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Obama vows to strike Syrian regime if US jets attacking IS are targeted (+video)

The Obama administration said it would destroy Syria's air defenses if they fire on US planes attacking Islamic State militants inside Syria. The White House says it won't coordinate airstrikes with Damascus. 

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    This Aug. 28, 2014, file photo shows President Obama speaking about the economy, Iraq, and Ukraine, in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.
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The Obama administration has threatened to destroy the Syrian government's air defenses if US warplanes flying missions to attack militants in Syria are targeted over the country's air space.

The public threat is an example of the difficult waters Mr. Obama is wading into with his plan to "destroy" the self-styled Islamic State, which is fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The White House insists that its effort will neither help Mr. Assad nor involve his cooperation, more than three years into Syria's civil war. 

Syrian war-planes and helicopters are already flying missions against IS and other rebel groups, and without coordination between Syrian and US forces, the risk of accidental engagements is high. 

The Associated Press reports:

Officials said the U.S. has a good sense of where the Syrian air defenses, along with their command and control centers, are located. If Assad were to use those capabilities to threaten U.S. forces, it would put his air defenses at risk, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the administration's thinking on the matter.

... U.S. officials have ruled out direct coordination with Assad and insist that a campaign against the Islamic State will not strengthen the Syrian dictator's hold on power.

The New York Times reports that House Republicans are planning to use a vote on authorizing training for Syrian rebels to push Obama for more clarity on his strategy for confronting IS. Some lawmakers are uneasy at the prospect that US-trained rebels may defect with their weapons to IS.

House leaders want to leave an imprint on the ISIS bill. The amendment, as redrafted by the House Armed Services Committee, will require the Obama administration, 15 days before the program begins, to report to Congress how the training and equipping of Syrian rebels fits with a broader strategy to defeat ISIS, how the military plans to vet participants and how officers plan to stop the kinds of attacks by pupils on U.S. forces that have plagued training efforts in Afghanistan.

The bill also mandates that every 90 days, the administration will update Congress on the program’s performance, how many trainees might have gone over to ISIS and how trainees are using U.S. military equipment.

In recent weeks, Obama and officials in his administration have spoken of IS as a great evil that the US is now committed to utterly eradicating. Such bold declarations have provoked skepticism, given that precisely that sort of language has been deployed against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by US officials since 2001, without the promised result.

Michael Tomasky writes for The Daily Beast that the tough, declarative language is a mistake.

Here’s something we’re not going to do, and I wish Obama and especially John Kerry would stop saying it. We are not going to “destroy” ISIS, to use the word Obama deployed in last week’s address (preceded by a marginally softening “ultimately”). The Islamic State will not be “crushed,” as John Kerry huffily put it in a recent tweet.  This is not possible. We all know this. We’ve been trying to destroy al Qaeda for 13 years now. We have not. We will not. And we will not destroy ISIS. We can’t destroy these outfits. They’re too nimble and slippery and amorphous, and everybody knows it.

So why say it? Why not say what we hopefully can do and what we should do: contain it. We have contained al Qaeda. Some of the methods have been morally problematic (drone strikes that sometimes kill innocents, etc.), but the methods have worked. Al Qaeda, say the experts, is now probably not in a position to pull off a 9/11. Containment is fine. It does the job.

But no, I guess a president can’t say that. A president has to sound like John Wayne. It’s depressing and appalling. If he doesn’t go cowboy on us, the war hawks will call him a weakling, say he is unfit and unprepared—and in Obama’s case, they will surely add that he is unwilling—to defend “the homeland,” this phrase we’re all now supposed to use that carries a slightly totalitarian odor about it.

Meanwhile, both US and French warplanes are now flying over Iraq, in support of Baghdad's efforts to defeat IS, which now controls the northern city of Mosul and many of the towns to the south of there along the Tigris River. But Iraq remains fertile ground for the group's recruiters: Large sections of the country's Sunni Arab minority feel they're more at risk from the state's Shiite-dominated security services than the jihadis. 

Scott Peterson writes for the Monitor about how one Iraqi Sunni was pushed toward supporting the rebellion.

Mohamed Abu Abed’s account of suffering at the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces and government over the years echoes repeatedly among Iraq’s minority Sunnis, who once held the reins of power in Iraq under Saddam Hussein but have been pushed aside and often targeted since the 2003 American invasion.

... Abu Abed’s father and brother were killed by Shiite militiamen, for example, during a period of severe sectarian bloodletting in September 2006. Both truck drivers, they were stopped at illegal Mahdi Army checkpoints, and their bodies were at the morgue the next day with bullet holes to the head. Abu Abed says he narrowly escaped the same fate.

Then in late 2006 Abu Abed was picked up with 34 others in a sweep by Iraqi military units of his neighborhood in Abu Ghraib, which along with nearby Fallujah was the heart of a Sunni and Al Qaeda insurgency that battled American and Iraqi forces.

The military found nothing incriminating at Abu Abed’s house but took him away anyway, he says. He was beaten hard the first day, accused of being an insurgent but never charged, and held for 2-1/2 years. Inside prison, he says, he heard the screams of those being tortured, and just as often heard the vows of Sunni detainees that, once out, they would join the insurgency and exact revenge.

Torture has been widespread in Iraqi detention facilities since Saddam Hussein was toppled, much as it was while he was in power. Human Rights Watch wrote in its latest annual report on Iraq that:

Iraq’s security forces abused detainees with impunity. Throughout the year, detainees reported prolonged detentions without a judicial hearing and torture during interrogation. In February, Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani told Human Rights Watch that security forces frequently carried out mass arrests without arrest warrants. Courts continued to rely on secret informant testimony and coerced confessions to issue arrest warrants and convictions.

... Iraq executed at least 151 people as of November 22, up from 129 in 2012 and 68 in 2011. In mid-March,after Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimmari announced that the ministry was about to execute 150 people, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay likened Iraq’s justice system to “processing animals in a slaughterhouse.” The Justice Ministry rarely provides information about the identities of those executed, the charges against them, or the evidence presented against them at trial.

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