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6 Things That Happened At The U.N. This Week That Weren’t About Syria

bBy Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

UNITED NATIONS — From afar, the annual United Nations General Assembly might seem excruciatingly boring, with dark-suited world leaders reading hours upon hours of speeches extolling their own nations’ achievements and paying lip service to crises that defy easy resolution.

Up close, that’s still true.

Only half-kidding. The so-called UNGA — nicknamed “FUN”-GA for its lack thereof — might not bring the high drama of a reality TV show, but there are still plenty of breakups, blowups, walkouts, grandstanding and other moments when protocol goes by the wayside.

Here are a few of the controversial moments from this year’s General Assembly:

1. Castro doesn’t mince words in his first U.N. speech

Cuban President Raul Castro received a long round of applause and scattered cheers when he took the podium for his first speech before the General Assembly, which was especially noteworthy because of the island’s recent, tentative detente with the United States after a five-decade break in relations.

However, the warm welcome was a tad premature — the communist leader immediately lashed out at his fellow member states for failing to produce much beyond an “illusion” of the human rights, justice and development promised in the U.N. charter. He accused world superpowers of allowing millions to remain hungry, illiterate and at risk of death by curable illnesses while they spent billions on their militaries.

Castro railed against the Western colonialism and imperialism he claims are at the roots of today’s conflicts, and he blamed climate change on the superpowers’ “irrational and unsustainable consumerism.”

Members of the audience looked on with facial expressions ranging from disdain to mild amusement.

On the plus side, Castro’s speech was fairly short. After all, his brother and predecessor Fidel Castro still holds the record for the longest General Assembly speech in history, clocking in at 4 hours in 1960 after the classic opener: “We shall endeavor to be brief.”

2. Palestinian flag flies for the first time at the United Nations

For the first time, the Palestinian flag joined other nations’ standards outside the U.N. headquarters in New York, thanks to a General Assembly vote last month to raise it in recognition of Palestine’s status since 2012 as a “non-member observer state.” Israel, the United States and six other nations voted against the motion. Another 45 abstained.

After a ceremony attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian-Americans snapped selfies in front of the flagpole, many wearing traditional dress and black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh scarves.

Stateless Palestinians were clear-eyed that the move was more about symbolism than substance, however. In truth, there’s nothing new about the moribund peace process, and analysts say that a two-state solution appears more elusive than ever.

As if to underscore the desperation surrounding the unresolved issue of Palestinian statehood, Abbas threatened in his General Assembly speech to ignore longstanding agreements with Israel that he said were “continually violated.” Faced with Israel’s internationally condemned settlement activities and other breaches of agreements, Abbas said, the Palestinians were no longer bound by the agreements and “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power.”

Neither Arab nor Israeli analysts took the declaration seriously, noting that Abbas in the past has threatened to dissolve the authority and give Israel responsibility for the West Bank in the absence of a peace deal.

3. Samantha Power skips Netanyahu’s annual attack on Iran

Pundits who thought that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombastic opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord would die down now that the deal is done were wrong. In his General Assembly speech, Netanyahu repeated the same warnings about the dangers of an Iran with more cash from sanctions relief, only this time there were fewer listeners. Not even the U.S. envoy to the U.N., Samantha Power, stuck around to hear him.

Before a half-empty assembly hall and a much bigger — and snarkier — audience on Twitter, Netanyahu returned to his signature rhetorical style, likening the regime in Tehran to “a rapacious tiger” and warning that “unleashed and unmuzzled, Iran will go on the prowl, devouring more and more prey.” He also reminded the world about Israel’s contributions, claiming credit for the cultivation of cherry tomatoes, sparking a tongue-in-cheek fact-checking frenzy online.

But by far the most striking part of the speech was Netanyahu’s 40 seconds of silence — some called it a “pause for dramatic glare” — to draw attention to what he called the world’s “deafening silence” in the face of Iran’s threats against Israel. Supporters praised it as a powerful flourish; critics called it “the best and most important part” of the speech.

4. Iranian hardliners slam foreign minister for shaking Obama’s hand

Given the newly inked Iranian nuclear deal, many U.N. observers were eager to hear from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had a number of appearances and meetings scheduled for his third trip to New York since taking office in 2013.

But instead of staying until Sept. 29 as planned, Rouhani flew home midweek to deal with the escalating dispute with archenemy Saudi Arabia over a stampede at the annual Hajj that killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims. Rouhani gave his General Assembly address but canceled a news conference where he would’ve faced tough questions on the Iranian end of the nuclear accord.

As it turned out, a handshake was the most notable part of Iran’s presence. In what both Iranian and U.S. officials call an unscripted moment, President Barack Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif crossed paths at a luncheon and shook hands — a diplomatic nicety unseen between the two nations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Zarif immediately caught flak from hardliners back home, some of whom demanded an apology and an investigation into his conduct.

5. Ukraine attacks “double-tongued” Putin

Though Moscow’s military escalation in Syria stole the limelight this week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko strode into the assembly hall determined to remind the world of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s incursions closer to home.

The conflict — sparked by Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and fighting in the eastern part of the country — is still unsettled, but it receives scant attention anymore because a cease-fire is in place for now. In his speech, Poroshenko scoffed at Putin’s efforts to portray himself as a coalition-building, terrorist-fighting leader: “Cool story but really hard to believe!”

And then Poroshenko hammered his Russian nemesis with a series of pointed questions, including: How can you urge an anti-terrorist coalition if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door? How can you talk about peace and legitimacy if you policy is war via puppet governments? How can you demand respect for all if you don’t have respect for anyone?

The Russian delegation stormed out, as did the Ukrainians when Putin spoke earlier in the week.

6. U.N. shelves a plan for independent human rights inquiry in Yemen

Another talked-about U.N. development came at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but it made ripples among the diplomats gathered in New York: Western governments scrapped a planned international inquiry into human rights violations in the bloody conflict in Yemen.

Intense lobbying by Saudi Arabia, whose coalition is carrying out airstrikes in Yemen to rout Houthi rebels, appeared to pay off when the Netherlands withdrew a draft resolution that would’ve asked for independent investigators to examine the myriad reports of human rights violations in a war that’s killed more than 2,300 people.

In a move that outraged human rights groups and Yemen experts, the Dutch resolution was replaced by one that will allow Yemen’s exiled, Saudi-backed government to conduct its own inquiry with only “technical assistance” from the U.N. rights council.

Many of the world’s most prominent human rights advocates took to social media to condemn the outcome, describing it as a “disgrace,” and a “shameful capitulation,” and warning that it virtually guarantees “a whitewash” of the atrocities in Yemen.

Photo: The Palestinian flag flies after being raised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a ceremony outside the United Nations during the 70th session of the U. N. General Assembly in New York, September 30, 2015. (REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)

Widow Of U.S. Hostage Lashes Out At Obama Policy Toward Captives

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The wife of an American hostage who was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation in Pakistan blames his al-Qaida captors for the death, but she also lashed out Thursday at what she called “inconsistent and disappointing” assistance from the Obama administration during an ordeal of more than three years.

The criticism from the wife of 73-year-old development expert Warren Weinstein, who along with Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto was killed in a U.S. strike on an al-Qaida compound in January, adds to a chorus of protests from families who claim the U.S. government could have done more in its efforts to bring captive Americans home before they were killed in captivity.

The families say the U.S. government is long overdue a central coordinator for hostage recovery so that opportunities don’t fall through the cracks of a diffuse interagency process.

“We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families,” Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, said in a statement.

An internal review is underway to update the Obama administration’s hostage policies, though the most controversial piece — the longtime U.S. refusal to pay ransoms — is not under consideration for change, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

Several families of hostages have criticized the administration’s handling of the cases.

The mother of American journalist James Foley, the first U.S. hostage beheaded by the Islamic State group, has been among the most vocal of the relatives calling for better communication with families and a more streamlined approach to interagency cooperation.

The family of Austin Tice, a freelance journalist and contributor to McClatchy who was seized in Syria in 2012, also has spoken out with demands for three main changes: communicating more closely with victims’ families, approaching each case individually, and seizing opportunities for a quick, safe return. One major criticism of the Tices is that there’s no one person overseeing the return of hostages, something the family has said “we crucially need to change.”

Some relatives of hostages also seek to overturn the longstanding U.S. ban on paying ransoms or making similar concessions to hostage takers, but U.S. officials have said that the policy will remain in place because it’s effective as a deterrent to targeting Americans. Critics of the ban disagree, noting that the Islamic State group freed several European hostages after receiving ransom payments while American and British hostages, whose governments refuse to negotiate, were killed.

Harf, the State Department spokeswoman, said that not all the feedback from the families has been negative, though she didn’t dispute the many calls for a revamped hostage policy.

“These families have gone through the worst thing they will ever have to go through, and I think you hear a lot of different statements from them. We’ve heard people talk about how supportive the U.S. government has been,” Harf said at the State Department briefing. “But we know this is an incredibly challenging issue. That’s why we’re doing a review of how we deal with all of these issues.”

(Anita Kumar in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Tom Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: ©afp.com / Mandel Ngan

Nostalgia For Iraq’s Saddam Hussein Flowers On Social Media

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — On a recent Saturday evening, Ahmed al-Shabibi relaxed at a hookah cafe in England with other Iraqi friends — both Shiite and Sunni Muslims — when the conversation turned to the ongoing battle to reclaim the city of Tikrit from Islamic State jihadists.

A Sunni in the group lamented Iranian interference in the fight and boasted that such meddling never would’ve occurred under the former Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein. Al-Shabibi said he and the others agreed because, “Saddam, as you know, had a very interesting idea of security.”

But then the Sunni man went farther, chalking up Saddam’s atrocities to clairvoyance by asserting that “Saddam could see what Iran wanted to do” and had to keep a firm hand on the nation’s sovereignty. That’s when al-Shabibi and others from Shiite families who’d fled the old regime reminded their friend of a dark era that’s getting a whitewash these days because of the nonstop violence since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Nostalgia for Saddam is hardly new, but it appears to be reaching fever pitch these days because Iraq is in such bad shape, with vast territories lost to the Islamic State’s sadistic caliphate, the army in such shambles that Iranian-backed militias are filling the void and Americans once again bombing on behalf of a Shiite-led government whose sectarian policies are regarded as chief drivers of the Islamic State’s appeal.

The yearning for a more orderly time, coupled with social media tools that weren’t around a decade ago, has led to a burst of pro-Saddam memes, flowery apologies on Facebook for doubting his tactics, endless Twitter wars over his legacy, and several fan-created Tumblrs, including one that features a suave-looking Saddam smoking a cigar with a text bubble that asks, “Miss me?”

“I won’t say I have nightly arguments on Twitter, but it seems like it nowadays,” said al-Shabibi. “It’s from people who are clever and who, no doubt in my mind, love Iraq. But they keep talking about the ’80s like they were perfect. They think it was when Iraq was united and powerful. But they forget that it was also a time when people disappeared from the street.”

Part of the reason for the plethora of Saddam tributes now no doubt is owed to a confluence of events: the 12th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion on March 19, the April ninth anniversary of the toppling of the iconic Saddam statue in a Baghdad square and the fierce fighting going on now in and around Tikrit, just outside Saddam’s birthplace of Awja. Saddam’s mausoleum there was destroyed in the combat; Shiite militiamen filmed themselves cheering on top of the rubble, underscoring the broader sectarian score-settling that’s mixed up in the anti-extremist fight.

For Mohammed al Ani, Saddam’s toppling is at the root of the region’s current upheaval.

“Saddam was the tip of the spear facing Iran, and when it was broken, Arab countries fell one after another. He had been their strategic reserve of support and power,” said Ani, 36, a former member of Saddam’s Baath Party who’s seeking political asylum in Europe. “He was a man who understood his enemies and loved Iraq.”

The idea of Saddam as a vital bulwark against Iran has resurfaced because of Iranian military involvement in some fronts of the war against the Islamic State. Particularly rankling for many Iraqis — of both Islamic sects — is Baghdad’s reliance on Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s covert Quds Force. Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been at the vanguard of the push to reclaim territories from the Sunni extremists; human rights groups have documented sectarian retribution in Sunni areas that have been “liberated.”

That argument’s twin is that extremists such as the Islamic State never would’ve found space under Saddam, who kept close watch on religious Iraqis and manipulated Islamists for his own interests. The group formed in the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

In a scathing essay this month in which he compared the Islamic State to Hitler’s Third Reich, the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul called Saddam “the cat that kept the rats of Islamism at bay.”

“He may not have been a savory character,” Naipaul wrote, “but his overarching policies were holding on to power and modernizing Iraq.”

Even harsh critics of Saddam’s reign acknowledge that, in a turbulent region, he brought a measure of stability and security — that is, when he wasn’t waging war on neighboring Iran and Kuwait. Laws under Saddam guaranteed greater rights for women than in most Middle Eastern countries; rolling back women’s rights was among the first steps taken when conservative Shiites took power.

“I wouldn’t refute for a minute the good that he did, in terms of infrastructure. Generally, in terms of gender equality, not bad,” said Hasan Hafidh, whose Shiite merchant family went into exile after Saddam’s forces loaded them onto a pickup and dumped them at the Iranian border in 1978. “But in the grander picture, he was just — what can I say? — an autocrat who committed mass atrocities. That really overshadows any good that he did.”

Sick of what he considers historical revisionism, Hafidh, a graduate student in England whose focus is relations between Sunnis and Shiites, vented this month on Twitter: “How some people have the audacity and sheer nerve to practically venerate Saddam as if he were some holy figure will forever baffle me.”

One chief battleground for Saddam apologists vs. detractors is the official Facebook page of his daughter Raghad Saddam Hussein, who sometimes refers to her father in postings as “knight of the Arabs.” The comments section is typically ablaze with sectarian jabs in both directions. One debate topic is the widely held belief among Shiites that Islamic State militants are really just disgruntled former members of Saddam’s Baath party who switched clothes and espoused a new ideology in an attempt to reclaim power.

U.S. and Iraqi authorities have said that former Baathists and some Sunni tribes have worked in tandem with the Islamic State to hold territory but that the alliance is uneasy at best. Reports abound of retribution killings by the Islamic State when the traditionally secular Baathists challenge their tactics.

Raghad, Saddam’s daughter, only fueled the speculation of a Baathist-extremist alliance with a recent Facebook posting in which she hinted that her father’s old comrade, the fugitive Baathist Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, was involved in the current fight for Tikrit. She posted a photo of Douri with a message that said, “May God make you victorious.”

Ani, the Sunni former Baathist, said it was a myth that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, was just a new incarnation of the Baath party. The Baath party exists only on paper now, he said wistfully, with former members left jobless and sounding delusional about the prospects for restoring some kind of moderate, Sunni power.

With mainstream Sunnis caught in a tug of war between sectarian extremists, Ani said, is it any wonder that many are missing Saddam more than ever?

“I am a Sunni who is accused of supporting ISIS, and in the eyes of ISIS I am a Sunni who must be killed because I won’t join them,” Ani said. “So ask me if Saddam’s era was best now that a million people have died and many more have lost their homes.”

Al-Shabibi conceded that “Sunnis are having a hard time at the moment,” in part because of sectarian policies from Shiite leaders who’ve disappointed all Iraqis, not just Sunnis. But he said the ultimate blame lay with Saddam; his regime purged any promising leaders and drove out some of the country’s best minds. Such nuance is lost, however, when it comes down to a stark comparison of life now and under Saddam.

“Under Saddam, you knew who the enemy was,” he said. “Right now, it’s uncertainty. You don’t know who the enemy is.”

And, al-Shabibi said, he’s noticed the same kind of dictator nostalgia cropping up for other Arab leaders whose abrupt exits from power have led to a tangle of interconnected conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa.

“I’m hearing Libyans talk of Gadhafi with fondness,” al-Shabibi said of late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. “And I think, really? For them it’s only been three years.”

Photo: Raghad Saddam Hussein via Facebook

Nostalgia For Iraq’s Saddam Hussein Flowers On Social Media

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — On a recent Saturday evening, Ahmed al-Shabibi relaxed at a hookah cafe in England with other Iraqi friends — both Shiite and Sunni Muslims — when the conversation turned to the ongoing battle to reclaim the city of Tikrit from Islamic State jihadists.

A Sunni in the group lamented Iranian interference in the fight and boasted that such meddling never would’ve occurred under the former Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein. Al-Shabibi said he and the others agreed because, “Saddam, as you know, had a very interesting idea of security.”

But then the Sunni man went farther, chalking up Saddam’s atrocities to clairvoyance by asserting that “Saddam could see what Iran wanted to do” and had to keep a firm hand on the nation’s sovereignty. That’s when al-Shabibi and others from Shiite families who’d fled the old regime reminded their friend of a dark era that’s getting a whitewash these days because of the nonstop violence since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Nostalgia for Saddam is hardly new, but it appears to be reaching fever pitch these days because Iraq is in such bad shape, with vast territories lost to the Islamic State’s sadistic caliphate, the army in such shambles that Iranian-backed militias are filling the void, and Americans once again bombing on behalf of a Shiite-led government whose sectarian policies are regarded as chief drivers of the Islamic State’s appeal.

The yearning for a more orderly time, coupled with social media tools that weren’t around a decade ago, has led to a burst of pro-Saddam memes, flowery apologies on Facebook for doubting his tactics, endless Twitter wars over his legacy and several fan-created Tumblrs, including one that features a suave-looking Saddam smoking a cigar with a text bubble that asks, “Miss me?”

“I won’t say I have nightly arguments on Twitter, but it seems like it nowadays,” said al-Shabibi. “It’s from people who are clever and who, no doubt in my mind, love Iraq. But they keep talking about the ’80s like they were perfect. They think it was when Iraq was united and powerful. But they forget that it was also a time when people disappeared from the street.”

Part of the reason for the plethora of Saddam tributes now no doubt is owed to a confluence of events: the 12th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion on March 19, the April 9 anniversary of the toppling of the iconic Saddam statue in a Baghdad square and the fierce fighting going on now in and around Tikrit, just outside Saddam’s birthplace of Awja. Saddam’s mausoleum there was destroyed in the combat; Shiite militiamen filmed themselves cheering on top of the rubble, underscoring the broader sectarian score-settling that’s mixed up in the anti-extremist fight.

For Mohammed al Ani, Saddam’s toppling is at the root of the region’s current upheaval.

“Saddam was the tip of the spear facing Iran, and when it was broken, Arab countries fell one after another. He had been their strategic reserve of support and power,” said Ani, 36, a former member of Saddam’s Baath Party who’s seeking political asylum in Europe. “He was a man who understood his enemies and loved Iraq.”

In a scathing essay this month in which he compared the Islamic State to Hitler’s Third Reich, the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul called Saddam “the cat that kept the rats of Islamism at bay.”

“He may not have been a savory character,” Naipaul wrote, “but his overarching policies were holding on to power and modernizing Iraq.”

Even harsh critics of Saddam’s reign acknowledge that, in a turbulent region, he brought a measure of stability and security — that is, when he wasn’t waging war on neighboring Iran and Kuwait. Laws under Saddam guaranteed greater rights for women than in most Middle Eastern countries; rolling back women’s rights was among the first steps taken when conservative Shiites took power.

“I wouldn’t refute for a minute the good that he did, in terms of infrastructure. Generally, in terms of gender equality, not bad,” said Hasan Hafidh, whose Shiite merchant family went into exile after Saddam’s forces loaded them onto a pickup and dumped them at the Iranian border in 1978. “But in the grander picture, he was just — what can I say? — an autocrat who committed mass atrocities. That really overshadows any good that he did.”

Sick of what he considers historical revisionism, Hafidh, a graduate student in England whose focus is relations between Sunnis and Shiites, vented this month on Twitter: “How some people have the audacity and sheer nerve to practically venerate Saddam as if he were some holy figure will forever baffle me.”

One chief battleground for Saddam apologists vs. detractors is the official Facebook page of his daughter Raghad Saddam Hussein, who sometimes refers to her father in postings as “knight of the Arabs.” The comments section is typically ablaze with sectarian jabs in both directions. One debate topic is the widely held belief among Shiites that Islamic State militants are really just disgruntled former members of Saddam’s Baath party who switched clothes and espoused a new ideology in an attempt to reclaim power.

Raghad, Saddam’s daughter, only fueled the speculation of a Baathist-extremist alliance with a recent Facebook posting in which she hinted that her father’s old comrade, the fugitive Baathist Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, was involved in the current fight for Tikrit. She posted a photo of Douri with a message that said, “May God make you victorious.”

Ani, the Sunni former Baathist, said it was a myth that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, was just a new incarnation of the Baath party. The Baath party exists only on paper now, he said wistfully, with former members left jobless and sounding delusional about the prospects for restoring some kind of moderate, Sunni power.

With mainstream Sunnis caught in a tug of war between sectarian extremists, Ani said, is it any wonder that many are missing Saddam more than ever?

“I am a Sunni who is accused of supporting ISIS, and in the eyes of ISIS I am a Sunni who must be killed because I won’t join them,” Ani said. “So ask me if Saddam’s era was best now that a million people have died and many more have lost their homes.”

Al-Shabibi conceded that “Sunnis are having a hard time at the moment,” in part because of sectarian policies from Shiite leaders who’ve disappointed all Iraqis, not just Sunnis. But he said the ultimate blame lay with Saddam; his regime purged any promising leaders and drove out some of the country’s best minds. Such nuance is lost, however, when it comes down to a stark comparison of life now and under Saddam.

“Under Saddam, you knew who the enemy was,” he said. “Right now, it’s uncertainty. You don’t know who the enemy is.”

And, al-Shabibi said, he’s noticed the same kind of dictator nostalgia cropping up for other Arab leaders whose abrupt exits from power have led to a tangle of interconnected conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa.

“I’m hearing Libyans talk of Gadhafi with fondness,” al-Shabibi said of late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. “And I think, really? For them it’s only been three years.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Brian Hillegas via Flickr

Five Potential Pitfalls In Obama’s Plan To Combat The Islamic State

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sounded confident about his multi-pronged strategy to defeat the Islamic State.

He said the United States would bomb the extremists whether in Iraq or Syria, train local partners to conduct the mop-up effort on the ground, expand humanitarian aid to suffering communities and work closely with allies to prevent attacks on Western targets.

So, what could go wrong? Quite a bit, according to longtime observers of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Below are some potential pitfalls to Obama’s campaign against the Islamic State, as gleaned from interviews, analysis, social media postings and other commentary by foreign policy specialists who focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

Using Yemen and Somalia as success stories

Obama cited Yemen and Somalia as precedents for the kind of air-focused campaign he envisions to rout the Islamic State. But neither conflict has dealt a death blow to its intended target; they might even have strengthened the Qaida affiliates.

In Yemen, at least three key figures have been killed, but al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s senior leadership is largely intact and still appears capable of carrying out sophisticated, deadly attacks. In fact, the group has seen significant growth in the past three years, expanding from longtime desert bastions to more populated areas south of the capital, Sanaa.

In Somalia, the United States spent more than five years and close to $2 billion to fight al-Qaida’s al-Shabaab affiliate through the training and equipping of African Union and Somali government troops, and the Somali fighters are nowhere near as sophisticated and deep-pocketed as the Islamic State. But the group remains dangerous: Shabaab’s rampage through an upscale shopping mall in Kenya — the group’s deadliest attack on a Western target outside of Somalia — occurred after the group was weakened inside Somalia.

Touting the new Iraqi government as “inclusive”

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have praised the new Iraqi government as inclusive or representative — code words that amount to “more power for Sunni Muslims,” the minority sect whose marginalization by Shiite leaders only helped the Islamic State gain a foothold. Iraq observers caution that it’s still too early to slap labels on the government; so far there are fewer Sunnis in Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Cabinet than in the previous administration. Neither the defense minister nor the interior minister have been appointed.

Training local fighters in Iraq and Syria

The Obama administration has acknowledged that training a foreign force is difficult and risky, as evidenced by the vast American arsenal the Islamic State amassed after overwhelming U.S.-trained Iraqi forces that crumbled when tested.

For Iraq, Obama pledged more support for Kurdish militiamen, pro-government fighters and a new National Guard-style force that he suggested would be primarily Sunni. Each recipient of the U.S. largesse is problematic.

The Kurds have used Iraq’s crisis to expand their northern autonomous region and make big oil plays without Baghdad’s consent; there’s no guarantee that any training they receive would go toward keeping Iraq intact and sovereign. At the moment, the pro-government forces are mainly Iranian-backed Shiite militias. And it’s hard to imagine Shiite leaders swallowing the creation of a Sunni armed group that one day could challenge them for sectarian supremacy.

In Syria, it’s still unclear which “opposition” Obama means. He made no mention of the Free Syrian Army or the Supreme Military Command, two previous groups the U.S. government said it was equipping. Analysts say there’s no quick way to recruit, vet and train a rebel force in Syria; any such endeavor would take years and is no guarantee of success, as the United States saw with the collapse of its trainees in Iraq. And the U.S. won’t work with the two existing forces — the Syrian army and Kurdish rebels in the north — that could challenge the Islamic State.

So there’s still a huge question as to which power will seize control when and if the United States strikes the Islamic State inside Syria. Even the prospect of airstrikes raises questions: Administration officials said they have been authorized, but they also cautioned that they won’t take place anytime soon.

Pursuing a political solution in Syria

Obama was adamant that there’s no room for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his anti-Islamic State coalition. He promised to boost U.S. support for the Syria opposition, despite its failure to coalesce into viable entities on either the military or political fronts, and to revisit a plan for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

But the goal of a peaceful transfer of power has defied international diplomacy since the early days of the war, and circumstances haven’t changed enough on the ground to believe that this time would yield more success. Indeed, for the United States, one of the unwelcome realities of this campaign is that weakening the Islamic State is only likely to strengthen the Assad regime.

Foreign fighters and funding

The U.S. plan calls for enlisting Arab allies, especially Persian Gulf powers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to crack down on the flow of fighters and funds to the Islamic State. Here, the fighter pipeline issue might be better addressed with Turkey, whose borders are the key entry point for jihadists, and have been for years. And the idea that foreign donors “created” the Islamic State overlooks the remarkable self-sufficiency of the extremists, who’ve built a corporation-style management team, boast a diversified portfolio with revenues from stolen oil and kidnapping ransoms, and are adept at harnessing the Internet for propaganda that helps recruiting and donations.

AFP Photo

Officials: U.S. Knew Three Days Before Mosul Fell That Islamic State Was Moving Forces

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration knew an attack was in the works three days in advance of the Islamic State’s offensive in northern Iraq, but U.S. efforts to mount a response were hampered by the Iraqi government’s insistence that it could handle the threat, two top U.S. architects of Iraq policy said Wednesday.

The officials faced bipartisan criticism from the House Foreign Affairs Committee as members accused the Obama administration of taking insufficient steps to counter the expansionist goals of the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, an al-Qaida spinoff that now operates freely throughout most of eastern Syria and across the vast swaths of northwestern Iraq that it seized last month.

Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran who just returned from a seven-week trip to Baghdad, and his counterpart at the Defense Department, Elissa Slotkin, a former Iraq director for the National Security Council, told the panel that the U.S. government had tracked the Islamic State but was caught off guard by the scope of the extremists’ offensive and the rapid collapse of the American-trained Iraqi security forces.

“ISIL is no longer simply a terrorist organization,” McGurk said. “It is now a full-blown army seeking to establish a self-governing state through the Tigris and Euphrates Valley in what is now Syria and Iraq.”

McGurk said the United States warned the Iraqi government June 7 that American intelligence had received “early indications that ISIL was moving in force from Syria into Iraq and staging forces in western Mosul.” He said U.S. officials had sought the urgent deployment of Kurdish peshmerga militia forces to eastern Mosul to stop the extremists’ advance, but that the idea was blocked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration.

“The government of Baghdad did not share the same sense of urgency and did not approve the deployments,” McGurk said. “Iraqi military commanders promised to send nine brigades of force to Mosul in response to our warnings and we stressed, however, that the forces would not arrive in time.”

McGurk described the resulting events as “catastrophic.”

Within days, the Islamic State had captured Mosul with little resistance from the security forces. Four or five divisions of the Iraqi army simply dissolved. McGurk and Slotkin blamed poor leadership rather than a lack of fighting capability for the breakdown and called for an overhaul of Iraq’s defense forces.

But McGurk bristled against suggestions that the Obama administration could have done more, noting that President Barack Obama already had ordered “a surge of intelligence assets,” asked U.S. special forces to get an “eyes-on picture” from the ground, and had moved an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf after Islamic State campaigns in Iraq’s Anbar province earlier this year.

McGurk said, however, that earlier U.S. intelligence assessments lacked the “granular” details necessary before any U.S. commitment of military force. He said U.S. officials were now studying a clearer picture of the group and its standing on the ground as the Obama administration weighs deeper military engagement in the conflict.

Slotkin described the Islamic State as “one of the most capable and best-funded groups in the region right now,” more worrisome than previous al-Qaida-style networks because of the amount of territory it holds, its self-funding capabilities, its “war-tested” foot soldiers, and the Western passport-holders among its members.

She and McGurk noted the group’s old statements praising Osama bin Laden and said that the Islamic State’s break from central al-Qaida command signals its desire to lead the “global jihad.” That makes it a direct threat to U.S. national security, the officials argued.

But there was little indication that the Obama administration had moved from its insistence that any further U.S. support would come only after Iraqi politicians took steps toward breaking the political deadlock and forming a new, more inclusive government.

“There will not be an exclusively military solution to the threat posed by ISIL,” Slotkin said. “The Iraqis must do the heavy lifting.”

At the hearing, legislators asked bluntly, and in various ways, whether the beleaguered al-Maliki should go, whether the United States should carry out airstrikes against the militants and whether Iraq should remain intact or fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The responses from McGurk and Slotkin offered no significant policy changes. The officials mostly repeated administration talking points: that Iraqis are forming a government after successful elections, that military options are under consideration but must be accompanied by political reforms, and that a decentralized “functioning federalism” is the most workable governmental model available under the Iraqi constitution.

Slotkin noted in her testimony that the partition scenario is problematic chiefly because of a lack of Sunni Muslim leaders who could work with a central government; most majority-Sunni territories are now either contested or fully under the control of the extremists and their allies from local tribes and Saddam Hussein’s former military and intelligence forces.

“Who’s in charge of that western and north-central part of Iraq in that model?” Slotkin asked.

AFP Photo

In Iraq’s Most Sacred City, A Governor From Michigan Holds Sway

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Foreign Staff

NAJAF, Iraq — The governor of Iraq’s most sacred territory is a slick-haired, sharp-dressed, foul-mouthed, sleep-deprived workaholic who’s lost track of how many times he’s been hauled into court on charges of abuse of power: “Maybe ten? Twenty?”

Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi makes no apologies for his brash style of leadership, which he says is the reason he’s among the last of the U.S. occupation-era appointees to hold office. If he were more diplomatic, chances are he wouldn’t have survived here given his American citizenship and hard-line stance against the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias that hold parallel authority.

“I’m the only one who came from the States and kept fighting and fighting and fighting,” al-Zurufi said in an interview that began at midnight, about the time he starts to wind down a typical workday.

The years of street battles and assassination attempts have hardened al-Zurufi for what’s shaping up to be his biggest fight yet. It’s his job to protect Najaf’s revered Imam Ali shrine from the extremists of the Islamic State, a self-proclaimed caliphate that’s seized roughly a third of Iraq. Breaching the shrine would hand the Sunni Muslim militants a symbolic victory — proof of their ability to strike at the heart of Shiite worship — and likely would plunge the country into deeper sectarian warfare.

That’s not going to happen on his watch, al-Zurufi vowed.

“They plan to attack the shrine and they’ve been thinking about it a long time,” he said. “I’m focusing very deeply on their activities and working hard to prevent them from entering Najaf either with car bombs or by building networks here.”

Al-Zurufi has plenty of firsthand experience with a militant group infiltrating Najaf. After years of living in Chicago and then Dearborn Heights, Mich., he returned to Iraq and in 2004 was appointed governor by then-U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer. Al-Zurufi’s swearing-in came just as supporters of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr launched the war’s first Shiite uprising against the U.S. military, holing up in the shrine and seizing Najaf’s police stations and other public buildings.

The Sadrists dismissed al-Zurufi as an American puppet, but the governor stood his ground, albeit under U.S. protection, until an agreement was brokered and the militants melted back into their neighborhoods.

Today, al-Zurufi contrasts his conduct with that of the governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, who faces sharp criticism for fleeing the provincial capital of Mosul during the Islamic State’s northern offensive last month.

Al-Zurufi all but called al-Nujaifi a coward, saying he had no respect for a leader who abandoned his post and then tried to shift the blame to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Nujaifi has said his only option was to flee because al-Maliki’s military collapsed and he had no resources to keep the extremists at bay.

“If I am a man, I have to stand and fight,” al-Zurufi said. “I stayed in Najaf and fought the militias; I fought Shiites. I didn’t leave my city.”

Al-Zurufi lost the first elections after his standoff with militants and spent 2006 to 2009 working for the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks describes al-Zurufi at that time as the deputy director of the ministry’s National Information and Investigation Agency and says he was involved in the repatriation of four Iraqi detainees at the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Despite a dismal fourth-place showing in the 2009 polls, al-Zurufi returned to the governor’s office through a surprise agreement hashed out with more powerful religious parties. With his wife and children back in the United States, he focused single-mindedly on turning Najaf into a success story on the security, commercial and education fronts.

And he didn’t mind bending the rules to do it, readily admitting that he skirts government regulations so his pet projects don’t get mired in Iraq’s notorious bureaucracy.

“I don’t care about the law — I care about people,” he said. “I care about the happiness of the city.”

Al-Zurufi added that he’s personally interrogated suspected al-Qaida operatives from two cells that he said security forces busted in 2010. When a visitor asked what that entailed, he replied flatly: “I beat them. They’re germs, animals; not humans.”

His first two stints as governor came through appointment but last year’s election was different: He finished first in the polls, ahead of extremely influential religious parties that have close ties to the clerical class.

Al-Zurufi’s campaign posters still flutter in the wind next to banners of religious icons and the menacing mug of his foe, the cleric al-Sadr. For all the enmity between the two, al-Zurufi said they’d come face to face just once, at a funeral last year. He said al-Sadr had sat near him at the service and the two traded barbs, but he wouldn’t divulge details.

“Go ask him,” al-Zurufi said, laughing. “He knows the story.”

Street interviews with voters from Najaf confirmed many of al-Zurufi’s claims: that he spends several hours a day in local schools, he introduced free tutoring for high school students and he hops in police patrols nearly every night to check on his city’s security. One police officer, Ahmed Abdelamir, 33, said he’d been startled to show up for work and find the governor himself manning a checkpoint.

While some residents privately complained that al-Zurufi is turning Najaf into his own fiefdom, giving sweetheart deals to cronies, they didn’t dispute that the city has flourished in recent years, with Shiite pilgrims from across the Muslim world packing the refurbished hotels in the old quarter near the shrine. Construction projects dot the city and investors don’t seem scared to do business here: One massive zone heralds the future spot of a branch of the French department store Carrefour.

Still, residents wonder whether al-Zurufi really can guarantee that security forces here won’t dissolve, as they did up north, if the Islamic State attacks. They point to recent skirmishes between the security forces and supporters of a radical cleric in nearby Karbala; reports say the Baghdad-based special forces known as the Golden Division had to come help the overwhelmed local officers.

“I would vote for Zurufi for the next 100 years because I think he’s a good fit for Najaf,” said Shnawa Hassan, 63, a retired shopkeeper. “But I’m concerned. If something happens here, will Najaf also need the Golden Division or will the military be able to defend the city?”

Al-Zurufi said he heard the worries firsthand on his walks around Najaf and tried his best to reassure nervous constituents. He faces a balancing act in trying to bolster provincial security without turning Najaf into a fortress with militiamen roaming the streets.

The reconstitution of outlaw Shiite militias is of nearly equal concern to al-Zurufi as the possibility of an Islamic State assault. He worries that they have religious cover to carry weapons again now that the highest Shiite religious authority has issued a fatwa for all Iraqis to defend their homeland against the extremists.

“Now I see them at checkpoints with weapons and they can say, ‘We’re training. We’re going to jihad,’ ” al-Zurufi lamented.

Al-Zurufi said he was deeply disappointed in the Obama administration’s reluctance to devote more military resources to the crisis.

He summed up the U.S. response in a word: “bull—-.”

He said the U.S. approach of attaching conditions to military help in Iraq’s time of need was forcing his country to rely more on Iran. He made it a point to mention that Qassem Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s Quds Force, a division of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, had visited Najaf in the past couple of weeks. Al-Zurufi said Suleimani was “trying to assist,” but also is taking advantage of what al-Zurufi described as a widening trust gap between Washington and Baghdad.

“All your kids were killed here, and you tell me you’re watching closely?” Al-Zurufi said of the American response. “Watching for what? It wouldn’t be hard for them to get everybody to stop all this. I know the power of the United States.”

Photo: Hannah Allam/MCT

Exchange Of Idaho Soldier Bowe Bergdahl For Taliban Detainees Sets Off Debate

By Hannah Allam and James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau

(MCT)
WASHINGTON _ An American soldier who spent nearly five years in Taliban captivity was freed Saturday in exchange for five members of the Taliban who’d been imprisoned for years at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, in an unprecedented prisoner exchange that sparked both jubilation and controversy.

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, 28, the only U.S. soldier taken captive by the enemy in 12 years of the Afghanistan conflict, was turned over to a U.S. military task force in eastern Afghanistan at about 10:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, U.S. officials said. Less than four hours later, the five Taliban detainees took off from Guantanamo headed for the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, which brokered the deal. Under the terms of their transfer, the five are to remain in Qatar for at least a year.

President Barack Obama, flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, made brief televised remarks Saturday evening, thanking the foreign governments, American diplomats and U.S. military personnel who were behind the release effort.

“Sergeant Bergdahl has missed birthdays, and holidays and simple moments with family and friends which all of us take for granted,” Obama said. “But while Bowe was gone, he was never forgotten.”

Bergdahl’s parents, Jani and Bob Bergdahl, echoed the president in short, emotional remarks of their own in which they suggested that their son faced a long recovery after his years under Taliban control. Bob Bergdahl said he son was having trouble speaking English. Then, he addressed his son directly in Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. “I am your father,” he then translated.

The deal resolves the question of whether the U.S. military would withdraw from Afghanistan without Bergdahl, who went missing from his base on June 30, 2009. But it also immediately sparked controversy.

For one, the Obama administration failed to notify Congress that it was transferring the five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo 30 days in advance, as U.S. law requires. U.S. officials explained the decision to notify Congress only as the detainees were turned over to Qatari diplomats by saying Obama was acting in his capacity as commander in chief.
“This is a case of the commander in chief exercising his prerogative to get one of his soldiers back,” one official said. He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to address the issue publicly.

But some members of Congress were unimpressed. “Our joy at Sergeant Bergdahl’s release is tempered by the fact that President Obama chose to ignore the law, not to mention sound policy, to achieve it,” said a joint statement by Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, (R-OK), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There were also questions about the wisdom–and precedent–of freeing five high-ranking Taliban, all of whom were on the list of detainees not eligible for release, in exchange for one American service member.

“These particular individuals are hardened terrorists who have the blood of Americans and countless Afghans on their hands,” said Sen. John McCain, (R-AZ), who himself was a POW in Vietnam. “I am eager to learn what precise steps are being taken to ensure that these vicious and violent Taliban extremists never return to the fight against the United States and our partners.”

And there were nagging questions about the circumstances of Bergdahl’s captivity. How Bergdahl came to leave his base in Afghanistan has never been clear, and some have suggested he should be treated as a deserter, not a captive.

Bergdahl’s hometown of Hailey, Idaho, where nearly every tree bears a yellow ribbon in his honor, erupted in jubilation as news of his release spread. A truck with a loudspeaker circled the city announcing that Bergdahl was free, eliciting cheers from residents who’d watched for years as his parents lobbied to make winning their son’s freedom a priority for the Obama administration.

The five transferred Taliban were identified as Mohammad Fazl, Mullah Norullah Noori, Mohammed Nabi, Khairullah Khairkhwa and Abdul Haq Wasiq. The possibility of their exchange for Bergdahl had long been rumored, but U.S. officials said it was only a week ago that the detail resulting in Saturday’s exchange seemed likely. Obama during his televised remarks said he had thanked the emir of Qatar for his assistance in working on Bergdahl’s release earlier this week.

A Pentagon official gave this account of Bergdahl’s release:
“A few dozen U.S. special forces received him, supported by multiple helicopters and overhead Intelligence Reconnaissance platforms. There were approximately 18 Taliban on site as well. We have no reports of shots being fired, and Sgt. Bergdahl was returned (to U.S. custody) once contact was made.”

At Guantanamo, thousands of miles away, the five Taliban detainees were turned over to Qatari diplomats about 90 minutes later. They were put aboard a U.S. C-17 cargo plane, accompanied by the diplomats, which took off the Caribbean naval base shortly before 2 p.m. EDT.

Bergdahl was able to walk and speak, the defense official said. After receiving medical treatment at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, he was to be flown to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital in Germany, for further medical care, and then was to travel to the San Antonio Military Medical Center, the official said.

“Depending on the wishes of his family, we’re working to connect him with his family via telephone or video conference soon, and at this point we expect they’ll be reunited in Texas,” the defense official said.

(AFP Photo)

Sanctions On Russia Over Ukraine Not Expected To Damage Delicate Diplomacy On Syria, Iran

By Hannah Allam, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Before slapping Russia with the most serious sanctions since the Cold War era, the Obama administration calculated that such a breach in bilateral relations wouldn’t affect joint U.S.-Russian efforts on other urgent diplomatic initiatives, especially with Syria and Iran.

Foreign policy analysts said the gamble behind the administration’s announcement Monday of sanctions against 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials — the alleged architects of the Crimea annexation campaign — makes sense.

The U.S. focus on chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict fulfills Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, and Russian influence in the talks on Iran’s nuclear program has diminished, according to analysts who specialize in U.S.-Russian relations.

Those conclusions suggest that the State Department’s compartmentalization policy will succeed, avoiding a severing of U.S.-Russian ties but still light years away from what the Obama administration once had envisioned as a “reset” with Moscow.

Analysts warned, however, that the future of relations depends on whether Putin decides to expand his Crimea incursion into eastern Ukraine — a move that would invite a more severe Western backlash, with the potential for a total breakdown in diplomatic relations.

“Controlling his neighborhood is more important to him,” said James Goldgeier, a Russia specialist and dean of the School of International Service at American University in Washington. “Keeping Ukraine from creating any real relations with the West is more important to him than these other diplomatic issues.”

U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss the sanctions, told journalists via conference call Monday that it was clear that U.S.-Russian relations were fraying, with the American side canceling trade and commercial meetings, suspending bilateral military exercises and scrapping G8 preparatory meetings.

“But if you look at the scope of those other issues, on the Syrian chemical weapons issue, Russia is deeply invested in that project,” a U.S. official said. “And in fact, we’ve seen a picking up of the pace in terms of the removal of that CW (chemical weapons), of the CW from Syria.”

Goldgeier said the Russian position has driven the agenda on Syria since last summer, when President Barack Obama made the controversial decision to call off airstrikes against the Damascus regime.

The result — no immediate threat to Assad’s rule — is exactly what the Russians wanted, so there would be no reason for them to withdraw their involvement, he said.

“From the Russian standpoint, Syria has gone quite well since last summer, so Crimea shouldn’t really have an effect on their approach,” Goldgeier said.

“The chemical weapons issue is something the Russians have emphasized in order to take pressure off the U.S. to act militarily. It shouldn’t be misconstrued as a concession that’s part of a broader strategy to end the conflict,” he said.

Faysal Itani, a fellow with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said Russia’s cooperation on the chemical weapons removal was no “concession that’s part of a broader strategy to end the conflict.” On the contrary, Itani said, the agreement is hinged on Russia’s desire to keep Assad in power and the Obama administration’s inability to craft a consistent response to the Syrian civil war.

“The Obama administration, because it doesn’t have a solid, robust, strategic worldview, treats these issues in a crisis management sort of way,” Itani said.

On Iran’s nuclear program, analysts said, Russia’s importance to negotiations has waned since the emergence of a tentative thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. No longer did the United States need to rely on the Russians as interlocutors or as supporters of sanctions — the Americans had restored direct contact with the Iranians for the first time in decades.

A U.S. official on the call with reporters Monday said “Russia would only be further isolating itself” if it were to withdraw its cooperation from the so-called P5(plus)1 talks, an international effort to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions that has the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, negotiating together.

“Russia has its own interests in avoiding an escalation of events in the Persian Gulf or nuclear proliferation,” the official said.

Olga Oliker, a Russia specialist and senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp., said it remains to be seen “whether they’re willing to cut off their nose to spite their face to make things difficult for us in Syria and Iran.”

Oliker and other analysts said the Obama administration has given Russian relations an exaggerated importance when, in reality, there’s so little substance that the sanctions aren’t likely to sway Putin. A stream of phone calls and high-level diplomatic talks with the Russians didn’t work, analysts say, and these limited sanctions against Putin’s cronies and aides aren’t likely to, either.

“If Russia takes some sort of military action in eastern Ukraine, we’ll add more people to the list?” Oliker asked rhetorically about the next U.S. step. “I don’t think anybody expects this will lead Russia to leave Crimea, or will deter it from further action.”

AFP Photo/Jewel Samad