Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) drives hundreds of soldiers and veterans of today’s Western armies (mainly Americans) to kill themselves, and sometimes their families too. Usually, the suicides come after months of depression and despair; nightmares, fragile nerves and paranoia are common symptoms. Families and old friends watch the victims sink under the burden of bad memories of the atrocities they have seen and done during their overseas deployments.
It may seem a perverse judgment on first reading, but in some degree those suicides represent the hope of mankind. They are our proof that some soldiers retain enough humanity to feel shame and guilt at the things they have been ordered to do, and have done. Of course not all who share those experiences and memories feel driven to suicide. Most suffer in silence, and pretend they don’t suffer. Some aren’t affected at all, because they lack the mental capacity for compassion. They are sociopaths, pretty much by definition, and we should be very afraid of them.
They will be our children’s and grandchildren’s guardians and torturers. They will be the enforcers of any and all oppressive domestic decrees and laws, and will bring to that job the same cold brutality they practised during their military service. They will obey orders without question. They are monsters.
There was a news item recently about a US drone strike on fifteen women and babies in Pakistan on the way to the river to do the family laundry. Now there are strict rules for the ordering of drone strikes; there is nothing casual about them. The targets are carefully identified and certified, and their assassinations justified and specified. Only then are their executions passed into the steady hands of the drone-pilots in military bases inside the USA. There is nothing casual about the exercise.
The slaughter of the women and babies was deliberate, as all such slaughters are. That’s what terrorism is, in occupied territories – taking out innocents in the hope of persuading fathers and spouses to stop resisting the occupation. That’s America’s and NATO’s “war of terror”. It’s the Mafia model, and it works well.
How do those actions rank in the general context of violence against women and children? Is it worse than domestic wife-bashing and child-cruelty, or better, or about the same? My own personal opinion is that it’s worse, but I may be wrong. I am a human-rights advocate, and my loyalty is to the human race, above any particular ingredient of it. I am not a Christian, but I honour the sentiment ascribed to Christ in the King James Version: inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
I interpret brethren to include sistren (sisters), and I regard the sentiment as applicable beyond whatever tribal or national context they may have held. Not everybody does, which is why “human rights” have failed to be accepted as anything more than leftist whimsy.
No women’s organisation or children’s protection society in the West ever publicly deplores drone-strikes against foreign women and children. Simple tribal solidarity beats gender solidarity hands down.
Why else aren’t Western women’s organisations interested in the basic rights of women and children in non-Western countries? Why do they grumble about the enforced wearing of burkas and the like, but stay silent on rapes and murders by Western soldiers? What kind of priority is that?
By their silence, Western women (judging by their representatives) give support to their tribal soldiers’ perception that females and children of different tribes and cultures aren’t worth spit. God help us. As a culture, ours is not nearly as advanced as we like to think it is. We have a long way to evolve, yet.
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force has given Sallyport Global Holdings in Virginia a $271.8 million contract to run security and life support operations at Balad Air Base in Iraq over the next year, the Department of Defense announced.
“Sallyport Global Holdings Inc., Alexandria, Virginia, has been awarded a $271,813,941 modification… contract for base life support, base operations support, and security,” the announcement stated on Friday.
Work is expected to be completed by January 31, 2017, according to the Defense Department.
The Balad base was occupied by the US military during the 2003 Iraq war and was handed back to the Iraqi Air Force in December 2011.
During the Iraq War, Balad was the second largest US base in Iraq and today the Iraqi Air Force operates its US-supplied F-16 Fighting Falcons combat aircraft there.
Religion as Ideology
Ideologies are pre-set forms of thinking that shape people’s worldviews and, supposedly, help to order and simplify reality. While this supposition is always flawed to one extent or another, ideologies can be very seductive. In part this is because they free their adherents from the hard work of critical thinking. Thus, they are often held onto tenaciously.
Because ideologies distort reality, they are particularly unsuited for those aspiring to power as well as their devoted supporters. History is full of examples of politically powerful ideologies that underscore this fact: fascism, communism, various military cults (particularly popular in South America and the Middle East) and even the ideology of democracy as manipulated by corrupt elites, who play the Pied Piper to the masses.
Yet there is still one more ideology out there which, even now, wreaks havoc by either claiming for itself the trappings of secular power or attaching itself in some influential advisory way to the institutions of power. That ideology is religion in its various institutional manifestations.
I want to emphasize that I am not referring to the personal religious convictions of millions by which life is made to appear understandable and meaningful. Whether such convictions are accurate or not, they play an important role at the individual level and, as long as they do not promote harmful intolerance, should be left to benignly function at the local level. What I am referring to are religious ideologies that are institutionalized in bureaucracies that can project power much as do secular institutions of authority. Religious ideologies so institutionalized see themselves as possessed of God-given truth while playing the game of power amidst human competitors.
Religion in Power
It is often said that we live in an age of religious revival. Whatever this might say for the “spiritual” shortcomings of modernity, this is a state of affairs rife with political danger. A quick look at history can again easily demonstrate why this is so.
— In the 10th through 15th centuries in Europe, Roman Catholicism was a strong political power centered in the Papacy. Historians often claim it preserved what was left of Greco-Roman civilization (despite the fact that the Church closed down the ancient system of public baths.) It also brought with it the bloodletting of the Crusades and the tortures of the Inquisition.
— When, briefly, the Protestants tasted political power in the form of Calvin’s Geneva, Savonarola’s Florence, Cromwell’s England, and the early New World establishments of North America, the result was widespread intolerance, civil war, burning flesh at Salem and elsewhere and, of course, no dancing. It does not take great imagination to see the potential for high levels of intolerance occurring if some representative of today’s Christian right, say Ted Cruz, takes power in the U.S.
— Buddhism used to be universally revered as a religion of peace and tolerance. However, put it in power or ally it to those who politically rule, and what once was benign turns malignant. Thus, consider the self-identified Buddhist government of Sri Lanka and its brutal campaign against the Tamils in the north of that country. Likewise, you can find Buddhists allied to the government of Myanmar crying for the blood of the country’s Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
— There is a lot of Hindu fanaticism in India, and It remains to be seen if the present government of that country, dominated now by Hindu nationalists, will again turn loose the religious passion which, in the recent past, has led to sectarian violence and massacres of India’s religious minorities (again, notably Muslims).
— Where the Muslims seek or hold state power, the situation is little different. According to Sunni tradition, the ethical standards of behavior set down in the Quran did not dictate state behavior beyond the brief reign of the so-called “rightly guided Caliphs.” Shiites often point out that things fell apart almost immediately upon Mohammad’s death. Civil war and internecine slaughter followed in both scenarios.
Today, in Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf emirates, one finds Sunni intolerance of Shiite Islam and the exploitation of non-citizen laborers despite their being fellow Muslims. In Shia Iran, authorities seem unsure just how tolerant or intolerant to be toward more moderate interpretations of their own, now politicized, religious tenets.
Then, of course, you have various organizations, claiming to be Sunni Muslim, ranging from ISIS to Al Nusra or some other Al Qaeda variant, all reaching for political power. Where they have tasted success, as in the case of ISIS, the consequences have been particularly bad.
— Since 1948 Judaism has succumbed to the same fate as other world religions entangling themselves in politics. Despite all the rationalizations, propaganda, and self-deception, it is clear that institutional Judaism is now firmly melded to the deeply discriminatory and particularly brutal political ideology of Zionism. I use the word “melded” because what we have here is something more than just an alliance of two separate entities. The Zionists have insisted since 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration, was proclaimed, that the fate of Judaism and an Israeli “national home” are thoroughly intertwined. Their insistent manipulations have resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The consequences of this melding have been horrific. If you want to know just how horrid things have become, there are numerous Palestinian and Jewish human rights groups that are easily found on the web which will document Israeli behavior in all its dehumanizing detail.
For a more personalized assessment of just what this melding means for Judaism as a religion I recommend the recent book by Marc H. Ellis entitled The Heartbeat of the Prophetic (New Diaspora Books, 2015). Ellis is a Jewish theologian who, in the 1970s, was greatly influenced by the work of Roman Catholic priests in Latin America who were promoting “liberation theology.” That “for the good of the people” interpretation of religion was corrosive of the institutionalized Church, and so the movement was ultimately stifled. However, Ellis thought that the same philosophy could be applied to Judaism – an insight that eventually led him to denounce Zionized Judaism in a manner reminiscent of the prophets of the Old Testament.
For Ellis, institutionalized Judaism has been reduced to an adjunct of an expansionist and racist political ideology. He feels that there is no getting around the inherent evil of this situation. No two-state solution or other “progressive” approach can erase it. As long as Judaism persists in identifying itself in terms of the Israeli state and Zionist ideology, the ethical underpinnings of the religion are left behind in the wreckage of an evolving “Jewish empire.”
Lessons to Be Learned
What have all these historical examples to teach those of religious faith? Some fundamentalists would have us believe the lesson is to remain humble and obedient in the face of an unfathomable deity whose mysterious purposes are simply beyond human comprehension. Yet there is nothing incomprehensible about the repetitive death, destruction and intolerance bred by institutionalized ideologies. And, as the historical examples given above tell us, religious ideology is no exception.
A better lesson learned seems to be: if you want to be religious, keep it personal and tolerant, avoid tendencies toward institutionalization beyond the level of local charity and organized good works, and stay clear of political alliances. It is said that Jesus told his disciples that “where two or three of you are gathered together there I too will be.” Those are just about the right numbers when it comes to keeping religion safe for the believers and non-believers alike. After all, when you have two or three thousand, or two or three million gathered together, for whatever purpose, then something quite different from a helpful and humane spirit is likely to be present.
In his book Atomic Accidents (Pegasus, 2014), James Mahaffey reports that the US has lost, destroyed or damaged nuclear weapons 65 times between 1945 and 1989. Jan. 24 was the anniversary of a B-52 crash in N. Carolina where two 6,500-lb hydrogen bombs fell from the plane and nearly detonated when the bomber broke up in the air. Two recent accidents highlight the dangers today’s weapons still pose to the people who pay for them.
Trident submarine runs aground, Capt. sacked
On Nov. 25, 2015 the nuclear-powered Trident submarine USS Georgia ran aground in Kings Bay, Georgia. The Navy is still investigating the crash, the sub’s Capt. David Adams was fired Jan. 4, and the service estimated the cost of repairs would be at least $1 million.
Imagine being among the terrified 160-member crew, thrown about your cramped quarters — along with anything else not tied down — not knowing the cause of blaring alarms. If fire suppressors spring on when the 560-foot, 18,000-ton sub bashed the shoreline, it was a rainy night in Georgia.
Capt. Adams told the press he would “miss sailing …again to stand against our nation’s enemies.” But who needs enemies with friends like Adams literally running $2 billion weapon systems into the ground?
Minuteman III missile damaged, launch crew fired
Meanwhile, in the nuclear heartland, three Minuteman III missile launch officers were fired after a recently disclosed accident that left one missile with at least $1.8 million in damages. [The missile is named “Damned if you do” in Nukewatch’s new Revised Edition of “Nuclear Heartland: A guide to the 450 land-based missiles of the United States,” which features maps of all three of the US’s active missile fields.]
The damaged, single-warhead rocket was in its underground silo near Peetz, Colorado, where Warren Air Force Base operates 150 of the missiles. The rocket, which has a 300-to-335-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, was shipped to Hill Air Force Base in Utah for repairs.
The Air Force’s Accident Investigation Board of the mishap report is being kept secret in spite of standing USAF policy. The Associated Press noted that under the Air Force’s own regulations such reports “are supposed to be made public.” Robert Burns reports that the AP’s request for a copy, under the Freedom of Information Act, was denied. A brief summary of the AIB report issued Jan. 22 says the accident “posed no risk to public safety,” a claim made unverifiable because no details of the damage were disclosed.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, interviewed by Burns Jan. 23, said, “By keeping the details of the accident secret and providing only vague responses, the Air Force behaves as if it has something to hide and undermines public confidence in the safety of the ICBM mission.”
The pubic summary says the weapon “became non-operational” during a test on May 16, 2014 and that the next day, the chief of a “mishap crew” violated “technical guidance” during the team’s checkup “subsequently damaging the missile.”
Blunder kept secret from higher-ups
Although the accident happened 20 months ago, it was first revealed this month. In fact, commanders at Warren AFB kept it secret from their military and civilian superiors in the Pentagon. At the time, the Minuteman missile system, its launch control staff in particular, was under investigation for narcotics trafficking, mass cheating on exams, performance failures, and misconduct by command authorities. On orders from Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel, nuclear-weapons experts conducted a three-month investigation of the missile “wings” at Air Bases in Great Falls, Mont., Cheyenne, Wyo., and Minot, North Dakota.
Asked if the May 17 accident was reported to the high-level investigators, Lt. Col. John Sheets, spokesman for the Air Force Global Strike Command in Omaha, which controls the ballistic missile force, said, “No” and referred further questions to the Pentagon.
It bears repeating that nuclear weapons accidents have the potential for catastrophic radiation releases with long-term health and environmental consequences. These two accidents amplify the seriousness of recent high-level calls for the elimination of the missiles.
Former Pentagon Chief William Perry said last Dec. 3, “Nuclear weapons no longer provide for our security, they endanger it.” He pointed specifically to the land-based missiles, saying ICBMs “aren’t necessary,” are “destabilizing,” and “are simply too easy to launch on bad information and would be the most likely source of an accidental nuclear war.”
In an essay titled “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves,” Paul Nitz, a personal advisor to Ronald Reagan, wrote, “I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them is costly and adds nothing to our security.” Gen. James Cartwright, a retired four-star general of the Marine Corps, issued a report in 2012 signed by Sen. Chuck Hagel (later Sec. of Defense) that recommended getting rid of the land-based missiles.
Perhaps Gen. James Kowalski, a retired three-star general and Deputy Commander of StratCom which oversees the ICBMs, said it best. Recalling a string of scandals, accidents and staff firings in Dec. 2014, Gen. Kowalski said, “The greatest threat to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”
Scores of accidents documented by Mahaffey and by Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, beg the question: What is the government waiting for? Is a self-inflicted nuclear weapon disaster the only way to force the military to turn the nuclear pistols away from our heads and put the safety on?
A senior UN official says Israel is now left without an excuse to evade ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) after a nuclear deal between Iran and the West.
Lassina Zerbo, the executive secretary of the CTBT Organization, said with the implementation of the nuclear deal, Israel’s biggest pretext for refraining from ratifying the CTBT has been taken away.
He made the remarks to a week-long conference marking the 20th anniversary of the treaty being opened for signing in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has 196 members but the treaty has not entered into force because it still needs ratification by nuclear-armed signatories such as the US, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Zerbo said Israel is “the closest” of the signatories to ratifying the treaty and assuring the world it will never conduct a nuclear test explosion.
That is because “the biggest threat for Israel is gone and over” after Iran reached a nuclear agreement with the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany in July, he said.
An open secret for decades, the Israeli atomic stockpile is estimated at some 200-400 warheads, though Israel refuses to confirm or deny its existence under a policy of deliberate ambiguity.
Israel is also refusing to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and denying international access to its atomic arsenal.
Zerbo said he is hoping to visit Israel and talk to its leaders although he doesn’t expect immediate results on ratification.
“I think that they’re the ones who can unlock what is stopping the CTBT from moving,” he said.
Zerbo is also hoping to visit Iran, which signed CTBT in 1996, to convince the country to ratify the treaty.
The Islamic Republic says its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity. The country is an NPT signatory and its nuclear facilities are open to regular UN inspections which have not found any diversion.
Zerbo, however, said if both Iran and Israel signed CTBT, it would “provide momentum — first for Egypt to ratify the CTBT and then to start negotiations for a nuclear test-free zone in the Middle East.”
“You can’t jump and get a weapon-free zone in the Middle East if the CTBT isn’t ratified,” he said.
Israel’s arsenal is the only obstacle to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons because no country possesses a nuclear arsenal in the region other than the Tel Aviv regime.
Zerbo also said China won’t ratify the CTBT before the US, India won’t ratify before China, and Pakistan won’t ratify before India. He also emphasized that US action is crucial in this regard.
He said North Korea is the least likely country to ratify the CTBT.
The UN official said the international community needs to change the way it engages with North Korea.
“What they need at this point in time is… maybe a bit of respect and dignity in the dialogue we have with them.”
I was deeply saddened to read last week of the death by suicide of Cmdr. Job Price who was with a Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan. I was even sadder when I realized that the hopeful idea that sprung up in my mind was naive: “Now maybe people will understand why soldiers commit suicide.” The only reasons for his suicide that the media could offer were the usual suspects: it was a bad deployment, “a cautionary tale of how men were ground down by years of fighting and losing comrades,” and of course, the old fallback that puts a stop to the whole inquiry, “no one knows why.”
The fact is, we know very well why soldiers and veterans commit suicide – if we allow ourselves to know it. In his book, “On Killing,” Lt. Col. David Grossman describes that from the beginning of the historical record up to the Korean War, soldiers were extremely reluctant to kill their fellow human beings, going so far as reloading weapons they hadn’t fired. Muskets were found on the battlefields of the American Civil War with as many as eighteen balls rammed down the barrel in this pretense. And what Grossman concluded has been strongly confirmed by science: human beings have a strong, inherent inhibition against killing and injuring their fellows.
We can, of course, be trained or conditioned to go against this inhibition; but what results is what psychologist Rachel MacNair calls Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), a form of PTSD that affects not only combat soldiers but police officers, prison guards who carry out “legal” executions, and many others. In any of these people, the cognitive dissonance can lead to suicide. This inhibition is arguably what makes us human; we cannot violate it without serious consequences, no matter what society or our conscious minds tell us about it’s being necessary, or even glorious.
This inhibition, which we should be very proud of, goes back so far in evolution that we are born with “mirror neurons” in our brain that cause us to feel what others feel. Distinguished neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni of UCLA says, “Although we commonly think of pain as a fundamentally private experience, our brain actually treats it as an experience shared with others.”
In Grossman’s second book, “Let’s Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill,” he reports that after the military had discovered how few men were actually firing their weapons in combat situations, it set about conditioning recruits to override the inhibition. In some cases, they simply used the same games that our children are playing on their X-Box or Playstation (hence Grossman’s title). They were very “successful” – that is, in increasing the firing rate – not in changing human nature.
A SEAL is supposed to be beyond all this, but the case of Cmdr. Price shows it isn’t so. Now, I have no idea what goes into the making of a Navy SEAL, but as part of basic training in the regular army, recruits shout out in unison when asked the purpose of the bayonet “to kill, kill without mercy.” But to be without mercy is to be without your humanity. And this is what veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are telling us: “I lost my soul in Iraq,” “I no longer like who I am,” etc.
When will we realize that the reluctance to kill and injure is not an inconvenience, but a precious capacity that we should celebrate and reward and that we could use as a guide to how we can and should live?
There was, to be sure, one hint in the press: just before he killed himself, Cmdr. Price had in his pocket a report about an Afghan girl who had died in an explosion near the base. But it was mentioned without comment, and of course with no attempt to draw conclusions. It’s left to you and me to tell this story when and wherever we get a chance. Of course, it means that Americans will have to rethink how we conduct ourselves in the international arena, how we treat offenders in our society – many such things must be examined and re-examined, and we shouldn’t shrink from this challenge. The alternative is to go on dehumanizing our servicemen and women, who are already committing suicide at an appalling rate. And why should we shrink from it, when if we accept it we can build a far better world based on the true recognition of who we are.
Nearly a year has passed since the Minsk agreements on the settlement in Ukraine were reached. However, the ongoing crisis in south-east Ukraine and problems arising in the course of the implementation of Minsk-II are still a matter of serious concern.
Kiev has been very selective with respect to its obligations, especially as regards implementation of their key political points. Here are just two examples of the Minsk agreements being grossly violated.
First, on the day of the beginning of the withdrawal of artillery, Kiev had to engage in a dialogue starting consultations with Donetsk and Lugansk representatives on how elections were to be held in April on the basis of Ukrainian law and with OSCE oversight.
The second date outlined in the document is 12 March, i.e. a month after the signing of the Minsk agreements Kiev was required to enact a special status law by adopting a resolution designating the territory that this law was supposed to cover. However, this hasn’t been done. A law was passed, the territories marked, but the law said that it didn’t apply to Donetsk and Lugansk.
Let us also remember the amnesty, because the Minsk agreements clearly say that elections should be held in accordance with the OSCE criteria, one of which is to ensure that no one will be subjected to intimidation, harassment, etc. The statement by the Kiev authorities on “elections first, then amnesty” constitute a serious distortion of the sequence and logic of what was really agreed. In accordance with the OSCE elections criteria, the amnesty should be held before the elections.
While Kiev is not contributing to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, the situation in southeastern Ukraine aggravates. Shelling is often witnessed, including the use of weapons that are supposed to have been withdrawn. This leads to civilian casualties and the destruction of property. Regrettably, yet another appeal for a ceasefire made by the Contact Group on January 13 has not been heeded in full. All of this contributes to the growth of tension and complicates progress in other areas of the settlement.
We believe that there is no alternative to the Minsk-II that is the only recipe for a political settlement to the conflict in Ukraine. That’s why Russia and its international partners, including Germany, France and the US continue an active dialogue on ways to settle the crisis in Ukraine.
Dr Alexander Yakovenko, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Deputy foreign minister (2005-2011). Follow him on Twitter @Amb_Yakovenko
Thousands of US troops could remain in Afghanistan for decades to come, despite Washington’s plan to pull the majority of soldiers out by early 2017, US military commanders reportedly suggest.
The revelation comes amid concerns about the Afghan government’s vulnerability.
“What we’ve learned is that you can’t really leave,” a senior Pentagon official told the Washington Post on condition of anonymity. “The local forces need air support, intelligence and help with logistics. They are not going to be ready in three years or five years. You have to be there for a very long time.”
Senior US commanders expressed surprise at Al-Qaeda’s resilience in Afghanistan, as well as the Taliban’s continued seizure of large areas of contested territory.
Following the departure of most foreign forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban began to seize district centers and inflict sizable losses on government forces. In addition to the Taliban, US and Afghan forces are now fighting an aggressive branch of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).
“No matter what happens in the next couple of years Afghanistan is going to have wide ungoverned spaces that violent extremist organizations can take advantage of,” said Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, a military spokesman in Afghanistan.
Commanders specifically noted that troops in Helmand province have struggled to maintain control of territory taken by US forces from the Taliban in 2011 and 2012.
“There’s a real will-to-fight issue there,” said a senior military official in Kabul.
The officials told the Post that Afghan troops in Helmand have lacked effective leaders, as well as the weapons and ammunition to hold off Taliban attacks. Some soldiers have been fighting for years without a break, which has led to poor morale and high desertion rates.
Although US officials have pointed to improvements made in the region, such as the time it takes to receive medical help on the battlefield – currently an average of four hours, down from 24 hours in 2013 – Shoffner stressed that other goals will take a long time to achieve.
“How long does it take to grow a 15-year pilot? It takes about 15 years,” he said. “We’re starting a little late with the Air Force.”
President Obama canceled Washington’s initial plan to withdraw the majority of US troops in 2014, shifting to a plan to scale back forces by early 2017. At that point, 5,500 would remain in the country to work with Afghan forces – down from the current 9,800 soldiers. Plans to completely remove all US troops have not been announced.
The decision was seen as a turn-around from Obama’s campaign promise to bring troops home, and his repeated assurance that he does not support the “idea of endless war.”
The U.N. sent invitations to several sides of the Syrian conflict but Syrian Kurds said they had not received an invitation likely due to Turkish pressure.
The United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura has sent invitations to warring parties in the Syrian conflict to attend peace talks in Geneva Friday it was revealed Tuesday. Mistura has not officially elaborated on who has been invited, but the head of the Syrian Kurdish PYD group said he has not received an official invitation despite promises.
Mistura said details of the guest list were too “sensitive” to reveal. His office said that he does not expect formal responses but he hopes those invited show up in Switzerland Friday.
One of the most contentious issues in the talks was whether or not the Kurdish PYD will be present at the negotiation table. PYD leader Saleh Muslim, who is currently in Geneva, said he has not received an invitation and is not aware that any Kurdish representatives have been asked to attend. He had earlier told Reuters that he expected an invitation letter.
One of Russia’s demands was the inclusion of the PYD in the peace talks, a stipulation that Washington objected to. But Moscow and Washington reached a compromise last Saturday that both the PYD, a former Syrian official and the Saudi-backed Army of Islam would attend the talks.
Analysts say the PYD were not sent an invitation due to Turkish pressure as Ankara said it would boycott the talks if the Syrian Kurds attend. “There cannot be PYD elements in the negotiating team. There cannot be terrorist organisations. Turkey has a clear stance,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday.
The PYD, who Turkey labels a terrorist organization, has been one of the main forces fighting the Islamic State group and have full control of almost all the Kurdish regions in northern Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would be impossible to reach a peace agreement in Syria without inviting Kurds to join the negotiating process. The PYD says the autonomous government they have established in the northeast is a decentralized model for how to resolve a war that has splintered the country.
Meanwhile, the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC), an opposition body made of several anti-government groups, have threatened a boycott unless Russian and Syrian forces stop operations in rebel-held areas.
The HNC met in Riyadh Tuesday to debate whether it would attend and confirmed to the French news agency AFP that it had received an invitation. “The response will be a request for clarifications and not an acceptance or rejection,” the unnamed source told AFP.
HNC member Salem al-Meslet said the group would resume talks Wednesday, adding that the “climate is positive.” However, the HNC says they should be the only opposition delegation and that the Kurdish PYD should be part of the government delegation.
The Syrian government has confirmed that it is attending the talks.
Other opposition figures who don’t belong to the Kurdish side or the HNC side have said they have received invitations to attend and will be present. “I am on my way to Geneva after receiving an invitation,” said Qadri Jamil, a former deputy Syrian Prime Minister who was sacked in 2013 and has good ties with Russia.
The developments come as the Syrian government has been making major advances against the rebels in recent weeks.
On Monday they captured the rebel-held town of Sheikh Maskin in southern Syria near the border with Jordan. The Syrian army also took control of Rabia Sunday, another major town in the northern Latakia province in a bid to cut supply lines for rebels through Turkey.
As is well known, the current foreign policy of the Turkish leadership in the region widely known as “zero problems with neighbours” has failed completely and in fact become “zero relations with neighbours.” The sharp deterioration in the Russian–Turkish relations after the launch of the Turkish missiles on the Russian military aircraft has completed the process of Turkey’s political isolation across its borders. Today, almost all states bordering with Turkey are among its enemies or competitors (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia). The only exception are the good-neighbourly and mutually beneficial relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan as an entity of the Federation of Iraq. Yet, relations between Ankara and Baghdad have significantly deteriorated and even become aggravated after the Turkish authorities flagrantly violated the sovereignty of the country by bringing military units with artillery and armoured vehicles to Nineveh province without the permission of the central authorities. Ankara has made it clear that it is dissatisfied with the pro-Iranian Shiite government in Baghdad, which, to make the matters worse, supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. […]
On the eve of the new year of 2016, Recep Erdogan visited Riyadh and tried to strengthen the existing partnership with the leadership of Saudi Arabia. The main points of contact between Ankara and Riyadh are a common hatred of the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, their desire to limit the influence of Iran and Shiite communities in the region by all means, as well as their alliance with Washington. The same reasons can explain the expected renewal of relations between Turkey and Israel. It is no coincidence that during a visit to Saudi Arabia, Erdogan stressed, that “Israel needs an ally such as Turkey. And we must admit that we also need Israel.”
The restoration of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the Turkish-Israeli cooperation under the auspices of the United States in the current circumstances satisfy many parties. In December 2015, the Turkish authorities confirmed that they had reached a preliminary agreement with Israel during negotiations in Switzerland to normalize bilateral relations. According to the agreements reached, Israel is to create a fund worth 20 million dollars to pay compensation to the victims of Israeli commandos, while Turkey is waiving all the claims against Israel in this matter. In addition, Israel is obliged to ease the blockade of the Gaza Strip. The latter is obviously mentioned to “save face” of Mr. Erdogan before his supporters; in fact, nothing is likely to change in the maritime border of Gaza. One should not forget that the other ally of Israel – Egypt – absolutely opposes the lifting of the blockade. Representatives of Turkey allegedly promised the Israelis that they would stop the activities of Hamas on its territory should the blockade be lifted in the Gaza Strip.
Amid the strengthening of Iran’s positions in Syria and the region and the revitalization of the Lebanese political-military group Hezbollah, Israel is extremely interested in finding new allies and partners in the Arab and Muslim world. Recently, Jerusalem has managed to establish links and contacts with Saudi Arabia, and strengthen relations with the new Egyptian regime by way of secret diplomacy behind the scenes. Turkey may become yet another important link in the system of regional security of Israel. Today, Turkey and Israel have many more common interests and points of contact than grounds for confrontation. In addition, their mutual trade and economic benefit from this cooperation is evident. Turkey is considered the most important investor in the development programs of the Israeli military industrial sector, as well as of the long-term project on the development of Leviathan gas deposit and construction of the underwater pipeline, through which Israeli gas will be supplied to Turkey. According to Turkish media, Ankara intends to restore military cooperation with Israel and purchase its advanced observation and surveillance systems and modern unmanned devices.
Stanislav Ivanov, leading research fellow of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
While the Washington snowstorm dominated news coverage this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was operating behind the scenes to rush through the Senate what may be the most massive transfer of power from the Legislative to the Executive branch in our history. The senior Senator from Kentucky is scheming, along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, to bypass normal Senate procedure to fast-track legislation to grant the president the authority to wage unlimited war for as long as he or his successors may wish.
The legislation makes the unconstitutional Iraq War authorization of 2002 look like a walk in the park. It will allow this president and future presidents to wage war against ISIS without restrictions on time, geographic scope, or the use of ground troops. It is a completely open-ended authorization for the president to use the military as he wishes for as long as he (or she) wishes. Even President Obama has expressed concern over how willing Congress is to hand him unlimited power to wage war.
President Obama has already far surpassed even his predecessor, George W. Bush, in taking the country to war without even the fig leaf of an authorization. In 2011 the president invaded Libya, overthrew its government, and oversaw the assassination of its leader, without even bothering to ask for Congressional approval. Instead of impeachment, which he deserved for the disastrous Libya invasion, Congress said nothing. House Republicans only managed to bring the subject up when they thought they might gain political points exploiting the killing of US Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.
It is becoming more clear that Washington plans to expand its war in the Middle East. Last week the media reported that the US military had taken over an air base in eastern Syria, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that the US would send in the 101st Airborne Division to retake Mosul in Iraq and to attack ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. Then on Saturday, Vice President Joe Biden said that if the upcoming peace talks in Geneva are not successful, the US is prepared for a massive military intervention in Syria. Such an action would likely place the US military face to face with the Russian military, whose assistance was requested by the Syrian government. In contrast, we must remember that the US military is operating in Syria in violation of international law.
The prospects of such an escalation are not all that far-fetched. At the insistence of Saudi Arabia and with US backing, the representatives of the Syrian opposition at the Geneva peace talks will include members of the Army of Islam, which has fought with al-Qaeda in Syria. Does anyone expect these kinds of people to compromise? Isn’t al-Qaeda supposed to be our enemy?
The purpose of the Legislative branch of our government is to restrict the Executive branch’s power. The Founders understood that an all-powerful king who could wage war at will was the greatest threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is why they created a people’s branch, the Congress, to prevent the emergence of an all-powerful autocrat to drag the country to endless war. Sadly, Congress is surrendering its power to declare war.
Let’s be clear: If Senate Majority Leader McConnell succeeds in passing this open-ended war authorization, the US Constitution will be all but a dead letter.
At a time when America’s public sector is apparently too strapped financially even to provide safe drinking water for some of its residents, the Obama administration plans to commit the nation to spending at least $1 trillion over the next three decades to improve our ability to fight a nuclear war. That’s right — an almost unthinkable war that would end up destroying much of the habitable portion of the globe.
That wasn’t the message President Obama conveyed in April, 2009 when he declared in Prague, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. … Generations lived with the knowledge that their world could be erased in a single flash of light. … Just as we stood for freedom in the Twentieth Century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the Twenty-first Century.
“And as . . . the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. … So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
How times change. Today, warns former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, “we are now on the verge of a new nuclear arms race” based on a return to Cold War thinking. “Moreover, I believe that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War — and yet our public is blissfully unaware of the new nuclear dangers they face.”
Russia shares some of the blame, with its ostentatious talk of developing new weapons like a giant nuclear-tipped torpedo designed to “cause guaranteed devastating damage to the country’s territory by creating wide areas of radioactive contamination.”
But a far greater risk to global security is the Obama administration’s so-called nuclear “modernization” program, which the Pentagon is promoting at the same time U.S. policymakers are incessantly demonizing Russia as the chief threat to the United States and its allies.
In theory, the administration aims merely to ensure that America’s nuclear deterrent remains “robust” — that is, credible enough to dissuade any other nuclear power from contemplating an attack on U.S. forces, or installations, or cities.
But U.S. nuclear forces are currently sized with only one potential enemy in mind: Russia. The United States has an estimated 1,900 nuclear weapons deployed, versus 1,780 for Russia. The next largest nuclear power is France, with just 290 deployed weapons. The total U.S. nuclear stockpile of 7,200 warheads is 28 times bigger than China’s.
Apparently all that isn’t enough to let top Pentagon officials sleep at night. President Obama’s new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that he believes Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security — “an existential threat” no less. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming,” he declared.
Curtis LeMay Redux
Lest Russia launch an all-out attack, for reasons unknown, the Obama administration proposes building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines, 100 long-range strategic bombers armed with a new class of bombs, 400 silo-based ballistic missiles, and 1,000 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. It’s almost as if Air Force General Curtis LeMay were still running the show.
An authoritative study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates the full cost of this program over 30 years at more than $1 trillion — with no allowance for cost overruns, delays, or clean-up and decommissioning costs.
But cost may be the least of the problems with Obama’s agenda. One common if disguised element of these “modernization” programs is their ability to make nuclear “war-fighting” more, not less, conceivable by increasing the targeting flexibility of these weapons and, in some cases, reducing their yield so they resemble very large conventional weapons rather than the all-or-nothing nukes of old.
For example, as the New York Times reported, the recently tested B61 Model 12 nuclear bomb has steerable fins that permit pin-point accuracy and configurable yields to as little as two percent of the “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima. General James E. Cartwright, retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former head of the United States Strategic Command, said “what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable.”
Similarly, the proposed new Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, a vastly upgraded nuclear cruise missile, “is designed for nuclear warfighting,” states Stephen Young, a senior analyst in the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Unfortunately, for that very reason, deploying this weapon will actually make the United States less secure.”
Moving to a nuclear war-fighting capability violates the official U.S. policy outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for steps to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attack, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons.”
Once policymakers start seriously considering “limited war” scenarios in which nuclear weapons might come in handy, the risk of war shoots way up. At the same time, the acquisition of war-fighting capabilities will prompt the other side to follow suit.
Easing into Nuclear War
As James Doyle, a former nonproliferation analyst at Los Alamos National Laboratory, put it, “Lowering the threshold of nuclear war poses the very real threat of rapid escalation in a conflict potentially resulting in the use of many, more destructive nuclear weapons.”
Russia certainly views the Obama administration’s current nuclear program as upsetting the stability of traditional deterrence. Following a recent test of the new B61-12 bomb, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, denounced it as “irresponsible” and “openly provocative.”
Russia is also gravely concerned about another development that could, in theory, make the United States contemplate a “limited” nuclear war: the expansion of the U.S. ballistic missile defense network in Europe. President Vladimir Putin called that “an attempt to undermine the existing parity in strategic nuclear weapons and essentially to upset the whole system of global and regional stability.”
The biggest risk from all these developments isn’t a planned nuclear war, but an unplanned nuclear exchange triggered by a false alarm in an atmosphere of mutual paranoia. Both the United States and Russia have hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to “launch on warning” lest they be destroyed in a sneak attack. Our survival thus far is thanks in part to luck; scholars have documented at least 20 accidents that might have started an accidental nuclear war in years past.
There’s no guarantee that our luck will hold out, however. Thanks to growing fears of being wiped out without warning by stealthy U.S. weapons, “Russia has shortened the launch time from what it was during the Cold War,” according to Bruce Blair, a nuclear security expert at Princeton. “Today, top military command posts in the Moscow area can bypass the entire human chain of command and directly fire by remote control rockets in silos and on trucks as far away as Siberia in only 20 seconds.”
The priority of U.S. nuclear policy today should not be investing in staggeringly expensive new technology that makes us less secure by making nuclear war more thinkable and thus more unpredictable. It should be overwhelmingly focused on nuclear risk reduction: lowering the threats perceived by each nuclear power, eliminating launch-on-warning policies, and exploring other confidence-building measures. Our greatest security task is to modernize our thinking about nuclear weapons, not our nuclear weapons technology.