Monthly Archives: December 2014

Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatch Awards 2014

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 1, 2015

 

 

Each year Dispatches From the Edge gives awards to individuals, companies and governments that make following the news a daily adventure. Here are the winners for 2014.

 

The Pandora’s Box Award to Israel and the U.S. for launching the world’s first cyber war and creating a monster in the process. In 2010 both countries secretly released the Stuxnet virus to disable Iran’s nuclear energy program, in the process crashing thousands of Teheran’s centrifuges.

 

According to a report by the security company Cylance, “Stuxnet was an eye-opening event for the Iranian authorities, exposing them to the world of physical destruction via electronic means. Retaliation for Stuxnet began almost immediately.”

 

The Financial Times now reports that “Iranian hackers have penetrated dozens of international organizations, including six top-tier oil and gas companies, six international airports, seven airlines, a blue-chip U.S. defense contractor, 10 prestigious universities, and the government computer systems of several Gulf states.”

 

An Iranian hacker program dubbed “Cleaver” has, according to Cylance, “extracted highly sensitive materials” from governments and key companies in Canada, China, France, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Britain, China, Germany, India, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

 

What ye sow, so shall ye reap.

 

The Golden Scold Award to Germany and Chancellor Andrea Merkel for lecturing the Greeks on profligate spending and forcing Athens to swallow crippling austerity measures, while at the same time bribing Greek military officials to spend billions of dollars on useless weapons.

 

According to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, arms dealers—mostly German, but also French, Swedish, and Russian—handed out close to $3 billion in bribes to secure $68 billion in weapons contracts over the next decade. One arms dealer dropped off a suitcase with over $800,000 in it at the Greek Arms Ministry.

 

Athens spent $2.3 billion to buy 170 German Leopard II tanks, which are largely useless for fighting in Greek terrain. In any case, the tanks were sent without any ammunition (although this past August The Greek Defense Ministry coughed up $69.9 million to buy ammunition from the German company Rheinmetall)

 

The Greeks also paid more than $4 billion to purchase German submarines that are still in dry dock, and, from all accounts, are very noisy. It is not good to be noisy in the silent service. According to Der Spiegel, the German company that makes the U-214 shelled out over $2 million in bribes to land the contract.

 

In the meantime, the austerity policies forced on Greece by the “troika” of international lenders—the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Union—has impoverished millions of people and driven the unemployment rate to over 20 percent (50 percent for those under 25). Since 2008, Greek infant mortality has risen 21 percent and child mortality is up 43 percent. Suicides are up 45 percent.

 

In exchange for the military spending, the Greeks got submarines that sit on the land, tanks they can’t use, and lectures from Merkel about saving money.

 

The Misplaced Priorities Award goes the Indian government for spending $33 million on a nearly 600-foot bronze statue of Indian independence leader Vallabhbhai Patel, while, according to the UN, 213 million Indians are undernourished—the most for any country in the world and constituting one out of every four hungry people on the planet. Some 48 percent of children under five are below weight, and India and Nigeria account for almost one-third of deaths among children under five. Inequality in earnings is worse in India than in any other emerging economy in the world. Life expectancy is actually better in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

 

Independent investigative journalist P. Sainath, who has covered rural India for decades, writes that “A total of 2,960,438 farmers have committed suicide since 1995.” In virtually every case the cause was debt to moneylenders and landlords.

 

Dispatches suggests Indian government leaders design a program to aid farmers, feed the poor, and take a moment to read Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozmandias.”

 

The Shoot-In-The-Foot Award to the Obama administration for ending the purchase of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines as part of U.S. sanctions leveled at Moscow over the crisis in the Ukraine. The RD-180—a cheap, reliable workhorse engine that has lifted U.S. Atlas III and Atlas V rockets into space since 1997—will cost $1.5 billion and six years to replace. A new engine means that launch vehicles will also need to be re-designed and satellite programs delayed. In the end, that could cost $5 billion.

 

In retaliation for the RD-180 ban, Russia will no longer lend its Soyuz rockets to supply the international space station. Asked how astronauts will get to the station, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin suggested they “use a trampoline.”

 

The European Space Agency (ESA) will also take a hit. Besides losing the Soyuz taxi service to the space station, the ESA will lose access to the RD-180 engine as well, and will have to accelerate its troubled Ariane VI rocket program to replace the Agency’s Ariane V. The “VI” has been criticized as too big, too inflexible, and much too expensive—$4. 2 billion.

 

Russia announced it would shift monies it spends on the International space station to joint space projects with China.

 

 

The Dog Ate My Homework Award to the British Foreign Office for “accidently destroying” documents which would have shown that London was deeply—and illegally—involved in the U.S. CIA’s rendition program. Renditions moved terror suspects to countries that allowed torture, or kept the suspects in secret “black bases” where the CIA carried out its own torture program.

 

Britain allowed over 1,600 CIA flights in and out of the country and permitted suspects to be held at the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Complicity with the rendition program is a violation of British domestic laws against kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and the right to a fair trial. It also violates international laws against torture.

 

“It’s looking worse and worse for the UK government on Diego Garcia,” says Cori Crider, director of the human rights organization Reprieve. “They need to come clean about how, when, and where this evidence was lost.”

 

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmons says the records were lost due to “water damage.”

 

The Mouse That Roared Award to the Marshall Islands for hauling the nuclear armed powers—the U.S., China, Russia, France, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea—before the International Court of Justice at Hague for violating Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Article VI calls for the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and nuclear disarmament.” India, Israel and Pakistan are not treaty members—North Korea withdrew—but its hard to argue with the Marshallese on the subject of nukes: in 1954 the U.S. vaporized Bikini Atoll with a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb and irradiated thousands of islanders.

 

Over a period of 12 years, the U.S. detonated some 67 nuclear warheads with an aggregate explosive power of 42.2 megatons in the Marshalls. The Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons. The Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal found the U.S. liable for $2 billion in damages, but so far Washington has only paid out $150 million.

 

It wasn’t just Marshall Islanders who got zapped either. The Center for Investigative Reporting found that the U.S. Navy decommissioned some of the ships that had taken part in those tests at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. The Navy then buried the nuclear waste around the island, creating numerous “hot spots.” Some 2,000 low-income or homeless San Francisco residents—who live in subsidized housing on the island—were assured there was nothing to worry about, and then instructed not to let their children dig in front or back yards (“Look, Mom, this rock glows in the dark!”).

 

Nuclear contamination was also found at several other California bases, including Alameda Naval Air Station, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, and McClellan Air Force Base near the state’s capital, Sacramento.

 

Radiation, the gift that keeps on giving.

 

Golden Lemon Award once again goes to Lockheed Martin for its $1.5 trillion F-35 stealth fighter-bomber—the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history—that can’t get its software to work, won’t fly in the rain, and burns up trying to get off the ground. In fact, foreign buyers are beginning to have second thoughts about buying the plane at all. Canada just tested the F-35 against the old U.S. F-18 Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and France’s Dassault Rafale and found the only difference was that the F-35 was much more expensive: between $116 million to $160 million per plane, vs., respectively, $60 million, $90 million, and $64 million apiece.

 

The U.S. was forced to cancel the F-35’s debut at the prestigious Farnborough International Air Show in Britain because a plane caught fire trying to take off from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The F-35 has since been restricted to lower speeds and three hours flying time, not enough to make the hop across the Atlantic.

 

Lockheed Martin and Austal USA also scored big in the Lemon category with their Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), the USS Freedom and the USS Independence. The $37 billion LCS program will build a fleet of shallow draft, high-speed warships that, according to a recent Pentagon study, won’t survive combat. The Defense Department’s Director of Operational Testing and Evaluation, Michael Gilmore, says Lockheed Martin’s USS Freedom and Austal’s USS Independence, are “not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment and are not intended to be employed in a manner that puts them in harm’s way.”

 

Translation: if they get in a fight, they’re toast.

 

But that might not be a problem because the LCSs high maintenance requirements means the ships can’t get to where the action is anyhow. The USS Freedom spent 58 percent of its time in Singapore port—more than twice the average for U.S. Navy ships—and the USS Independence spent most its time tied up in San Diego.

 

A Farewell to Fred Branfman, who died from Lou Gehrig’s disease at 72. Branfman helped expose the secret U.S. air war against Laos that killed tens of thousands of civilians and sowed that tiny country with millions of unexploded bombs, weapons that continue to inflict pain and death on Laotians today. The U.S. carried out 580,000 bombing missions over Laos, dropping almost a ton of bombs for every person in that country. Branfman help to found the Indochina Resource Center, which documented what he had seen in Laos as an aid worker. He later wrote “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War.”

 

Presente!

 

 

 

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Syria: Turkey In The Fray

Syria: Turkey In the Fray

Dispatches From the Edge

Dec. 16, 2014

 

The pieces for a political resolution of the Syrian civil war are finally coming together, but the situation is extremely fragile, which is not good news in a region where sabotaging agreements and derailing initiatives comes easier than sober compromise. But while many of the key players have already begun backing away from their previous “red lines,” there remains one major obstacle: Turkey.

 

Back in August, Abbas Habib, coordinator of the Council of Syrian Tribes, met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to explore the possibility of a “preliminary conference” of the antagonists, first in Moscow, then in Syria. In November, the Russians also met with Qadri Jamil, a leader of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation, an in-house opposition party that functions inside Syria. The outcome of the November talks was an agreement to “promote the launch of an inclusive intra-Syrian negotiation process on the basis of the Geneva communiqué of June 30, 2012.”

 

The 2012 Geneva agreement called for “the establishment of a transitional governing body, which would include members of the present government and the opposition, an inclusive National Dialogue process, and a review of the constitutional order and the legal system.” Implementation dissolved in the face of intransigence on all sides, and stepped up support for the armed opposition by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies, plus the U.S., Turkey, and France.

 

But two more years of brutal warfare has accomplished very little except generating millions of refugees, close to 200,000 deaths, and widening instability in neighboring countries. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad admits there is no military solution to the war, and the U.S. has backed away from its “Assad must go” demand. According to David Harland of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, most of the rebels and their backers have also concluded that “Assad’s departure cannot be a precondition for talks.”

 

In essence, most of the players fear the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) more than they do of the repressive Assad regime. As Harland puts it, “Better to have a regime and a state than not have a state.”

 

But that approach runs counter to Turkey’s strategy, which has as its centerpiece the ouster of Assad. Indeed, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that the threat of the ISIS is secondary to overthrowing the Damascus government, and that once Assad is gone, the Islamic extremists will disappear.

 

That analysis—shared by virtually no on else in the region—is why the Turks have locked horns with the U.S. by resisting to supporting the Kurds fighting to hold the Syrian border town of Kobani against the ISIS. Most of the Kurds involved in that battle are members of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), an offshoot of Turkey’s long-time nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As Erdogan told reporters, “The PKK and ISIS are the same for Turkey. It is wrong to view them differently. We need to deal with them jointly.”

 

But aside from the Syrian Army, the PYD is the only serious military force resisting the ISIS, a fact that even the U.S. has come around to recognizing. Initially reluctant to support a group tied to the PKK—officially designated a “terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union (EU)—the Americans have done a 180 degree turn, supplying the PYD with arms, ammunition and food.

 

Under pressure from the U.S., France and Britain, Turkey allowed a modest number of Kurdish Peshmerga forces from Iraq to cross the border and fight in Kobani, and agreed to train insurgents, including Kurds, to fight in Syria. But who those soldiers will fight is hardly clear.

 

So far, the Erdogan government has refused to allow the U.S. to use its huge Incirlik air base to bomb ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq unless Washington agrees to support Ankara’s four demands: a no-fly zone over Syria, a “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, training of rebels, and equal targeting of the ISIS and the Assad regime.

 

The Americans are already instructing rebel forces in Jordan and Qatar, are preparing to do so in Saudi Arabia, and appear willing to pick up the bill if Turkey opens up training camps. Washington, however, is less enthusiastic about a “safe zone,” which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called “premature.”

 

What a “safe zone” would actually involve is unclear, although Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Darutoglu says it should include the five northern cities of Ibid, Latakia, Hasakah, Jarablus, and Kobani, a significant slice of Syria.

Establishing it would certainly violate international law unless it had UN sanction, and Russia is unlikely to permit that. It would also put the Obama administration at odds with its Kurdish allies in Kobani, who see the “safe zone” as just an attempt by Ankara to meddle in Kurdish affairs.

 

The “no fly zone” would require the U.S. to smash up Syria’s air defense system and ground its air force. That would not be terribly difficult—though it has risks—but it would mean that the U.S. would essentially be at war with Syria. “No fly” zones also don’t have a particularly good track record in the region. The U.S. imposed no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq, but it took the U.S. Army to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

 

As for equally targeting the ISIS and Assad, not even the Turkish public supports that. A recent poll found that 66 percent supported military action against ISIS, but not Ankara’s goal of regime change, and only a slight majority thought Turkey itself should take part in military actions against the Islamic State.

 

Part of this hesitation is the fear that the war will spill over into Turkey, something that has already happened to a certain degree. There have been several car bombings on the Turkish-Syrian border, and last year car bombs in the Turkish town of Reyhanli killed 43 people and wounded dozens more. While Ankara blames Syria, the locals blame the Syrian rebels.

 

In October, Turkish authorities in Gaziantep, a city 40 miles north of the Syrian border, seized dozens of suicide vests, hundreds of pounds of powerful C-4 explosives, grenades and Kalashnikov rifles. Local authorities say that ISIS is active in the area and has cautioned westerners they might be potential kidnap victims.

 

There are also proposals for local ceasefires that might lay the foundation for a general peace agreement. The UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffen de Mistura, is trying to work out an armistice in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Russia supports the proposal and de Mistura said the Damascus government expressed “constructive interest” in such an agreement.

 

De Mistrua met Dec. 7 with Hadi al-Bahra of the western-backed National Coalition and the following day with various rebel groups in Gaziantep

 

According to Al Monitor, the plan would “focus on the real threat of terrorism as defined by the resolutions of the Security Council,” reduce violence, and move toward a “political solution.” Under the terms of the ceasefire, all groups would keep their arms. This latter point is an important one, because an earlier ceasefire in Homs required disarmament, an action that many of the opposition groups interpreted as surrender.

 

But the Erdogan government is not happy with a focus on “terrorism” that doesn’t include the Assad government, a posture that has isolated Turkey regionally and internationally. At the 60-nation meeting in Brussels on Dec. 3, Turkey’s argument equating the ISIS and the PKK received zero support. “Erdogan’s fixation with regime change in Syria has blinded his practical decision-making,” Suat Kiniklioglu, a former member of Parliament for the President’s Justice and Development Party told the Financial Times.

 

Ankara’s obstinacy around Kobani touched off riots that killed more than 30 people in Kurdish towns and villages all over Turkey and threatens to derail one of the Erdogan’s more successful initiatives, peace with the Kurds.

 

Ankara is certainly in a position to cause trouble. It has already permitted rebel groups, including ISIS, to infiltrate fighters and supplies through its long border with Syria, and it is hard to imagine a lasting peace without a buy-in from Turkey.

 

The Erdogan government is not the only player in the Middle East that would like to see the Syrian civil war continue. Israel has been aiding rebel forces in Southern Syria and has bombed suspected government weapons depots on several occasions.

 

Getting all the rebel groups on board will be no picnic either. The ISIS is not interested in talking with anyone, and the Free Syrian Army has little support inside the country. The Kurds are willing to talk, but about what? Autonomy? The very thing that Ankara fears the most? Will the newly resurgent Republicans in the Congress—including some Democrats and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton—balk at anything that keeps Assad in power, if only temporarily? And in the end, the Syrian government may be deluded into thinking it can win a military victory.

 

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist James Traub, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the proposed plan could lead to “an end to the war, a comprehensive reform of the constitution, and internationally supervised elections.”

 

There are myriad ways that a peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war can be derailed, but the pieces for an agreement are on the table. Failure to put them together will accelerate the destabilizing effects of the war in neighboring countries and deepen the misery of the Syrian people.

 

 

 

 

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