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An F/A-18E Super Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 31, and an F/A-18F Super Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213, prepare to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) to conduct strike missions against ISIL targets. George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert Burck/Releasedl)

Airstrikes Continue To Target ISIL In Syria, Iraq

U.S. military forces continued to attack Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists in Syria yesterday and today using bomber and fighter aircraft to conduct 10 airstrikes, U.S. Central Command officials reported Wednesday.

Separately, U.S. and partner nation military forces conducted seven airstrikes in Iraq yesterday and today using attack, fighter and remotely-piloted aircraft against ISIL terrorists, officials said.

According to U.S. Central Command officials, In Syria, 10 airstrikes near Kobani struck an ISIL fighting position, a large ISIL unit, two tactical ISIL units, and destroyed four ISIL staging areas and six ISIL fighting positions.

Officials said that In Iraq, two airstrikes near Mosul destroyed an ISIL bulldozer, two ISIL vehicles, three ISIL-occupied buildings and an ISIL fighting position, and also struck a large ISIL unit. Near Kirkuk, two airstrikes destroyed an ISIL tank, an ISIL Humvee and another ISIL vehicle, and also struck two ISIL units. North of Sinjar, an airstrike destroyed an ISIL Humvee and an ISIL vehicle. Northwest of Ramadi, an airstrike damaged an ISIL checkpoint.

And, west of Bayji, an airstrike destroyed one ISIL vehicle and damaged another.

All aircraft returned to base safely, according to U.S. Central Command officials, adding that airstrike assessments are based on initial reports.

The strikes were conducted as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the operation to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community. The destruction of ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq further limits the terrorist group’s ability to project power and conduct operations. U.S. Central Command officials said.

Coalition nations conducting airstrikes in Iraq include the U.S., Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Coalition nations conducting airstrikes in Syria include the U.S., Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

China

Despite Reports China-Vatican Deal Not On Horizon Soon

By Dan Long

On the surface, Chinese news reports at the end of last week on a possible breakthrough in Vatican-Beijing ties looked very positive. After written contact between Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping over the past 18 months and the first papal flight over China in August, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Wenweipo newspaper reported last week that a deal is close on bishop appointments, the main stumbling block in establishing diplomatic ties.

But from what we know about the secret negotiations between both sides, this news represents little more than classic Communist double-think: although there is discussion and compromise, an agreement remains far from being a certainty.

What this surprising report really represents is a deliberate leak by the Communist party in a bid to increase pressure on the Vatican to accept its proposal while generating sympathy for its position so that when talks inevitably fail, Beijing can say that the Vatican is to blame.

That an unnamed Communist Party official leaked details of the secret talks to a pro-Beijing newspaper and that this was then reported on the mainland by the state-run Global Times indicates it is little more than a familiar Chinese gambit.

The actual substance of the Chinese compromise with the Vatican equates to exactly the same model that Beijing has proposed for “democracy” in Hong Kong. That is, a narrow choice of candidates pre-selected by the Chinese government. While this appears to be progress, it really represents little more than a new system with a veneer of choice designed to continue to sideline individuals seen as against the Communist Party, thereby maintaining its over-arching control.

With its appalling record on religious freedom and the fact it is one of only six countries that has failed to establish diplomatic ties with the Holy See — along with North Korea, Myanmar, Laos, Brunei and Vietnam — the onus is on China to compromise, of course. But these reports suggest it is ready to change very little.

Friday’s article in the Global Times dismisses any possibility that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) might be abolished, a key concern of the Holy See which rightly views the CCPA’s appointment of bishops as illegitimate.

By lining up two experts to defend the role of the CCPA, the state-run Global Times has again reverted to the classic trick of painting Communist Party beliefs and desires as independently universal within China. The report even strays into outright fabrication in describing the CCPA as an “independent group” when it is clearly a state organ designed to oversee and control the Catholic Church in China.

Many Church observers will no doubt be eagerly awaiting a response from the Vatican. This is not only unlikely but hardly necessary given that the Pope himself has already indicated where the Church stands on this issue, which in turn points to the unlikelihood of a breakthrough anytime soon.

In August, on the papal flight back from South Korea while over Chinese airspace, Francis could not have been clearer: “We respect the Chinese people. The Church only asks for liberty for its task, for its work. There’s no other condition,” he said. “Then we should not forget that fundamental letter for the Chinese problems which was the one sent to the Chinese by Pope Benedict XVI. This letter is actual (relevant) today. It is actual. It’s good to re-read it.”

What Benedict’s remarkable open letter to China in May, 2007 essentially did was to remind everyone — particularly China and its government — of the Vatican’s position on the state of relations and of the Church’s role in any society. That is, that the Church should keep out of politics and instead concern itself with the well-being of ordinary people for the “common good”.

“In the light of these unrenounceable principles, the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though, compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church,” said Benedict.

In citing Benedict’s letter, Francis was saying that the Vatican’s position remains straightforward and unchanged, so it would seem highly unlikely that this situation would have altered in the past three months. Remember that Francis consults the Pope Emeritus before every foreign trip, and would no doubt have done so before leaving Rome for Seoul in August.

The pope’s consistency on this matter correlates with what Church representatives in the region continue to say in private regarding the situation with China.

The Church has been flexible with some countries known for persecuting Christians, most recently China’s neighbor Vietnam. After the Vietnamese government and the Vatican established a working group dialogue in 2009, two years later Archbishop Girelli was appointed as a non-residential special envoy who visits the country regularly. But this does not mean the Vatican is likely to enter a similar deal with China, quite the reverse in fact.

Critics of the process say the Vatican was too swift to build bridges with Hanoi and that religious freedom has not improved despite the agreement. It has no doubt learned from its experience with Vietnam, the key lesson being that principles should not be compromised for the end goal of diplomatic ties.

The Vatican will be expected to be much more cautious in the case of China which has shown far less flexibility and signs of improvement on rights and democracy-related issues compared to Vietnam. There’s also a lot more at stake: The Vatican will be keenly aware that a false move on China, the most populous country in the world, will open itself up to far greater criticism.

While the Vatican shows no sign of deviating from its position that it alone should be free to choose its own representatives on the ground in China, the government does not appear ready to relinquish control of the process, just as it has shown no sign of giving up control of any organ of influence or power — be it the judiciary, legislative branch or key sectors of the economy.

In August during his landmark first trip to Asia, Francis made a thinly veiled appeal to China when he assured that Christians were not “conquerors” threatening national identities.

But, within a paranoid government which has stepped up persecution against a vibrant and growing Church, the pope’s words are unlikely to gain much traction.

Although talks between Beijing and the Vatican, and Chinese compromise on the system of bishop appointments — however superficial — do represent positive steps in a difficult relationship, the prospect of a tangible breakthrough remains elusive. Don’t be fooled by the recent reports.

Dan Long is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Beijing who has reported on the region for more than a decade.

Iran

Iran Nuclear Talks Extended Until July 1

Iranian and Western diplomats said nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers will be extended until July 1, 2015.

The diplomats spoke in Vienna on the final day of the group’s self-imposed, year-long period to agree on a comprehensive deal to ensure Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful.

They said they will work toward a framework agreement by March 1, outlining progress made and identifying points still be to be resolved. A final deal would be reached by July 1.

Talks are expected to resume before the end of this year, though it was not clear when or where they would be held. This would be the second extension, after an original, six-month deadline expired in July.

Diplomats said some progress has been made, but “significant gaps” remained on key issues, including the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to operate as well as the levels of uranium enrichment it could undertake, and sanctions relief.

Iranian state media IRNA said President Hassan Rouhani would address the nation later Monday, in a speech coinciding with the end of the Vienna talks.

Sticking points

The so-called P5+1 talks, which includes representatives from Russia, China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany, are aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions that have hurt the country’s economy.

Iran has insisted its nuclear program is solely for peaceful, civilian purposes such as medical research and generating power.

Meanwhile, an interim nuclear agreement world powers struck with Iran in late 2013 will remain in place while nuclear talks continue, with Iran receiving around $700 million per month in frozen assets, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Sunday.

Also, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the likelihood that Iran and six world powers would fail to reach a nuclear agreement on Monday.

“No deal is better than a bad deal. The deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible. A deal would have left Iran with the ability to enrich uranium for an atom bomb while removing the sanctions,” Netanyahu told the BBC, according to a video excerpt of the interview provided by the prime minister’s office.

“The right deal that is needed is to dismantle Iran’s capacity to make atomic bombs and only then dismantle the sanctions. Since that’s not in the offing, this result is better, a lot better,” he said, in response to news the Vienna talks were likely to be extended.

A parish destroyed by Boko Haram during its Oct. 29 seizure of Mubi, in Nigeria's Adamawa state. Credit: Diocese of Maiduguri.

Facing Boko Haram: Nigerians ‘Storm The Heavens With Prayers’

Boko Haram’s expansion has meant murders, forced conversion, and forcible expulsion from homes, causing Catholics in Nigeria to pray and to reach out to help and console the militant Islamist group’s victims.

“Brothers and sisters, there is no better time to storm the heavens with prayers and petitions than now,” Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos said during a national prayer pilgrimage Nov. 13-14.

Thousands of people have recently lost their homes and their loved ones due to Boko Haram, he said.

“Our darling innocent school girls from Chibok are still being held over six months since their abduction. Only God knows the psychological and physical trauma they are going through,” the archbishop said, referring to the more than two hundred schoolgirls who were taken by Boko Haram from their school in the northeastern Nigerian town in April.

The radical Islamist group Boko Haram began its deadly insurgency in 2009, killing over 4,000 people in 2014 alone, according to Human Rights Watch.

“There are still ongoing terrorist activities that are not only causing the loss of lives and so much havoc but are enjoying territorial expansion,” the archbishop continued. “Bombings and slaughter of innocent Nigerians, especially in the northeast, have become regular.”

He said active security solutions have not been found. He questioned whether leading Nigerians were serious about bringing “sanity and order” to the country, rather than “using the unfortunate situation as a political weapon.”

Boko Haram has been threatening to cross into Cameroon, which shares a 300-mile border with Nigeria. The Nigerian government’s inability to contain the group has drawn heavy criticism.

The emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi, an influential Muslim leader, has called on Nigerians to arm themselves for protection against Boko Haram.

“These terrorists slaughter our boys and abduct our girls to force them into slavery,” he said, according to BBC News.

Boko Haram took the town of Chibok on Nov. 13, and the Nigerian army retook the town three days later.

Archbishop Kaigama said parishes in the Maiduguri diocese have been closed, with the people “scattered and killed.” Thousands have been displaced from their homes in the Diocese of Yola.

“They have sought refuge and turned to the Church for consolation and support.”

Father Gideon Obasogie, communications director of the Diocese of Maiduguri, said that Boko Haram’s expansion in Nigeria has resulted in the forcible conversion of many Catholics, while thousands more fled their homes.

“A good number of our youth are forcefully conscripted, while the aged, women and children are converted to Islam. A lot of Nigerians are trapped and are forced to practice strict sharia law,” the priest said in a Nov. 19 report made available to Aid to the Church in Need.

Fr. Obasogie said this is the case in at least six communities along the federal road that links Maiduguri and Yola, in the state of Adamawa.

“All of these captured towns by our estimation are no longer part of the Nigerian entity because no one can go in, but those who would luckily escape have got stories to tell,” Fr. Obasogie said.

“The terrorists have declared all the captured towns as Islamic Caliphate. The people trapped are forced to accept and practice the strict doctrines the militants are out to propagate.”

Boko Haram overran the predominantly Christian community of Mubi Oct. 29, forcing over 50,000 people to flee. The Nigerian army said it recaptured Mubi last week, but the damage has been done.

According to Fr. Obasogie, over 2,500 Catholics have been killed in the diocese, and another 100,000 Catholics forced to flee. The diocese is now working to care for all internally displaced people regardless of their religious beliefs.

He said 50 churches and parish rectories have been razed. Dozens of churches and schools have been deserted, as have two convents.

Despite all the horrors of war, Archbishop Kaigama thanked God for his mercy and faithfulness.

“We may not have received everything we prayed for, but by his grace most of us are still alive and we have remained one people and one nation. Today, gauging the general despair and disillusionment in the land, we converge here again to cry on to the Lord for enduring peace and for God to stir strongly in the hearts of Nigerians the spirit to transcend narrow ethnic, religious, and political boundaries so as to always pursue the common good.”

He also reminded Nigerians to do good and avoid “religious externalism devoid of godliness,” as when people wish harm to their neighbor or “engage in bitter, hostile, antagonistic political, religious or ethnic struggles that lead to loss of lives and the destruction of property.”

Iran - US flags

Iran Nuclear Talks And US – India Deal: A Comparison

By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Can Iran replicate the experience of last-minute US-India nuclear deal in November 2006? This is an interesting question as the November 24th deadline for an Iran deal looms closer.

Chances of a major breakthrough in the Vienna talks currently underway are subject to a great deal of speculation given the confidential nature of the intense negotiations, described by some Western diplomats as “positive and serious.”

Some pundits have written about a “general framework” agreement that would leave some critical details for further negotiations.

Others, like John Limbert, have prayed for a “miracle.” Still others are in favor of an extension, with some experts regarding it as inevitable given the complexity of issues and the remaining differences, while others point at the window of opportunity now that would be closed once the new Republican-dominated Congress convenes in January, 2015. Historical comparisons may be helpful here.

The US-India “nuclear sharing” agreement was reached after several years of tumultuous negotiations, and was signed by President George Bush when the ‘lame duck’ Congress was in session after an election that had resulted in the Republicans’ loss. Bush took advantage of the small window of time to get the deal done before the Democrat-dominated Congress could act.

According to the US negotiator at the time, Nicholas Burns, both sides showed a remarkable degree of flexibility “at the last minute” otherwise the deal would not have gone through. Interestingly, several weeks prior to that, the differences between the two sides had “sharpened” and had become more “focused.”

Yet, confronted with the reality of a deadline and a potentially hostile US Congress, the US and Indian negotiators stepped back from their hardened positions and showed new flexibility that led to the deal. Can this be the fate of the Iran nuclear deal? The answer will be clear in a precious few days, but at the moment of this writing the answer was clouded under a thick air of suspense.

Yet, it is rather abundantly clear that the parties have come too far and made too much progress — Russian envoy has been quoted as saying up to 95 percent of issues have been resolved — to allow a complete collapse. That would not bode well for either side and is therefore highly unlikely, though by no means impossible.

The more likely scenarios are (a) a comprehensive deal, (b) a general agreement with a short-term extension to work out the remaining differences, (c) an extension of interim agreement, i.e., Interim II. Of course, the best case scenario is a final-status agreement that would end the Iranian nuclear standoff and result in immediate, and concrete, benefits to all sides. It is estimated that such a deal would yield hundreds of billions of dollars of new trade and investment with Iran.

The various trade and financial ramifications of such a deal represent a major incentive for some of the negotiating parties such as France and Germany to show genuine interest in this scenario. Even the US companies have lined up for a major re-entry into the Iranian market and, therefore, it is not in US’s own interest to play spoiler by making proposals that would be unacceptable in Tehran. Clearly, any nuclear deal that does not respect Iran’s rights and would be considered a lop-sided deal cannot be politically feasible in Iran.

On the other hand, the domestic hurdles in both Tehran and Washington can be handled if the required flexibility is adopted by both sides, in light of the rhetoric of some Western diplomats conveying the false perception that only Iran is required to do so. What these diplomats ignore is that for the deal to materialize, the US and other Western powers need to stop playing hard-ball with the two principal issues of Iran’s centrifuges and the removal of sanctions. Otherwise, the internal critics of a deal would be exonerated in their skepticism that the West wants to take most of the benefits from the deal while giving up very little.

In conclusion, as the clock winds down to the deadline, the US negotiators would be well-advised to take another look at the process of negotiations with India and their predecessors’ last minute flexibility, otherwise they must deal with the unwanted consequence of failure and a nuclear crisis that is up for grabs for a mutually-satisfactory win-win resolution.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown’s Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Russia's Vladimir Putin

Russia’s Position In The Struggle Against ISIS – Analysis

By Hasan Selim Ozertem

Changing balances in the Middle East were made more visible after ISIS’s invasion of Mosul on June 12, 2014. Coming to take command of 30,000 militants in such a short period of time, ISIS has transformed from a militia into a full-fledged organization that has come to play the lead role in these shifting balances in the region. Consequently, the issues of Syria and Iraq, which had taken a backseat to developments in Ukraine, were rocketed back to the top of the international agenda.

The shock felt after ISIS rapidly gained control over large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria was to be seen all over the world. Back in January, US President Barack Obama met a question about ISIS with derision: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Maybe it was this type of thinking that led to the statement issued by the White House in the end of August acknowledging that it had not yet formulated any kind of strategy against ISIS.

It was only at the end of the summer that the traces of a US-made strategy became evident. Accordingly, NATO members, and later a variety of Arab states, came together to form a broad coalition to fight ISIS. It was within this context that military air operations targeting ISIS in Syria’s north and Iraq were launched. Though airstrikes accelerated, the US and other Western states repeatedly expressed their unwillingness to deploy ground troops to the region. With this backdrop, the idea of training and equipping local actors gained momentum; after the reestablishment of a functioning central government in Iraq, operations in the northwest of the country were increasingly conducted by the Iraqi National Army, the Peshmerga, and Shia militias. When it comes to Syria, the question of which actors are going to be trained and equipped still remains without a clear answer. The Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) and moderate opposition forces like the Free Syrian Army are the names that are most often brought up. Nonetheless, when discussing the future of Bashar Assad in this environment, all eyes turn to Russia.

Russia’s changing agenda

Moscow’s approach to the Syrian crisis was apparent from the very outset. Russia firmly indicated its opposition to toppling the Baath party with an operation similar to that seen in Libya while also resisting any and all military options, together with China, in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At the same time, by supplying the Assad government with military and financial assistance, Russia soon became just as important as Iran in terms of support granted to the Baath regime in Syria. However, when the 2013 use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, was verified, thus crossing a redline for the US, Russia’s introduction of a proposal that would remove these chemical weapons from Syria strengthened its position not only in region, but also in the international arena.

Meanwhile, the unsuccessful attempts of Viktor Yanukovych’s government to quell the demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square forced Russia to concentrate on this crisis nearer to its borders. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the emergence of a profound crisis in Eastern Ukraine, the West’s policies against Russia toughened. Consequently, the topic of Ukraine surpassed Syria and Iraq on Russia’s agenda when the negative effects of disintegrating relations with the West reverberated throughout its economy.

Russia’s doubts about the coalition against ISIS

Despite Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine, it has still actively participated in the rapidly developing disputes on what kind of action should be taken against ISIS. Here, different views on the future of the Assad regime have collided, and it is in this respect that Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov’s statements clearly illustrate Moscow’s approach to the matter at hand.

Lavrov’s answer to a question posed on the coalition formed in Wales during a press conference with Mali’s minister of foreign affairs starkly indicate the points which separate Russia’s stance from that of the West.[1] Lavrov expressed that Russia had been attempting to draw international attention to the threats posed by ISIS and other radical groups for several years. He then went on to stress the differences between Russia and the West’s approach to the crisis, pointing out that while in the eyes of the West terrorism in Syria has been regarded as an offspring of the Baath government’s policies and therefore necessitates the incontrovertible resignation of Bashar Assad, Russia has urged for a political solution to combat these terrorist groups with the Syrian government, albeit to no avail. Consequently, he criticized the Western view that claimed “these terrorist attacks can only be denounced jointly with the demand that Assad step down”. In the same statement, Lavrov asserted that while the Iraqi government had been asked to approve US airstrikes in the areas controlled by ISIS in accordance with the principle of sovereignty beforehand, the failure to ask for the same permission from Syria conflicts with the norms of international law and action taken in the country has been wrongly justified by the Western states’ desire to overthrow the Assad government. He also mentioned his worries that airstrikes could target not only the areas controlled by ISIS militants but also battalions loyal to the government in order to weaken the position of Bashar Assad in Syria. With this speech, Lavrov delivered an important message to the international community in the immediate wake of the NATO Wales summit, expressing how Russia evaluates the process and illuminating the country’s concerns about the possibility that the Assad government could be targeted during operations against ISIS in Syria.

Lavrov expressed similar positions during a press conference with his Venezuelan counterpart, Rafael Ramirez, in Moscow. Here, he stated Russia’s belief that actions to be taken in fighting terrorism should be based on the solid foundations of international law and proceed, above all, with the consent of the legitimate authorities of the states on whose territory such terrorist threats exist. Lavrov also stressed that it was unacceptable to use antiterrorism slogans to mask the true pursuit of regime change.[2]

In the middle of October, Lavrov had a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris, where they discussed not only the incidents in Ukraine, but also issues related to the fight against global terrorism. After the meeting, rumors spread that Russia had given the green light to sharing intelligence with the US, yet these claims have since been refuted by Lavrov. Here he stated that Russia is not a participant of any coalition and that its aim is to increase the capacities of legitimate governments.

Furthermore, on October 20, Lavrov spoke at a meeting of the United Russia Party where he harshly criticized the West for equipping Syrian opposition with arms. He emphasized that by equipping the actors which it depicts as moderate, the West aims to augment these groups’ potential to topple the Assad government, asserting that if any kind of coalition is going to be established, it should be subject to international law and therefore require a resolution granted by the UNSC.

In his speech at the Valdai Forum held on October 24, Vladimir Putin employed a similar tone to that of his foreign minister. In his speech, Putin declared that necessary steps to combat ISIS were not taken. Conversely, he argued, erroneous policies were pursued such as granting financial and arms assistance to the Syrian opposition. After faulting the West and its allies, Putin questioned the reasons for airstrikes altogether.[3]

What is Russia doing?

As mentioned above, for now, Russia’s priority remains the state of affairs in Ukraine and the economic problems connected therewith. However, this does not mean that Russia is totally indifferent to events in Middle East. Moscow still continues to grant political aid to the Assad government, while at the same time taking some steps to increase the capacity of Iraqi security forces in terms of training and technical assistance.

According to the 4 billion dollar agreement signed between Iraq’s Maliki government and Russia in 2012, Iraq is anticipated to purchase equipment from Russia in order to reconstruct its air force, with the provision of attack helicopters, high-tech fighter aircraft, and air defense systems being an especially critical aspect of the deal. However, the sudden growth and rapid territorial expansion of ISIS in June put Iraq in a precarious position, especially considering that the state hosted an air force that was more-or-less nonexistent. With this in mind, Iraq came knocking on Russia’s door to ask for assistance, to which Russia responded by sending 5 pre-used Sukhoi-25 model jets along with technical experts. It should be noted that these jets became well-known for their use in Afghanistan, where they undeniably eased the burden that had been placed on the ground forces stationed there. Subsequently, since 2013, Russia continues to provide Iraq with multipurpose and attack helicopters, such as the Mi-35 and Mi-28 respectively, which are known for their efficiency in counter-terrorism operations.[4]

Referring to the Lebanon-based newspaper Al-Mustakbel, Radio Free Europe published a story in October that Russia and Iran were to establish a joint base of operations in Baghdad to combat ISIS, where Russian experts would instruct the Iraqi army on how to utilize Russian weapons, train pilots, and provide similar services.[5] Additionally, in a statement released on October 23 by the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, it was declared that Russia had provided Kurds in Erbil with humanitarian aid including food, blankets, and electricity generators.

Summarizing these points, Russia’s contributions to the fight against ISIS in Iraq should not be underestimated. Though its name is not mentioned as a partner of the coalition, Moscow has supported the Iraqi central government and the Kurds by employing a strategy that focusses on capacity building and humanitarian aid.

Conclusion

Since September, Russia has continually criticized the strategy of the US-led coalition. For Moscow, it has been the West’s decision to supply the Syrian opposition with arms that is especially seen as a double standard, as it foresees that these non-state actors who receive Western support will ultimately become a threat to the Assad government. On the other hand, Russia has also repeatedly emphasized the need to cooperate with Damascus and thereby to act in accordance with international law and avoid the violations of Syria’s sovereignty that come with airstrikes and the struggle against terrorism in the country. Russia’s strategy in Iraq embraces the most vulnerable part of country, therefore ameliorating problems related to the capacity of Iraqi soldiers and the discipline of the army. With the implementation of current contracts related to the training of security forces and the provision of high-tech weaponry, very important steps have been taken by Russia in improving the Iraqi air force since June 2014. Alternately, by sending humanitarian aid to the Kurds in the north of the Iraq, Russia has actively attempted to mitigate the suffering of civilians in the area. In fact, when you look at the policies that Russia has pursued in Iraq, despite being preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine, the country has gone further than just symbolically showing its presence in the region. In this way, it has also been following a policy that seeks to secure the maintenance of its relations with the government that will come after that of Maliki. In Syria, Russia continues with the policy it has pursued since 2011, characterized by the proclamation that targeting and overthrowing the Assad government would constitute a breach of its redline.

1.For the full transcript of Sergey Lavrov’s press conference with Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, see: http://www.mid.ru/brp_4.nsf/0/4CD66CC926B83B4C44257D4E006155F4 .

2.For the full transcript of Sergey Lavrov’s press conference with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ramirez, see: http://www.mid.ru/bdomp/brp_4.nsf/e78a48070f128a7b43256999005bcbb3/b4716e465be0051044257d6c001cf86a!OpenDocument.

3. For the full transcript of Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Valdai Forum, see: http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/23137/print.

4. “Iraq is Buying, Fielding Russian Weapons Again”, Defense Industry Daily, 2 September 2014; http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/baby-come-back-iraq-is-buying-russian-weapons-again-07571/.

5.Joanna Paraszczuk, “Iranian, Arab Media: ‘Russia-Iran Anti-IS Operations Room’ In Iraq”, RFERL, 23 September 2014; http://www.rferl.org/content/under-black-flag-russia-iran-islamic-state-iraq/26652736.html.

Mexico flag

Mexico: Missing Students Protest Repressed By Police

The police used tear gas and hydrants to disperse thousands of demonstrators protesting yesterday afternoon outside the government building on Zócalo Square, in the heart of Mexico City. The demonstrators are demanding justice for the 43 students missing since September in the southern Guerrero State.

The families of the students also participated in the protest, with demonstrators chanting slogans against President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The students disappeared after a police intervention to prevent them from demonstrating for their rights. According to investigators, after attacking them police handed them over to members of a criminal gang who killed them.

Gold bars, the typical form of bullions

Iraqi Dealers Confirm ISIS Hoarding Gold, Precious Metals To Issue Currency – Report

Islamic State militants are reportedly acquiring gold, silver and other precious metals in a bid to further solidify their control over large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory by issuing their own currency, Iraqi metal dealers confirmed to McClatchy.

Earlier this month, the militants’ Beit al Mal, an ancient Islamic term which translates as “Treasury Department,” issued a statement announcing the plan. The coins, which they plan to fashion from gold, silver and copper, will be modeled on the 8th century currency of the Umayyad Caliphate.

At the time, experts expressed doubts the militant group had the technological capability and overall knowhow to produce their own modern currency for the territory under their control; roughly one third of Iraq and Syria.

A recent report in McClatchy, however, which draws on interviews with precious metal dealers in northern and western Iraq, would indicate the group is in fact moving ahead to obtain enough material necessary to carry out the plan.

One Fallujah-based gold trader, identifying himself as Hajj Samir, told McClatchy that foreign jihadists had been buying up all the gold and silver in the city’s markets. He said he alone had sold more than 15 pounds to known affiliates of the militant group.

“They said it was for gifts for their wives, but now I know why, and all the traders say the same thing,” Hajj Samir told the news portal. “We’ve been making trips to Baghdad to get more, and they buy all of it.”

Another 37-year-old trader who has worked out of Mosul told a similar story of selling off his precious metals to those connected to the group.

“We don’t ask why they’re buying so much,” said the trader, Osman Ahmed.

“But even silver in small shops outside the city is sold out.”

Ahmed said the speed with which they were buying up precious metal stocks was forcing traders such as himself to travel to cities in Kurdish-controlled territory to renew their stocks.

Zakaria Ahmed, a Mosul resident not related to Osman, said US-led airstrikes had taken their toll on IS’s currency plans, noting they had made it difficult for the militants to transport valuables.

Despite the setbacks, Zakaria, whose brother is reportedly an IS official, said the currency plan was still coming along.

“It is still in an ongoing process to be released,” he told McClatchy by phone.

The desire to create their own currency has also extended to the battlefield, with militants reportedly stripping copper wiring from electric transmission cables and other sources to gather materials for the coins.

The Islamic militant group notorious for extreme violence and war crimes has gone to great lengths to establish a caliphate with all the requisite state institutions over a piece of territory roughly the size of Belgium.

Relying on funds brought in from taxes, stolen oil and gas and organized crime, IS has, in the words of Jordanian journalist Raed Omari, “undergone the quickest transformation to statehood in modern history.”

Nigerian states that implement some form of Sharia law (in green)

Nigeria: Boko Haram Attack Kills 45 Villagers

By Abdulkareem Haruna

At least 45 villagers were killed this week after suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a village in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state.

According to local sources, Boko Haram militants riding in trucks stormed the village of Azaya Kura in the Mafa area at about noon local time Wednesday and started attacking residents and destroying houses. The militants also carted away foodstuff, wares and livestock.

An official of the Nigeria Vigilante Group, Muhammed Gava, confirmed to VOA by phone that “there was an attack and many people were killed, according to the reports we got from the Vigilante officials from that axis.”

Jabir Usman, a local from the attacked community, discussed the death toll with reporters in Maiduguri.

“From what we counted so far, 45 men have been killed and there are others that died in the bushes… due [to] excessive bleeding after sustaining bullet injuries,” Usman said.

Alhaji Shettima Lawan, the caretaker chairman of Mafa Council, said he visited Azaya Kura on Thursday to confirm the attack.

“I am still searching for motives behind mass killing and destruction by some people under the guise of entrenching certain religion,” he said. “I wish to appeal to the federal government to take urgent steps and rescue our people from imminent extinction.”

He said village residents told him that attackers burned more than 50 motorcycles and four cars and took away four other vehicles.

The chairman said corpses of people who’d been decapitated or shot were still being pulled out of bushes to be prepared for burial.

Mafa town is about 40 kilometers from Maiduguri.

Most residents in Mafa, the headquarters of the Mafa local council, fled their homes nearly two months ago after Boko Haram assailants established their authority in the area.

Attacks on surrounding villages have continued unabated, but few are reported to the public.

Vice-President Joe Biden

Biden In Ukraine Amid Reports Of Boost In Nonlethal Military Aid

(RFE/RL) — U.S. President Joe Biden has arrived in Kyiv for a visit amid expectations he will announce an increase nonlethal military assistance to Ukraine.

Reuters quotes U.S. officials as saying privately that the nonlethal aid Biden will announce in Kyiv includes Humvees from excess supplies in the Pentagon’s inventory, as well as the delivery of previously promised radars that can detect the location of enemy mortars.

The reports do not specify a dollar value for the assistance.

Russia warned the United States on November 20 against supplying arms to Ukrainian forces.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich cautioned against “a major change in policy of the [U.S.] administration in regard to the conflict” in Ukraine.

He was commenting on remarks by U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the number two spot at the State Department, Anthony Blinken, who told a congressional hearing on November 19 that lethal assistance “remains on the table. It’s something that we’re looking at.”

The U.S. State Department’s Director of Press Relations Jeffrey Rathke on November 20 told reporters that “our position on lethal aid hasn’t changed. Nothing is off the table and we continue to believe there’s no military solution.”

He added, “But, in light of Russia’s actions as the nominee mentioned yesterday in his testimony, as he indicated, this is something that we should be looking at.”

The aid expected to be announced by Biden falls short of what Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko requested during a visit to Washington in September when he appealed for lethal aid — a request echoed by some U.S. lawmakers in response to what NATO allies say is Russia’s movement of tanks and troops into eastern Ukraine.

Previous nonlethal aid to Ukraine includes $53 million announced in September for military equipment such as counter-mortar detection units, body armor, binoculars, small boats, and other gear for Ukraine’s security forces and border guards in the east.

The United States and its European allies have imposed several rounds of economic sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine.

Iran

Iran Negotiations, OPEC Meeting Loom For Oil Markets – Analysis

By Nick Cunningham

As November draws to a close, there are two major events that could profoundly change the oil markets.

With the clock ticking, the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5 plus 1) are negotiating down to the wire with Iran over its nuclear program. The two sides have made substantial progress, but some difficult issues remain unresolved ahead of the November 24 deadline.

“We’re very keen to try to get to a deal, but not a deal at any price,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said on November 17. “There will have to be very significant further movement by the Iranians if we’re going to be able to get to a deal.”

Both sides have approached negotiations with seriousness and with the intention to actually resolve their differences, according to officials involved in the process. Iran has signaled its willingness to accept international inspections of its nuclear program and the possibility of receiving enriched uranium from abroad. In exchange the U.S. has suggested Iran could maintain some domestic ability to enrich uranium.

Outstanding issues center on the pace at which the U.S. would lift sanctions as well as the exact details of Iran’s enrichment capability. With only days left until a deadline, a deal is highly uncertain. Over at Quartz, Steve LeVine writes that the stakes are high, with either a diplomatic breakthrough or a major collapse in negotiations as the two most likely outcomes.

He says a deal is more likely than not due to the enormous financial pressure Iran is experiencing because of falling oil prices. With prices down more than 30 percent from just a few months ago, and Iran needing somewhere around $135 per barrel for its budget to breakeven, it would be the biggest beneficiary of a diplomatic accord with the west.

Not only that, but the Iranian government has also raised expectations of a deal. It has received foreign business delegations, highlighting the investment opportunities in Iran once sanctions are removed. There is potential for carmakers, mining companies, and financial institutions to expand into Iran if it opens up. BP and the French oil company Total recently said that they would be interested in going back into Iran if sanctions are lifted and the Iranian government offers favorable terms.

Earlier this year, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promised that the sanctions regime would soon be lifted. “With your support, this government has taken the first steps towards the lifting of the brutal sanctions … We will witness the sanctions shattering in the coming months,” Rouhani told a crowd in April, according to Reuters. Talk of the pending economic benefits of a deal could make it difficult for Iran to back off.

And sanctions have taken their toll. Iran’s oil exports have more than halved from their pre-sanctions level of about 2.5 million barrels per day. As a result, Iran’s GDP fell by 5.8 percent in 2012, the year that tough western sanctions took effect.

Hardliners in both countries could work to prevent a deal. But in Iran, even among the most conservative, there may not be aggressive opposition to a deal in principle, reports The Economist.

While far from certain, a deal could see the return of several million barrels per day of Iranian oil production, although at a gradual pace.

While nuclear negotiations reach the finish line, a second event is set to take place – OPEC’s meeting in Vienna on November 27 to decide its oil production target. There has been much speculation, but little hint at what the cartel will do. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity behind the scenes in the last few weeks as OPEC members plead their case with Saudi Arabia to cut back production. Libya’s Prime Minister visited Riyadh on November 13, arriving just as Iraq’s President departed.

Saudi Arabia has thus far showed no willingness to cut production, with officials earlier this month suggesting they would only act if oil prices dropped to around $70 per barrel. At the time, OPEC officials thought that was unlikely, but with Brent crude dropping below $80 on November 17 on news that Japan fell into recession, pressure is mounting on Riyadh to act.

There is a high degree of uncertainty over how the Iranian negotiations and the OPEC meeting will play out, but the end of November will be hugely important for energy markets.

Source: http://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Iran-Negotiations-OPEC-Meeting-Loom-For-Oil-Markets.html

Boris Johnson giving a victory speech in City Hall after being elected Mayor of London. Photo by Secretlondon, Wikipedia Commons.

American-Born London Mayor Refuses To Pay US Taxes, Threatens To Renounce Citizenship

The Internal Revenue Service reportedly wants London Mayor Boris Johnson to write a check for taxes he owes to the United States government, but the UK politician says he isn’t paying.

Johnson, 50, has been the mayor of London since 2008 and is considering a bid at Parliament in the near future. In the meantime, however, he might soon find himself in hot water on the other side of the pond. Johnson, who was born in New York but moved at the age of five, told NPR host Susan Page during an interview last week that the US wants him to pay a capital gains tax owed by American citizens who earn income abroad.

Previously, Johnson wrote in a 2006 column that he was “getting a divorce from America” and would renounce his citizenship, noting “for years I have travelled exclusively on a British passport,” and not the US-issued one he also holds. That threat failed to materialize, but a question emailed to the mayor while he was being interviewed by NPR recently might have rekindled his interest — and without a doubt revealed another issue that has peculiarly pitted Johnson against the IRS.

“It is very hard but I will say this: the great United States of America does have some pretty tough rules, you know,” Johnson said. “You may not believe this but if you’re an American citizen, America exercises this incredible doctrine of global taxation, so that even though tax rates in the UK are far higher and I’m Mayor of London, I pay all my tax in the UK and so I pay a much higher proportion of my income in tax, then I would if I lived in America.”

“The United States comes after me, would you believe it, for the — for capital gains tax on the sale of your first residence which is not taxable in Britain, but they’re trying to hit me with some bill, can you believe it?” Johnson continued.

Page, who was filling in during the Nov. 13 episode on behalf of NPR host Diane Rehm, quickly pressed Johnson: “Are you gonna pay the bill?” The mayor initially rebuffed her, though, saying instead that he just thought America’s demands were “outrageous.”

“Outrageous or not, will you pay this tax bill?” Page inquired again.

“Well, I’m — no, is the answer,” the mayor finally admitted. “I think, it’s absolutely outrageous. Why should I?”

“I could but I pay — I pay the lion’s share of my tax, I pay my taxes to the full in the United Kingdom where I live and work,” Johnson added, saying later that he continues to carry an American passport because “it’s very difficult to give up.”

Robert W. Wood, an expert on taxes and litigation, wrote for Forbes that Johnson still could decide to renounce his citizenship — something that Americans have done in record numbers in recent years. That wouldn’t solve the mayor’s tax problems, Wood wrote, however.

“When you exit you must certify five years of US tax compliance to the IRS. And any tax for the current or prior years must be paid. So, maybe Mayor Johnson should have renounced when he threatened to in 2006,” Wood wrote.

Around 2,353 Americans have renounced their citizenship since the start of 2014, Wood wrote later, and a continuation of the current trend would shatter last year’s record-breaking statistic of 2,999 renunciations.