Just days after President Obama made public his decision to begin arming Syrian rebel groups fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the G-8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland issued a declaration calling for a negotiated and peaceful end to the two-year civil war which has claimed more than 93,000 lives. In deference to Russia’s refusal to back any declaration that makes Assad’s removal from power an explicit goal, the G-8 urged peace talks being planned in Geneva to reach a settlement that will produce a coalition government with a “top leadership that inspires public confidence.”
Many observers believe that the White House decision to arm the rebels was not, as announced, linked to a determination that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons, but rather a reaction to the recent losses by opposition forces in key battles against Assad’s troops, such as in Qusair.
However, it began two years ago, the war in Syria has in many ways been transformed into a proxy battle between the region’s Sunni and Shiite governments – with Sunni majority Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey backing the rebels – against Shiite-dominated Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Syrian regime controlled by the Shiite offshoot Alawite sect. The involvement of the European Union and the U.S. on the rebel side and Russia’s support for the government has made the Syrian conflict a very real threat to regional stability, with violence now spreading to Syria’s neighbors. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, who warns that President Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebel groups will inevitably lead to a tragic escalation of that nation’s brutal civil war.
Phyllis Bennis is author of many books, including “Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power.” For more information about the New Internationalism Project, visit IPS-DC.org/mideast. Bennis articles may be found at IPS-DC.org/staff/phyllis
mp3 Interview with Phyllis Bennis, conducted by Scott Harris, Counterpoint, June 17, 2013 (17:46)
“Syria: We need to stop a new war in the Middle East,” by Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies, June 5, 2013
Video: Phyllis Bennis on RT’s “Crosstalk: Eternal War,” Institute for Policy Studies, June 3, 2013 – Phyllis Bennis debates war-by-proxy in Syria, neocolonialism in the Middle East, and the global war on terror
“Syrian War Moving Outward, Obama Looks Inward,” Institute for Policy Studies, May 30, 2013. The civil war in Syria is already expanding beyond the borders
“G8 calls for urgent Syria peace conference Institute for Policy Studies, June 18, 2013
“Is it the end of Sykes-Picot?” London Review of Books, June 6, 2013
“Conflict in the Middle East is about more than just religion,” The Guardian, June 8, 2013
American whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. government’s previously unknown massive collection of domestic and overseas phone and internet communications continues to be a topic of sometimes heated debate. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and other media pundits have accused Snowden of being a traitor, while many civil liberties advocates laud him as a hero.
One National Security Agency program described by Snowden collects and archives phone records of millions of Americans, while the other, codenamed PRISM, reportedly mines emails and other communications from foreign targets by directly tapping into the databases of Internet providers like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and AOL.
The 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and recent employee of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton continues to talk with the press from his current location in Hong Kong. He said one of his reasons for releasing the NSA secret documents related to what he believed were President Obama’s broken campaign promises to investigate systemic violations of the law under President Bush, while deepening and expanding several of these same programs. In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on June 18, NSA Director General Keith Alexander tried to bolster the White House defense of the spy programs when he told legislators that his agency’s surveillance programs have helped to foil 50 potential terrorist events since the Sept. 11th attacks. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with author and activist Norman Solomon, who examines the current public debate on Edward Snowden’s role in the release of information on the government’s secret blanket surveillance of phone and Internet communications.
Norman Solomon is a former California congressional candidate, co-founder of RootsAction.org and author of “War Made Easy, How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us to Death.” Find links to Solomon’s recent articles at NormonSolomon.com.
mp3 Interview with Norman Solomon, conducted by Scott Harris, Counterpoint, June 17, 2013 (15:29)
“David Brooks, Tom Friedman, Bill Keller Wish Snowden Had Just Followed Orders,” Norman Solomon, June 17, 2013
“Clarity from Edward Snowden and Murky Response from Progressive Leaders in Congress” Roots Action, June 13, 2013
“Thank NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden,” Roots Action thank you note
“Edward Snowden’s live Q&A: eight things we learned,” The Guardian, June 18, 2013
“Newly Revealed PRISM Snooping Makes Verizon Surveillance Look Like Kids’ Stuff,” June 6, 2013
“The Corporate Roots of the NSA Spying Controversy,” U.S. News and World Report, June 8, 2013
A federal bankruptcy court judge in St. Louis, Kathy Surratt-States, ruled on May 29 that Patriot Coal Company, which declared bankruptcy last year, can drastically cut back on the health care and pension benefits it provides to its current and retired employees, members of the United Mine Workers Union. The union is appealing the decision. The CEO of Patriot Coal said it would have cost the company approximately $1.6 billion to cover health care costs for all retirees, putting the company at risk of liquidation. The union and its supporters believe that Patriot was set up to fail, and point out that when Peabody Energy spun off Patriot, it had 11 percent of the company’s assets, but was saddled with 43 percent of retiree health care liabilities. Around the same time in the mid-2000s, Arch Coal spun off a company named Magnum Coal and similarly dumped a disproportionate amount of its liabilities into it. When Patriot Coal bought Magnum, that created an even more untenable financial situation.
The Mine Workers Union has recently organized protests in St. Louis – home to Peabody Energy, Patriot and Arch – as well as in the coal fields of Appalachia. Most of the coal miners and retirees live in West Virginia and Kentucky, although smaller numbers live in neighboring states.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Phil Smith, communications director with the United Mine Workers of America. He explains why the workers’ interests come last in bankruptcy law, and what the union is doing to try to recoup as much of their members’ benefits as possible.
PHIL SMITH: I think it’s important to understand, first of all, what bankruptcy law is in the U.S., particularly Chapter 11. The judge’s purpose is to do whatever the judge feels is necessary to be done to bring the company out of Chapter 11 as a viable company. That means if contracts have to get broken with suppliers and vendors, then they do. If contracts have to get broken with workers, then they do. The end of that game is that workers come last; the people who put the money into the company come first. So they get paid like they’re supposed to get paid, but the workers don’t. And that’s how bankruptcy law is and she pretty much says that in her decision. In many ways, she points out what her function is and what her purpose is and she follows according to what she thinks she needs to do and she follows that function. We don’t agree with that she followed it the right way, which is why we’re appealing the decision. She feels constrained, and there’s some truth to that, in terms of what she can and can’t do under bankruptcy.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What are the numbers of workers and retirees affected?
PHIL SMITH: There are 2,000, roughly, active workers and then there are 10,600 retirees; when you add in all the dependents of the retirees and the widows of retirees who are deceased, who are eligible for these benefits, you’re talking about 22,500 people who are receiving retiree health care benefits.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Can you outline exactly what the judge’s ruling was?
PHIL SMITH: What the judge approved is a plan by Patriot to end the current system of retiree health care entirely, and in its place establish what’s called a Voluntary Employee Benefit Association, or VEBA, which is a tool often used by companies like this who are in bankruptcy to continue funding benefits at some level. To fund that VEBA, Patriot intends to put in $15 million in cash; there is a royalty payment of 20 cents per ton of coal that is mined that Patriot would pay into that, which would add maybe another $5 million a year, at best. So there’s $20 million, roughly, of guaranteed money, into that VEBA. The other money that would come into it would be from a 35 percent stake in Patriot that they would transfer to the union, and the union could then sell to an investor, or investors, who may be interested in owning a piece of the company. We don’t know what that 35 percent is; we don’t know what the value of the company is, and we won’t know that for some time, until Patriot comes out of bankruptcy. There may be a couple hundred million dollars that could go into it from the sale of the company, but we just don’t know that.
But here’s the thing – even if there is, let’s say we could get the value of that fund up to $200 million; this is a $1.6 billion liability that we’ve got to cover. That’s how much money is owed, from an actuarial standpoint to these people for whom Patriot has had the obligation to continue paying their health care. $250 million isn’t going to go very far to make that work, so is there going to be an effect on the benefits that these people receive? Absolutely. Will we hopefully be able to do something to continue providing them with some level of benefits that they need to have? Yes, we’re going to be doing that, but it’s not clear at this time how long we’re going to be able to continue doing that, given the level of funding the VEBA is likely to have.
What’s important to understand is the architects of this are Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. As of now they have walked away scot-free. They have dumped their obligations onto Patriot; the judge has said it’s okay for Patriot to let those obligations go, and the companies responsible for creating this mess have no repercussions for it. However, we have filed against Peabody and Arch to get them to live up to their obligations; that suit is in federal court in Charlestown, W.V. And we are going to continue our campaign and our effort and our rallies in St. Louis and elsewhere in an effort to get Peabody and Arch to live up to their obligations to these folks.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Phil Smith, what has the union been doing since the judge’s ruling?
PHIL SMITH: Well, we’ve been meeting with the company in an effort to improve upon what it is the judge decided Patriot could do. And we felt like we’d been making progress in those talks. On June 11, in meetings we were having with the company, the company decided there was no point in talking any more – at least that was what they told us – and left the meeting and cancelled the negotiations that had been cancelled for later that week. They also said they intended to implement the judge’s decision on July 1, which they’ve had the right to do ever since she made her decision back in May. That was obviously very disappointing and distressing to us, and we said as much. Since then the company has issued statements saying they didn’t intend to end negotiations and they do want to come back to the bargaining table. So we welcome that statement and we look forward to be able to continue bargaining so we can get something that’s somewhat better for these retirees and for our active workers than what the judge has said they should have.
Learn more about the plight of Patriot coal miners at FairnessatPatriot.org/.
United Mine Workers Union of America at UMWA.org
“Thousands Protest at Peabody HQ in St. Louis,” United Mine Workers America, June 17, 2013
This week’s summary of under-reported news
Compiled by Bob Nixon
Cuba, one of the least Web-connected nations in the Western Hemisphere. opened up 118 new Internet cafés in early June. But the average three terminals at each site are tightly controlled by the state-run telecom company ETECSA, and the fees are prohibitively expensive for the average Cuban, who make only $20 a month.
Infamous Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger is now on trial, charged with orchestrating 19 murders, in addition to loan sharking, racketeering and drug dealing.
In one of his last moves as a U.S. senator, the late Frank Lautenberg introduced a new chemical safety bill that would require proof that a chemical is safe before it can be used.