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July 28th, 2014 - 3:36 pm

Napoleon once ascribed his success to being able to see things as they were, and not as reflected in a fun house mirror. “The first qualification of a general-in-chief is to possess a cool head, so that things may appear to him in their true proportions and as they really are.”

In Washington’s eyes Gaza may be the biggest conflict the Middle East; but objectively it is the littlest. The numbers tell the story. Syrian president Bashar Assad went down on his knees at a mosque following what some have called the worst week in the Syrian civil war ”amid reports of an unprecedented high death toll among his troops battling Islamic extremists.”

The military casualties came as fighting intensified in the past two weeks, with militants from the al-Qaida-breakaway Islamic State group seeking to eliminate opponents from all sides, dealing a series of setbacks for government forces and rival rebels alike … about 1,240 soldiers and other Assad loyalists have been killed in the past 10 days in northern Syria.

Other activists in Syria confirmed that past weeks have seen a record death toll. Syria’s three-year civil war has already killed more than 170,000 people, nearly a third of them civilians.

Nor should we forget Iraq was always a much bigger deal than Gaza and may be about to get worse. The Daily Beast’s Jamie Dettmer tells readers to get set for the coming Blitz of Baghdad. “Analysts at the U.S.-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War, who have been plotting the locations and types of attacks in the recent flurry of blasts buffeting the Iraqi capital, have noted a clear pattern developing. They say it suggests the Islamic State is building up to something big and is no longer just focused on consolidating its grip and developing governance in the lands it now controls.”

The institute’s analysts predict the caliphate may be readying for an onslaught, possibly timed for the end of the holy month of Ramadan on Monday or during the Eid holiday celebrations this week. The aim would not be to seize Iraq’s capital, which has a very large Shia population with every incentive to fight to the death against an organization that slaughters Shia prisoner en masse. The purpose of the Islamic State offensive would be to sow mayhem and to keep Iraq’s state apparatus from recovering from its stunning defeats in June, when it lost control of Mosul, the second-largest city in the country. …

There has been a burst of attacks by bombers wearing suicide vests and also car blasts “along avenues of approach to the capital and also within Baghdad proper,” the institute notes in an intelligence update.

Failed efforts to pull this off against US forces were discussed in an earlier post, the Siege of Baghdad.  But ISIS will probably have better luck against Maliki.


The World Gets Bigger

July 27th, 2014 - 5:44 pm

We are accustomed to thinking of progress as continuous. But there have been other periods of globalization before ours — and somehow the world broke apart again. During the Roman empire manufacturers traded throughout its length and breadth . For example, goods from Britain were sold in the Mediterranean. The empire’s merchants traded with China over the Silk Road and with the subcontinent via the Indian ocean.  It was a world without passports, a place in which St. Paul could say civis Romanus sum and claim protection.

When Roman order collapsed the world suddenly got bigger. Journeys of a week became detours of a month until they finally stopped altogether. “This breakdown was often fast and dramatic as it became unsafe to travel or carry goods over any distance; there was a consequent collapse in trade and manufacture for export. Major industries that depended on trade, such as large-scale pottery manufacture, vanished almost overnight in places like Britain. Tintagel in Cornwall, as well as several other centres, managed to obtain supplies of Mediterranean luxury goods well into the sixth century, but then lost their trading links. Administrative, educational and military infrastructure quickly vanished, and the loss of the established cursus honorum led to the collapse of the schools and to a rise of illiteracy even among the leadership.”

It could never happen again. Or could it? Although the world is far from the Dark Ages, to a modest degree, yet quite distinctly, the process of globalization has retreated for the first time perhaps since the Second World War. The New Republic looks at the places where the FAA NOTAMs place restrictions on commercial flights operated by U.S. carriers.

No Fly Zone

No Fly Zone

For a while that map even included Israel because Hamas threatened to bombard it. It may include Israel again, given the unfinished business with Hamas. But there’s also unfinished business with ISIS, ISIL, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and what have you. And it’s starting to put a crimp on things. Indeed the Daily Mail says aviation experts believe that whole air corridors may soon be closed or significantly re-routed as the “tranquility” areas of the world are expanded, both geographically and in terms of the increasing capability of anti-air weapons available to ‘militants’.


Is Obama Aiding World Tranquility?

July 27th, 2014 - 5:47 am

Here is a selection of this morning’s news.

John Kerry brokers Afghan election deal but leaves behind confusion. Afghan elections: Audit of disputed run-off halted. U.S. Evacuates Embassy in Libya Amid Clashes. Only “temporary,” says State. Egyptians Search Kerry Before Allowing Him to Meet Sisi.

Kerry “completely capitulated“ to Hamas in ceasefire proposal, say Israeli sources. Hamas fires rockets toward Israel after terror group rejects truce proposal.

A bad deal with Iran. Missed deadline on Iran nuclear talks sparks a blame game. Jihadists in Iraq Erase Cultural Heritage. “Raw footage shows the Shrine of Yunus (Tomb of Jonah) mosque in Mosul being blown up by Islamic State militants.” ISIS warns women to wear full veil or face punishment. ISIS Kills 50 Syrian Soldiers, Beheads Many In Raqqa. Official: Iraqi request for U.S. airstrikes ”under active consideration.”

Donetsk residents flee fighting; Russians report spike in Ukrainian refugees. U.S.: Russia Massing Troops on Ukraine Border. If the West doesn’t do more for Ukraine now, it might soon be too late — Washington Post.

15,000 flee after Boko Haram overtakes Nigerian town. Nigerian Army Unable To Retake Damboa From Boko Haram.


Obamacare architect denies what he said — twice — on video about state choice in subsidies. “My subsequent statement was just a speak-o—you know, like a typo.” Harry Reid is happy he packed the federal court.

On Tuesday, a three-judge panel on the D.C. Circuit ruled in the Halbig v. Burwell case that the subsidies in the Affordable Care Act are illegal in the 36 states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges. In other words, anyone who signed up through the federal exchange is ineligible for subsidies. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn has written, this ruling, if upheld, could undermine the law. If millions of Americans cannot receive subsidies, then they will be unable to afford health insurance. The Affordable Care Act could collapse.

That won’t happen yet. The administration is likely to ask the entire D.C. Circuit to review the decision “en banc.” Here’s where the Democrats’ use of the nuclear option is important. The D.C. Circuit has 11 judges on it, seven Democratic appointees and four Republican ones. The only reason Democrats have a majority is due to the nuclear option. As University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley explains at The Incidental Economist, the D.C. Circuit will likely review the decision and vacate Tuesday’s ruling—all because of those extra three judges.

Obama will take executive action on immigration after summer, adviser says. The “end of immigration enforcement“ is in sight. Obama’s promised executive actions to protect illegal immigrants constitute a kind of doomsday weapon directed at the Republican Party.

If Obama acts boldly to offer de facto legalization to, say, “up to half of the undocumented population” of 11 million illegals living here, it will cement an unshakeable bond between Latino voters and their political champion — or so the argument goes.

Barack Obama has already checked out of his job. “The degree to which Barack Obama is now phoning it in – sleepwalking perfunctorily through his second term, amid golf rounds and dinner parties – is astonishing.” White House: Obama Aiding World “Tranquility.” Congressman at border: “Obama begging to be impeached.”

Lights out for Christians in Mosul.  Simon and Garfunkel were a little too early with Xmas. But it all came true anyway, just not in the way they thought.

This is Obama Tranquility Base bidding you goodnight.

Addendum: I found the lost post and can recover the comments if anyone is interested.

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When God Goes Fishing

July 25th, 2014 - 5:36 pm

There are some subjects that are almost too large for literature, even for Tolstoy, who tried to answer the question “how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world?” by following the fortunes of characters in his novel War and Peace.

Some characters seek fame, others sensual gratification, a few — like Napoleon — pursue an egotistical sense of power. But altogether too many of the rest are content to gnaw their way through the world like insects, not only incapable of answering Tolstoy’s question but unable to even ask it.

Some even want to meet God, a few glimpse the answer fleetingly and are content. One suspects the present time, like 1812, is a special era, one when more people than usual ask: “Where is God in this amoral world?” The answer may be that “God is away on one of His customary disappearances.” For one of the hallmarks of historical discontinuity is that God vanishes temporarily, during a time when old loyalties, ideologies and beliefs lose their power to bind.


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The Blindfolds of the West

July 24th, 2014 - 6:28 pm

Debate is raging in the expert community over what ISIS is: a state, transnational ideology, or just a way of life? The case for ‘state’ is made by in a Defense News article where a state department official testifies that ISIL (ISIS) is ‘no longer a terrorist group, it’s a full blown army’.

In a telling assessment that provides a glimpse into Obama administration officials’ thinking about the situation in Iraq, [US State Department’s Brett] McGurk told the panel ISIL is “no longer a terrorist group.”

Rather, he said the group has morphed into “a full-blown army.”

This is comforting to the State department.  If ISIS is a state, the same as Canada, then it can be contained in the same way any ordinary country is restrained; by alliances, diplomacy, sanctions.  The all purpose nostrum of diplomacy is to ‘statify’ an adversary. If Hamas, for example, can be turned into a state, then it becomes something familiar and safe, that in time might even have an embassy in Washington.

Others view ISIS as a transnational organization, with a broad global appeal, the heir to al-Qaeda. Briefly, the good news is that young militants are no longer joining al-Qaeda. The bad news is that they are joining ISIS instead.

Islamists now coming of age are more frequently dismissing al-Qaida as a worn down and ineffective organization, the wire service reported on Wednesday. Using social media services known for attracting candidate supporters, the young radicals have increasingly voiced admiration for the newer group that declared a new “Islamic State” last month in recently seized Middle Eastern territory.


Smoke Detector

July 23rd, 2014 - 3:30 pm

The New York Times notices the smoke collecting on the ceiling of the auditorium of the world and wonders whether there might be something to worry about. Peter Baker in an article titled “Crises Cascade and Converge, Testing Obama” notices that things are falling apart. “Not long after a passenger jet exploded in midair and plummeted to the ground in Ukraine last week, escalating a volatile crisis pitting the United States and Europe against Russia, President Obama’s thoughts turned to Syria.”

Baker has a thought. These problems may be linked.

Rarely has a president been confronted with so many seemingly disparate foreign policy crises all at once — in Ukraine, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — but making the current upheaval more complicated for Mr. Obama is the seemingly interlocking nature of them all. Developments in one area, like Ukraine, shape his views and choices in a crisis in another area, like the Middle East.

Like Sherlock on the trail, he suggests a common cause links them all. But we are advised not to worry, because the president is hot on the trail of the mystery; trying to identify the factor that connects all these catastrophes. Patience is advised, it is not elementary, my dear Watsons. The world is a complex place which only the the very smartest can understand.

Little wonder then that in recent days the president seems almost to be suffering geopolitical whiplash. “We live in a complex world and at a challenging time,” he said wearily last week after making a statement in which he addressed Ukraine, Gaza, Iran and Afghanistan, all in the space of seven minutes. “And none of these challenges lend themselves to quick or easy solutions.”

So he spends himself unstintingly trying to untie the Gordian Knot. But here’s a quick solution. Cut the Gordian Knot: resign.


Missing the Big Brass Ring

July 22nd, 2014 - 4:41 pm

The Birnbaum-Tibon megapiece in the New Republic on why the Palestinian peace process failed is as interesting for what it does not contain as much as what it does. Written in “fly in the wall” style it describes how negotiators from the Obama administration, Israel and the Palestinians tried — and failed — to start a peace process. The bricks of the edifice were  prisoner swaps and agreements, which when presumably constructed in some fashion would create a stable modus vivendi.

The drama as related by the New Republic could either have been tragedy or a comedy of errors; viewed with a suspension of disbelief it would appear that some actor somehow missed a brick, misconveyed an impression, reneged on a deal or simply flew off on a tangent so that ultimately the deal was missed for the nth time.  But the last source quoted by the New Republic piece was more cynical. The negotiations were merely a play-within-a-play. The tragedy was external to the negotiations. The hero would never get the girl onstage whatever he said because the roof of the theater was about to fall in.

“I see it from a mathematical point of view,” said Avi Dichter, the former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “The American effort will always be multiplied by the amount of trust between the two leaders. So if Kerry’s pressure represents the number five, and then Obama’s help brings the American effort to ten, it really doesn’t matter. You’re still multiplying it by zero. The final result will always be zero.”

That’s mostly what the narrative misses, through no fault of its own. While protagonists in the Birnbaum and Tibon story lived in an world of diplomatic continuity, where formulas and proposals persisted on from one decade to the other, the world in which they lived was discontinuous and had changed out of all recognition.



July 21st, 2014 - 5:59 pm

According to a Reuters story Egypt is in the crosshairs of Islamic militants based in Libya. “Chaos in Libya has allowed militants to set up makeshift training camps only a few kilometers from Egypt’s border, according to Egyptian security officials.”

The militants, those officials say, harbor ambitions similar to the al-Qaeda breakaway group that has seized large swathes of Iraq; they want to topple Sisi and create a caliphate in Egypt.

A state security officer in Salloum said Egyptian authorities see a threat in Libya because of instability that stretches from the border to the town of Derna, an Islamist and al Qaeda hotspot a few hundred kilometers away.

The Muslim Brotherhood, now hunted in Egypt, has moved across the border to Libya to join up with the greater Jihad. The power of these militants was recently demonstrated by an attack on an Egyptian border post which killed 21 Egyptian soldiers. “The death toll is the highest in an attack against Egyptian army personnel since 25 police draftees were killed by Islamic militias in the Sinai peninsula last August.”

Libya, according to Rand Paul is a “jihadist wonderland” and every militant wants to go there.  There’s a lot of action. Militias are battling for the control of Tripoli’s airport. “Tank shells, rockets and artillery rained down on the airport and surrounding districts as militias from Misrata fought others from Zintan who are in control of the airport.”  What more could anyone want?


Remember the Alamut

July 20th, 2014 - 4:39 pm

Bill Roggio reports on the disasters overtaking the Iraqi Army. A key base near Tikrit being used by the government to counterattack ISIS was reported overrun with heavy loss to equipment and life.

Two days after repelling an Iraqi military attempt to retake the city of Tikrit, the Islamic State and its allies are said to have overrun Camp Speicher, a large base just outside the city that was being used in the failed effort to retake the provincial capital.

The Islamic State’s Salahaddin Division claimed in an official statement released on Twitter yesterday that it overran Camp Speicher and is in “control of the airport and the base completely.” In the statement, the Islamic State claimed it killed “scores” of Iraqi military personnel, including a brigadier general and a colonel. It also said that a number of pilots were killed in a “martyrdom” or suicide operation on the base before it was overrun. …

The Iraqi military made its first effort to retake Tikrit in late June, when it airlifted commandos into Tikrit University in an effort to gain a toehold north of the city. An advance on the city from the south was defeated. Then, on July 16, the Iraqi military launched Operation Decisive Sword. A large column of military and militia units entered southern Tikrit and thought they liberated the city, but as they celebrated they were ambushed with suicide bombers, IEDs, and conventional attacks. The Iraqi forces then withdrew from the city.

After the Iraqi military withdrew from southern Tikrit on July 16, the Islamic State immediately began its assault on Camp Speicher, as the base was the last remaining holdout of Iraqi forces near the city (Iraqi forces were withdrawn from Tikrit University sometime before the second offensive was launched).

The Daily Beast disputes Camp Speicher’s fall, saying the “Iraqi Army’s Alamo” is still holding out.

A high-ranking officer in Baghdad’s military operations center said only that “Speicher is under the control of the army and the volunteers. ISIS never entered the base.” He declined to discuss further what he said were classified matters relating to the base’s defense.

Without being inside Speicher or peering above the base’s walls, it is impossible to say for sure who controls it. But one clue that ISIS has not taken it over is the lack of documentation on their social media accounts. If ISIS had really killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, destroyed army helicopters, and captured a major base, as they claim, the Twitter-obsessed group would likely be tweeting the evidence and basking in the images of carnage. So far, this hasn’t materialized.

The Iraqi Army isn’t the most reliable source of information, so the facts are still in doubt.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government touts victories in Tirkit on a steady basis while ISIS regularly claims to have slaughtered government forces and taken control of the city. The truth seems closer to a deadlock. The Iraqi Army has the manpower and weaponry to defeat ISIS in open skirmishes but is often fighting from a defense. While the army tries to retake Tikrit, it’s forced to counterattack and hold its ground against an enemy that likes to ambush and then fade away into the sympathetic or cowed elements among the local population.

But if ‘Alamo’ it is, the bastion’s investment or fall was sealed by strategic blunders committed in the past. The Iraqi Army’s woes go deeper than the tactical situation at Speicher. Bill Roggio cites an assessment by a US advisory team, released on July 14 by McClatchy, which paints a grim picture of organizational collapse.


The Element of Predictable Surprise

July 19th, 2014 - 6:15 pm

“Ok, surprise me.”

The enemy always does.  For years Hamas has been working on a secret weapon: tunnels. “Eight Palestinian militants emerged from a tunnel some 300 yards inside Israel on Saturday morning, armed with automatic weapons and wearing Israeli military uniforms, the Israeli military said. The gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at two Israeli military jeeps on patrol, starting a battle that killed two Israeli officers and one of the militants, according to the military. The rest then retreated underground, back to Gaza.”


The IDF has taken 30 tunnels so far, many lined with concrete. While the Israelis were not strategically surprised, they were inevitably taken at tactical unawares. They knew there were tunnels but not where all were and how they would be used.

Israeli officials framed the encounters as successes in thwarting attacks on Israel. But they were also an indication that Hamas could strike even during the invasion through a tunnel network that Israeli officials just revealed they had been studying for a year to plan a way to destroy them.

Despite the belief in NSA omniscience, James Kitfield in Breaking Defense points out that Western intelligence has many institutional blinds spots that terrorists have identified. It is now only a matter of time before they strike, but they seem to be holding off until they can pull off the Big One.

We know that intelligence gaps exist and unfortunately politics has ensured the defensive horses are wearing not only blinkers but blindfolds.


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