The attacks come a month after a botched US special forces raid ended in the deaths of 25 civilians, including nine children under the age of 13.
In an unprecedented intensification of America’s counter-terrorism operations in Yemen, the US has confirmed it carried out 20 strikes across three central provinces.
The strikes, which were carried out in the early morning, targeted fighters from the regional arm of al Qaeda, known as AQAP, their equipment and infrastructure, in the Yemeni provinces of Abyan, al Bayda and Shabwah, according to a press release from the US Department of Defense.
Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said in the statement that the strikes were conducted in partnership with the Government of Yemen, and were coordinated with President Hadi.
A man inspects his home destroyed by airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP/Hani Mohammed)
The statement made no mention of how many people were killed and injured – neither AQAP fighters or civilians. However Yemeni officials told AFP seven people died in two of the strikes.
The attacks come a month after a botched US special forces raid ended in the deaths of 25 civilians, including nine children under the age of 13 as revealed by the Bureau, and a US Navy SEAL. Earlier this week, a Pentagon official told NBC News that the Pentagon did not dispute these numbers.
US Special Forces descended on Yakla village in Bayda province on January 29 with the hope of capturing key intelligence on AQAP.
While President Donald Trump has said it was successful in this regard, a US defense official told CNN that the latest strikes, which it reported were both air and drones strikes, had been planned for some time and were not the result of any intelligence gathered in the raid.
The latest strikes are a considerable increase in military activity in Yemen. The bombardment is a break from the steady pace of strikes in recent years, with the US carrying out an average of three strikes per month last year and never going above two strikes in a single day.
The US was routinely conducting multiple strikes a day in 2012 during its efforts to expel AQAP from its stronghold in Abyan province. The province was the scene of heavy clashes between the Yemeni military and AQAP fighters – AQAP had taken advantage of the political unrest with the Arab Spring in 2011 to gain control of several towns.
But even then, the highest number of confirmed strikes on a single day at any point of the Abyan offensive was four.
In total, the Bureau has recorded at least 186 US air and drone strikes, and special forces raids, since the first in 2002. At least 853 people have been killed, 158 of them reported to be civilians, according to Bureau data.
Copyright © Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss, Mint Press News, 2017
Geopolitics of the Balkans: NATO’s Strange Addition of Montenegro
Though few Americans likely know where to find the tiny Balkan nation on a map, Montenegro has become another dubious focal point of the West’s new confrontation with Russia.
At first glance, the case for extending NATO’s umbrella over a country with fewer than 2,000 troops isn’t obvious. Its seven helicopters are unlikely to make America safer. The Obama administration, which championed this latest in a long line of recent additions to the alliance, actually offered as a rationale the fact that Montenegro had donated some mortar rounds to the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq and $1.2 million to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan over three years.
That sum is less than a third of what U.S. taxpayers spend in Afghanistan per hour. One critic quipped, “if the West’s survival depends on Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO, we should all be heading for the bunkers.”
Maybe that’s why hawks are citing the mere fact of Russia’s predictable oppositionas a prime reason to support Montenegro’s accession. “Backing Montenegro’s membership is not only the right thing for the Senate to do, it would send a clear signal that no third party has a veto over NATO enlargement decisions,” argues the Heritage Foundation.
And two advocates at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writing in Foreign Affairs, declared recently that Montenegro will be the key test of whether President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson “kowtow to their friend Russian President Vladimir Putin” and “acquiesce . . . in another Yalta” or stand up for “core U.S. goals.”
Raising the specter of Putin and Yalta diverts attention from troubling questions about Montenegro’s political suitability as a partner — and whether it has anything of military value to offer.
NATO ostensibly conditions its acceptance of new members on strict criteria, which include “demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights; establishing democratic control of armed forces; and promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Carpenter assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last September that Montenegro supported NATO’s “values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” He must have missed the report from Freedom House, which gave the country a rating of only “partly free” for both political rights and civil liberties.
The organization cited “restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly” and “years of harassment and discrimination against LGBT people.” It also noted “ongoing concerns . . . about the independence of the judiciary and the public broadcaster, as well as numerous failures to effectively prosecute past attacks against media workers.” The country suffers from “a lack of trust in the electoral process among voters,” it added.
Carpenter must also have missed the State Department’s human rights report, which accused Montenegro of numerous violations, including “impunity for war crimes, mistreatment by law enforcement officers of persons in their custody, overcrowded and dilapidated prisons and pretrial detention facilities, violations of the right to peaceful assembly,” and “selective prosecution of political and societal opponents.”
A Bastion of Corruption
As for the “rule of law,” consider that Montenegro’s ruler for nearly three decades, Milo Djukanovi?, was given the 2015 Organized Crime and Corruption “Person of the Year” Award by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an organization of several hundred investigative journalists who report on corruption in Europe and Central Asia (and are partly financed by USAID).
Citing his success in “creating an oppressive political atmosphere and an economy choked by corruption and money laundering,” the OCCRP said Djukanovi? “has built one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world.”
The organization pointed to his alleged role in cigarette smuggling with notorious Italian crime syndicates; his family’s takeover of a former state bank, which became a money laundry for organized crime; his controversial sale of major stretches of the country’s coastline to shady foreign oligarchs; and his offer of citizenship to a notorious regional drug kingpin.
Djukanovi? knows the money is greener to the west of Montenegro than to the east. That’s why he’s an ardent advocate of joining NATO. (Fewer than 40 percent of Montenegrins in a recent poll agreed — in part because alliance warplanes bombed the country during NATO’s campaign against Serbia in 1999.) President Obama congratulated Djukanovi? on his stand during an official reception in September.
Following national elections in October, Djukanovi? finally stepped down as prime minister, but he remains head of the ruling party. Taking his place as the country’s current prime minister was his hand-picked deputy, Dusko Markovic.
“Markovic, a former state security chief, is considered one of Djukanovi?’s closest confidantes,” reported OCCRP. “He was publicly accused by a former head of the country’s anti-organized crime police last year of involvement in cigarette smuggling, but was never charged.” In 2014, Markovic was also charged by the head of a government investigative commission with obstructing a probe into the murder of a prominent newspaper editor and critic of Djukanovi?.
Western media have large ignored such troubling facts. Instead, what little coverage there is of Montenegro focuses on the government’s sensational claim that Russians plotted to assassinate Djukanovi? at the time of the October election.
Markovic recently told Time magazine that his security services at the last minute uncovered a “criminal organization” formed by two Russian military intelligence agents, who planned on election day “to provoke incidents . . . and also possibly an armed conflict” as a pretext for taking power.
The prosecutor in charge of the case says “Russian state authorities” backed the plot to “prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.” He vows to indict two alleged Russian plotters and 22 others, including a group of Serbian nationalists, by April 15. Russia’s foreign minister called the allegations “baseless,” but refuses to extradite any suspects. An independent expert, citing numerous anomalies in the official story, argues the plot was a “rogue operation” by Serbian and Russian nationalist freelancers.
Russia, which has long considered the Balkans to be in its sphere of influence, has a history of intruding in Montenegro’s affairs. But absent persuasive supporting evidence for the government’s case, outsiders should bear in mind the cautionary observation by Freedom House that “[Montenegro’s] intelligence service has faced sustained criticism from international observers for a perceived lack of professionalism.”
Still, it should come as no surprise that anti-Russia hawks haven’t let ambiguous evidence deter them from demanding the expansion of NATO.
A Wall Street Journal editorial said the alleged coup plot “gives a good taste of Russia’s ambitions — and methods — in Eastern and Central Europe” and concluded with a call for accepting Montenegro’s bid to join NATO: “Western security is best served by supporting democratic governments of any size facing pressure from regional bullies. The alternative is to deliver another country into Moscow’s grip, and whet its appetite to take another.”
Time magazine commented even more breathlessly that “The aborted coup was a reminder that a new battle for Europe has begun. From the Baltics to the Balkans and the Black Sea to Great Britain, Vladimir Putin is seeking to rebuild Russia’s empire more than 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.” Trump’s past criticism of NATO, the magazine warned, has “raised flags that the U.S. might accept Russia’s territorial grab.”
Such inflammatory comments are stoking the political fires burning around Trump, including investigations of his campaign contacts with Russians, assertions of Moscow’s interference with the election, and questions about business connections or personal indiscretions that make him vulnerable to Putin. Trump’s stand on Montenegro — still to be determined — will signal whether he remains a critic of NATO or is caving to the New Cold Warriors.
Jonathan Marshall is author of many recent articles on arms issues, including “Obama’s Unkept Promise on Nuclear War,” “How World War III Could Start,” “NATO’s Provocative Anti-Russian Moves,” “Escalations in a New Cold War,” and “Ticking Closer to Midnight.”
Copyright © Jonathan Marshall, Consortiumnews, 2017
Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Military Intervention. Towards the Division of Northern Syria?
On February 23, the Turkish Army and a coalition of pro-Turkish militant groups known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) seized control of the key Syrian town of al-Bab. Al-Bab is located in the northern part of the Aleppo Province [about 36km northeast of Aleppo, about 26km south of border with Turkey], and had been remaining under ISIS control for over 2 years.
At the same day, Chief of the Turkish General Staff Hulusi Akar announced the goals set at the beginning of the Euphrates Shield operation in Syria were achieved. On February 27, Ilnur Cevik, adviser to Turkish President Recep Erdogan made a contrary statement, announcing that Turkey will end its military operation in Syria after the town of Manbij is captured. While there are serious doubts that the Turkish involvement into the Syrian crisis would be limited, the capture of al-Bab became an important victory for Ankara.
Al-Bab’s strategic importance increased after the Syrian Democratic Forces, predominantly the Kurdish YPG, took Manbij which had served as an important ISIS logistical node for 2.5 years, helping transfer jihadists from Turkey to Syria and back, and also facilitating oil and arms shipments.
The Kurds also wanted to take Al-Bab to reassemble the fragmented Shahba canton (with a administrative center of Tal Rifaat and Manbij), consolidate the areas they control, and proclaim a Syrian Kurdistan as an independent country or a broad autonomy nominally within Syria.
In response, Turkey implemented Operation Euphrates Shield, with Turkish Army regular units and the FSA (Ahrar al-Sham, Sultan Murad Division, Jaysh al-Tahrir, al-Mu’tasim Brigade, Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, Descendants of Saladin Brigade, Hamza Division) are advancing on the city from the North with artillery and air support provided by Turkey. The Operation Euphrates Shield was launched on August 24, 2016 and since then Turkey-led forces seized control of the key towns of Jarabulus, Al-Rai and al-Bab, securing the Al-Bab-Azaz-Jarabulus triangle. According to estimates in open sources, the operation involved over 4,000 Turkish troops and some 7,000 members of pro-Turkish militant groups. 71 member of the Turkish Armed Forces and 515 pro-Turkish militants have been killed since the start of the operation. In turn, about 2,300 ISIS militants were killed by Ankara-led forces according to pro-Turkish sources.
From the Turkish perspective, preventing a Kurdish autonomy or an independent state runs to national interest. Any such Kurdish entity at the Syrian-Turkish border would heighten ethnic tensions in Turkey and escalate Turkish Kurds’ armed campaign. Some experts believe that several possible agreement frameworks between Turkey and Syria have already been drafted that would divide northern part of Aleppo province into Turkish and Syrian spheres of influence, while preserving the de jure status quo. Moreover, in spite of its significant military potential and position, Turkey is either ready or forced to negotiate with Damascus as an equal partner. The so-called “Astana Talks” involving Turkey, Iran, Russia, Syria and a pro-Turkish part of the so-called “Syrian opposition” are a clear example of this situation.
The US strategy in the conflict is one of the reasons of the current Ankara attitude. While the US-led coalition clearly supports Kurdish YPG units in Syria, Washington can’t give Turkey ironclad guarantees that the Kurds won’t proclaim a Syrian Kurdistan since it doesn’t fully control the Kurds. The Supreme Kurdish Council (DBK) is split between the Kurdish National Council, which looks to Iraqi Kurds who are pro-US, and the Democratic Union (PYD) which is for broad autonomy within the Syrian state, but against a complete separation. However, the US cannot withdraw its support from the Syrian Kurds because in this case Washington will have no force to rely on the ground in Syria. Especially amid Trump’s promises to deliver a devastating blow to ISIS in Syria which mean the intensification of the campaign in Raqqah.
The most important battle right now is ongoing on the diplomatic level where Turkey, Iran, Syria, the US and Russia are struggling to find a common ground which should allow to defeat ISIS and to solve the crisis. At the first look, it seems that Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance prevails. One must, however, remember Erdogan’s inconstancy, his expansionism, and the general style of Turkey’s foreign policy. Nobody can guarantee that now when Al Bab and much of Aleppo province is taken, the Turkish government will not step up its support of militants in other parts of the province, using the FSA and “moderates” as cover. On February 26 and February 27, clashes between Turkish-backed militants and the Syrian army already took place near al-Bab. However, the full-scale escalation has not taken place yet. The military situation at the demarcation line between pro-Turkish and Syrian government forces will be a clear indication of the ongoing competition on the diplomatic level.
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