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Monday, September 11, 2017

Sultan of Kedah passes away

KUALA LUMPUR (Sept 11): The Sultan of Kedah Sultan Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah passed away at 2.30pm today. He was 89.
The Sultan made history as he was the Yang di-Pertuan Agong twice. He was crowned Agong for the second time in 2012.
An official from the Kedah MB's office said Mentri Besar Datuk Paduka Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipa was informed of the Sultan's death as soon as he arrived at the airport in Alor Star from Kuala Lumpur at about 2.40pm, Star Online reported.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Explainer: the Syrian war in one short, easy read


Often described as a “complex web”, the Syrian war involves numerous actors, dozens of seemingly contradictory alliances and rapidly changing dynamics. But while the war is indeed complicated, making sense of it is crucial to understanding the recent Paris attacks, the refugee crisis in Europe, and the continuing turmoil in the region. Here are the basics – decoded.

How it started

The Syrian “war” began in March 2011, during the Arab Spring, when Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government forces launched a violent crackdown against protesters in the city of Daraa. Protests escalated and the regime responds with mass arrests, torture and killings.
In July 2011, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) emerged as the first major rebel group to battle the regime. Comprised largely of defectors from the Syrian armed forces, the FSA’s early successes in seizing military basesand equipment quickly escalated the conflict. By early 2012, it was a full-blown civil war.
Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra members posing on a tank. Hosam Katam/Reuters

How it escalated

Early 2012 also saw the formation of a very different rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), an off-shoot of the notoriously sectarian group al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Though not the only new group to emerge at this time (the US Defense Intelligence Agency estimates that more than 1,000 rebel groups were operating in Syria by 2013), the Sunni Jabhat al-Nusra quickly changed the dynamic, unleashing suicide bombings and turning the conflict increasingly sectarian.
The Syrian war did not begin as a sectarian conflict, but it quickly became one, especially with the encroachment of regional actors. By mid-2012, the weakening Assad regime was buoyed by direct assistance from long-time (Shia) ally, Iran, and then by fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon.
Meanwhile, seeking the upper hand in their regional cold war with Iran, Sunni Gulf states, such as Qatar and later Saudi Arabia, began supporting Sunni Islamist rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, with a steady flow of arms and cash.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish minority in north-east Syria, which had so far avoided involvement, declared its own autonomous region in Rojava, in opposition to both Assad and the other rebel groups.
A Syrian government tank. Sana Sana/Reuters

From bad to worse

Exploiting fractures and rivalries among rebel forces, Assad pummelled opposition, militants and civilians alike – and in August 2013 launched a sarin chemical weapons attack on the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus. Around 1,400 people were killed. The US president, Barack Obama, previously had identified chemical weapons as a “red line”, but potential air strikes were averted by a deal between the US and Russia in which the US agreed to back off if the Syrian regime, supported by Russia, destroyed its chemical weapons programme.
Indeed, when US airstrikes in Syria did begin the following year, they didn’t target the Syrian regime, but a newly emerged rebel group: the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Later referred to as Islamic State, and often described by its Arabic acronym, Daesh, it also emerged from AQI, but sought to be independent from al-Qaeda, aiming to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Rebuffed by Jabhat al-Nusra leaders and exiled from al-Qaeda in February 2014, ISIS employed brutal tactics and ideologies to – in the apt words of Zach Beauchamp – “out-extremist al-Qaeda in competition for recruits and resources”.
ISIS is winning the extremist PR war and recruits both regionally and internationally, attracting an estimated 30,000 foreign fighters to its ranks by September 2015.
The US, which provides support for some anti-Assad rebels, began airstrikes against ISIS in September 2014. The following year, Russian airstrikes started in support of Assad and were criticised for targeting moderate rebel groups instead of ISIS (now Islamic State).
As Assad hung on, IS gained territory in both Syria and Iraq and grew in reach, in recent weeks claiming responsibility for international attacks against a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, a twin suicide bomb attack in Beirut and the Paris attacks.
The man described as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected of being behind Islamic State’s Paris attacks. Reuters

‘Running out of words’

The Syrian conflict has been described as a civil war, a proxy war and a sectarian war. On one level, the Syrian government, backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, is pitted against the “moderate” rebels, backed by the US-led coalition, Turkey and the Gulf States, with everyone scrambling to contain Islamic State (who also receive funding from the Gulf States). The Kurds are fighting IS and Assad, and are supported by the West, but are also being bombed by Turkey, which is trying to stem a Kurdish uprising within its own borders. Following the latest atrocities – and France’s growing engagement – things could get even more complex.
However you frame it, the war is a humanitarian crisis; more than 220,000 killed, 4.2m refugees, and millions more internally displaced. UN officials briefing the Security Council have said they are “running out of words” to describe the horror.
The US and more than a dozen other states, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, have reportedly agreed to a framework that will include a ceasefire and political transition. But steps towards implementation will be slow and difficult.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Debating the Morality of Hiroshima

Each year at this time — the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima — the world pauses. The pause is less to mourn the dead than to debate a moral question: whether the bombing was justified and, by extension, whether the United States unnecessarily slaughtered tens of thousands of people on Aug. 6, 1945. The debate rarely focuses on a careful analysis of war and morality and is more frequently framed by existing views of the United States. The debate is rarely about Hiroshima or about World War II. It is a debate about the moral character of the United States. This is not an illegitimate subject, and Hiroshima might be a useful point with which to begin the debate. But that isn't possible until after we consider the origins of Hiroshima, which can be found in the evolution of modern warfare.

Innovations in Industrial Warfare

Warfare became industrial for a simple reason. The introduction of firearms brought to the battlefield a weapon with tremendous strength and an overwhelming weakness. The strength was the ability to kill or disable an enemy at distances far beyond the range of previous weapons. The weakness was that without extraordinary training and talent on the part of the soldier, firearms are quite inaccurate. For a soldier under the pressure of combat, loading and effectively aiming his weapon — particularly with muzzle-loaded firearms — was not an easy task.
To compensate for the inaccuracy of firearms, larger forces could all fire at the same time. Simultaneous firing increased the probability of inflicting casualties on the enemy, and simultaneity, choreographed as it was in multiple lines of troops — with some firing, some waiting and some reloading — maintained near-continuous fire. The solution on the other side was more soldiers pouring more fire on their enemy. Thus, the inaccuracy of a deadly weapon required ever-larger armies.
It also required increasing innovations in weaponry. Firearms evolved from muzzleloaders to breechloaders, then those able to hold clips of multiple rounds and finally the machine gun, which compensated for its own inaccuracy per shot by saturating the horizon with bullets. It was said that in World War I it required 10,000 bullets to kill one soldier. I have no idea where this calculation came from, but it was true in essence. Given the inaccuracy of most riflemen, masses of them were needed. The machine gun made riflemen far more effective.
The approach to warfare that made it less efficient is at the heart of the real issue leading to Hiroshima. Armies surged in size and had to be equipped. Rifles and machine guns were not the work of master smiths but had to be mass-produced in factories, as did a wide range of products needed to support multimillion-man armies. These factories were the key enablers of war. Killing one solder eliminated one rifle, but destroying a factory eliminated the combat power of large numbers of soldiers. Therefore, destroying factories mass-producing the means of war was the most efficient counter to the massed armies made necessary by inaccurate weapons. These factories typically were in cities. In order to function, they had to have efficient transportation links with other factories manufacturing precursor parts, and thus tended to be located near other factories, transportation hubs, and their workers and the systems that employees needed to live and work — houses, grocery stores, schools and so on.
Master military strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that the key to war was to attack the center of gravity of the enemy's capacity to wage war. By World War I, the center of gravity was no longer the army but the factories and the workers who produced the engines of war. The distinction between soldier and civilian, critical to all modern notions of military morality, dissolved. The ability to wage war disappeared when the factories did. But given the location of factories, by necessity in cities, any attack on these factories would kill not only workers but also their children, and the milkman's children. This was, by definition, total war — the only war that could be waged in the industrial age.
At the outset of World War I, there was no way to destroy war-critical factories or populations from a distance. But as with most things, a problem found a solution close at hand. Aircraft made their appearance on the European battlefield during World War I — first as observation planes, then as fighters tasked with shooting down observation planes, and then as bombers tasked with destroying targets identified by reconnaissance aircraft.

Targeting the Industrial Plant

Geopolitically, it was clear that World War I had not solved the fundamental problem of Europe and that another war was inevitable. Among those who believed this were the theorists of air power. Chief among these was Giulio Douhet, an Italian who thought through the reality of war at the time and concluded that the chief solution would be the destruction of the enemy's war-making capacity. Douhet believed this would best be achieved by aircraft attacking cities en masse and destroying them. Joined in this view by the American Gen. Billy Mitchell and Britain's Hugh Trenchard, Douhet argued that the key to warfare was to use large numbers of massed bombers to annihilate cities. This would achieve two things: It would destroy the enemy's industrial plant and trigger a revolt by the public against the government. Because both sides would have massed bombers, the key to war was to launch attacks greater than the enemy's potential response by both having a larger air force and destroying the enemy's ability to produce more aircraft.
The inter-war air strategists were in part shaped by the carnage they saw in protracted trench warfare. Douhet believed that the role of air power was almost purely offensive, requiring rapid and destructive attacks against first the opposing forces' aircraft and then against civilian industrial and commercial centers. Trenchard, like Douhet, saw air power as a strategic and valuable force. Where Trenchard differed from his Italian contemporary was in considering ground forces still important and suggesting joint ground and air operations against enemy airfields. Early American air theorists, including Mitchell and the Army Air Corps Tactical School, viewed the role of strategic bombing as targeted against the war-making capacity of the enemy, rather than against the enemy morale, as Douhet and some European counterparts considered. Mitchell saw attacks on industry, communications and transportation as the real objectives of strategic air power and saw the armies in the field as false objectives.
Douhet implicitly recognized the weakness of aircraft, which was the same as the weakness of rifles: They were extremely imprecise. In 1940, when the British began launching attacks on Germany, the imprecision of the bomber was so great that German intelligence could not figure out what they were trying to bomb. Only massing bombers and destroying cities would work.
The Germans used this dual strategy in the Battle of Britain. They failed both because of lack of sufficient weapons and an air force not designed for strategic bombardment (which is what attacks on cities were called) but for tactical support for ground warfare. The British adopted nighttime area bombardment, making no secret that their goal was the destruction of cities to suppress production and generate political opposition.
The United States took a different approach: precision daylight bombardment. The Army Air Corps Tactical School sought to make bombing more efficient by finding and identifying bottlenecks in the opponent's supply chain. Targeting the bottleneck would reduce the total number of bombers, men and bombs needed to achieve the same ultimate goal as large city bombing. The Americans felt that they could solve the problem of inaccuracy and total attacks on cities through technology. They developed the Norden bombsight, which was supposed to enable the dropping of iron bombs with precision. The bombsights were delivered to the planes by armed guard, and the bombardier was ordered to destroy the bombsight at all costs if shot down. Regardless of this technology, U.S. bombing was not much more accurate than the deliberate randomness of the British.
By the time the air war focused on Japan, there were no illusions that there was precision in bombing. Curtis LeMay, who commanded U.S. air forces in the Pacific, adopted the British strategy of nighttime attacks with incendiary bombs. On the night of March 9, 1945, 279 B-29s conducted an incendiary bombing attack on Tokyo that destroyed more than 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of the city and killed an estimated 100,000 people.
The Tokyo bombing followed Douhet's logic. So did the creation of the atomic bomb. Douhet's point that destroying cities was the key to winning wars drove Allied strategy against Germany and in Japan. The atomic bomb was a radically new weapon technologically, but in terms of military doctrine it was simply a logical step forward in the destruction of cities. The effects of radiation were poorly understood at the time, but even with acute radiation deaths included the death toll was less than 166,000 in Hiroshima. The development of the atomic bomb was one of the greatest scientific undertakings of all time, but it was not needed to destroy cities. That was already being done. The atomic bomb simply was a way to accomplish the goal using only one plane and several billion dollars.

Hiroshima's Aftermath

The Japanese themselves were not certain what happened in Hiroshima. Many of Japan's leaders dismissed U.S. claims of a new type of bomb, thinking that this was simply a continuation of the conventional destructions of cities. It was one of the reasons that no decision on surrender was made. The Japanese were prepared to live with extraordinary casualties. The firebombing of Tokyo did not lead to talk of surrender. And the argument was that since Hiroshima was not a special case, it did not warrant surrender. Recent research into archives shows that the Japanese were not planning on surrender. True, Japan had put out diplomatic feelers, but it is often forgotten that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the midst of negotiations. It is in this context that feelers have to be considered.
There are those who are confident that the Japanese would have surrendered without the bombing of Hiroshima. But they did not surrender because of the Tokyo bombing. Submarine warfare — not just bombing — had crippled Japan's industry, but this had been the case for many months. And the example of Okinawa, with its kamikaze attacks and civilian resistance to the death, was sobering. You and I may know what was coming, but President Harry S. Truman did not have the luxury.
There are two defenses from a military perspective, then, of the American bombing. One is that no one at the time could be certain of what the Japanese were going to do because a reading of the record shows that even after Hiroshima, even the Japanese didn't know what they were going to do. Second, a doctrine and reality of war was unfolding — a process that began hundreds of years earlier. But those who would challenge these defenses are compelled to explain how they would have dealt with monstrous regimes like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
The focus on Hiroshima is morally justifiable only in the context of condemning several centuries of military development. It can be condemned, but I don't know what difference it makes. The logic of the musket played itself out ineluctably to Hiroshima. But the core reality that played out was this: Over time, the distinction between military and civilian became untenable. War fighting began in the factory and ended with the soldier at the front. The soldier was a capillary. The arteries of war were in the city.
There is a tendency in our time to demand that someone do something about evil. There is a willful denial of the truth that anything that is done requires actions that are evil. The moral lesson of Hiroshima is twofold. The first is that military doctrine, like other things, is ruthlessly logical. The second is that in confronting Germany and Japan, moral purity was impossible, save for the end being pursued, which was destroying the prior evil. President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the logic of strategy and the logic of morality, in my opinion. For him, choices were shaped by military doctrine and the nature of the evil he faced. Truman had even less choice.
Hiroshima was an act that flowed logically from history, and we cannot in retrospect claim to know what the Japanese would or would not have done. However, I think that had I been there, knowing what was known then — or even what is known now — I would have been trapped in a logic that ultimately justified itself: Japan surrendered, and Asia was saved from a great evil. 
"Debating the Morality of Hiroshima is republished with permission of Stratfor."