Exclusive: Intercepted Calls Prove Syrian Army Used Nerve Gas, U.S. Spies Say

 

Bodies of people activists say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region are seen in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus

 

Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.

But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?”

American intelligence analysts are certain that chemical weapons were used on Aug. 21 — the captured phone calls, combined with local doctors’ accounts and video documentation of the tragedy — are considered proof positive. That is why the U.S. government, from the president on down, has been unequivocal in its declarations that the Syrian military gassed thousands of civilians in the East Ghouta region.

Read more at Foreign Policy

Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack – NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — As President Obama weighs options for responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, his national security aides are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations.

With Russia still likely to veto any military action in the Security Council, the president appears to be wrestling with whether to bypass the United Nations, although he warned that doing so would require a robust international coalition and legal justification.

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work?” Mr. Obama said on Friday to CNN, in his first public comments after the deadly attack on Wednesday.

Mr. Obama described the attack as “clearly a big event of grave concern” and acknowledged that the United States had limited time to respond. But he said United Nations investigators needed to determine whether chemical weapons had been used.

Kosovo is an obvious precedent for Mr. Obama because, as in Syria, civilians were killed and Russia had longstanding ties to the government authorities accused of the abuses. In 1999, President Bill Clinton used the endorsement of NATO and the rationale of protecting a vulnerable population to justify 78 days of airstrikes.

Read more at The New York Times.

Little Doubt: Experts Attest to Use of Nerve Gas in Syria

A man holds the body of a child allegedly killed by a nerve gas attack in Syria on Wednesday.

Experts are convinced that the hundreds of people who died in attacks in Syria on Wednesday were the victims of chemical weapons. It is yet to be confirmed, however, exactly what was deployed and whether the Assad regime is indeed responsible.

Gruesome scenes played out Wednesday morning in footage of the overcrowded hospitals of Arbeen, a suburb east of Damascus. People writhe on the floor screaming, as more and more dead fill the hallways. Doctors and nurses try to revive the victims with onion juice and garlic. They rub onion halves on their skin, pour cold water over them as they twitch uncontrollably.

“What else can we do? We don’t have anything else,” says Abu Ahmad, a pharmacist who lives in Arbeen. The area has been under the control of the rebels since the beginning of the year and, for the past few months, almost entirely cut off from the outside world by the military forces under Syrian autocrat Bashar Assad. Some 10,000 people still live there.

As of Wednesday, the death toll in Arbeen was 63. But if what the opposition is reporting turns out to be true, that is only a small sliver of the carnage: Up to 1,300 people were allegedly killed in a toxic gas attack by the Syrian army that day.

Shocking videos have been uploaded to YouTube. In them, children are seen to make up a large percentage of the dead. The videos have already had political consequences, as governments around the world reacted with horror. On Wednesday evening, the UN Security Council announced the need for “clarity” about the reported use of chemical weapons, but they didn’t reach agreement about launching an investigation.

Read more at Der Spiegel

Timing a Rise in Sea Level


The fast-retreating Sheldon Glacier in Antarctica. A collapse of a polar ice sheet could result in a jump in sea level.

Thirty-five years ago, a scientist named John H. Mercer issued a warning. By then it was already becoming clear that human emissions would warm the earth, and Dr. Mercer had begun thinking deeply about the consequences.

His paper, in the journal Nature, was titled “West Antarctic Ice Sheet and CO2 Greenhouse Effect: A Threat of Disaster.” In it, Dr. Mercer pointed out the unusual topography of the ice sheet sitting over the western part of Antarctica. Much of it is below sea level, in a sort of bowl, and he said that a climatic warming could cause the whole thing to degrade rapidly on a geologic time scale, leading to a possible rise in sea level of 16 feet.

While it is clear by now that we are in the early stages of what is likely to be a substantial rise in sea level, we still do not know if Dr. Mercer was right about a dangerous instability that could cause that rise to happen rapidly, in geologic time. We may be getting closer to figuring that out.

An intriguing new paper comes from Michael J. O’Leary of Curtin University in Australia and five colleagues scattered around the world. Dr. O’Leary has spent more than a decade exploring the remote western coast of Australia, considered one of the best places in the world to study sea levels of the past.

The paper, published July 28 in Nature Geoscience, focuses on a warm period in the earth’s history that preceded the most recent ice age. In that epoch, sometimes called the Eemian, the planetary temperature was similar to levels we may see in coming decades as a result of human emissions, so it is considered a possible indicator of things to come.

Examining elevated fossil beaches and coral reefs along more than a thousand miles of coast, Dr. O’Leary’s group confirmed something we pretty much already knew. In the warmer world of the Eemian, sea level stabilized for several thousand years at about 10 to 12 feet above modern sea level.

The interesting part is what happened after that. Dr. O’Leary’s group found what they consider to be compelling evidence that near the end of the Eemian, sea level jumped by another 17 feet or so, to settle at close to 30 feet above the modern level, before beginning to fall as the ice age set in.

In an interview, Dr. O’Leary told me he was confident that the 17-foot jump happened in less than a thousand years — how much less, he cannot be sure.

This finding is something of a vindication for one member of the team, a North Carolina field geologist, Paul J. Hearty. He had argued for decades that the rock record suggested a jump of this sort, but only recently have measurement and modeling techniques reached the level of precision needed to nail the case.

Read more at The New York Times

Assad Regime Bombards Damascus Suburbs with Chemical Weapons

Syrian Coalition
Istanbul, Turkey
Augusts 21, 2013

The Syrian Coalition calls upon the Security Council of the United Nations to hold an emergency session on the latest Assad crimes against the Syrian people. We urge the Security Council to condemn Assad’s crimes and issue a resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter pertaining to maintaining international peace and security to which Assad has undoubtedly become the biggest threat.

The Syrian Coalition emphasizes that the Security Council’s failure to assume its responsibilities towards the unfolding situation in Syria would raise questions about its raison d’être. If the Security Council does not act firmly, it will lose all legitimacy.

Assad forces have committed clear massacres against hundreds of unarmed and defenseless civilians, shelling the eastern and western Ghouta areas with chemical agents. The Syrian Coalition calls upon the Friends of Syria to act immediately and not wait for the Russian veto to once again cover up Assad’s crimes. Countries who claim to be friends of Syria must come together to put an end to the Syrian tragedy by immediately restraining Assad’s crimes.

Read more at Syrian National Coalition

Rick Perry Quietly Lobbies The White House For $100 Million In Obamacare Funding | ThinkProgress

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)

Politico reported Tuesday evening that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) administration is in negotiations with the Obama White House to accept about $100 million in federal money to implement an Obamacare Medicaid program to help elderly and disabled Americans.

Perry has been a heated opponent of the health law. He refused to accept $100 billion in federal funding to expand Texas’ Medicaid program under Obamacare, which could have helped 1.5 million poor Texans afford basic health benefits. As recently as April, Perry essentially called the expansion a joke. “Seems to me April Fool’s Day is the perfect day to discuss something as foolish as Medicaid expansion, and to remind everyone that Texas will not be held hostage by the Obama administration’s attempt to force us into the fool’s errand of adding more than a million Texans to a broken system,” said Perry.

Now, Perry is seeking federal dollars for Texas’ Medicaid program anyway.

Read more at ThinkProgress

Rami Abdul Rahman’s Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

“I am a simple citizen from a simple family who has managed to accomplish something huge using simple means,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

COVENTRY, England — Military analysts in Washington follow its body counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war. The United Nations and human rights organizations scour its descriptions of civilian killings for evidence in possible war crimes trials. Major news organizations, including this one, cite its casualty figures.

Yet, despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street in this drab industrial city.

Using the simplest, cheapest Internet technology available, Mr. Abdul Rahman spends virtually every waking minute tracking the war in Syria, disseminating bursts of information about the fighting and the death toll. What began as sporadic, rudimentary e-mails about protests early in the uprising has swelled into a torrent of statistics and details.

Read more at The New York Times.

5 Terrifying Statements in the Leaked Climate Report | Mother Jones

In the long run, global sea level rise could easily exceed 5 meters. Brendan Howard/Shutterstock

Climate Desk has obtained a leaked copy of the draft Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 Summary for Policymakers report, which other media outlets are also reporting on. The document is dated June 7, 2013. We recognize, as we’ve previously reported, that this document is not final, and is in fact certain to change.

Most media outlets are focusing on the document’s conclusion that it is now “extremely likely”—or, 95 percent certain—that humans are behind much of the global warming seen over the last six decades. But there is much more of note about the document—for instance, the way it doesn’t hold back. It says, very bluntly, just how bad global warming is going to be. It gives a sense of irreversibility, of scale…and, of direness.

In particular, here are five “holy crap” statements from the new draft report:

We’re on course to change the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.” This is a general statement in the draft report about the consequences of continued greenhouse gas emissions “at or above current rates.” Unprecedented changes will sweep across planetary systems, ranging from sea level to the acidification of the ocean.

Read more at Mother Jones.

Wolves Under Review – NYTimes.com

A gray wolf in 2008. The only wolf populations to have protection going forward would be Mexican wolves in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Associated Press
A gray wolf in 2008. The only wolf populations to have protection going forward would be Mexican wolves in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, via Associated Press

 

In June, the Fish and Wildlife Service prematurely proposed to end federal protection for gray wolves in the lower 48 states in the belief that wolves had fully recovered from near eradication in the early 20th century. This was politics masquerading as science. The Fish and Wildlife Service would love to shed the responsibility of protecting large carnivores, like the wolf and the grizzly bear, and hunters and ranchers throughout the Rocky Mountains would love to see wolves eradicated all over again.

By law, a decision like this one — to remove an animal from the endangered species list — requires a peer review: an impartial examination of wolf numbers, population dynamics and the consequences of proposed actions. But science and politics have gotten tangled up again. The private contractor, a consulting firm called AMEC, which was hired to run the review, removed three scientists from the review panel. Each of the scientists had signed a May 21 letter to Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, criticizing the plan to turn wolf management over to the states.

Read more at The New York Times

That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think

A domestic cat with a European rabbit. Domestic and feral cats are significant predators of a wide range of prey species, including rabbits.

For all the adorable images of cats that play the piano, flush the toilet, mew melodiously and find their way back home over hundreds of miles, scientists have identified a shocking new truth: cats are far deadlier than anyone realized.

In a report that scaled up local surveys and pilot studies to national dimensions, scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats in the United States — both the pet Fluffies that spend part of the day outdoors and the unnamed strays and ferals that never leave it — kill a median of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, most of them native mammals like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than introduced pests like the Norway rat.

The estimated kill rates are two to four times higher than mortality figures previously bandied about, and position the domestic cat as one of the single greatest human-linked threats to wildlife in the nation. More birds and mammals die at the mouths of cats, the report said, than from automobile strikes, pesticides and poisons, collisions with skyscrapers and windmills and other so-called anthropogenic causes.

Read more at The New York Times