Interview with NYU political scientist Alastair Smith, co-author with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of The Dictators Handbook.
When Chemical Weapons Are Smart Politics
By Joshua Keating | Posted Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, at 12:35 PM
In the two weeks since the gas attacks in the suburbs of Damascus that killed more than 1,000 people and may yet trigger a U.S. military response, a lot of people have been wondering what Bashar al-Assad could have been thinking. Given that President Obama had made it quite clear that the Syrian government could do whatever it wanted without triggering U.S. intervention except for using chemical weapons, why would he tempt fate? The question of motivations has even led some commentators to question if the Syrian government actually did carry out the attack, or whether the rebels themselves might have been trying to trigger an international intervention.
In the Syrian case, Smith told me that he thinks the use of chemical weapons was a risky but shrewd move that had less to do with punishing the rebels than with sending a signal to his core supporterspredominantly members of the Alawite religious sectand his most important international allies:
First of all, using chemical weapons has absolutely cemented that for Assad there can be no soft landing. That has two effects: Domestically, it has signaled to his coalition that they should stick with him. Hes there for the long run and theres no easy way out for him, so they know he wont desert them. These crimes against humanity have also made it very clear that its going to be very bad for the Alawites if theres any political transition, which makes them even more loyal to him. They have nowhere else to go.
Its also been a brilliant play internationally. The extent of the chemical weapons has not been so much that Obamas willing to put ground forces in. The airstrikes they are discussing are unlikely to be a decisive military factor. And Russia and Iran would love to snub the nose of the U.S. and this is a perfect way to do it. The U.S. is going to have to go it alone if they do it, and this is a great way for Russia and Iran to make the U.S. look impotent and pathetic. Russias going to continue supplying [Assad] with weapons and Irans going to keep supplying him with money. So this was actually a brilliant play from him.
If you take this view of Assads motivations, it doesnt bode well for the potential of U.S. airstrikes to change the dynamics of the conflict or even deter future chemical weapons use. Smith feels that Assad is probably terrified of losing some of his fighter jets, but theres only so much the U.S. can do. The more the U.S. tries to blow stuff up, the more the Iranians will give him money and the Russians will give him hardware.
Yet, it is perhaps irrelevant who gave the order since the entire Syrian leadership is reportedly afraid that the defense lines will collapse. These fears have been fanned by a number of developments over the past few weeks: the unauthorized withdrawal of previously Assad-loyal militias to their Alawite villages; the feared rebel offensive; the declining morale of the regular troops; and the rising losses without military victories to show for them.
The poison gas attack was probably carried out by the 4th division of Assad's army. Experts and defectors agree that this is the only unit that possesses launching devices for chemical weapons. Immediately following the chemical attack, it shelled rebel positions with conventional artillery -- but was unable to take a single location.
Instead, the division lost at least seven tanks in the Damascus neighborhood of Harasta alone. A rebel video provides an insight into the lack of personnel among the elite division: Two crew members flee a burning tank -- but they are wearing no uniforms, no helmets and no radio gear. Shabiha militia members have apparently been forced to fill the gaps in the ranks of the army.
The images are highly significant and don't correspond with reports that Assad has strengthened his military position. Military experts and intelligence agents had been circulating this theory for months, ever since the battle for control of the small town of Qusayr in early summer. Under the leadership of over 1,000 fighters from the Shiite Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, Assad's troops were able to recapture Qusayr.
Nevertheless, the myth of a military turning point in the regime's favor has persisted since June. This has also hampered the search for motives for the poison gas attack: Many observers wondered why Assad should use chemical weapons if he is winning the war already. In actual fact, the situation has been difficult for the regime's troops for quite some time now. Since the spring of 2012, many of the army's positions have only been supplied from the air because all land routes are under the control the rebels.
And using chemical warfare and attacking large numbers of civilians could potentially cause even larger numbers to flood into neighboring countries. Which are semi-democratic/allies of the USA.
But then, the USA intervening could also cause waves of refugees too.
And Assad is striking some of those refugee camps, btw.
UN website has a map I can't figure out how to link to but the numbers are:
Jordan- 515,000 refugees
Turkey- 459,000 refugees
Lebanon- 716,000 refugees
More than 1.9 million Syrians are hosted in the region, placing unprecedented strain on communities, infrastructure and services in host countries.
There has been a massive escalation of arrivals in 2013. Over one million Syrian refugees have registered as refugees since the beginning of 2013.
Women and children make up three-quarters of the refugee population.
The vast majority of refugees are dependent on aid, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Judge Rules Americans Have A Right To Air Travel, Takes Aim At No Fly List
by JEAN ANN ESSELINK on AUGUST 30, 2013
in CIVIL RIGHTS,JEAN ANN ESSELINK,NEWS
A Federal Judge in Portland Oregon ruled yesterday that air travel is not a mere convenience as the government maintains, but a constitutional right that cannot be taken away without due process. The decision puts in jeopardy the use of the current No Fly list because the government does not even inform citizens their names are being added, much less give them an opportunity to contest their inclusion. Judge Anna J. Brown ruled:
Although there are perhaps viable alternatives to flying for domestic travel within the continental United States such as traveling by car or train, the Court disagrees with Defendants contention that international air travel is a mere convenience in light of the realities of our modern world. Such an argument ignores the numerous reasons an individual may have for wanting or needing to travel overseas quickly such as for the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a business opportunity, or a religious obligation the Court concludes on this record that Plaintiffs have a constitutionally-protected liberty interest in traveling internationally by air, which is affected by being placed on the list.
The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU on behalf of thirteen people, including four former servicemen, whose names appear on the governments No Fly List, though they say they have no idea why. News of the favorable decision was posted on the ACLU website last evening.
The ACLU argued the No Fly List violates the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees that a citizen cannot be deprived of liberty without due process. They further argued that no one is ever informed that they are on the list; the only way to know for sure is to buy a ticket and see if screeners allow you on a plane. They also contend that the government will not tell people on the list why they have been included, nor is there any reliable procedure to be taken off the No Fly List. Judge Brown agreed.
Grifters gonna grift-
Blue Ridge Christian Academy, the school that made headlines after one of its creationist "science" quizzes was posted online, is officially closing down, according to the Travelers Rest Tribune.
The private, religious South Carolina school received attention in April when one of its science quizzes was posted on Reddit and subsequently went viral. The quiz, which was meant for fourth graders and titled Dinosaurs: Genesis and the Gospel, affirmed creationist beliefs, including the notion that dinosaurs and humans previously roamed the earth together and that God created dinosaurs.
While the school received an onslaught of criticism for the quiz, administrators also thought the attention could be a blessing in disguise. After the quiz was posted online, the financially troubled school began receiving monetary donations from around the world.
By late May the school had received about $15,000 from more than 70 countries. Still, the school needed $200,000 in order to operate during the 20132014 school year, according to the Travelers Rest Tribune.
and unfortunately some DU'ers are as well.
Who are the Syrian Rebels? Here's the info I found. Will stand corrected if this is wrong:
Free Syrian Arm- 50,000 fighters, a self-declared non-sectarian group of early army defectors. Remains the largest opposition group in the country.
Syrian Liberation Front- 37,000 fighters operating in southeast. Islamist ideology
Syrian Islamic Front- 13,000 fighters, operate in northeast. Islamist ideology
Jabhat al-Nusra- 5000 fighters originally, comprised of Iraqi insurgents & allied to Al Qaeda in Iraq. They are well organized. Many Free Syrian army fighters are apparently defecting to this group.
"The lack of organizational structure both within the Free Syrian Army and between rival groups has allowed human rights abuses, such as the recent confirmation of rebel commander Khaled al-Hamad eating a dead man's heart, as well as many other alleged abuses, to become common and go unpunished.
This gives Assad an advantage in the propaganda war, in which he portrays all rebels as thugs and terrorists. As well as undermining their support on the international stage, this mobilises Assad's Alawite base and allows his ruthless crackdown to continue with impunity."
Miniature 'human brain' grown in lab
By James Gallagher
Health and science reporter, BBC News
Miniature "human brains" have been grown in a lab in a feat scientists hope will transform the understanding of neurological disorders. The pea-sized structures reached the same level of development as in a nine-week-old foetus, but are incapable of thought.
They used either embryonic stem cells or adult skin cells to produce the part of an embryo that develops into the brain and spinal cord - the neuroectoderm. This was placed in tiny droplets of gel to give a scaffold for the tissue to grow and was placed into a spinning bioreactor, a nutrient bath that supplies nutrients and oxygen.
The cells were able to grow and organise themselves into separate regions of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, the retina, and, rarely, an early hippocampus, which would be heavily involved in memory in a fully developed adult brain.
The "mini-brains" have survived for nearly a year, but did not grow any larger. There is no blood supply, just brain tissue, so nutrients and oxygen cannot penetrate into the middle of the brain-like structure.
The technique could also be used to replace mice and rats in drug research as new treatments could be tested on actual brain tissue.
"Now it's not thinking, it's not communicating between the areas in the way our brains do, but it gives us a real start and this is going to be the kind of tool that helps us understand many of the major developmental brain disorders."
The team has already used the breakthrough to investigate a disease called microcephaly. People with the disease develop much smaller brains. By creating a "mini-brain" from skin cells of a patient with this condition, the team were able to study how development changed They showed that the cells were too keen to become neurons by specialising too early. It meant the cells in the early brain did not bulk up to a high enough number before specialising, which affected the final size of even the pea-sized "mini-brains".
The team in Vienna do not believe there are any ethical issues at this stage, but Dr Knoblich said he did not want to see much larger brains being developed as that would be "undesirable".
Back in 2002, research conducted by George Lopez, a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, cast doubt on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In this situation, Lopez rejects the notion that it was the Syrian rebels who used chemical weapons.
"This anarchic, killing stalemate" could motivate anyone, Winfield says, but such a scenario just doesn't make sense.
For one thing, the alleged chemical attack happened in the Ghouta region of Damascus. It is controlled by the rebels, and civilians in the area sympathize with the rebels.
"If [the rebels] have overrun an arms dump which had some of the agent, if a defector brought a limited amount with him, then it would explain why some of the signs and symptoms showed less toxicity than we expected," Winfield said. "That is a lot of 'ifs,' though."
Lopez concurs: "Western intelligence has been standing on its head to monitor all intel about those groups hostile to the West and what they have in their weapons access and supply. The amount of gas agents seemingly used was way beyond what a clandestine group could mix and develop without detection. And it is unclear they would have the expertise to mix the agents.
"Is it possible that a rebel group overran a storage facility of the government and captured some shells that were ready to be activated and then did so?" Lopez says. "Yes, but it would have had to have been a very large seizure preceded by a big battle between Assad top teams and rebels. It could not have happened without inside/outside knowledge."
U.S. congressional leaders to receive Syria briefing on Thursday
By Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON | Wed Aug 28, 2013 8:50pm EDT
(Reuters) - Senior Obama administration officials will brief congressional leaders on Thursday on the situation in Syria, congressional aides said, amid complaints by lawmakers they have not been properly consulted as the president deliberates about possible military action.
The briefing by senior White House and national security officials will be with leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, and the chairmen and ranking members of national security committees, Democratic and Republican congressional aides said.
President Barack Obama has a legal obligation to consult with Congress before sending U.S. forces into harm's way.
The briefing comes as U.S. lawmakers have increasingly complained they should have more of a say in any decision to punish Syria militarily in response to last week's chemical weapons attack on thousands of civilians.
AUTHORITY TO ACT
Obama has broad legal powers to undertake military action against Syria. Under the 1973 U.S. War Powers Act, the president must notify lawmakers within 48 hours of launching military action. But forces can fight for 60 days before Congress has to approve any action.
Read more: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/29/us-syria-crisis-usa-congress-idUSBRE97R18W20130829