Road Trip Views of Italy

Regions

Photos of a week long road trip along the coast of Italy taken in the last week of December 2015.

The Most Dangerous Dam in the World: Mosul Dam

Middle East & North Africa

The Mosul Dam is in danger of collapse due to the increased rainstorms and the resulting flood would be devastating. As Iraq’s largest dam, it would send a 15 foot wall of water down the river to Baghdad and Mosul would be engulfed in a flood. The immediate impact would result in approximately 500,000 people’s deaths and the environmental impact could severely harm the quality of life for people in the Nineveh, Kirkuk, and Salahadin provinces. Specifically, the resulting famine and disease would affect the region for years to come.

   Maintenance work on the dam is the Iraqi government’s responsibility, but has not taken place since 2014. The necessary repairs to stop the erosion are estimated at a cost of $250 million to $500 million, according to members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party MP in the Kurdistan parliament.

    The threat of demise arises from the soil foundation of the dam. It is built on water soluble soils that must be constantly replenished to prevent collapse. The combination of gypsum, anhydrite, marl, and limestone continually dissolve in water. 

   The Mosul Dam was once known as Saddam Dam. Constructed in 1983, it stands 113 meters high and 3650 meters long along the Tigris River. It is the second largest dam in the Middle East and provides electricity to 1.7 million residents in Mosul.

   Following the immediate wave, disease would surely follow. Water-borne diseases, such as cholera would run ramped. Iraq already experienced a cholera outbreak in September due to the influx of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Floods typically submerge with sewer systems, which would only intensify the outbreak. The strength of the water deluge from the Mosul Dam would also destroy several buildings which could contain an array of toxic materials such as paints and gasoline.

   The danger of the Mosul Dam isn’t solely structural. In August of 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized the dam, but Kurdish peshmerga forces took it back. Sitting on the frontline, there is no doubt a collapse would have a significant impact on the battle between ISIS and the peshmerga forces.

   However, Iraqi officials are dismissing the US reports of the danger as alarmist.  A US Army Corps of  Engineers report stated that decomposition of the soil is occurring at a faster rate than it did before construction in 2007. The report went so far as to call the dam the most dangerous in the world.

   If repairs are not made as soon as possible, Iraq will have another national crisis to deal with.

 

More than Numbers: A Snapshot of Life as a Syrian Refugee

Middle East & North Africa

I have the privilege of volunteering for the Rise Foundation’s Castle Art Project at the Akre Syrian Refugee Camp every Friday in Iraq. Originally one of Saddam Hussein’s prison camps, the project aims to empower the children to change their desolate environment by painting murals.

For most, the Syrian refugee crisis is a long number and a tragedy. At least, that’s the general response I get from people back home. But that long number ( estimated at 9.5 million) is made up of faces, hands, and hearts that feel just like ours. That tragedy is someone’s life story, for better or worse.

Rather than rant about how we should look at and treat the refugee crisis, I’d like to show you some of the profound people I’ve been lucky enough to meet. Be sure to check out the Castle Art Project as well.

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Holland Beyond the Crowds

Europe

If you attempt to stand still in the streets of Amsterdam for longer than 5 seconds, you will be whisked away by the throngs of tourists and locals converging on narrow cobblestone streets. Wander onto the slightly less congested bike lanes, and you’ll become a hit and run victim by one of the law abiding bikers.

Holland’s beauty is provocatively on display for all to see. And that’s not a reference to the infamous red light district, but rather a testament to precise canal planning and unique building architecture. With so much refinement on display, it’s hard to look beyond into the tiny infinite instances that make a trip to Holland unique. This photo essay is my attempt to see beyond the typical and find the quintessential Dutch culture during my stay.

These are by no means all inclusive, just a reflection of my personal experience:

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The Fate of Democracy in Kurdistan

Regions

   In a region of staggering instability, President Massoud Barzani has maintained steadfast control over his government and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Originally appointed to the presidency by Parliament in 2005, he has a decade long legacy of moderate policies, democratic enhancements, and a strong history of security. However, his golden age of power was meant to sunset on August 19, 2015.

   The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is insisting on a 2 year extension because of security threats in the region. This may sound familiar, because Barzani’s term was already extended in 2013 by 2 years before ISIS was even a significant threat.

   When his term was last extended, Article 1 of Law number 19 of the Kurdish parliament stated, “The term of the president that expires on August 20, 2013, will be extended until August 19, 2015, and cannot be extended for a second time.”

   The KDP has tried arguing that since Barzani was technically appointed to the presidency by Parliament in 2005 and not elected until 2009, he should be legally able to run for another term. They’ve also tried petitioning the Kurdistan Consultative Council to rule on whether or not Barzani can extend his term once more, but the request never came to fruition due to the unrequited required approval by the Speaker of Parliament.

    Realistically, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is in no shape financially or security-wise to host an electoral election. The lack of financial support would make it impossible for the High Electoral Commission to run an election at all, never mind a fair one.

   However, a 12 year term as president is not in the region’s best interest either. History shows that centralized power in the hands of one individual makes them virtually the only decision-maker after a certain period of time. Presidential dominance will drive away the best potential officials who will go abroad or into private business instead because of the lack of opportunity. Countless examples of the negative effects of long terms in office can be seen in many of Africa’s leaders such as President Museveni of Uganda, President Bashir of Sudan, President Kabila of Congo, and many more. That’s not to mention the Middle East’s reputation for dictatorial governments stemming from the extension of originally elected terms.

   Of course, term limits place some restrictions on democratic choice, but governments with weak institutional restraints on executive power generally have more substantial problems to worry about. Even if Barzani is the best politician for the job, the region of Kurdistan would benefit from a change in power on an institutional stability basis. Furthermore, there’s no law to say that Barzani can’t act as an advisor in some official or unofficial capacity to the new President.

   To solve the issue of leadership most quickly, cost effectively, and securely Parliament should elect a qualified President accepted by the majority of political parties in the region. International leaders, such as the United States, can help make this transition successful by voicing support and continuing the under the table involvement in Kurdistan’s politics.

The Matti Friedman Story: A Different Perspective on Israel

Americas, Middle East & North Africa

Matti Friedman

Former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman outlined a behind-the-scenes look at what he considers media bias against Israel in a presentation sponsored by the American Jewish Committee in Newton, MA on February 3rd.

Friedman recently published two stories about the media coverage of Israel titled, “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth” in Tablet and “What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel” in The Atlantic.

“The narrative of Israel is very carefully engineered,” said Friedman at Temple Emanuel.

Both stories received viral positive and negative attention. The overarching theme in both articles states that journalists craft their stories in the Gaza Strip to fit a single narrative of Israel as the ultimate perpetrator.

He lists several examples of publishing certain stories against the Associated Press’ code of conduct as long as they fit the Palestinian side of the story.

One of his examples is refusing to quote a pro-Israel NGO called Monitor who had made concessions about Israel’s war crimes, but accepting pro-Palestinian anonymous sources against the Associated Press ethics code.

The Associated Press issued a press release on Dec 1, 2014 refuting these claims.

His [Friedman] arguments have been filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies, both about the recent Gaza war and more distant events. His suggestion of AP bias against Israel is false. There’s no ‘narrative’ that says it is Israel that doesn’t want peace; the story of this century-long conflict is more complicated than that.”

   The Director of the American Jewish Committee, Robert Leikind, introduced Friedman as “telling a different kind of story about Israel.”

Although the majority of the approximately 200 attendees were Jewish, many brought up varying viewpoints on Friedman’s claims. Some audience members nodded their heads in agreement fervently, others chose to leave early, and a couple dared to directly question him.

One attendant contested Friedman’s claim that the Associated Press’ Jerusalem Bureau hired up to 40 full time staff to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the most important issue in the Middle East. Friedman’s peg was that the Associated Press only had 1 part time stringer in Syria, where thousands of more people were dying.

The attendee, who asked not to be named, directly refuted the claim and asked whether or not that could be seen as a safety issue rather than clear cut bias.

Despite the intensity of the discussion, Friedman stayed strong through the hot spots. He went as far as admitting fault on his part as a Jewish reporter.

“During my time at the AP, I was overcorrecting not to show bias,” Friedman said.

Friedman didn’t rest all blame on the press corps, though. He raised the point that no prior knowledge is required to cover conflicts such as these and gave the example of his coverage of the Russian invasion of Georgia.

“When you have a lack of knowledge, you’re more susceptible to group think,” said Friedman.

He also raised a concern about college students’ perceptions of Israel a few times throughout the event.

“Those are the ones that are going to be journalists and congressional aides. They’re the ones witnessing Israel being portrayed as a pariah,” he said.

America’s Next New Warplane: Worth It Or Not?

Americas
Credit: Creative Commons

Credit: Creative Commons

The F-35 is the latest and greatest addition to the U.S. military’s arsenal of war planes. Combining the stealth needed for Air Force missions, the vertical landing engine needed for close contact Marine missions, and fortified landing gear for Navy missions the plane is supposed to represent a versatile union among the military branches.

But what happens when that union causes cracks in the plane’s structure, limits operation capabilities based upon weather, and even causes some engines to explode?

Originally intended to save money by performing different functions for different military branches, the production of F-35’s has been elongated and hit record costs. Currently being produced by 1200 suppliers in 45 states and 9 other countries, the cost of a fleet is now estimated at $1.5 trillion dollars.

That’s the same as the budgeted cost of the entire Iraq War.

The price may be worth it if the aircraft could do what politicians have said it will be capable of, but that seems unlikely at this point. The F-35 has been known to blow up, crack prematurely, and sometimes can’t even fly in clouds.

The F-35 is meant to replace older plane models like the A-10, an aircraft originally created for the Army according to a seminar sponsored by the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But the cost difference in producing the F-35s vs. older models combined with the structural issues may be a warning sign.

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A recent example of the plane’s implications occurred at the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, when the base had to repaint fuel trucks from green to white in efforts to lower fuel temperatures. The base discovered that when fuel hit higher temperatures, F-35’s would experience a “shutdown”.

On top of stories like this, China has recently announced a new and improved warplane, the J-31. They claim the J-31 could beat the F-35 in combat.

If F-35 production doesn’t speed up and fix the kinks soon, it may be outdated and surpassed by new technology.

Hong Kong Protests: Occupy Wall Street Failure All Over Again?

Asia
Credit: Stock Logos

Credit: Stock Logos

A 400 square mile island in the South China Sea is trying to defy China’s government. Hong Kong is approaching the 8th week of pro-democracy protests, but many are wondering how much longer the demonstrators will hold out.

Originally 100,000 strong, the number of protesters has dwindled down to a few hundred. On November 18th, police cleared barricades near government headquarters with the protesters’ help. Many people see this as the beginning of the end for Occupy Central With Love and Peace, others as a sign the movement will remain a peaceful resistance. The joint effort occurred following an appeal from former Hong Kong chief justice Andrew Li not to damage the ‘rule of law‘.

The largest protest to hit the city since the transfer of power from Britain to China in 1997, there are those who aren’t giving up so easily. In response to the police action on November 18th, a small group of protesters tried to force their way into the city’s legislative building. Four of which were arrested.

The leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the catalysts for Hong Kong’s protests, denounced this aggressive action saying the movement has been and will remain peaceful.

Even so, negative feelings toward the pro-democracy movement have grown as business continues to be disrupted. Polls now say 70% of people want the Occupy Central demonstrators to go home.

Still some are unclear as to why the protests started in the first place. The Occupy Central With Love website released an English statement citing two reasons behind their protests:

OCLP has two demands:

(1) The immediate withdrawal of the NPCSC’s decision on the framework for Hong Kong’s political reform

(2) The swift resumption of the political reform consultation. The Leung Chun-ying administration has failed in the political reform process. We demand Leung re-submits a new political reform report to the central government which fully reflects the Hong Kong people’s aspirations for democracy. If Leung refuses to respond, the action will escalate.

But what does this even mean?

The NPCSC, or China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee was supposed to allow free elections for the territory’s leader, according to Basic Law.

But, in August the NPCSC ruled out any more voting reforms, making it so only the candidates Beijing approves can run.

The protest’s goal is to force Leung chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Communist- Chinese appointed leader, to force China into following up on their previous promises for universal suffrage.

Some pro-democracy advocates call for the move to more aggressive protests to spur action, while others still call for the end to the demonstrations in general. Whether or not the movement is fading remains to be seen.

Turkey’s Role In Fighting ISIS

Regions

As one of the 28 NATO countries, it is often assumed that Turkey will align itself with American interests abroad. But recent tensions between the U.S. and Turkey centered on the Syrian civil war have shown those expectations aren’t always accurate.

Despite international pressure, Turkey has so far avoided a true alliance with the West over attacking Islamic State (IS) forces in Kobani, Syria. Although the Turkish Parliament voted to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria on October 2nd, it has yet to show any signs of follow through.

Up until October 13th, Turkey wouldn’t even allow U.S. troops to operate from their air bases. The most recent concession came from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, for new support of the Kurds fighting IS in Kobani.

“We are facilitating the passage of peshmerga forces to Kobani to provide support,” she announced Monday at a press conference in Ankara.

Considering the proximity of the IS threat to the Turkish border, it’s hard to see why Turkey has been so slow to join the fight. However, three major factors play into Turkey’s hesitation:

1. Turkey’s opposition to Western stance on the Syrian War. Since the first call for help, Turkey has firmly stated they will not participate in airstrikes against Kobani unless the U.S. broadens the fight to topple the Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad. This comes in stark contrast with many Arab countries who have participated in airstrikes, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain.

2. A perspective based in location. Turkey shares a 899 KM border with Syria, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Turkish President Recep Tayyyip Erdogan has repeatedly stated that airstrikes without a deeper plan to stabilize and end Syria’s civil war will only result in more instability. Turkey’s perceptions on the catalysts behind the uprising of IS go much deeper. Therefore, it is a more complex issue than deciding to pull the trigger for them.

3. A history of disagreement. No foreign policy decision is made independently. In assessing whether or not to join the West in their fight against ISIS, Turkey comes to the table with a long history of misalignment on similar issues. The most recent example is Turkey’s refusal to assist the United States in the 2003 Iraq War. They also refused to play a major role in NATO’s 2001 Afghanistan operation, limiting their support to logistics and training. Turkey is weary of getting into bed with an ally who has been on the opposite side of the fence for years now. Furthermore, the U.S. assistance of the Kurds in fighting the terrorists has been another serious point of tension in Turkey, due to the animosity between Turkey’s regime and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK).

For all these reasons, and many more, Turkey will continue to be reluctant in helping the United States beat back ISIS until some concessions are made on their behalf.

Courtesy of Creative Commons

Courtesy of Creative Commons

A Ceasefire in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Now What?

Middle East & North Africa, Regions
Credit: Creative Commons

Credit: Creative Commons

After an eventful and volatile summer, Israel and Palestine finally reached a ceasefire in the last week of August. While Hamas claimed victory, urging Palestinians to dance in the streets, the 2014 ceasefire is almost identical to the deal reached during the last Gaza war in 2012. Both deals call for:

  1. An end to hostilities on both sides
  2. Opening of pathways across the border for goods and people, depending upon security
  3. Egypt to monitor and follow up if either side take action against the other

While everyone is hoping that the deal sticks this time, something in the international air has changed. U.S.-Israel relations, typically a strong strategic partnership, face some difficult challenges ahead.

The collapse of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks left bitter feelings throughout the administration about the reality of a two-state solution even before the war. Obama’s withholding of the Hellfire missiles, American Airline’s 2 day suspension of flights to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, and Israel’s takeover of 1,000 acres of West Bank lands have added even more strain to a weathered relationship. Not to mention the staggering numbers of dead Palestinians and the upcoming U.N.investigation into Israel’s military tactics in Gaza.

An end to the fighting is definitely welcome in the international community, but the next step has to be taken before the cycle repeats itself.