The Gaza ghetto uprising

Gideon Levy writes:

The cruelty and temerity of the people in Gaza once more reached new heights Saturday: dozens of rockets on Israel before the week of its Independence Day, just after its Holocaust Remembrance Day, and worst of all, two weeks before its Eurovision. How dare you Gaza, how dare you.

Israel still hasn’t recovered from the Holocaust, is preening itself for its Independence Day, the musicians are starting to arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, and you’re firing Qassam rockets. How will we be able to celebrate? News reports give the impression that Israel is under siege; Gaza is threatening to destroy it. Twitter has already suggested “Eva’s Story on the Gaza Border” – a play on the social media campaign about the Holocaust.

Pundits explain that it’s all because of Hamas’ greed. Ramadan is beginning and “they’re under crazy pressure for cash.” Or, “It’s all because of the weak security policy that has gotten the terror groups used to Israel; we only strike buildings.”

And so they shoot, those villains. Hamas wants money, Israel’s too soft on them, they are terror, we are peace; they were born to kill. On Friday the army killed four protesters by the Gaza border fence, but who’s counting. In Israel a teenage boy tripped while running for a shelter. “When a lack of policy and continuity yields to blackmail,” a voice of wisdom mumbled, and nobody could figure out what he was proposing. Benny Gantz, the alternative. This is what we have an opposition for.

Everything is completely disconnected from context and reality, intentionally and willfully. Half a week after Holocaust Remembrance Day, the knowledge that 2 million people have been locked up more than 12 years behind barbed wire in a giant cage doesn’t remind Israel of anything and doesn’t arouse anything. Half a week before Independence Day, the struggle for freedom and independence of another people is perceived as murderous terror for no reason. [Continue reading…]

What ISIS did to my village

Hassan Hassan writes:

When I was a teenager, in the 1990s, I spent my summer breaks herding sheep from sunrise to sunset. My daily routine was nearly always the same. I released the sheep from the barn, steered them along the village’s main road, grabbed a watermelon from a shop to add to my packed lunch, and turned to the desert. Once I left the populated section of the village, I directed the few dozen animals along the desert cliffs to the open fields at the mouth of a little valley.

My family had two lines of business at the time, farming and livestock trading, so we did relatively well. We owned some 1,000 livestock and had an orchard of about 900 pomegranate trees that was leased annually to merchants from Aleppo, who arrived at harvest time to ship the produce from several orchards in the area to their city. Along with my eight siblings, I helped in farming and herding not only over the summer but on weekends and holidays throughout the year. I didn’t venture outside my home village until 1996, after finishing my ninth-grade exams. At that point I went to the city of Albu Kamal to study in the area’s sole high school.

My village, Ash Sha’fa, lies on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, in the province of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria. The Iraqi border, mostly a sand berm eroded by desert winds, is only a short drive from the village. Most of Deir Ezzor’s population descends from one main Arab Sunni tribe, the Egaidat, to which my family belongs. Like most tribes in the Middle East, the Egaidat has members in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

This eastern region, commonly referred to in Syria as the Remote Provinces, is distinctly tribal, rural, and marginalized. In the 1990s, life there was generally simple and uneventful: The state’s presence was minimal, and villagers sustained themselves through farming and remittances from relatives working in the Persian Gulf. Even in retrospect, nothing in those days indicated that my home province would become the main transit hub for jihadists moving from Syria into Iraq after the 2003 invasion, or the site of the Islamic State’s final battle as a caliphate.

As someone who studies the Islamic State for a living, I still struggle to connect images from my past with the reality of today. They are simply two different worlds.

A little over a month after ISIS seized Ash Sha’fa, one of my siblings sent me a picture of our father. I froze at the sight of him with a gray beard. He used to be clean-shaven. But he, like other men living under the caliphate, was forced to wear a beard as a sign of his adherence to the religious principles of his jihadist rulers. This was five years ago, by which point I was already studying ISIS’s every move as a journalist in Abu Dhabi; the photograph made me feel the group’s terrors and daily humiliations in a new way. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

The fugitive Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has appeared in a propaganda video for the first time in five years, in which he recognises the terror group’s defeat in the Syrian town of Baghouz.

The appearance is only Baghdadi’s second on video, and comes weeks after the remnants of Isis were ousted from their last organised stronghold in the eastern Syrian desert. Looking heavier than when he proclaimed the existence of the now collapsed caliphate in mid-2014, Baghdadi blamed its demise on the “savagery” of Christians. [Continue reading…]

In the Middle East, a new military crescent is in the making

Marwan Kabalan writes:

With the breakout of the Arab Spring more than eight years ago, pro-democracy activists in the Arab world and elsewhere were hopeful that the tide of democratic change might have finally reached its shores. Many who had criticised the likes of American scholar Samuel Huntington, who saw democracy as an alien concept to Middle Eastern culture, felt vindicated.

The euphoria of the Arab Spring did not last long, however. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, civil wars erupted, subduing any hopes for a peaceful democratic transition. In Bahrain, fearing Iranian interference, a Saudi-led military intervention quickly put down popular protests. In Morocco, the February protest movement was smothered by a combination of political manoeuvres by King Mohammed VI and a security crackdown. And in Egypt, the military establishment spearheaded a counter-revolution and eventually staged a coup against the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, which installed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the country’s new military ruler.

These developments have been seen by many as yet another indication that the Arab world is intrinsically undemocratic . The rise of organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has validated the perceived need for a strongman rule. The political choice of Arab nations has been seemingly reduced to “SISI or ISIS”. [Continue reading…]

The war in Syria is now an economic one

Bloomberg reports:

The impact on Damascus, where the war ended a year ago with the defeat of the fighters in towns around it, is staggering.

The city usually throbs with life in the spring, carts overflowing with fresh green almonds, Damascenes smoking shisha in outdoor cafes and families enjoying picnics. It felt lifeless on a visit this month. Vendors in the city’s old bazaar complain of miserable sales. Pubs that bustled with diners were largely empty. Increased power cuts have forced shops to get generators. Traffic is light. Morale is down.

Lines of cars stretching for miles wait hours to fill their tanks with the 20 liters of gasoline that Syrians in government-controlled areas are allowed every five days. The last shipment of oil from Iran, which was sending up to 3 million barrels a month, came in October before sanctions were resumed.

“I thought once the war ended, our currency would become stronger and our living standards better,” said Saeed al-Khaldi, who transports vegetables across the sprawling city. Damascus’s population has almost doubled since the war started, to over 6 million, as civilians fled violence in other regions. “Instead, we’re living from one crisis to the other.” [Continue reading…]

U.S.-led coalition killed 1,600 civilians in Raqqa ‘death trap’

Amnesty International reports:

The US-led military Coalition must end almost two years of denial about the massive civilian death toll and destruction it unleashed in the Syrian city of Raqqa, Amnesty International and Airwars said today as they launched a new data project on the offensive to oust the armed group calling itself “Islamic State” (IS).

The interactive website, Rhetoric versus Reality: How the ‘most precise air campaign in history’ left Raqqa the most destroyed city in modern times, is the most comprehensive investigation into civilian deaths in a modern conflict. Collating almost two years of investigations, it gives a brutally vivid account of more than 1,600 civilian lives lost as a direct result of thousands of US, UK and French air strikes and tens of thousands of US artillery strikes in the Coalition’s military campaign in Raqqa from June to October 2017.

By the time the offensive began, the IS had ruled Raqqa for almost four years. It had perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, torturing or killing anyone who dared oppose it. Amnesty International previously documented how IS used civilians as human shields, mined exit routes, set up checkpoints to restrict movement, and shot at those trying to flee. [Continue reading…]

ISIS still has global reach despite the caliphate’s collapse

Robin Wright writes:

Exactly a month after losing its final piece of territory, the Islamic State is giving notice that it can still surprise the world—this time in Sri Lanka. On Tuesday, it claimed responsibility for Easter bombings of three churches and three popular hotels which killed more than three hundred innocent civilians, including more than forty children, and injured another five hundred. “The perpetrators of the attack that targeted nationals of the coalition states and Christians in Sri Lanka were from the ranks of the fighters of the Islamic State,” the ISIS news agency, Amaq, claimed in its chat rooms on Telegram, a social-media app. “Coalition” refers to an international alliance of more than seventy countries that ousted ISIS from its territory in the Middle East. A second ISIS communique included a video of eight men standing in front of the black-and-white ISIS flag, seven with their faces covered by black-and-white kaffiyehs, as they pledged bayat, or allegiance, to the Islamic State. The communique identified each man who targeted each site on an “infidel holiday.”

Evidence beyond the claim is far from definitive. But Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said, at a press conference, that government officials had early suspicions about ties between ISIS and two local Muslim extremist groups. So did U.S. counterterrorism officials. “Everyone believes there was some kind of external link because of the sophistication of the attack,” a U.S. official told me.

The scope of the attacks in Sri Lanka reflects the ongoing danger from extremist movements, whether ISIS, Al Qaeda, their offshoots, or their wannabes. The routing of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, in 2001, and the death of Osama bin Laden, a decade later, did not eliminate Al Qaeda. Today, the group has active branches in the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, and it controls a strategic Syrian province on the border with Turkey. In the past two years, ISIS has lost territory the size of Britain inside Syria and Iraq, but it still has eight official branches and more than two dozen networks regularly conducting terrorist and insurgent operations across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, according to the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism. [Continue reading…]

Trump endorses an aspiring Libyan strongman, reversing U.S. policy

The New York Times reports:

President Trump on Friday abruptly reversed American policy toward Libya, issuing a statement publicly endorsing an aspiring strongman in his battle to depose the United Nations-backed government.

The would-be strongman, Khalifa Hifter, launched a surprise attack on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, more than two weeks ago. Relief agencies said Thursday that more than 200 people had been killed in the battle, and in recent days Mr. Hifter’s forces have started shelling civilian neighborhoods.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement a few days after Mr. Hifter’s militia began its attack that “the administration at the highest levels” had made clear that “we oppose the military offensive” and “urge the immediate halt to these military operations.” Most Western governments and the United Nations have also condemned the attack and demanded a retreat.

Mr. Trump, however, told Mr. Hifter almost the opposite, the White House said Friday.

A militia leader who has given himself the title of Field Marshal, Mr. Hifter, 75, has long sought to portray his fight for power over Libya — including his advance on Tripoli — as a battle against “terrorism.” In the statement on Friday the White House said Mr. Trump had called Mr. Hifter on Monday to endorse that campaign.

Mr. Trump called “to discuss ongoing counterterrorism efforts and the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya,” the White House said in the statement. “The President recognized Field Marshal Hifter’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and the two discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.”

Analysts said Mr. Trump’s endorsement would embolden Mr. Hifter and hamper United Nations efforts to call for a cease-fire. It could also increase the likelihood that his regional sponsors like Egypt or the United Arab Emirates might intervene on his behalf, as each has in the past in Libya.

The policy reversal came as a surprise in part because Mr. Hifter’s forces also appear to be losing ground. His promises of a quick victory have proved false, and his forces appear outmaneuvered by those aligned against them. Most analysts say that he has little hope of exerting his authority over all of Libya any time soon, so his continued campaign may only prolong the country’s instability. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s veto over Yemen is a scandalous abuse of presidential power

Simon Tisdall writes:

Expected or not, Donald Trump’s veto of a bipartisan Congressional resolution to end US military involvement in Saudi Arabia’s murderous war in Yemen is an outrage. It will prolong the unspeakable suffering of millions of Yemeni civilians, the blameless victims of Riyadh’s vicious proxy war with Iran and its Houthi allies.

Yet Trump’s uncaring arrogance also threatens the US itself. It is further proof that the constitution’s famous checks and balances are just not working, and that, post-Mueller, this unworthy president is raging dangerously out of control.

Trump’s stated reasons for the veto ranged from specious to risible. He claimed to be protecting American citizens – even as he denied directly assisting the Saudis and said there were no US regular troops in Yemen. So which is it? The Americans Trump referred to, mostly resident in Gulf states that back the Saudi-led coalition, were at risk from Houthi “explosive boats”, he said. They may also face danger when transiting Riyadh airport. In reality, no US citizen is obliged to brave such shocking perils, and very few have. [Continue reading…]

Yemen cannot afford to wait

Robert Malley and Stephen Pomper write:

For an American who had a hand in shaping U.S. Mideast policy during the Barack Obama years, coming to Yemen has the unpleasant feel of visiting the scene of a tragedy one helped co-write.

It is a scene whose most heartrending aspects are not easily accessible to a visitor. It is still possible to travel north, to the war-battered capital, Sanaa, now controlled by the Houthi insurgent group, or up the Red Sea coast, where a catastrophic struggle for control over the port city of Hodeidah still looms, but it’s a challenge. So when one of us recently ventured into the country, the journey went no farther than Aden, the southern port city over which the internationally recognized government regained control early in the conflict with the help of a Saudi-led coalition.

Aden does not bear wounds witnessed elsewhere: the spread of cholera, 80 percent of the population requiring humanitarian assistance, and a large number threatened with famine. Yet even there, signs of war abound. Aden today is faring better than many other Yemeni cities, and security there is much improved compared with even six months ago, but the bar is low. Many buildings were hit, some completely destroyed, only very few repaired after the Houthis were pushed out. Along with the physical scars are security ones. Rival forces and militias man checkpoints. Parts of the city are controlled by government forces, others by the Security Belt, a separatist-leaning armed group backed by the United Arab Emirates nominally falling under the Yemeni government; the two sides fought a brief but bitter battle a little over a year ago, which concluded with an uneasy truce. [Continue reading…]

House rebukes Trump with vote ending U.S. support for Yemen war

Politico reports:

The House on Thursday approved a measure to cut off U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s bloody civil war, in yet another harsh, bipartisan rebuke of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

Trump is expected to veto the measure, which passed with support from Republicans and Democrats in both chambers. Thursday’s 247-175 vote in the House marks the first time in history that a War Powers resolution will reach the president’s desk.

The effort was a top priority for House Democrats after they took control in January amid a worsening humanitarian crisis on the ground in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have sought to overthrow the country’s government, prompting a Saudi bombing campaign that has lasted nearly four years. [Continue reading…]