Friday, August 30, 2013

Damascus: What to do to prepare for US airstrikes

From the twitter feed of someone living in Damascus (https://twitter.com/d_sights):

  1. 7- took a deep breath and relaxed
  2. 6- Checked car is fueled up
  3. 5- Packed bags of essentials, meds, clothes/PJs, canned food, etc
  4. 4- Went down to shelter, placed candles, flashlights, batteries, first aid kit, blankets, towels, etc...
  5. 3- Opened up all windows in our building staircase
  6. 2- Opened all windows, moved our mattresses into a room with no windows, kept all doors open
  7. 1- Right after Obama's talk finished, we were like the strike is gonna happen any unexpected moment & this is what we did at home:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New York Times: Proof of Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

The New York Times has a detailed report on the nerve gas attack in Syria:
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Thousands of sick and dying Syrians had flooded the hospitals in the Damascus suburbs before dawn, hours after the first rockets landed, their bodies convulsing and mouths foaming. Their vision was blurry and many could not breathe.

Overwhelmed doctors worked frantically, jabbing their patients with injections of their only antidote, atropine, hoping to beat back the assault on the nervous system waged by suspected chemical agents. In just a few hours, as the patients poured in, the atropine ran out.

To avoid contamination, medics stripped new arrivals down to their underwear and doused them with water before taking them inside.

New patients kept coming. One doctor from the town of Kafr Batna likened the scene to a horror movie, with cars bringing in entire families — fathers, mothers and children — all of them dead.

The doctors soon faced a new problem: where to put the dead. Some were covered with blocks of ice to fend off the summer heat, others were wrapped in white sheets and lined up in rows so family members could identify the victims.

It would be hours before officials in Washington woke up on Wednesday to learn the extent of the massacre. President Obama, who had recently returned from a weeklong vacation and planned a quiet day at the White House before departing for a two-day bus tour across New York and Pennsylvania, was told of the attack in the Oval Office that morning during his regular intelligence briefing.

The White House issued a cautious public statement about the attacks from a deputy spokesman shortly before noon, but behind the scenes the president and his national security team were grappling with the urgency and enormity of the event: the largest mass killing of the Syrian civil war, and most likely the deadliest chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein’s troops killed thousands of Kurds with sarin gas during the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Interviews with more than two dozen activists, rebels and doctors in areas near the attack sites, as well as an examination of more than 100 videos and photos of the aftermath, back up this assertion.

Report from Doctors Without Borders about nerve gas attack in Syria


I just received this email from Doctors without
Borders (because I'm a donor).


As you may have heard, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reports of serious medical casualties are at the center of news stories about the alarming situation in Syria. As a Doctors Without Borders supporter, we want you to have the latest information.

Here is what we know: three hospitals in Syria's Damascus governorate that are supplied by Doctors Without Borders reported to us that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms such as convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress, in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21.

These patients were treated using Doctors Without Borders-supplied atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. So far 355 of those patients reportedly displaying neurotoxic symptoms have died.

Due to security concerns, no Doctors Without Borders staff have been able to visit the hospitals who reported these symptoms to us, but the accounts come from medical facilities with which Doctors Without Borders has had strong, effective and reliable collaborative relationships. We are neither able to confirm the cause of the illnesses and deaths nor establish who may be responsible, but the reported symptoms, the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, and several other factors, strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.

Unfortunately, when medical personnel treat patients exposed to a neurotoxic agent, they too are at risk of becoming ill. Sadly, the doctors in one of the hospitals reported that 70 out of 100 volunteers suffered symptoms after direct contact with patients and that one person has died.

Here is what we're doing now: While we are calling for a thorough, independent investigation, Doctors Without Borders has continued our lifesaving work in Syria and assisting Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. We are now trying to replenish the empty stocks of atropine to the facilities that reported the attacks and we are dispatching 15,000 additional vials to other facilities in the area. Treatment of patients with neurotoxic symptoms is being fully integrated into medical strategies in all of our programs in Syria.

The medical and humanitarian response in Syria is already pushed beyond its limits, with hundreds of thousands of men, women and children already killed, injured and displaced. The medical infrastructure in the country has been crippled by the deliberate destruction of hospitals and other medical facilities.

The extent of Doctors Without Borders' response so far – operating six hospitals and four health centers and providing supplies, advice and support to places we cannot access – is only made possible due to dedicated supporters like you.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Will Obama finally intervene in Syria?

A Tweet by the Guardian:
My friend Raphael Geller writes on Twitter:

Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish journalist who writes for Today's Zaman, reports:
Haaretz reports that:
Washington announced Friday that four U.S. destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea would be moving closer to the coast of Syria. The destroyers are armed with Tomahawk missiles that can accurately strike military targets in Syria.
A possible scenario from Mahir Zeynalov:
It is my understanding that Obama decided to strike Syria and will do it in coordination with Britain, France and Turkey.
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) August 24, 2013 
Turkey will help funnel arms to Syria, rebels will be trained in Jordan while U.S. will strike key targets with Tomahawks.
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) August 24, 2013
Patriot missile batteries in Jordan and Turkey will serve as a limited no-fly zone in northern and southeastern Syria.
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) August 24, 2013
Kurdistan may invade northern Syria to neutralize Nusra and Ansar al Sham with PYD militants. Barzani said cross-border campaign imminent.
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) August 24, 2013 
It is much easier to impose naval embargo and strike from warships because Israel earlier destroyed Russian anti-ship Yakhnot missiles.
— Mahir Zeynalov (@MahirZeynalov) August 24, 2013 
Fred Kaplan's column in Slate, Obama’s Guns of August (a provocative title), provides a couple of scenarios for what US intervention could mean.
It seems likely that President Obama will bomb Syria sometime in the coming weeks.

His top civilian and military advisers are meeting in the White House on Saturday to discuss options. American warships are heading toward the area; those already there, at least one of which had been scheduled for a port call, are standing by. Most telling perhaps is a story in the New York Times, noting that Obama’s national-security aides are studying the 1999 air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for action in Syria. 
In that conflict 14 years ago, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia, were being massacred by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. President Bill Clinton, after much reluctance, decided to intervene, but couldn’t get authorization from the U.N. Security Council, where Russia—Serbia’s main ally—was certain to veto any resolution on the use of force. So Clinton turned to NATO, an appropriate instrument to deal with a crisis in the middle of Europe.

The parallels with Syria are obvious. In this case too, an American president, after much reluctance, seems to be considering the use of force but can’t get authorization from the U.N. because of Russia’s (and China’s) certain veto. The pressures to act have swelled in recent days, with the growing evidence—gleaned not just from Syrian rebels but also from independent physicians’ groups and U.S. intelligence—that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, killing more than 1,000 civilians.

But where can Obama turn for the legitimacy of a multinational alliance? Nobody has yet said, but a possible answer is, once again, NATO—this time led perhaps by Turkey, the alliance’s easternmost member, whose leaders are very concerned by the growing death toll and instability in Syria just across their southern border..... 
Let’s say that Obama agrees that NATO could be the key force of an air campaign in Syria—and that enough NATO members agree to go along. (In Kosovo, every member of the alliance, except Greece, played some kind of role.) 
What would be the war’s objectives? This is the crucial question of any military intervention. It should be asked, and answered, before a decision is made to intervene—along with a calculation of how much effort might be needed to accomplish those objectives and whether the cost is worth the benefit.... 
If Obama does use force in Syria, he will do so because of clear evidence that Assad’s regime has killed lots of civilians with chemical weapons. Two considerations will likely drive his decision, if it comes to that. First, he has drawn a “red line” on this issue, publicly, at least five times in the last year, and failure to follow through—especially after the latest revelations—would send confusing signals, at best, about U.S. resolve and credibility. Second, failure to respond would erode, perhaps obliterate, the taboo that the international community has placed on chemical weapons (especially nerve gas) since the end of World War I. I suspect that this factor may be more pertinent to Obama, who takes the issue of international norms very seriously. 
So the No. 1 objective of a U.S. air campaign against Syria would be the seemingly limited one of deterring or preventing Assad’s regime from using chemical weapons again. However, Obama’s top generals and intelligence officers would likely tell him that they can’t do much to fulfill this mission. They probably don’t know where the remaining chemical stockpile is located, so they wouldn’t be able to destroy it. And the notion of using military force to deter some future action is a bit vague: It’s unclear whether it would have any effect on Assad. Obama would also have to specify the additional damage he’d inflict if Assad ignored the message, and he’d have to be reasonably sure ahead of time that that damage would be enough to deter him from taking the dare. 
A more extravagant, but possibly more feasible, target of an air strike might be Assad’s regime itself—with the objective of destroying it or at least severely weakening it....

More on Syria

Guardian article on - Did Assad's ruthless brother mastermind alleged Syria gas attack?
[M]aher al-Assad has in many ways played a more decisive role in the country's civil war than his elder brother, commanding its most formidable military division as it claws back losses and leading the defence of Damascus against an opposition that remains entrenched on the capital's outskirts. The question many Syrians are asking, after last week's revelations of an apparent chemical attack on civilians in rebel-held areas, is what role the president's brother may have played in the atrocity.

Maher has remained a senior member of the Ba'ath party's central committee and a central pillar of a police state that, despite the ravages of war and insurrection, remains one of the most effective in the world.

As the trajectory of Syria's war has wobbled throughout the past year, opposition gains in parts being offset by regime advances elsewhere, the 4th Armoured Division Maher commands has been a chief protagonist on behalf of the regime. He has acted as division commander since at least 2000, and at the same time leads Syria's other premier fighting force, the Republican Guards. Both units have been at the vanguard of the war since its earliest days, and were active again last week as loyalist forces launched their biggest operation yet to root out rebel groups from the capital.
It was while this operation was under way that thousands of residents of east Ghouta were exposed to what scientists increasingly believe was a nerve agent, possibly sarin. Attempts to pin down who was responsible for the attack are now the subject of a global intelligence effort that has already started to zero in on loyalist military units as the likely suspects.

Additional proof of nerve gas attack in Syria from Doctors Without Borders

Doctors Without Borders, which both has medical personnel in Syria and gives support to medical facilities in the Damascus area, reports that thousands suffering neurotoxic symptoms treated in hospitals supported by MSF.
Brussels, 24 August 2013 - Three hospitals in Syria's Damascus governorate that are supported by the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have reported to MSF that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

Since 2012, MSF has built a strong and reliable collaboration with medical networks, hospitals and medical points in the Damascus governorate, and has been providing them with drugs, medical equipment and technical support. Due to significant security risks, MSF staff members have not been able to access the facilities.

“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” said Dr Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations.

Patients were treated using MSF-supplied atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms. MSF is now trying to replenish the facilities’ empty stocks and provide additional medical supplies and guidance.

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said Dr Janssens. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Nostalgia for the good old days of Stalin: John Wight on homophobia in Putin's Russia

In case you thought the nonsense about "pinkwashing" was limited to castigating Israel for being a relatively decent place to live if you happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, while at the same time giving a pass to the multitude of anti-gay Arab regimes - I give you John Wight on the Stalinist British blog, Socialist (dis)Unity. He's angry at Stephen Fry for writing an open letter calling on Britain to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, Russia. Fry is calling for this boycott because of the recent passage of Russian anti-gay legislation that bans "homosexual propaganda." A short excerpt from his letter:
Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment. It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma.
So how does Wight respond to Fry?
Many societies remain uncomfortable with homosexuality. In our own country gains in LGBT rights and equality are a relatively recent phenomenon. Whether we like to admit it or not, homosexuality and sexual promiscuity are still viewed as two sides of the same coin in some societies, feeding a misplaced understanding of homosexuality as solely a lifestyle choice motivated by hedonism. It is seen as a corrupting and corrosive influence on social cohesion as a consequence. There is of course nothing wrong with homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. The freedom to choose any lifestyle a person so wishes, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others, is rightly deemed sacrosanct in a healthy society.
Homosexuality as a "lifestyle choice"? What is Wight talking about? He sounds like the religious right in the US, which views acting on same sex attraction as a sinful "choice" that should be resisted. I'm not sure, myself, that sexual orientation (not "lifestyle") is as genetically based as some people argue it is, but it has always seemed to me to be something deeply rooted in one's personality, not something chosen. The lack of success of so-called "eparative therapy" (trying to turn gay people straight) is testimony to the lack of choice. This is a man of the left? He sounds like someone who is longing for the days when homosexuality was thought of as a bourgeois deviation not found in healthy socialist societies like the Soviet Union! (Shades of Ahmedinejad denying that there were any gay people in the pure Islamic Republic of Iran!)
But social attitudes are inevitably buttressed and influenced by cultural traditions, which differ across the world and are the product of specific histories and inevitably develop at different rates of progress. These factors cannot simply be abstracted in favour of a western-centric approach on the part of liberal commentators and activists in Britain.
Why is Wight defending Putin's Russia? As a socialist, shouldn't he be opposed to Putin and everything he stands for: authoritarianism, suppression of dissent, alliance with the deeply reactionary Russian Orthodox Church? Why is he defending regressive "cultural traditions"? 

And note that snuck into his supposed tolerance for different cultural traditions is the statement that they "develop at different rates of progress." This implies that there is, or should be progress, toward something - in this case, the greater acceptance of homosexuality that is found in Britain and other western countries. So he knows that he's apologizing for an anti-gay policy, but he's cloaking it in the language of respect for different cultural traditions.

There's a good comment on the blog criticizing Wight, from someone calling themselves "Loony Lefty":
I find this piece profoundly disturbing. Sexual orientation is not a “lifestyle choice”, it is a fundamental element of people’s self-identity. Describing it as a “lifestyle choice” is incredibly dismissive. 
And to advocate that we should cut Russia some slack because homophobia is part of their culture is not only deeply patronising, it is an entirely false argument. I grew up as an Afrikaner in Apartheid South Africa, where it was part of my culture to believe that black people were subhuman. Is that an acceptable belief? Absolutely not. It was part of my culture, but I’m sure (at least, I would hope!) that no-one on SU would have opposed our exclusion from international sport. And I somehow doubt that anyone here would have argued against our exclusion from the Olympics by arguing that black people in SA weren’t suffering on the scale of the Holocaust.

Yemen Was Once a Powerful Arabian Kingdom Run by Jews

Jacob Mikanowski in Tablet has a really interesting article on a Jewish kingdom in Yemen just before the rise of Islam: Yemen, the Crucible of al-Qaida, Was Once a Powerful Arabian Kingdom Run by Jews. The title of the article is dumb (al-Qaida isn't mentioned in the article, nor was Yemen in fact the crucible of Al-Qaida), but the contents are really worth reading if you want to know something about Jews in the Arabian peninsula.