Saturday, February 28, 2015

Ebola is coming back in Sierra Leone as its Vice President quarantines himself. Yahoo/AFP

An Ebola prevention sign. Yahoo/AFP.

Sierra Leone is seeing a rise in Ebola cases as the Vice President of the country has quarantined himself. Yahoo/AFP. Vice President Sam Sumana has place himself under voluntary quarantine for 21 days after one of his bodyguards died of the disease. Sumana is not yet ill and is at low risk for becoming infected with the disease, so the quarantine is mostly symbolic. However, the increase of cases has the government of Sierra Leone very concerned, so much so that it has renewed travel restrictions. The government had lifted those restrictions in order to spur economic recovery. Restrictions were placed on how many people can travel in taxis and trucks and have also banned any maritime activities at night after several cases were linked to the practice. Unsafe burials of Ebola victims is another factor that is contributing to the rise in cases. The disease has largely been eliminated in neighboring Liberia but has not been controlled in Sierra Leone or Guinea, both of which have seen increases in the number of cases lately after having leveled off at the begging of the year. 

My Comment:
The idea that the Vice President of Sierra Leone is even at risk at this point is very disturbing. You would think if anyone would be able to take precautions against Ebola it would be the bodyguards of one of the most important people in the country. From the context it seems clear that this bodyguard was not infected during an unsafe burial but was exposed in some other way. With Ebola restrictions having been lifted (and now restored) it is very likely that he was exposed in a taxi or some other type of public transportation. It's possible that he was visiting an Ebola victim for personal or professional reasons, but either way it is strange that he would have that kind of contact while his job is to protect the Vice President. 

I thought that the lifting of restrictions in Sierra Leone was a bit premature, and I am glad that they are back in place. Sierra Leone appears to be getting 200 new cases a week, with Guinea getting only slightly fewer cases. In Liberia the numbers seem less clear, but with every source saying they are only getting a few cases per week. The disease is largely under control in Liberia but that is not the case for Sierra Leone and Guinea. Lifting these restrictions before the disease had died out is a major factor why things are going so much better in Liberia then it is in Sierra Leone. 

The really strange thing about this report is that new cases were linked to "maritime activities", whatever those are. The article didn't really define what that means and why it is more dangerous at night. It seems very unlike that new cases are coming from outside of the country, so my guess is that these are fishermen working in close quarters with each other. That could lead to new infections. How banning those ships from returning to the country at night stops Ebola is beyond me. 

As for the outbreak itself, someday it will be over. These new restrictions may finally bring the disease under control. On the other hand, people are still doing the things that spread Ebola, like the unsafe burial practices that have killed so many. The truth is that we dodged a bullet. Had Ebola spread to another major non-African country with poor sanitation practices and crowded conditions (like India for example) we could have had a massive outbreak. That never happened and it seems very unlikely to happen now. Some of that is due to our efforts to combat the disease. Most of it is pure luck. We can't afford to rely on luck when fighting deadly diseases like Ebola. Hopefully, the world has learned some lessons from the Ebola outbreak, when all is said and done. 

Russian critic of Putin, Boris Nemtsov, shot and killed near the Kremlin. Reuters.

Boris Nemtsov before he was killed. Reuters. 

A major Vladimir Putin critic and opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed within view of the Kremlin. Reuters. He was shot four times in the back while walking on a bridge. Nemtsov worried about being killed and was a major critic of Vladimir Putin's government. He was very critical of Russia's role in the Ukraine conflict and was one of the few Russians to speak out against the annexation of Crimea. He had lead protests against the governments and was due to lead one this Sunday. He also criticized spending and corruption during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. No one has taken credit for the murder but some are already pointing fingers at Vladimir Putin. Putin has a history of throwing his critics in jail and has been accused of killing them before. However, Putin condemned the shooting and promised a full investigation. 

My Comment:
Very interesting. I see the Western media is pushing the "Putin did it" angle already. It's a bit too soon to say that he did it for sure. What do I think? I think Putin would be a fool to make a martyr out of Nemtsov. Brutally murdering a political opponent on the steps of your seat of power does not play well anywhere. Vladimir Putin is many things but he is not a fool. He is certainly brutal enough to do such a thing, but I think he is smart enough to know it could backfire on him. 

And to be perfectly honest, why on earth would he kill this man for protesting? Putin is bulletproof. His people still love him, with an approval rating that Barack Obama could only dream off. Sure, they don't like the war in Ukraine but as long as the economy is at least afloat and the pensioners are getting their money, they will support Putin. Nemtsov was a prominent Putin critic, but I think the Western media are overselling his importance. To put it into perspective this is not the equivalent of Barack Obama ordering a hit on a prominent Republican, like John Boehner or Mitt Romney. It would be like Obama putting a hit out on Pat Buchanan or Ralph Nader. He wasn't a threat to Putin, unless there is part of this story we are missing. There was some mention of a report about Ukraine, but I doubt that report would have anything so damning that Nemtsov would be worth killing. 

So if Putin didn't do it (and I'm not ruling that out despite everything I said) who did? Good question. I am sure that Boris Nemtsov made plenty of enemies during his lifetime. Vladimir Putin is the one everyone is talking about because he happens to be the most powerful. But I doubt that he is the only one capable of pulling off a hit. And this did look like a hit, or at the very least, a targeted assassination. He was shot four times in the back in a "drive bye" shooting right next to the Kremlin. That tells me that this was not some random crime. There will probably be some conspiracy people saying that Nemtsov was killed by the CIA or some other Western spy agency in an effort discredit Putin, but seems very far fetched and incredibly dangerous. The CIA is certainly capable of such a feat but the risks of doing so would be horrifying even if they pulled it off. Plus there wouldn't gain much from doing so. 

It is also possible that this has nothing to do with politics whatsoever and was instead a crime that had something to do with Nemtsov's personal life. As a semi-famous person he could have had an obsessed fan or stalker. He might have made someone involved with organized crime angry. Or he could have been having an affair (he was with a woman when he was shot). Finally it could be the actions of a foreign terrorist organization. With so many options it is probably a bit premature to blame Putin. But whoever did it, I doubt the truth will come out... 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Obama administration looks to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to America. Yahoo/AP

Syrian refugees in Jordan. Yahoo/AP

Security concerns are being raised by Barack Obama's plan to bring thousands of Syrian refugees to the United States. Yahoo/AP. The plan would bring thousands of refugees to America, provide them with English classes, homes, and job training. Most of the refugees would be women and children. Critics say that there is no way to properly screen these people too root out potential terrorists. In a failed country like Syria the system for vetting these refugees have broken down. 3.8 million refugees have fled Syria since the start of the civil war with many settling in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Republicans in congress want to know how many refugees will be accepted and what is to be done to make sure that none of them are terrorists. Refugees have caused problems in America before, especially those from the Iraq war. 

My Comment:
There are other strong objections to this besides just the terrorism angle. Obviously the money spent on these refugees could be better spent on people that are already in the United States. Spending money to help people is fine, but our people should come first. There is also the fact that these people will compete with others to find work. Sure what happened in Syria was a tragedy but that doesn't outweigh the fact that these people will take jobs that others here desperately need. Those people won't be able to compete due to preferential treatment for refugees. I have seen this happen before with the Iraqi refugees from the last decade or so. 

The second factor is that I really don't see these people succeeding if they are given new places to live. Syria is well on its way to being a failed state, and if their best and brightest flee (and believe me, it will mostly be the upper and middle class that escape) then they won't be able to recover. It's bad for both the United States and Syria and it really doesn't benefit anyone other then the refugees. Syria will lose its best people but they won't be upper class or middle class when they get here. Most of them will be lower class, with only a few advancing over time. You will get a lot of doctors and engineers working menial jobs because they won't be up to American standards. The much better choice would be for these people to stay in Syria and fight, and preserve their social standing and help Syria rebuild after the war is over. Sure, many will die, but the rebuilding process will go much smoother, leading to less deaths over time. That argument isn't likely to convince many Syrians though...  

Of course with terrorism being the hot button issue, this refugee program would be a great way for a long term sleeper agent to enter the country. It would also create yet another community for radical Islam to draw western recruits from as these refugees grow. Since that problem is largely related to Sunni Arabs, I would be less hesitant to offer asylum to other groups, like Christians, Shia, Alwatie, Kurds and all the other various minorities in the region. Still, none of this seems like a good idea, from a purely practical standpoint. Besides, this isn't like Iraq where we started the war. We don't have an obligation to the people of Syria. 

Unfortunately these arguments will likely be trumped by altruism. It's hard to get too mad at people that genuinely want to help those that are unfortunate. But like all decisions, this one will have unintended consequences. If we must take in Syrian refugees, and I doubt I will be able to convince people that we don't have too, then we should take as many precautions against infiltrators as we can. Obama needs to explain clearly how the government is going to vet these people. He should also make a case for why we should help the Syrians before helping our own people.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Scott Walker leads in Iowa poll for Republican presidential candidates. Quinnipiac University.

Quinnipiac University

In a new poll released by Quinnipiac University, Scott Walker has a healthy lead among Republican candidates. 25% of likely Republican caucus goers polled picked Scott Walker as their first choice. Among Tea Party members that number jumped to 33%. Walker out ranked every other opponent by a wide Margin, with Rand Paul coming in at second place at 13% and Ben Carson and George Huckabee tied for third at 11%. 9% of those polled did not have a preferred candidate. Walker, along with Carson and Bobby Jindal, had very high approval scores as well. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, were not as lucky. They have very high numbers of negative ratings, with 26% of the polled saying they would "definitely not support" them. The economy, immigration and foreign policy were all ranked as important factors for choosing a candidate. However, even though Walker has a large lead, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee both won the Iowa poll and then went on to do nothing for the actual election.

My Comment:
It is way too early to be talking about the 2016 elections but what are you going to do? I'm wondering when the polling will begin for the Democratic side? As of right now the only person I hear making any waves are Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. The rest of the field is unclear to me. I won't be voting for those two under any circumstances, and with the lack of 3rd party candidates, I guess I have to look at the Republicans. Here's my thought on the ones in this poll:

Jeb Bush: PLEASE don't make me have to choose between another Bush and another Clinton. I'll probably pick Bush, but I will feel dirty either way. Jeb Bush is on my list of people I actively want out of the race. I've had enough of Bushes and Clintons. 

Ben Carson: I'm only vaguely aware of who he is. He seems OK but I need to know a lot more about him.

Chris Christie: Hate him. He's a RINO and his state has a terrible record for gun rights. If he is the candidate I'm voting third party. I'd take any of the other candidates on this list over him, even if they are caught in some crazy sex scandal. Put a gun to my head and I would probably vote for Clinton and Biden over him. At least they are honest about being liberals. 

Ted Cruz: Too controversial. I don't think he can win a general election, but I am pretty neutral to him in general. 

Mike Huckabee: He's been in the mix for so long and failed too many times for me to get excited about him. Another neutral. A better vice presidential candidate. 

Bobby Jindal: He's not bad. Don't know too much about his record, but I think he has at least a shot at winning. He did piss off Europe for some Muslim comments though. Not sure if that is a plus or a minus.

John Kasich: I have no idea who this is. At least I have heard of Ben Carson before this poll. I have never heard of John Kasich before. I had to google him just to figure out he is a Governor. That is not good news for him. I'll form an opinion on him if he actually makes some waves. 

Rand Paul: I lean libertarian so this is a pretty good candidate for me. He's not as crazy as his dad, but Ron Paul could be bad news for him. After all, during 2012, Ron Paul fans were the most annoying thing on the internet. He's the only one that I see even trying to reign in the NSA, but I worry about his foreign policy credentials. I think he is the only candidate that stands a chance at drawing in undecided and even a few disgruntled liberals. I also think he's got the best chance to win the election, even if I don't think he wins the candidacy. 

Rick Perry: He's got no credibility as a mainstream candidate. People are STILL making fun of his 2012 election campaign. To top it all off he is in some kind of criminal scandal. He got a bad rap in that scandal, but it still not good for his chances. 

Marco Rubio: Not really all that familiar with him. Kind of like a less famous Ted Cruz. Neutral.

Rick Santorum: He's too far to the right for me and has said that he does not like Libertarians. Not a fan.

Scott Walker: I voted for him three times already but I was never enthusiastic when I did it. He's my governor and I love how he helped protect and expand gun rights in this state, but other then that I don't really like him all that much. He is also a VERY good troll candidate because Democrats and liberals just HATE the guy. You would think that he is Satan himself if you listen to Democrats. Though 4 years of him causing every liberal in America to whine might be fun, I'd prefer someone who was more electable. He would do great if only Republicans could vote but he doesn't have that mass appeal. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

100 Christians abducted by ISIS in Syria. Yahoo/AP

ISIS fighters in Mosul, Iraq. Yahoo/AP

ISIS has abducted at least 100 Christians in Syria. Yahoo/AP. They attacked a number of villages near the Khabur River, abducting mostly women and children while causing thousands of others fled. It is unclear what the fate of the captives is, but ISIS has a long history of attacking and killing Christians. Recently ISIS in Libya beheaded 21 Coptic Christians. It is possible that the new captives will be used as a bargaining chip for a potential prisoner swap with the Kurds in Syria. The new raids come on the heels of heavy fighting between ISIS and the Kurds in the area. American airstrikes have increased in the area as well.

My Comment:
Here is hoping that these hostages get released. The idea that they will be used as a bargaining chip isn't without merit, but that is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that the women are enslaved and the men executed. In theory, ISIS allows Christians to live without being killed if they pay a tax, but in practice they do no such thing. Though the treatment of Christians hasn't been quite as bad as the treatment of the Yezidi, who ISIS treats as devil worshipers, they are still killed and enslaved. It is very possible that the men captured in this raid will be executed like the 21 Coptic Christians that were executed in Libya. 

It is good that these stories are getting some coverage. The persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and across the world, is one of the most criminally under-reported stories in the 21st century. ISIS is by no means the only group to be attacking Christians, but they are much worse then most of the other groups. The only rival that comes close is Boko Haram, which has its own genocidal campaign against Christians in Nigeria. Both groups have a very similar ideology so it is not surprising. 

It seems as though there is a very good chance of there being very few Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, and indeed the entire Middle East after this whole thing is over. Not only are ISIS and other groups killing a large number of Christians (and everyone else for that matter), they are causing tens of thousands to flee. These Christians have spread out across the globe including Europe and America. This will be destructive to their culture, as they will be assimilated to their new cultures. 

Finally, the genocide against Christians, Yezidi, Druze, and Shia Muslims, is one of the largest crimes that ISIS is guilty of. They need to be held accountable for their crimes.   

Monday, February 23, 2015

Egyptians are fleeing the violence in Libya. Yahoo/AFP

Egyptians waiting in line at a border station. Yahoo/AFP

Almost 15,000 Egyptians are fleeing the violence in Libya after ISIS executed 21 Coptic Christians. Yahoo/AFP. Cairo has ordered the roughly 150,000 Egyptians in Libya to come home.  Egypt has chartered flights to help with the evacuation. More Egyptians are on their way out. The thousands of Egyptians worked mostly in the oil industry. This is not the first time Egyptians have fled from Libya. When the 2011 revolution happened thousands fled the violence. Though the situation in Libya has deteriorated, the execution of the 21 Coptic Christians was the final straw. Egypt sent in airstrikes as retaliation for the beheadings. 

My Comment:
The situation in Libya is rapidly turning into a madhouse. The situation was bad before with the government fighting Islamic militants and dozens of other factions, but with ISIS on the scene now the situation is much, much worse. It is not surprising at all that these Egyptians are fleeing. Who would want to stay in a country where ISIS is active and killing people? Especially if it is a country where everyone else is fighting anyways. I'm somewhat surprised that so many are still staying. 

This is bad news for Libya. They need these workers to get their economy going again. Libya is fairly dependent on foreign oil workers. They don't have the people necessary to run their oil industry without outside help. Why a country would want to import thousands of people to work instead of training workers that live there is beyond me, but given how Libya was controlled by a power mad dictator a few years ago and been in utter chaos sense I guess it makes sense. It's too late at this point, so losing even some of these workers is going to hurt and hurt badly.

When these Egyptians come home, they will come home to a country that has its own ISIS insurgency. Though the insurgency is largely limited to the Sinai Peninsula, the security situation is getting worse. Much like Iraq, Syria and Libya, when a secular, but brutal, regime is overthrown, something worse rushes in to fill the vacuum. The Arab Spring, which was hailed as the Muslim world finally joining modernity when it happened, is largely responsible for the rise of ISIS. Time will tell if these revolutions were worth it in the end... 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Somali Terrorist group threatens attacks on U.S. and Canadian malls, including the Mall of America. CNN

A screencap from the Youtube video threatening attacks. Youtube

Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security Secretary advises "caution" after a threat from Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab. CNN. Invoking the specter of the 2013 Westgate mall attack in Kenya, the terrorist group specifically named the Mall of America as a possible target, along with malls in the U.K. and Canada. The threat is considered serious because Al-Shabaab has been trying to recruit in the Minneapolis area because of its large Somali population, which is the largest in the United States. However, Al-Shabaab has never hit a target outside of East Africa. Jeh Johnson used the occasion to point out that the Department of Homeland Security is about to run out of funding due to disagreements between congress and the White House. 

My Comment:
Not sure how real of a threat this is. On the one hand it seemed that Jeh Johnson was pushing an agenda hard. He wants his funding and a terror threat is a good way to get it. The dust up over immigration isn't worth a terror attack. That's the argument at least. I'd put my blame on the president if something happened, but is the threat real? It's possible. Al-Shabaab has been very active in the Minneapolis area. From what I understand though, that activity is recruitment, not terrorism. They want fighters to attack their enemies in Somalia, not the United States.

That's the theory. In practice they do have a reason to want to attack the United States, other then the tired old terrorist justifications. They have a personal motive to attack America. Revenge. We killed their leader, Ahmed Abdi Godane, back in 2014 in retaliation for the Westgate Mall attack. So they have every reason to attack. The question is do they have the ability? That's a question I don't know the answer to. At the very least it is a very strong possibility. It is also a very strong possibility that the Department of Homeland Security is deliberately overplaying the threat in order to get funding. The Obama White House never lets a crisis go to waste, and if they can figure out a way to push through a budget despite the objections to it, they will. In short, though the video is probably genuine and there is a real possibility of an attack, you should realize that the Department of Homeland Security has a huge agenda here. 

So should you stay home instead of going to the mall today? If your mall is the Mall of America, or any other listed in the video, I'd consider it. I doubt an attack would happen that fast though. My advice is to avoid the mall if you can but if you have to go, pay attention to your surroundings. You should do that at all times anyways, but it pays to remind people. From what I understand the Mall of America has its own police force, but I still wouldn't want to risk it if I had any other choice. Of course I haven't been to a shopping mall in close to a decade so maybe my priorities are different. If it was a terror threat to a place I actually go, then I might be saying something different. 

Still, I am guessing this is just a lot of sound and fury amounting to nothing. I seriously doubt there are all that many "lone wolf" Somali gunmen running around that will attack just because of this video. I'm not ruling it out, but I am guessing that this is one of these stories that will lead nowhere. Hope I don't have to eat my words. 

Turkish troops enter Syria to rescue forces stationed there. Yahoo/AFP.

Turkish troops driving through Kobani while on a mission. Yahoo/AFP.

Turkish troops mounted a rescue operation in Syria with 600 troops to relieve soldiers stationed at a Turkish enclave. Yahoo/AFP. The 40 Turkish troops were guards assigned to the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, which was the predecessor of the current state of Turkey. The special forces assigned to the tomb were in a standoff with ISIS. The relief column consisted of 39 tanks, 57 APC's and 100 other vehicles. The remains of Suleyman Shah were removed from the tomb and will be reburied in a different part of Syria. Turkey has taken a new piece of land from Syria to house the new tomb near Eshme. No fighting was reported during the operation but one soldier did die due to an accident. 

My Comment:
I'm not surprised at this action. Suleyman Shah is an important figure in Turkish history. Given how ISIS tends to treat historical tombs this was inevitable. Indeed, ISIS considers all tombs to be blasphemous. They usually destroy any tombs that they find, with no regard of the historical or spiritual importance. Since the Turks have already moved the tomb once, it isn't surprising that it would be moved again. 

What is surprising is that the mission went off without a hitch. ISIS must have bugged out when they saw a huge armored column heading their way. Given how strong that column was it was probably wise for ISIS to remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Picking a fight with a huge military column usually isn't worth it, especially if all you really want to do is defile a tomb. It wasn't worth going to war with Turkey over it. 

As for Turkey itself, I've been critical of them for a long time. They should be doing more to fight ISIS and as of right now they are doing little to nothing. Turkey is the main corridor for foreign fighters entering Syria and Iraq. They have been letting ISIS get away with that because they hate the government of Syria and want to bring it down. They also don't particularly like the Kurds and have only helped them fight ISIS when they absolutely had to in Kobani. In short, Turkey has adapted a "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" policy for ISIS. As long as ISIS is focused on killing Kurds and Syrian government forces, Turkey will do very little to fight them. 

That could have changed if this tomb had been defiled. There would have been widespread protests and calls to attack ISIS. That would not play into Turkey's hands. They want Assad and the Kurds to burn. Fighting against ISIS plays against that goal. They have resisted pressure to fight from NATO and the Arab states, but if this tomb had been destroyed and Suleyman Shah's remains been lost then they would have had to do something. Now they can keep on doing on nothing.

And as always, given that my ethnicity is partially Greek, I have more then a little prejudice against Turkey. The reasons for that should be obvious but I believe in pointing out bias when it exists... 

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Are rebels planning an attack on Mariupol? Ukraine thinks so. Yahoo/Reuters.

Destroyed cars in Mariupol. Yahoo/Reuters.

Ukraine is accusing pro-Russian rebels of gathering forces on the port city of Mariupol. Yahoo/Reuters. Ukraine has also accused Russia of sending reinforcements consisting of troops and armor to the region. Any attack on the city of Mariupol, a key port city on the Sea of Azov, would end the cease fire. Ukraine is also claiming that the rebels are sending out scouts and sappers to conduct intelligence and sabotage in the area. Reuters reporters on the ground with the rebels did not report any new tanks but did report men wearing what looked like Russian special forces uniforms. Those rebels denied any build up in the area. The United States has also claimed to have seen new reinforcements in the area. The tension comes on the one year anniversary of the overthrow of the old government led by pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

My Comment:
As always take whatever the Ukrainian government says with a huge grain of salt. I'm not saying it is impossible that the rebels are building forces, but don't just take their word for it. The United States has a bit more credibility, but the reporters on the ground didn't see much. My guess is that the rebels really do want to take Mariupol. It is a hugely important trade hub and has symbolic value as well. I just don't think they are going to be the ones to break the cease fire. At least not yet. 

The rebels still need to consolidate their victories in the north. Debaltseve just fell and they need to secure the area. Though they are in better shape then the Ukrainian forces, they too need time to rest, rearm and repair. They also have the luxury of waiting. Every day that the Ukrainian rebellion continues, even with a cease fire, it is costing the government millions of dollars. They are also having huge recruitment problems, I read an unverified report that they are even trying to call up Ukrainian citizens that were adopted by foreigners and now live in other countries. I don't know if that is even true, but what is known for sure is that they are running out of manpower. And even if they did have the bodies they don't have the money to pay them. 

I think that Ukraine will end up losing Mariupol in the end. I don't think it will happen for awhile, the cease fire will hold for a little while yet. But I just don't see them being able to defend it. The rebels have Mariupol as a major goal and won't stop fighting until they get it. They also have been better supplied then Ukraine has and are getting support from Russian "volunteers" as well. The best thing Ukraine could do is make some kind of agreement with the rebels. Losing Debaltseve basically cost them the war. It's time for them to stop throwing good money after bad. If they are able to they might be able to keep Mariupol. If they don't they will lose it and perhaps everything else.  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The plan to take Mosul back from ISIS. BBC.

Iraqi security forces. BBC/AFP.

A joint strike force of Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish fighters 25,000 troops strong, is gathering to attack Mosul from ISIS. BBC. Mosul, Iraq's second largest city home to more then a million people, fell to ISIS last June. An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 ISIS fighters currently hold the city. It is unknown if U.S. troops will be involved in the offensive to provide forward air control for any airstrikes, but it is known that all of the fighters will be trained by the U.S. military. The exact timeline of the attack is unknown but it would have to be by May, before the heat of the summer bogs things down. Announcing a major offensive is very unusual but officials defended the move because ISIS has been in retreat in both Iraq and Syria. 

My Comment:
Very unusual indeed. I don't like the fact that the governments of Iraq and the United States have announced this offensive. It will give ISIS a chance to dig in and plan for their defense. If you look at the numbers it would seem that ISIS is at a huge disadvantage. If they really only do have 1,000 fighters in Mosul that might have some truth to that. I suspect that the numbers are greater though. They will get help from local Sunni tribesman, old school Baathist fighters and other affiliated groups. And since the attack has been broadcast throughout the world, I fully expect that Mosul will be reinforced. 

It is important to note that this could be misinformation or propaganda. Using the media to create a false impression of what you are going to try to do is a classic tactic. If the enemy thinks that there is going to be a major attack on Mosul they will move their troops around, possibly leaving open other avenues for an attack. Though it is possible, I doubt that this is the case. Iraq has been fairly incompetent in fighting against ISIS and I don't think they are capable of this much deception. 

As a matter of fact I don't think Iraq is capable of fighting this battle. My prediction for this battle is that the Iraqi forces will melt away due to poor leadership and low motivation. That will leave the Kurds to fight mostly alone. That's assuming that Iraq even has troops to spare. I posted awhile ago that the Iraq army only has 48,000 troops total, not counting police and special forces. I don't see them mustering up the troops to fight this battle. Sure the Kurds have a large army, but they can't do this alone. 

Still, there is a chance that this attack could succeed. ISIS has been defeated in both Iraq and Syria lately. The battle for Kobane sticks out as a huge defeat for ISIS and the Kurds have taken back many villages in Iraq. Plus they will have U.S. and other coalition airstrikes as help as well. And it is very possible that the Shia militias, that are largely responsible for Iraq's defense will participate as well. These militias are much better fighters then the Iraqi government troops, but there is a problem with these troops. Namely, these Shia fighters have a history of committing atrocities against Sunni populations. Mosul is almost all Sunni. Expect a bloodbath if these Shia militias take the city... 

They are still having problems with common sense in Guinea and Sierra Leone over Ebola. Yahoo/AFP

A safe burial in Sierra Leone. Yahoo/AFP.

There are still dozens of unsafe burials in Sierra Leone and Guinea for Ebola victims, despite efforts to combat the practice and the obvious risk. Yahoo/AFP. In Guinea 39 unsafe burials occurred last week with 45 recorded in Sierra Leone. Though new cases dropped slightly, with 52 new cases in Guinea and 74 in Sierra Leone, concerns are being raised about both the burials and the fact that some people are still not seeking treatment. 40 of the new cases in each country were only discovered after the victims were already dead. Not only could some of these deaths been prevented, these undiscovered cases put whole communities at risk. In Liberia, there were only two new cases, but a marked increase in security incidents due to rumors that vaccines were causing Ebola. 

My Comment:
This outbreak should be over by now. And if people were sane, it would be. The fact that they are still having unsafe burials 14 months into this outbreak is beyond belief. At this point, we are very aware of how and why this virus spreads, and unsafe burial practices are a huge cause of the disease. But either people don't know that is how it spreads, don't care about the risks, or, most disturbingly, don't believe that that is how the virus spreads. Education can fix the first problem but I have no idea how to fix the second and third ones. Some people just don't want to be helped. 

That's not even the end of it. From what I understand the "security incidents" in Liberia are probably attacks on health workers because they were giving out vaccines. Vaccines do not cause Ebola. How anyone got that idea is beyond me. Conspiracy nuts will believe anything, and yes they have those in Africa. Some people there think that Ebola is some kind of engineered virus designed to wipe out black people. If that had any truth it is doing a pretty terrible job! Of course there are going to be hucksters and other medical quacks that will push these rumors so desperate people try their "cures" that will do nothing but allow the disease to spread. 

As for the outbreak itself, will it end anytime soon? I think Liberia is very close to wiping out Ebola in its borders. With only two more cases last week I expect Liberia to be Ebola free in a month or two. That's great news, even if there are idiots in that country doing everything they can to make that not happen. As for Guinea and Sierra Leone, the outlook is not nearly as good. If people are still doing stupid stuff like not going to the doctor and burying their dead the right way then the disease will stick around for months, maybe even years. If they wise up, or all the stupid people die, then it could be gone in a couple of months too. 

Of course given how widespread the disease has been in the past year or so in West Africa, it is possible that Ebola has made its way back into nature. I've heard that Ebola has had a devastating impact on chimpanzees and gorillas, but the virus may have found other animals to infect that might not die as fast as humans and the great apes do. The natural hosts are thought to be bats but because of this outbreaks other species could act as hosts as well. Plus, new populations of bats may now be infected as well. With the virus still around in various animals all it would take is for one hunter to shoot an infected animal and then have contact with the blood. Then the outbreak starts up all again. Given how poorly the world handled the current outbreak, I'm not to optimistic that the next one will go any better then this one... 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Debaltseve falls to rebels. Ukraine forces pull out of the city, some are captured. Yahoo/AP

Ukraine troops retreat from Debaltseve. Yahoo/AP.

Ukraine has pulled out of the strategic town of Debaltseve after bitter fighting. Yahoo/AP. Ukraine pulled troops as the rebels raised their flag over the town. Ukranian troops talked to reporters from the Associated Press and told them that they had taken heavy casualties due to shelling and were unable to resupply. Ukraine was able to take out 167 wounded soldiers but have to leave behind some of their dead. President Petro Poroshenko said that 80% of troops in the Debaltseve pocket have retreated with only two columns left. Far right nationalists blasted the retreat claiming that the problem was with how the battle was being fought, not a lack of supplies or men. Ukrainian soldiers on the ground, and the rebels they were fighting, both disagreed with that statement. With the battle of Debaltseve largely over, rebels are begging the process of pulling back heavy weapons from the front lines. 

My Comment:
This is a massive defeat for Ukraine. Not only did they lose a critical railway hub and a major connection between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, they lost troops, equipment and morale. I don't believe Poroshenko for a minute when he says this was an orderly withdrawal. This was a full on retreat to prevent a collapse. Having people walk out and leaving the dead behind does not say orderly withdrawal to me. This was inevitable though, the Debaltseve pocket was too deep of a salient for the Ukrainians to effectively defend. Even if the rebels weren't quite able to surround the Ukrainians completely they were able to close the escape off enough that Ukraine had to break out as soon as possible. 

That they were able to do so at all is a small miracle. Especially considering how under-equipped and under-supported the troops in Debaltseve were. From what the report said it seems as though morale has collapsed for these troops. They were left in Debaltseve without supplies and reinforcements, and when the time came they had to breakout on their own, sometimes on foot. They had to carry out their wounded and leave behind their dead. Their comrades have been captured. And they have to be wondering to themselves, "what was the point?" Frankly, they should be happy they made it out at all. With yet another major defeat the Ukrainian forces must be devastated right now. The can't trust their government to come through when they need them. 

Ukraine desperately needs this cease fire to work out now. They need time to rebuild their forces and get some morale back. It might be to late for that though. Like I have said in other posts Ukraine is having major economic problems and they are also having a hell of a time recruiting new soldiers. In short, this war can not go any longer. Period. They need to find a way out and fast, preferably with the city of Mariupol still under their control. The rebels are fine with playing the waiting game, and now they have almost everything they want. I don't think this cease fire will hold, but Ukraine must be trying to find away out of this situation.  

As for what happens next, I see the cease fire falling apart. It might be days or weeks or even months but it will happen eventually. If it does then the city of Mariupol will be the next target. And unless Ukraine is able to rest and recuperate its army I am putting my money on the rebels to win there too. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Major Syrian Army offensive in Aleppo. Rebels are in danger of being cut off completely. Yahoo/Reuters

Children walking in Aleppo. Yahoo/Reuters.

The Syrian Army has taken several surrounding villages near the rebel stronghold of Aleppo, cutting of the main supply route for the city. Yahoo/Reuters. Syrian troops have blocked the supply route leading to Turkey. Attempts by the UN to broker a cease fire have failed. Syrian loyalists have taken the villages of Bashkuwi and Sifat as well. Opposed to the Syrian Army are a disparate group of rebels, both of the secular and extremist type. Along with less extreme Islamic militias, Al-Qaeda's Al-Nusra Front are active in the fight, with western back rebels teaming up with the extremists. Syrian airstrikes have pounded the city of Aleppo while fresh troops from Hezbollah, the Iranian backed Shia terrorist group have poured into the area. With the new troops from Hezbollah, Syria hopes to have Aleppo completely surrounded by the end of the week. 

My Comment:
If this offensive succeeds, expect this to be a huge victory for Bashar Al-Assad and his government. Aleppo has been a thorn in the side of Assad and a meat grinder for all involved. Surrounding the city and cutting off its supplies will result in siege warfare, which favors Assad. All he will have to do is starve the city out and force a surrender. That is great news for the Syrian government and terrible news for the rebels. But since most of them are Islamic fundamentalists like the Al-Nusra Front, I am not going to be shedding any tears for them. There aren't many secular rebels left and the ones that are there have thrown in their lot with the Islamic ones. Of course there are still civilians left in Aleppo, so any siege will have a terrible effect on them. But at this point that is par for the course.  

Should this end up as a victory for Assad I see it as a good thing for the fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Not only will the Al-Nusra front lose a major battle, Assad will be able to move his forces around to fight ISIS and the mini-state Al-Nusra has set up in Syria. He will also fight the more secular rebels but at this point there aren't all that many of those left. It won't be a major difference, but at this point any little bit helps. Both groups are a huge threat to the region, and indeed the world, and the more resources devoted against them the better, even if those resources come from a man as evil as Assad.  

In a perfect world Assad and the secular rebels would stop fighting each other and start fighting ISIS and the Al-Nusra front. But so much blood has been spilled I don't see that happening anytime soon. Indeed, I think the only way the war between the rebels and the Syrian government is for one or the other to be wiped out... or for both to be wiped out by the Islamist groups. The best solution, the secular rebels winning, is pretty much impossible at this point. The second best option, Assad winning, seems likely, but the third, and worst, option, is still a possibility. My prediction is for Assad to win in Aleppo, but it is going to be a long and bloody battle. The secular rebels will be wiped out. All the while, ISIS and the Al-Nusra front will be strengthening their grip on the territory they hold... 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Iran backed Shia milita units now outnumber regular army troops in Iraq. Washington Post

Iran backed militants. Washington Post/European Pressphoto Agency.

Iranian backed Shia militias now outnumber regular Iraqi army units in the fight against ISIS. Washington Post. The militias count 100,000 to 120,000 men while the demoralized and depleted Iraqi Army only counts 48,000 troops. Such a huge number of religiously motivated troops threatens reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shias. There is also major concern that Iraq will fall completely into Iran's sphere of influence. Many of these militia groups are openly affiliated with Iran. This has also put the Untied States in the unenviable position of having to support troops affiliated with their enemy. Many militia groups and fighters were directly involved in fighting the United States during the 2nd Iraq War. Though ISIS has committed more then their fair share of atrocities, the militias have committed quite a few of their own. 

My Comment:
The most interesting thing about this report is the numbers of Iraqi troops left. The battle in Mosul completely destroyed the Iraqi Army as an effective fighting force. With only 48,000 regular troops left, along with 36,000 federal cops and a handful of special forces and border units, the Iraq Army has lost thousands of troops. Some were killed but most of them either deserted or, even worse, joined with the enemy. Without these Shia militias, and the Kurds in the north, Iraq would have fallen to ISIS a long time ago. 

This is, as the article pointed out, very bad news. Iraq is dependent on people who have loyalties to other governments for their defense. That is never a situation that ends well for anyone. If and when ISIS is defeated, Iraq will have no way to get rid of these Shia militants, and won't be able to take care of the Kurds in the North as well.

The thing that most Americans don't realize about the Iraq war is how sectarian it is. It isn't ISIS versus Iraq, it is Sunni vs Shia, or rather Sunni versus everything else. Many Sunni people don't like ISIS and are rightly terrified of them, but are even more afraid of Iran and Shia Islam. With the militia's policy of not taking prisoners and burning down villages, it isn't too surprising that Sunni Muslims don't trust the intentions of the Iraqi government. Of course ISIS never would have had as much success in Iraq in the first place if the government of Nouri al-Maliki wasn't so anti-Sunni. In short, this situation was inevitable. With no unity government and Sunnis getting kicked out of power, if it hadn't been ISIS some other Sunni group would have risen up against the Shia led government. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

ISIS executes 21 Christians in Libya. Yahoo/AP

A still image from the execution video. Yahoo/AP.

ISIS has released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya. Yahoo/AP. The hostages were all laborers from the city of Sitre. In the video the militants claimed that they would conquer Rome. Indeed, their new enclave in Libya is less then 500 miles from the southern part of Italy. Many Egyptians have traveled to Libya for work in wake of the fall of the old government. Egypt has banned travel to Libya but many workers feel the risks are worth it. Coptic Christians have especially been at risk from attacks by militants, including ISIS. Egypt condemned the attacks and has reserved the right to retaliate. 

My Comment:
It is very disturbing that ISIS has managed to get a toehold in Libya. As I have said before this seems to be the inevitable consequence of overthrowing a dictator in the Middle East. Something always fills the void when a hugely powerful man is taken down, and in this case it was radical Islam. ISIS isn't even the only Islamist group active in Libya, but they are by far the most brutal. With ISIS spreading outside the countries of Syria and Iraq, it is worrying to wonder where they will turn up next. Any country that doesn't have a strong government or complete control of their country in the Middle East is vulnerable. 

The even more worrying part of this attack is that all the victims were Coptic Christians. The persecution of Christians in the 21st century is quite possibly the most unreported story of the decade. ISIS has been killing Christians back when they were still called Al-Qaeda in Iraq. All across the Muslim world Christians are getting killed in large numbers. And, for the most part, it isn't part of the public consciousness. Even in Iraq, nobody cared that ISIS was killing people until those people included the more mysterious Yazidi religion.

So why is the persecution of Christians so ignored in western media? It doesn't fit the narrative. According to the press, Christians are always the persecutors and can never be the victim of prejudice or persecution. Even if, somehow, Christians do get attacked it is never because of who they are. Plus, in order condemn these attacks you actually have to criticize the radical Islamists who are doing these attacks. That rarely happens in western media. Even though Christians are the majority in Europe and the United States that is not the case in the Middle East, but to act as if they aren't just isn't possible for the media. 

Ukraine cease fire is holding except in the critical Debaltseve pocket. CBS/AP

A U.S. State Department intelligence photo claiming to show Russian rocket launchers and artillery near Debaltseve. CBS News.

The cease fire in Ukraine seems to holding except in the critical region of Debaltseve where thousands of Ukrainian troops are trapped. CBS/AP. After fierce fighting leading up to the cease fire, calm has come back to most of Ukraine, except for the critical rail junction of Debaltseve. Rebels claim that the troops in the pocket are completely surrounded while Ukraine claims that one highway remains open. The rebels are claiming that since the troops in the Debaltseve are completely surrounded, attacking them does not violate the cease fire agreement since that area is no longer the line of confrontation. Meanwhile the United States claims to have credible evidence that Russia was supplying artillery and rockets for the battle of Debatlseve and published photographs as evidence. As part of the agreement both sides have agreed to pull back heavy weapons from the front and Ukraine has agreed to start paying pensions for civilians living in the Donbass region.

My Comment:
This cease fire is doomed. There is almost no chance of it succeeding long term at this point. With so many troops trapped behind enemy lines Ukraine has only two options at this point. Surrender or stage a breakout. Any breakout will end the ceasefire. And Ukraine can afford to lose the roughly 8000 troops stationed in the Debaltseve pocket. Though Ukraine claims to hold the highway out of the region I would not take their word on it. I also don't think that rebel control of the exit is as strong as it could be.

It really is the perfect situation for the rebels. They are getting a chance to rest and rearm in the other theaters of this war, such as near Mariupol where they had some setbacks recently. And they also have a decent chance of blaming Ukraine for breaking the cease fire when Ukraine tries to either break out of the Debaltseve pocket, or break back in. They have nothing to lose except for those pension payment for the Ukrainians still in Donbass... which the Ukrainian government can't afford to pay anyways. It's win win all around for the rebels. 

A few things are very clear to me now about this conflict. Ukraine can't win it. Not militarily and not diplomatically. The rest of the world isn't going to go to war with Russia to save Ukraine's claim on the Donbass region. Their economy is in shambles and their military is in a desperate situation. The people are sick of war and are terrified of losing there sons and even daughters in a conflict that they no longer want. Moreover their enemies, the rebels, know that they are winning and have the backing of a much more powerful government who is willing to send troops to die for their cause. This cease fire is doomed and so is any chance of Ukraine winning the war. 

The question now becomes what happens when the rebels win? Will they become independent or will they be annexed by Russia, or will they just be an semi-independent region of Ukraine? Either way, I wonder if it was worth it for them. They will get their independence in some form or another but at a huge cost in lives and money.  

The attacker in the Copenhagen attack is dead, has links to Islamic terrorism. Yahoo/AP

A possible photo of the suspect from a security camera. Yahoo/AP.

Police in Denmark have shot and killed the attacker who committed two shooting attacks in Copenhagen. Yahoo/AP. The attacks killed two civilians and wounded five cops and occurred at a free speech event and a synagogue. Danish officials believe that radical Islam was the motivation of the attack and that the main target was Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who drew Mohammad as a dog. Though Vilks was unhurt another civilian was killed. Later, the suspect killed a Jewish security guard who was assigned to the synagogue. The suspect, who's name and nationality have not been released at this time, was "on the radar" for Danish intelligence officials and may have been inspired by the Charlie Hebdo attacks that killed 17 in France last month or the propaganda from ISIS calling for lone wolf attacks. It is unclear if the suspect had any further links to Islamic extremism. 

My Comment:
Not a whole lot to go on yet but at least this attack is over now. Danish police did a good job tracking this guy down before he could do anymore harm. Unlike the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they should not have to worry about further terror attacks and hostage situations. That being said this is a disturbing trend. This guy obviously was willing to die and he managed to take a couple of people with him. I'm guessing since he was armed with a fully automatic weapon that he had some outside help. Denmark has very strict gun laws so he must have either stolen the gun or bought it on the black market. Either of those things require connections. 

One wonders which group he was affiliated with. ISIS gets more attention but almost all of their efforts have been in the Middle East and North Africa. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was involved in the Charlie Hebdo attacks and are more focused on international attacks so I think they are the more likely suspect. It could be some other group or just a lone wolf attack merely inspired by ISIS or Al-Qaeda. I'd put my money on Al-Qaeda though. 

The next question is what country is next? Given the relative numbers of radicalized Muslims in Europe compared with America, I'm guessing the next attack will be in Europe as well. The terrorists have finally wised up and have found a more effective way to carry out attacks. Sending one guy out with a rifle is much easier then trying to coordinate a huge strike with dozens of people and its cheaper as well. And the payouts are about the same, with the added bonus of causing panic when a gunman is on the loose. This is a development that does not bode well for the continued security of Europe. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Shooting attack on free speech event and synagogue in Denmark. Yahoo/AP

An officer responds to the attack. Yahoo/AP

Two shootings target a free speech event and a synagogue in Copenhagen, Denmark leave 2 dead and 5 wounded. Yahoo/AP.  Police are not sure if the two events are related but are not ruling it out. The first attack targeted an event put on by Lars Vilks, a cartoonist who drew pictures of Mohamed back in 2007. A gunman opened up with a fully automatic weapon and killed a civilian while wounding 3 police officers. With Vilks in attendance, the obvious motive is Islamic terrorism. A second attack came around midnight where another attack at a synagogue killed a civilian and wounded two cops. Leaders across Europe condemned the attacks.   

My Comment:
As always with these kinds of attacks I think it is important to post the cartoon that these people think it is worth killing people over. 

Lars Vilks

The drawing itself is pretty terrible in terms of actual artistic value, but it's still probably better then anything I can do. That being said it absolutely deserves to exist. If some Swedish guy wants to draw a picture of Mohamed as a dog to raise awareness about how hard it is to criticize Muslims, then I say he should do so. Just because some overly sensitive people care more about their religion then the lives and rights of free people does not mean we should cave into them. If Islam truly wants to be accepted as a legitimate, peaceful religion then they need to do something about the iconoclasts in their faith that wish to censor all images and all criticism of their prophet. Sure, "not all Muslims support terrorism". Of course. But almost all of them think that depicting Mohamed, even for non-Muslims, is a terrible sin. That needs to change and change fast.

Also it is fairly disgusting at how many security measures are needed in Europe right now. In America it wouldn't be uncommon for a controversial political figure to have police protection. If threats are made then police can and should be there to help. But the fact that a synagogue had to have police on site just as guards is insane to me. Though the article didn't say that they were assigned there, I'm assuming they are given the fact that synagogues and Jews in general have been threatened. Although there is certainly antisemitism in the United States the idea that a place of worship would need permanent police protection is hard to comprehend. 

EDIT: Mere minutes after posting this I saw on twitter that police have shot and killed a man who shot at them in Denmark. Way too early to get any more detail then that. 

My review of The Interview.

It's been a long time since I posted a movie review on here, but I figured it was time. I finally saw The Interview. I had been wanting to see the film ever since the insane controversy erupted over its content. North Korea was understandably upset about it and they stand accused of sending hackers out to try and prevent its release. Though they succeed in preventing the film from being widely released in theaters it was put on other places. A few theaters played it and it showed up on Youtube and Amazon. I saw it on Netflix when I suddenly realized it was there. If I had know that I had been released to Netflix sooner I probably would have put this review out when it was more relevant, but alas, I did not.

Before I go any further expect SPOILERS AHEAD! I know some people would be upset if I didn't put that warning there...

So what is there to say about this film? I'll start with what I thought about the film on its own merits and not the controversy it made or any political impact it may have. When evaluating a comedy I always ask myself one thing. Did it make me laugh? The Interview has some decently funny moments. The beginning of the movie with Eminem coming out as gay was hilarious, and so was Rob Lowe's cameo. The story was fine as well, and the acting was decent enough. Randell Park, who played Kim Jong Un, knocked it out of the park and was the best part of the movie. He's got a future as an actor and I hope that the controversy surrounding the film does not hurt his career.

I do have some criticism of it though. Seth Rogen should have just named his character "Seth Rogen" or "Ben Stone" after his character in Knocked Up. He plays the same guy in every movie, and it is a little tiresome. I'm not saying he isn't funny, but he is predictable.  And though I don't have a problem with people making a comedy movie about such a serious issue, I do wish that they had made how horrible North Korea is more front and center. I know going too far would have sucked the fun out of the movie but I think they could have pushed the envelope a bit more then they did. They said quite a bit about how people were starving and that there were concentration camps but we never really saw any of it. In film, showing is better then telling and in this case they should have showed a bit more.

All an all it is a fair movie. When I rated it on Netflix, I gave it three stars. It was funny in parts and my worst criticism of it is that it didn't take as many chances it should have. Which is ironic considering how much criticism the movie took for taking a chance with the subject matter. It's not a good movie but it's not a bad one either. So ok it is average. Based on its own merits I'd recommend it for people who like Seth Rogen's style of gross out humor. I wouldn't recommend it for anyone else though, especially people that don't like scatological humor.

Does the film deserve to exist though? North Korea's position is abundantly clear. Given the fact that the film depicts Kim Jong Un as a somewhat pathetic man who ends up crapping his pants on television before dying horribly in an explosion, I understand why they didn't like it. But since North Korea is a brutal dictatorship and an enemy of pretty much everyone on Earth, I don't really care what their leadership thinks. They lost the right to be offended when they put thousands of people in concentration camps and let their people starve while living easy.

The film deserves to exist because world leaders are not exempt from criticism in the free world. This is not the first movie to depict the death of a living world leader. Back in 2006 there was a movie called the Death of a President, which depicted the death of the then current president of the United States, George W Bush. Though the movie was criticized for being in bad taste, nobody threatened to kill anyone for releasing it. Indeed, the film is almost completely unknown and I only heard about it when reading about The Interview. The new film, Kingsman: The Secret Service supposedly depicts the death of President Obama as well, and there aren't any calls for death over that movie.

In short, in a free country we don't care if a world leader is assassinated on screen. Part of that is that our governments aren't show fragile that mere satire and comedy can bring them down. Of course, the right of free speech always trumps the feelings of the overly sensitive and those who would censor reality. The fact that someone threatened violence and hacked computers, dealing millions of dollars worth of damage to Sony Pictures, justifies the existence of the film alone, regardless of its artistic merits. Though the movie was only ok in terms of quality, in terms of importance it is one of the most important films of the new tens just because it was released despite the threats against it.

As for the effect it might have in North Korea, I'm not sure it will have much of an impact. I know South Korean activists are trying to smuggle the film into North Korea but the truth is that few people in that country even have the ability to watch it. Control over computers, DVD players and VCR's are tight and viewing the movie could result in extreme punishment, up to and including death. The fact that someone could die or be sent to a concentration camp over a Seth Rogen movie is just sad.

Of course I'm not sure how much of the movie would translate to North Korea anyways. Eminem, Rob Lowe and all the other references to U.S. culture, like the constant Lord of the Rings references, will fly right over the heads of any North Korean viewers. They would get that the movie was trying to make fun of Kim Jong Un, but that might not have the effect you would expect. Indeed, they worship the Kim family like gods in North Korea. Instead of seeing the movie as a true depiction of Kim Jong Un, they may react the same way that many Muslims reacted to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. They are that brainwashed in North Korea that satire is equivalent to blasphemy. At best, if you showed many North Koreans the film, they would dismiss it as propaganda, despite the movie having some truth to it.

Of course the film could be used as a tool to those who are resisting the Kim regime. Though I have little hope of these people being able to overthrow the regime, at the very least they may use the film to try and show that Kim is human, not a god. And, for possibly the first time, the North Koreans that see the film could see what it is like to live in a place where you can criticize people. That alone means that the film is better then it should be. Even if you have no desire to see the movie, even if you hate Seth Rogen, even if you think gross out humor is terrible, you should realize that you are incredibly lucky to live in a world where The Interview exists. I just hope the controversy surrounding the movie doesn't scare people away from making similar movies in the future.

Friday, February 13, 2015

ISIS is getting closer and closer to engaging U.S. troops. Good thing their last attack failed completely. Yahoo/AP

Iraqi troops stationed at the Al-Asad air base. Yahoo/AP

An ISIS attack on an airbase where U.S. troops are training Iraqi's has been completely pushed back. Yahoo/AP. The ISIS fighters started the attack on Al-Asad airbase with the detonation of several suicide vests. 15 more gunmen attacked as well but were defeated and killed by Iraqi troops, with no Iraqi casualties. The attack comes after the first victory of ISIS in Iraq in several months. ISIS fighters took control of the town of Al-Baghdadi, which is near the airbase. No U.S. fighters were involved in the battle and none were in any danger, but the attack marks the first time ISIS has attacked a base where U.S. troops were serving. U.S. drones and attack helicopters responded to the scene but by the time they got there the battle was over. 

My Comment:
Good on the Iraqis on winning this skirmish with no casualties. Considering the ISIS fighters had Iraqi uniforms, which is a war crime by the way, this could have gone much worse. It is good to know that the Iraqi troops were on their game. It's also good to know that the suicide bombers died with absolutely no effect on friendly troops. Perhaps if other perspective suicide bombers hear about this failure they will consider not blowing themselves up. People might be willing to blow them selves up if they think they will take a bunch of people with them, but not if they die alone for nothing. 

As for U.S. forces, none were in any actual danger, but the attack means that they may be in the future. With ISIS on the march in the area, it is possible that ISIS will follow up this attack with another one. U.S. troops have plenty of experience fighting militants so I'm confident if they do get attacked that they will win any battle. Especially with the last attack failing so spectacularly. 

Of course if U.S. troops do get involved with actual combat with ISIS that would go against Barack Obama's pledge to keep U.S. troops out of combat. If any of those troops get hurt then it might bring pressure on the president to either withdraw from the country or expand the number of security forces there. Either way it goes against what the president wants to do. He wants a small commitment where U.S. troops have a secondary role. The last thing Obama wants is headlines where U.S. troops are engaged with the enemies. That will distract from his actual priorities, which have always been domestic in nature.  

Heavy fighting persists in Ukraine as cease fire looms. Yahoo/AP

An Ukrainian tank near Debaltseve. Yahoo/AP

Heavy fighting continues in Ukraine ahead of weekend cease fire. Yahoo/AP. Rebel fighters are pushing hard to take the railway hub and strategic city of Debaltseve. European leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, came to an agreement on Thursday with a new plan to end the fighting. The agreement had little effect on the ground as rebels took the village of Lohvynove, which lies on the last highway out of Debaltseve. With the village taken, thousands of Ukrainian troops and civilians could be cut off. Ukraine accuses Russia of having troops fighting in the battle, which Russia denies. In the Mariupol region, Ukrainian militias have taken back a series of villages, in an attempt to preemptively stop an offensive in the area. By the terms of the cease fire, both sides are to pull their heavy weapons away from the front lines. Other questions, such as autonomy for the Donbass region, have yet to be answered. 

My Comment:
I wasn't expecting a cease fire at all. After all the rebels are about to close off the Debaltseve pocket and trap thousands of Ukrainian troops. They aren't at the verge of winning the war, but to let such a huge potential victory go to waste seems unlikely. I'm guessing if Debatlseve really is cut off one of two things will happen. First the troops could surrender to the rebels and then be turned into bargaining pieces for negotiation. That seems a bit unlikely since the rebel hold on the area is not that strong yet. The second option is more likely. The trapped troops try and break out of the pocket, cease fire be damned. In the long term they may fail or succeed, but the major outcome of the battle may be an end to the cease fire. The third option is that Ukraine isn't trapped at all. It's very possible that the rebels will fail in completely cutting off the Debaltseve pocket, allowing the Ukrainian forces to retreat, or even hold their positions. 

As for the hopes for peace, I just don't see it happening yet. Yes everyone else in Europe wants the war to end, including Vladimir Putin, but the rebels do not. They are in a strong position and are close to getting everything they want. Unless there is some kind of secret negotiation between the rebels and Ukraine where they made some major concessions, I don't see the war ending anytime soon. It is important to remember that Putin's "control" over the rebels isn't nearly as strong as the West likes to believe. Yes, he does have considerable influence, but their loyalty is not with him. They have defied him before, and I wouldn't be too surprised if they throw a wrench into the peace process. 

As for Ukraine itself, they really need to see the writing on the wall here. For them, the peace process must work out because if it doesn't they might lose everything. Their economy has collapsed and their money has lost most of its value. They are also having a hell of a time trying to recruit new soldiers, to the point that they arresting deserters are thinking of drafting women up as well. To be completely frank, Ukraine cannot win without major outside intervention. That isn't going to happen. Even if the west sends arms, they still have to be able to recruit soldiers and pay them their salaries. They are already having problems doing that now, so if the war continues at the current level of fighting Ukraine's government will either fall or let the rebels get what they want. In my humble opinion they have already lost this war. Continuing it will have no purpose except getting people killed.  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Editor's note

Feel like absolute garbage right now. Blogging will return once I start feeling better.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Triple homicide in Chapel Hill North Carolina. Three Muslims killed. Yahoo/AFP


Three Muslim students were killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Yahoo/AFP. The suspect, Craig Stephan Hicks, was a self described anti-theist who regularly denounced religion on Facebook. Two of the victims were newly married and the third was the wife's sister. Hicks turned himself in and has been charged with three counts of 1st degree murder. Police have not disclosed a motive for the attack. 

My Comment:
Normally a triple homicide would not even merit comment on this blog unless there are extenuating circumstances. In this case there appears to be. Social media, and Twitter in particular, were going nuts about this case. People were claiming that the case was being swept under the rug. I don't see how that is possible since every media outlook I looked at has it either as the top story or displayed prominently on the front page. So that claim is pretty much blown out of the water. But the case does hit pretty much every hot button issue these days and the implications are disturbing. 

Before I go any further I have to make clear that I have nothing against the victims in this case and I am in no way defending the killer. By all accounts the victims were decent people (one of them denounced killing on Twitter) and even if they weren't they didn't deserve to be murdered. They of course deserve justice and the suspect in this case, if he is convicted by a jury of his peers, deserves the harshest penalty available under the law. All of that should go without saying but in these times of universal outrage it pays to be clear. That's the theory at least, people looking for outrage will find it eventually.

That being said, I don't like where the media coverage is going in this case. A narrative is forming and it is a dangerous one. The narrative is an angry white atheist killed Muslims. That appears to be true, but what I am afraid of is that this specific combination traits is going to be used to paint people a certain way and silence criticism of other people. 

So what do I mean by that? Just because the suspect was an atheist does not mean that all or even most people that are atheist, agnostic or anti-religion agree or condone this attack. Atheists tend to be incredibly unpopular in America so I am somewhat concerned that portions of the American landscape on the right will blame this attack on atheism and try their damnedest to invoke prejudice against the non-religious. At the very same time the left is already trying to make this a race and racism issue. The suspect was white so of course all white people hate Muslims, at least according to Twitter... One tweet I saw claimed that all white male Christians were dangerous because of this case. Because all white males who are avowed anti-theists are automatically Christian...

Neither of these viewpoints have much merit. Craig Hicks, if he did do this, is one person and his evil can not be used to paint everyone that belongs to the same arbitrary categories as he did. Just like not every Muslim is Osama Bin Laden, or not every black person is Christopher Dorner and how not every White/Asian who sucks with women is Elliot Rodgers. All of those people were outliers. Anyone that tries to paint a picture using an extreme example is, quite frankly, an idiot. Just like the people that will try to make this an issue about gun control. Somehow. 

To recap, the acts of a lone madman don't really have all that much to do with anything. People trying to make this apply to anything really shouldn't. If you want to have a conversation about atheism, race or Islam, go ahead and do it. I encourage it. NOTHING is immune to criticism and vigorous debate. But don't blow one case out of proportion. The actions of one person do not represent the beliefs and actions of everyone that is in the same group as that person. So many people these days want to use tragedy for their own advantage. Or at the very least to make their group look less bad by comparison.