It's been a grimmer week than normal in the parts of the world I cover (scroll through my posts for the past few days). A friend emailed me Cary Huang's Scale of the Universe graphic recently, and I think i've opened it up about 5 times since and almost instantly felt better.
It's a bit of science geek art, which allows you to explore the relative scale of things in the universe from the smallest subatomic particle to the Stingray Nebula and beyond. My first time playing with the graphic I got the feeling i once had while snorkeling over a coral bed in shallow water that suddenly dropped off to a few thousand feet deep: Exhilarated, a little frightened, mostly in awe.
Here's the link again. Once it loads, press "start" and slide the scale at the bottom left (smaller) and right (bigger). It's very easy to figure out.
When word came that Qurans had been burned by US troops in Afghanistan, there was no doubt there would be bloodshed as a consequence. The reason why they were burned (carelessness and ignorance in this case, it seems) didn't matter.
Afghans responded violently to Quran burnings in the past and it is hardly a secret that the country seethes with anti-American, and generally anti-foreigner, sentiment. President Barack Obama quickly moved to do the only thing he could to mitigate the coming storm: he apologized in a formal letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible," Mr. Obama wrote.
To listen to some of his political opponents talk, he should have doubled down and instead insisted on a formal apology for the murder of US troops by Afghan soldiers.
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called the apology an "outrage," said Obama should have demanded an apology from Mr. Karzai for the murder of US troops instead, and said "this destructive double standard whereby the United States and its democratic allies refuse to hold accountable leaders who tolerate systematic violence and oppression in their borders must come to an end.”
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said the apology was a sign of "weakness." Sarah Palin complained. “Obama apologizes for the inadvertent Koran burning this week; now the US trained and protected Afghan Army can apologize for killing two of our soldiers yesterday," she said.
And quarters of the conservative commentariat were even more strident. Take Andrew McCarthy of the National Review Online. "The only upside of the apology is that it appears... to be couched as coming personally from our blindly Islamophilic president," he writes. "Muslim leaders and their leftist apologists are also forever lecturing the United States about 'proportionality' in our war-fighting. Yet when it comes to Muslim proportionality, Americans are supposed to shrug meekly and accept the 'you burn books, we kill people' law of the jungle."
Here's why they're all wrong.
The answer to the moral question of "What's worse? Burning books or killing people?" is, of course, "killing people." Far, far worse. Furthermore, the burning at Bagram, an effort to get rid of books that Taliban prisoners were scribbling in to share propaganda and messages, was pretty clearly not an act of malice, but negligence. And yes, a greater acknowledgment from Karzai that enormous American sacrifices have been made to install and keep him in power would be nice.
But the dudgeon and moral outrage rather misses the point of what it means to be commander in chief. Obama, or any president, should have a fundamental thought at the top of their mind every time they speak about America's wars: "Is what I'm about to do or say going to put more troops in harm's way?" In this case the answer is an emphatic "yes." A direct refusal to express contrition for the Quran burning would have put more troops in harms way.
Would more than the at least six US soldiers and officers killed in the past week in retaliation for the Quran burning have died? Impossible to say. But it certainly would have fanned the flames in Afghanistan, leading to a more dangerous situation, not a safer one.
An old friend wrote to me complaining about double standards, asking pointedly if there is as much outrage and violence when Afghans mishandle Qurans. No, generally not. His point was that people there are primed to react violently against foreign, generally non-Muslim troops, more quickly than they do against co-religionists and neighbors – and that makes them hypocrites.
Well, his point is made. But the reality of the cultural terrain in Afghanistan is that mob violence will occur when foreign troops burn Qurans. Many more Afghans will be disgusted. Support for the foreign troops in their midst will decline. Hypocrisy? OK, sure. But far more importantly, it's reality. As long as the US is fighting a war there, it needs to keep sight of the Afghans that are, not the ones it might wish there were.
One can decry the immorality, or double standards, all day long. But it doesn't dispel the fact that more troops were threatened and the president's duty was to help quell this flareup as quickly as possible.
That brings the total so-called green on blue killings in Afghanistan to six since an Afghan witnessed US soldiers dumping Qurans into a burn bit at Bagram Air Base a week ago. The heightened levels of violence since then, with mobs besieging NATO and UN compounds across Afghanistan, brings into stark relief the fundamental failure of the US-led mission in Afghanistan OVER the past 10 years.
There are growing, not decreasing, numbers of Afghans angry at the foreign occupation. Corruption and thuggery within the Afghan government installed and protected by NATO remain rampant and the Taliban remain active across large parts of the country.
IN PHOTOS Afghanistan in Winter
Though much of the blame for the failings of the Afghan government lie with Afghans like President Hamid Karzai, who owes his current position to a fraud-marred election two years ago, the large presence of foreign troops and the vast cultural gulf between them and most Afghans, make them convenient targets for public ire.
And the willingness of Afghan soldiers to turn their guns on US forces, usually in heavily fortified installations in what amount to suicide missions, is a dark indication of the fragility of the local forces being built – and of their loyalty to the state. For every Afghan soldier who takes such a drastic step, there are surely more who are sympathetic with their aims.
At the end of January, Pentagon officials told a Senate hearing that 70 NATO soldiers have been killed by Afghan forces since 2007. The murder of two US officers in the heart of the Afghan Interior Ministry last week prompted the withdrawal of hundreds of US and other foreign advisers from Afghan government installations. The Interior Ministry and the rest of the Afghan government are almost entirely financed by European and American taxpayers and are now without hands-on oversight from those nations.
To be sure, NATO press releases and embedded reporters continue to pump out anecdotes of steady progress, like this piece from a few days ago titled "Stability takes root in Kandahar." In the article, Capt. Widmar Roman explains: "The amount of security down here is unparalleled compared to what people have seen in the past."
Perhaps. But stories of "slow but steady progress" have been common over the past decade of war. And it's natural that mission-focused soldiers and officers report progress in the areas under their control. The Pentagon wants to present a view of progress to maintain support for the war, and the can-do qualities of soldiers inculcates in them a bias towards optimism, particularly when talking to the press.
But quantitative analysis is something else again. Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has been mining data on both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since their inception, has a far grimmer outlook.
"The reality... is that the strategy developed under General Stanley McCrystal has been dying for a long time and for many more reasons than the growing distrust between US and ISAF personnel and the Afghans," Mr. Cordesman wrote at the end of February. "It was clear from the start in forming the new strategy that no number of tactical victories could bring security and stability to Afghanistan unless a massive effort in 'nation building' gave Afghanistan a more honest political system, far more capability in governance, effective security forces, and a better economy... Without such success, 'classic counterinsurgency (COIN)' became a farce that could win temporary control in sparsely populated areas like Helmand — the strategic equivalent of “ink spots”— for a while. It could never win the war."
(A long review of the COIN strategy adopted in Afghanistan can be read here).
The recent violence in Afghanistan comes as the Obama administration is reviewing its commitment to Afghanistan. Last June President Obama promised to have 33,000 US troops out of Afghanistan by this coming summer, and promised that "after this initial reduction, our troops will continue coming home at a steady pace as Afghan security forces move into the lead. Our mission will change from combat to support."
The US public appetite for the Afghan war is on the decline as the country steams toward presidential elections, something Obama and his rivals are well aware of. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that Afghan forces can act effectively in the field without a massive NATO logistics and supply backstop. In his piece, Cordesman says that the latest US approach could have worked with a truly open-ended commitment, and all the losses in blood and treasure that it implies.
But the US public has never tolerated that kind of military commitment and the Afghan war is already the longest in US history. The previous record was Vietnam, at 103 months. The Afghan war is now at 124 months and counting. While the US military will soldier on as long as it's asked to, the US voter will not.
Cordesman writes that Obama "faced hard choices in terms of budget pressures, a war that polls showed had lost the support of the American people, as well as the populations of most of United States’ allies" but that the consequence of those choices means the US will now "lack the forces to execute its current campaign plan in both the east and the south in 2012, while it now had to rush toward a political deadline at the end of 2014 for which there was no transition plan or supporting analysis."
These realities have seen an increased urgency to backchannel talks with the Taliban on a peace settlement, which last year was allowed to open a political office in Qatar. Whether a deal can be reached or not, the current mood of electorates in both the US and Europe indicates the Afghan war is heading into the home stretch. Until it crosses the line, though, it looks like soldiers will keep dying, and some of them will be killed by Afghan troops they're there to support.
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The AP is reporting, citing unnamed "Egyptian officials," that the country has lifted the travel ban on seven American NGO workers currently being tried in absentia for their democracy promotion work.
There's no word yet on whether the mass trial of democracy workers, whose defendants include Egyptians, Americans, Germans, Serbians, Palestinians, and Jordanians, will be called off. And what "unnamed" officials say is far from bankable, particularly in Egypt. Expect some confusing and contradictory statements out of Egypt in the hours and days ahead.
But it seems fairly clear that the military junta now running Egypt is backing away from the politically motivated travel ban and trials, perhaps realizing that the country's more than $1 billion annual military subsidy from the US was about to turn in a pumpkin. The Obama administration must eventually either certify that Egypt is making progress on democracy and human rights, or issue a national security waiver explaining why US interests are served by providing money despite a lack of progress.
As a political question, that would be an impossible ask for Obama while the American NGO workers are still facing jail time in Egypt. That's not least because of who Egypt's military rulers have targeted.
Among those charged were employees of the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House. Though all three groups are described as "nongovernment organizations" they nevertheless have close ties to the government, receiving much of their funding form the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and NDI are packed with former Hill staffers from both sides of the aisle, making them friends and colleagues with senior US legislators.
Among the seven Americans banned from leaving Egypt is (or was) Sam LaHood, son of the former Congressmen and current Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Sixteen American in all have been charged, with none in the box on the first day of the trial on Sunday. Nine left the country weeks ago. The remaining seven have been holed up at the US Embassy in Cairo, among them Mr. LaHood. The trial proceedings ended quickly on Sunday, with the next date set for the end of April. Three judges on the panel quickly resigned over unexplained "discomfort" with the proceedings.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, senior generals, and the White House directly have all leaned heavily on Egypt's Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to drop the prosecution for weeks. At a Senate hearing yesterday, Ms. Clinton said "we've had a lot of very tough conversations (with Egypt) and I think we're ... moving toward a resolution." She dismissed the charges against the NGOs, which include claims that they were working to divide Egypt into four parts based on tourist maps in some of their offices (depicting Egypt's traditionally recognized four major regions) as without merit.
US "unnamed officials" (about as reliable as the Egyptian version of the species) have also been laying the groundwork for SCAF's out, telling US reporters that the trouble is all the doing of Minister of International Cooperation Faiza Aboul Naga, a Mubarak-era holdover, and that generals were just along for the ride.
It's true that she's been seeking to bring the groups under her direct control for years, and played a hand in the temporary shutdowns of IRI and NDI in 2006. But Ms. Aboul Naga serves at the pleasure of Egypt's ruling generals, and has no major independent political base of her own.
If this is the beginning of the end for the NGO trials, as seems likely, it will be the latest in a string of own goals for SCAF (for Americans, that means shooting yourself in the foot). On the one hand, they've antagonized their most important aid donor for weeks, and created the biggest diplomatic crisis between the two countries since the 1970s. On the domestic front, it will appear they've caved to US financial pressure.
Activist charges that Hosni Mubarak was a US puppet addicted to the country's aid flows dogged the former dictator in his final years. And the state-controlled media has insisted for weeks that Egypt won't bow to foreign meddling in internal legal affairs, striking a popular nationalist note. The sizable proportion of Egyptians who agreed with Egyptian officials that the presence of the US NGOs was unseemly and illegal will now be disappointed with SCAF.
Though the two US-based groups' fairly bland meat-and-potatoes democracy work – teaching political groups how to run focus groups, craft messages, and conduct polling – the fact is that Egypt has never licensed them (and, indeed, US-style democracy would threaten Egypt's current rulers). In Mubarak's last five or so years in power they operated without formal legal approval, but with casual permission from the authorities. Had the generals wanted the groups shut, they could have done so with less noise and anger in Washington.
Confusion between Mr. Adel and another Egyptian militant (a far, far smaller fish) who may have shared a similar alias is probably to blame for the stories coming out of Cairo today. Very little is known about the man who ran training camps for embryonic Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, helped set up the group's operations in Africa later that decade, and has been described as the leader of Al Qaeda's military committee since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
Saif was incorrectly reported to be the new Al Qaeda leader after the killing of Osama bin Laden last year, and was also said to be held for a time by Iran, which means his capture could shed a lot of light on Al Qaeda's present, and recent past. Even more stunning would be the fact that he had effectively turned himself in, by notifying authorities and flying home, eventually giving up on the cause to which he'd devoted most of his adult life.
The man arrested is an Egyptian by the name of Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi. "Makkawi' is an alias that Saif has used in the past. But the age of the Makkawi in custody doesn't appear to line up with what's known about the Al Qaeda leader. The man arrested at the airport was also allowed to speak to reporters, and implied that he'd gone to Afghanistan to fight in the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but that he'd broken ties with militant groups in 1989.
"I decided to return to Egypt to live in peace, without making any deal with the Egyptian authorities and to confirm my innocence of all charges directed against me," he told reporters.
The wilderness of mirrors
Hundreds of Egyptians and other Arabs fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and many have remained in exile since. Home states like Egypt, Jordan, and Libya viewed the returning jihadis as radical security threats, but many of the those men have been trickling home in the last decade, promising to give up on the militant ways of their youth.
Even the birth name of the wanted Al Qaeda leader is uncertain. "Saif al-Adel," which means the "Sword of Justice," appears to be a nom de guerre. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in its book "Al Qa'ida's (Mis)Adventures in the Horn of Africa" devotes a chapter to Saif and this is how it begins: "His date of birth is April 11, 1960 or April 11, 1963. Since the identity behind his nom de guerre is unknown, it is impossible to say anything about his family or childhood. There is some indication that he did not have a traditional Islamic education, or if he did that it was not very extensive."
Most of what's known, or thought to be known about him, comes from the writings and memoirs of jihadis, including Saif himself. He's claimed that in 1987 he was a colonel in the Egyptian Special Forces and that he was arrested that year. He fled his homeland in 1988, he's said, and soon linked up with jihadis on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In addition to the US embassy bombings in Africa, Saif appears to have been instrumental in bringing on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant responsible for dozens of atrocities in Iraq before his death in a US airstrike in June 2006. The (Mis)Adventures book explains:
"In 1999 that Saif began his–and al-Qa’ida’s–relationship with Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi. In his Zarqawi memoir Saif writes that he had learned about Zarqawi from articles by Abu Qatada al-Filistini in the latter’s London-based magazine al-Minhaj, and that he subsequently followed the news of the court case and imprisonment of Zarqawi and other Jordanian and Palestinian militants. Upon his release from Jordanian prison in 1999 Zarqawi moved to Peshawar, and soon thereafter traveled to Kandahar, Afghanistan to meet with al-Qa’ida officials. After meeting with Zarqawi and finding that he was a “hardliner” and in disagreement with certain aspects of al-Qa’ida’s ideology and practice, Saif asked Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri for the task of liaising with Zarqawi and overcoming their differences. The two al-Qa’ida chiefs appointed him to this task, and it was later agreed that al-Qa’ida would provide support for Zarqawi to establish an independent but al-Qa’ida-associated training camp in Herat, Afghanistan."
The good news is that Sunday Times photographer Paul Conroy, wounded in the attack that killed Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik, is now reported to have made his way out of that battered city and into Lebanon.
The bad news is that, the whereabouts and condition of three other foreign journalists who were in the city – Edith Bouvier, William Daniels, and Javier Espinosa – are not known. And in the case of Mr. Conroy, his escape came at the expense of more blood. The Guardian reports that a number of the Syrian activists who smuggled him out of the city were gunned down in the process:
The dramatic nature of Conroy's evacuation underlines the high level of risk being faced by those who have been trying to run medical, food and other supplies into the besieged suburbs of Homs and evacuate the injured, including foreign journalists. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has recently moved the elite 4th Division commanded by his brother Maher into the battle for Homs, has been using a foreign-supplied drone to target its artillery and mortar fire into the city. Conroy had twice refused to leave Baba Amr without the body of Colvin, who was killed during a rocket attack last Wednesday. The group of reporters has been holed up in Baba Amr ever since and protracted negotiations to evacuate them have failed.
Though the world's focus should be on the citizens of Homs, who have born the brunt of a ferocious onslaught for weeks, the killing of the foreign reporters has brought a spurt of international attention to the Syrian crackdown. The deaths, as well as the passing of The New York Time's Anthony Shadid as he was being smuggled out of Syria, have also led to a fair deal of soul-searching and debate among the community of reporters who cover conflict in the region.
The reporters in Homs were gathered in what's been described as a media center, but was effectively a makeshift office for foreign reporters and opposition activists. The office was a node of phone calls and other forms of communications that Assad's forces probably have the ability to monitor. Brian Conley, who runs an NGO that trains local journalists in conflict zones in how to get their stories out safely, says the center apparently had a VSAT hookup for Internet communications, which would have been a like a "giant radio beacon" if the Syrian military had the equipment to detect it. A site with signs of that kind of activity would be an inviting target for Assad's gunners.
Now in online forums and articles, there's a lively debate about how to stay safe. On private mailing lists and discussion groups for reporters, there have been complaints about news reports revealing too much detail about how reporters are smuggled in and out of Syria, and worries about deliberate Syrian efforts to kill foreign reporters.
Jillian York and Trevor Timm write for the Electronic Frontier Foundation that: "Authorities can find the position of a satellite phone using manual triangulation, but in order to track a phone in this manner, the individual would need to be relatively close by. Nowadays, however, most satellite phones utilize GPS, making them even easier to track using products widely available on the market .... Some of these products allow not only for GPS tracking, but also for interception of voice and text communications and other information."
Whether calls can be listened in on or not, using a GPS satphone or a VSAT for Internet access is like putting a sign over a location that reads to Syrian officers "there's something interesting here." A rebel, a civilian activist, a foreign reporter? The Syrian military don't appear to be interested in those distinctions at the moment.
Stephen Farrell at The New York Times writes that this latest round of conflicts feel far more dangerous than the Iraq and Afghan wars, where the practice of embedding and the luxury of fortified bureaus helped keep reporters safe. But not entirely safe. Mr. Farrell and his translator Sultan Munadi were abducted in Afghanistan in 2009. Mr. Munadi was killed in the British-led raid that freed Farrell, as was Cpl. John Harrison. In March 2011, Farrell, Mr. Shadid and two other New York Times journalists were detained by Libyan government forces in Ajdabiya. The foreigners were released about a week later. Their Libyan driver has been missing since, and is presumed to have been murdered.
As the correspondents of this era seek to adjust to the ever-shifting hazards of war reporting, there is a sense that the conflicts in Syria and Libya are taking even more of a toll on this generation of foreign correspondents than the latter years of the Iraq and Afghan wars. And all these countries remain infinitely more dangerous for the reporters, photojournalists, citizen journalists, translators and fixers of those countries who, unlike foreign correspondents, cannot jump into a taxi or aircraft when it gets too hot and do not have the protection of a foreign passport or an embassy when at the mercy of their own governments."
Certainly any presumption that Mr. Assad will treat reporters, foreign or local, as anything but enemies at this point is be misplaced. State media has been running an intense campaign seeking to brand foreign reporters as spies and worse, much as Qaddafi tried to do in his war. Shortly after the deaths of Ms. Colvin and Mr. Ochlik, Syrian state television (video clip with subtitles below) speculated that they must have been in Syria with "ulterior motives: foreign intelligence, military spies, or terrorists."
The claim is preposterous and false. But it's a signal of Assad's intentions. And with the foreign journalists left in Homs trying to get out, the chances for full, independent reporting on what's happening there have grown dimmer.
The expanding inquiry into the culture of bribery, phone hacking, and generally cozy relations between reporters at Rupert Murdoch's British tabloids and the UK police, has yielded a nugget that's a bit of an early Christmas present for tabloid headline writers.
Rebekah Brooks, a Murdoch confidante and former editor of his defunct weekly tabloid News of the World, was given a horse by the Metropolitan police. The retired police horse was housed at Brooks' country estate for about two years ending in 2010, and her spokesman has said that it was an act of charity on her part. The Mirror, a rival of Murdoch's tabloid The Sun, has dubbed the event "horsegate." You can count on them riding this one for a few days yet.
Brooks may be hounded by the police now and is out on bail on charges connected to the News of the World scandal, but she was once a major mover and shaker in British politics and society.
The news that the police turned to Ms. Brooks when seeking housing for the steed is likely to raise fresh questions about her cozy relationship with them. The investigation of illegal activity at the once powerful News of the World and its sister tabloid The Sun (which this week started a Sunday edition to fill the hole in the Murdoch stable left by the closure of NotW) has increasingly focused on the bribes paid to policemen for information and concerns that could have been suborning the UK justice system.
On Sunday Sue Akers, the police officer heading the investigation, said a public official had received over £80,000 over the years from The Sun and that a number of police received financial retainers from the paper.
"The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials," Akers told parliament. "There appears to have been a culture at the Sun of illegal payments, and systems have been created to facilitate such payments whilst hiding the identity of the officials receiving the money."
The Sun, meanwhile, has complained the police investigation is a "witch-hunt" that has left the British press less free than in the successor states to the Soviet Union.
Reuters reports that an elite unit commanded by one of Assad's brothers is moving tanks into position in the city. While not yet independently confirmed, moving tanks and infantry in the "softening up" that's taken place with the hundreds killed in recent weeks was always on the cards. While not confirming the tank assault, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports a pause in the shelling of Baba Amr for most of the day.
If it is happening, Homs' people are probably in store for more horrors. They have braved weeks of sniper fire and mortar attacks. Residents have been killed while out scavenging for food, infants and children have been killed by mortar strikes on their homes. Dealing with sniper fire on the streets has become the new normal (have a look at the video below, in which a blase Homsi jokes about his ruined city while a sniper takes cracks at cars and pedestrians hustling down the street).
Mr. Assad appears to determined to win the country's war much in the way his father Hafez won the last challenge to the Baath Party in 1982. After years of assassinations, low-level fighting and defections from the army (a captain in the Army organized the murder of dozens of cadets, most of them members of the Alawite minority the Assad's belong to, in Aleppo in 1979), the security services came to grips with their opponents, who'd coalesced into the Syrian Islamic Front, a Sunni-based Islamist insurgency.
With his opponents on the ropes, Hafez Assad delivered the coup de grace in the city of Hama, a stronghold of resistance much like Homs is today. He battered the city from the air for days, then unleashed tanks on its streets, firing shells into homes and accompanying infantrymen shooting everything that moved. Once the city was won, the elder Assad's security agents combed the city, rounding up and executing hundreds of suspected supporters of the uprising. Amnesty International estimated that at least 10,000 people were killed in the operation.
The savagery unleashed on Hama was punctuation mark on that failed uprising and stunned the rest of the country into acquiescence. Now, the younger Assad is facing a challenge even greater than the one his father 30 years ago, and the clock is ticking. International sanctions on his regime are mounting and there's growing talk of arming the rebels Free Syrian Army from outside. Assad must be particularly worried about the rich Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. Qatar played a major role in arming Muammar Qaddafi's opponents in Libya, and Saudi Arabia, which styles itself as a protector of the faithful, is probably not going to look on passively at the slaughter of Sunni's at the hands of an Alawite led regime for very long.
During the Iraq war, weapons and money flowed to Sunni insurgents in Anbar and Nineveh governorates from Syria, and this smuggling rat-lines can just as easily be reversed. Large Sunni tribal confederations extend from Saudi across Iraq and into Syria, providing the family and personal connections that would grease the flow of weapons to Syria's insurgents. Assad is even losing putative friends like Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now calling for "change" and "free elections," in his neighbor, according to a Saudi newspaper.
So if Assad is looking for a barbaric coda for his war, much as his father found his in Hama, crushing Homs, and doing it soon, would probably be on the agenda.
In a statement, Catherine Ashton, the EU's representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said "Today's decisions will put further pressure on those who are responsible for the ruthless campaign of repression in Syria. The measures target the regime and its ability to conduct the appalling violence against civilians. As long as the repression continues, the EU will keep imposing sanctions."
The EU also explained that the "Syrian regime's continued use of violence against civilians" prompted the new measures. One wonders if war crimes indictments are not far off. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and members of his circle were hit with International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments far sooner during that country's uprising, and if only half of the reports coming out of Syria are to be believed, Mr. Assad long ago passed Qaddafi's triggering threshold.
Of course, such decisions are political, and that's probably why a formal war crimes measure hasn't happened till now. But it sure looks like the window for "dialogue" that has been left open is down to just about a sliver.
The new EU sanctions call for "trade in gold, precious metals and diamonds with Syrian public bodies and the central bank" to be prohibited within the EU. "Cargo flights operated by Syrian carriers will not have access to EU airports, with the exception of mixed passenger and cargo flights. The Council also froze the assets of the Syrian central bank within the EU, while ensuring that legitimate trade can continue under strict conditions. Finally, the Council subjected seven ministers of the Syrian government, who are associated with the human rights violations, to an asset freeze and a visa ban."
Clearly, the killing of Marie Colvin of the UK's Sunday Times and French photographer Remi Ochlik in Homs last week has galvanized the latest step (as has the evidence of ongoing killings of Syrian civilians. Two EU citizens and reporters were wounded in the attack that killed Colvin and Ochlik, and efforts to evacuate them in recent days have been confounded.
"The EU strongly condemns the illegal attacks against medical staff and installations carrying the symbols of the Red Crescent. The Syrian authorities must immediately cease all violence. They must also allow full and unimpeded access of relief personnel from humanitarian organisations for the timely delivery of humanitarian aid to people in need of assistance," the EU council's statement says.
The full statement on the new sanctions is here.
Syria's government said that almost 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for a referendum on a new Constitution today, and almost 90 percent of those voiced their approval.
But the political show is likely to do nothing to mollify Bashar al-Assad's opponents or end the war that is now gripping large parts of the country. Though the new Constitution theoretically allows multiparty competition for power in Syria for the first time since the Baath Party took power in 1963, there's good reason for Mr. Assad's political opponents not to believe it.
Syria's elections have been routinely rigged under Assad, much as they were under his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. The torture and murder of dissidents has been commonplace for decades. And the younger Assad's actions, far more than his words, show a steely desire to hold on to power as long as possible. US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said the referendum was "clearly a sham."
For real declarations of Assad's intent, you need look no further than Homs today. Last week, a group of foreign journalists was caught in an artillery barrage there, killing the Sunday Times' Marie Colvin and the French photographer Remi Ochlik. The death of the foreigners brought greater international attention to the month-long siege of the city, particularly of its Baba Amr neighborhood, where hundreds of Syrians – political activists and average civilians alike – have been killed.
It was hoped the increased scrutiny, with a number of wounded foreigners trapped inside the city, would lead Assad and allies like Russia, his major arms supplier, to reconsider the situation. Yesterday, US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul wrote that "Homs is on the verge of a major humanitarian catastrophe. Russia should contact Assad immediately to demand a 24-hour humanitarian cease fire."
Though Assad's forces briefly held up on their assault yesterday, allowing the Red Crescent and Red Cross to evacuate about 30 wounded women and children, any hopes for an extended break in the attacks there were dashed today. Syrian activists allege at least 125 people have been killed across Syria today, with 68 of the dead killed in Homs. The Local Coordinating Committees, a loose network of anti-Assad activists inside the country, alleged that dozens of civilians were killed at a checkpoint as they tried to flee the city, though that has not yet been independently confirmed.
Syrian society has now become so polarized, that whatever slim chance a constitutional change would have ever had to shore up Assad's rule has evaporated. The Internet has been filled with horrific videos and photographs of dead and dying civilians and the emotions of the situation – and fears of what Assad would do with his opponents if he were to win a decisive victory – are now a guarantee of ongoing conflict.
The Syrian regime has adopted the accusatory stance of Egypt under Mubarak, Tunisia under Ben Ali, and Libya under Qaddafi last year: That the extent of the uprising and the death toll is the fault of "meddling" outside powers, not of its own mistakes. That was a position Syria reiterated today, even as international human rights groups said the death toll from months of violence is now over 8,000.
The calls from liberal interventionists to arm Syria's rebels, or perhaps for the US and other Western powers to intervene directly, are mounting, though it's hard to see a major international effort against Assad anytime soon. Syria is not Libya.
The country has deep sectarian divisions (Assad's regime draws much of its strength from the minority Alawite sect he belongs to), is in a geopolitically complicated region (Syria shares a border with both Israel and with Iraq, a country whose own sectarian war deposited tens of thousands of refugees inside its borders) and has powerful friends in Russia, China, and Iran.
It's hard to see a fast improvement in the situation. The one thing that's certain is that a new Constitution is not going to be relevant to the ultimate resolution of the country's conflict.