others too sounded the alarm that the security solution will not work.

What should have been common sense – Sinai’s problems are, after all, complex and protracted – was brushed aside in the rush for war. The folly of the military action in the last few months may be registering internationally, at last, but certainly not locally.

That denial is felt through much of the Egyptian media. A top military expert Salamah Jawhari declared on television that the “Sinai terrorists are clinically dead” and the proof is the well-coordinated attacks of 29 January. Per his logic, the attacks, which targeted three main cities all at once, were “scattered,” thus the “clinical death” of the militants. He blamed Qatar and Turkey for supporting the militants of Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which, as of November vowed allegiance to the so-called “Islamic State” (IS), announcing their new name: “The Sinai Province”.

The massive comeback of Sinai’s militants and the change of tactics indicate that the war in Sinai is heading to a stage unseen since the revolution, in fact since the rise of militancy in Sinai starting with the deadly bombings of October 2004, followed by the attack on tourists in April 2005 at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in the same year, and on Dahab in 2006. The militants are much more emboldened, angry and organised.

The audacity of the militants seems consistent with the sense of despair felt by the tribes of Sinai, who are caught in a devastating politically motivated “war on terror”.

The question remains: how long will it be before Cairo understands that violence cannot resolve what are fundamentally political and socio-economic problems? This is as true in Cairo as it is in Arish.

Ramzy - is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of He is currently completing his PhD studies at the University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).

Running with the Right: TorStar Joins Extremist Ukraine Narrative

Toronto Star Newspaper is Running with the Extreme Right in Ukraine

by Roger Annis - CounterPunch

The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily newspaper, is running with the neo-conservative government in Ukraine and the extreme right-wing parties and paramilitary militias with which the government is allied. ​That’s the conclusion that comes from reading the newspaper’s editorial opinion, its highly selective news offerings, and the articles of Star journalists that have been promoting the causes of the extreme-right in Ukraine.

As in the rest of mainstream media, the overriding theme of writing and publishing in the Star is that the war in eastern Ukraine is a war of “aggression” by Russia and “pro-Russian rebels”.

The case of Nadiya Savchenko

Twice in the past month, the Star has published articles by its journalists promoting the campaigns of the far right in Ukraine. The latest such article appeared on January 14, by Star foreign affairs writer Olivia Ward. It champions the cause of one Nadiya Savchenko, a member of the far-right ‘Aidar’ paramilitary battalion who has been in jail in Russia since June 2014.

Savchenko is a staunch ideologue of the war in eastern Ukraine. She took a “vacation” from her posting in the armed forces in order to join the Aidar Battalion and see action, not long after Kyiv launched its civil war in the east in April 2014. She was already known as one of only two women in Ukraine to volunteer and served in the U.S.-led war in Iraq in 2003. She is a trained pilot in the Ukrainian air force.

Savchenko faces criminal charges that she directed mortar fire in the Luhansk region on June 17 causing the deaths of two Russian journalists who were reporting on the conditions of war refugees in eastern Ukraine. Two other journalists, a Russian and Italian, were also killed by battalion mortars one month earlier, on May 24.

There are several versions of how Savchenko ended up in a Russian jail. One has her arrested by self defense forces and then transferred into the hands of the Russian judicial system. The other (the Russian government version) says she crossed the border into Russia and was detained.

Terming Savchenko Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc”, Olivia Ward writes, “She has shattered sexist stereotypes to become a poster girl for Ukraine’s battle with its giant neighbour, which has seized the Crimean Peninsula and is now eyeing Ukraine’s turbulent eastern region.”


Nadiya Savchenko

Savchenko has become a cause célèbre of the far right in Ukraine as a result of her detention. She was appointed to the Ukrainian Parliament (‘Rada’) following the election of Oct. 26, 2014 by the ‘Fatherland’ electoral machine of the billionaire, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (In Ukraine’s electoral system, parties appoint approximately half the seats to the Rada, proportional to the votes they receive.) She resigned from the armed forces following her appointment.

Small rallies demanding her release from custody were held in Ukraine’s larger cities on January 26.

Savchenko told a television news interview last spring that she resigned because she could not countenance what she considered the timidity of the Ukrainian government in not going to war against Russia. Her delusional logic was the following: since the war in the east is against a foreign, invading power, Russia, and its local lackeys (whom the Toronto Star and other Western media term ‘pro-Russian’ rebels), the Ukraine government should declare war on Russia and undertake a full military mobilization.

There is a twisted logic to Savchenko’s argument. Kyiv’s police operation in eastern Ukraine does, indeed, amount to full scale war. Its army is the field and is shelling towns and cities. The Kyiv government has declared martial law in the war zone and effectively exercises martial law throughout the country. It has given its police the right to preventively detain or even shoot on sight so-called “separatists”.

How can the neighbouring governments of Ukraine in eastern Europe or a skeptical public in western Europe and North America be convinced of the mission of a government in Kyiv going to war against its own people? Kyiv and its think-tank advisors from NATO countries have turned to a time-worn prop—the ‘anti-terrorist’ ideology of the post 9/11/2001 world. Kyiv calls its civil war in eastern Ukraine an “Anti-Terrorist Operation”. Voilà. Surely an endeavour so titled must be virtuous and worthy!

But that ruse proved unsatisfactory for the purist Savchenko. She wants the unblemished story, as her ideology would have it.

The Russian court has appointed lawyers to defend her. Her psychological state will be a factor in any trial. Her family has engaged the services of a Ukrainian lawyer who is traveling to Russia to defend her and is working with the Russian-appointed lawyers.

Nadiya Savchenko’s story was featured in the Nov 14, 2014 issue of the weekly fashion magazine in France, Elle. The magazine published a glamour story about the small number of women in Ukraine who have volunteered to fight with the extreme-right battalions. The magazine editors were caught out by some readers who noticed that one of the women that it featured was a brazen neo-Nazi who displays her fascist ideology on social media, including photos of herself giving Hitler salutes. The magazine apologized for glamorizing that particular neo-Nazi, but not for the overall adulation of Ukraine’s far-right battalions that its article lavished on readers.

The ‘Aidar’ fascist battalion

Just what is the ‘Aidar Battalion’ that the Toronto Star‘s heroine Savchenko joined last spring? It is one of the battalions of the extreme right in Ukraine issuing from the EuroMaidan uprising of late 2013/early 2014. The baptism of fire of the battalions or their precursors was in serving as the shock troops of the overthrow of president Victor Yanukovych in late February 2014. They have grown since that time and are serving as the shock troops of the war unleashed in April in the wake of EuroMaidan.

The battalions play two crucial roles in the war. One, many of the conscript soldiers of the Ukraine army have proven unwilling to follow orders to shoot their fellow citizens or enter into foolhardy combat in which they themselves could easily be killed. The more-ideological battalions have leapt into the breach to do the dirty work of shelling towns and cities and killing and abusing the rebellious people of occupied, eastern Ukraine.

Two, the extreme rightists maintain an autonomy from the command structure of the Kyiv government and its armed forces. As fascists, the political leadership of the battalions have a goal of eventually doing away with the last pretenses of democratic government in Ukraine and creating a racially and culturally “pure” country. The willingness of the Ukraine government and the NATO powers to train and arm the battalions, including under the formal umbrella of Ukraine’s National Guard paramilitary institution, is an important stage of empowerment for the fascists, even if it sometimes makes for a wary marriage of convenience.

Amnesty International is one of several human rights agencies to lift the veil of respectability that Western governments and media have accorded to the fascist battalions. It issued a statement on December 24 condemning Aidar and other battalions for blocking humanitarian shipments from Ukraine into eastern Ukraine. An earlier statement by Amnesty on Sept. 8 detailed “war crimes” it accuses Aidar of perpetrating in Luhansk, the region where Nadiya Savchenko was arrested.

Few Western media are reporting the uncomfortable details on the far-right in Ukraine because that gets in the way of the ‘blame Russia’ editorial narrative. One of the few outlets to buck that trend was the UK Telegraph back in August. Its reporter Tom Parfitt wrote a feature article on the ‘Azov’ Battalion. He explained, “Kiev’s use of volunteer paramilitaries to stamp out the Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, proclaimed in eastern Ukraine in March, should send a shiver down Europe’s spine. Recently formed battalions such as Donbas, Dnipro and Azov, with several thousand men under their command, are officially under the control of the interior ministry but their financing is murky, their training inadequate and their ideology often alarming.”

Parfitt asked one of the ‘Azov’ volunteers about his political views. The paramilitary replied, “After the First World War, Germany was a total mess and Hitler rebuilt it: he built houses and roads, put in telephone lines, and created jobs. I respect that.”

Homosexuality is a mental illness and the scale of the Holocaust “is a big question”, the volunteer added.

Parfitt went on, “Ukraine’s government is unrepentant about using the neo-Nazis. ‘The most important thing is their spirit and their desire to make Ukraine free and independent,’ said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Arsen Avakov, the interior minister. ‘A person who takes a weapon in his hands and goes to defend his motherland is a hero. And his political views are his own affair.’ ”

‘Medical aid’ for fascist battalions

One month ago, another Star writer, Tanya Talaga, published an article promoting another far-right cause—the ‘Patriot Defense’ medical aid project for the battalions. That publishing effort was exposed by this writer in an article published on December 29. I decided to expose the matter after an e-mail complaint that I sent to the writer and to the Star editors was ignored.

Indeed, I have sent a string of e-mails beginning last spring to Star editors complaining about their biased coverage of Ukraine. In August, I complained when the Star chose not to report that Ukraine Independence Day festivities in Toronto on August 23 featured a fundraising booth of the Ukrainian fascist party Right Sector. The group was raising funds for the purchase of military equipment.

The festivity was organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) and was attended by prominent Canadian politicians, including federal Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Chris Alexander and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn. Alexander rebuffed questions by reporters at Radio Canada (CBC French) after they noticed the high-profile presence of the Right Sector. They asked the minister if he was comfortable attending an event in which they would have such a prominent role. Premier Wynn delivered a rip-roaring, pro-war speech to the small crowd attending the day’s event.

The following month, The Star and its sister Toronto newspaper, the Globe and Mail, reported on a gala fundraiser for the war effort in Ukraine organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. That event was held on September 11. (Get it?—an event supporting the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” in eastern Ukraine on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack in New York City?) It featured Prime Minister Stephen Harper, professional hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and many prominent politicians in Ontario.

The Right Sector was again featured prominently by the UCC at an event in Toronto on November 29, to commemorate a one-year anniversary of the EuroMaidan movement. Right Sector operative Valeriy Chobotar was brought all the way from Ukraine as the featured speaker. NDP Member of Parliament Peggy Nash shared the platform with him and praised the war being waged by the Kyiv government and the battalions.

Amnesty International wrote in its Dec. 24 report, “These battalions often act like renegade gangs and urgently need to be brought under control. Denying food to people caught up in a conflict is against international law and the perpetrators must be held to account.” Alas, there is little “holding to account” going on at the desks of the Toronto Star.

Journalist integrity is running short

Some well-known journalists in the world (though none from Canada) have distinguished themselves in exposing how Western media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian are playing with fire in eastern Europe by supporting Kyiv’s ruinous war in eastern Ukraine and slamming Russia with an economic embargo and provocative military threats. Robert Parry of Consortium News, Patrick Smith, John Pilger and the writers for Counterpunch come to mind. Many others are similarly engaged, albeit out of the limelight.

Patrick Smith has just penned a new blast against the New York Times in He writes on January 21, “I am awestruck as news of recent events unfolds. Ukraine is more than an economic, political and military mess: It is a major humanitarian tragedy… How can we possibly arm neo-Nazis in Ukraine while right-wing extremists and anti-immigration atavists rise all over Europe?”

Canada’s print media cartel as well as the country’s public broadcaster, the CBC, are firmly in the camp of Kyiv’s and NATO’s war in eastern Ukraine, serving as mouthpieces for a crazy and reckless policy of confrontation with Russia that threatens war and is tipping Europe into an economic slump. Their propaganda effort is in high gear, once again, in recent days as self-defense forces have said ‘enough is enough’ of Kyiv’s violations of a supposed ceasefire signed in Minsk, Belarus on Sept 5. After enduring months of shelling of their towns and cities, including two savage attacks on buses so far this year that killed 25 people, self-defense forces of Donetsk and Luhansk regions were left with no choice but to strike back. Yet this act of self-defense, not the months of shellings and other war crimes by Kyiv that preceded it, is presented as a definitive rupture of the ceasefire against an innocent Kyiv regime.

Unless we are to naively trust that the mainstream media in Canada will eventually get things right, the ball is firmly in the court of alternative media to broadcast the truth of the war in Ukraine. Progressive and antiwar Canadians need to speak in larger and louder numbers against Ottawa’s and NATO’s pro-war course. The stakes are just too high to act otherwise.

Roger Annis is a frequent writer on the war in Ukraine. He is an editor of the website New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. The website publishes daily news and analysis by its editors and contributors and it reprints articles from other sources.

Postscript: The Toronto Star is plugging away in support the extreme-right battalions in Ukraine. In its edition of January 31, the Star promotes a stage play in Toronto which is raising funds for the ‘Patriot Defense’ fundraising campaign of battalion supporters. An article by Star writer Leslie Ferenc decribes the play titled ‘Counting Sheep’. The co-author of the play describes the political conflict and subsequent war in Ukraine during the past year as “an atrocity against humanity which became a full-blown Russian invasion”.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Losing a Grip on Israel/Palestine

US loses its grip on Israel and Palestinians

by Jonathan Cook in Nazareth

For 20 years, the White House stood guard over the peace process, reserving for itself the role of stewarding Israel and the Palestinians to a resolution of their conflict. Like some Godfather, the US expected unquestioning loyalty.

But Washington’s primacy in the relationship with both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships is unravelling at astonishing speed.

The crisis has been building for six years. Barack Obama arrived at the White House just as Israel elected one of the most right-wing governments in its history, led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

At their first meeting Obama reportedly told his Israeli counterpart “not one more brick”, insisting on a settlement-building freeze so that Washington could revive the long-stalled Oslo peace process.

Netanyahu soon defied the president, and has been doing so ever since. The latest humiliation – the final straw, according to White House officials – was Netanyahu’s success in engineering an invitation to address the US Congress next month.

By all accounts, the Israeli prime minister hopes to undermine a key plank of Obama’s foreign policy – negotiating a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme – by persuading Congress to stiffen sanctions against Tehran. That risks a crisis that might ultimately drag the US into war with Iran.

But Netanyahu is not alone in testing Obama’s power. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has also recently chosen to bypass the White House. After years of fruitless waiting, he has pinned his hopes on new international sponsors who can help him achieve his goal of statehood.

Ignoring White House injunctions, he has pressed ahead with resolutions at the United Nations and has now deployed his doomsday weapon: joining the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague. Israelis are calling this a “diplomatic intifada” and urging the US to cut its $400 million annual aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Just as with a mafioso boss, Obama is in trouble if he can no longer inspire fear, let alone respect. But the problem is all his own making.

For six years, Netanyahu “spat in our face”, as one White House official memorably observed of the latest crisis, and paid no discernible price for his impudence. Conversely, Abbas has done everything the Obama administration asked of him, and has precisely nothing to show for his efforts.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships believe separately that they have core – even existential – interests that the White House is now an obstacle to realising.

Abbas’ disobedience is born of necessity. Aware that the US will never act as honest broker in the peace process, he has been forced to turn to international forums, where Washington’s power is weaker, in the hope of forcing Israel to concede a small Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s move, meanwhile, is based on the risky calculation that he can manoeuvre the US into a confrontation with Iran to maintain Israel’s regional domination. In doing so, he has made two dubious assumptions.

The first is that he can wait out Obama, who has little more than a year and a half left in office. Netanyahu is betting on a hardline Republican successor who will follow his lead against Tehran.

He may well be disappointed. Even assuming a Republican wins, their hawkish campaign rhetoric on Iran will be fiercely tested by the limitations of office. The US intelligence agencies and military will be instructing the next president in the same cold political realities faced by Obama.

And second, Netanyahu believes he can use the Congress to stymie any threat of an agreement between Washington and Tehran. His working assumption is that the Congress is “Israeli-occupied territory”, as a US observer once called it.

Certainly, Israel has enormous sway in the Congress, but Netanyahu is already getting a lesson in the limits of his influence when up against a cornered US president.

Leading Democrats, it seems, are choosing to side with Obama. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, has already warned that many Democrats may boycott Netanyahu’s speech. Others may attend but sit on their hands rather than join in the rapturous applause he received last time he addressed Congress.

And here is one of the several warning signs Netanyahu has adamantly refused to heed.

His – and Israel’s – influence in the US depends on its bipartisan nature. By taking on the president, Netanyahu risks smashing apart Washington’s political consensus on Israel and exposing the American public for the first time to a debate about whether Israeli interests coincide with US ones.

The very rift he is fostering with Obama is likely to rebound on him strategically too. He is giving Tehran every incentive to sign an accord with the western powers, if only to deepen the fracturing relationship between Israel and Washington.

Meanwhile, the ICC has preferred to initiate an investigation itself against Israel for war crimes, even before the Palestinians’ accession, rather than wait for the threats of retaliation from Israel and the White House to escalate.

What the unravelling of the triangular relationship has achieved – stoked by Netanyahu’s intransigence towards the Palestinians and insolence towards the US – is an opening up of diplomatic wriggle room.

Others states, from Europe to Russia, China and Iran, and international bodies such as the ICC, will fill the void left by Washington’s diminishing credibility and start to shape perceptions about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

That could yet have unpredictable – and dangerous – consequences for Israel.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. He is the author of “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is .

A version of this article first appeared in the National, Abu Dhabi.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Understanind the Dynamics of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

Foreign Jihadism in Syria: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

by Small Arms

Map of Syria showing strongholds of the Islamic State of Iraq
and al Sham (ISIS) as of December 2013.

This Dispatch is also available to download as a pdf [680 kb]

As the war in Syria began to intensify in late 2011, the exhortation to go to Syria to fight or help was seen on Islamic Internet forums and heard in mosques all over the world. Since then Syria has proved a magnet for foreign volunteer fighters from a range of countries. Though their numbers are not conclusively known, it is believed that at least 8,000 and perhaps as many as 11,000 ‘international jihadists’ are currently in Syria.[1]

Although the conflict in Syria started as an internal uprising, the ‘revolution’ currently appears to have been co-opted by international players. Prominent among these are militant Sunni jihadists, in particular members of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).[2] Given the high profile assumed by truly Islamist groups like ISIS, outside observers commonly think of them as being the dominant forces in the conflict. This perception is trumpeted by the Syrian government, which casts itself as the last rampart in the fight against al-Qaeda and its brand of violent international terrorism.

The reality on the ground, however, is more nuanced than either the Syrian government or most outsiders describe. ISIS is usually said to be well organized, well armed, and well funded. This is partially true and explains why it has managed to assume a significant role in the conflict. On the other hand, the backlash launched by previously allied militant groups against ISIS at the beginning of January 2014 is evidence that its prominence should not be conflated with leadership.

This Dispatch intends to offer a snapshot of the engagement of foreign fighters in Syria at the end of 2013, with an emphasis on assessing ISIS’s strengths and weaknesses. In so doing, it seeks to answer the following questions: How did the foreign fighters come to ISIS? What was ISIS’s operational impact? Does the example of ISIS in Syria offer evidence about the future of transnational jihadism?

The information in this Dispatch is drawn from a series of interviews held by the author in Istanbul, Antakya, Reyhanli, Gaziantep, and Kilis from 13 to 25 September 2013. These interviews were with Syrian doctors, logisticians, journalists, lawyers, and judges, as well as non-Syrian activists (especially from the Caucasus region) involved with humanitarian organizations in the region.[3] Key findings of the Dispatch include the following:

Recruiting networks outside Syria do not appear to be structured. Instead, a largely bottom-up voluntary recruitment and routing process is in place.

Foreign fighters in Syria are most concerned with the political context of their home countries set in a regional perspective. The special place of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria) in Islamic doctrine and the fight against the Syrian government’s injustices are lesser motivations.

ISIS’s strength should not be overestimated. While it has some comparative advantages, it does not maximize them, or they are outweighed by its weaknesses.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham: objectives, strengths, and weaknesses

ISIS is an Islamist group led from Baghdad by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The group is made up of Sunni Muslims drawn mainly from Syria, but with significant numbers from foreign countries, particularly Iraq, the Gulf States, and the Arabian Peninsula. Though it professes close ideological ties with al-Qaeda, it is not formally affiliated with the group.

ISIS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), founded by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. With the death of its leader in June 2006, AQI merged with some other Iraqi jihadist groups and by October 2006 had rebranded itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). In this guise ISI served as the umbrella organization for most jihadist groups and their fighters in Iraq at the time (Caillet, 2013). Although ISI nominally started as an al-Qaeda ‘franchise’, it never claimed to be part of the organization. Despite its ideological and even close operational links, ISI always maintained a formal autonomy.

In April 2013 ISI moved to open another front in its ‘operations’, calling itself ISIS and unilaterally declaring a merger with the Syrian-led Islamist opposition group Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN).[4] This declaration was immediately rejected by Abu Muhammed al-Jolani, the leader of JAN.[5] The merger was also criticized by the ‘emir’ of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri.[6] The response of ISIS and al-Baghdadi was a public refutation of al-Zawahiri’s arguments and indicated an explicit break between ISIS and al-Qaeda (Moos, 2013).[7] As of late 2013 ISIS was considered by some to be a rival of JAN. Though it came late to the fight, ISIS has gradually assumed a higher profile among the Syrian opposition as a whole and the Islamist component of the opposition in particular (Sly and DeYoung, 2013).[8]
Recruiting foreign fighters

Few foreign volunteers arrive without prior contact with people or organizations in Syria. Most seem to have been referred to contacts inside Syria by others: friends already in Syria, casual acquaintances from home (from the mosque or the workplace, for example), or people contacted via online social networks (mainly Facebook, and usually after a process of referral by ‘friends of friends’).[9] Thus far, the recruitment of foreign fighters has been more a function of a bottom-up ideological process than a managed one, i.e. although recruiting ‘networks’ functionally exist, they do not appear to be structured.[10]

Box 1 Anatomy of recruitment[11]

In practice, much of the recruitment is tied to local mosques, although not necessarily organized by mosque authorities. A given mosque may prove fertile ground for both recruitment and fundraising. The latter may be formally encouraged: in popular mosques in Fatih (the historic conservative quarter of Istanbul), for example, believers are regularly and strongly reminded of the third pillar of Islam: zakat or compulsory charity. The groups receiving donations may not necessarily be formally connected to the mosque and their charitable purpose may not be clear, e.g. donations taken to ‘ease the suffering’ of fellow Muslims in Syria may be used for travel expenses for volunteer fighters and even the purchase of weapons. The same ‘charity’ organizers (or people affiliated with them) may also provide volunteers with contacts in Syria and even ‘recruit’ interested young men to go and fight. Nevertheless, the presence of fundraising organizations–even informal recruitment by people associated with these organizations– should not be understood to equate with the existence of a formal recruiting network.

At the front lines and in the Turkish border cities, all fighting groups (ISIS in particular) have established coordinated border-crossing schemes to help foreign fighters to enter Syria.[12] Syrian-based ‘transfer coordinators’ refer arriving volunteers for a particular group to that group’s associated logisticians on the other side of the border. Each coordinator is in charge of a specific border region, moving the incoming foreign fighters across the border and into the ranks of the particular unit.[13] Once contacted by a prospective foreign fighter, the logistician collects him, drives him to a way station (usually a flat or rest house), feeds him, and helps him buy necessary supplies. When all the prospective volunteers in a given ‘recruiting class’ have arrived, the logistician will arrange for the group to cross the Syrian border. This crossing may be either legal or clandestine, usually depending on the volunteers’ wishes.[14] Once in Syria the logisticians ensure that the volunteers in their transfer groups join the appropriate unit in the designated place. Recently there have been reports that ISIS-affiliated logisticians were more active than before and in comparison to others.[15] This may suggest that foreign volunteers are joining ISIS in increasing numbers.
ISIS’s advantages: internationalization

ISIS’s rapid growth among Syrian opposition movements is partially attributable to its failed merger with the Syrian-dominated JAN in April 2013. JAN’s rejection of the merger was in part linked to its reluctance to engage in a transnational project, preferring to concentrate on the conflict in its homeland, Syria. JAN’s reaction may have prompted the departure of the foreigners who had joined it in 2012, when JAN was perceived to be the most radical and most internationally oriented movement of the Islamist opposition.[16] After leaving JAN, these fighters joined ISIS, swelling its ranks. Thus, al-Jolani’s ‘principled stand’ cost him much in practical terms: ISIS gained new fighters and capacities, which likely gave it victories and territory it might otherwise not have had.[17] JAN’s loss also caused its own decline as a fighting force, which lasted until the end of summer 2013.

JAN’s fortunes have recovered since the last quarter of 2013. It does not appear that this recovery was made at the cost of any organization. Nevertheless, it is apparent that JAN has gradually restored its former strength, both in terms of men and materiel. JAN is also resuming its position as a credible alternative to ISIS; in September 2013 some secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in and around ar-Raqqah allied themselves with JAN (OE Watch, 2013, p. 23).
ISIS’s advantages: funding

ISIS’s recruitment efforts have continued to increase its numbers of foreign fighters. Its solid funding—based in part on its own activities, primarily refining oil drilled in Syria’s ‘liberated’ areas (Hubbard, Krauss, and Schmitt, 2014), and in part on sums that volunteers bring with them (often derived from the Muslim custom of zakat)—is rumoured to allow it to pay its fighters a salary.[18] In a sense, ISIS’s increasing visibility and wealth have become self-sustaining: the more foreign fighters it has in its ranks, the more newly arrived foreign fighters seek to join, preferring to fight for a well-funded and consequently well-armed organization. As the ranks swell, the more educated and wealthy foreigners also gravitate to ISIS, taking up leadership positions in the field and bringing yet more money and networks of contacts to the group. This in turn has had the effect of forcing Syrian-born militants into a Faustian choice: in the struggle to liberate their homeland they can fight for pay under foreign leadership (which may or may not share their ultimate goals) or fight for free Syrian leaders with uncertain prospects.[19]
ISIS’s advantages: weapons

At present, all significant opposition groups are able to provide basic weaponry to volunteers for an estimated average price of USD 2,000, e.g. a Kalashnikov-pattern rifle.[20] Each group has developed its own armoury, with weapons acquired in various ways.[21] In addition, the FSA and some Islamist groups (including JAN) have benefited from arms and ammunition transfers from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.[22] These transfers are likely made through either Turkey or Jordan, whose governments maintain tight control of their distribution.[23]

In comparison to its competitors, ISIS is far less reliant on others for its arms and ammunition. Based on their own stable funding schemes, ISIS units can afford to buy arms from private traders, particularly in the well-stocked Iraqi markets, where weapons have accumulated during the past ten years.[24] Its financial strength gives ISIS a flexibility and choice that most of its rivals among the opposition lack.
ISIS’s disadvantages: numbers and focus

ISIS lacks sufficient numbers to be widely effective as a fighting force. The group is largely made up of foreign fighters, with numbers estimated in the thousands.[25] Other units affiliated with the FSA or ‘moderate’ Syrian Islamists, e.g., among others, Liwa al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqour al-Sham, and Liwa al-Tawhid, have greater numbers.[26] In fact, in all regions of Syria other factions outnumber ISIS militants.

Beyond numbers, ISIS’s diverse membership may be a source of weakness. Though it attracts foreign fighters in greater numbers than other groups, the latter groups often have a more homogeneous make-up, e.g. Libyans fighting with Libyan groups or Russian-speaking militants (mainly from the Caucasus) fighting with fellow Russian speakers.[27] These nation-based groupings often fight independently of oversight, seizing and controlling their own territory under their own commanders.[28] Up until the end of 2013 these groups only coordinated their efforts with other opposition forces on an ad hoc basis, depending on which groups were available or willing to join operations and which capacities were missing from the proposed joint force. From the beginning of 2014 and the increase in infighting among opposition groups, however, such alliances have tended only to be with ISIS.[29]
ISIS’s disadvantages: territorial control

Perhaps recognizing the limitations that the relatively small numbers of its fighters impose, the ISIS leadership has focused on seizing opposition-held territory by attacking specific FSA commanders in charge of defined territories. These attacks are usually in areas as close as possible to border-crossing points. The aim appears to be to destabilize the FSA presence. The fighting in the city of Azaz, close to the Turkish border, is an instructive example of this.[30] In mid-September, under the pretext of arresting a German doctor based in a refugee camp near the Turkish border, ISIS troops attempted to take over the city from the Northern Storm (Asift al-Shamal), an FSA-affiliated unit. By 18 September ISIS units controlled large parts of Azaz and guarded all entrances to the city, leaving only the border crossing at Bab al-Salamah and the city’s hospital under Northern Storm control. On the following day a third and much more powerful unit allied with the Syrian opposition, the Aleppo-based Liwa al-Tawhid, was called in to mediate. ISIS was obliged to retreat and surrender half of its positions.[31]

These limitations are also reflected in the number and nature of areas under ISIS control. It must be said that ISIS does not exclusively control any significant territory, either urban or rural, apart from a few places.[32] Where it has gained control in places like ar-Raqqah, Atimah, and Binnish, ISIS has done so in loose coordination with actions taken by the FSA or other Syrian Islamist groups.[33] And despite its concerted efforts, it still does not control any border-crossing posts. Effectively, ISIS must coordinate with other opposition units to effectively exercise unilateral control over any specific territory; it is too small and (relatively) weak to control territory on its own.[34]

Numbers alone do not explain ISIS’s lack of success in maintaining exclusive control of territory. ISIS fighters’ aggressive enforcement of their notions of Islam on local populations has not been welcomed—Syrian teachers, for instance, are reluctant to work in ISIS-managed schools.[35] Furthermore, according to some observers, ISIS has been largely unsuccessful in running simple, but vital public services, such as bakeries or electrical grids.[36] Its commanders have also reportedly failed to keep some of the factories they have seized working efficiently.

ISIS, foreign fighters, and global jihadism

Rhetoric versus reality

As a transnational Islamist group inspired by al-Qaeda’s ideology and practices—and despite the formal break with al-Qaeda—ISIS carries the banner for global jiahdism in the Syrian conflict. This public stance appears to have made ISIS a key umbrella group for foreign fighters in Syria. A detailed examination of its ideological, operational, and political features belies this appearance, however. First, at an ideological level, despite a clear message promoting Islamic jihadism and the strict implementation of sharia law, ISIS has failed to implement these policies on the ground. As noted above, some ISIS groups have alienated local populations in their attempts to force on them ISIS’s version of sharia law.

Conversely, ISIS’s rigid interpretation of sharia has served as a recruiting tool among foreign fighters. It appears that its successes has also pushed the general tone and tenor of the rhetoric used by other Syrian Islamist groups towards its more radical publicly espoused views. As a result, where initially ISIS had a near monopoly on recruiting foreign fighters, this is no longer the case. Moreover, the support that ISIS’s radical views has engendered among other militant groups cannot be said to be unqualified, though powerful and relatively homogeneous foreign groups—for example, Libyans or fighters from the Caucasus (led by Abu Umar al-Shishani)—have pledged allegiance to ISIS. This pledge does not likely mean allegiance to any eventual transnational Islamic state, the ostensible goal of ISIS (FI Syria, 2013). Indeed, when al-Shishani was appointed by ISIS’s emir, al-Baghdadi, to be the group’s northern region commander, he publicly hesitated for months before officially professing loyalty to the ISIS leader (Kavkaz Center, 2013).[37]

The power and prestige of ISIS is limited by realities on the ground. A violent backlash against the group in the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, and ar-Raqqah demonstrates its limited capacities in what remains a mainly Syrian conflict (Morris, 2014). When ISIS oversteps—as it was perceived to have done in September 2013 in the Azaz district—it is ‘put back in its place’ by other, larger and more powerful groups (Landis, 2014).[38] Intra-opposition hostilities are reported to have occurred in over 40 separate locations, resulting in ISIS losing control of as many as 24 of them (Lister, 2014).[39]
Bringing politics from home

As a transnational and global framework, ISIS has not had a significant impact to date. It remains one group among others, attracting certain foreigners with specific political views and from a few regions: primarily Iraq, the Gulf States, and the Arabian Peninsula. The political motivation of its volunteers can be described as the establishment of a strong, Islamist-oriented Sunni state in Iraq and the region to serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence. As such, ISIS targets Shia groups fighting in the region as much as the current Syrian regime.

In contrast to ISIS’s transnational focus, other foreign volunteers are in Syria to further the ‘fight’ in their own countries. Fighters from the Caucasus, for example, are unable to effectively fight the Russian Federation at home. They have thus turned to fighting Syria as a Russian client, while also coming to the aid of ‘their Syrian brothers’. Most of them hope that, after Assad’s removal, their fellow fighters—especially foreigners—will join them in the Caucasus and take the fight directly to the Russian Federation. This is likely true for many other foreign fighters in Syria, who are in the country because it does not make sense to rebel in their home countries.[40] Although their respective dictators fell early in the Arab Spring, Tunisians and Libyans hope to also punish Assad for all his injustices. ‘Winning’ in Syria could reinforce the Islamist awakening back home.[41] Given this, one may generalize and say that the motivation for many—if not most—foreign fighters operating in Syria is primarily to mirror the political context in their home countries in a regional context: Arabian Peninsula nationals oppose Iran, those from the North Caucasus oppose the Russian Federation, and the Islamist North Africans oppose the secular North Africans. In this reading, ISIS is one movement among many, with its focus on Iraq and the Gulf.
Embarrassing relations: jihadi ties to the West

Though the fight against the injustices of the Assad regime is a compelling narrative for the Western media and a good recruitment slogan for Islamist groups, no true global jihad is taking place in Syria today. Foreign fighters remain rooted in their original regional backgrounds and no overarching ideology has yet been able to overcome those political divisions. This is not to say that such a consensus might not emerge within a few years or a decade, only that it does not exist now. This puts the Islamist factions in Syria in an awkward public position. On the one hand, they are calling for Western intervention and reproach Western states for doing nothing, while on the other hand, they fear being targeted alongside the regime.[42] They are certain that, should the United States engage in hostilities in Syria, it will take the opportunity to ‘destroy everyone’.[43] The capture of an al-Qaeda operative in Libya in the first days of October certainly reinforced the Islamist factions in such views (The Telegraph, 2013).


The territory of Bilad al-Sham is the latest front of international jihad, occupying a position similar to Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and the Sahel, and formerly occupied by Libya. This process of international jihad has not really overlapped with the indigenous Syrian uprising against the Assad regime as embodied by the FSA and local Islamist fighters. The establishment by seven Islamist groups of the Islamic Front (al-Jabhat al-Islamiya) is evidence of this, as both the FSA and the ISIS were excluded, at least formally (Heras, 2013). For Syrians in the opposition, the struggle against the Assad regime remains the priority, regardless of their political stripe; the transnational aspects exist, but often resemble more of a rallying cry than a real military and political undertaking.

Despite its apparent wealth and allure for foreign fighters, ISIS appears to be one group among equals. It does not dominate, and where it has strategic strongholds in secondary cities it must share control with organizations often more powerful than it is, e.g. the Islamic Front. Perhaps more critical is that ISIS does not maximize its position as the most popular group for arriving foreign fighters by allying, formally or tactically, with critical foreign battalions such as those from Libya or the Caucasus. Pledges of ‘allegiance’ to ISIS have tended to be more ideological than practical in nature.

The failure of transnational jihadist groups to thus far control the fight in Syria may tell us more about the al-Qaeda ‘franchises’ that formed in the second half of the first decade of the 21st century. These al-Qaeda ‘2.0’ groups have gradually become independent from the original al-Qaeda structure. To some extent the al-Qaeda franchises have strategically betrayed the group’s primary objective and targeted the ‘near enemy’ rather than the ‘far enemy’.[44] Acting against and striking directly at the West is not an immediate goal for all these groups, although it remains an option. Instead, they focus on the kafir (non-believer) states, i.e. states that ‘skew’ the law of Islam and compromise themselves by collaborating with European countries and the United States. Shia groups and states like Iran, as well as its proxy militias like Hezbollah, are included among the kafir states. For the present, based on the evidence of Syria, these are the narratives that frame international jihadist commitments.

History has shown that local conflicts can become breeding grounds for groups that do target the ‘far’ enemy. The longer the conflict in Syria rages and the more foreign fighters are drawn to its siren song, the more likely it is that their capacities to carry out attacks will develop and they will leave the immediate conflict zone for neighbouring countries or beyond. Even if the transnational Salafist-jihadist perspective is weak today, there are no guarantees it will still be so in the future.

List of abbreviations

AQI Al-Qaeda in Iraq

FSA Free Syrian Army

ISI Islamic State of Iraq

ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

JAN Jabhat al-Nusra

AlJazeera, 2013. ‘Free Syrian Army Commander Killed by Rivals.’ Web edition, 12 July.

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) News. 2013. ‘Who Is Supplying Weapons to the Warring Sides in Syria?’ Web edition, 14 June.

Caillet, Romain. 2013. ‘De la désaffiliation de l'Etat islamique à al-Qaïda.’ Al Huffington Post (Maghreb). Web edition, 10 August.

Chivers, C. J. and Eric Schmitt. 2013. ‘Arms Shipments Seen from Sudan to Syria Rebels.’ New York Times. Web edition, 12 August.

FI 2013. ‘Umar al-Shishani prisyagnul Abu Bakru al-Baghdadi.’ 21 November.

Heras, Nicholas. 2013. ‘Syria’s Most Powerful Opposition Groups Unite.’ Militant Leadership Monitor, Vol. 4, No. 11. 27 November. Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation.

Hubbard, Ben, Clifford Krauss, and Eric Schmitt. 2013. ‘Rebels in Syria Claim Control of Resources.’ New York Times. Web edition, 28 January.

Infidel Democracy (كافر بالديمقراطية). 2013. ‘ابي بكر البغدادي / باقية في العراق والشام.’ YouTube, posted 14 June.

Kavkaz Center. 2013. ‘Obrashcheniye komanduyushchego Severnym napravleniyem IGIS, Amira Umara Shishani.’ 7 August.

Landis, Joshua. 2014. ‘The Battle between ISIS and Syria’s Rebel Militias.’ Syria Comment. 4 January.

Laub, Zachary and Jonathan Masters. 2014. ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq (a.k.a. Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria).’ Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder. 9 January.

Lister, Charles. 2014. ‘Syria’s New Rebel Front.’ Brookings, 8 January.

Mohamedou, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould. 2011. Understanding Al Qaeda: The Transformation of War. London: Pluto Press.

Moos, Olivier. 2013. ‘Syrie: querelle de légitimité pour la direction du jihad entre Jabhat an-Nusra et l'Etat Islamique d'Irak et du Levant—entretien avec Romain Caillet.’ Religioscope. Web edition, 4 July.

Morris, Loveday. 2014. ‘Syrian Rebels Pin down al-Qaeda-linked Fighters in Raqqah.’ Washington Post. Web edition, 6 January.

— and Suzan Haidamous. 2013. ‘Al-Qaeda-linked Fighters Seize Syrian Town of Azaz from More Moderate Rebels.’ Washington Post. Web edition, 18 September.

National Counterterrorism Center. 2014. ‘Al-Qa’ida in Iraq.’ Counterterrorism 2014 Calendar.

OE Watch. 2013. ‘Reshuffling the Deck in Raqqa.’ Foreign Military Studies Office ‘OE Watch’, Vol. 3, No. 11. November, pp. 23–24.

Reuters. 2013. ‘Al Qaeda Kills Free Syrian Army Commander: FSA Spokesman.’ 11 July.

Sly, Liz and Karen DeYoung. 2013. ‘Largest Syrian Rebel Groups Form Islamic Alliance, in Possible Blow to U.S. Influence.’ Washington Post. Web edition, 25 September.

Souleyman, Aba. 2013. Personal Facebook page. 23 October.

The Telegraph (London). 2013. ‘Libya Asks US for Explanation over Arrest of al-Qaeda Leader.’ Web edition, 7 October.

Zelin, Aaron. 2013. Foreign Jihadists in Syria: Tracking Recruitment Networks. Policy Analysis. Washington, DC: Washington Institute. 19 December.

[1] This Dispatch defines ‘international jihadist’ as someone who seeks to use violence to establish the rule of Islam and its sharia law over a territory. The term is used interchangeably with ‘foreign fighter’, because Western media coverage of the Syrian conflict has made them commonly understood synonyms. Also ‘national jihadists’—often labelled as ‘Syrian Islamists’—exist in Syria, mostly comprising the Islamist Front. Note that the numbers referred to in this Dispatch are estimates based on the best available information (e.g. Zelin, 2013). Other, mainly Islamist-oriented groups often use larger estimates, including up to the generally accepted ceiling of 11,000 foreign fighters/international jihadists. Concrete and reliable data is not available.

[2] This Dispatch will be limited to a discussion of Sunni jihadists. The presence of Shia jihadists (from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran) is undeniable in Syria, but is the result of a very different set of circumstances than those of their co-religionists.

[3] The author would like to point out that all sources consulted were either themselves trusted sources or persons who were recommended as both truthful and knowledgeable by trusted sources. Interviews with these sources were generally conducted with the aid of a translator, except where the source spoke English or Russian. All interviews were conducted in an open, non-directed style. Where possible, assertions made by sources were crosschecked with other sources. Given the fluid nature of the conflict and the information pertaining thereto, the information in this Dispatch is primarily derived from the field sources described above.

[4] See National Counterterrorism Center (2014).

[5] Little is known about Emir al-Jolani. He is thought to have fought in Iraq in 2003, but quickly returned to Syria and was imprisoned. One month after being opportunely released in December 2011 he founded JAN and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri. There are rumours of a link with the Assad regime, which might make sense if Damascus had decided to make things ‘worse’ as part of its oft-repeated justification for its own actions, i.e. that it is fighting against al-Qaeda and international Salafism (author interview with a Syrian journalist, Antakya, September 2013).

[6] No ISIS emir for Syria could be positively identified apart from al-Baghdadi, who is based in Iraq. Several ISIS ‘field emirs’ are known, however, including Abu Abdurakhman (a Kuwaiti) in Azaz and the Abu Lukman (an Iraqi) who serves as the emir for ar-Raqqah in eastern Syria. The formal position of Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesperson in Syria, is unclear, though it is possible that he is also the ISIS’ ‘general emir’ in Syria (author interview with a Syrian logistician, Antakya, September 2013).

[7] Audio message by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; see Infidel Democracy (2013); Moos (2013).

[8] Notably, in the period between July and December 2013 ISIS’s military capacity gained wider notice. This occurred concurrently with the increasing prominence of its proposed implementation of sharia (here used to describe the sociopolitical policies that ISIS purports to support and impose on territories under its control).

[9] Author interviews with Syrian logisticians and journalists in Antakya, Reyhanli, and Kilis, September 2013.

[10] Two sources posited that proper recruitment ‘frameworks’ theoretically exist in the Middle East, notably in the Gulf and the Maghreb. These ‘networks’ could be al-Qaeda affiliated, though this is not necessarily the case (author interview with a Syrian journalist and Syrian logistician, Antakya, September 2013).

[11] This section is based on a variety of interviews and the author’s own observations in Fatih, Istanbul, July 2013.

[12] Author interviews with Syrian logisticians and journalists, Antakya and Reyhanli, September 2013.

[13] Each region is represented—ar-Raqqah, Aleppo, Idlib, and Lattakia—and the logisticians are thus located in Akçakale for access to ar-Raqqah, in Kilis/Gaziantep for Aleppo, in Antakya/Reyhanli for Idlib and Aleppo, and in Antakya for Lattakia. For ISIS-affiliated groups, transfer coordinators are called ‘emirs of the borders’ (author interview with a Syrian logistician affiliated with ISIS).

[14] Some volunteers prefer to keep a low profile and not put their families back home at risk.

[15] Author interview with a Syrian journalist, Antakya, September 2013. He asserted that in July 2013 one of his contacts among ISIS logisticians in Antakya ‘smuggled’ around 300 al-Qaeda foreign fighters into Syria.

[16] Author interview with an Islamist ideologue from the Caucasus, Istanbul, July 2013. The information was later confirmed by an interview with Imkander, a Turkish humanitarian NGO based in Istanbul, Istanbul, July and September 2013.

[17] As an example, ISIS is now powerful in the ar-Raqqah region, controlling some factories, arsenals, and oil wells together with the regular income they generate (author interviews with an Islamist ‘ideologue’ from the Caucasus and Khalid Khoja, Istanbul, September 2013).

[18] Author interviews with Syrian journalists and a Syrian logistician, Antakya and Reyhanli, September 2013. At that time ISIS was said to be the only structure able to pay its fighters.

[19] As one interviewee put it: ‘Unlike wealthy foreigners, many Syrians have nothing to offer but their lives’ (author interview with a Syrian doctor, Reyhanli, September 2013).

[20] This information was received and corroborated during various interviews with Syrian logisticians, lawyers, and judges in Antakya and Reyhanli in September 2013. Informal exchanges (in French) between jihadist volunteers on Facebook also confirm this, as Aba Souleyman’s Facebook page illustrates (Souleyman, 2013).

[21] Such methods include capturing weapons from regime arsenals, taking them after victories, buying them from the regime’s soldiers, or making direct purchases on Turkish, Lebanese, and Iraqi black markets. Some suggest that sales on the Turkish black market may have involved Alevis (a Shia sect) in Antakya, though this information is unconfirmed (author interview with a Syrian journalist, Antakya, September 2013).

[22] Saudi Arabia is said to have sent weapons acquired from states of the former Yugoslavia (BBC News, 2013; Chivers and Schmitt, 2013).

[23] The alleged distribution, by Turkish security services, of weapons seized from a shipment that was purported to originate from Libya is instructive: if true, it shows both the level of state involvement and control and the desire of the security services to establish client relationships with opposition groups. The author was unable to independently confirm this alleged distribution (author interview with a Syrian lawyer, Reyhanli, September 2013).

[24] The ability to buy arms on the private market was mentioned during author interviews with Syrian lawyers and journalists, Antakya, September 2013. See also Laub and Masters (2014).

[25] ISIS’s foreign fighters are primarily drawn from Tunisia and Iraq. It should be noted that a number of Syrians are also fighting with ISIS (author interview with Turkish humanitarian workers, Istanbul, February 2014).

[26] Liwa al-Islam is reputed to be the largest Islamist group fighting in Syria, closely followed by Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of al-Sham). Suqur al-Sham (the Falcons of al-Sham) and Liwa al-Tawhid can be considered ‘moderate’ Islamist groups. Liwa al-Tawhid was formerly affiliated with the FSA. All of them have subsequently joined the newly formed Islamic Front, which was publicly announced on 22 November 2013 (Heras, 2013).

[27] Russian-speaking groups include nationals from the former Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well from Russia (Tatarstan and Bachkortostan) and from the North Caucasian republics (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria). This information was obtained in author interviews with Syrian logisticians and confidential sources in Kilis and Gaziantep, September 2013 (Libyan groups) and author interviews with Caucasian activists, Istanbul, September 2013 (Russian-speaking groups). Information on the Russian-speaking groups was corroborated by Islamist websites with a focus on the Caucasus, e.g. Kavkaz Center and FI Syria.

[28] A good example of this can be found in ad-Dana, which is apparently controlled by militants from the Caucasus (author correspondence with a confidential source in Gaziantep, September 2013; author interviews with Syrian journalists and logisticians, Antakya, September 2013).

[29] Author interview with Turkish humanitarian workers, Istanbul, February 2014.

[30] The city is north of Aleppo, on the road to Kilis (see Morris and Haidamous, 2013).

[31] Further examples can be found in the assassination of Kamal Hamami (also known as Abu Basir, a member of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council), who was killed by ISIS fighters in July 2013, and that of Abu Obeida al-Binnshi (another high-level FSA figure). In both cases ISIS managed to reinforce its positions, but failed to gain control of any border crossings or strategic positions inside Syria (author interview with Syrian lawyers, Antakya, September 2013; see also Reuters, 2011; Aljazeera, 2013).

[32] Examples of areas under ISIS control as of the end of 2013 include: in Latakia province, Ghassaniya and al-Najeya; in Aleppo, the town of Azaz and the village of Jarabulus; in Idlib, the town of ad-Dana and the village of Saraqeb (although other groups may also present in Saraqeb) (author interviews with Syrian journalists, Antakya, September 2013).

[33] Author interviews with various sources in Antakya, Reyhanli, Kilis, and Gaziantep, September 2013; see also Lister (2014).

[34] Examples of ISIS’s dependence in August and September of 2013 could be found in Azaz, where the ISIS emir (Abu Abdurakhman, a Kuwaiti) is but one commander among many in combined control of the town, or in ar-Raqqah (an eastern urban centre under rebel control), where despite the presence of 200 fighters under the command of the Iraqi emir Abu Lukman, ISIS is dwarfed by Ahrar al-Sham (1,200 fighters) and the local FSA unit (2,000) fighters. These figures are as of September 2013, but subsequent events have changed the make-up of the rebel forces in ar-Raqqah, though ISIS forces still remain a minority (author interviews with Syrian logistician and a confidential source, Gaziantep, September 2013).

35] Author interview with a Syrian logistician, Kilis, September 2013.

[36] Author interview with a confidential source, Gaziantep, September 2013.

[37] This public hesitation can be tracked through videos posted online, where al-Shishani appears to distance himself from the date of the ‘appointment’ in August 2013, until his public acceptance of the appointment in November 2013. It should be noted that al-Shishani’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS and al-Baghdadi is more a formal gesture that does not translate into significant structural changes in the territories under his control.

[38] Hassan Aboud of the Islamic Front and head of its political bureau explains that ISIS ‘refuses to go to independent courts; it attacked many other groups, stole their weapons, occupied their headquarters, and arbitrarily apprehended numerous activists, journalists and rebels. It has been torturing its prisoners’ (Landis, 2014).

[39] Interestingly, forces from the Caucasus did not to take part in these conflicts, despite their recent pledge of fealty to ISIS and its emir, al-Baghdadi. They remain generally unwilling to engage in infighting between rebel groups.

[40] For example, fighters from Morocco, Algeria, Azerbaijan, and Central Asian countries feel constrained in this way (author interview with activists from the Caucasus, Istanbul, July 2013).

[41] Author interview with a Syrian logistician, Kilis, September 2013.

[42] Author interview with a Syrian logistician, Antakya, September 2013.

[43] This viewpoint was almost universally expressed in interviews carried out in the course of researching this Dispatch. For example, author interviews with Syrian logisticians, journalists, doctors, and lawyers conducted in Antakya, Reyhanli, Gaziantep, and Kilis in September 2013 all contained some version of this sentiment.

[44] Author interview with Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, head of the Regional Capacity Development Programme at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, Geneva, 11 September 2013. During the interview he referred to his book Understanding Al Qaeda: The Transformation of War, where he develops the idea of al-Qaeda’s franchises betraying the mother structure’s primary objective (Mohamedou, 2011).

Author: Laurent Vinatier
Series Editor: Matt Johnson
Copy-editor: Deborah Eade

This Dispatch is also available to download as a pdf [680 kb]

Security Assessment in North Africa
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