22
Aug

On the 636th day of James Foley’s captivity, and roughly the 1,250th day of Syria’s uprising-turned-civil-war, a video surfaced online that claimed to show the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheading the American photojournalist, in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the Sunni extremist group in Iraq (the militants also threatened to kill the missing American journalist Steven Sotloff, who seems from the footage to be an ISIS captive as well). The Obama administration has confirmed the authenticity of the video, and the Foley family has paid tribute to the slain reporter.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim,” Foley’s mother posted on Facebook on Tuesday evening. “He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.”

That exposure is growing fainter by the day. Foley died while working in what is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a reporter—a country where dozens of journalists have been killed and kidnapped in recent years. As the Syrian conflict has grown more indiscriminately violent; as the Syrian government has targeted journalists, censored local news coverage, and barred foreign journalists from the country; as ever-stronger extremist groups have started seizing members of the press (and not even bothering to make demands for their release), news outlets around the world have pulled their staff from the country. Many Syrian journalists and citizen-journalists have been silenced. Freelancers—empowered by the journalistic tools at their disposal, but often lacking the professional experience and institutional safety nets that are invaluable when working in conflict zones—initially helped shore up the coverage, but they too have been deterred by the deteriorating security situation and by risk-conscious news organizations that are wary of publishing their work.

As The Atlantic‘s David Rohde wrote in November, “Syria today is the scene of the single largest wave of kidnappings in modern journalism, more than in Iraq during the 2000s or Lebanon during the 1980s. A combination of criminality, jihadism, and chaos is bringing on-the-ground coverage of the war to a halt.”

The result: The Syrian civil war, which has left more than 170,000 people dead and displaced 9 million more, in perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis so far this century, is grinding on as a dwindling cohort of daring journalists bear witness to its tremendous destruction. It’s grinding on in the background of our churning news cycle. We see its deleterious effects everywhere in the Middle East. But we rarely see it.

The 40-year-old Foley, a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and a Teach for America alum from New Hampshire, was abducted in northwestern Syria in November 2012. He’d come to the country as a freelancer after embedding with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and being captured by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces while covering the 2011 Libyan revolution.

And he understood the importance of the work he was doing in countries like Syria. “It’s part of the problem with these conflicts. … We’re not close enough to it. And if reporters, if we don’t try to get really close to what these guys—men, women, American [soldiers], now, with this Arab revolution, young Arab men, young Egyptians and Libyans—are experiencing, we don’t understand the world,” he told an audience at Medill in 2011, shortly after returning from his 44-day ordeal in Libya.

He admitted that his motivations were as prosaic as they were high-minded. Asked why he’d decided to travel to the Middle East, he responded, “My brother [a member of the U.S. military] was over there, I guess some kind of romantic notion you have about yourself, too: You want to be a writer, you want to see the world, fiction didn’t work out too well, let’s try the real thing.”

“The honest fact is that when you see something really violent, it does a strange thing to you. It doesn’t always repel you,” he added. “Feeling like you survived something, it has a strange sort of force that you are drawn back to.”

Published by Uri Friedman on Aug. 19 in http://www.theatlantic.com

19
Aug

A century has passed since the start of World War I, which many people at the time declared was “the war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, wars just kept happening. And with the headlines from Ukraine getting scarier by the day, this seems like a good time to ask why.

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay. And this has been true for a long time. In his famous 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” the British journalist Norman Angell argued that “military power is socially and economically futile.” As he pointed out, in an interdependent world (which already existed in the age of steamships, railroads, and the telegraph), war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm even on the victor. Furthermore, it’s very hard to extract golden eggs from sophisticated economies without killing the goose in the process.

We might add that modern war is very, very expensive. For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.

So the thesis of “The Great Illusion” was right: Modern nations can’t enrich themselves by waging war. Yet wars keep happening. Why?

One answer is that leaders may not understand the arithmetic. Angell, by the way, often gets a bum rap from people who think that he was predicting an end to war. Actually, the purpose of his book was to debunk atavistic notions of wealth through conquest, which were still widespread in his time. And delusions of easy winnings still happen. It’s only a guess, but it seems likely that Vladimir Putin thought that he could overthrow Ukraine’s government, or at least seize a large chunk of its territory, on the cheap — a bit of deniable aid to the rebels, and it would fall into his lap.

And for that matter, remember when the Bush administration predicted that overthrowing Saddam and installing a new government would cost only $50 billion or $60 billion?

The larger problem, however, is that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle. (To be fair, some scholars are highly critical of this claim.)

And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

No doubt it’s an oversimplification to say that the confrontation in Ukraine is all about shoring up an authoritarian regime that is stumbling on other fronts. But there’s surely some truth to that story — and that raises some scary prospects for the future.

Most immediately, we have to worry about escalation in Ukraine. All-out war would be hugely against Russia’s interests — but Mr. Putin may feel that letting the rebellion collapse would be an unacceptable loss of face.

And if authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China’s rulers will face if and when that nation’s economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.

Starting a war is a very bad idea. But it keeps happening anyway.

By Paul Krugman, published on Aug. 17 in the http://www.nytimes.com

14
Aug

An ancient religious divide is helping fuel a resurgence of conflicts in the Middle East and Muslim countries. Struggles between Sunni and Shia forces have fed a Syrian civil war that threatens to transform the map of the Middle East, spurred violence that is fracturing Iraq, and widened fissures in a number of tense Gulf countries. Growing sectarian clashes have also sparked a revival of transnational jihadi networks that poses a threat beyond the region.

Islam’s schism, simmering for fourteen centuries, doesn’t explain all the political, economic, and geostrategic factors involved in these conflicts, but it has become one prism by which to understand the underlying tensions. Two countries that compete for the leadership of Islam, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, have used the sectarian divide to further their ambitions. How their rivalry is settled will likely shape the political balance between Sunnis and Shias and the future of the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain.

Alongside the proxy battle is the renewed fervor of armed militants, motivated by the goals of cleansing the faith or preparing the way for the return of the messiah. Today there are tens of thousands of organized sectarian militants throughout the region capable of triggering a broader conflict. And despite the efforts of many Sunni and Shia clerics to reduce tensions through dialogue and counterviolence measures, many experts express concern that Islam’s divide will lead to escalating violence and a growing threat to international peace and security.

Sunni and Shia Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries. In many countries it has become common for members of the two sects to intermarry and pray at the same mosques. They share faith in the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and perform similar prayers, although they differ in rituals and interpretation of Islamic law.

Shia identity is rooted in victimhood over the killing of Husayn, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in the seventh century, and a long history of marginalization by the Sunni majority. Islam’s dominant sect, which roughly 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims follow, viewed Shia Islam with suspicion, and extremist Sunnis have portrayed Shias as heretics and apostates. Read more…

Editorial in the Council on Foreign Relations http://www.cfr.org

 

11
Aug

Who are the Yazidis?

Written on August 11, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East, News, Op Ed

It’s tragic that the world pays attention to largely forgotten communities only in their moments of greatest peril. This week, we’ve watched as tens of thousands of Yazidis — a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who practice a unique, syncretic faith — fled the advance through northern Iraq of the Islamic State’s Sunni jihadists, who have set about abducting and killing hundreds of members of this religious minority. As The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris reports, as many as 40,000 remain stranded on “the craggy peaks of Mount Sinjar,” dying of hunger and thirst and devoid of much support from a faltering Iraqi government. (Days after the Yazidis’ plight became known, the Obama administration authorized air strikes in northern Iraq against the Islamist rebels.)

Ever since seizing Mosul, Iraq’s main urban center in the north, the forces of the Islamic State have embarked on a gruesome mission to transform their domain into an idealized Caliphate — on the way, they’ve forced the conversion of religious minorities, destroyed the shrines of rival sects and butchered those they consider apostates. Yesterday, a distraught Yazidi member of parliament in Baghdad made an impassioned appeal on behalf of her people: “An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the Earth,” she said.

The Yazidis, globally, number about 700,000 people, but the vast majority of the community — about  half a million to 600,000 — live concentrated in Iraq’s north. The city of Sinjar was their heartland. Now, it’s in the possession of extremists who seem bent on ethnic cleansing.

The Yazidi faith is a fascinating mix of ancient religions. Its reputed founder was an 11th-century Umayyad sheik whose lineage connected him to the first great Islamic political dynasty. His tomb in the Iraqi city of Lalish is a site of Yazidi pilgrimage, mirroring the Sufi practices of millions of Muslims elsewhere; now, there are reports of the town being turned into a refugee camp for the displaced.

Despite its connections to Islam, the faith remains distinctly apart. It was one of the non-Abrahamic creeds left in the Middle East, drawing on various pre-Islamic and Persian traditions. Yazidis believe in a form of reincarnation and adhere to a strict caste system. Yazidism borrows from Zoroastrianism, which held sway in what’s now Iran and its environs before the advent of Islam, and even the mysteries of Mithraism, a quasi-monotheistic religion that was popular for centuries in the Roman Empire, particularly among soldiers. Not unlike the rituals of India’s Parsis — latter-day Zoroastrians — Yazidis light candles in religious ceremonies as a sign of the triumph of light over darkness. Read more….

August 7 published in the Washington Post

9
Aug

Israelis and Palestinians are still burying their loved ones as Gaza’s third war in six years continues. Since July 8, when this war began, more than 1,600 Palestinian and 65 Israeli lives have been sacrificed. Many in the world are heartbroken in the powerless certainty that more will die, that more are being killed every hour.

This tragedy results from the deliberate obstruction of a promising move toward peace in the region, when a reconciliation agreement among the Palestinian factions was announced in April. This was a major concession by Hamas, in opening Gaza to joint control under a technocratic government that did not include any Hamas members. The new government also pledged to adopt the three basic principles demanded by the Middle East Quartet comprised of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia: nonviolence, recognition of Israel, and adherence to past agreements. Tragically, Israel rejected this opportunity for peace and has succeeded in preventing the new government’s deployment in Gaza.

Two factors are necessary to make Palestinian unity possible. First, there must be at least a partial lifting of the 7-year-old sanctions and blockade that isolate the 1.8 million people in Gaza. There must also be an opportunity for the teachers, police, and welfare and health workers on the Hamas payroll to be paid. These necessary requirements for a human standard of living continue to be denied. Instead, Israel blocked Qatar’s offer to provide funds to pay civil servants’ salaries, and access to and from Gaza has been further tightened by Egypt and Israel.

There is no humane or legal justification for the way the Israeli Defense Forces are conducting this war. Israeli bombs, missiles, and artillery have pulverized large parts of Gaza, including thousands of homes, schools, and hospitals. More than 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Gaza. Hundreds of Palestinian noncombatants have been killed. Much of Gaza has lost access to water and electricity completely. This is a humanitarian catastrophe.

There is never an excuse for deliberate attacks on civilians in conflict. These are war crimes. This is true for both sides. Hamas’s indiscriminate targeting of Israeli civilians is equally unacceptable. However, three Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets, while an overwhelming majority of the 1,600 Palestinians killed have been civilians, including more than 330 children. The need for international judicial proceedings to investigate and end these violations of international law should be taken very seriously.

The U.N. Security Council should focus on what can be done to limit the potential use of force by both sides. It should vote for a resolution recognizing the inhumane conditions in Gaza and mandate an end to the siege. That resolution could also acknowledge the need for international monitors who can report on movements into and out of Gaza as well as cease-fire violations. It should then enshrine strict measures to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Early discussions have already taken place. The Elders, an international group of elder statesmen of which we are a part, hope these discussions will continue and reach fruition.

At the Palestinians’ request, the Swiss government is considering convening an international conference of the signatory states of the Geneva Conventions, which enshrine the humanitarian laws of warfare. This could pressure Israel and Hamas into observing their duties under international law to protect civilian populations. We sincerely hope all states — especially those in the West, with the greatest power — attend and live up to their obligations to uphold the Fourth Geneva Convention, which governs the treatment of populations in occupied territory.

Unity between Fatah and Hamas is currently stronger than it has been for many years. As Elders, we believe this is one of the most encouraging developments in recent years and welcome it warmly. This presents an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority to reassume control over Gaza — an essential first step towards Israel and Egypt lifting the blockade.

The Palestinian Authority cannot manage the task of administering Gaza on its own. It will need the prompt return of the EU Border Assistance Mission, an international effort to help monitor border crossings that was launched in 2005 and suspended in 2007. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton has already offered to reinstate the program, covering not only Rafah but all of Gaza’s crossings. Egypt and Israel would, in turn, cooperate with international monitors to be deployed in Gaza and along its borders, backed by a U.N. Security Council mandate to protect civilian populations. A valuable precedent for trust-building between Egypt and Israel is the international peacekeeping force operating in the Sinai, mandated by the peace treaty signed by the two countries in 1979.

The international community’s initial goal should be the full restoration of the free movement of people and goods to and from Gaza through Israel, Egypt, and the sea. Concurrently, the United States and EU should recognize that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force. Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise. Only by recognizing its legitimacy as a political actor — one that represents a substantial portion of the Palestinian people — can the West begin to provide the right incentives for Hamas to lay down its weapons. Ever since the internationally monitored 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power in Palestine, the West’s approach has manifestly contributed to the opposite result.

Ultimately, however, lasting peace depends on the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

Leaders in Israel, Palestine, and the world’s major powers should believe that policy changes are within reach that would move Israelis and Palestinians closer to a day when the skies over the Holy Land can forever fall silent.

By Jimmy Carter and Mary Robinson, Published in Foreign Policy on Aug. 4th http://www.foreignpolicy.com

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