A new report by Amnesty International contends that Russia may have committed war crimes when it launched an airstrike on a market in Syria last week. According to the report, Russia may have killed as many as 200 civilians since it began using its air power to strike rebel forces in Syria last November. Amnesty International accuses Russia of using cluster munitions—bombs that carry dozens of bomblets—during its airstrikes. Amnesty avoids calling Russian attacks purposeful, suggesting that targets may have been based on faulty intelligence.
Russia responded, stating that the report was “groundless” and “full of lies,” and denies they have used cluster munitions in Syria. The Russian government also pointed out that US airstrikes have also resulted in civilian casualties, most notably in Afghanistan, where a US airstrike accidentally targeted a medical facility run by the non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders, killing at least 19 people.
Yet the legality of Russia’s actions in Syria are less than clear. The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpile of cluster bombs by countries that have ratified the convention. While 107 countries have ratified the agreement, countries that have the largest stockpile of such weapons—including Russia, China, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, India, and Brazil—have refused to do so and are thus not subject to the agreement’s provisions. Similarly, the Rome Statute and Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions prohibit the deliberate or indiscriminate targeting of civilians in war. But making the case that Russia deliberately targeted civilians—rather than aiming for a military target but accidentally striking civilians—is a difficult claim to substantiate, and one that Amnesty did not make in the report.
What do you think? Has Russia violated international humanitarian law during its airstrikes in Syria? Has the United States violated international humanitarian law in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan? And if so, what can be or should be done to prevent such violations by Russia or the United States in the future?
As the rhetoric surrounding the status of Syrian refugees in the United States and Europe continues to intensify, a handful of people are turning to music as a tool to attempt to bring a more civil tone to the discussions. At its final summit of the year, the European Union’s meeting of Heads of State reached agreement on efforts to increase border security, dedicating more than $300 million to expand funding for security at border crossings and establishing an EU “rapid-reaction force” to respond to refugee influxes. The government of Denmark came under sharp scrutiny last week for a proposal to seize assets of asylum-seekers in order to pay for their upkeep, a plan which critics decry as echoing Nazi seizure of the jewelry belonging to the Jewish victims of concentration camps. And the United States, Republican President candidate Donald Trump continues to promote his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States—a proposal which, according to a Fox News poll, receives support from a narrow majority of voters.
A music video released last week by a Syrian-American hip-hop artist in New York seeks to draw attention to the plight of refugees. The video by Akram Shibly covers Taylor Swift’s Wildest Dreams, reworking the lyrics and includes a call to action by viewers. Shibly’s goal is to get viewers to tweet @taylorswift13 using the hashtag #DearTaylor, hoping that Swift will use her celebrity status to change the discourse and welcome refugees to the United States.
What do you think? Would such a grassroots campaign to create a more welcoming environment for Syrian refugees in the United States be successful? Is Shibly correct to target a celebrity like Taylor Swift rather than politicians or elected officials? What conditions are necessary to ensure civil society can affect the political discourse around accepting refuges? Why?
Markets around the world are watching the United States Federal Reserve Bank and its anticipated move to increase interest rates in the United States this afternoon. The Fed is widely expected to increase interest rates by .25 points today. For seven years, interest rates in the United States have been kept near zero in an effort to stimulate the economy. While inflation remains well below the Fed’s two percent target and unemployment is falling, albeit slowly, markets are watching for the Fed’s statement to signal whether it will continue to increase rates in 2016.
The US Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee sets national monetary policy, largely by setting its benchmark interest rate on which many other interest rates in the country are based. But the interest rate has wide-ranging implications for the global economy. An increase in the Fed rate would likely result in an increase in the value of the US dollar relative to other global currencies, making US exports less competitive abroad. Because oil is priced in US dollars, an increase in the value of the dollar could make oil more expensive for other countries by increasing its price relative to local currency values. It would increase the cost of borrowing for both private individuals and countries.
What do you think? What are the likely impact of an increase in interest rates in the United States on the US economy and economies around the world? Should the Fed increase interest rates? Why?
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump sparked controversy this week when he argued that the United States should ban immigration by Muslims, calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Many key officials in the Republican Party—and in particular from most of Trump’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination—were quick to jump on his comments. But Trump’s supporters widely supported his position.
While Trump asserts that the ban is necessary to protect the United States from further terrorist attacks, many security officials warned that such a ban could play in to recruiting messages by the Islamic State and others, thus undermining US national security. A statement by the Pentagon Press Secretary, Peter Cook, observed that,
There are, as I said before, there are Muslims serving patriotically in the U.S. military today, as there are people of many faiths. I’m not aware of any particular new training as a result of this. We’ll check and see if there are Muslims specifically serving in those particular areas that you mentioned. But I would just make the larger point that — that we don’t have — the United States doesn’t have any issue, and certainly the Department of Defense, anything that creates tensions and creates the notion that the United States is at odds with the Muslim faith and Islam would be counterproductive to our efforts right now, and totally contrary to our values….We have troops serving that follow the Muslim faith. And, again, without wading into politics, anything that tries to bolster, if you will, the ISIL narrative that the United States is somehow at war with Islam is contrary to our values and contrary to our national security.
What do you think? Should the United States take steps to prevent Muslims from entering the United States, as Trump suggests? Or might such moves undermine US national security, as Cook argues?
David Bowdich, Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Los Angeles field branch, yesterday said that said that the FBI had classified the San Bernardino attack that resulted in at least 15 deaths and 21 injured on Wednesday as an act of domestic terrorism. The attack, which echoed that of the Paris attack last month, was carried out by Syed Rizwan Farook, a US citizen who was employed as an environmental engineer by the county of San Bernardino, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani citizen who secured permanent residency in the United States after marrying Farook. The two were killed in a shootout with police while in possession of thousands of rounds of ammunition and at least 12 explosive devices.
Authorities believe Farook and Malik may have become radicalized, though neither were on terrorist watch lists or under active surveillance. Investigators found that Malik had posted pro-Islamic State messages to her Facebook profile during the attack on the San Bernardino facility.
The attack highlights the challenge of addressing domestic radicalization. Many of the attackers in the Paris terror attack last month were Muslims who were citizens of Belgium and France, radicalized while living in Europe. A report by NATO following the January 2014 terror attacks in Paris highlighted many of the challenges, noting that
The radicalisation of certain individuals or groups in Western societies is a much more complex issue that requires urgent, in-depth analysis followed by adequate response. The Rapporteur argues that the complex nature of the terrorist threat requires the Euro-Atlantic community to revisit and adjust its strategies and instruments. In particular, improvements are urgently needed in the area of information exchange among law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Also, there is a need to supplement law enforcement methods with long-term strategies designed to tackle the spread of extremist ideologies. The Rapporteur underscores the importance of additional safeguards to ensure that anti-terrorist and de-radicalisation policies do not infringe on fundamental rights and liberties
What do you think? How should the United States and other Western countries address the threat posed by domestic terrorists? What steps, if any, might counter the threat? And what is the proper balance between the need to secure fundamental rights and individual liberties and detect and prevent future terror attacks?
Following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, the international media quickly speculated that Russia and Turkey were on a warpath. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called for an emergency meeting of the group, a move which Russia described as an escalation. The downing of the Russian jet marks the first direct engagement between NATO and Russian forces since the end of the Cold War.
The issue at the heart of the current crisis was the subject of intense dispute. The Russian government maintains that the Russian aircraft were striking Islamic State targets in northern Syria, when Turkish fighter jets engaged and shot down a Russian plane. Turkey maintains that Russia was striking Turkmen rebel forces, repeatedly crossing into Turkish airspace and ignoring multiple warnings to leave Turkish airspace before being fired on. Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan condemned the event, which he said was provoked by a Russian violation of Turkish airspace and an infringement of Turkish sovereignty. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov implied the act was premeditated, stating that the downing “looks very much like a planned provocation.” He ordered the deployment of Russian anti-aircraft batteries to Syria.
In addressing the situation, US President Barak Obama called on both Russia and Turkey to “take measures to avoid escalation.” But Russian intervention in Syria has complicated American and NATO allies efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria. American strategy has been to oppose both ISIS and the Syrian government, supporting rebel forces in the region and striking ISIS targets from the air. Russian intervention has centered on supporting the Syrian government. While the Russian government maintains that its intervention is focused on defeating ISIS, Russian airstrikes have been condemned by the West for primarily targeting anti-government forces.
What do you think? Are NATO and Russia on a path to war? How might the situation in Turkey (and relatedly in Syria) be resolved to prevent further escalation?
Jonathan Pollard was paroled yesterday, after serving more than 30 years of a life sentence in a federal prison. While serving as a US Navy analyst, Pollard apparently gave suitcases of classified information to Israel. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, Pollard’s actions “put at risk important US intelligence and foreign policy interests”
Pollard’s conviction had long been a sticking point in US-Israeli relations, with Israel regularly pushing for his release. But his release had been steadfastly opposed by intelligence and defense officials, citing the volume of information sold to Israel and concerns that releasing him would send the wrong message to others who may be inclined to engage in similar actions. Interestingly, less than a week after a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pollard was paroled. As a condition of his parole, Pollard is prohibited from leaving the United States for at least five years, preventing him from leaving the country for Israel, which granted him citizenship in 1995.
What do you think? Does Pollard’s release signal an improving relationship between the United States and Israel? Do you think Pollard should have been paroled? Why?
The international response to last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris continues to intensify. Investigations by French authorities have led to multiple arrests in Belgium and France, and an international warrant has been issued for the Belgian citizen believed to be the mastermind for the attack. French President François Hollande descried the attacks as “an act of war” and has intensified French airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
Within the United States, the response to the attack in France has been shaded by the ongoing Presidential primary process. Republican presidential candidates from Donald Trump to Bobby Jindall have called for a range of military actions, from increased airstrikes to deploying American ground forces. Democratic candidates have generally supported President Obama’s existing strategy of airstrikes to support anti-ISIS forces—most notably rebels in Syria and Kurds in Iraq—rather than deploying US soldiers directly on the ground.
But perhaps the sharpest difference has been on the response to Syrian refugees. Noting that one of the terrorists killed in the Paris attack carried a Syrian passport, Republican presidential candidates have called for responses to address immigration. Some have called for an outright ban on refugees from Syria, while others have called for a religious test, limiting immigration to “true Christians” only. Governors of more than fifteen states have said that they would not accept Syrian refugees—proclamations that may be more symbolic than effective. But according to German sources, the Syrian passport was likely a fake intended to paint the attackers as Syrian refugees and provoke precisely this response.
What do you think? Should the United States and other Western countries take steps to limit the ability of Syrian refugees to seek asylum abroad? Why? Does such a move strengthen ISIS’s narrative, as President Obama suggests? Why? And how do you think the United States should respond to the Paris terror attacks?
President Obama yesterday dealt a fatal blow to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, ending a seven-year review period with a decision hailed by climate activists as critical in global efforts to address climate change. Stating that “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” President Obama said that “approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.” The proposed project had been strongly backed by pro-industry Republicans and many Democrats in oil producing states like North Dakota. But environmentalists had sought to block the pipeline.
Rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have connected oil sand fields in Western Canada with refineries and ports in Texas and Louisiana. But the project became the focus of anti-climate change activists, who noted that the oil produced in Western Canada was among the most polluting in the world. For his part, President Obama’s rejection of the proposed pipeline was part of a broader effort to address global climate change, a key policy area for his final year in office. President Obama had previously announced new regulations to cut emissions from power plants across the country. And Bill McKibben, a noted American environmentalist, commented that the decision was a “turning point” in the fight against climate change and observed that “President Obama is the first world leader to reject a project because of its effect on the climate. That gives him new stature as an environmental leader, and it eloquently confirms the five years and millions of hours of work that people of every kind put into this fight.”
What do you think? Was President Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project the correct one? What are the environmental implications of this decision? What are the economic implications of the decision? Would you have arrived at the same decision? Why?