The US is often accused of arrogance in international affairs and it's not hard to see why. US officials frequently speak of behavior that is "not acceptable" from other nations. Or they tell other countries and leaders what they "must" do. Or, if they're feeling a little more accommodating, they merely "urge" other countries "to do the right thing" in their best disappointed parent voice.
But the matter of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole a trove of NSA secrets, leaked some of them to The Guardian, and now appears to have fled to the international terminal at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, helps bring to the surface how weak such rhetoric makes the US look, particularly when it's either unwilling or incapable of imposing its will.
There are a great many things that the US would like to see happen in the world, but standing on the sidelines while "demanding" this or that only serves to make you look like an adolescent, incapable of seeing the wants and needs of others. While sometimes such rhetoric is designed to fool a domestic audience that the government is "doing something," even worse is how often US officials seem to believe that tough talk alone can achieve results.
Fairly typical was Secretary of State John Kerry's comment yesterday, when it still wasn't 100 percent clear that Snowden had fled from Hong Kong to Russia. "It would be very disappointing if he was willfully allowed to board an airplane" to Russia, Kerry said. He also said the US would be "deeply troubled” if that had happened "and there would be, without any question, some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences... I’d urge them to live within the law. It’s in the interest of everyone.”
He directed those comments at both China, Hong Kong (a special administrative region of China) and Russia. The net effect of them? A red rag to Putin, some minor laughter in Beijing.
And, "law"? Whose law? "Everyone's interests?" Neither China or Russia view their interests as tied at the hip to America's, and the reluctance of two countries who are constantly beaten up by the State Department over poor free speech and human rights records have frankly been enjoying the spectacle of America chasing after a so-called whistleblower. Russia said the rock band Pussy Riot violated its blasphemy laws, appealed for understanding, and sentenced its members to prison. The State Department tsk-tsked:
The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia. We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.
A false equivalency? Perhaps. But that's not how Moscow sees it. Sovereignty is sovereignty, local laws are local laws, and we don't appreciate the yankees telling us how to run our own affairs.
What's it all about?
Far more than Snowden.
For over a year now, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her successor Secretary of State Kerry, and President Obama have insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "must go," notwithstanding that Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, disagrees strongly.
In May Secretary Kerry said "we've made it crystal clear that we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance" to Syria while at the same time the White House spokesman said: "Our position is that Syria's future cannot include Bashar al-Assad."
That's all very interesting. But it has made Russia, if anything, less-inclined to agree with the US than before. Russia doesn't want to lose its naval base in Syria. It is more frightened of jihadis taking over the country than even the US, because of concerns of destabilization in the Caucasus. Russia doesn't like the precedent of the US determining which global governments survive. Flush with oil and gas wealth and an aggressive nationalism under Putin, Russia wants to be an equal, not a subordinate.
Putin and Russia were particularly stung by their decision to abstain from the UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone for Libya in 2011 (just as Russia was stung years ago by the US decision to back eastward expansion of NATO). The US had promised that air-power would be used for defensive purposes only, the UN resolution spelled this out and yet the air campaign that was carried out was an offensive one designed to help the rebellion prevail over Muammar Qaddafi.
Better to stay mum
Russia, not surprisingly, is unlikely to take the US on its word in the near future and has also felt insulted by the lecturing it frequently hears from Washington. While it might feel good to talk tough sometimes, it's generally better to stay mum unless you're willing to go the whole way.
Yet in the US, most of the political criticism of the Obama folks is not the failure to find creative diplomatic solutions or build bridges but they don't talk tough enough.
Sen. John McCain is rather typical of this "lead by leading" school of criticism.
"For nearly five years now we have sent a signal to the world that we're leading from behind, that we are impotent, that we don't act when we say that we're going to... we need to show more leadership," Senator McCain told CNBC. He told CNN that Putin is an "old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire" and "when you withdraw to fortress America, when you believe in light footprints, when you show the world you're leading from behind, these are the consequences of American leadership."
Perhaps that makes for a good soundbite, but as policy advice, it's incoherent. Putin and other country leaders don't do things they don't want to do because the US refuses to show "leadership" or because of their fundamentally nefarious nature. They generally don't like to do things precisely because they don't see them as in their interests, and either need convincing that America's estimation of their interests is better than their own, or at least be offered a reasonable compromise in return for holding their noses and doing us a favor.
In the case of Snowden, they've gotten mostly bluster from the Obama administration as they have in the case of Syria (a subtext to McCain's comments today; the senator is a leading hawk on the country and supporter of its rebellion).
Today Snowden is in Moscow (more or less. He's reported to be holed up in the airport). And it's a moment that Putin is likely savoring, while playing up a rule of law argument of his own: "We can hand over foreign citizens to countries with which we have an appropriate international agreement on the extradition of criminals," Putin told reporters today. "We don't have such an agreement with the United States ... Thank God, Mr. Snowden committed no crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation."
There have been some signs of dawning awareness that public comments haven't been helping. Mr. Kerry said today about Russia: "We are not looking for a confrontation. We are not ordering anybody," though he followed it up with a sentence that surely made Putin smile: "We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody."
If Snowden is to be believed, he is carrying a trove of information on the NSA's abilities, programs, and targets. Moscow's intelligence agents currently have a whale of a potential source just on the outskirts of town. And that makes it likely the US is desperate to get him back. He may fly on soon. But it's not hard to imagine what Putin thinks when he hears of a "routine" extradition request from a country with which Russia does not have an extradition treaty. Something along the lines of: "If I give up this man that could undermine your spying operations against me, what of greater value will you give me in return?" What indeed?
"I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me," the former NSA contractor said then. "I want it to be about what the US government is doing."
If that was really his desire, he's certainly gone about it in a funny way. From that day, every step he's taken couldn't have been better calculated to draw attention to himself. Over the weekend he even turned the media dial up when he fled from Hong Kong to the loving bosom of Mother Russia.
Mr. Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has staked out a consistently anti-American and techno-libertarian position in the past few years. The US government is motivated by malice and power lust in his worldview, its rivals like Russia (where state-owned broadcaster RT ran a show of Assange's) get a free pass, and secrecy is an evil in and of itself. Though he presents himself as a champion of free-speech, Assange has sought refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, never mind that the country has a poor and deteriorating record on freedom of speech. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Ecuador and Russia as two of the 10 worst places to be a journalist in the world past year.
Like Assange, Snowden has requested asylum in Ecuador. And while Snowden is avoiding US arrest and prosecution for leaking classified documents, Assange is hiding out in the embassy to avoid extradition to face rape and sexual assault charges laid against him by two women in Sweden. So jumping into the boat with Assange will do Snowden's cause, whatever it turns out to be, little good in the US, nor will his sojourn in Russia, no matter how long it lasts.
Leaving aside a discussion of whether Snowden has done the right thing, his actions have undermined the likelihood he'll reach a much broader audience in the US, where voters are already inclined to approve of government surveillance as a safety measure. There is inevitable speculation today, fair or unfair, that Snowden will be interviewed by the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB.
And the simple fact of the matter is that this is being played for political advantage by all sides. Assange and WikiLeaks are seeking regained relevance and publicity, Ecuador would likely love to use its embrace of a "whistleblower" to fight its developing image of an increasingly repressive state, and Russia (which deals with its leakers rather more harshly than the US does) is surely enjoying tweaking the nose of the US, which frequently lectures it about its own country's track record on basic freedoms.
What is Snowden's agenda?
Originally, it seemed to be about violations of the US Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches. But during his stay in Hong Kong, he expanded his roster of leaks from claims that the NSA was carrying out wide-spread surveillance of US citizens to disclosing information about US surveillance programs against China, which is emerging as one of America's great rivals for strategic influence.
That choice weakened any future claims he might make that his decision to violate the terms of his top-secret clearance was motivated solely by a sense of patriotism or commitment to his own interpretation of the Constitution. While his opinion may prove right (the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a constitutional challenge to one of the programs though others claim that Snowden has dramatically overstated the extent of US domestic surveillance), today comes news that his agenda was far bigger.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reports today that Snowden told the paper on June 12 (why it sat on the news til now they didn't say; it probably had to do with a promise that they'd wait until he left) that he'd taken his job with NSA contractor Booz Allen with the express intention of gaining access to US secrets so he could steal them and release them to the world.
"Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: 'Correct on Booz,'" the paper writes. "His intention was to collect information about the NSA hacking into 'the whole world' and 'not specifically Hong Kong and China' ... 'If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.'"
I am not certain what to think about Snowden's actions. There's no question the federal government's powers have expanded since 9/11, particularly when it comes to civil liberties. But Snowden has not stood up in an act of civil disobedience, pointed the finger and accepted the consequences.
He's consistently associated himself with people and nations that don't have America's best interests at heart since his first leaks hit The Guardian, and as he looks for aid around the globe, he carries with him what he claims are four laptops filled with documents and information stolen from NSA systems.
The notion that a little-known Palestinian linguistics professor with no political support base of his own could be appointed Palestinian prime minister and somehow strengthen the West Bank's Palestinian Authority (PA), setting the stage for an eventual peace with Israel, was at best a little whimsical.
But Rami Hamdallah's attempted resignation after just two weeks on the job should demonstrate that such hopes, expressed by the US and Israel, were more folly than whimsy.
Agence France-Presse reports, citing a "PA official," that Mr. Hamdallah submitted a written resignation today "following disagreements with his two deputies."
While it's not clear yet whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will accept his resignation, it hardly matters. Mr. Hamdallah's technocratic predecessor Salam Fayyad tried to quit multiple times before it finally stuck. The fact will remain that whoever is given responsibility for day-to-day management of the PA will be hamstrung by a lack of political legitimacy, real control over the government's finances, and the absence of anything resembling a workable peace process.
Mr. Fayyad, who held his post for six years, in some ways jumped before he was pushed. He introduced changes into how the PA is governed that threatened the entrenched Fatah party that Mr. Abbas leads and for years had been at odds with Abbas, who also worried that Fayyad was building a power base of his own. Hamdallah is seen as both a less politically dynamic and less experienced politician than Fayyad, but had vowed to tread the same path while in power.
Clearly, he's been finding that rough going. The PA hasn't had a parliament since 2007, when Hamas swept PA elections and Abbas's Fatah party refused to concede power or defeat. A brief civil war split the Palestinian territories in two, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Fatah's central committee, with Abbas at its head, running the West Bank in the name of the PA.
The splintering of at least nominal Palestinian unity since 2007 has weakened the PA's standing with its own people and in potential negotiations with Israel, which has dramatically expanded settlements in the West Bank in the interim. There have been no elections since and while there have been occasional gestures toward political reunification, neither Hamas nor Fatah have been willing to compromise, and the US and Israel have been staunchly opposed, since those two nations consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.
Whether Hamdallah stays or goes is irrelevant to the more important reailty: The dream of foreigners that a technocratic, apolitical Palestinian Authority largely disinterested in confrontation with Israel – which The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman amusingly called Fayyadism – is pretty much dead.
There is an aging group of Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah leaders around Abbas, who have failed to deliver the Palestinian state that the creation of the PA was all about. In the West Bank, there is no current political alternative to them. And Israel has grown very comfortable with the status quo, since the building of the separation wall has dramatically heightened their own security and the pro-settlement bloc in Israeli politics has gone from strength to strength.
While US Secretary of State John Kerry has been making vague promises of West Bank economic development and a restarted peace process, the position of the PA, reliant on external funding and taxes that Israel collects – and sometimes withholds – on its behalf, continues to deteriorate.
His weakness appears to be the very reason Hamdallah was attractive to Abbas in the first place.
"He’s a gray figure," Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, told Monitor reporter Joshua Mitnick earlier this month. "I think that Abbas was looking for someone who is an administrator and not a politician, while retaining the confidence of the international community that the PA would not become corrupt."
Gray figures aren't really going to cut it anymore. And while the average Palestinian doesn't like official corruption anymore than the "international community" does, mollifying the international community isn't what they - or any public - want out of their leaders, elected or appointed.
Meanwhile, as the situation grows tenser, Israelis fear a third intifada could be in the offing, and the prospects that the Palestinian Authority can accomplish what it was created to do continue to dim.
President Barack Obama decided to arm Syria's rebels earlier this week. That sound you are now hearing? Raspberries, both from people who want the US government to throw its full weight behind a rebel victory, and from those who think the US should wait out the Syrian civil war on the sidelines.
Obama has pulled the classic maneuver of a compromise that satisfies no one and irritates everyone. But the decision, and the points of agreement from various analysts who disagree sharply about what the US should be doing, is particularly troubling in what it says about the lack of strategic care going into all of this (one commentator on twitter said it was looking like an "etch-a-sketch intervention.")
Does President Obama have a strategic objective in mind? He hasn't outlined one in public yet, and it's hard to divine one amid the morass of unnamed sources quoted in DC press reporting on the decision.
Sure, the US would like a stable, democratic Syria that's friendly to America and Israel, hostile to Sunni jihadis and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, and distant from Iran. Obama says he'd like to see a negotiated, political transition - notwithstanding both sides are committed to victory and nothing but victory. But that is just an empty aspiration if there isn't a meaningful road-map for getting from point A to point Z. That's not to say the US must have an answer to this question, or even that there's a plausible one to be found. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to ride the tiger and limit the fallout for your own interests.
But best practice in those kind of situations is to not get involved at all. Simply pouring more weapons into the situation and hoping for the best isn't a smart option. And if the Obama administration has cracked the code, or thinks it has, it's time it starts sharing that with the American public before the US risks getting dragged into another Middle Eastern war.
What's more, the limited amount of support currently on offer is highly unlikely to lead to anything resembling a decisive advantage for the rebellion writ large, particularly if the US is successful in keeping the new weapons out of the hands of jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra - among the most effective fighters on the opposition side.
Criticism of Obama's decision have been pointed - both from people who want a robust US effort to help the rebels win, and from those who think the US should steer clear entirely. Shadi Hamid is in the former camp, and he writes that:
What makes Obama's decision so unsatisfying -- and even infuriating -- to both sides is that even he seems to acknowledge this. As the New York Times reports, "Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement."
To some extent like the 2010 Afghanistan "surge," this is a tactical move that seems almost entirely detached from any clear, long-term strategy. A source of constant and sometimes Kafkaesque debate among interpreters of Obama's Syria policy is figuring out what exactly the policy is in the first place. Secretary of State John Kerry has been promoting the Geneva II peace conference, but his explanations of US goals have tended to confuse. For example, there is this: "The goal of Geneva II is to implement Geneva I." But no one is quite sure what the goals of Geneva I were, except perhaps to "lay the groundwork" for Geneva II.
George Washington University's Marc Lynch, an occasional adviser to the administration on Middle East foreign policy who would like to see the US limit it's military involvement in the war, writes the decision to send weapons is probably Obama's "worst foreign policy decision since taking office."
Nobody in the administration seems to have any illusions that arming the rebels is likely to work. The argument over arming the FSA has been raging for well over a year, driven by the horrific levels of death and devastation, fears of regional destabilization, the inadequacy of existing policies, concerns about credibility over the ill-conceived chemical weapons red line, and a relentless campaign for intervention led by hawkish media, think tanks, Congress, and some European and regional allies.
... Obama's move is likely meant as a way to "do something," and perhaps to give Secretary John Kerry something to work with diplomatically on the way to Geneva II, while deflecting pressure for more aggressive steps. The logic behind the steps has been thoroughly aired by now. The dominant idea is that these arms will help to pressure Assad to the bargaining table, strengthen the "moderate" groups within the opposition while marginalizing the jihadists in the rebellion's ranks, and assert stronger U.S. leadership over the international and regional proxy war. Much of it sounds like magical thinking.
Earlier this week columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Gen. Martin Dempsey dressed down Secretary Kerry over the apparent absence of clear objectives and the danger of directly attacking the Syrian government. Mr. Goldberg cites this only to "several sources" with no further identification, so the usual caveats apply as to the motives and honesty of the anonymous. But if true, it's a fascinating window into the debate between the professional soldiers and civilian leaders in the Obama administration.
At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime -- specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.
... Dempsey was adamant: Without much of an entrance strategy, without anything resembling an exit strategy, and without even a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of an American airstrike, the Pentagon would be extremely reluctant to get behind Kerry’s plan.
The talk of many of the purveyors of conventional DC wisdom about all this is instructive in its fundamental incoherence. Consider the musings of David Ignatius yesterday about the White House's plans.
In Ignatius' estimation "the reality is that, despite his decision last week to arm the opposition there, Obama is still playing for a negotiated diplomatic transition" and that "Obama wants to bolster moderate opposition forces under Gen. Salim Idriss until they’re strong enough to negotiate a transitional government. He wants to counter recent offensives by Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces aiding President Bashar al-Assad. And he wants to keep Arab nations from bolting the U.S.-led coalition backing Idriss and instead arming radical jihadists."
It's hard to know where to start with the above. Some Arab nations already are arming jihadis, and the efforts to arm the "nice" rebels exclusively haven't worked, with strong evidence that weapons that started to flow through Jordan at the end of last year quickly ended up in the hands of jihadi fighters, who have been an enormous battlefield asset to the uprising.
Strong enough to "negotiate a transitional government?" That in reality would be "strong enough to win." Assad and his supporters view the fight as one for existence and survival, have the backing of Iran and Russia, and see little upside in negotiating a "transition" that ends up with them in exile or swinging from the gallows. If Assad doesn't fear imminent defeat, he isn't going to negotiate his exit. And rebel commanders, both under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and of the jihadis, have been united in demanding Assad's removal from power as a precondition for any meaningful peace talks.
Finally, it's unclear what the sending of light weapons - Obama has been frustratingly vague on what exactly he's willing to give them, and it will take a while to set up supply routes and vetting procedures - will do to substantially change the situation. The Syrian army is professional and well-equipped; Hezbollah is one of the most capable fighting forces in the region. Without anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons - and professional training in their use - it's hard to see extra bullets or rifles making much of a difference beyond, perhaps, prolonging the agony.
Meanwhile, Russia looks on. President Vladimir Putin drew his own red line this week over any kind of no-fly or no-drive zone over Syria. His country continues to hold back on a promised delivery of the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system to Assad that has alarmed Israel and the US. The greater the US slips towards a policy of regime change, the more likely he is to deliver those and perhaps other weapons.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai continued his traditional disdain for the US today, furious that America might be involved in peace talks with a Taliban office being set up in the Gulf emirate of Qatar and suspending negotiations on an extended US combat presence in the country.
A day after the US praised the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar and said it wanted to facilitate talks between both sides, Mr. Karzai's government said it would not participate in peace talks with the Taliban there. It also said it was suspending long-stalled negotiations with the US over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow for the extended presence of US troops inside the country.
Karzai continues to gamble that the US can be bent to his will in a high stakes game of chicken, counting on President Barack Obama to make compromises in his favor for fear of being seen as the president who "lost" Afghanistan. But whatever happens over the SOFA, or whether talks with the Taliban start in Qatar or not, they are not likely to mitigate the looming storm-clouds over the troubled country.
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In a statement, Karzai rejected any US mediation role with the Taliban and insisted that talks take place inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban office in Qatar – a country that uses its oil and gas wealth to support Sunni Islamist causes around the world – had been in the works for 18 months. Inasmuch as the US has an exit strategy designed to prevent a hot civil war erupting again in Afghanistan, like the one that broke out after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, this is it.
To be sure, the notion is now far-fetched of any negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Karzai, who is term-limited out of office next year at the same time America is scheduled to withdraw the last of its combat troops. US and other NATO forces are more capable than the Afghan National Army, and the Taliban is looking forward to more favorable fighting terrain. Make concessions now? Why would they?
And while the latest Karzai eruption has officials at the US Embassy in Kabul and in Foggy Bottom holding their heads yet again (Karzai has this year alone accused the US of conspiring with the Taliban to conduct suicide attacks and carrying out war crimes against Afghan civilians), there are more important signs of the challenges facing Afghanistan this week.
Exhibit A is the outbreak of fighting in Jowzjan Province this week, in which forces loyal to Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum – a key member of the Northern Alliance that worked with the US to drive the Taliban from power in 2001 – attacked the office and home of governor and Karzai appointee Mohammad Alem Sayee in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.
Mr. Dostum is an ethnic-Uzbek and a major player in Afghanistan's civil war, repeatedly accused of war crimes like the massacre of prisoners during that conflict. His militia was also accused of atrocities in post-Taliban Afghanistan, too – like the murder of thousands of Taliban prisoners being transported to Sheberghan in 2002, one reason he was in exile on the eve of Karzai's fraud-tainted reelection in 2009. But in a deal with Karzai, Dostum was allowed to return home before the election, and his militia insured the votes went his way in Jowzjan and other areas in the Uzbek north. In return, Dostum was named chairman of the Afghan armed forces joint chiefs of staff.
But alliances in Afghan politics and war have always been fluid and ephemeral, and with Karzai looking like a lame-duck, the vast amounts of foreign military and aid spending that have enriched Dostum and so many others drying up, and a new reality looming, it appears that Dostum is flexing his muscles. Governor Sayee alleges that Dostum has lately been distributing fresh weapons to his forces and has asked the Karzai government to take legal steps against Dostum.
That's not likely to happen. For a decade now, warlords like Dostum have been the "good guys" in the US strategic equation, but they're no more likely to play nice in a post-occupation country than the Taliban will.
The so-called Afghan surge engineered by Gen. David Petraeus ended in 2012 without accomplishing its objectives of setting the stage for political reconciliation and strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The country's electoral politics have been driven by vote buying, ballot stuffing, and intimidation, and former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was describing Karzai himself as an "inadequate strategic partner" as long ago as 2009.
But, well, you don't go to war with the strategic partner you wished you had. And that's the ultimate concern as Afghanistan lurches towards its next transition.
Karzai is on the way out, a longer-term US troop presence remains an open question, and would-be kingmakers like General Dostum are waiting in the wings.
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It's a typically sweltering summer in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to repair an inadequate electricity network, reach a badly needed loan agreement with the IMF, or repair fraying relations with the United States.
But amid the heat and anger, the movement that catapulted President Mohamed Morsi to power last year has bigger fish to fry. Namely, joining the increasingly heated Shiite-Sunni sectarian rhetoric around the Syrian civil war.
Speaking in plainly sectarian terms, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told Reuters that "throughout history, Sunnis have never been involved in starting a sectarian war" and that the movement backed a declaration issued by a group of regional clerics on Thursday that called for "jihad with mind, money, weapons - all forms of jihad" in Syria.
While his history is a little shaky, or at least one-sided, the increasingly intolerant religious rhetoric around the war in Syria is worth paying attention too. The Muslim Brotherhood frequently insists that it's separate from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that it founded and is now headed by Morsi, a long-term Brotherhood stalwart. But in practice the two are inseparable, and this kind of talk is dangerous.
The Brotherhood's belligerent rhetoric would appear to match the Obama administration's shift on arming Syria's rebels. But the way they're talking about the war in Syria - with calls for jihad, rooted in anti-Shiite enmity - will not be giving many people in Washington the warm and fuzzies.
The powerful involvement of jihadi groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration designated a terrorist group at the end of last year, has been a key reason the US has been so reluctant to provide direct military aid to the rebellion. The US fears that weapons it supplies will end up in jihadi hands and that the consequences, if such groups prove decisive in driving Bashar al-Assad and his cronies from power, will not be entirely to American likings.
While the US and close friend Israel have been at odds with Assad's Baath regime in Syria for years, there's no guarantee that what could replace him would be more to either country's taste. And the willingness of Egypt, which overthrew its long-standing secular dictator in 2011, to apparently countenance support of Sunni jihadi groups, also contains seeds of warning.
Hosni Mubarak's Egypt fought for years against Al Qaeda style militant groups at home, and worried about blow back from militants going abroad to fight in foreign jihads and bringing their ideals home. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the reins of Al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, is an Egyptian and former leader of the country's Islamic Jihad.
And while Zawahiri and Al Qaeda hate the Muslim Brotherhood for its embrace of electoral democracy and what they consider other ideological deviations, the new Egypt is far more comfortable, it seems, with taking the risk of allowing people to go fight abroad than the old one. An aide to President Morsi told Reuters that the government was not sending fighters to Syria but "could not stop Egyptians from traveling and would not penalize any who went to Syria.
Morsi may further clarify his position tomorrow, when he's scheduled to speak at a Syria solidarity conference and mass rally in Cairo tomorrow. Also at the event will be influential Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has already called for jihad in Syria, and Saudi preacher Mohamed al-Arifi, who has in the past praised Osama bin Laden, called for jihad in a sermon in Cairo today. Another influential Saudi preacher appeared to call for jihad at Mecca's Grand Mosque today as well.
Sunni-Shiite rivalry has rarely been far from the surface in the modern Middle East, as Saudi Arabia's jockeying with Iran for regional influence over the years, and the horrific toll of the Sunni-Shiite war that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, make clear.
But now in this hot summer, the rivalry is being stoked again by the horrors of Syria's civil war. And while religious fervor may end up (or not, who knows?) turning the tide for the rebellion in Syria, it's likely to reverberate back out across the region in unpleasant ways.
Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst for the Middle East, is someone I had the pleasure to get to know a little bit while I was covering the Iraq war between 2003-2008. In those years I'd talk to him every couple of months or so, and was glad I did.
Why? More often than not events bore out his analysis. So when he has something to say about the region, I pay attention.
The Obama Administration finally has decided to provide lethal military support to the Syrian rebels. Yet, if Washington’s main focus is providing arms, a detailed review of just that one option suggests it probably would not be enough to prevent some additional regime successes. Moreover, giving arms only to so-called “vetted” (or moderate) rebel groups could aggravate tensions between disparate opposition camps, perhaps leading to rebel infighting. Some believe a US goal in supplying arms now (aside from bolstering the rebels) would be to re-balance the situation as a prelude to negotiations. Yet, getting the many combatants-—especially the rebels–to stand down is unlikely, so the outcome of limited arms shipments could be familiar: more prolonged bloodletting and destruction.
He argues that the US determination to limit arms to fighters that say they're opposed to the ultimate agenda of jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra risks "being too selective militarily to have much overall impact" and points out that "rebel military vanguard has been radical Islamist in character - even al-Qaeda affiliated - for some time now." If Obama is hoping to put enough pressure on Assad to engage in meaningful peace talks, White expects the president will be disappointed.
It is no wonder it took the Obama Administration since late last summer to formulate a policy on lethal American support for Syria’s rebels, with limited regime chemical weapons use only partly driving yesterday’s decision. But even by mid-2012, supplying enough weapons to make a difference without providing them to extremists already had become an iffy proposition militarily. And with the opposition disunited, with some component groups bitterly opposing talks and rebels now regaining hope for victory over the regime with US help, useful diplomatic engagement also seems less promising than when Secretary John Kerry went to Moscow early last month.
There are good arguments to be made for the US directly arming Syria's rebels. But claims that nerve gas has been deployed in small quantities by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad aren't really among them.
The UN said yesterday morning that a minimum of 93,000 people have been killed since Syria's civil war began in March of 2011. Later in the day Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, put out a press release saying the US intelligence community is convinced that Assad "has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year."
The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete. While the lethality of these attacks make up only a small portion of the catastrophic loss of life in Syria, which now stands at more than 90,000 deaths, the use of chemical weapons violates international norms and crosses clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades. We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons. We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.
The body of information used to make this intelligence assessment includes reporting regarding Syrian officials planning and executing regime chemical weapons attacks; reporting that includes descriptions of the time, location, and means of attack; and descriptions of physiological symptoms that are consistent with exposure to a chemical weapons agent. Some open source reports from social media outlets from Syrian opposition groups and other media sources are consistent with the information we have obtained regarding chemical weapons use and exposure. The assessment is further supported by laboratory analysis of physiological samples obtained from a number of individuals, which revealed exposure to sarin.
Now, 150 - or 1,050 - people killed by chemical weapons, or any other means, is tragic. But 1,050 as a percentage of 93,000 is 1.1 percent of the death toll from the war (which has claimed many fighters for Assad and civilian supporters of his government as well as people siding with the rebellion). So if the human tragedy of the Syrian civil war wasn't sufficient cause for getting involved in the fight at this time last week, it's hard to see why it's sufficient as a result that sarin was allegedly used.
One way that it is different, of course, is that chemical weapons could possibly be used to kill large numbers of civilians in a short frame of time, as happened in the Iraqi Kurdistan village of Halabja in 1988, the last wide-scale use of chemical weapons, which claimed 5,000 lives. So the fear is that Assad has tested the waters on sarin use with very small attacks, and might consider wider deployment if there isn't an international reaction.
Perhaps. But it's also the case that of late the Syrian army has regrouped, and with the help of Lebanon's Hezbollah, has made strategic gains. With the rebels on the back foot, he has less incentive to risk using sarin or any other chemical weapons. If the US started supplying game changing weapons like anti-aircraft or anti-tank missiles that the rebels have craved, there's an argument to be made that he'd be more likely to use chemical weapons.
After all, the view of Assad and regime stalwarts is that they're in a truly existential battle: They can win or die, or, if they're lucky, live out their days as exiles from their homeland. The sectarian cast to much of the fighting -- the Alawite minority that Assad belongs to disproportionately supports his government -- also can't be ignored. Nor can the calls for jihad by leading Sunni preachers and the framing of war by other Sunni powers like the Muslim Brotherhood that now runs Egypt as a fight against Shiites, be ignored. (Iran is overwhelmingly Shiite and supports Assad; the Alawites are a long-ago offshoot of Shia Islam).
To be sure, Obama officials are saying that they're not going to provide serious weaponry to the rebellion, and the calculation in Washington appears to be a minor escalation to warn Assad off of further sarin use, without making him feel his back is to the wall. But it's also the case that "light" support of foreign insurgents has a way of morphing into wider entanglements, as US prestige and pride kick in.
Finally, it's worth remembering that the "red line" has in fact been a bit squiggly, though it has hardened over time.
The first "red line" set by Obama in August 2012 had enough holes in it to make an Emmental cheese maker proud. "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said then, "That would change my calculus."
Since then, caveats like "a whole bunch" have been rarer, with chemical weapons use spoken of in generic terms, and without specific action threatened. For instance, in December of 2012 Obama's spokesman Jay Carney said that, "our promise of significant consequences" if Assad used chemical weapons were "extremely clear and stark," without explaining what those consequences would be.
Obama also took a tougher line on March 21: "I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists."
Well, for now, "won't tolerate" is translating as, "we'll give a little more assistance to the rebellion."
Full-scale US involvement in the conflict appears to remain a way off.
Has Obama chosen the best path this week? Only time will tell.
Clinton's remarks, at a closed event with Senator John McCain yesterday in New York, came shortly before the UN updated its death toll from the Syrian civil war – 92,901 dead and counting. That number runs from March 2011 to the end of this April and represents an aggregation and analysis from eight different sources, some pro-government, some pro-rebellion. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said "this is most likely a minimum casualty figure. The true number of those killed is potentially much higher." The UN estimated that 82 percent of the dead are men, and that at least 6,561 minors have been killed in the conflict.
The Syrian war is a humanitarian catastrophe, there is no getting around that. And the updated casualty figures are going to fuel more hand-wringing that the US must "do something," as well as further suggestions that all the death in the country is the fault of Assad.
But that's clearly not true. Syrian government forces have also died at horrific rates. While most neutral observers indicate that the government has been more responsible for civilian atrocities than the rebels, the rebels have been far from blameless. And what exactly should the US do?
Mr. Clinton, whose remarks were recorded by an attendee and leaked to Politico, wasn't clear. He warned that if Obama was deterred from acting based on polling which shows most Americans are opposed to another war that he'd look like a "wuss" and said that action for its own sake is sometimes the right course of action.
"Some people say, ‘OK, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,” Clinton told McCain. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit — like, as long as you don’t make an improvident commitment.”
He complained about Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah support for Assad and suggested that the US should try to "do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they’re supported by a majority of the people, to prevail."
Perhaps. But is the rebellion prevailing in US interests? Is it in humanitarian interests if a hotter, longer war results from the US fully engaging in a proxy war involving Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and a likely spillover into neighbors like Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan? What of the sizable presence of jihadis in the ranks of the rebels, who detest the country's minority Alawite sect (which Assad and much of his inner circle belong to) and its Christian minority, not to mention their hostility to US interests? If US weapons end up at the sharp end of sectarian massacres if the rebels win, what then?
These difficult to answer, troubling questions are among the reasons that Obama has hesitated to become more involved. And clearly casualties are not all on one side.
Earlier this month the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in London that has generally been supportive of the rebels during the country's 27 month old civil war, estimated that over 96,000 Syrians have died in the war and that over 24,600 were members of the government security forces and a further 17,000 belonged to the pro-government Shabiha militias. The group estimated that nearly 35,500 of the dead are non-combatants.
The Observatory's numbers need to be treated with care, as the political affiliations of the group are opaque, as are the manner in which it carries out its work. But it's one of the few estimates of pro-regime casualties out there.
And while it is almost impossible to know the political leanings of all the civilian dead, the chances that all of them are pro-rebellion are zero. There have been credible reports of massacres of Shiites and Alawites, who support the Assad government in greater numbers than the country's Sunni majority, at the hands of rebel forces. The UN report released today is limited to "killings that are fully identified by the name of the victim, as well as the date and location of death" hence the assumption of an under count.
What's needed to determine whether the US should get directly involved or not is reasonable assumptions about whether more arms for the rebels will lead to fewer deaths and atrocities in the end, if US interests will indeed be served by a rebel victory, and the ease with which US-supplied weapons can be kept out of jihadi hands.
Hezbollah and Iran have been helping Assad’s forces to regain the momentum in the war, making it look more likely that he could ultimately prevail over the rebels. If and when the war ends, it’s increasingly plausible that Iran will emerge as the big winner, able to project even more influence in a weakened Syria and into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based. “If Iran wins this conflict and the Syrian regime survives, Iran’s interventionist policy will become wider and its credibility will be enhanced,” an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Council told Sly.
... Long-held international relations theory maintains that states, though their leaders might nudge them a few degrees one way or another, tend to conduct foreign policy in accordance with their national interests. And the simple fact is that, for all the U.S. interests in Syria, Iran’s interests run deeper. The country just has much more to gain in “winning” the conflict than does the United States and much more to lose if it doesn’t.
It's certainly the case that Iran has more direct interests at stake in Syria than the US does – just as Iraq, Lebanon, Iraq and the Sunni Arab Gulf monarchies have more at stake. That's a function of proximity and, as Fisher rightly points out, Iran's dwindling number of friends in the region (see: Hamas). A rebel victory over Assad will certainly reduce Iran's regional leverage, make it harder to arm and support Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah, and leave Iran even more isolated.
But when it comes to regional influence, any "victory" in Syria may well prove a Pyrrhic one. Just seven years ago, Iran and Hezbollah, along with the Sunni Palestinian Hamas, were aligned as an "axis of resistance" and feted across the Arab world for standing up to Israel and US interest in the region. Today, Hamas has distanced itself from Iran and both the Islamic Republic and Hezbollah are scorned in the region as butchers and worse for their involvement in Syria, in which they're fighting to preserve, in the view of most regional media, a secular autocrat and torturer of women and children.
While Iran's cordial relations with the Shiite-dominated government of Iraq, made possible by the US-led war to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, may offset whatever losses they're already taking as a result of their support for Assad, the country's regional standing has already taken a meaningful longterm hit.
A few years ago, Iran could contract its own steadfast opposition to the US and Israel with the likes of close US partner Saudi Arabia, and find some resonance among Arab public's for its position. Today, heightened distrust of Iran is a given throughout the region. At the end of last month, influential Sunni preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, close to both the Qatari regime and to the Muslim Brotherhood that now rules Egypt, called for a jihad in Syria to push Hezbollah and Iran out of the country, and recanted his earlier kind words for Iran, saying he now sees the country as committed to wiping out Sunni Muslims.
Should the US join the war just because a defeat for Assad is bad for Iran's interests? Are US interests therefore automatically served? Not necessarily. The country could well have a long civil war after this war, the only certain outcome of which would be greater suffering. And in that event, the US would be involved in a multisided, dirty conflict far from home.