Thursday, July 26, 2012

Russia's Tatarstan Mufti Mystery

Who tried to kill the Mufti?  That's the Question in Russia after last week's car bomb attack on Mufti Ildus Faizov, one of the top clerics in Russia's historically Muslim Tatarstan region, and a man greatly respected by the Kremlin for his promotion of a moderate, peaceful brand of Islam, which stands in stark contrast to the Islamic-fueled insurgency in Russia's Northern Caucasus region.

Initial fears were that Faizov and one of his closest associates Valiulla Yakupov, were targeted by Islamic insurgents from the Caucasus because of their moderate views – Faizov was badly injured in the car bombing but will survive; Yakupov was shot in the head in a separate attack and killed.  Caucasus Islamists may still be behind the attack, though an alternate theory, that the two men were attacked over a business deal, is gaining more credence following the arrest of five men over the weekend. 

The five have ties to a man named Rustem Gataullin who was the former head of the Idel-Hajj company – a firm that organize tour packages for Russian Muslims who want to complete the Hajj, the journey to the holy city Mecca that all Muslims are suppose to undertake once in their lifetimes.  Faizov took over operations of Idel-Hajj in 2011, there is a theory that it is this switch in leadership is the motivation for the attacks.

This would be a good news/bad news scenario for Russia.  On the good side, it would at least dismiss  the idea that the attempted assassination of Faizov was the beginning of a new offensive by the Caucasus Islamists, who in the past have staged high-profile terror attacks in Moscow that have included aircraft and subway suicide bombings.  On the bad side though, if the attack on Faizov was nothing more than an attempted “hit” over a business deal gone bad, this could be an indication that Russia was backsliding to the era of the 1990s when business-related murders were somewhat common – a fact that could likely have a chilling effect on foreign investment in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Russian government is responding to the attack in a sadly predictable way, by trying to impose a media blackout on the whole affair. According to Radio Free Europe, the government in Tatarstan recommended that journalists limit their coverage of the event to stories about life in the capital city (and site of the attacks) Kazan, and only seek comment from a short list of pre-approved “experts”.  An editor of an independent newspaper in the region called the government response “near hysterical” and noted that information on the incident was still freely available on the Internet.     
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, July 23, 2012

Floating A Trial Balloon For The Worst Experiment In The History Of Science

According to the New York Times, two Harvard professors are working on a proposal for a small-scale experiment in geoengineering.  The professors, James G. Anderson, who works in atmospheric chemistry, and David W. Keith, whose field is applied physics, are proposing to send a small balloon aloft to release microscopic amounts of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to see how they react with naturally-occurring ozone and water vapor.  The researchers stress that the experiment will be small-scale and its effects highly-localized, or in Dr. Anderson's words: “this is an experiment that is completely nonintrusive.”

The good professors are laying on the qualifiers because the field of geoengineering aims to do nothing less than to change the climate of the entire Earth in an attempt to stave off the negative effects of global warming.  As we discussed earlier, geoengineering is basically an attempt to hack the climate.  Based on observations that volcanic eruptions can have a temporary cooling affect on global temperatures as volcanic dust shot high into the atmosphere reflects some of the sunlight falling on Earth back into space, geoengineerers proposed shooting massive amounts of sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect a portion of the sunlight on a global scale. The idea is that if the amount of sunlight hitting the Earth's surface is reduced, the resulting drop in temperature will offset the global rise in temperature due to the growing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which prevent heat from naturally radiating off into space.

Sounds simple, even logical, right? Sure, except for the fact that it is the worst idea in the history of mankind.  Geoengineering has a few flaws. For one, there's the matter of this slight potential side effect: a permanent whitening of the skies.  Those particles meant to reflect some of the sunlight, also will likely diffuse it, meaning the sky will take on a white, washed-out appearance; in other words, so long blue skies... An even bigger problem is that once you start geoenginnering in a large scale, you can never, ever stop.

The reason is simple: geoengineering doesn't reduce the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, it just tries to offset this gain with a corresponding reduction in temperature on the other side.  Those sulfate particles will eventually settle out of the atmosphere, meaning more will continuously have to be pumped in to take their place.  Stop pumping and the cooling side of the geoengineering equation goes away, leaving you with a runaway greenhouse effect that will cause global temperatures to spike upward.

Unfortunately, this crackpot idea has attracted the backing of some serious (and seriously rich) people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson.   But let's remember we've gotten ourselves in this greenhouse gas mess by pumping a lot of things into the atmosphere that shouldn't be there, pumping more things in at this point seems like a pretty bad idea. 
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Islamic Radicals Suspected To Be Behind Assassination, Attempt in Russia

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan got off to a bloody start in Russia as assassins wounded one of the country's top Islamic clerics and murdered his deputy in separate attacks.

Mufti Ildus Faizov, the top Islamic official in Russia's historically Muslim Tatarstan region, survived not one, but three bombs aimed at his vehicle on Thursday in the Tatar capital, Kazan.  Faizov was hospitalized, but made an appearance on regional television following the attack.  His associate, Deputy Mufti Valiulla Yakupov, he was shot in the head and killed by an unknown assailant in an attack staged simultaneously with the attack on Faizov.  The timing of the attacks, and their targets, have Russia calling them an act of terror and suspecting they were organized and carried out by radical Muslim groups from the volatile North Caucasus region.

Faizov has been a high-profile and outspoken critic of the violent extremism that has taken root in the Caucasus region.  Unrest in the region started in the mid-1990s in Chechnya, which was the site of two brutal wars.  In recent years, Moscow has basically turned Chechnya over to local strongman, and Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has used his own brutal tactics to crush the separatist movement within Chechnya.  However, this has only forced Islamic militants to relocate to neighboring Russian republics like Dagestan and Ingushetia, where they are continuing their attempts to carve a fundamentalist Muslim caliphate out of Russia's southernmost flank.  While most of the violence has been confined to the Caucasus region, the extremists have staged a number of high-profile terror attacks in other parts of Russia, the most recent being the January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people.

With an indigenous Muslim population growing faster than the Russian Orthodox segment, Moscow has been eager to support Faizov's more tolerant, more inclusive version of Islam up as a model within the country.  But this has also made him a target for the extremists.

While the militants of the Caucasus region are suspected to be behind Thursday's attacks, no single group has yet claimed responsibility.  It is also too early to tell if the attacks against Faizov and Yakupov are a one-off strike, an attempt at sowing unrest in Tatarstan, or the beginning of a new wave of terror attacks across Russia.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Are America's Right Wing Crackpots Harming US Foreign Policy?

In case you missed this story from last weekend, during the latest stop in her whirlwind tour of the world (that so far has taken her to 102 countries) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's motorcade was met in Egypt by a wild mob of protesters who threw shoes and tomatoes at her car while shouting that the US needed to stop its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political party of Egypt's new president Mohamed Morsi, along with chants of “Monica!, Monica!” 

As one of the most popular members of the Obama Administration, Secretary Clinton usually doesn't elicit such angry receptions during her state visits, and given that Egypt has long been an American ally, the reception was quite startling.  So what was the motivation behind it?  Apparently elements of America's own Right Wing lunatic fringe.

It seems that Egyptian conspiracy theorists have eagerly bought into some ridiculous claims currently making the rounds of the Far Right fringe that the US government has been infiltrated by radical Islamists.  Ground Zero for these claims is Sec. Clinton herself, who according to the theory, has somehow been brainwashed by her deputy chief of staff, Huma Abedin, who happens to be a Muslim, and therefore a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.  The Muslim infiltration of the US government has been so successful, according to the theory, that the US has gone on to rig Egypt's election in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, who we are now funding to the tune of $1.5 billion.

This crackpot theory was apparently started by Frank Gaffney, who went from serving in the Reagan administration to peddling McCarthy-style conspiracy theories about evil Muslims lurking in under the beds of Mr. and Mrs. America on internet-radio programs.  Gaffney's delusional ramblings were eagerly picked up and echoed by such Far Right luminaries as Glenn Beck, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and blogger Lucianne Goldberg, which explains the “Monica!” chants at least.  The details of this ring of lunacy have been mapped out by both the New York Times and TheRachel Maddow Show.

Of course in America we know better – at least those of us with an IQ higher than room temperature - than to take any of these idiotic ramblings seriously.  We know that these purveyors of nonsense are merely tossing out rhetorical red meat to folks like members of the Tea Party, who think that anyone not as white, Christian and conservative as they are is obviously some kind of foreign agent bent on destroying America.  We know that in this country anyone with a computer and a few dollars can stake out their own corner of cyberspace and fill it with whatever material they want, no matter how ridiculous, so the caveat that “I saw it on the Internet” is something of a joke about the reader's naiveté.

Unfortunately this model doesn't hold true in other countries, especially countries where an autocracy tightly controlled access to the media for decades.  So in a place like Egypt, being on the internet does confer some sense of legitimacy, as does the ability of someone like Frank Gaffney to be able to say they once worked for the President.  It gives his comments a certain weight, even if they sound like they ramblings of a lunatic and are easily debunked.  For example, “Muslim Brotherhood” agent Huma Abedin is also married to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, himself a Jew – hardly the action of a loyal MB member (I know Frank, it is all part of her amazingly clever cover story...).  The US rigging of the recent Egyptian Presidential election similarly makes no sense: if the US was going to rig the election then they most likely would have rigged it in favor of the SCAF-backed candidate Ahmed Shafiq, so that the US might more easily continue its decades-long friendly relationship with the Egyptian military (which is also the true recipient of the $1.5 billion in aid the Right Wingnuts say the US is providing Egypt).  Let's remember the United States' anemic early response to the Egyptian revolution – in part this was driven by a desire to keep our long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in power; it was also driven by the very real fear that if the Mubarak government fell, it's most likely successor would be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, since they were the only opposition party in Egypt with any level of organization.  Rather than wanting a Muslim Brotherhood take-over of Egypt, the United States feared it.

Dealing with idiotic comments is part of the price we pay for the freedom of expression guaranteed to us by the First Amendment.  Most Americans are savvy enough to either ignore comments like those being peddled by this collection of fringe characters or just roll their eyes at their inherent silliness.  Unfortunately folks in places like Egypt don't realize that these statements are the stuff of nonsense, they don't realize that to many Americans, Michele Bachmann is a joke. And, sadly, that means that their craziness is actually harming the United States abroad.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is It Finally The End For Assad in Syria?

After dealing with a persistent rebellion in his country for over a year, the wheels seem to finally be coming off the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Reports during the past day have indicate that several of Syria's ambassadors have defected and that a flotilla of foreign peacekeeping troops are en route to his country; another TV news report from a few days earlier alleged that troops loyal to Assad control only Syria's major cities (most of them, at least), the roads running through the countryside are basically no-go zones for Assad loyalists.

 So after more than a year of fighting and after Western-led efforts at stopping the violence proved to be largely fruitless, what's changed?  The nexus seems to be the defection of a member of Assad's inner circle, Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass.  The bonds of power between the Tlass and Assad families go back decades in Syria.  Tlass' father, Mustafa, was a former defense minister who helped to usher Bashar Assad's father Hafez into power; Manaf Tlass has long been a loyal member of Bashar Assad's ruling cabal.

That someone as well-connected as Tlass would decide to jump ship is a stunning vote of no-confidence for the Assad regime, and one that many other seem to have taken note of.  Syria's ambassador to Iraq defected on Wednesday, seeking asylum in that country and calling on Syria's military to revolt againts Assad; this morning the BBC made an as-yet unconfirmed report that Syria's ambassador to Belarus has also defected.  Meanwhile, Russia has sent a flotilla of navy ships, including one destroyer and three amphibious landing craft from their Black Sea fleet to Tartus, Syria, where Russia maintains a naval facility.  The flotilla is said to be transporting a detachment of weapons and Russian marines.

Russia raised eyebrows a few weeks ago when they first discussed sending ships and weapons to Tartus.  Western diplomats feared that Russia might be trying to intervene on behalf of their old ally Assad, though the Russian government issued assurances that any military action would only to be to protect the Russian naval facility and Russian personnel in Tartus.  That Russia is now making such a show of force with their Tartus flotilla is a pretty clear indication that they expect there is a high chance for widespread unrest in Tartus in the near future.  And widespread unrest in Tartus would likely be the result of the chaos expected to follow in the wake of Assad's removal from power.

Since Russia has much closer ties to the current Syrian government than do any Western nations, it is not a unreasonable supposition to assume they have a clearer picture of what's happening on the ground in Syria than do officials in Washington or London.  Therefore the movement of Russian marines into the region, along with the defections of Tlass and several Syrian ambassadors are all indications of a regime on the edge of collapse.

How will that collapse occur?  It is highly unlikely that the rag-tag Syrian opposition will be able to launch a major assault on Damascus.  Keep in mind that in Libya, the Libyan rebels were only able to execute their drive on Tripoli after the US/NATO “humanitarian” mission began acting as the rebel's de facto air force; the walls of Gadhafi's Tripoli compound were breached by laser-guided bombs dropped from Coalition aircraft.  The Syrian rebels do not have this assistance.  Bashar's end then will likely come from an uprising within his own inner circle; either through loyalists who have grown tired of waging war against their own people, or through loyalists who see the tide turning against them and hope to curry some favor with the rebel leaders by delivering up to them the symbol of their oppression, or by removing Assad from power, permanently, themselves.  
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tanzania Facing Blowback From US-Iran Sanctions Spat

The East African nation of Tanzania has wound up in the middle of the sanctions fight between the United States and Iran.

The reason is Tanzania's decision to allow at least ten Iranian-owned oil tankers to re-register themselves in Tanzania; the ships, according to Bloomberg, are owned by Iran's NITC corporation but will fly Tanzania's flag and will, for all legal purposes be Tanzanian.  The move would allow the tankers to effectively skirt the sanctions regime imposed by the US and European Union on Iran over that country's nuclear research program.  While most of the focus on the sanctions has been on their embargo against Iran's oil exports, another piece of the sanctions also bans the issuing of insurance for Iranian ships carrying cargoes of Iranian oil.  Since a tanker's cargo can be worth millions, or tens of millions, of dollars and the liability involved in an accident that leads to an oil spill can exceed even those figures, companies aren't willing to run the risk of sending out uninsured oil cargoes.  Flagging these tankers as Tanzanian though could help Iran to skirt the insurance ban.

As expected, the US isn't happy about this move, and officials are already saying that the re-registering could harm US-Tanzanian relations.  Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs issued this warning: “If Tanzania were to allow Iranian vessels to remain under Tanzanian registry, we in the Congress would have no choice but to consider whether to continue the range of bilateral U.S. programs with Tanzania.”  That would likely include $571 million worth of US financial aid and investment earmarked for Tanzania in 2013.

For their part, the Tanzanian government is saying very little.  Most requests for comment from Bloomberg went unanswered, though one official did say that the stories were inaccurate since the tankers in question were previously registered in Cyprus and Malta, which while apparently true does not mean that they were not also owned by NITC.

So the US seems to be involved in another diplomatic game of chicken over the Iranian sanctions.  If the US government can't successfully pressure Tanzania into dropping their registration of the Iranian  tankers then the decision has to be made over whether or not to levy sanctions against Tanzania, including cutting off more than a half-billion dollars worth of foreign aid.  But if the US decides to go that route, it will hard to see the decision as anything but hypocritical.  Recently the US granted an “exemption” to the sanctions to China – Iran's biggest oil customer.  China had been openly defying the US over the sanctions, arguing that they didn't need to abide by them since the sanctions were not authorized by the United Nations, the only body, China argued, that had the ability to levy such wide-ranging sanctions in the first place.  But rather than engage in a diplomatic fight and possible trade war with China, the US quietly exempted them from the sanctions.

Should the US punish Tanzania for their actions, the clear message sent will be that the United States is more than willing to play the role of the world's policeman, so long as you're too weak to do anything about it.    
Sphere: Related Content