Monday, February 29, 2016

Trepidaciously Awaiting Disaster

"[The solution was near-continual grouting] just to keep the seepage constant, not stop it."
"Almost every day I get tens of emails from people who are friends and even people I don't know asking me where should we go, what should we do?"
"There are only two bottom outlet gates. One of them is stuck, jammed since 2013. If one of the gates is closed, the other one cannot discharge that much water alone."
Professor Nathir Al-Ansari, construction consultant, water resources engineering expert

"[I] wouldn't be surprised if it [the dam] goes."
"These guys [government of Iraq] are just corrupt and incompetent and they stick their heads in the sand." 
Florian Neuhof, freelance journalist, Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraq’s Mosul dam ‘could face catastrophic collapse’
File photo of Mosul Dam from November 2007 showing the dam on the Tigris River, around 50km north of Mosul, northern Iraq. EPA
Mosul is best known as the city from which Iraq's military fled in disordered panic at the arrival of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's militias, leaving the city unguarded and ripe for plucking. Which the jihadists did, unimpeded by any government protective presence. All the costly U.S.-supplied vehicles, arms and training were for naught. But the abandoned vehicles and advanced weaponry still serve their purpose, albeit used by others than for whom they were intended.
Isis Syria Iraq
ISIL fighters with U.S.Humvees - Twitter

Not only did ISIL pick up valuable supplies and weapons of war they have used to their advantage, but they looted the Mosul bank of over $400-million to further enrich themselves. Mosul remains in the hands of the Islamic State, as part of its infamous caliphate. ISIL also moved to take control of the Mosul Dam, and there were fears that water would be cut off to Baghdad, or that the jihadis would seek to destroy the dam. And it seems they did, by default, do just that.

When the dam was built thirty years ago in 1984 in the country's north a few miles from Mosul, its construction was fraught with problems caused by inappropriate engineering and a poor foundation geologically. There was, from the very start, a problem with water seeping from the dam, leaking incessantly, and as water is wont to do, destabilizing the dam's foundation. The slipshod construction and that the Mosul Dam was built on a gypsum foundation a soft mineral that dissolves in water, has left the dam in critical shape.

Since it was built, it has been on a 24-hour 'maintenance' schedule whereby a cement slurry is pumped constantly into boreholes under pressure, as a kind of grouting to fill cavities created by the constantly leaking water. About 96,000 tons of grouting (cement) has been poured into the dam over the years, enabling it to do what it was constructed for. It worked until ISIL routed the Iraqi military from the dam, too. The maintenance workers ran for their lives and the regular maintenance became history.

Months later the dam was retaken by Kurdish and Iraqi forces and new maintenance staff brought in to resume the 'grouting'. But there are fears that the structural integrity of the dam is now beyond simple repair, even though an Italian company has been brought in to undertake the urgency of maintenance of the structure, scheduled imminently to begin their work. A military presence is required at the dam to ensure that security is constant and reliable. Still, the fear is that the dam is too unstable to last.

In early February the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources Management issued a statement where the agency head described the Mosul Dam's condition as "good". This, despite the dam's potential for imminent collapse. A situation well known by now to those living in the area. And if the Mosul Dam, now thought by global experts to represent one of the most dangerous dams in the world, does collapse it would be horribly consequential.

Estimates are that the dam collapse would result in catastrophic loss of live, placing the total of the death toll at possibly 500,000 people.Apart from the leakage problem, and the most recent history of its neglect, spring rains, melting snow caps and the rising level of the Tigris River and its tributaries may conceivably all lead to what a combination of nature's forces and the unreliability of the dam's construction auger.

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Arab Spring Part II

"We have one demand: employment."
"People don't have money. We are sick with worry about food and electricity."
Shamseddine Tlilli, 30, computer science master's degree

"The government asks us to submit projects, but then there are a whole lot of obstacles. You have to know someone or have money to bribe. If I had money, I would not be here."
"We asked the government to negotiate with us because we have ideas and solutions."
Ibrahim Omri, textile engineer
Tunisia protests
Protesters shout slogans across from government offices in Kasserine, Tunisia, Amina ben Aziza, Reuters

The inspiration for the Arab Spring that flooded the Middle East after the protest self-immolation of a fruit street vendor harassed over a license in 2011 did have the effect of unseating the-then government of Tunisia, but Mohamed Bouazizi's self-sacrifice has not, five years later, resulted in relief from unemployment and distress for other young Tunisians.

Like Bouazizi who was a representative of the poor who could aspire only to vending fruit as an itinerant peddler, the highly educated youth of Tunisia find themselves just as frustrated by an employment market shut to their professions, skills and wish to work. In Kasserine, a provincial capital with a population of 400,000 jobless youth are desperate.

Some declare hunger strikes, several hundred among them lay siege to a governor's office for weeks. Unemployed young people with degrees have heard more than enough promises that the revolution would make a meaningful change in their lives. But the impoverished town, whose residents are anxious to see investment to help their economy, aren't likely to any time soon, given the military operations and clashes with an Islamic insurgency set up in camps in mountains outside the town.

The young protesters in the town are disappointed and frustrated that their advanced academic and professional degrees have done little to advance their interests. Jobs are scarce, and thoughts of moving to larger cities are non-starters, given the expense. They see a solution of some kind in government relaxing conditions for loans given to young entrepreneurs willing to begin their own businesses.

Pervasive corruption, they claim, impedes those few programs designed by government to generate jobs. "People are sick of the governments words", said Ahmed Rahall 24, with his master's degree in business management, jobless nonetheless. Some among his group of protesters have had training courses for entrepreneurs. Their biggest complaint is that banks are unprepared to fund them with startup money insisting on down payments that are unaffordable.

President Beji Caid Essebsi characterizes the far left representing the students with their demands as being as dangerous as Islamist extremists who commit terrorist attacks. /The mayor of Kasserine, Ridha Abbassi who had, as an academic supported the 2011 revolution, speaks of his position as one of crisis management: "I feel all the time I am walking on fire. The town is boiling and bubbling."

And Tunisia is considered to be the sole exception to the failures, some of them as spectacular as the massive breakdown of Syria, of the Arab Spring revolt against traditional Middle East and North African government authority.

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War and Jest

"They are trying to provoke the Soldiers of Odin to hit them. But the Soldiers o Odin have kept their cool and have not responded to their provocations."
Jarkko, 36, construction worker, Tampere, Finland

"We are a patrol group looking out for the safety of people, the safety of women."
"They write that we are Nazis, but that is not true. The group is not a Nazi group. The group is a patrol group."
Tony, 37, electrician

"Some of them are afraid of us. When they see us, they step aside."
"I think they are afraid for their country."
Ahmed Ramzi al Bayati, 22, Iraqi asylum seeker

"We woke up to a situation where different cultures met. It caused fear and concern in the community."
"The biggest issue was when we learned from Facebook that new asylum seekers were hanging around primary schools, taking pictures of young girls."
Mika Ranta, founder, Soldiers group in Ranta, Finland
A group that call themselves the 'Soldiers of Odin' demonstrate in Joensuu, Eastern Finland, January 8, 2016.
Reuters/Minna Raitavuo/Lehtikuva

Odin, the all-purpose god of yore emblematic of many things, but known principally as the god of war and death, is the symbol that a right-wing group in Finland has adopted to spread their anti-immigrant message. The Norse deity represents what the 'soldiers' march for, to retain their heritage, culture, religion and social customs untainted by the presence of aliens whose own backgrounds are so different, and whose religion is such that Europe has experienced an upheaval of its traditions and values to accommodate those of the immigrants.

So the Soldiers of Odin, clad in leather, and conducting vigilante patrols 'protect' Tampere, the third-largest city in Finland from criminality, disorder and, if need be, when they believe that foreigners are indulging in those illegal activities, to defend the public order against their actions. There is a bit of irony there, in that Odin, the god of war now monitors in a censor-capacity at the very least, victims of war.

Those among the population of Finland who disagree with the philosophy behind the Soldiers of Odin's unstated purpose, have formed a group of their own, calling themselves the Loldiers of Odin, a troupe of mocking clowns whose message is pro-immigration. Just as the Soldiers of Odin gear themselves in quasi battle dress, so too do the Loldiers of Odin dress themselves as colourful clowns.

A member of the Loldiers of Odin carrying a flag with words "Sieg Fail" walks ahead of the anti-immigrant nationalist group, the Soldiers of Odin.
A member of the Loldiers of Odin carrying a flag with words "Sieg Fail" walks ahead of the anti-immigrant nationalist group, the Soldiers of Odin. (Loldiers of Odin) 

The clowns interrupt the soldiers' routine patrols, honking horns, and singing of all things, nursery rhymes; quite fitting. For their efforts several have on occasion been arrested for disturbing a demonstration. The Soldiers group have expanded to 25 cities in Finland, and a Facebook group has surfaced in Norway, taking inspiration from their Finlandish cousins, as it were.

The sudden influx of foreigners into a community resentful of the elite among them, distrustful of the news media in Finland, along with frustration over burgeoning unemployment rolls, have found it quite natural to focus on immigrants as threats to the well-being of their society. Some of their members have been identified as committed neo-Nazis, and others are known to have criminal records for domestic abuse.

A group that call themselves the 'Soldiers of Odin' demonstrate in Joensuu, Eastern Finland, January 8, 2016.
Reuters/Minna Raitavuo/Lehtikuva

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Wot?!! Belt-Tightening in Saudi Arabia?

"I'm not going shopping as much, and I'm not spending like I used to. I'm spending more money on gas these days."
Mohammed Abdullah, Riyadh

"I think there is growing recognition here that we need reform."
Khalid al-Dakhil, Saudi analyst, Riyadh

"It was a Gulf phenomenon of wasting – money was flowing and there was no accountability. The shock has come. We have to wake up, especially the people who are not working. We have to start doing things on our own, depend on our own selves."
"We have to get up and work, really work hard – produce in factories; clean up our own places."
Khaled Al Maeena, former editor in chief, Arab News 
Austerity comes, almost overnight for Saudi Arabia’s citizens
A veiled Saudi waitress speaks to visitors at a coffee shop in Tabuk. Of the 4.4 million jobs created in the 2003 through 2013 decade of booming oil prices and prosperity, about 1.7 million, 39 per cent, were taken by Saudis, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Mohamed Alhwaity / Reuters

OPEC bows to Saudi Arabia. Whatever it dictates, will in the end become a unanimous decision of the oil cartel that represents the world's largest oil deposits, from Bahrain to Venezuela. And Saudi Arabia along with its oil-revenue-grabbing peers enjoyed the benefits of selling their product on a world market eager to consume at any price to keep the wheels of commerce spinning, acquiring a massive revenue stream that never seemed to be enough to keep them all in the style they accustomed themselves to.

While amassing a Saudi Monarch's ransom in wealth, creating the largest rainy-day fund in world history, suddenly that fund appears on the cusp of exhaustion. The oil giants that once complacently raked in their profits from energy resources now live in lean times of their own making. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia invested its near future in a plan to punish both its nemesis Iran for its presumption in aspiring to become the Islamic world's leading light, and its ally the United States for shaking free from Saudi oil dependency through fracking.

As the custodians of the Islamic world's most venerated and noble religious sites, no other country, much less a non-Arab one, should have expressed the arrogance of conquest over the reigning Middle East religious power. Particularly one dedicated to the minority Shiite sect of Islam, aspiring to rule over the majority Sunni sect. Ironically, both Iran and Saudi Arabia, each infused with their own brand of Islamism chose to use their oil windfalls to promote fanatical Islamism.

The Islamic Republic of Iran used its oil wealth -- and continues to do so -- in establishing proxy terrorist groups to not only intimidate its enemies in the Middle East, but to subtly infiltrate the international community of non-Muslim countries to be enabled to rise at some future date when Iran feels sufficiently prepared to challenge the primacy of the Western democracies in their very homes, now being overrun by another aspect of jihad; the migration of peoples.

While Saudi Arabia made use of its vast treasury to fund the building of madrasas and mosques throughout the world of Islam and that of non-Muslim countries where its fundamentalist brand of Salafist Islam, Wahhabism, is taught and where Osama bin Laden and his ilk cut their jihadist teeth. From Yemen to Pakistan, Somalia to Australia, Turkey to Britain and well beyond, that infiltration, aided by Islamist dedication brought by the Muslim Brotherhood, oil money has greased the cogs.

Now gravitating to an era of austerity because OPEC at Saudi Arabia's insistence unleashed a glut of petroleum on the world market, undercutting profit and determined to grin and bear it, oil producers from Russia to Canada are suffering a loss of income, and all oil-producing countries from Nigeria to Qatar are realizing scant profit for their precious natural resources in energy production.

Saudis now see a reigning in of public spending, an imposition of hiring freezes and work slated on infrastructure halted. Horror of horrors Prince Mohammed of the House of Saud speaks of the possibility of taxes: "We're talking about taxes or fees that are supported by the citizen", he intoned. Sending Saudi subjects into paroxysms of despair. "We've basically stopped hiring, too" Mohammed, manager at a company which imports European foods, said gloomily.

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A Wretched Dilemma

"It was agreed that the church and the mosque would stay. By demolishing them, the authorities are showing contempt for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and are seeking conflict with the migrants who used these places." 
Christian Salome, NGO Auberge des Migrants
French police officers stand guard as an excavator knocks down buildings including a makeshift mosque and Evangelical Church
Migrant church and mosque demolished -- AFP/Getty
“It was never a question of evacuating the south zone in a brutal fashion using bulldozers. This would scatter the migrants everywhere across the region."
"We intend to proceed by finding shelter for all those who are in the southern zone at Calais, particularly unaccompanied minors."
"[A] reception centre  [would be set up with women and vulnerable children a priority]."
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve

French authorities have given those living in the southern half of the camp a deadline of 7pm to leave

The Lille court has ruled that the migrants' makeshift shelters could be destroyed, comprised of tents and lean-to shelters, accommodations for hundreds of migrants in t he slum cap known as the "jungle", in Calais, where the inhabitants' intention is to somehow get to Britain, where their problems will be solved. They will be finally ensconced in a civil society where their needs for employment, dignity and a decent future awaits them, they dream.

Except that: it doesn't. They live at the makeshift camp, they have made a temporary life for themselves there, waiting and hoping, and becoming a community that outside sources compassionately do their best to accommodate, short of helping them achieve their goal of escape from the "jungle", into Britain.  Most of the civil conveniences that make a community have been established there from houses of worship to schools to cafes.

Aid groups and the migrants themselves have gradually built up a rough approximation of a shanty town to accommodate those who have travelled from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to escape conflict, human rights abuses and African nations' endemic poverty. In Calais they see the portal that will finally bring them to peace and prosperity -- not there, but in Britain. Without the required papers they hope to sneak across the Channel.

Residents of the camp were given the choice of temporary centres around France or to remain in a heated container set up in a fenced-in area behind the camp which holds 125 of these quasi-homes that provide shelter. "You're basically going to scatter a lot of people", observed Maya Konforti of the association Auberge des Migrants, critical of the move to disperse the migrants from the camp, predicting they would simply go elsewhere around Calais.

But authorities cited security and sanitation concerns. Let alone that Calais, a city of 80,000 that prides itself on tourism, having now to cope with the influx of thousands of migrants living in poverty and close proximity is coping with great difficulty. Calais became the perfect place for migrants to congregate with its ferry port, Eurotunnel and truck traffic crossing the English Channel, giving them hope that they might too cross into Britain one day.

Truckers using the byways from France to Britain have experienced disconcerting events that dismay and anger them, leaving them fearful of bold moves by migrants intent on taking rides across the Channel. Razing the camp will offer no solution to the migrant problem, it will simply remove part of a festering sore, and place it elsewhere. If there is a solution to the plight of thousands of people desperate to find a home for their futures, it has not yet been struck.
"It's inhuman to live in the jungle. But certain associations, certain billionaire stars are telling us to leave things alone."
"That's enough. The jungle must be evacuated".
Xavier Bertrand, head of the region

"The news is just starting to filter down and people are really nervous. They don’t know where they can go. There is a lack of information."
"Children have already travelled to the Dunkirk camp, where conditions are far worse than here."
Caroline Anning, Save the Children
One of the streets in the Calais 'jungle'

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Friday, February 26, 2016

Islamic Republic of Iran as World Threat

A poster of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and others behind Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Hezbollah flags during Resistance and Liberation Day celebrations in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, May 25, 2014
A poster of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and others behind Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Hezbollah flags during Resistance and Liberation Day celebrations in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, May 25, 2014     Photo by Ali Hashisho/Reuters

"The Iranian regime through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps is building a complex terror infrastructure including sleeping [sic] cells that are stockpiling arms, intelligence and operatives and are ready to act on order including in Europe and America."
"[Iran plans destabilization of the Middle East and beyond in training, funding and arming] emissaries [toward a revolution]."
Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon

It was inevitable and it was predicted, and the expected is now in operation. The Islamic Republic of Iran, which, due to financial strains was forced to suspend its nexus of terror networks is now back in the business of robustly financing and arming them. Iran sees its satellite militias as a useful armed force it can call upon as needed; they are allies loyal to the theocratic Islamist regime representing criminals, insurgents, terrorists. The release of billions of dollars to Iran with the relaxation of sanctions due to the P5+1 nuclear negotiations has resulted in a terror-nexus reborn.

Iran is the sun around which its satellite networks revolve, from Hezbollah to Hamas, Yemen's Shia Huthi militias to Iraq and Syria, the al Quds Revolutionary Republican Guard Corps. has been busy doing its nefarious work, just as it had back in 1980s Lebanon when it elicited the interest in Islamist martyrdom from among the Lebanese Shiites and trained them in explosives, subterfuge and raw violence, to destroy the U.S. Beirut embassy and marine barracks.

U.S. marines searching for victims in Beirut eight days after an attack that killed 241 American soldiers on October 23, 1983.
U.S. marines searching for victims in Beirut eight days after an attack that killed 241 American soldiers on October 23, 1983
The steady buildup of Iran's network of terrorist entities has become a global enterprise with active operatives infiltrating dozens of countries. Hezbollah, heeding its paymaster's instructions has been involved in international atrocities on command. This is what hundreds of millions buys in training and modern weaponry. Tehran, Baghdad, Saana, Damascus and Beirut all joined in one vast Islamist enterprise as a Shia-led march to conquest over the majority Sunni contingent of the vast ummah that is Islam.

In speaking of the threat posed by Iran's master plan to achieve influence, power and command first in the Middle East and then abroad by stealth and by pursuing its nuclear agenda, while perfecting its longer-range ballistic missiles, the Israeli Defence Minister describes a wide-ranging imperialist Islamist plan of eventual world domination, one that stands alongside the Sunni terrorist groups all harbouring the same ambitions, and at war with one another jostling for superior position.

If all the non-Muslim world had to concern itself with would be the Byzantine intrigues and hatreds rife in the world of Islam, not slopping over to threaten the non-Muslim world, it could all be viewed with a certain level of disinterest tinged with more than a modicum of disgust at the wasted lives. That the threat reaches out to the democratic nations of the world where Islam is not an official and over-arching influence on politics, social life and every sphere of society, should be of consuming interest to the international community.

Israel, the proverbial canary-in-the-mine, is singing its distress warning, and no one seems to be able to get those plugs out of their ears, convinced that it is Israel only -- a Jewish democracy located in an ocean of dysfunctional Muslim countries headed by monarchs, oil sheikdoms and and theocracies all of whom resent its presence on land they claim to be consecrated to Islam -- whose existence alone is threatened.

So the West remains complacently unaware and perhaps deliberately so, since it is so tedious to be reminded of our vulnerability. Mr. Yaalon remarked on a Canadian member of Hezbollah in possession of nine tonnes of chemical compound, seized in Cyprus. Leading to Lebanese-Canadian Hussein Bassam Abdallah being sentenced by a Cypriot court to six years imprisonment on the admission that Hezbollah planned to mount terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, and certainly not for the first time.
Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards march during a parade ceremony just outside Tehran.
Members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards march during a parade ceremony just outside Tehran. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Very Best of Antagonists

"We have to remember that while we have pretty good intelligence on a lot of the world, a lot of other countries don't necessarily have that great of intelligence on us."
"So, in the interest of transparency and [avoiding] miscalculation on their part, sometimes it's worthwhile to allow them to have a look at what you're doing or what you're not doing."
Navy Captain Jeff Davis, Pentagon spokesman

"In addition to overflying military installations, Russian Open Skies flights can overfly and collect on Department of Defence and national security or national critical infrastructure."
"The vulnerability exposed by exploitation of this data and costs of mitigation are increasingly difficult to characterize."
Admiral Cecil Haney, Chief, U.S. Strategic Command
An OC-135B Open Skies observation plane sits on the runway at Yokota Air Base, Japan November 15, 2014. The plane has been conducting surveillance missions over Russia.

When cool, but increasingly cordial relations take place between former adversaries, as it did when the U.S.S.R. imploded and Russia was all that was left of the former Communist alliance of eastern European countries subservient to the master-state, and through generous impulse and a genuine desire on both sides to foster better relations, they become signatories to military pacts defusing the great tensions that had formerly been in place, the future sometimes brings regrets.

The future is here and now. An increasingly volatile, irritable, bullying Russia has materialized, a Russia frustrated at its loss of status as a world power. One which commanded respect through fear on the world stage until both fear and respect dissipated with the dissolution of its threat to world stability when the constituent parts of its totality abandoned its central authority to resume their former status as sovereign states.

Russia and NATO agreed to ensure neither stepped on the other's geographic toes. But then, distrust and fear on the part of Russia's former satellite states conspired to undo that arrangement when a rush to join NATO occurred. And when countries of the Middle East became violently unstable and the U.S. thought up its 'Star Wars' scenario, Russia saw itself as the target beyond the nice fiction that Iran was. Back when world conflict no longer consumed the focus of the globe, Russia and NATO played civil chess.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is easily bored, a restive man who enjoys action and a whiff of danger to whet his appetite for adventure. And he yearned for the restoration of Russia as a world power, equal to the influence of the United States. Resentment goes a long way to destabilizing once-placid -- or moving to that end -- relationships of collaboration in pledging to destroy clearly unneeded nuclear arms. Just maintaining enough as a comfortable 'deterrent' should anyone become too restive.

The Open Skies agreement approved in 1992 was a reflection of more trusting, comfortable times, now since dissipated. Enacted in 2002, it allowed for signatories to agree that unarmed aircraft carrying video and still cameras, infrared scanning devices and forms of radar could take flight over other treaty signatories' territory. A kind of reassurance for the updating of their intelligence, that nothing untoward and/or threatening might be taking place.

And now that significant untoward and world-peace-destabilizing events have taken place, and Vladimir Putin has taken great delight in leading his American counterpart around by the nose, even while other world leaders have all been given delightful instruction on how one autocratic and ambitious leader among them could send them all into paroxysms of fear-of-consequences, Russia has resumed its bad-boy position of yore.

So when Moscow signals Washington that it seeks permission for a spy plane with advanced digital cameras to gain flight over certain areas off limits under any other circumstances, a dilemma has raised its attention within the U.S. military establishment, let alone the White House. Since the U.S. carries out such Open Skies flights on a regular basis and Russia "has done it many times before", how now, decline?

After all, in 2014, American pilots flew Open Skies missions over Russia.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Eyes Wide Shut

"Russia and the regime will target the areas of the revolutionaries on the pretext of the Nusra Front's presence, and you know how mixed those areas are, and if this happens, the truce will collapse."
Bashar al-Zoubi, head, political office, Yarmouk Army, rebel Free Syrian Army

"For us, al-Nusra is a problematic point, because al-Nusra is not only present in Idlib, but also in Aleppo, in Damascus and in the south. The critical issue here is that civilians or the Free Syrian Army could be targeted under the pretext of targeting al-Nusra."
Khaled Khoja, senior opposition figure
Aftermath of an air strike on rebel-held Kalasa district of Aleppo (4 February 2016)
  The Syrian opposition said it would accept the deal only if attacks on civilians stopped -- AFP

"Indeed, success of this initiative - including widespread humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians - requires good faith and decency by three parties who have shown little or none during the duration of this crisis."
"Let's hope they change their spots."
Fred Hof, (former) State Department Syria specialist, Atlantic Council think tank, Washington

This is a game that Russia never seems to tire of playing, and why should it, since its main antagonist/aid in the conflict never fails to agree to do its part in the pretense of offering the ploughshares of peace for the airstrikes of war. It worked in Ukraine, and it works in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be enjoying himself quite fulsomely in leading U.S. President Barack Obama around by the nose ring of placid and reasonable ceasefire offers.

Leavened, of course, with the provision that the Syrian regime must also be brought to agreement, and that Russia withholds for itself the right to continue bombing Islamic State targets, even as the U.S. accepts that fiction in the knowledge that it is the rebel groups whom the West, Saudi Arabia and Turkey support which Russian airstrikes are meant to hit, and do, killing rebel fighters and civilians alike, adding to the desperate streams of refugees.

And, as Syria specialist Fred Hof adds, allotting Russia, Iran and Syria five additional days through the proposed timetable to continue clobbering and lashing and encircling the rebels in the prize of Aleppo. But, it is the Russian initiative, and in the timid heart of Barack Obama, hope springs eternal that someone, some force, not his own, will rescue him and America from the nightmare that previous interventions have brought them to.

That this is precisely the very same approach recommended a bare week or so earlier only to collapse under the weight of its own fragile malicious pretense, appears not to have gained an impression, so eager is the United States to suffocate the nightmare that Syria has become. True, it is increasingly difficult to keep sight of all the theatres of conflict and intersecting nationalist agendas, among the multifarious jihadi groups mingling with Syria's legitimate rebel forces, but such is the Middle East in the complexities of its tribal, ethnic and sectarian hatreds.

Saturday is designated as the pull-through date, when all forces will withdraw from conflict; a breathing space, an appetizer for full peace that will/should/may follow, feels the eternal optimist who obviously has not been too long resident in the neighbourhood. But yes, believe it, a 'cessation of hostilities' between the armed opposition groups and the regime is imminent. Of course, the Islamic State is outside the agreement. come to think of it, so is the Nusra Front, with their al-Qaeda allegiance.
Syrian army fires a rocket at Islamic State group positions in the province of Raqqa, Syria (17 February 2016)
The Syrian government said "military efforts to combat terrorism" would continue -- AP

It will be difficult, to be sure, for the Russian/Syrian/Hezbollah/Shiite militias/al-Quds coalition to distinguish the "moderate" rebel groups from the "terrorist" everyone-else groups, but that's how  things are. Vladimir Putin suggested a telephone conversation with his American counterpart and they amicably figured it out, together. This is what diplomacy excels at, bringing adversaries together in a mutual arrangement that each sees merit in, even if one is a magician and the other a poor chess player.

"This is going to be difficult to implement. We know there are a lot of obstacles, and there are sure to be some setbacks", brilliantly observed White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Hard to tell when he's joshing and when he's earnest. Russia, to no one's surprise will simply get on with its air campaign, since there's always Islamic State to confront and bomb the hell out of, and if they actually proceed with that, it will represent a change in tactics. 

Since Russia has made it clear that it shares Bashar al-Assad's designation of the rebel scum as terrorists.

Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict (23 February 2016)


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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Mighty Stumble

"It [Turkey] has so alienated everyone it cannot convince anyone to do anything. It is a country whose words no longer carry any weight. It bluffs but does not deliver. It cannot protect its vital interests, and it is at odds with everyone, including its allies."
"For a country that was until very recently seen as a consequential regional power, these facts strike me as quite disastrous."
Soli Ozel, professor of international relations, Kadir Has University, Istanbul

"Erdogan has mismanaged foreign policy because of hubris. He was overconfident in 2010 that Turkey was the darling of the world, and that went to his head. There are setbacks that are not of his doing, but how he managed those setbacks are his doing."
"I’m not saying that Turkey has lost its mind and is poised for war, but the posture in Ankara is very strange and could lead to surprises. What’s happening in Syria is a question of survival for Erdogan, so it is not possible to rule anything out."
"For Turkey, there is no good scenario from now on."
Henri Barkey, Turkey expert, Wilson Center, Washington

Arrogant and irascible Recep Tayyip Erdogan has managed to dig himself into a quandary and he has taken Turkey with him. His problem is that he explodes with anger and resentment and hatred becomes his consuming passion. At the moment the focus of his consuming passion of hatred is another world leader who is also arrogant, but manages to keep his cool, a much cleverer politician than Mr. Erdogan who he would have done much better continuing to cultivate rather than aggravate.

Russian servicemen stand at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015.
Russian servicemen stand at a Russian military base in northwest Syria, in December

Like President Vladimir Putin, who overcame the limit on presidential terms in Russia by playing musical chairs with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, and planned to alter the constitution to enable him to rule Russia for the foreseeable future as indispensable to its destiny as a world power, Mr. Erdogan saw no reason why the constitutional limits of his presidency should not be altered, in the greater interests of Turkey which needed his even-handed guidance to usher it into an aspirational future.

That Turkey's Kurdish political party won so many parliamentary seats that Erdogan's Justice and Development Party lost its huge majority, hobbling that constitutional reform he'd planned, sent him into a silent rage, ruminating darkly on Turkish Kurds supporting not the Turkish government but the Kurdish Workers Party, the militant group agitating for Kurdish sovereignty. Although the election following four months later restored his party the die was cast and it was only a matter of time before Erdogan revoked his peace agreement with the Kurds.

Turkey's economy had already been stumbling, and Erdogan had gone out of his way to alienate Israel, rejecting it in favour of giving the Hamas leadership another place of haven and vocal support, while excoriating Israel, its former regional ally, for its 'genocidal brutality' against the Palestinians. And when Egypt unseated Mohammed Morsi from its presidency and declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group this too offended Erdogan and the new Egyptian government under President el-Sisi became yet another enemy.

And then it was Russia's turn, for its decision to back the murderous regime of Bashar al Assad in air-bombing Syrian Turkomen and other Sunni Syrian rebel groups battling the regime, further infuriating a man whose blood pressure must be continually on elevated-boil. The downing by two Turkish warplanes of a Russian jet that wandered for too many seconds into Turkish airspace must have felt good at the time, but since then the taste of vengeance must have turned extremely sour as the spigot of Russian tourist money got turned off, as did valuable two-way trade between Russia and Turkey.

The final straw has been the Syrian Kurds aligned with Russia, and whom the Turkish military has been attacking along with the PKK, since Erdogan considers the YPG an offshoot of his Kurdish nemesis at  home. Turkey, in other words, is at war with just about everyone, including a more restrained conflict in choices and values with its most important ally, the United States, which refuses to support Erdogan's contention that the Kurds are terrorists.

Dispatching the Turkish military to strike at Kurdish positions both in Turkey and Syria, has not been a popular move within NATO. A group of over 200 Turkish academics delivered a petition to their government recently urging that Turkey refrain from going to war in Syria, and from conflict with the Kurds. The Turkish military has signalled its unwillingness to send troops across from Turkey into Syria without express approval of the United Nations Security Council.

While no public acknowledgement from a spurned Erdogan has yet surfaced conspicuously berating his own military leaders, Erdogan and his prime minister spared no invective, crude and wretched, vilifying the Turkish intellectuals who have found grave fault in his trajectory pursued in making enemies of friends and destroying the peace potential in coming to eventual terms with Turkish Kurds, an inevitability that a more astute and intelligent leader would long since have recognized.

Mr. Erdogan has spoken obliquely and sometimes directly of launching troops into Syria, hopefully with the United States as the lead, and Saudi troops alongside. That prospect doesn't appear likely, although were it to occur it's unlikely that it would lead to too many more lives lost than the impact seen by the combined onslaught against the rebels and nominally Islamic State, by Syria, Hezbollah, Russia, and the al-Quds Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps, all working toward recouping Syria's losses.

The prospect of an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Syria has put Erdogan to a boil. It would border Turkey's own region of Kurds who fervently believe that history is on their side, and the time has finally arrived for them to have a country reflective of their national aspirations as a separate ethnic group of considerable proportions and historicity in the region. Turkey is now witnessing Erdogan's dream of a powerfully influential Turkey with him at its helm distinguishing itself as a Muslim state equal to any Western power.

"Turkey is facing a multifaceted catastrophe. This is a country that has often had problems in the past, but the scale of what is happening now is beyond Turkey’s capacity for digestion", said Gokhan Bacik, professor of international relations at Ankara’s Ipek University. The region is on high tension as it is, and with concerns that escalation of hostilities between Turkey and Russia could provoke an incident from which it would be difficult to step back, prompted French President François Hollande to warn "there is a risk of war between Turkey and Russia".

Implacably now, at Vladimir Putin's direction, Moscow is busy expanding its presence uncomfortably close to Turkey's borders; Syria to the south, Crimea to the north, Armenia to the east. Russia's Defense Ministry has announced the deployment of fighter jets and combat helicopters to an air base outside the Armenian capital, Yerevan, 25 miles from the Turkish border.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

A Syrian Loyalist Convulsed With Fear

"I saw ten Daesh fighters with their horrible faces, one holding the sword. They beheaded him in front of my eyes."
Local Syrian woman, Palmyra

"He kept calling all the way from the bus, 'We're going to die', repeating those words. I told him to give the driver any excuse, like he wants to buy cigarettes, and then run away, but he never listened to me."
Syrian military officer

"Please, tell me the latest news. We don't have TV here, no electricity, I'm living in exile. I'm dead, dead."
"If I die, would  you say, God bless his soul'?"
"One shouldn't turn against his government whatever they do. There's nothing called 'with' or 'against Bashar. There's something called patriotism, nationalism, loyalty -- something called 'we are Syrians and we should defend our nation'. You are either with the state or with the terrorist groups."
"I'm not a coward, but I'm a human being who sometimes gets scared. Am I right?"
"I'm committing suicide. I'm walking on my feet toward death, but I can't do anything. Don't ask me what time I'm leaving; I hate this question I wish I wouldn't wake up tomorrow."
"Precious, don't be sad for me. We are from God and to God we return."
Abu al-Majd, Syrian soldier
Palmyra, Syria, in March 2014, before it fell to the Islamic State. The city is where Times reporters met Abu al-Majd, a Syrian officer, in April 2014 — and where witnesses said Islamic State beheaded him last year. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
He was a Palestinian Syrian, living in southern Damascus. He was the son of a retired low-ranking army officer, a regime loyalist, and so he too was a regime loyalist. He was part of a police unit before joining the military, but that was before the civil war began. As a police officer he focused on drug dealers and prostitutes. As a military man he was deployed to front-line checkpoints. He was sent on patrol to check for front-line activity by insurgents east of Homs, around Palmyra.

Whenever he got the chance, when he had leave, he returned home to the cosmopolitan vibe of Damascus. There he saw troops stationed in the capital. They were able to go out on the town, drink, have dates, "as if they are in Europe", he thought with envy. Why not him? Posted later near the Shaer gas field, Islamic State attacked the post killing several of his friends. He was himself surrounded by militants, where his group awaited reinforcements.

A year ago he got into a fist fight with aid workers in Damascus. He saw that they were hoarding, at the very least, misdirecting food rations. "They're giving two families one portion. Not only that, they are saying dirty words to people, as if the civilians are beggars", he raged stung by the unfairness of it all. Little wonder his frustrations went to the boiling point, leading him to be physically violent with the aid workers, who likely wondered what his problem was.

When Islamic State reached the edge of Palmyra, he was on leave in Damascus, and his mother, knowing her son would soon be moved there, hid his ID card. He could have asked for a transfer, but decided  he wouldn't. Soon enough he heard that his unit was being sent to Palmyra, and he was fearful, hardly knew how to react, and then, didn't. A friend posted something on Facebook he really thought hit the nail on the head: "O God, homeland, your heroes are living in graves, and your thieves are in castles."

Abu al-Majd and his unit ended up in Palmyra. Western reporters who had befriended him and with whom he had corresponded by email wanted to know the details of what had happened to him after having heard from his family that the military had notified them that their son was officially missing and presumed dead. Accordingly, the family went into mourning, and received sympathetic visitors to traditionally support them in their mourning process.

And the journalists did a little bit of information-digging. They contacted two police officers who said they'd seen him  in  Palmyra, wounded. They recounted that 60 officers and soldiers had boarded unarmoured buses to take them to Palmyra. They wore flak jackets, but had no weapons with them.  They reported that their friend, Abu al-Majd had been terrified. The men were dropped off at the military airport located on Palmyra's outskirts. An attack took place that night and many of them were killed, while others fled.

Abu al-Majd took refuge in the home of a family known to him. He called home to Damascus from a land line, asking that a car be sent for him. His father responded by telling him not to surrender, while his uncle referred him to a reading of the Koran. He knew the Islamic State had threatened to kill anyone harbouring a government fighter, so he decided he could no longer risk his friends' lives, and left their home.

Out on the street, he heard the call to prayer. And knowing that the Islamic State requires everyone to attend prayers, he entered a mosque, where a fighter approached him asking if he was with the police. "He said, 'Yes, I'm here and I'm praying and I didn't do anything'", a Palmyra resident who had witnessed the incident reported. The response from the fighter was "Now, you remembered to repent?"

Outside the mosque he was arrested. His body lay in the street for days.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

 No Syrian Crisis

"The war in Syria is not a Syrian crisis. It is not even a regional crisis, although the impacts are disproportionately felt here. It is a global humanitarian crisis; an international failing that needs to be addressed coherently and collaboratively."
"Instead, new, innovative solutions are required; solutions that address the reluctance of traditional resettlement countries, as well as the frustrations of traditional host states about unequal and unenforcable burden sharing."
His Royal Highness Prince Hassan bin Talal, Jordan
Entering Zaartari Refugee Camp, Jordan (Doug Bandow, 07/07/15)
Nearing Zaartari Refugee Camp, Jordan. (Doug Bandow, 07/07/15)

We have it then, on regal authority that Syria's convoluted, Byzantine conflict where an Arab regime employs the most heinously unforgivable atrocities against its own civilian population to punish them for the sectarian violence that it has itself initiated in response to a civil request by that majority sect for equal treatment to the regime's own sect, that this war in Syria is not a Syrian affair. And nor is it a regional crisis, despite that, understandably, 'the impacts are disproportionately felt' in the region.

How could it be otherwise, when the neighbourhood is comprised of countries whose rulers are despots, tyrants and autocrats in the guise of oil sheiks, monarchs, and ayatollahs who excel in the Medieval art of control, division and isolation, leaving their populations to struggle with an utter lack of liberty, living within human-rights-abusing national enclaves portraying themselves as emerging democracies, Islamic-interpretive-style.

The world was given a lesson on regional conflicts and the absorption of refugees which the broader Middle East community had persuaded Palestinians to reflect on a temporary basis until 'their' geography would be restored to them when a pan-Arab collective of military might destroyed the presence of the nascent Jewish State of Israel. When that failed, the Palestinians who fled the area languished in refugee camps that the international community paid for, through the permanent auspices of UNRWA.                     

But none of the countries that permitted the refugee camps to exist within proffered a permanent place for them, prepared to absorb them as citizens, (with the notable exception of Jordan, since over half of its citizens are Palestinians), preferring to wait until such time as the Jewish state collapsed after one war imposed upon it and then another, all failing to produce the desired result, but leaving the festering wound of Palestinians insistent on returning with all their succeeding generations.

Once again, on the collapse of another 'nation' of Islam, surrounding nations that have the means to absorb the resulting refugees fail to do so, leaving those countries with a conscience to allow temporary camps, hoping that before long the conflict will cease and return to Syria will be possible. And one clever nation has been able to furnish conditions that prompt hundreds of thousands of those refugees to sail the distance from the westernmost shores of Turkey to Europe.

A man from Syria feeds his daughter as asylum seekers line up in Berlin on December 21, 2015. (KAY NIETFELD/AFP/Getty Images)

Enabling His Royal Highness to chastise Europe for insufficiently warmly greeting the flood of over a million haven-seekers and migrants as he deems their humanitarian duty, for, as he says, the burden must be shared. Not that the conditions and the situation that bred and led to the sectarian violence and the refugees must be solved, since that is obviously a task beyond the willingness and evident capacity of Islam to solve, though Islam has been the cause.

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Confidential Jihad

"It is unfortunate that Apple continues to refuse to assist the department in obtaining access to the phone of one of the terrorists involved in a major terror attack on U.S. soil."
U.S. Justice Department 

"The same engineers who built strong encryption into the iPhone to protect our users would, ironically, be ordered to weaken those protections and make our users less safe."
Timothy D. Cook, Chief executive, Apple Incorporated
Image result for apple corporation
In their investigation of the Islamist terrorist murder that took place in San Bernardino, California, last December, the F.B.I. has asked Apple for their assistance in "unlocking" an iPhone used by one of the two attackers. Apple has rejected that request. "The worst-case scenario has come true. As more of these devices come to market, this touches all aspects of the cases that we're working on", stated Reynaldi Tariche, an F.B.I. agent, of the problems inherent in scrutinizing the contents of the phone used by Syed Rizwan Farook.

The problem is a four-letter code. The problem is if the F.B.I. tries a number of combinations and none work, the cellphone will automatically go into a state of permanent lock-down, ostensibly to protect the security of someone who is now dead, but whose violent act of multiple murders gave him a place of notoriety in the pantheon of Islamist jihadists for his success in annihilating the lives of innocent people. Any potential connections to others in jihad that could be obtained by the cellphone's contents are vital in the investigation.

Apple, however, has dug in its sanctimonious heels, insisting its first duty is the protection of its clients. Besides which, it insists they do not have the technology yet developed that would satisfy the demands of investigators. Inconveniently, it was pointed out by technology experts in design and security that this particular piece of technology is quite within the capacity of Apple to create for the use of this particular purpose and none other.

Oddly enough, when it does suit Apple's purpose, when something affects their bottom line, they can invent security reasons why it is required of them to develop a system whereby they are enabled to completely disengage a cellphone, making it entirely worthless. As when for example, an iPhone owner takes his own cellphone apart to make a slight adjustment, or when that owner takes the cellphone in for servicing somewhere other than an approved Apple dealer.

In those circumstances, bypassing an accredited, and more-expensive-to-pay-for, dealer who is authorized by the company for a technician to make adjustments to a device they have sold and is in the possession of an individual who believes that as the owner he has the right to do with his device what best suits his plans and his wallet, Apple has designed an operation to destroy the usefulness of the iPhone.
"We believe Apple may be intentionally forcing users to use their repair services, which cost much more than most third-party repair shops."
"There is incentive for Apple to keep end users from finding alternative methods to fix their products."
PCVA law firm, Seattle, Washington

"It is hard to see how something which ceases to work in this way could be said to be of reasonable quality, one of the determinants of which is durability."
"The law states: 'A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another, intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.'"
London-based barrister Richard Colbey:  Error 53 could be viewed as an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971

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Friday, February 19, 2016

Yearning For The Excitement of a New Life

"We think there's about ten to 12 Canadian women who have gone to [ISIL-controlled territory in] Syria; of those, three have had children and two are currently pregnant."
"There's a kind of trauma that many of these parents live with; they feel that they missed some kind of key sign. A lot have been unable to go to work. At least one father has descended into alcoholism."
"It's not simply that their child has made a mistake [they now have grandchildren in a war zone where they may never emerge alive]."
"Because you have an 18-year-old, you don't associate [these new behaviours] with Syria, you just think you have an asshole kid. In hindsight everything starts to make sense." 
"[In Raqqa], you're not simply raising a child, you're raising the next generation of mujahedeen to protect the caliphate."
Amarnath Amarasingam, post-doctoral fellow, Dalhousie University
    This photo, which depicts Canadian Umm Haritha in Manbij, Syria, was uploaded to Twitter by fellow jihadi wife Umm Layth.
    This photo, which depicts Canadian Umm Haritha in Manbij, Syria, was uploaded to Twitter by fellow jihadi wife Umm Layth. (Umm Layth/Twitter)
"I still can't understand how your kid could do something like that, especially when you did your best like any parent to raise him."
RCAF Cpl. Wayne Driver

"The key factor underlying the decision to 'migrate' is that these are young women who are 'searching' for something."
"Women who migrate -- muhajirah -- are treated more deferentially, and even more so when they become mothers and/or widows of fighters."
Laura Huey, researcher, University of Western Ontario
RCAF Cpl. Wayne Drive was deeply involved in Canada's bombing mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. He was helping to train local Kurdish fighters in Western fighting strategies against ISIL. And while in the Middle East he was informed that his son Aaron had been arrested. His son had been attempting to travel to ISIL-controlled territory, attracted to jihad, anxious to become a part of that side of history. In view of his parents' and particularly his father's occupation as a military professional, fully engaged in aiding combatants to more effectively oppose the advance of the Islamic State, his father's amazement at the turn of events can be readily imagined.

And this is precisely the kind of situation and its impact on family that Mr. Amarasingam has identified in his research. His survey into the phenomenon of Islamist jihad has led him to turn to westerners who identify with jihad, those with no history, no tradition, no religious connection to Islam who have chosen nonetheless to identify with it and cast their future destiny in favour of Islam and its exhortation to jihad.Umm Haritha recently left Canada for Syria, where she shared this photo of herself and another jihadi wife walking in the city of Manbij, which is under the rule of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

  • Umm Haritha left Canada for Syria, where she shared this photo of herself and another jihadi wife walking in the city of Manbij, which is under the rule of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). (Umm Haritha/Tumblr) 
  • Leaving behind heartbroken and confused families who continue to search for the beloved child in the newly emerged self-imposed outcast that the adult version of the child they love has become. Mr. Amarasingam has spoken with recruits of the Islamic State through social media platforms, interviewing fighters at the Syrian border, and promising anonymity he has met with the families of Canadians who have a dreadful secret: children choosing to join the world's most execrable murderers.
  • So, the parents of children who have chosen to leave the comfort and security of the West in favour of the alluring excitement of an entirely new perspective on life, as foreign settlers in an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East where conflict rages and insecurity and violence is everywhere, also know that if and when their child becomes a parent, they will be grandparents to children never seen, but being trained themselves as future executioners.
  • As it was explained to Mr. Amarasingam when he asked why ISIL "introduced [children] to war and killing so young", the response from an ISIL fighter was that "Lions are obligated to teach their cubs hunting skills", a seriously glib answer that fails to address the love and care that are attendant normally on a child by concerned parents. 
Canadian women who have so seriously compromised their futures tend, according to Mr. Amarasingam's research, to be between the ages of 19 to 26, approaching Islam as converts with either Christian or secular backgrounds. Alternately they are women who were raised within lapsed Muslim families. He points out a profound difference between Europe and Canada that he has identified in his research. In Europe, radicalized Muslim families take an active role in preparing a child for jihad.

Whereas recruits coming from Canadian backgrounds have determined on their own where their future lies, keeping their thoughts and concerns from their families until the time is right to take the final step separating them from family and all that had been familiar up to that time. Their on-line searches, their new friends and withdrawal from family concerns, overlooked until that moment when the break has been made and families wonder what had gone wrong.

Scene from Manbij, Syria
Umm Haritha, a Canadian woman who married a jihadi fighting in Syria, posted this image of life in the ISIS-controlled city of Manbij to Twitter. (Umm Haritha/Twitter)

The women changed their names as soon as they left Canada and family behind, to live in Raqqa, the northern Syrian city that has become the ISIL capital. Their husbands have been well paid as ISIL fighters, and the families live in requisitioned houses or those which were abandoned by Syrians fleeing ISIL's regime in Raqqa, preferring to become refugees to living under the Sharia-regulating Islamic State.

The educated estimate is that up to 30,000 foreigners out of 86 countries have gone over to Iraq and Syria since the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant made its grand pronouncement of the establishment of its caliphate.

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