Bye and sorry for the mess! US not planning to contribute money to Iraq reconstruction

Iraq war destruction


As a primary candidate, Donald Trump championed a quasi-isolationist foreign policy. At one Republican primary debate, Trump argued that America had “done a tremendous disservice to humanity” in the Middle East.

“The people that have been killed, the people that have been wiped away – and for what?” the mogul asked. “The Middle East is totally destabilized, a total and complete mess. I wish we had the 4 trillion dollars or 5 trillion dollars. I wish it were spent right here in the United States on schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart!”

Trump still insisted that America must defend itself against attack (or, potentially, disrespect) with overwhelming force, up to and including deliberate war crimes. But his overriding foreign policy message was, nevertheless, that America should trim its imperial sails, and reallocate resources to the home front.

President Trump’s foreign policy has been decidedly different. Since taking office he has escalated American involvement in virtually every foreign conflict while calling for cuts to domestic spending and massive increases in the Pentagon’s budget. He regularly touts the necessity of a global military presence and preemptive wars with bromides like, “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation.” If the budget currently before Congress is passed, we will spend $716 billion on our military next year.

And yet, when it comes to non-military overseas spending, Trump has retained the isolationist outlook of his early campaign – calling for sweeping cuts to both the State Department and foreign aid. Which is to say: He has embraced a foreign policy that increases America’s involvement in policing the planet – while reducing the diplomatic and “soft power” tools it has for doing so. The result is a geopolitical strategy that is no more nationalist or isolationist than the one Trump inherited, but simply more violent and stupid.

Observe how the Trump doctrine is playing out in post-ISIS Iraq:

The United States does not plan to contribute any money at a conference in Kuwait next week to fund Iraq’s reconstruction drive after the war against Islamic State forces, U.S. and Western officials said, a move critics say could deal a new blow to American standing internationally…Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said his country needs up to $100 billion to fix crumbling infrastructure and cities devastated by the conflict against Islamic State.

A shortage of reconstruction funds could increase the danger of reinvigorating grievances among the minority Iraqi Sunnis against Iraq’s Shi’te-led government.

… In response to a query to the State Department about the lack of a U.S. contribution, a U.S. official pointed to the billions of dollars the U.S. has committed to financing loans and restoring basic services to Iraqi towns and cities in the immediate aftermath of fighting.

“The immediate stabilization needs remain vast, and limited U.S. government resources alone cannot meet these current and pressing needs, let alone consider supporting long-term reconstruction,” the U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The administration argues that private-sector investment, combined with aid from Saudi Arabia, should be able to meet Iraq’s long-term reconstruction needs. But Jeremy Konyndyk, former head of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, told Reuters that private capital would want “to see the risks of their investments in Iraq mitigated by U.S. government contributions.”

If Trump’s position were that America simply has no interest in expending resources on the internal affairs of Iraq, then this policy might be strategically coherent (if perhaps, morally objectionable). But that isn’t his position. This White House believes that countering both ISIS and Iranian influence are both vital national security interests for the United States. Thus, the administration had no problem spending billions upon billions of dollars fighting ISIS in Iraq – and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again, were the militant group to regain territory.

In short, President Trump is happy to spend billions on a pound of cure, but not millions on an ounce of prevention. If killing bad guys is the objective, then money is no object; if stabilizing wartorn regions through humanitarian aid is the proposition, then “limited U.S. government resources alone cannot meet these current and pressing needs.”

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Re: Saudi minister visits Raqqa for reconstruction talks

Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al-Sabhan has visited the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which was liberated from Daesh fighters earlier this week, to discuss plans for the reconstruction of the region, Reuters reported today.

Al-Sabhan was accompanied by US special envoy to the coalition against Daesh, Brett McGurk, and met the US-backed Syrian Defence Forces’ (SDF) newly formed Raqqa Civil Council.

According to Saudi media sources, Riyadh and Washington discussed the rebuilding of Raqqa, after months of relentless fighting destroyed most of the city’s infrastructure, leaving it uninhabitable.

Amed Sido, an adviser to the SDF alliance, said that the current priority for the reconstruction committee set up by the coalition would be to clear bodies from the debris and remove the remaining landmines planted by Daesh.

“They [Saudi Arabia] promised that they would contribute in construction in Raqqa in the future,” Sido said. “We consider it a first visit, a first step that could be the beginning of future relations.”

Read: The winners and losers in the reconstruction of Syria

Whilst Saudi Arabia is one of the 73 members of the US-led coalition in Syria, no state officials have been known to make a trip to the region.

Yesterday, a rights group revealed that some 1,873 civilians were killed and thousands were wounded during recent military operations carried out by the SDF and US-backed Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Raqqa. Approximately 270,000 people are in need of urgent humanitarian aid, according to Save the Children, with refugee camps at bursting point.

Daesh has lost swathes of territory this year to the SDF and to President Bashar Al-Assad’s Syrian Army allied with Russian forces, and has fallen back to the fertile Euphrates valley area downstream of Raqqa.

However, as the group retreats, tensions between the opposing forces of the SDF and pro-regime fighters are likely to surface in light of political negotiations over the country’s future that the United Nations hopes to discuss next month.

Read: US: Assad regime hindering victory in Raqqa

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Damascus welcomes India’s participation in post-war reconstruction of Syria


Syrian authorities will welcome India’s participation in the post-war reconstruction of the country, Syrian President Bashar Assad told India’s WION television broadcaster in an interview published on Saturday, adding that New Delhi could also play a role in the settlement of the Syrian conflict.

“If you want to talk about the reconstruction, as you know when you have war in any country that destroys much of the infrastructure, the most profitable sector would be the rebuilding, and India is welcome to play an economic role in the reconstruction of Syria, something that we already started,” Assad said.

The Syrian leader stressed that the reconstruction project had already been launched in Damascus and was being expanded to other cities after their liberation from the Islamic State (Daesh) and al-Nusra Front terrorist groups.

When asked about the Syrian peace process, Assad said India could “definitely” play a role in it.

“India through the history has always been credible. Through the different parties that took power in India, we never noted that there’s any fluctuation in their policy because it’s based on morals and ethics as I said. So, this credibility is a very important factor for India to play a role, not necessarily within Syria, because the Syrian conflict is not only Syrian — the main factors are regional and international, and the most important part of this that how can we protect international law,” the Syrian president said.

The Syrian civil war has been raging for six years, with government forces fighting against both Syrian opposition groups who strive to overthrow Assad’s government, and numerous extremist and terrorist groups such as Daesh and Jabhat Fatah al Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front.

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Crumb of mouse brain reconstruction in full detail


Six years might seem like a long time to spend piecing together the structure of a scrap of tissue vastly smaller than a bead of sweat. But that is how long it has taken a team led by cell biologist Jeff Lichtman from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to digitally reconstruct a tiny cube of mouse brain tissue.

The resulting three-dimensional map is the first complete reconstruction of a piece of tissue in the mammalian neocortex, the most recently evolved region of the brain.

Covering just 1,500 cubic microns, it is still a far cry from reconstructing all 100 billion or so cells that make up the entire human brain. But Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, notes that the various technologies involved will speed up “tremendously” over the next decade: “I would call this a very exciting promissory note,” he says.

Lichtman’s team already has its eyes on a much bigger challenge: reconstructing a cubic millimetre of rodent neocortex — a piece of tissue around 600,000 times larger than the present achievement. The researchers will be doing this as part of a consortium that earlier this month received preliminary approval for major funding by the US government agency IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity), which promotes high-risk, high pay-off research. The goal of the consortium, based at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, is to map the function as well as the anatomy of this tiny brain volume, while also working out how it computes information as an animal learns.

Synaptic detail

The neocortex is of particular interest to neuroscientists, and is greatly expanded in humans compared with other mammals. As is the case with other brain areas, neocortical function is determined by how individual neurons are connected to each other through synapses. These tiny structures, which can be seen only with an electron microscope, allow chemical or electrical signals to pass between cells and can be pruned or created anew as an animal attunes itself to its environment. Most synapses are forged between the finger-like dendrites that branch from one end of a neuron and the long thin axons that separate dendrites from the neuron’s cell body.

Reconstructing a part of the neocortex to this level of detail required a multi-step procedure. First, a diamond blade shaved a region of a mouse neocortex called the somatosensory cortex into several thousand slices; these were then rolled onto a single long strip of a special plastic tape at a rate of 1,000 sections every 24 hours. The sections were imaged with a scanning electron microscope powerful enough to capture even the tiny vesicles that contain the chemical signalling molecules — known as neurotransmitters — in synapses.

To reconstruct their tiny cube of tissue, the team homed in at the highest resolution around the dendrites of two neighbouring neurons. The researchers aligned the relevant digital images so that the parts of each cell in each slice coincided with their positions on adjacent slices. To follow the individual cells through the different slices, they developed computer programs to assign a particular colour to every cell and to trace each one, either automatically or with input from researchers. The cube of tissue was too small to contain an entire cell, but large enough to contain fragments of more than 1,600 neurons and of other brain cells of at least six different types, as well as around 1,700 synapses.

Machine learning

One feature revealed by this reconstruction, which is now freely available to the scientific community, was that one neuron does not form synapses with another neuron just because the two happen to be physically close to each other, as some neuroinformaticists had assumed. Instead, the cells have very clear preferences for particular neighbours. This had already been observed in the retina, a simpler part of the brain, and in the hippocampus, an evolutionarily older brain area. The answer to what confers these preferences may be found in ongoing studies to identify the molecular components of each synapse, says neuroscientist Seth Grant at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

The Lichtman team is now working on similarly-sized reconstructions of the corticial tissue of baby mice, in order to see if synpases behave the same way in an earlier stage of development. The researchers are also reconstructing a small piece of human brain acquired during surgery.

As well as improving our understanding of the brain, such reconstructions may inspire new methods of computing. The IARPA contract that is being negotiated with the Harvard – MIT consortium of 13 labs will be part of the agency’s Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) programme, and worth tens of millions of dollars, says MICrONS head Jacob Vogelstein. “The general goal of the MICrONS programme is to revolutionize machine learning by reverse-engineering from codes discovered in the brain,” says Vogelstein. “IARPA also invests in neuroscience because we are interested as well in understanding cognition — how people behave and make decisions.”

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