Category - USA: Foreign Relations

Obama weighs moving U.S. troops closer to front lines in Syria, Iraq

Washington Post, By Missy Ryan & Greg Jaffe, October 27

President Obama’s most senior national security advisers have recommended measures that would move U.S. troops closer to the front lines in Iraq and Syria, officials said, a sign of mounting White House dissatisfaction with progress against the Islamic State and a renewed Pentagon push to expand military involvement in long-running conflicts overseas.

The debate over the proposed steps, which would for the first time position a limited number of Special Operations forces on the ground in Syria and put U.S. advisers closer to the firefights in Iraq, comes as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter presses the military to deliver new options for greater military involvement in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The changes would represent a significant escalation of the American role in Iraq and Syria. They still require formal approval from Obama, who could make a decision as soon as this week and could decide not to alter the current course, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are still ongoing. It’s unclear how many additional troops would be required to implement the changes being considered by the president, but the number for now is likely to be relatively small, these officials said.

Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Deal Is Reached

New York Times, By Jackie Calmes, October 5

Atlanta – The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations on Monday agreed to the largest regional trade accord in history, a potentially precedent-setting model for global commerce and worker standards that would tie together 40 percent of the world’s economy, from Canada and Chile to Japan and Australia.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership still faces months of debate in Congress and will inject a new flash point into both parties’ presidential contests.

But the accord — a product of nearly eight years of negotiations, including five days of round-the-clock sessions here — is a potentially legacy-making achievement for President Obama, and the capstone for his foreign policy “pivot” toward closer relations with fast-growing eastern Asia, after years of American preoccupation with the Middle East and North Africa.
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Possible U.S. airstrike hits Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan; at least 19 dead

Washington Post, By Tim Craig, October 3

Kabul – U.S. forces may have mistakenly bombed a hospital in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least 19 people, including three children, in an incident that will likely raise new questions about the scope of American involvement in the country’s 14-year war.

In a statement, Doctors Without Borders said an airstrike “partially destroyed” its trauma hospital in Kunduz, where the Afghan military has been trying to drive Taliban fighters from the city.

The airstrike killed at least 12 Doctors Without Borders staff members, the group said. Three children were also reportedly killed. At least 37 other people were seriously injured, including 19 staff members and 18 patients and caretakers. Officials warned the death toll could rise as dozens of people remain unaccounted for.

“This attack is abhorrent and a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law,” Meinie Nicolai, the group’s president, said in a statement.

Nicolai called for an independent investigation into the incident: “We demand total transparency from Coalition forces. We cannot accept that this horrific loss of life will simply be dismissed as ‘collateral damage.’”

U.S. State Department “Welcomes” News That Saudi Arabia Will Head U.N. Human Rights Panel

The Intercept, By Glenn Greenwald, September 23

Last week’s announcement that Saudi Arabia — easily one of the world’s most brutally repressive regimes — was chosen to head a U.N. Human Rights Council panel provoked indignation around the world. That reaction was triggered for obvious reasons. Not only has Saudi Arabia executed more than 100 people already this year, mostly by beheading (a rate of 1 execution every two days), and not only is it serially flogging dissidents, but it is reaching new levels of tyrannical depravity as it is about to behead and then crucify the 21-year-old son of a prominent regime critic, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was convicted at the age of 17 of engaging in demonstrations against the government.

Most of the world may be horrified at the selection of Saudi Arabia to head a key U.N. human rights panel, but the U.S. State Department most certainly is not. Quite the contrary: its officials seem quite pleased about the news. At a State Department briefing yesterday afternoon, Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner was questioned by the invaluable Matt Lee of AP, and this is the exchange that resulted:

QUESTION: Change topic? Saudi Arabia.

MR. TONER: Saudi Arabia.


QUESTION: Well, how about a reaction to them heading the council?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have any comment, don’t have any reaction to it. I mean, frankly, it’s — we would welcome it. We’re close allies. If we —

Putin Said to Explore Sidelining Assad Even as He Arms Him

Bloomberg, By Henry Meyer & Donna Abu-Nasr, September 13

Russia is sending signals to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that it may allow Syria’s embattled leader Bashar al-Assad to be eased out of power as it seeks to forge a united front against Islamic State and retain influence in the region, officials and Syrian opposition leaders said.

Officials from the three countries, as well as from the opposition, have been negotiating possible terms for sidelining Assad since at least June, when President Vladimir Putin hosted Saudi King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed, they said. Saudi Arabia is Assad’s main regional enemy, while Russia is his longtime ally. Since then, Russia’s whirlwind diplomacy has brought key officials from across the region to Moscow for talks.

Syria’s civil war has traumatized the Middle East, spilling into neighbors and enabling the rise of Islamic State amid the turmoil. The latest Russian-backed efforts to end the conflict come as its fallout spreads westwards, with hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking refuge in the European Union.

Like every other aspect of the war in Syria, though, Russia’s policy isn’t straightforward. U.S. and Russian officials say they’re weighing a transition plan that would strip Assad of power while remaining interim head of state.

Airstrikes Take Toll on Civilians in Yemen War

New York Times, By Kareem Fahim, September 12

Hajja, Yemen — The airstrike slammed into Al-Sham water-bottling plant at the end of the night shift, killing 13 workers who were minutes away from heading home.

Standing among the strewn bottles, smoldering boxes and pulverized machines a few days after the airstrike here, the owner, Ibrahim al-Razoom, searched in vain for any possible reason that warplanes from a Saudi-led military coalition would have attacked the place.

Nothing in the ruins suggested the factory was used for making bombs, as a coalition spokesman had claimed. And it was far from any military facility that would explain the strike as a tragic mistake: For miles around, there was nothing but desert scrub.

“It never occurred to me that this would be hit,” Mr. Razoom said.

Of the many perils Yemen’s civilians have faced during the last six months of war, with starvation looming and their cities crumbling under heavy weapons, none have been as deadly as the coalition airstrikes. What began as a Saudi-led aerial campaign against the Houthis, the rebel militia movement that forced Yemen’s government from power, has become so broad and vicious that critics accuse the coalition of collectively punishing people living in areas under Houthi control.

Via The Intercept: Two Short Paragraphs that Summarize the US Approach to Human Rights Advocacy

In Radical Shift, GOP Leaders Actively Embrace Catastrophic Climate Change

Climate Progress, By Joe Romm, September 11

Over the past year, GOP leaders, driven by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have made a radical shift in the party’s public position on climate change. They are now actively seeking to destroy a global climate deal.

In any other universe this would be a major news story. But I guess the mainstream media has become so jaded to what the Koch brothers and Tea Party have done to the Republican party at a national level, that this radical shift seems just like another dog-bites-man-story, albeit one where the wound is fatal.

In fact, for most of the past quarter-century, most of the GOP leadership has at least given lip service to the idea that global warming is a global problem that needs a global solution. Not only have they abandoned that public position, but they now apparently believe the role of the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nation is to actively work to undermine the world’s best chance to save billions of people — including generations of Americans — from needless misery.
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U.S. Revamping Rebel Force Fighting ISIS in Syria

New York Times, By Eric Schmitt & Ben Hubbard, September 6

Washington — In an acknowledgment of severe shortcomings in its effort to create a force of moderate rebels to battle the Islamic State in Syria, the Pentagon is drawing up plans to significantly revamp the program by dropping larger numbers of fighters into safer zones as well as providing better intelligence and improving their combat skills.

The proposed changes come after a Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda attacked, in late July, many of the first 54 Syrian graduates of the military’s training program and the rebel unit they came from. A day before the attack, two leaders of the American-backed group and several of its fighters were captured.

The encounter revealed several glaring deficiencies in the program, according to classified assessments: The rebels were ill-prepared for an enemy attack and were sent back into Syria in too small numbers. They had no local support from the population and had poor intelligence about their foes. They returned to Syria during the Eid holiday, and many were allowed to go on leave to visit relatives, some in refugee camps in Turkey — and these movements likely tipped off adversaries to their mission. Others could not return because border crossings were closed.

Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.

New York Times, By Michael R. Gordon & Eric Schmitt, September 4

Washington — Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and is taking other steps the United States fears may signal that President Vladimir V. Putin is planning to vastly expand his military support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, administration officials said Friday.

The Russian moves, including the recent transport of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield and the delivery of a portable air traffic control station there, are another complicating factor in Secretary of State John Kerry’s repeated efforts to enlist Mr. Putin’s support for a diplomatic solution to the bloody conflict in Syria.

The Russians have also filed military overflight requests with neighboring countries through September.

American officials acknowledge that they are not certain of Russia’s intentions, but some say the temporary housing suggests that Russia could deploy as many as 1,000 advisers or other military personnel to the airfield near the Assad family’s ancestral home. The airfield serves Latakia, Syria’s principal port city.


“We have regularly and repeatedly expressed our concern about Russian military support for the Assad regime,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. “But we’re also watching their actions very carefully. If these reports are borne out, it would represent a very serious shift in the trajectory of the Syria conflict and call into question any Russian commitment to a peaceful settlement.”