Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s ongoing problem of ISIS recruiting and jihadist growth; why are the Twin Cities the U.S. capital for young people seeking to join ISIS, al Qaeda, and other terror groups? What has Minnesota done to push back against the problem? Read the full article by clicking here.
Thursday Review examines the controversy swirling around presumed Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her use of a privately-managed email account and a homebrew file server; did Clinton break the law and violate Federal policy? Politics Page article: Homebrew Troubles; Clinton’s Email Issues; March 5, 2015.
Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton examines Ashton Carter’s recent decision to ask that the planned withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Afghanistan be delayed to allow for better training of Afghan security forces; Thursday Review Front Page article: U.S. May Slow Withdrawal From Afghanistan; February 22, 2015.
Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at the 20 year old terrorism case in Argentina, a bombing in Buenos Aires which killed 85 people and injured more than 300; investigators say Iran was the culprit. But the prosecutor was found dead recently, shot in the head only one day before he was to present his case to Congress and issue an arrest warrant for Argentina’s President. Thursday Review Front Page article: Argentina’s Prosecutor Planned to Arrest Top Politicians; February 4, 2015.
Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at the legacy of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, who just wanted to report on the humanitarian crisis Syria’s civil war has wrought; instead he was used as a pawn by ISIS and murdered. Can journalists safely report in the Middle East? Thursday Review Front Page article: We Are All Kenji Goto; February 2, 2015.
Thursday Review looks at the pro-Democracy movement Occupy Central in Hong Kong; after a year of activity, the movement looked exhausted, but have the protesters staged a comeback? And will their protests change the way China wants to manage Hong Kong’s 2017 elections? Thursday Review Front Page article: Protesters Return to Streets of Hong Kong; February 2, 2015.
Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at the case of the missing 43 students; allegedly kidnapped by local police in Mexico, handed over to a criminal cartel, and murdered, their bodies burned beyond the ability to identify them, even using DNA. Parents want answers as the horrific crime rocks Mexico; Features Page article; Thursday Review; January 30, 2015.
Oil prices have fallen worldwide, giving citizens of the U.S. cheaper gasoline at the pump. Thursday Review examines how the oil glut is affecting the already troubled and fragile economy of Venezuela, where inflation and shortages are now widespread. Can Venezuelan President Nicolas Madura turn around his sinking economy? Read more: Oil, Debt, Venezuela on the Brink. Or go to our Front Page article.
Thursday Review looks at the troubling, bitter divide in Washington over the release of a 528-page Senate report on the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation techniques in the aftermath of 9/11. Did the CIA engage in torture? Or were its methods acceptable for a society seeking security from terrorism and attack? See more: http://www.thursdayreview.com/CIASenateDivided.html
Thursday Review‘s Alan Clanton looks at the White House choice of Ashton Carter to replace current U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. An examination of Carter’s skills and record, and why he may have been the safest choice for an embattled President Obama. See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/AshtonCarterChoice.html
Published November 30, 2014: Can Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto turn back the tide of violence and corruption which has become such an integral part of the nation’s social and political fabric? Thursday Review’s Alan Clanton looks at the challenges Mexico must overcome if it is to return to a viable force in the global economy. Read more: Once Upon a Time in Mexico; Thursday Review Front Page article.
By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor
Hong Kong’s intense political pressures just won’t go away. This is bad news for Beijing, which hoped to once and for all quash the demonstrations and minimize disruptions by systematically clearing out protesters from key city areas and from central locations.
The protests, which have been escalating—sometimes moving in ebbs and flows of activity and intensity—since late spring and throughout the summer, entered a new phase this week as hundreds of protesters barged into the city legislative facility, entering through a side door and overpowering security guards and bailiffs. The government responded by dispatching a large contingent of riot police armed with batons, shields, and pepper spray—but the security forces did not attempt to enter the building. Instead, a standoff ensued in which police now confront the determined protesters. A larger group of protesters massed outside, many deterred by the police.
Those protesters, like the tens of thousands which have occupied the streets and city squares for months, are demanding free elections—which, in this case, means elections without the interference of Chinese officials.
At the heart of the contentious struggle is the issue of how candidates for Hong Kong posts will be chosen. China has mandated that all candidates be screened and more-or-less handpicked by a select committee of party officials in Beijing. The Hong Kong protesters—who are generally known as Occupy Central—want the right to choose their own candidates through direct, local voting. The movement also seeks universal voting rights for all Hong Kong citizens. Occupy Central is named for the area in downtown Hong Kong called “Central,” a large financial and business center with some wide open spaces between the high rise structures.
Under agreements reached when Hong Kong was cut loose from the United Kingdom in 1997, at which time the city was reunited China, Beijing would allow Hong Kong residents to maintain their traditional of democracy despite the mainland’s template of a single party system—i.e., the Communist Party. The partnership was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be given its autonomy, but it would still be a part of greater China.
But this uncomfortable relationship has been slowly, and some would say predictably, breaking down in recent years.
China has mandated that any candidate running for public office in Hong Kong must first meet a screening requirement by a committee in Beijing. In fact, no candidate’s name can be placed on a ballot without first being approved by this special committee. Occupy Central sees this as an unacceptable form of micromanagement by Chinese officials, who seek to hand-select candidates who will reflect the prevailing party view set down in Beijing. Further, many in Hong Kong see this meddling by Beijing as the first of many steps toward forcing the city-state into complete, docile compliance with the top party officials. In short: what is the point of holding elections if citizens have no control over how candidates are chosen?
But the authorities in Beijing don’t see it that way. There, where generations of political chiefs and government operatives have risen and fallen based on allegiance and loyalty to a single party (or to the doctrine set down by s single individual) a freewheeling process of selecting candidates based on the messy and unpredictable template of mass primaries, competing parties and clashing personalities would be tantamount to utter chaos. Beijing wants no part of the sort of disorder that democracy produces when it comes to the initial selection of candidates. Elections for all major city and state positions are scheduled for 2017.
But China needs Hong Kong’s vibrant economic engine and its power to pump millions of dollars each day through the financial sector. For this reason, protesters angry at China’s unvarnished meddling in Hong Kong’s politics have chosen the financial district and its dozens of banks, insurance companies, investment firms, brokerage houses, and corporate offices as the primary target for disruption. Financial watchdog groups and international business analysts have worried all year about the impact that Occupy Central might have on Hong Kong’s financial power. As the protests have become larger and more disruptive, so too have the disruptions to the economy. Worse, some business analysts suggest that Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s democracy may suppress future investment, damage confidence, and force a downgrade in Hong Kong’s otherwise reliable financial ratings. A postponement of the 2017 elections would be a disaster for confidence in Hong Kong, and may lead to an exodus by businesses and investors who would simply take their offices and cash elsewhere.
Though much of the Occupy Central movement’s activities have been peaceful, there has been an increase in violence over the last few weeks. The protesters who broke into the legislative chambers were angry because of official edicts and court orders requiring the immediate removal of barricades, hand-painted signs, roadblocks, food vendors, and tents placed by protesters in certain areas of the financial district.
And though widely followed in the western media and in much of the Asian press, the Occupy movement receives scant attention within the media of China. When it does receive attention, the movement is often characterized as hooliganism, or dubbed “an illicit campaign.” Beijing regards Occupy Central as tantamount to anarchy and lawlessness, and considers Occupy’s goal of open elections to be a first step toward social breakdown.
Not all Hong Kong business leaders agree with the Occupy movements methods, even if they do agree with the general principles of democracy, universal suffrage, and open elections. Several major business groups and trade groups along with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, have denounced the protesters for their disruptions to the marketplace and the economy. But the Hong Kong Bar Association, along with several smaller business trade organizations, have denounced instead the police and the Chinese government for smothering democracy and for using excessive force to quell the mass demonstrations.
Since August and September, when the protests began to reach their crescendo, Occupy Central has grown into one of the biggest anti-Beijing movements since Tiananmen Square. The movement consists of tens of thousands of protesters, many of them students and young people, along with an estimated two thousand tents, three thousand sleeping bags, and hundreds of street vendors set up to provide material support and food service. The protests grew so large in early October that some businesses in the area around Central were forced to close or maintain irregular hours. And though by early November the movement lost some of its peak numbers, thousands of students still remain. Now, there are concerns in both Hong Kong and Beijing that things might ramp up again—with tens of thousands occupying Central and adjacent streets.
But parallel to Occupy Central’s key demand that Beijing recognize Hong Kong’s right to democracy without interference from a committee, is economics—not global economics, the market realities of one of the most crowded places on Earth. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places to live, with real estate prices and rental costs that greatly outstrip income levels. Many survive by going deeply into debt, and others simply share cramped spaces in Hong Kong’s many sleek high-rise towers. Younger people tend also to live at home with parents and grandparents, sometimes well into adulthood, and in fact on average, middle-income Hong residents tend to stay with parents until well into their early 30s. Hong Kong has the dubious distinction of having mortgage rates and home prices which are now 15 times gross annual revenue—prices driven up by millionaire investors and over-speculation. This makes an already overcrowded city (Hong Kong’s population density is roughly 17,000 people per square mile) even more economically challenging for middle class residents.
For many political analysts and business experts, the question becomes: how much longer will Beijing tolerate the disruptions of Occupy Central without a heavy-handed crackdown? Or, conversely, at what point does the protest movement win the day—triggering an acknowledgement by China, and perhaps even concessions, establishing Hong Kong’s right to democracy, even in it messiest incarnation?
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Though not outwardly acknowledging that the current U.S.-led coalition using heavy air power to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria has proven inadequate for the task, President Obama and Pentagon officials raised the stakes this past week by authorizing the U.S. military to send 1500 additional personnel to Iraq. The new 1500 troops would roughly double the number of American military personnel now in Iraq.
Their mission: to quickly train additional brigades of Iraqi troops and Peshmerga units for what may be a long and difficult fight against ISIS, also called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. According to the Pentagon, U.S. troops will train an additional 12 brigades—instructing those units in the use of mostly-American-made equipment, instilling discipline, and preparing the newly minted fighters for direct combat on the ground.
The White House and the Pentagon were consistent in their position that the new troop deployments would be placed neither in combat roles, nor in forward positions that might put them in harm’s way. As a parallel task the new American units would be establishing several training facilities for the preparation of new Iraqi recruits.
The President said he would ask Congress to authorize $5.6 billion in additional military funds to pay for the new deployments, and to fund the cost of the air campaign against ISIS. The White House and the Pentagon made the announcements on Friday, a few hours after the President met with Congressional leaders over lunch. Of the requested money, at least $1.6 billion will be set aside for the “Iraq Train and Equip Fun,” according to the White House.
The current air campaign has included the heavy use of targeted strikes by bombers and jet fighters, as well as cruise missiles and drones. Though the air campaign has helped to stall much of the rapid advance of ISIS, the radical militants have proven more difficult to dislodge from many areas than the previous estimates of the Pentagon and the White House.
ISIS formed in the chaotic environment of the long, bloody Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year. Merging fighters and units once loyal to Saddam Hussein with a variety of al Qaeda groups, along with some anti-Assad rebels, ISIS organized itself into a working army. In spring of this year, ISIS swept through northern Syria and across northern Iraq, moving quickly and bringing terror with it.
In front of the advance of ISIS, the Iraqi army collapsed—abandoning equipment and weapons. ISIS was able to quickly advance to within 35 miles of Baghdad, and it was also able to capture scores of cities and towns once the scenes of intense, costly battles where Americans lost their lives. ISIS also captured oil facilities, seized banks and public offices, imposed laws which reflected a radical interpretation of Islamic law, and murdered thousands of civilians. ISIS’s advance gave the militants control of areas as far north as the Syrian and Iraqi borders with Turkey, and as far west as the border checkpoints at Jordan.
ISIS has said it seeks the establishment of a caliphate, and it does not recognize internationally agreed upon political borders.
Intense fighting has raged along parts of northern Syria at the Turkish border for many weeks, as ISIS seeks to consolidate control of areas once left under the auspices of Kurds and other ethnic minorities. The fight for control of the border town of Kobani has been particularly violent, as Kurdish fighters attempt to resist a continuing onslaught of heavily-armed ISIS militants. On some occasions the fighting between Kurdish forces and ISIS units has come to within a few hundred yards of the border fence which separates Syria from Turkey. The U.S. was reluctant to use air power in the fight for Kobani, but eventually did use some targeted air strikes starting about ten days ago. The air strikes were credited with helping to stall ISIS’ advance, but ISIS still controls many sections of Kobani.
Many military analysts, including ex-military commanders and officers, question whether the Iraqi army can be adequately-trained for the task of confronting ISIS, even after months or years of training by U.S. forces. Others are concerned over what they see as mission-creep: a few hundred Americans are sent in to a combat situation, followed inevitably by a few hundred more, until eventually the U.S. and its allies are committed to a full-scale war. Military analysts and some in Washington point to two clear examples: the long American involvement in Vietnam, which began in an “advisory” capacity but which ultimately took the lives of 58,000 U.S. forces; and the current plan to train the Iraqi army, an almost exact replay of the scenario the U.S. faced as it began its withdrawal from the last Iraq war in 2011. The question is whether the U.S.-led training this time around would be sufficient for what is now a Herculean task.
The air campaign has succeeded in destroying more than 200 armed vehicles once part of ISIS ground operations, and some targeted air strikes have also taken out tanks, artillery positions, weapons caches, and even some suspected key militant commanders. Some air strikes on the first night of the Syrian phase of the operation were targeted at members of the Korasan Group—largely unknown in the West but known to some in the intelligence community as perhaps more dangerous than ISIS. And just this past week more strikes were focused on Korason members, in particular a highly-skilled French bomb-maker who intelligence officials in the U.S. believe had developed and tested a powerful explosive which could be embedded in a working laptop computer. That same bomb-maker was also believed to have developed type of explosive which could be used by soaking clothing in flammable materials. Communications between some Korasan members seem to have indicated that the group was preparing to use the laptop device to blow-up a civilian airliner or other high-profile target.
As of last week, the U.S. and its coalition partners had carried out more than 400 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and 325 air strikes against ISIS and Korasan positions in Syria.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Despite an intensive campaign of air strikes—including U.S. warplanes, Arab nation fighters, armed drones, and Tomahawk cruise missiles—the full scope of the rapid advance of ISIS has now become abundantly clear to the surrounding nations of the Middle East. By some American and British intelligence and military estimates, ISIS forces now number nearly 30,000.
Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, ISIS fighters in northern Syria—battling with Kurdish fighters—advanced to within a few hundred yards of the Turkish border. The intense fighting was so close that Kurds, Armenians, Yazidi, and Christian Syrians seeking refuge inside Turkey could watch the firefight from knolls and hilltops only a hundred yards inside the razor wire and chain link fence separating the two countries.
Television camera crews from news organizations captured the dramatic images of ISIS militants, clad in black, moving in small groups across the rolling landscape, while Kurds exchanged fire using small arms, mortars and a few vehicle-mounted guns. A CNN camera operator was so close to the firefight that crowds of Kurdish refugees nearby could be heard cheering and clapping when the Kurds would open up with heavier rounds of fire. Walking between the refugees and the razor wire were Turkish soldiers, heavily armed, watching nervously as the battle drew ever closer. Phil Black, CNN’s correspondent at that location, estimated the militants to be within a mile of the border (though my experience with the lens capacity and optical range of professional TV cameras suggests that the distance between CNN’s tripod and the closest ISIS fighters was less than 400 yards).
The war between ISIS and the rest of the world has now reached the doorstep of Turkey, a major European power and a NATO member state. The question becomes: how and when does Turkey respond, and under what circumstances?
Fareed Zakaria, speaking later in the day on CNN, suggested that the breathtaking proximity of Turkish soldiers and ISIS militants means that Turkey—up until now an ambivalent witness to the meltdown within Syria and Iraq—may have the security catalyst and political motivation it needs to provide the much-discussed injection of “boots on the ground,” so categorically dismissed as an option by U.S. President Barack Obama, and so scrupulously avoided by representatives of scores of other countries—even those supportive of air strikes.
The air campaign, in part, has shifted toward cutting off a measurable share of ISIS funding. U.S. warplanes have again struck oil facilities and oil distribution sites within Iraq and Syria. The goal: starve ISIS of the quick cash it receives from the sale of oil from facilities under its control. By some estimates, ISIS collects nearly $2 million per day through the sale of oil on the black market. Many of the same middlemen who bought oil from Syrian or Iraqi companies only months ago now buy it directly from ISIS, often paying cash, and frequently at a deep discount; ISIS is not concerned with profits by the traditional definition, but instead seeks to insure a steady supply of operating cash to fund its rapidly-moving army.
But all the air assets of the United States and its five partner Arab nations—Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—were unable to assist the Kurds in their fierce battles which now rage so close to the Turkish border. ISIS has been engaged in a systematic campaign to consolidate its territorial gains throughout Iraq and Syria, but it has exerted particular effort within the last week to push Kurdish fighters back along a long line of towns and villages across the northern rim of Syria. The Kurds have fought valiantly, but the ISIS advance has continued, often only by a few miles each day. The Kurdish stronghold of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), which sits on the border checkpoint just south of Suruc, in Turkey, has been under siege all week as ISIS militants slowly encircle the town.
Kobani has previously served as a safe-haven for civilian refugees fleeing ISIS, and its own population has swollen as the Syrian Civil war had raged. But the steady advance of ISIS has caused panic in Kobani and in a dozen smaller towns across the northern rim of Syria, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have fled into Turkey to escape the wrath of the radicals. Many have arrived with stories of atrocities they have witnessed before their escape. Humanitarian groups and U.N. observers say that roughly 200,000 refugees have entered Turkey just within the last seven days. Thousands more enter the country each day, and the total number of Syrians who have fled their own country by crossing into Turkey now numbers nearly 1.5 million.
The Syrian civil war, now well into its third year, has rapidly morphed into something much more dangerous and complex than anything White House policy-makers could have envisioned six months ago. ISIS, also sometimes called ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), formed out of the chaos and lawlessness in northern Syria as anti-Assad rebels fought with troops loyal to Damascus. ISIS co-opted other radical groups, including some al Qaeda units in Syria and northern Iraq. Coalescing around those units most heavily-armed, the newer, larger ISIS army sprang into action this spring, sweeping across Syria, crossing the border into Iraq, and moving with astonishing speed across wide swaths of Iraq. Ahead of its advance, the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces collapsed, abandoning weapons, tanks, small vehicles and ammunition. The collapse of the Iraqi army, and ISIS’s rapid advance to within 40 miles of Baghdad, threatened to unravel Iraq as a nation, and created stresses along the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Later, after U.S. air power began to intervene on behalf of thousands of besieged Yazidis trapped on and around Mount Sinjar, ISIS militants raised the stakes and escalated the brutality and violence. ISIS radicals beheaded journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and a week later killed a British aid worker. The United States began a full-scale air campaign against ISIS inside Iraq, but not Syria. Later, after a week of discussion and debate over whether ISIS could be degraded using only airstrikes in Iraq, the United States—along with five Arab partner countries, and some French air assets—began a campaign of attacking ISIS positions deep inside Syria.
Air power, though largely welcomed by the government of Iraq, and now receiving tacit approval from Assad’s government in Syria, has arrived late to the landscape of fractious, war-torn Syria, where tens of thousands have died in a brutal, bloody civil war. Not all of the anti-Assad rebel factions are in favor of intervention by the U.S. or other western powers. Some rebel groups, in fact, fear the worst: U.S. air strikes will have only a modest effect on ISIS while shoring up the Assad regime in Damascus. Other rebels groups support U.S. air intervention, but only if such strikes can be surgically targeted to strike ISIS positions without collateral damage. Indeed, some observers on the ground in Syria have reported that U.S. strikes have caused extensive damage in civilian areas.
Still, in predominantly Kurdish areas of both Iraq and Syria, the air strikes are welcome. Kurdish fighters have been engaged along a variety of fronts with ISIS, in some cases battling for survival. Reports of ISIS atrocities—beheadings, mass shootings, crucifixions, amputations, kidnapping, and rape—have spurred panic among the general population, and entire villages and towns have emptied out ahead of the arrival of ISIS forces. The struggle has been particularly intense across parts of northern Syria, where ethnic and religious minorities proliferate (Kurds, Yazidis, Syrian Christians, Armenians, even Turks).
ISIS seeks to establish a caliphate—a broadly-defined sovereign land, in defiance of existing borders, ruled by a radical Sunni interpretation of some parts of Islamic law (most Muslims eschew ISIS’s extremist calibration of the religion), and this has led to horrifying results in many towns and cities now under ISIS control. Vendors and markets must pay tribute to ISIS collectors, schools are banned, women and children are to stay indoors, Shiite mosques are destroyed, and ethnic or religious minorities (Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, Kurds) must disavow their beliefs and express absolute loyalty to the ISIS definition of religious law. Those who do not comply are summarily killed.
The beheadings of Foley, Sotloff, and British aid worker David Haines, have become part of a gruesome pattern of publicity meant to instill fear outside of the immediate reach of ISIS, and discourage foreign intervention on behalf those whom ISIS is terrorizing. But the beheadings may have been the catalyst which brought about the start of the U.S. air campaign. After weeks of debate, Britain’s Parliament voted to authorize U.K. air power in Iraq (but presumably not in other areas of the Middle East) in the fight against ISIS. The same day as the British decision, both Denmark and Belgium also passed resolutions offering military help.
The matter of boots-on-the-ground remains tenaciously unresolved. There is still no consensus in Washington over how to approach the next phase of what will surely be a long struggle. Almost everyone—military experts and military analysts, foreign policy wonks, the Pentagon brass—agrees that the air campaign can only go so far. Without trained, disciplined eyes on the ground, air strikes remain vaguely focused, and can often lead to unreliable levels of success. (Some recent U.S. strikes may have produced much material damage, but few actual ISIS casualties). The more narrowly-defined mission to defang the Khorasan Group, a terror-within-the-terror cell enclave of bomb-makers and hardened fighters, may also yield spotty results if left exclusively to air power.
So the question becomes: whose troops can be effectively deployed to provide an on-the-ground army to confront ISIS? For many weeks, some have suggested Saudi Arabia, a country with vast wealth, and a nation which also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in military and technological assistance from the United States. But the Saudis are unlikely to want to engage on the ground, and will likely demure if pressed to participate beyond the air campaign now under way.
Today’s fighting along the northern rim of Syria, within view of Turkey’s army, may offer a clue as to the best possible direction. So reluctant is Turkey to provoke ISIS, that is has used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to quell mass disturbances near the border checkpoints and the point-of-entry stations. Kurdish men on the Turkish side of the border want to heed the call of their besieged brethren inside Syria. So even as thousands flee Syria, thousands more seek to enter the country to fight ISIS. (Today, there were reports from some Turkish towns that hundreds of Kurds, able to witness some of the fighting taking place less than a mile away, have begun to overwhelm the Turkish soldiers; Kurds have, in several places, reportedly broken down the border fence or used cutting tools to break through the razor wire, and in one area Turkish military officers reportedly did not intervene in the incident).
After changing its mind about allowing U.S. and French airplanes access to Turkish bases, while still agreeing to more to seal off its porous border with Syria—a loosely-patrolled line which many would-be militants from Europe apparently cross in search of jihadist violence—Turkey may soon have reason to rethink, again. Days ago, it completed a hostage trade with ISIS, a straight-up prisoner-for-prisoner exchange which included no quid pro quo on invasion or military action. In other words, Turkey may no commitment to its ISIS contacts regarding hostilities.
Turkey is a NATO member state, well-funded, and its army is professional, well-trained, disciplined, and relatively free of corruption. And with ISIS fighters only a few hundred yards from the border, and with Turkey now bearing a heavy share of the humanitarian load wrought by ISIS’s atrocities, the time may be ideal for Turkey to choose sides in a deadly fight it was trying to avoid only weeks ago.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
The United States and its closest Arab allies began attacking ISIS targets inside war-torn Syria on Monday. Using a mixed campaign of fighter jets, stealth bombers, and cruise missiles launched from battleships, the coalition pounded specific ISIS positions in northern Syria—a country torn by civil war for more than three years.
U.S. and French fighters had already been bombing ISIS positions in Iraq for weeks, but the dilemma faced by the United States had always been whether or not to extend that air campaign into neighboring Syria, a country which serves as the home for the militant army which sprang into action earlier this year. Critics of President Barack Obama have said for weeks that the air strikes in Iraq would be insufficient to degrade or defang ISIS since so much of the terrorist group’s activities are based in northern Syria.
All told, the U.S. had completed about 190 air strikes inside Iraq when the Syrian air campaign began late Monday night. Other air missions had been carried out by French fighters over the weekend.
U.S. military officials stressed that the air campaign in Syria and northern Iraq would be the work of a coalition of forces, and the new U.S. attacks in Syria have been joined by air power from at least five other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Internationally, there has been a slow but generally positive consensus that direct action would need to be taken against ISIS, even inside Syria. Russia has complained, however, that airstrikes inside Syria would be a violation of international law.
U.S. officials also said that about eight of the air attacks were targeted at the so-called “Khorasan Group,” a militant faction with closer ties to al Qaeda, and made up of al Qaeda operatives not specifically aligned with ISIS. Intelligence experts believe that these militant groups were in the advanced stages of developing terror attack plans against the United States and its allies. The Pentagon described the threat of a terror attack by Khorasan as “imminent,” though the U.S. military’s top press liaison, Rear Admiral John Kirby, declined to give specifics on the nature or the location of the terror attacks.
Members of the Khorasan Group, numbering between 50 and 60, have been thought by intelligence experts to have been based in Aleppo. The Pentagon says it can confirm only that key targets were hit, but it cannot confirm the total number of militants killed in those heavy attacks. Intelligence experts think that the Khorasan Group may be one of several terror groups developing and experimenting with new bomb-making techniques—explosives which may require no metal or other easily-detectable components. This type of non-metal bomb was first developed by al Qaeda groups in Yemen, and the design for such devices may have been exported to Syria.
The Khorasan Group was obscure until last week when its existence was confirmed by intelligence and military spokesmen in the U.S. and the U.K. The group consists of seasoned remnants of al Qaeda fighters and operatives from places as far away as Paksitan, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Other air strikes were carried out to destroy munitions depots and weapons caches near Aleppo under ISIS control, stockpiles being currently used with great effect by ISIS fighters engaging Kurdish troops along the fringes of northern Syria near the Turkish border. There, in and around the city of Kobani, ISIS militants and Kurdish fighters are engaged in a desperate battle for control of one the last safe havens for Kurds, Armenians, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities. ISIS units are attempting to consolidate control over their territorial gains.
Over the last five days at least 135,000 civilians have crossed the border into Turkey. Hundreds more, mostly Kurdish men—answering the call by their fellow Kurds fighting along the front—are attempting to cross the border from Turkey into Syria to join the fight against ISIS. Turkish police used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas in a massive, coordinated attempt to push the Kurdish volunteers away from the border fences and border checkpoints. The vast majority of those fleeing from northern Syria are women, children and elderly, and U.N. workers and aid groups report that thousands are arriving each day.
Meanwhile, ISIS spokesmen have made a worldwide call for Islamic men to take up arms against the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East. Abu Mohammed al-Adnani broadcast an audio-video statement via social media and several networks in which he also called for Muslims to kill non-Muslim civilians anywhere in the world. “If you can kill a disbelieving American,” the message said, “or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever, then rely upon Allah and kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”
This past weekend, Algerian radicals kidnapped a French civilian and threatened to behead him if the French government did not withdraw its military support for the coalition. The French man’s name is Herve Gourdel, aged 55 and a native of Nice. French authorities were aware of Gourdel’s disappearance last week, but have not been able to confirm that he was abducted by individuals claiming an allegiance to ISIS.
But many Islamic spokespersons, and many scholars even in Arab countries, say that ISIS’s worldwide call is not likely to have a great effect except on those already radicalized—as was the case in last week’s plot by a group of Australians who had planned to capture and behead one civilian each week. U.S. law enforcement experts say that they intend to crack down on the information and travel pipelines which may lead more Americans to attempt to link-up with ISIS in the Middle East. The FBI is looking specifically at three U.S. cities which have already produced radicalized fighters now working alongside ISIS: Minneapolis, Boston, and Los Angeles.
The enlarged campaign of air strikes began around 8:30 p.m. (EDT) on Monday, which would have been before sunrise in the Middle East. Most of the airstrikes took place in and around the city of Raqqa, on the Euphrates River, and near the towns of Al Tabqah and Deir ez-Zur. Some of the airstrikes employed the use of American F-22 “Raptors,” high-tech stealth fighters capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and mostly undetectable to radar. This was the first battlefield deployment of the Raptor, which has met with controversy for its high price tag. But some military analysts say that the plane nevertheless proved its mettle during its debut combat operation.
U.S. and allied Arab fighter attacks were supplemented by at least 45 cruise missile launches from the USS Arleigh Burke and the USS Philippine Sea, positioned in the Red Sea and in the North Arbian Gulf, respectively. The Pentagon said that a variety of drones—armed and unarmed—were also involved in the operations.
Monday’s round of firepower was the most intensive operations since the aerial campaign began in early August after the death of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
Although the government of Syria has not officially endorsed or approved the airstrikes within its borders, most analysts agree that neither Bashir al Assad nor anyone in Damascus will openly confront the allied air attacks which are taking place since Assad has as much to gain from the destruction of ISIS as the other participants. Still, U.S. military planners are taking great care to use only that airpower which has the best chance of avoiding or evading Syrian air defense systems in those areas under the command of the Syrian army, and those areas within the reach of Syrian radar. The U.S. government spokespersons say that there is no official line of communication open between Washington and Damascus on the current military campaign.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
For U.S. policy-makers and a variety of U.S. allies, the introduction of airstrikes inside war-torn Syria is a tricky balancing act. Only months ago, Syrian President Bashar al Assad was the enemy of the civilized world—a once quasi-reformer who had regrettably morphed overnight into a tyrant during the Arab Spring. Rather than work with the opposition within his fractious country, he cracked down, triggering a violent civil war which has now lasted for more than three years. Tens of thousands died, millions of civilians were displaced, and lawlessness and chaos eventually prevailed across half of the country.
Assad, by then a pariah responsible for a collateral genocide, was the enemy. But that was then, and this is now.
On Wednesday, the United States and five participating Arab nations continued intensive bombing of targets inside Syria, targets believed to be crucial to ISIS operations. Among the targets in ISIS-controlled areas: oil facilities and oil distribution assets. ISIS generates, by some estimates, millions of dollars each day from its control of the flow of oil.
ISIS burst onto the scene, wreaking havoc across the wider Middle East with its scorched-earth warfare and its inflexible radicalism. The terror group—full name the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—emerged from the very lawlessness which Assad had wrought in two thirds of his war-torn country, and within the span of only a few short weeks its fast-moving army swept across Iraq, sending the Iraqi army into a mass retreat, sparking sectarian violence, and terrorizing the population of every town and village along the way with barbaric acts of vengeance and retribution.
ISIS’s swift advance was so breathtaking that it looked as if Iraq—a nation in which thousands of Americans died—would slip away from the tenuous democracy it had become and fragment completely. Worse, ISIS threatened the very stability of the entire Middle East and sent shudders through Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and now Turkey.
Suddenly, there was something far worse than Assad. And against the background of other flashpoints—the Ukraine, a Cold War style Russia, Israel versus Hamas in Gaza, unresolved tensions between China and Japan, provocative moves by China in the South China Sea—the threat from ISIS quickly trumped all other fires.
International politics is sometimes triangular, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or so the old expression goes. Today, Assad’s government says it welcomes international military efforts to eradicate ISIS from within his country’s deeply-scarred, fractious borders. ISIS calls Syria its home, and ISIS considers Raqqa—in northern Syria along the Euphrates River—the capital of its expanding caliphate. Assad even included in his statement of support a welcome of U.S. intervention through air strikes, targeted missiles and drones. Anything, in other words, that might rid him of the most violent of the rebels operating inside Syria.
Under practically any other foreign policy circumstance, the endorsement—tacit or otherwise—of the presumptive leader of the country being bombed by U.S. warplanes would be a welcome turn of events. But in the deadly, chaotic barroom brawl that is Syria, to be on the same side as Assad is to invite a multitude of problems.
On Monday, the United States and five Arab countries initiated a massive air campaign directed against ISIS. At 8:30 p.m. EDT, a swarm of U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters, dozens of stealth bombers, destroyer-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, and armed drone unleashed more than fifty direct attacks against ISIS positions on the ground in a dozen locations across Syria. The Arab countries participating included Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. military also sent the F-22 into its first combat operations, using the high-tech stealth fighters—capable of speeds of more than 1000 miles per hour and invisible to radar—to attack targets deep inside ISIS-controlled areas.
The U.S. also launched withering air assaults on specific buildings and structures believed to be the headquarters of a previously-obscure al Qaeda spin-off called the Khorasan Group, a terrorist enclave made up of hardened fighters from a dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Iran, and Lybia. Intelligence officials believe that embedded among the Khorasan Group’s 50-plus members are highly-skilled bomb-makers, trained by notorious explosives experts in Yemen. American officials, while being non-specific, have said that this independent faction was in the advanced stages of a terror attack against the United States. Security and intelligence experts believe that Yemen-based bomb-makers may have developed a way to build bombs entirely out of non-metal components, and there is evidence to show that those bomb schematics have found their way to members of Khorasan (a group some fear may be more deadly than ISIS).
Monday’s air attacks inside Syria came after many weeks of complex debate and evolving policy regarding whether the United States, the United Kingdom, and other European or Middle Eastern nations should intervene directly in Syria. Intervention against ISIS in Syria, some foreign policy experts warned, would be a slippery slope—and a de facto violation of international law if Assad did not openly authorize such incursions. On the other hand, as many military analysts have pointed out, any long range plan to defang and degrade ISIS would require some form of direct interdiction inside Syria—the country of the terrorist army’s birth, and the area it calls home.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that there would be no easy resolution to the battle against ISIS, and warned that trying to quantify the number of air missions, the kinds of ground forces required, or the time frame of the battle, was unproductive. Kerry stressed that the fight against ISIS would not be easily measured in weeks or months. Only a day earlier, Jordan’s King Abdullah also said that the fight could last for many months, even years.
Damascus issued a statement saying that it “stands with any international effort to fight terrorism, no matter what a group is called—whether Daesh, or Nusra Front (ISIS), or Khorasan, or something else.” Syria also vowed to help with the fight against ISIS, saying that the militants represent an existential threat to both Syria and Iraq.
Many of the rebel factions inside Syria have expressed cautious support for the air attacks. Some have not. The rebel group called Harakat Hazm—a relatively moderate group in the fractious landscape of northern Syria—said that the air attacks by the United States and the other Arab nations were clear violations of Syrian sovereignty, and disruptive to the overall campaign of ousting Assad from power.
“The only party benefitting from the foreign intervention in Syria,” Harakat Hazm said in a statement released on Facebook and Twitter, “is the Assad regime, especially in the absence of a real strategy to bring it down.” Other rebel factions said that despite the amount of firepower being unleashed on ISIS and other groups, no attempt has been made by the U.S. or its partner nations to force Assad from power. Both Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group based in Lebanon, and Hamas, the anti-Israel group in Gaza, have issued condemnations of the airstrikes. Hezbollah said that military participation by the other Arab countries in the attacks was a mere ruse to mask an attempt by the U.S. “to dominate the region again.”
Assad has met recently with King Abdullah of Jordan, as well as with envoys from Iraq, in an effort to coordinate efforts against ISIS and in a show of consensus among Muslim nations.
But some of Assad’s closest supporters and allies have expressed unvarnished disapproval of the air strikes, and have scolded Assad for offering an endorsement of U.S. intervention. Iran, long a key Syrian ally, condemned the attacks. This is the same Iran which openly supports the U.S. and French air attacks in Iraq, where such intervention has helped to slow the advance of ISIS militants, who are predominantly Sunni, and in many cases violently anti Shiite. Iran supported the rise of Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Speaking to reporters in New York, outside the United Nations, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the U.S. and Arab air attacks illegal.
Russia, another longtime ally of Syria and a frequent source of weapons and airplanes, has also loudly condemned the U.S. airstrikes as “unilateralist” and “dangerously arbitrary.” Over the years, Russia—dating back to the days of the Soviet Union—has provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military hardware to Syria. And Assad, it is widely assumed, must keep that generosity in mind.
Thus, many military analysts say that the current air campaign—though certainly necessary to defang and destroy ISIS—may in fact carry a high risk of further destabilizing an already fractious and lawless region of the world. The air attacks may also have the inadvertent effect of shoring up the Assad regime.
The humanitarian dimension to the war continues to grow each day. Over the past weekend more than 135,000 civilians fled to the northernmost border of Syria and entered neighboring Turkey. All told, some 1.3 million refugees have made their way to the frontier, and roughly half may already be inside Turkey—seeking refuge from the fighting and fearful of the violence inflicted by ISIS. Kurdish fighters are caught in a desperate battle to retain control of the remaining cities and towns along the northern rim of Syria, and they have called for Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities to join them in their fight against ISIS. ISIS units are using tanks, artillery and heavy firepower in its assaults in places like Kobani, near the border with Turkey.
In addition to the humanitarian crisis now unfolding as thousands crowd into refugee camps in Turkey, there is the problem of people trying to get into the war zone. Heeding the call of the brethren, thousands of Kurdish men are now attempting to enter Syria from the north. Their intention is to join forces with the Kurds already fighting ISIS along several fronts in Syria and Iraq. Turkish police and military, fearing a rapidly expanding war within miles of the border, are using tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to dissuade the influx of would-be fighters.
Last week Turkey changed its mind about allowing the use of its airfields by U.S., French or British fighters in the air campaign against ISIS, but Turkey has steadfastly promised to regain control of its largely porous border with Syria and Iraq. Law enforcement officials in the U.K. and the U.S. believe that many hundreds of Europeans have travelled across the continent, then, slipped across the border into Syria or Iraq along Turkey’s poorly managed border. British intelligence experts believe that as many as 500 European citizens may now be fighting alongside ISIS units in Syria and Iraq.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to the United Nations general assembly, asking for the world’s help in a campaign to eradicate terrorism worldwide, but stressing the specific threat from ISIS. Obama also scored something of an international victory during a meeting of the Security Council when he was able to wrest unanimous approval for a resolution calling for nations to crack down on citizens who travel abroad for the purposes of engaging in terror.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
They call themselves Occupy Central, and their goal is to establish an “era of civil disobedience” in Hong Kong, the once British colonial outpost which reconnected with the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
Occupy Central intends to raise the stakes in a variety of non-violent ways—blocking busy intersections and thoroughfares, camping out in large numbers in financial districts, and protesting in ever-more-dramatic ways what the group sees as China’s ongoing and heavy-handed attempts to control Hong Kong’s politics and minimize the organic processes of democracy. Occupy Central’s ranks have grown larger in the past months, even as officials in Beijing warn that Hong Kong cannot be governed by what it views as “the chaos” of civil disobedience or the “lawlessness” of democracy.
At the heart of the issue has been Beijing’s steadfast insistence on controlling and managing nominations for key political posts, including that of the city’s next top leader. Despite what the protesters say was the long-held template for democracy, China has said it must screen and vet all candidates; no candidate’s name can be placed on the ballot without Beijing’s approval.
Many in Hong Kong are disappointed and frustrated by China’s decision to micromanage nominations, and pro-democracy advocates worry that by establishing a pro-Beijing committee to screen candidates, China is seeking to establish a precedent by which it can control the future of Hong Kong and eventually snuff out opposition and dissent.
This has led the Occupy Central movement—which includes various smaller groups aligned with its cause—into larger forms of protest and disruption. It plans to expand its efforts to include mass sit-ins and sit-downs in public spaces, marches, and blockades of roads and intersections.
Financial watchdogs and ratings organizations suggest that as the protests grow larger and more potent, the disruptions to Hong Kong’s otherwise robust economy could become substantial. Moody’s, a major ratings agency, said in September that continued political turmoil—especially over the electoral process—would discourage investment, undermine business confidence, and eventually lead to major problems for the semi-autonomous state. Moody’s said that “diminished confidence” would be Hong Kong’s worst economic enemy.
Though Occupy Central and its allies share a genetic lineage with the Occupy movements which sprang into existence in New York (Wall Street), London, Madrid, Seattle, and Oakland, it bears little resemblance in its stated end game: the creation of the sort of unimpeded, quasi-laissez faire economic and political democracy of precisely the brand and tone despised by its American and British counterparts. The common link is that Occupy Central and its brethren in other countries fear oligarchs and the politically powerful, and seek to empower street-level voices.
Hong Kong and China reunited in 1997, and the agreed-upon formula for coexistence was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be allowed to maintain itself as a semi-autonomous zone of market independence and economic power. In fact, the top brass in Beijing were seemingly happy to see Hong Kong remain the engine of capitalism that it was before reunification.
There have been struggles, including contentious fights over the establishment of a minimum wage, a shrinking job market, and an island-wide problem with the extreme costs of rents, leases and mortgages. In fact, Hong Kong has the second most expensive real-estate in the world. Many Hong Kong workers—white-collar financial, technology sector, or blue-collar—pay dearly for even the smallest flats and apartment-style homes. At $22,500 per year, the median income in Hong Kong makes home ownership very difficult, and renting becomes a heavy burden for many middle class citizens.
Some in the larger protest movement consider these issues critically important, but perhaps secondary to issues of democracy.
Occupy Central is at the forefront of several pro-democracy groups seeking to put pressure on Beijing. Most protesters regard China’s insistence on screening candidates as tantamount to reneging on Beijing’s past promises to allow Hong Kong to maintain its political self-guidance and autonomy.
Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, with more than seven million people packed into an area roughly 425 square miles. That’s 17,000 people per square mile. The former British protectorate and trading post manages this population density with a dazzling array of high rise buildings for business and residential purposes.
But because construction costs are high, and because rental rates and mortgage costs are among the highest in the world as compared to incomes, Hong Kong beats out its closest runners-up in “least affordability,” San Francisco and Vancouver. Home prices in Hong Kong climbed to nearly 15 times gross annual revenue during 2013, and prices may climb more this year. Analysts worry that much of the demand is artificial, driven in part by speculators in mainland China who are engaged in a spending spree—buying up condos, houses and apartments.
The Occupy Central movement is paralleled by mass student movements, most of which have insisted that the Occupy forces may be moving too slowly. The students plan to raise the stakes of the tenor of the protests by staging sit-ins, classroom boycotts, mass marches, and other public demonstrations. Later this month student leaders plan to encourage tens of thousands of students to basically shut down schools as a way of triggering a cascade of political protest.
Sober political analysts and economic experts suggest that Beijing is unlikely to be moved by these demonstrations and mass actions. And though there is little chance China would risk the spectacle of another Tiananmen Square—Beijing may soon institute tougher measures to quell the disturbances, especially if it appears that the protest movements and acts of civil disobedience have the power to disrupt Hong Kong’s powerful economic engine.
Still, there is the more tempered view which says that despite the growth of the protests—and for better or for worse—Hong Kong’s healthy budget surplus may be substantial enough to offset any blowback from potential market disruptions. Economists estimate that Hong Kong’s massive surplus is equal to about 35% of its gross domestic product, which means the government can use at least part of that cash reserve to mitigate the damage from economic downturns.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
Aside from the obvious and high-profile actions of the terrorist army known as ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, sometimes referred to as ISIL), such as its horrific acts of violence against civilians, its proclamations of a radical interpretation of Islamic Law, and its widely-publicized beheadings of journalists and aid workers from the United States and Britain, the militant group has now triggered what may be the largest humanitarian crisis in decades.
Millions of people in Syria and Iraq and on the move in a desperate attempt to flee both the fighting—ISIS militants at war with Kurds or other moderate groups—and the terror wrought by ISIS itself. The number of refugees moving en masse from villages, towns and cities now under ISIS control now exceeds 1.5 million, according to several international aid organizations and United Nations’ estimates. Some towns along the extensive border between Turkey and Syria have seen such an influx over the last ten days that the migration has spurred logistical problems on a vast scale.
Just within the past four days more than 130,000 Syrian Kurds, along with civilians of other ethnic and religious identities, have crossed the border from northern Syria into southeastern Turkey. Even some towns inside Syria have come under intense siege as the ISIS militants—using artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy weapons—seek to overrun areas previously regarded as safe havens for Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, Armenians, and other minorities. In the Syrian city of Kobani (in Arabic, Ayn al-Arab), a city in the Aleppo province previously spared from the worst of the war, tens of thousands have fled the shelling and the intense fighting. Kurdish fighters have called upon the world to come to its defense as it faces one of the heaviest counterattacks by ISIS forces in the region.
The heavy attacks on these towns in northern Syria are forcing many men to take sides, and driving almost all others to flee north with what few items they can carry. Many arrive to the Turkish border on foot, without food or even water. Thousands more are crossing from northern Iraq, fleeing skirmishes and fighting taking place north of Lake Mosul, across the small Syrian panhandle, and into Turkey near Al Qamishli.
All told, the refugee population may now exceed 1.5 million, and the Turkish government, numerous aid organizations, and a variety of non-profit humanitarian groups are straining to keep up with the thousands arriving each day.
Complicating matters has been the recent onslaught of Kurds (and other minorities), mostly men, attempting to cross from Turkey into Syria. Answering the call for help now internationally spread through social media, they have been arriving by the hundreds, hoping to come to the aid of the moderate forces fighting ISIS along all fronts. Many of the Kurds seeking to join the fight against ISIS are coming from Kurdish villages and communities inside Turkey, or from neighboring enclaves in Armenia or Turkey has been discouraging the migration of more people into the war zone, the lines of which may in fact, ironically, moving rapidly closer to Turkey.
Then, there is the troubling reality of small groups of radicalized Europeans, many of them from the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the Netherlands—now moving on foot or by small vehicle in an attempt to link up with ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.
Turkey, which just last week changed its mind on its previous agreement to allow to the United States and other countries to establish forward air bases inside Turkish territory, has pledged nevertheless to establish some form of control over its long, often porous border with Syria. Law enforcement and intelligence experts in several countries are concerned that radicalized individuals may join with ISIS, fight alongside it in the Middle East, then return to the home country with plans to bring deadly militant activity with them.
But it is the vast humanitarian problem now facing Turkey which is causing the most urgent crisis in the area north of the fighting. The number of people fleeing the violence of ISIS has reached a critical mass similar to what the world saw last month as tens of thousands of Yazidis fled violent attacks and retribution by ISIS fighters. United Nations personnel say that the influx is worse than anything they have seen in recent years.
“I don’t think in the last three and a half years [of the Syrian civil war] we have seen one hundred thousand cross in two days,” said Carol Batchelor, a UN representative working near the border inside Turkey. “This is a measure of how this situation is unfolding, and the very deep fear people have about the circumstances inside Syria, and, for that matter, Iraq.”
Turkish officials say that many of the refugees report seeing ISIS militants beheading villagers, shooting entire groups of people, and stealing stockpiles of food and water from markets, shops and houses. Other refugees say that ISIS radicals would put the severed heads on display for villagers and passersby to see, and to use as a warning to those unwilling to submit to their imposition of radical interpretations of Islam—including crucifixions and beheadings of civilians. Aid workers say that hundreds of refugees have reported seeing people stoned to death in public spaces, and hundreds of homes and businesses have been burned by ISIS fighters.
ISIS has been fighting with increased intensity, abetted in some cases by recently-arrived recruits from other areas, and boosted by their acquisition of additional heavy weaponry—much of it confiscated or captured in the wake of retreating Iraqi or Syrian army units. In many cases, the use of the new heavier firepower has tilted the battlefield balance in favor of ISIS in its nine-month-old struggle with Kurdish fighters. ISIS has apparently battled to within about eight miles of Kobani, a town once considered a safe-haven for refugees and protected by Kurd fighters.
Kobani is very near the border with Turkey, and just east of the Euphrates River, along a long stretch of border protected by a tall fence, coils of barbed wire, and a gravel and sand clearing roughly 200 feet wide, flanked by service roads. But other parts of the vast frontier are more lightly protected—marked only by cattle wire and wooden posts—and many intelligence experts fear that individuals and small groups may be crossing that border each day into Syria to join forces with ISIS.
By some estimates, the more-than-three-year-old Syrian civil war—triggered during the Arab Spring—has displaced many millions within their own country. At least 2.8 million have fled Syria entirely—some into Lebanon, some into Jordan, and some into northern Iraq (before Iraq began its more recent meltdown). But in northern Syria, where the fighting has been the worst since fighting broke out between the forces loyal to Bashir al Assad and a variety of opposition groups, most civilians have had little choice but to find refuge by moving north toward Turkey. Kobani’s population grew by an additional 200,000 during the last two years of the war. But now, with ISIS only a few miles away and advancing each day, many of those are fleeing the wrath of ISIS by crossing into Turkey.
Seeking to control the border areas and hoping to stave off chaos, Turkish authorities are using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in an attempt to discourage more Kurds from crossing into the war zone, even if their intentions are to rush to the assistance of fellow Kurds fighting ISIS units. There is panic and chaos on both sides of the border checkpoints and thousands of desperate civilians—among them many women and children—seek to enter Turkey as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the violence.
Some European observers and U.S. officials worry that if Kobani falls into the hands of ISIS, militants will then gain control of another key border checkpoint, and Turkish soldiers will be eye-to-eye with heavily armed ISIS units. Turkey does not wish for the war to spill into its territory, and some within the Turkish government fear that if too many Kurds are massed along the physical border, it could spur violence which could easily spiral out of control.
The United Nations has said that the majority of those crossing the border from Syria into Turkey have been women, children, and elderly men unable to fight. A British non-profit agency called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said that it estimates that ISIS has taken control of at least 60 towns and villages in northern Syria just within the last four days. Many of these towns are within a one to three day walk from the border with Turkey.
ISIS units have launched major offensives within the last week in an attempt to consolidate territorial gains made during their campaign which started last spring. ISIS formed out of remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, and after melding with some Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Assad, sprang across the Middle East, taking wide swaths of territory and spurring a general retreat by Iraqi military and security forces. After ISIS murdered several American journalists and a British aid worker, U.S. forces and other forces have begun targeted airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq. French airpower was used last week, and the British have also pledged support.
At least 1.4 million refugees have found their way into neighboring Jordan. King Abdullah of Jordan told CBS News that the region’s leaders should welcome the participation of western powers in the fight against ISIS. King Abdullah told Scott Pelley that ISIS does not represent true Islam.
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By Thursday Review staff writers
After an intensive and hard-fought political campaign fraught with emotional ups and downs, voters in Scotland decided that divorce from the United Kingdom was not in their best interest. The marriage which has lasted for more than 300 years will remain intact, though observers insist that in the end it will still come with costs for both sides.
Voter turnout was high—one of the biggest turnouts in Scottish history—and included the participation of citizens as young as 16. The final tally showed that 55.3 percent of Scots supported remaining a part of the Kingdom, while 44.7 percent wanted independence.
Supporters of independence, led by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, had gained considerable momentum over the past months, and the total “yes” votes cast show the deep reach of the independence movement: 1.6 million voters sided with Salmond. But a late surge of opposition to independence, fueled in part by Gordon Brown, brought the two sides to within a hair’s breadth in most polls. In the final days and hours leading up to the vote (Thursday), the outcome was too close to call.
But on the day voting began, it was clear that the undecided voters were breaking decidedly toward a “no” vote, and in the end the vote was not nearly as close as many had predicted.
The “yes” wins were most decisive in four Scottish councils: Dundee City, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow (City), and North Lanarkshire. A look at the overall council area map of Scotland shows that the “no” vote clearly gained unexpected momentum in the final days, as several councils tilted toward a “no” vote by close to 55%. The most decisive pro-unity votes came in Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, and the Orkney Islands.
Economics and market power became the central source of argument in the long debate over Scottish independence. Questions of over economic stability and viability were raised, triggering fears that an independent Scotland could face rough times if uncoupled from the British economy. The issue of what currency would be used became an emotional flashpoint as well. And concerns about the healthcare system, banking, and the disposition of billions of pounds’ worth of North Sea oil drilling and refinery equipment—not to mention the steady source of income—became troubling in the extreme for some voters.
The heightened force of the independence movement, despite its loss on Election Day, nevertheless spurred British Prime Minister David Cameron into a number of public concessions, including the shifting of more autonomy to Scottish policy-makers and greater input into the Union’s political and economic affairs. Also forged from the campaign were promises by Cameron and other opponents of independence that more powers would be ceded to the Scottish Parliament in specific areas: welfare spending, public works, and taxation.
Younger voters were generally believed ahead of time to have the potential to tilt the momentum toward pro-independence, and the fact that 16-year-olds would qualify to participate seemed to be a harbinger of the success of the “yes” movement. But toward the last days of the campaign, and as the narrative became more heated and emotional, opinion polls showed that even younger voters were split almost evenly on whether to leave the U.K. or to remain a partner with the Kingdom.
Opinion polls showed that the race was getting very close after Salmond gave a better-than-expected performance in a widely-watched television debate on the issue of Scottish independence. His opponent in the debate was a former Labour Party chancellor of the exchequer, Alistair Darling. But a last-minute surge of campaigning by politicians opposed to independence may have driven the momentum back toward the “no” position.
Financial markets were jittery in the days leading up the referendum, but seemed to rally and stabilize after the “no” vote win. Economic concerns seemed to take center stage on many of the arguments, pro and con. When the polling places opened on Thursday, few were willing to predict the outcome. The “no” victory was larger than expected on both sides.
Nevertheless, even downhearted supporters of independence acknowledge that London’s acceptance of many of the concessions toward greater autonomy constitutes a moral victory, and Cameron has stated he intends to make good on those promises to shift more financial and economic power toward Edinburgh.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor
In this U.S. Navy photograph, members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Force launch from the water-lever deck of the amphibious docking ship USS Germantown in the Philippine Sea. The boats being used are combat rubber raiding crafts designed for amphibious assault operations—the sort of island, shoal or beach-type assault which may be required in some area of the South China Sea, Japan, the Philippine Sea, or in the wider Pacific Rim. These drills from the Germantown are part of joint force exercises in the U.S. 7th Fleet are of responsibility.
Tensions have been running high in some areas near China, most especially in the South China Sea, where in recent months there have been four officially-reported occasions of dangerous intercepts or close flybys by Chinese fighter pilots upon U.S. aircraft. In the most recent incident, the Chinese pilot brought his aircraft to within 40 feet of an American surveillance plane, then—upon eye contact—banked his plane so that the American crew could see that the Chinese fighter was armed with a full complement of weaponry.
But of deeper concern to some military analysts and foreign policy watchers is the contentious issue of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands. Located in the South China Sea, and generally regarded by international authorities as belonging to the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively, these island clusters are being claimed by China under edicts and arrangements forged at the end of World War II. Based on the doctrine called the Nine Dashed Lines, drawn by Zhou Enlai in 1947, China maintains a claim of sovereignty over these shoals, reefs, islands and sandbars.
Despite vigorous objections by The Philippines in several international venues, China has continued its recent exertions of unilateral control over the Spratlys—constructing radar stations, surveillance and tracking towers, airstrips, military outposts, helicopter landing facilities, and a variety of high tech listening posts. The Philippine military has responded by posting special detachments of marines and other combat personnel on deliberately-grounded vessels. Heavily-armed, the Filipino Marines basic job is to keep a continuous watch on the activities of Chinese naval assets and other Chinese activities in the disputed waters. In return, the Chinese naval personnel watch the Filipinos.
In Vietnam, however, protests have turned to rioting as anti-Chinese sentiment has been inflamed by China’s insistence on constructing military facilities on the Paracel Islands—long claimed by Vietnam.
Adding fuel to the fire is the recent revelation that the Chinese energy firm China National Offshore Oil has discovered a gas field in waters about 90 miles south of the island of Hainan. After a blizzard of complaints from Vietnam and other Asian countries, China moved its massive, high-tech billion dollar floating deep sea rig from an area within Vietnamese waters to the area slightly north. The gas field—which sits about 1500 meters below the water’s surface—is estimated to be substantial, and if the area proves accessible, the field could eventually generate hundreds of billions in revenue for the Chinese company. Geologists involved with the project say that initial estimates are that the field could produce up to 56.5 million cubic feet of gas per day.
The discovery of such an economically-attractive oil or gas field in the contested waters will no doubt inflame the countries involved in the dispute. Vietnam is not the only country with claims of sovereignty to islands being exploited by the Chinese; Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia also make claims to some of the islands under dispute. The Spratlys have long been considered Philippine territory by most international authorities, but this has not dissuaded China from its recent aggressive attempts to exploit the area for commercial or military purposes.
Although most U.S. military analysts see little chance that the United States would engage in any form of proactive military action on the side of the Philippines, even if China continues to throw its weight around regarding the Spratlys, the U.S. may feel bound to back-up or protect Filipino combat units if a shooting war erupts and Filipino forces and assets are in peril.
China has ignored repeated requests at recent ASEAN meetings to bring the issue of the disputed islands up for discussion among Asian nations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry—as well as several intermediaries from the United Nations—has requested that the several countries involved in the dispute find a way to negotiate a resolution to the crisis before tensions escalate further.
China has expressed anger that some western news organizations and some western governments have changed protocols—now calling the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea. China has said that this unilateral name-change is a deliberate attempt to minimize China rightful claim of economic and military influence in its own front yard.
Last fall the Philippines withdrew its ambassador in Beijing after China began a construction project on a small chain of shoals and rocks called Scarborough Shoal, which is about 100 miles west of Manila Bay. Officials in the Philippines said that the islands are well within its territory based on international guidelines and economic agreements. China asserted that the Scarborough Shoal and its related rocks are within “China’s intrinsic territory.”
China has so far refused to engage in any international discussions regarding either the Paracels or the Spratlys, but it publicly maintains that it has territorial authority over both sets of islands.
The Spratly Island group consists of scores of small islands—some large enough to allow for the construction of military outposts, docks and piers, and even airstrips. The Chinese have already built a variety of military and high-tech tracking posts in the Paracels, despite vigorous complaints by Vietnam in several international venues.
Most of the islands at the heart of the territorial dispute were largely forgotten after the end of World War II, when even the tiniest island was of strategic importance—either the Japanese, or to the allies. But many military analysts and foreign policy experts express concern that the value of all that potential oil and gas below the ocean may create economic pressures which are bringing the revenue value of those shoals, rocks, reefs and islands back to the forefront.
The photograph for this article was taken by U.S. Navy mass communication specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray.
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