10 kilometers to Armageddon

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Merve Şebnem Oruç

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched Operation Euphrates Shield in Jarablus, a city in the Aleppo province of northern Syria, by clearing the city of Daesh elements. On the 11th day of the operation, tanks belonging to the TSK crossed into the Syrian town of al-Rai from the Elbeyli district in southern Turkish province of Kilis, starting the second critical phase of the operation. According to the initial information received from the border, Daesh resisted, leading to clashes between the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Daesh. While Daesh-held areas were under intense Fırtına howitzer fire, it was stated that Daesh responded to the operation with howitzers.

Turkey was carrying out an operation long before Operation Euphrates Shield launched to clear the 90-kilometer Azaz-Jarablus line on the other side of the border between the Kilis and Karkamış and secure it. The area between the Azaz and al-Rai stretch was secured by eliminating Daesh from here through canon fires from Fırtına howitzers and the FSA groups supported on the inside. The Jarablus operation was actually the second phase in terms of securing the border line. After the TSK took over an approximately 20-kilometer wide and 24-25-kilometer deep area by crossing over to Syria from the west of the Euphrates and advancing toward the west, this time, with the al-Rai operation it started in the third phase, it started to advance toward the east. The course of the operation progressing more rapidly than expected shows that the approximately 25-kilometer area across the Turkish border remaining under Daesh control is also projected to be cleared shortly.

Up to this point there really isn’t much of a problem. However, as the issue goes further in and deeper, it will likely become thorny. The first of the questions that emerge in this context is the issue of whether the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which entered the west of Euphrates from the south and further in, will be purged from Manbij. In other words, will there be a comprehensive operation aimed at Manbij? The answer to this question is currently on hold as it will also reveal the U.S.’s direct involvement in the matter and the kind of Syria it dreams of in the future. It will not happen soon, but eventually it will get to this.

Another issue is what action the YPG will take in relation to advancing from a lower position on the map, in other words, from the south of Mare to the east and from Manbij to the west to join Afrin and Kobani to form the Democratic Union Party (PYD) corridor despite everything, and what the U.S. will do in this regard.

The YPG trying this week to advance from both Manbij and Afrin to the critical city of al-Bab, which is in the middle of both areas and under Daesh control, is an indication that the corridor dream is still kept alive. The confirmation that Daesh’s spokesman Abu Mohamed al-Adnani was killed in the al-Bab region this week, one of the most critical elements of the terrorist organization’s propaganda tool, provides us critical information in this context. In addition to the polemic about whether Adnani was killed in airstrikes by Russian jets or U.S. jets being ridiculous, it serves another purpose. The murder of a critical figure from Daesh’s top management such as Adnani, once more legitimizes the support to the PYD/YPG within the scope of the fight against Daesh and veils the objective behind YPG forces’ advance toward al-Bab, which is to complete the corridor. With the Turkey-backed FSA turning toward al-Rai, al-Bab, it is highly likely that we will see intertwined clashed in the confined space in question. In other words, the process after al-Rai might not be as calm as the first 11 days of Operation Euphrates Shield.

However, Daesh showing intense resilience to the TSK and FSA forces in the town of Dabiq, 10 kilometers from the Turkish border, before al-Bab, and in fact allowing the YPG to approach al-Bab from the Manbij side as it tries to resist to avoid losing Dabiq to the FSA, is a possibility that should not be undermined. Daesh-held Dabiq is also the name given to the sensational magazine published by the terrorist organization. Dabiq has such significance for Daesh, because they believe that the Armageddon – mentioned in some hadith – or World War II is going to start here. It is certain that, similar to some Jews and Evangelists calling doomsday, Daesh is also waiting for the Armageddon to start. As a matter of fact, the Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ) seeing their leader Fethullah Gülen as the Mahdi includes them into the group of those calling doomsday. Meanwhile, the idea that time will come to an end with a war that breaks out in Syria has long been accepted in Iran. Hence, in addition to its political and strategic aspects, a war in Dabiq and around it bears important religious elements as well.

As for the PYD corridor, its being built from the south of the 90-kilometer area that we can call the Jarablus-Mare line means Turkey’s disconnection from the Arab world and the opposition forces it supports being confined in this region that will turn into a pocket. Hence, preventing the formation of this corridor – whether from the edge of the border or a little further in – is no less important for Turkey than the issue of establishing a physical safe zone in the 90-kilometer area in question. It is clear that this struggle, which we can imagine will be anything but short lasting, is not going to be between Turkey and the opposition forces it supports and the YPG and Daesh – that after a certain point, the U.S. and Russia are going to become involve. However, it is not that difficult to guess that eventually, the regime that has sieged Aleppo and even Iran will not remain outside this frame In short, high adrenaline days await us.

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Oklahoma Earthquake 5.6 Prompts Shutdown of 37 Fracking Wastewater Wells

Oklahoma quake prompts shutdown of gas-linked wells

One of the largest earthquakes in Oklahoma rattled the Midwest on Saturday all the way from Nebraska to North Texas. Time

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Oklahoma regulators on Saturday shut down 37 wastewater wells connected to oil and gas production after a magnitude-5.6 earthquake — matching the strongest quake ever to hit the state — jolted north-central Oklahoma.

Some parts of Oklahoma now match Northern California for the nation’s most shake-prone, and one Oklahoma region has a one-in-eight chance of a damaging quake in 2016, with other parts closer to one in 20.

The quake, centered in rural Pawnee County, could be felt over a seven-state area, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.

Gov. Mary Fallin said on Twitter that the shutdown was a “mandatory directive” covering 725 square miles in Osage County, just northwest of the quake’s epicenter. She said the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which ordered the shutdown, was in touch with the Environmental Protection Agency regarding the emergency measures.

Fallin said three homes in Pawnee County were damaged and that at least three buildings in the city of Pawnee sustained some level of damage. An inspection of state highway and turnpike bridges also had turned up “very minor issues,” she said.

Pawnee County Emergency Management Director Mark Randell said one homeowner was treated and released from the hospital after suffering a minor head injury when part of a fireplace fell on him as he protected a child, the Associated Press reported. Randell said building damage in Pawnee was mostly brick and mortar from buildings dating to the early 1900s.

Pawnee Mayor Brad Sewell told KOKI-TV that some sandstones from damaged historic buildings tumbled onto the sidewalk during the quake. Parts of central Pawnee, a town of about 2,000 people, were cordoned off until the buildings could be examined.

The Pawnee Nation, which has its tribal headquarters in the area, declared a state of emergency and said damage to its buildings was so extensive they were being closed pending further inspection.

An increase in magnitude-3.0 or stronger earthquakes in Oklahoma has been linked to underground disposal of wastewater from oil and natural gas production. According to an analysis published by the Tulsa World in January, the volume of wastewater disposed climbed 81% over six years, coinciding with the state’s increase in earthquakes.

Since 2013, the OCC has asked wastewater-well owners to reduce disposal volumes in parts of the state.

“All of our actions have been based on the link that researchers have drawn between the Arbuckle disposal well operations and earthquakes in Oklahoma,” OCC spokesman Matt Skinner said Saturday of the latest directive. “We’re trying to do this as quickly as possible, but we have to follow the recommendations of the seismologists, who tell us everything going off at once can cause an (earthquake).”

Saturday’s jolt rattled a wide area of the Great Plains, including Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Arkansas, Nebraska and Iowa.

The magnitude-5.6 quake equals a temblor that struck the town of Prague, in Lincoln County, in November 2011, according to the USGS.

While hundreds of quakes shake Oklahoma annually, they have rarely been felt in northeastern Oklahoma, the Tulsa World notes.

Pentagon Seriously Sees Autonomous Weapons Systems Within 10 Years

Pentagon is worrying about ‘Terminator’ coming true. Seriously

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New thinking

Weapons that can be programmed to autonomously kill without human input are ‘a decade or so away,’ a top Pentagon official says. What to do about that is a question causing deep disagreement.

The idea behind the Terminator films – specifically, that a Skynet-style military network becomes self-aware, sees humans as the enemy, and attacks – isn’t too far-fetched, one of the nation’s top military officers said this week.

Nor is that kind of autonomy the stuff of the distant future. “We’re a decade or so away from that capability,” said Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

With such a sci-fi prospect looming, top military thinkers and ethicists are beginning to consider the practical consequences. But the more they do, the more it’s clear that there is considerable disagreement about just how much freedom to give machines to make their own decisions.

“We have to be very careful that we don’t design [autonomous] systems in a way that we can create a situation where those systems actually absolve humans of the decision” about whether or not to use force, General Selva said. “We could get dangerously close to that line, and we owe it to ourselves and to the people we serve to keep that a very bright line.”

At the same time, “The notion of a completely robotic system that can make a decision about whether or not to inflict harm on an adversary is here,” he added in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Monday. “It’s not terribly refined, not terribly good. But it’s here.”

This leaves top Pentagon officials to confront what they call the “Terminator conundrum,” and how to handle it.

The ‘Russia’ question

The argument begins with an assertion: Adversaries such as Russia and China are going to build these fast-moving, fully-autonomous killing systems, so perhaps the Pentagon should design them, too – not to use them, top officials are quick to add, but to know how they work and how to counter them.

After all, they say, policymakers may need options, and it’s the job of the Pentagon to give them these options.

To this end, in a highly-anticipated report released in August, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board urged military researchers to “accelerate its exploitation of autonomy” in order to allow them to “remain ahead of adversaries who also will exploit its operational benefits.”

This leaves opponents of autonomous drone systems wary. Many nongovernmental organizations have called for bans on developing killing machines that leave humans out of the loop.

But what is “meaningful human control”?

That concept hasn’t been well-defined, says Paul Scharre, director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.

What is clear is that humans can’t be involved solely in a “push button way,” Mr. Scharre says. Rather, the humans supervising these systems must be “cognitively engaged.”

Scharre points to two fratricides in 2003 caused when malfunctioning Patriot missile systems shot down a US F-16 fighter jet and a British Tornado over Iraq.

“One of the problems with the fratricides was that people weren’t exercising judgment. They were trusting in an automated system, and people weren’t monitoring it.”

Humans are slow

But the Pentagon’s debates get murkier from there. If an adversary were to develop an effective fully-automated system, it would likely react much faster than a US system that requires human checks and balances. In that scenario, the human checks could cost lives.

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics – essentially, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer – has signaled that he differs from Selva. If people always have oversight of autonomous weapons, he says, that could put the US at a disadvantage.

“Even in a more conventional conflict, we’re quite careful about not killing innocent civilians,” Mr. Kendall noted at the Army Innovation Summit last month. “I don’t expect our adversaries to all behave that way, and the advantage you have if you don’t worry about that as much is you make decisions more quickly.”

After all, many weapons systems could be easily and effectively automated, including tanks that could sense incoming rounds and take out the source of them, he argued.

“It would take nothing to automate firing back, nothing,” Kendall told the audience according to the online publication Breaking Defense. “Others are going to do it. They are not going to be as constrained as we are, and we’re going to have a fundamental disadvantage if we don’t.”

But global bans on autonomous weapons are also problematic, Selva said. “It’s likely there will be violators.”

“In spite of the fact that we don’t approve of chemical or biological weapons, we know there are entities, both state and nonstates, that continue to pursue that capability,” he said.

Moreover, he noted that these questions put him – as a military man – in a difficult position. “My job as a military leader is to witness unspeakable violence on an enemy…. Our job is to defeat the enemy.”

The astonishing ‘Go’ experiment

Removing humans from that decision to inflict violence could prove highly unpredictable in good and bad ways. That was brought out with dramatic effect at an event earlier this year pitting a Google-developed DeepMind machine against a top-level player of the complex game “Go.”

The machine, which humans had trained to learn, made a move that astonished Go commentators. “The move that the computer made was so unexpected and counterintuitive that it blew commentators away,” notes Scharre. “At first they thought it was a fake, and then it set in, the brilliance of the move.”

The point, Scharre says, is that “no matter how much testing is done, we’ll always see surprises when machines are placed into real-world environments.”

It’s particularly true in competitive environments – epitomized by war – where adversaries will try to hack, trick, or manipulate the system, he adds.

“Sometimes the surprises are good,” Scharre says, such as the Go move that was calculated by experts to be a “brilliant, beautiful” move that only 1 in 10,000 humans would have made.

In other cases, the surprises are unwelcome, highlighting the unexpected and tragic flaws that led to the Patriot air defense fratricides.

“Better testing and evaluation is good, but it can only take us so far. At a certain point, we will either have to decide to keep a human in the loop, even if only as a fail-safe,” he adds, “Or we will have to accept the risks that come with deploying these systems.”

Weighing the benefits

“In some cases, the benefits of autonomy may outweigh the risks,” Scharre says.

Speed of decisionmaking is one example. Innovations such as self-driving cars also mark a “tremendous opportunity in the coming years to save tens of thousands of lives,” Scharre says.

The question, experts add, is whether these potential lives saved will outweigh potential – though likely fewer – lives lost if the automatic systems go awry.

For his part, Kendall imagines much bigger changes in weapons automation.

“We still send human beings carrying rifles down trails to find the enemy. We still do that. Why?” he wondered allowed. “I don’t think we have to do that anymore, but it is an enormous change of mind-set.”

“Autonomy is coming,” he added. “It’s coming at an exponential rate.”