Terrorism & Security
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Peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition resume again today in Geneva. But with the two sides still far apart on even the most basic issues, this round appears unlikely to show more progress than the first, which ended 10 days ago without any steps toward a negotiated solution.
The United Nations' special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who is mediating between representatives from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the rebel forces arrayed against it, was scheduled this morning to meet with both groups separately in their hotels in Geneva, reports Agence France-Presse. It is unclear whether the two groups will meet face-to-face today, or how long the current round of talks is meant to last.
But the obstacles to any agreement between the two sides remain largely unchanged from two weeks ago, when the dialogue between the two sides was notable largely for its pervasive insults, Bloomberg notes. The sole concrete achievement, an agreement to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the most vulnerable civilians from stricken areas, fell far short in its implementation.
Mr. Assad insists that there can be no discussion of Syria's future, and that the only issue to be considered is how to deal with "terrorists." Some rebel factions do indeed have ties with Al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups, but the Syrian regime has used the term broadly to describe all opposition groups.
For their part, the rebels insist that Mr. Assad's departure is a prerequisite of any future Syrian government, and say that plotting a course for a post-Assad Syria is a key goal for the talks.
The chasm between the two sides proved unbridgeable during the first round of talks, which one UN official lamented had not saved a single life, The Christian Science Monitor reported at their close. But the Monitor added that a handful of modest positives came out of the first round:
...[T]he Syrian opposition – despite its fractiousness and what some critics say is its lack of diversity (both in terms of gender and representation of the panoply of opposition forces) – is widely seen as having got a boost from both the Geneva talks and from the international Syria conference in Montreux, Switzerland, that preceded the Syrian dialogue.
The opposition’s chief representative, Ahmad Jarba, comes out of Switzerland a clear winner, say not just opposition representatives but US officials and some independent analysts. The president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces got high marks for his speech at the Montreux conference, which was carried in parts of Syria. ...
But perhaps most important, some say, is simply that the two sides sat down in the same room together. ...
“It is, I think, significant that throughout the week, the two sides agreed to stay in the room and, working with Lakhdar Brahimi, to talk to each other. That is not a small thing,” [a senior US official told journalists], “given that this conflict is now almost three years old."
However, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through a network of Syrian activists, the violence on the ground appears to have worsened since the first round of talks, the BBC reports.
The Observatory said that 304 people were killed across the country on Saturday, including more than 100 civilians.
On Sunday, opposition activists said at least 11 people were killed in the northern city of Aleppo when government helicopters dropped barrel bombs - crude weapons comprising cylinders packed with explosives and metal fragments - on rebel-held neighbourhoods.
Over the weekend, aid groups attempted to deliver food and other supplies to Homs, among the hardest hit in the war, under an agreement brokered with the Syrian government that also allowed for the evacuation of women, children, and older men. Residents have been trapped in the besieged city with little to no food or other daily essentials. But the cease-fire fell apart in execution, The New York Times reports.
A three-day humanitarian cease-fire in the Syrian city of Homs was supposed to be a small breakthrough, a moment of relief for civilians trapped in a grim civil war.
But mortar rounds and gunfire struck near aid convoys, damaging vehicles and leaving victims lying in the streets. Snipers fired on civilians as they fled their besieged neighborhood. Others refused to leave, fearing a massacre of those left behind. Limited food made it in, and some of the nearly 700 people who reached safety said they had been surviving on one meal a day and that some of their neighbors had resorted to eating grass.
Though few expect the international peace talks that resume in Geneva on Monday to end the war, many hope they will make life less brutal for ordinary Syrians by creating local cease-fires and opening up access to aid.
But what took place in Homs highlights the tremendous difficulties plaguing even modest humanitarian efforts, making it unlikely that the episode will emerge as a model to be repeated elsewhere.
And Reuters adds that the Syrian government came under fire in the Hague today for missing another deadline in the schedule to dismantle its chemical weapons, after failing to hand off critical chemical materials on Wednesday. Anti-Assad Western powers, led by the US, slammed Syria for the missed deadline, its second since the process began. Russia, Assad's key international backer, meanwhile defended the government and argued that transporting the materials through contested territory was proving difficult.
The next deadline falls Mar. 31, when most of the toxic substances are scheduled to be destroyed onboard a US naval vessel, the Cape Ray. But analysts warn that the divide between the US and Russia imperils the plan.
"The odds of Syrian compliance increase if Washington and Moscow speak with one voice, but that isn't happening at present," Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the U.S. Monterey Institute, a leading think tank, told Reuters.
"These two countries are both key to the potential success of chemical disarmament in Syria, not to mention a settlement to the overall conflict, so hopefully they will rapidly find a way to resolve this impasse," she said.
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An intercepted telephone call in which the top American official in Europe essentially tells the European Union to “stuff it” on Ukraine – but in far less diplomatic terms – is certainly damaging for its content.
The telephone call from last month, between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, was first covered in the media by the Kyiv Post, and captures exasperation on the part of Ms. Nuland at the way the EU had, to date, sought to end the increasingly violent standoff.
Nuland apologized for her remarks, but the US had harsh words for Russia. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called it a “new low” in Russian “tradecraft,” according to a transcript of the press conference.
The recording was subtitled in Russian and released on YouTube anonymously. But according to Ms. Psaki, an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin then tweeted in English: “Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU,” according to Bloomberg. The aide later denied that Russia had any role in the video's release, and said he found it on a social networking site, reports the Associated Press.
But "the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government. I think it says something about Russia's role," White House spokesman Jay Carney said to NBC.
The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy adds that it also says something about the US role as well. While he notes that the recording "could have been easily edited to make it appear the participants were saying things they weren't saying," it also "is a reminder of the disconnect between US government assurances that it doesn't meddle in nations' internal politics and its actual behavior."
"This was not a conversation analyzing unfolding events and how to respond to what comes next," Mr. Murphy writes. "This was about molding a situation according to US interests."
Many newspapers made immediate comparisons between these snooping allegations and that of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has released information revealing widespread American spying on its allies across the globe. Mr. Snowden is currently in Russia, after being granted asylum from US prosecution.
But it’s from Russia that stories of surveillance are currently emanating, as the Olympic Games open today.
The latest stir is from Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, in describing Russian claims that western visitors are intentionally trying to sabotage the success of the event. "We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall, and then leave the room for the whole day," he said, as The Wall Street Journal recorded it.
Officials quickly attempted to backpedal from the statement, but not before headlines around the world asked if shower-time would be under Russian state surveillance.
According to the Journal:
A spokesman for Mr. Kozak later on Thursday said there is absolutely no surveillance in hotel rooms or bathrooms occupied by guests. He said there was surveillance on premises during construction and cleaning of Sochi's venues and hotels and that is likely what Mr. Kozak was referencing. A senior official at a company that built a number of the hotels also said there is no such surveillance in rooms occupied by guests.
But what you say in your hotel room will likely be listened to, according to a story in the Monitor by Mark Clayton yesterday.
“Unlike any other Olympics, including in Beijing and London, digital and other communications transmissions during the Sochi Games are expected to be virtually transparent to Russian intelligence,” cyber security experts told him.
“It’s not ‘if’ your conversation is being monitored. It definitely is – so be wise what you say over the phone,” Drew Porter, senior cybersecurity analyst with Bishop Fox, a US-based corporate cybersecurity consulting firm, said. “Remember that your conversations over phones and Internet-connected devices are no longer private.”
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Peace talks between the government and the Pakistan Taliban began today after a false start earlier this week, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif comes under increasing domestic pressure to deal decisively with the insurgents.
Members of the Pakistan Taliban (TPP), a loosely organized militant group that is affiliated with but distinct from the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been trying for years to topple the government in Islamabad and establish Islamic rule. Thousands of civilians have been killed since the group rose to prominence in 2007, reports the BBC, and the first month of 2014 saw an uptick in Taliban attacks across the country.
The talks, which were delayed on Tuesday because government negotiators failed to show up, follow a spate of attacks in January that killed scores of civilians and soldiers and intensified demands that Mr. Sharif stem the violence.
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Sharif accepted the TPP’s offer to send representatives to discuss a “roadmap” for future peace talks after support began building for a military operation against the militants, leading to confusion about the government’s strategy, Michael Kugelman wrote in The Diplomat this week.
In recent days, Pakistani media reports have revealed that the government and military are planning a full-scale offensive in the tribal areas in March.
On January 27, a majority of parliamentarians from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party voted in favor of a military operation against the TTP. On January 28, a top PML-N official, Rana Sanaullah, declared that the country was “on a war footing.”
But then, the very next day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the formation of a committee to take another look at peace talks with the TTP. He insists that he won’t authorize an operation in North Waziristan “without consensus of all stakeholders”—even though many opposition leaders, including the fervently pro-talks Imran Khan, have said they’d throw their support behind an offensive.
What’s going on here? The government may be trying to pick a fight with the Pakistani military, which is less enthusiastic about negotiations. Perhaps officials want to launch talks on the assumption that they will fail and therefore help generate more public support for military action. Or maybe Islamabad is just confused, indecisive, or scared (PML-N candidates refused to condemn the TTP during last year’s election campaign, and party officials have even asked the TTP not to attack their Punjab province bastion). Yet one thing is clear: If Pakistan does ultimately implement a more muscular countermilitancy strategy, don’t plan on it being a rousing success. On the contrary, it may create more problems than it solves.
Political commentator Tariq Ali writes in The Guardian that the talks “may produce a temporary cease-fire, but not much more.” He argues that the problem lies with Afghanistan – and Pakistan's determination not to allow Indian influence to build there after international troops withdraw at the end of the year.
However horrific the spate of recent bombings, the heart of the problem remains Afghanistan. It is not the case that the TTP and related networks are so powerful that their leaders cannot be found, captured, charged and punished. The fact is that, with the impending withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, and its bosses in Pakistan cannot afford to offend the TTP too much. Islamabad has developed the theory of "strategic depth": keeping Afghanistan out of the hands of India's allies as a defensive strategy against India. This was always slightly absurd, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers and any serious conflict would be a disaster for both countries.
Also, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan have always resented the British division of their lands and quite a few in Pakistan feel closer to their Afghan brethren than the regimes in Islamabad. The Taliban veil has masked this hostility and given it religious colours, but, underneath it all, the national question remains strong. If a section of the ISI supports the armed networks, it is difficult for other wings of the ISI to close it down.
A lasting solution, which may well not be the one favoured by many Pakistanis, will come after the US and its auxiliaries have left the country. The puppet president, Hamid Karzai, is aware of all this, which is why he has declared: "The Taliban are our brothers," and denounced the British presence in Helmand. He will probably try to promote Pashtun nationalism to weaken Islamabad. The stakes are high for all sides.
Another weakness of the talks is that both sides may simply be stalling, the BBC reports. Representatives on both the government and Taliban negotiating teams “have no real power,” they posit, and the talks are “just talks about talks.” Past negotiating efforts failed.
Some analysts believe the government is simply buying time and that they are actually waiting for July 2014, when US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, creating a scenario whereby Pakistani militants could spill over the border to fight in Afghanistan.
For the Taliban side, sources in the tribal areas say that these talks are also a way of buying time and postponing any possible military intervention in their region.
The Economist (paywall) concurs, writing that the talks are merely a government effort to gain enough time to prepare a military offensive against the TPP.
Yet a growing view is that Mr Sharif really is set on eventual military action, and that talks are about winning time. In the past few months the prime minister has been busy replacing the country’s president, army chief and chief justice. He has tried to keep on good terms with the army—a delicate act with Pervez Musharraf, a former dictator claiming a dodgy heart, on trial for treason. Mr Sharif and the new army chiefs appear to be rubbing along, helped by the fact that his government is a bit less incompetent and crooked than the previous crew. Meanwhile, he has tried to improve the economy and forge ties with India. A lot going on, in other words. Besides, political support for a military push is much harder if talks have not been tried first.
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Syria has missed today's deadline for giving up another portion of its entire chemical weapons arsenal, raising alarm that President Bashar al-Assad will renege on the agreement that curbed a potential US military strike last summer.
"They're not going to make that timeline either," Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told USA Today. The mission to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program, which is led by the OPCW, "has reached a kind of a stasis at the moment."
The OPCW has little recourse if Syria flouts the agreement. It is tasked only with cataloging and destroying the weapons turned over, and cannot conduct investigations of its own, The Christian Science Monitor reported this fall.
Last week, OPCW director Gen. Ahmet Üzümcü cited concern about the slow pace. “While the two shipments [of chemicals] this month represent a start, the need for the process to pick up pace is obvious,” he said. “Ways and means must be found to establish continuity and predictability of shipments to assure States Parties that the programme, while delayed, is not deferred.”
The US has scoffed at the Syrian regime's security concerns, USA Today reports.
Syrian officials have cited safety concerns for the delay and issued a list of items to preserve convoys of trucks as they transport hundreds of tons of material cross-country in the midst of civil war. They've asked for armored troop carriers and armored sleeves to fit around shipping containers loaded with canisters of chemicals.
The State Department has dismissed the Syrian request as foot dragging.
"The regime has every tool they need in order to deliver on their promise of moving the chemical weapons to the port at Latakia," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "That is the step they need to take."
Russian officials said they are working with the Syrian regime to develop a new timetable for removing or destroying the weapons, and there is no reason to be worried. "I would not dramatize the disarmament issue," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told RIA Novosti, according to Agence France-Presse. "Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that they are planning to move out a large amount of chemical substances in February."
"Many nuances were not known before, so it is quite logical that there are changes," he said.
"As far as the deadlines, everything is going rather well," he said.
"There are difficulties that have to do with the need to ensure the security of this operation."
The missed deadline has unleashed a chorus of "I told you so's." The chemical weapons agreement was met with skepticism and even condemnation at the time.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said Wednesday at a House of Representatives intelligence committee hearing that the chemical weapons agreement had allowed President Assad to grow stronger, The New York Times reports.
President Obama has hailed the agreement as a significant diplomatic breakthrough, and during his State of the Union address last week he cited it as an example of how his foreign policy had been effective.
But many experts say that the agreement may ultimately work to Mr. Assad’s advantage, as it prompted the Obama administration to withdraw its threat to carry out cruise missile attacks, has built up the Syrian government credibility on the world stage and has allowed it to play for time.
A chemical weapons deal based on trust was never going to succeed because Assad is far from trustworthy, writes David Schenker, director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He cites the Syrian leader's continued smuggling of oil to Saddam Hussein's Iraq, despite promises to the US to stop, as well as broken promises to stop assisting Palestinian militant groups and shut down the "jihadi pipeline" to Iraq during the war there, as evidence of Assad's "prodigious track record of reneging on promises and violating international agreements."
Not surprisingly, the accuracy of Syria's inventory declaration to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is already in question. According to the OPCW, for example, the Assad regime declared "approximately 1,000 metric tons" of binary chemical weapons precursors, a number that seems too oddly coincident with Secretary Kerry's earlier formulation that Syria "has "about a thousand metric tons" of these agents. (Is it possible that U.S. intelligence assessments are so precise?) Likewise, according to non-proliferation experts, given the size and scope of the CW program, the fact that the Assad regime declared absolutely no filled chemical munitions is a glaring red flag.
At present, it is too soon to tell whether the Assad regime is violating its chemical weapons commitments. After having killed so many Syrians with conventional armaments, it's difficult to see why the Assad regime would see a need to retain a residual chemical arsenal. Perhaps over the past 13 years, Bashar has come to understand that there is no cost associated with cheating.
Shortly after the agreement was reached to steal Assad's chemical arsenal out of Syria, Secretary of State Kerry sought to preempt critics of the deal. "We're not just going to trust and verify," he assured, "We're going to verify, and verify, and verify." Alas, because the Chemical Weapons Convention provides signatories the right to manage access to facilities and does not mandate intrusive inspections, verification is at best a relative term. And then, of course, there is the matter of Assad's penchant for lying.
At the kickoff of the Geneva II peace conference on January 22, Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem told U.N. secretary general Ban Ki Moon, "Syria always keeps its promises." Western governments should know better. When it comes to keeping international obligations, Syria's Bashar Assad regime seldom keeps its promises. Given the absence of consequences for pursuing nuclear and deploying chemical weapons, the inescapable takeaway for Assad is that when it comes to dictators and WMD, the old aphorism that "winners never cheat and cheaters never win" doesn't apply.
Assad may be holding onto weapons for his Plan B: defending a regime statelet in the event that Syria is partitioned in an agreement. Citing unnamed Israeli and Russian sources, The Sunday Times reported on Feb. 2 (paywall) that Assad is stockpiling weapons, including biological and chemical ones.
One source told the Times, “Syria has given up only about 4 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal, will miss this week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, and probably will miss the June 30 deadline when the entire 1,300 tons of lethal chemical weapons were due to be destroyed."
Assad is believed to be gathering some of the weaponry in the heartland of his Alawite sect, along the Mediterranean coast. The Alawites, a Shiite sect, make up only about 12 percent of Syria's population, but include the Assad family, as well as many other key members of the regime.
"This region is now totally fortified and isolated from the rest of Syria,” an Israeli military intelligence source told the Times. “The most advanced weapons manufactured in Syria and imported from Russia are kept there.”
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A string of deadly explosions rocked central Baghdad today in a fresh eruption of violence between Sunni militants, still in command of areas of Anbar Province, and the government, bent on pursuing a hard line toward the insurgency ahead of April elections.
Escalating violence already made January the most deadly month in Iraq in almost six years, with more than 1,000 people killed, the BBC reports. With a standoff in Anbar and strikes pounding cities across the country on an almost daily basis – today’s blasts in Baghdad follow a rocket attack on Fallujah on Tuesday – chances for a peaceful resolution appear slim.
The most violent blast today took place across the street from the Iraqi foreign ministry, on the edge of the international Green Zone. Soon after, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt at a nearby falafel restaurant, the Associated Press reports. Another car bomb was detonated in Khilani Square in the city's commercial center. Authorities managed to diffuse the fifth bomb near the oil ministry before it went off, according to the Agence France-Presse. At least 24 people died.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, although the blasts bear the hallmarks of Sunni militant groups, which have launched similar coordinated attacks in the past, AFP reports.
The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy explains that the rise of violence has its roots in urgent political grievances of the country’s Sunni majority and in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government’s stubborn refusal to address them:
What's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion.
To be sure, there's been no sign of dawning wisdom yet.
…A fairer share of oil wealth, jobs in the bureaucracy, and guarantees of political autonomy in places like Anbar could go a long way to containing this crisis. Of course, whether Maliki will make that choice is far from clear; his track record doesn't inspire great optimism. But this is not an intractable conflict, nor one that Iraqis don't have the tools to sort out themselves, were they to choose to try.
Despite facing pressure from the diplomatic community to seek a negotiated resolution to the present conflict, the government has taken a hard line against the insurgents, vowing to show no weakness as April parliamentary elections loom.
Standoff in Anbar
The standoff in Anbar Province has persisted for several weeks, as government forces struggle to oust Sunni militants who have taken control of parts of Ramadi and the entire city of Fallujah.
A prominent tribal leader allied with the government said the attack was “imminent,” according to AFP, although the government has so far been reluctant to unleash an all-out ground assault:
Security forces and pro-government tribal fighters have made slow progress in Ramadi after days of heavy clashes, and late Tuesday had retaken several neighborhoods that had been militant strongholds, according to officers and an AFP journalist.
In Fallujah, however, security forces have largely stayed out of the city in recent weeks fearing major incursions could ignite a drawn-out campaign with high civilian casualties and heavy damage to property.
But with no negotiations underway, how long the standoff will continue in the face of daily eruptions of violence throughout the country remains unclear.
Reuters reported on Monday that government forces killed 57 militants in Anbar Province, citing figures provided by Defense Ministry officials, who hinted at a possible upcoming assault on the rebel-held city of Fallujah.
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Al Qaeda’s leadership has publicly broken ties with its one-time Iraqi affiliate, now operating in Syria, a move that has significant implications for the fractured Syrian opposition and highlights the changing influence of Al Qaeda over emerging radical groups.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is “not a branch of Al Qaeda,” and has no “organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,” read a statement issued by the terrorist group’s Pakistan-based command center Monday.
ISIS got its start in Iraq during the US occupation as Al Qaeda in Iraq, renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006, and expanded to Syria, becoming the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, last year. It has been called on repeatedly by Al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri to withdraw from Syria, where it has clashed with another jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra, reports Agence France-Presse.
ISIS claimed to have merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, but Mr. Zawahiri and Jabhat al-Nusra both rejected the statement. The latter has since been deemed Al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, and stands to benefit from the latest twist, Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center, writes.
Nonetheless, this represents a strong and forthright move by [Al Qaeda central] and will undoubtedly serve to further consolidate Jabhat al-Nusra’s role as Al Qaeda’s official presence in Syria. Noticeably, Jabhat al-Nusra units in several areas of Syria have, for several months now, been referring to themselves as Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Sham, and thus effectively identifying themselves as “Al Qaeda in Syria.” Jabhat al-Nusra has played a remarkably smart strategy in Syria, with pragmatism proving to have been critical in determining the group’s continued success. Considering its solid al-Qaida links, it is incredibly ironic that Jabhat al-Nusra has effectively been accepted as an almost mainstream actor in many areas of the country.
ISIS is accused of targeting Syrian civilians as well as other rebel groups in Syria in a bid to impose its strict interpretation of Islam on Syrians. After months of witnessing its extreme tactics, several of the Syrian rebel groups rose up against ISIS in the early days of 2014, leading to intense infighting. In some parts of the country, the primary battle is now between ISIS and other extreme rebel groups, not the rebels and the Syrian regime.
The Christian Science Monitor describes the divide:
ISIS’s brutal treatment of civilians in areas under its control and kidnappings and assassinations of commanders and fighters of other rebel groups tested the patience of the opposition. The bulk of ISIS is composed of non-Syrians who appeared more intent on consolidating control of territory and imposing strict Islamic law than in fighting the Assad regime.
Rebel groups accuse ISIS of intransigence, among other things, comparing it unfavorably to Jabhat al-Nusra, another Al Qaeda affiliate but one that is more flexible in dealing with rebel factions and is more Syria-centric. The Syrian political opposition has repeatedly accused ISIS of acting in collusion with the Assad regime. Haitham al-Maleh, a leading Syrian democracy activist, described ISIS early this month as “a mine planted by the Assad regime in the revolution's body to warn the international community of approaching or interfering in Syrian issues.”
Certainly, the Assad regime regularly points to ISIS as an example of the enemy it faces in an attempt to dissuade the West from supporting the armed Syrian opposition.
"So long as it continues, these inter-group hostilities make any kind of provincial, let alone national, opposition victory in Syria highly unlikely,” Mr. Lister wrote.
Syrian rebel groups battling ISIS have been distracted from their fight against Mr. Assad’s regime, but once they refocus on the Syrian leader, they could be a much stronger foe, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
Mr. Assad may rejoice at the sight of his enemies fighting each other, evidence perhaps of further disarray within the opposition. But the campaign against ISIS (also sometimes known as ISIL) appears to demonstrate improved coordination and unity among leading rebel groups, which could make them a more formidable fighting force when their full attention shifts back to the regime. The Assad regime could then face an Islamist-dominated, battle-hardened, coordinated, and unified rebel opposition better able to confront the Syrian Army and its allies than at present.
The New York Times reports that Al Qaeda’s break with ISIS will “probably spark competition for resources and fighters between the two sides in what has become a civil war within a civil war. The test for Zawahri’s influence will be whether his decision leads fighters to quit the Islamic State.”
Some analysts see Zawahiri’s move in severing ties with ISIS as a way to measure his control over other Al Qaeda affiliates worldwide. McClatchy reports that, “if ISIS survives the expulsion and continues to hold onto its positions inside Syria, it likely will mean that central al Qaida’s ability to command their operations will have collapsed.”
The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy writes that Al Qaeda has “long struggled with controlling its Iraqi offshoot,” and Zawahiri’s announcement this week may not do much to change that:
It turns out that local armies fighting local wars are more interested in their parochial concerns than Zawahiri's quixotic hope for a global jihad to remake the world order and that their commanders aren't particularly interested in taking their orders from a group based thousands of miles away.Zawahiri has been trying to assert control over ISIS for over a year, with little success....
Zawahiri has never been able to bring the Iraqi fighters under his thumb. One of the earliest leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq was the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (later killed in a US airstrike) and their tentative alliance came apart in 2005. In a letter to Zarqawi in 2005, Zawahiri's frustration was palpable.
"If we look at the two short-term goals, which are removing the Americans and establishing an Islamic emirate in Iraq, or a caliphate if possible, then we will see that the strongest weapon which the mujahedeen enjoy – after the help and granting of success by God – is popular support from the Muslim masses in Iraq, and the surrounding Muslim countries," he wrote then, warning of the "scenes of slaughter" of captives and civilians that the Iraqi group was daily carrying out. Zawahiri told Zarqawi that he was alienating the Iraqi people and undermining his cause.
Zarqawi and his followers ignored Zawahiri, increased the tempo of sectarian attacks targeting Shiite civilians, and created the conditions that saw many Sunni Iraqi tribes turn on them violently in 2007.
That history appears to be repeating itself in Syria - though with the added wrinkle of other jihadi groups like [Jabhat al-Nusra] that may maintain longer term links with the Al Qaeda led by Zawahiri.
Lister writes that patience with ISIS seems to be running out from all corners, with ISIS fighters being openly encouraged to defect.
Also last night, prominent Saudi Salafi cleric Dr. Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Moheisini issued a statement regarding his so-called Umma Initiative – a peace plan aimed at healing hostile divisions between ISIL and other armed groups in Syria. The plan has received statements of support from every strategically notable group in Syria, except ISIL, who issued qualifications for their involvement that effectively rendered the plan null and void. Moheisini’s statement last night essentially represented a direct appeal to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to re-assess his group’s opposition to the Umma Initiative.
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Thai antigovernment protesters resumed their marches in Bangkok Monday, a day after they disrupted national elections in an attempt to oust Yingluck Shinawatra from the prime minister's office.
Following protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, demonstrators marched into downtown Bangkok Monday morning, while a second group surrounded a government building where Prime Minister Yingluck was believed to be meeting with senior ministers, reports Reuters. The protesters did not enter the building, Reuters notes, and it is unclear whether the prime minister was actually inside.
But the renewed marches, a day after a national election marred by antigovernment blockades of polling stations in Bangkok and southern Thailand, underscore that the political deadlock shows no signs of breaking.
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The Christian Science Monitor reported on Sunday that protesters blocked voting materials from entering some stations, while many antigovernment voters boycotted the vote elsewhere,particularly in the oppositions' southern strongholds. While the protests were largely nonviolent, they were nonetheless contentious:
At Din Daeng polling station in northern Bangkok, pro and anti-government protesters clashed on the street outside after district officials announced the polling station was not able to open because ballot boxes were blocked from delivery. ...
Voters gathered outside holding their ID cards in the air and chanting “we want to vote.”
“We’re angry because a small number of Thais don’t want democracy, it is my right to vote, we are being denied our right,” says 53-year-old Sakool Seingpairohlerd. “I have voted in every single election before this and I will lodge a complaint with local officials that they did not do more to ensure this ballot could proceed,” he adds.
Shortly afterwards, voters broke through the line of district officials and stormed Din Daeng polling station in an attempt to force it to open. However police said it was too dangerous to do so.
CNN reports that, according to election officials, voting was disrupted in 69 out of the country's 375 electoral districts and only 45.8 percent of voters participated, a precipitous drop from the 75 percent who brought Yingluck to power in 2011. As a result, the election will probably not produce enough filled seats to form a parliament, leaving Yingluck in charge as caretaker prime minister.
Still, there are signs that the protests are ebbing, which could increase the opposition's receptivity to a negotiated end. Reuters estimated the protesters numbers to be smaller than before, at about 3,000, while the national security chief told CNN that the crowds were even smaller, between 2,000 and 3,000 demonstrators.
Thailand scholar Chris Baker told Reuters that "Suthep's movement is now crumbling," though he notes that "it still has powerful unseen backers."
"Backdoor negotiations are needed because both sides will avoid any direct confrontation in public view. The business lobby should revive its efforts to play the intermediary role," he said.
But negotiations seem not to be an option for the antigovernment protesters, according to the Bangkok Pundit blog on the Asian Correspondent news site. The pseudonymous Bangkok Pundit writes that while the government has indicated several times its willingness to find a middle ground with the opposition, the opposition has yet to show any inclination to meet them – or even say what would make them willing to meet.
"However, it should be the [opposition party] Democrats who state what they want in order for them to participate? So far they haven’t," the Pundit writes. "Yet, somehow it is the government who are uncompromising and intractable?"
And in a commentary for The Diplomat, an Asian news site, Elliot Brennan writes that the opposition's obstinacy has strengthened Yingluck's hand. Though she "was no doubt losing support as her tenure continued" due to a series of missteps, Mr. Brennan writes, "as protests become entrenched, so do allegiances. And those supporters that may have been turning from Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party have quickly fallen back to the party’s side."
Indeed, it may have been that the Democrats would have won greater support, with even a possibility – albeit a slim one – of their first majority election win in two decades, had they contested the election properly. Instead, their decision to boycott the election has thrown Thailand’s long but pot-holed democratic tradition into what may well be its darkest hour. ...
Whatever transpires, the elections will not be, at least in the short-term, the panacea that many would have hoped for. The polarization will continue, and indeed, could grow worse. More violence, a coup, or even civil war, cannot be dismissed. Both parties must step back from the precipice and negotiate – this will only become harder as time goes on.
The actions of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden continue to divide Europe and the United States in the ongoing debate over whether security trumps privacy when it comes to government surveillance.
These differences were underscored once again this week after two Norwegian lawmakers nominated Mr. Snowden for a Nobel Peace Prize, drawing strong rebuke from the US, where Snowden faces espionage and theft of government property charges. And spying will likely be a central topic of conversation as German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets today with US Secretary of State John Kerry, ahead of the Munich Security Conference.
The two lawmakers, Bard Vegar Solhjell and Snorre Valen, both of Norway's Socialist Left Party, wrote in their nomination letter that: "There is no doubt that the actions of Edward Snowden may have damaged the security interests of several nations in the short term. We do not necessarily condone or support all of his disclosures."
"We are, however, convinced that the public debate and changes in policy that have followed in the wake of Snowden's whistleblowing [have] contributed to a more stable and peaceful world order.… His actions have in effect led to the reintroduction of trust and transparency as a leading principle in global security policies. Its value can't be overestimated."
Snowden's revelations about the extent of US spying around the world have prompted President Obama, a Nobel recipient himself, to impose measures to limit collection of domestic phone records, as well as to stop listening in on the leaders of countries that are friends and allies. He also called for broader changes in the US surveillance program.
But questions about far-reaching surveillance continue to feature prominently in European statements. This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an impassioned speech to the German parliament, said essentially that freedom is more important than security.
"Actions in which the ends justify the means, in which everything that is technically possible is done, violate trust, they sow distrust," she said. "The end result is not more security but less."
"Is it right that our closest partners such as the United States and Britain gain access to all imaginable data, saying this is for their own security and the security of their partners? Is it right to act this way because others in the world do the same? … Is it right if in the end this is not about averting terrorist threats but, for example, gaining an advantage over allies in negotiations, at G20 summits or UN sessions? Our answer can only be: No, this can't be right. Because it touches the very core of what co-operation between friendly and allied countries is about: trust."
Tensions have risen between Germany and the US since allegations that Ms. Merkel's cellphone was monitored by the NSA. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, where citizens were broadly and routinely spied on, is an intensely private individual, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in an in-depth profile. She is pushing for a European no-spying agreement.
In addition to meeting Secretary of State Kerry today, Merkel is also meeting with Obama in coming months in scheduled trips to Washington, though she downplayed expectations that a specific agreement on spying and data privacy, like agreements Europe is attempting to cobble together, would be on the table.
"Many say the attempts for such an agreement are doomed to failure from the outset, an unrealistic endeavor. That may be," Merkel said. "Certainly the problem won't be solved by just one visit."
Germany's Deutsche Welle newspaper echoes that point, noting the futility thus far on talks about a "no-spying" pact. But it cites a degree of optimism by a US diplomat:
Despite that, a US State Department official said "an enormous amount of progress" had been made on repairing ties: "Those discussions obviously will continue and I expect that the path forward will be one of the subjects that the secretary speaks to both Foreign Minister Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel about," the official said.
While Snowden's revelations have driven a wedge between the US and Germany and many other European nations, his Nobel nomination is not expected to create problems for US-Norwegian relations. Mr. Valen wrote Bloomberg to explain his views that diplomatic relations aren't likely to be at stake: “The US is one of the world’s most democratic and free societies,” Valen said in an email that “I feel confident that a peace prize to Snowden will not affect US-Norwegian relations. I have more trust in Barack Obama’s democratic thinking than that of China's.”
And the Snowden nomination in itself, the Daily Beast points out, doesn't mean much.
"But what, dear reader, does it actually mean to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize? The short answer: not much," writes Michael Moynihan, reminding readers that other nominees include Russian President Vladimir Putin this year, Bradley Manning (also nominated by Valen), and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, also living in asylum.
The person who nominates a Nobel prizewinner is officially kept secret for 50 years, but nominees themselves are free to make public their actions. The process for nominating Nobel Peace Prize candidates ends Saturday, and the winner is announced in October.
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The Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is struggling to expel Al Qaeda-linked militants from Anbar Province and to calm sectarian attacks throughout the country, faced a direct challenge in Baghdad today when gunmen stormed a government building and took workers hostage.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but government buildings have been previously targeted by Sunni militants. Iraqi security forces have since freed the transportation ministry civil servants, with three of the eight attackers being killed in the operation, the interior spokesman told the BBC.
Also in Baghdad today, bombings near a market and a restaurant killed six people, officials told Al Jazeera, tipping January's death toll past 900.
Last year was the most violent year in Iraq since 2007, according to the United Nations, with the death toll reaching 8,868. Casualties have continued to rise in the new year, and the government faces a prolonged conflict with Al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Anbar Province.
Iraq has repeatedly requested greater military assistance from the US, and earlier this week, the US announced plans to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to the US at a cost of $4.8 billion, Agence France-Presse reports. But foreign leaders, including the US, have also urged Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki to address the Sunni community's grievances.
A lack of political representation for Sunnis has left them feeling marginalized and created sympathy for Sunni insurgents, including Al Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar earlier this month.
Iraq requested the helicopters more than a year ago, Foreign Policy reports, but the "lobbying campaign" has ramped up in recent months in response to growing concerns about Al Qaeda. Some congressmen initially balked at the possibility of the sale because of concerns that the helicopters would be used in a crackdown on Iraq's minority groups.
But Mr. Maliki is still in a tight spot, because construction of the helicopters hasn't begun yet, and even the six helicopters leased on top of the 24 purchased will not arrive until the summer, according to Foreign Policy. Already 140,000 have been displaced by the fierce fighting in Anbar, AFP reports. If Maliki is banking on the Apache delivery to help him put an end to it, he has several months to wait.
The Iraqi leader has also turned to local Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, saying there is no limit to the amount of weapons they will send. A government spokesman told the Washington Post that the cabinet has approved $3.4 million in payments and more than $17 million for infrastructure projects in the Province.
The support is a desperate attempt by Maliki to reassert control of Anbar by reviving a wilted initiative — the organization of Sunni tribes and former insurgents into the so-called Awakening movement — that the United States used to dramatically weaken al-Qaeda in Iraq during in the final years of the Iraq war.
But the effort faces major challenges. The ranks of the paramilitary movement have dwindled since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, and Maliki is facing insurrection from parts of the country’s wider Sunni minority, who complain of mistreatment and subjugation at the hands of his government.
With the government wary of arming tribesmen who may turn against it, trust is lacking on both sides. Still, some observers say a revival might be the best chance Maliki, who has ruled out sending the Shiite-dominant Iraqi army into Sunni-majority Fallujah, has to pacify Anbar.
“No one can face the terrorists without the help of the Sunnis. The Americans couldn’t eliminate them without the Sunnis, and nor can the government,” said Dhafer al-Ani, a spokesman for the Sunni Mutahidun political party.
But tamping down the current violence will take more than guns and money, because its roots are political, The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy explained recently:
But much of the current hatred revolves around very recent political choices. Most of the Shiite Islamist politicians who lead Iraq today lost multiple friends and family members in a crackdown, brutal even for the Hussein regime, on underground Shiite political movements after the first Gulf War. Today they view securing the political and military ascendancy of their sect as the top priority.
The Sunni Arabs of Anbar, who were bought off with state largesse during the Baath years, are viewed by Maliki and other leading Shiites as a potential threat to this goal. His government's systematic persecution of prominent Sunni Arab political figures is a key reason that ISIS has such a strong opening in Iraq right now.
With April parliamentary elections approaching, the Iraqi central government has an opening, Mr. Murphy writes in a follow-up.
… What's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion.
[T]he ideal of Iraqi nationalism remains potent. A fairer share of oil wealth, jobs in the bureaucracy, and guarantees of political autonomy in places like Anbar could go a long way to containing this crisis.
Of course, whether Maliki will make that choice is far from clear; his track record doesn't inspire great optimism. But this is not an intractable conflict, nor one that Iraqis don't have the tools to sort out themselves, were they to choose to try.
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Just days after reaching a historic peace deal with Islamic militants on the southern island of Mindanao, Philippines military officials announced Wednesday that in a major offensive this week, army forces had killed at least 37 guerrillas from a splinter group opposed to the accord.
Today's news came hard on the heels of an agreement last weekend between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government, whose negotiators last Saturday agreed on the final stage of a peace plan aimed at ending a 40-year-old conflict that has left 120,000 people dead.
Leaders of the breakaway Bangasamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), however, reject that plan, which offers autonomy for Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao, since it falls short of full independence from Manila's rule.
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Philippines President Benigno Aquino said on Wednesday that government troops are going after the renegade rebels “to seriously degrade their abilities to again act as (peace) spoilers,” reports Philippine broadcaster TV5.
The peace deal, expected to be signed within the next two months, would create an autonomous Muslim-dominated region in the south of the mainly Catholic country and put local government largely in charge of security. Local authorities are also promised much greater control over natural resources in Mindanao, holding out the prospect that peace could help put an end to the crushing poverty that afflicts much of the island.
The agreement, negotiated in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur after ten years of intermittent talks, specifies that the MILF’s 11,000 soldiers will disarm, and that those accused or convicted of rebellion charges will be granted amnesty.
The pact says that amnesty is designed to facilitate “healing the wounds of conflict and the return to normal life,” reports the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The caveat is that MILF fighters would only surrender their weapons after after all the other armed groups in Mindanao have disarmed.
That is a tall order. The US has about 500 Special Forces troops in Mindanao, helping the Philippines to suppress another insurgency group, Abu Sayyaf, which has historic ties to Al Qaeda and preaches the creation of an Islamic state.
But Abu Sayyaf is not the only obstacle to smooth implementation of the new peace accord.
Though they have nothing to do with the ethnic and religious battles that the Moro have been fighting, the Communist Party’s New People’s Army is still a force to be reckoned with in some parts of Mindanao, and they have shown no desire to negotiate a peace treaty.
And besides the BIFF, a breakaway splinter from the MILF which the army calls a criminal organization that it plans to wipe out, there is the original Moro National Liberation Front, from which the MILF itself separated.
In 1996, the MNLF signed a peace agreement that created an autonomous zone in Mindanao. Its leaders are angry that the MILF's deal creates a new entity, Bangasamoro, that will supersede their stronghold.
MNLF militants raided the city of Zamboanga in protest last September, sparking three weeks of fighting that left nearly 250 people dead.
Against that sort of background, says The Economist’s Banyan blog, “It is little wonder then that the MILF has agreed to lay down its weapons only once everybody else has. Peace between the MILF and the government is one thing; peace in Mindanao is another.”