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JFP 10/9: Won't More Pentagon $ Kill Jobs? UN sued on Haiti cholera; Palestinians return to Burka
Submitted by Robert Naiman on 9 October 2013 - 5:47pm
Just Foreign Policy News, October 9, 2013
Won't More Pentagon $ Kill Jobs? UN sued on Haiti cholera; Palestinians return to Burka
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I) Actions and Featured Articles
**Action: With U.S. Borrowing Capped, Won't More Pentagon Spending Destroy Jobs?
Sign our petition at MoveOn, urging prominent Keynesian economists Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and Joe Stiglitz to publicly acknowledge that turning off planned cuts to the Pentagon budget by cutting Social Security and raising taxes on the middle class would destroy American jobs, because as a 2011 University of Massachusetts study showed, every other form of federal spending in the domestic economy, including tax cuts to promote personal consumption, creates more jobs than unnecessary Pentagon spending. So if you move money from the domestic economy to the Pentagon budget, you destroy jobs. Every American needs to know this before a "Grand Bargain" is imposed that cuts Social Security and raises taxes on the middle class to protect the bloated Pentagon.
Background: Ask a Keynesian: With U.S. Borrowing Capped, Won't More Pentagon Spending Destroy Jobs?
Logic of the campaign to move Krugman, Reich, and Stiglitz on the job-killing effects of unnecessary Pentagon spending explained.
U.S./Top News (you can use this link to go straight to the articles and skip this summary)
1) With the US weighing a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of next year, President Karzai offered a stinging critique of the US-led campaign, saying coalition forces had inflicted needless suffering on Afghans, the New York Times reports. "They could leave," he said in an interview with the BBC. Negotiations to keep US forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 are stalled, according to Afghan and American officials.
Two sticking points remain in negotiations, the Times says. The first is Karzai’s insistence that the US guarantee Afghanistan’s security as it would if the country were a NATO ally. The second is Karzai’s refusal to allow US forces to continue hunting for operatives of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Karzai wants the US to hand over its intelligence and let Afghan forces conduct the operations.
2) Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel tried to take his campaign against the Iranian leadership to Iran’s young population, saying that if they were truly free, they would be able to wear jeans and listen to Western music, the New York Times reports. But Iranians do wear jeans and manage to listen to whatever music they want to listen to, the Times notes. Netanyahu’s effort at outreach backfired, as Twitter lit up with retorts. "Netanyahu, here are my #Jeans and #Western music," wrote a user named Sallar, posting a picture of his jeans and his iPad showing a pop album cover, and adding an insult to the prime minister’s intelligence. [Sallar called Netanyahu an "idiot" - JFP.]
3) "Imperfect intelligence" forced U.S. Special Forces to abort a raid to capture a terrorist suspect in Somalia when Navy SEALs discovered many more civilians than they had expected, the New York Times reports. The Navy SEALs killed several Shabab militants and escaped without any casualties. The mission commander feared that a prolonged firefight with Shabab militants could kill large numbers of civilians.
[This report raises multiple questions about the drone strike policy. Unlike a Special Forces raid, a drone strike can't be turned off after it is launched if it turns out that intelligence about the presence of civilians was faulty. Also, the report stresses that the US wanted to capture this guy because he was really important, undermining the claim that the drone strike policy is about taking out important guys - JFP.]
4) Advocates for Haitian victims of the deadly cholera epidemic said they were suing the United Nations, asserting that the organization’s peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for introducing the disease through sewage contamination from its barracks, the New York Times reports. Cholera has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000. It still kills about 1,000 Haitians a year.
Forensic studies, including one ordered by the United Nations, have identified the culprit bacteria as an Asian strain imported to Haiti by Nepalese members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, the Times notes. The forensic studies have also linked the spread of the cholera to a flawed sanitation system at the Nepalese peacekeeper base, which contaminated a tributary that feeds Haiti’s largest river, used by Haitians for drinking and bathing.
Beatrice Lindstrom, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the rights group that prepared the lawsuit, said the UN had rebuffed her group’s attempts to address the issue. "They’ve refused to sit down for a conversation with the victims, or with us," she said. Navi Pillay, the top human rights official at the United Nations, suggested on Tuesday that Haiti’s cholera victims were entitled to some compensation, although she did not specify who should provide it, the Times notes.
[JFP has a joint petition to the UN with IJDH at Avaaz:
End Haiti's Killer Cholera Epidemic -- UN Action Now!
5) The lethal conflict between Egypt’s military-backed government and its Islamist opponents escalated on Monday, with an expansion of attacks against government targets, signs that the authorities have failed to secure the streets, the New York Times reports. The attacks came a day after security forces killed 53 protesters, many shot in the head and chest.
6) Elliott Abrams, a leading neo-conservative, concedes that the Israeli government has reduced scope for action against Iran because of the thaw in U.S.-Iran relations, notes Jim Lobe for Inter Press Service. Abrams conceded that Netanyahu’s demand that any nuclear deal require Iran to abandon its entire nuclear program was no longer realistic and would almost certainly have to be compromised, barring sabotage by hard-liners in Iran. The Israeli leader should prepare to accept a limited enrichment program of up to 3.5 percent and strict limits on the number of centrifuges Iran can run and the stockpile it can hold, Abrams wrote.
Such a compromise is not so far from what much of the foreign policy elite already considers the most viable deal, Lobe notes. As put forward by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, its basic elements call for Iran to "cap its level of uranium enrichment (at, say, 5 percent) and its stockpile of enriched material" to levels small enough that Israel and the U.S. would have months of "strategic warning" if Tehran made a "dash for a bomb." In exchange, the West would lift sanctions and accept "Iran’s rights, in principle, to enrich," according to Ignatius, whose views often reflect those of the policy establishment.
7) Palestinian farmers reclaimed lands they had lost decades earlier to an Israeli settlement, celebrating a rare legal victory their lawyer said illustrates that Israel's settlement enterprise is reversible, AP reports. In the 1970s, Israel had seized several hundred acres from residents of the West Bank village of Burka to build the Israeli settlement of Homesh. The settlement, along with three others in the West Bank, was razed in 2005, in connection with Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip at the time. But Palestinians were not allowed to return to their lands after the 2005 demolition of Homesh because the military did not rescind the land seizure order and prevented access to the area, said attorney Michael Sfard.
After more than two years of court petitions, the military agreed several months ago to rescind the seizure order and last week lifted access restrictions, said Sfard of the Israeli rights group Yesh Din. Last Thursday, farmers returned to their land for the first time. "I feel as if I was dead and now I am alive again," said Fathallah Hajjeh, 64. "I never felt such joy. We are rooted to this land." About 500 acres of land were reclaimed, said Emad Saif of the Burka local council. The return of the land shows that "the settlement project is reversible," said Sfard.
8) Reports of massacres of Alawites by Syrian rebels match separate interviews conducted by the Guardian with officers who participated in retaking the villages where the alleged massacres took place, the Guardian reports. The accounts match lists of victims obtained by the Guardian from local activists, the Guardian says.
1) Karzai Lashes Out at U.S. for Its Role in Afghanistan
Matthew Rosenberg, New York Times, Oct. 8, 2013
Kabul, Afghanistan - With the United States weighing a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of next year, President Hamid Karzai offered a stinging critique of the American-led campaign here, saying that coalition forces had inflicted needless suffering on Afghans. "They could leave," he said in an interview with the BBC.
Mr. Karzai has lashed out at the United States and its allies before. But his latest comments, broadcast Monday evening in London and posted online in the early hours of Tuesday in Kabul, came at a crucial juncture. The NATO coalition’s mission concludes at the end of 2014, and negotiations to keep American forces in Afghanistan beyond that point are stalled, according to Afghan and American officials.
Officials on both sides of the talks say they have reached the limits of their willingness to compromise, a sentiment echoed by Mr. Karzai in the BBC interview. "If the agreement doesn’t suit us, then, of course, they can leave," he said. "The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes. If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them, then naturally we will go separate ways."
It would be logistically impossible for European powers to stay on in Afghanistan if no deal was struck with the United States. American and European officials have also said that billions of dollars in aid on which Afghanistan depends - the country’s own revenue covers only about 20 percent of its budget - will be in jeopardy if all foreign military forces depart.
Two sticking points remain.
The first is Mr. Karzai’s insistence that the United States guarantee Afghanistan’s security as it would if the country were a NATO ally. That could compel the United States to send troops on raids into Pakistan, an ally of Washington and a nuclear-armed power.
The second is Mr. Karzai’s refusal to allow American forces to continue hunting for operatives of Al Qaeda here. The Afghan leader wants the United States to hand over its intelligence and let Afghan forces conduct the operations.
American officials have balked at both proposals. They have said they will cut off talks if substantial progress is not made in the coming weeks and begin preparing for what is known as the zero option: a complete withdrawal.
Only months ago, American generals were speaking openly of plans to keep some troops - mostly likely fewer than 10,000 - in Afghanistan to train Afghan forces and hunt for Qaeda forces.
But President Obama, in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, struck a far more equivocal note, saying the United States would consider keeping troops in Afghanistan only if it got the deal it wanted. "If we can’t, we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after Al Qaeda we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil," Mr. Obama said.
American officials say the threat to cut off talks is not a bluff, though Afghan officials have so far said that they see it that way. Many in the Afghan government have said that they believe keeping forces in Afghanistan is a strategic necessity for the United States, and that therefore it must be willing to compromise.
2) Netanyahu Ridiculed After an Appeal to Iranian Youth
Thomas Erdbrink, New York Times, Oct. 6, 2013
Tehran - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel tried to take his campaign against the Iranian leadership to Iran’s young population last week, saying that if they were truly free, they would be able to wear jeans, listen to Western music and participate in free elections.
The problem is that Iranians do wear jeans and manage to listen to whatever music they want to listen to, just like people almost anywhere, except maybe in North Korea.
That is to say, Mr. Netanyahu’s effort at outreach backfired, as Twitter lit up Sunday with retorts.
"Netanyahu, here are my #Jeans and #Western music," wrote a user named Sallar, posting a picture of his jeans and his iPad showing a pop album cover, and adding an insult to the prime minister’s intelligence.
A user with the handle mohhzg wrote, "Netanyahu, I’m wearing jeans like many old & young people in #Iran."
3) Raid on High-Value U.S. Target in Somalia Hindered by ‘Imperfect Intelligence’
Nicholas Kulish and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, Oct. 8, 2013
Nairobi, Kenya -
Since American Special Forces were forced to retreat during a raid on a coastal Somali town on Saturday, the Shabab militant group has tried to use the clash as a morale jolt and propaganda tool, posting pictures of abandoned American equipment and boasting that its fighters beat back the same Navy SEALs featured in movies and video games - the same unit that got Osama bin Laden.
The American raid in enemy territory was never going to be easy, particularly not against the well-armed, experienced fighters of the Shabab. But American officials say the operation quickly became even more difficult when Navy SEALs discovered many more civilians than they had expected, making for the kind of "imperfect intelligence" that ended up scuttling the mission.
The Navy SEALs approached the coast under cover of darkness on Saturday, killing several Shabab militants and escaping without any casualties of their own. But they retreated empty-handed, failing to seize Mr. Abdikadir or the potential trove of intelligence he may possess.
The intelligence flaws were partly to blame, American officials said. As a group of about 20 commandos entered the Shabab compound, they encountered far more civilians than they had anticipated, including women and children, American officials briefed on the operation said.
When the gun battle with Shabab fighters erupted, not only was the element of surprise lost, but the mission commander also feared that a prolonged firefight could kill large numbers of civilians.
"The variables were increasing, not decreasing," said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the operation.
In a statement, the Pentagon spokesman George Little said, "While the operation did not result in Ikrima’s capture, U.S. military personnel conducted the operation with unparalleled precision and demonstrated that the United States can put direct pressure on Al Shabab leadership at any time of our choosing."
While the United States managed to seize another high-profile target on Saturday in Libya - capturing Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of the United States Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed 224 people - some analysts described Mr. Abdikadir as the more relevant of the two.
"In many respects, he was the more valuable of the two targets this past weekend," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. Mr. Abdikadir’s knowledge is "more current," he said, with contacts that stretched to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
"That’s why they didn’t wait for him to take a road trip and drop a Hellfire on him," Mr. Pham said. "He taps into the different groups, moves people around, uses them for channels of resources or recruits."
4) Rights Advocates Suing U.N. Over the Spread of Cholera in Haiti
Rick Gladstone, New York Times, Oct. 8, 2013
Advocates for Haitian victims of the deadly cholera epidemic that first afflicted their country three years ago said they were taking the extraordinary step on Wednesday of suing the United Nations, asserting that the organization’s peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for introducing the disease through sewage contamination from its barracks.
The lawsuit, which the advocates said they would file in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, will be the strongest action they have taken in pressing the United Nations to acknowledge at least some culpability for the outbreak of cholera, a highly contagious scourge spread through human feces that had been largely absent from Haiti for 100 years.
Cholera has killed more than 8,300 Haitians and sickened more than 650,000 in the earthquake-ravaged country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, since it first reappeared in October 2010. While the worst of the epidemic has eased, it still kills about 1,000 Haitians a year.
United Nations officials have said they are committed to eradicating the cholera, but they have not conceded that the organization was inadvertently responsible for causing it. They also have asserted diplomatic immunity from any negligence claims, a position that has deeply angered many Haitians who consider it a betrayal of United Nations principles.
Haitian leaders, while dependent on the United Nations to help maintain stability and provide other important services, have also expressed unhappiness over the cholera issue. In an address last Thursday at the annual United Nations General Assembly opening session, Haiti’s prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, spoke of what he called the "moral responsibility" of the United Nations in the outbreak, and said the efforts to combat it had been far from sufficient.
Forensic studies, including one ordered by the United Nations, have identified the culprit bacteria as an Asian strain imported to Haiti by Nepalese members of the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, which was first authorized in 2004 and maintains about 8,700 soldiers and police officers there, drawn from more than three dozen member states. The forensic studies have also linked the spread of the cholera to a flawed sanitation system at the Nepalese peacekeeper base, which contaminated a tributary that feeds Haiti’s largest river, used by Haitians for drinking and bathing.
Beatrice Lindstrom, a spokeswoman for the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the Boston-based rights group that prepared the lawsuit, said in a telephone interview that the listed plaintiffs were five cholera victims, who were seeking redress for themselves and all afflicted Haitians and their families. Ms. Lindstrom said the institute had decided to file the suit in New York because it is the site of United Nations headquarters and has an enormous Haitian expatriate population.
"We are asking for the judge to find the United Nations liable," she said. "It has violated its legal obligations through reckless actions that brought cholera to Haiti." The lawsuit did not specify the amount of compensation sought, which Ms. Lindstrom said would be "determined at trial."
Ms. Lindstrom said the United Nations had also rebuffed her group’s attempts to address the issue. "They’ve refused to sit down for a conversation with the victims, or with us," she said.
Navi Pillay, the top human rights official at the United Nations, suggested on Tuesday from her headquarters in Geneva that Haiti’s cholera victims were entitled to some compensation, although she did not specify who should provide it.
[JFP has a joint petition to the UN with IJDH at Avaaz:
End Haiti's Killer Cholera Epidemic -- UN Action Now!
5) Egyptian Attacks Are Escalating Amid Stalemate
David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, Oct. 7, 2013
Cairo - The lethal conflict between Egypt’s military-backed government and its Islamist opponents escalated on Monday, with an expansion of attacks against government targets, signs that the authorities have failed to secure the streets and that both sides refuse to back down.
Three brazen attacks across the country included a drive-by shooting near the Suez Canal that killed six soldiers, a car bomb that killed three police officers and wounded dozens near the Red Sea resorts area, and the first rocket-propelled grenade launched in the struggle, exploding near an elite enclave of the capital and damaging a satellite transmitter.
The attacks came a day after security forces killed 53 protesters, many shot in the head and chest, in the worst outbreak of street mayhem in Cairo since mid-August.
Three months after the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the violence was the latest evidence that the new government installed on July 3 by Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi had failed to neutralize the Islamist opposition even after arresting its leadership and demonstrating its willingness to use lethal force.
To many in the government, the protests and attacks seemed only to underscore the need to redouble its fight against the Brotherhood, which officials quickly blamed for Monday’s attacks.
To the Islamist opposition, however, a heavy turnout for a day of protests on Sunday despite the deadly reprisals only proved the resilience of their "anti coup" movement - even with no obvious leadership. Faced with a return to decades of repression, Islamists said, they had no choice but to continue their protests even if they risked death and stood little chance of reversing the takeover.
The seemingly random attacks on Monday, many analysts said, indicated that the violent backlash against the new government had taken on a momentum that the leaders of the Brotherhood could no longer restrain even if they wanted to.
The Brotherhood’s "anti coup" alliance, meanwhile, saluted what it called the courage and sacrifice of "unprecedented numbers" who had turned out the day before. In a statement on Monday, the alliance called for student protests at schools and universities on Tuesday "to denounce the continuation of the massacres."
And it all but dared the government to continue the violence against protesters by calling for new marches on Friday to Tahrir Square, the symbolic center of the 2011 revolt against President Hosni Mubarak and more recently the staging ground for rallies in support of General Sisi. It was the attempt by pro-Morsi marchers to reach Tahrir Square on Sunday, when it was the site of a pro-military celebration, that set in motion the day of deadly violence, and the opposition alliance’s plans to try again this Friday appeared to set the stage for more.
"Nobody will keep us from the square no matter what the sacrifices," the alliance said in its statement.
Leaders and supporters of the Brotherhood have said repeatedly for weeks that they have no choice but to continue their street protests regardless of the odds, because the new government has so far shown every intention of suppressing Egyptian democracy as well as their movement.
"This is a final ultimate battle with the military," Ahmed el-Erainy, 42, a business consultant and Brotherhood member recently released from prison after his arrest at an antigovernment sit-in, said on Monday. "It is the ultimate battle between us and them, and by us I don’t just mean the Brothers - I mean the civil state versus the military state."
Like others in the Brotherhood, he dismissed the idea that its members could ever hope for fairness under the military-led government, and after his turn through Egypt’s capricious and politicized judicial system he laughed with particular relish at the idea that instead of street protests they might put their trust in the law and the courts. "What judiciary?" he asked. "There is no judiciary in Egypt."
6) Neoconservatives Despair Over U.S.-Iran Diplomacy
Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service, Oct 8 2013
Washington - A week that began with a blistering denunciation by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Iranian duplicity ended with diminished prospects for Israel to take direct action to address Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
"The Israelis find themselves in a far worse position now than they have been for several years," concluded Elliott Abrams, a leading neo-conservative who served as George W. Bush’s main Middle East adviser, in Foreign Affairs.
While Israel could still attack Iran’s nuclear sites on its own, "[i]ts ability to do so is already being narrowed considerably by the diplomatic thaw" between Iran and the United States, Abrams wrote. "It is one thing to bomb Iran when it appears hopelessly recalcitrant and isolated and quite another to bomb it when much of the world – especially the United States – is optimistic about the prospects of talks."
Abrams’ assessment was widely shared among his ideological comrades who believe Israel will be the big loser if hopes for détente between Washington and Tehran gather steam after next week’s meeting in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany).
Gary Sick, an Iran expert who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, told IPS that neoconservatives’ recent outpouring of defiance and despair constituted "the most convincing evidence I have seen to date that the die-hard supporters of sabotaging an agreement between the U.S. and Iran are in full defensive mode."
A week before Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is expected to sit down with his P5+1 interlocutors in Geneva, Netanyahu and supporters in Washington face a diplomatic and political environment distinctly different from that of just five weeks ago.
That environment is defined above all by a pervasive war-weariness among the U.S. electorate, clearly indicated by strong public support for Obama’s choice of diplomacy over missile strikes to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The fact that the disarmament process has so far gone much more smoothly than anyone had anticipated has further discredited neo-conservatives, who were most fervently opposed to the U.S.-Russian deal that made it possible and most enthusiastic about unilaterally attacking Syria and supporting rebel forces who appear increasingly dominated by radical Islamists.
In his essay, Abrams conceded that Netanyahu’s demand that any nuclear deal require Iran to abandon its entire nuclear programme was no longer realistic and would almost certainly have to be compromised, barring sabotage by hard-liners in Iran.
"Netanyahu is setting forth standards for a nuclear agreement that are far tougher than the Obama administration believes can be negotiated and, as a result, are not even being sought," he wrote.
The Israeli leader should prepare to accept a limited enrichment programme of up to 3.5 percent and strict limits on the number of centrifuges Iran can run and the stockpile it can hold. Sanctions would be eased in the coming months, he stressed, only to the extent that Iran actually implements the deal.
Meanwhile, Abrams argued, echoing the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Congress, where the Israel lobby exerts its greatest influence, should ensure that sanctions remain in place.
Yet such a compromise is not so far from what much of the foreign policy elite already considers the most viable deal.
As put forward in an op-ed published Sunday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, its basic elements call for Iran to "cap its level of uranium enrichment (at, say, 5 percent) and its stockpile of enriched material" to levels small enough that Israel and the U.S. would have months of "strategic warning" if Tehran made a "dash for a bomb".
In exchange, the West would lift sanctions and accept "Iran’s rights, in principle, to enrich," according to Ignatius, whose views often reflect those of the policy establishment.
According to Ignatius, Washington’s engagement with Russia over Syria and Iran over its nuclear programme presents a "great strategic opportunity" which critics are wrong to see as "signs of American weakness or even capitulation."
"The United States will be stronger if it can create a new framework for security in the Middle East that involves Iran and defuses the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict threatening the region," and that "accommodates the security needs of Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Russians and Americans."
7) In rare case, Palestinians reclaim settlement land
AP, October 3, 2013 2:25 PM
Burka, West Bank - Palestinian farmers on Thursday reclaimed lands they had lost decades earlier to an Israeli settlement, celebrating a rare legal victory their lawyer said illustrates that Israel's settlement enterprise is reversible.
In the 1970s, Israel had seized several hundred acres from residents of the West Bank village of Burka to build the Israeli settlement of Homesh. The settlement, along with three others in the West Bank, was razed in 2005, in connection with Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip at the time.
However, Palestinians were not allowed to return to their lands after the 2005 demolition of Homesh because the military did not rescind the land seizure order and prevented access to the area, said attorney Michael Sfard.
After more than two years of court petitions, the military agreed several months ago to rescind the seizure order and last week lifted access restrictions, said Sfard of the Israeli rights group Yesh Din.
The military confirmed it had acted in line with the petitions.
On Thursday, farmers returned to their land for the first time. "I feel as if I was dead and now I am alive again," said Fathallah Hajjeh, 64. "I never felt such joy. We are rooted to this land."
About 500 acres of land were reclaimed, said Emad Saif of the Burka local council.
The return of the land shows that "the settlement project is reversible," said Sfard.
8) Syria: massacre reports emerge from Assad's Alawite heartland
Alawites are fleeing their homes, recounting gruesome tales of executions and other atrocities
Jonathan Steele, Guardian, Wednesday 2 October 2013 02.41 EDT
Latakia - For more than two years, as fighting has escalated throughout Syria, a group of villages peopled by government supporters in the mountains above this coastal city has been spared any attacks.
In spite of their proximity to the Turkish border, across which rebel fighters are armed and financed, farmers continued their lives as normal, even though as Alawites allied to the Shia sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs they could have been obvious targets.
At dawn on 4 August their peace was shattered. Armed rebels, led by local jihadis as well as members of Jabhat al-Nusra and the al-Qaida linked group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, left their headquarters in the largely Sunni town of Salma. They sneaked into the al-Akrad mountains, taking control of five Alawite villages. The rebels called it Operation Liberation of the Coast and the aim was to send the government a message that even the Alawite heartland was no longer safe.
Rumours of massacres spread as some 25,000 Alawite villagers fled to Latakia. The next day the rebels captured more Alawite villages and reached Aramo, about 12 miles north of Qardaha, the Assads' home town where Hafez al-Assad, the former president, is buried in a mausoleum. Over the next few days government forces regrouped and gradually recovered the lost ground with help from air strikes as well as local paramilitaries.
On 19 August Syrian state TV reported that all the Alawite villages had been freed. But they did not highlight any massacres and refrained from showing graphic images of mutilation.
"For the first time the government acted discreetly because they feared a sectarian war could break out all along the coast. At the beginning they even denied massacres took place", Rajaa Nasser, an opposition politician in Damascus told the Guardian. He speculated that the attacks on the Alawites could have been revenge for the slaughter of Sunnis in Banias and Baida in May, two places about 30 miles south of the city of Latakia. Human Rights Watch said 248 Sunni civilians were executed there.
The Syrian army has not allowed foreign reporters into the Alawite villages to check the massacre reports, but in Latakia city the Guardian spoke to three officers who took part in recapturing the villages. Each was interviewed in separate locations. Two were relaxing off-duty in beach-front hotels and villas. They spoke of executions and other atrocities.
"The attacks started with treachery," said Hassan, an officer in Syria's special forces. "There was a unit of 40 troops. A Sunni defected from it and took 30 other Sunnis with him. A few days later they were part of the attack that started with the village of Hambushiya. The 10 Alawite troops left behind in the area were killed." Hassan said he could listen to the rebel's radio communications. "I heard a rebel telling another rebel: 'Kill this one, but not that one' . One rebel asked: 'What do I do about the girls?' The answer came: 'I'm sending a truck to pick them up'. Several were taken and raped, and have not been seen again," he said.
"They kidnapped Sheikh Badr Ghazal and stripped girls and the sheikh to humiliate him. The sheikh was then killed. Rebels videoed the events and we found the pictures on the mobiles of dead rebels when we retook the villages. They have not been shown on Syrian TV or media because they are too distressing."
Shadi, a 32-year-old officer in a local defence unit that is separate from the Syrian army, was lightly wounded during the government's counter-attack. "When we got into the village of Balouta I saw a baby's head hanging from a tree. There was a woman's body which had been sliced in half from head to toe and each half was hanging from separate apple trees. It made me feel I wanted to do something wild," he recalled.
Ali, a member of the regular army, said he also saw the baby's head. "We found two mass graves with 140 bodies. They were not shot. They had their throats slit. About 105 people of different ages were kidnapped," he said. "It's really scary what happened. Nobody has gone home to the villages because so much has been destroyed and many houses have been burnt. The whole area is unusable. Salafists from abroad were behind the attack."
The officers' accounts cannot be independently verified but the Guardian has obtained lists, compiled by local activists, with the names of victims from Hambushiya, Balouta, and five other villages. They include 62 people listed as killed, 60 kidnapped and 139 people who are missing. The dead range in age from a toddler of two to a man of 90. The vast majority are women, children and the elderly since most men in the villages were away on duty as part of the volunteer defence forces elsewhere in the region. They did not expect their own villages to come under attack.
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