Turkey says one of its fighter jets was shot down by Syrian air defenses over the Mediterranean today, a potentially alarming development as Syria's civil war is deepening and signs are emerging that Turkey is assisting the arming of that country's rebels.
Leading Turkish daily Hürriyet quoted an "official" source as saying Syria shot the plane down and that the two pilots were successfully rescued at sea. The Turkish government news agency Anatolia said the plane was an F4 Phantom, a US-made fighter that debuted in the 1950s and is often used for both bombing and reconnaissance. Turkey's fleet of F4s have been upgraded over the years with the assistance of both the US and Israel. Anatolia quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan as saying Syria has apologized the incident.
While there's no hard evidence yet that Syria shot the plane down, it's safe to assume that Turkey has been intensely monitoring developments in next-door Syria with every resource at its disposal, with thousands of Syrian refugees having poured into its territory, and elements of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army operating from within Turkish territory.
The chance this incident will lead to a major escalation in the conflict – with Turkey overtly fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad – is extremely remote. Turkey isn't eager for war with Syria, and vice verse. President Assad has his hands full fighting his own people.
But the loss of the plane is a reminder of how hot the situation is becoming, with Russia having claimed it's rushing more air defenses to Syria to help its ally protect itself from outside interference. Jostling for supremacy over Syria's skies, if only in the interests of spying and collecting information, is likely to intensify, making future incidents rather more likely than not. While the events today are no tipping point, future ones that result in the death or capture of pilots could prove to be another matter entirely. Earlier this week, a Syrian pilot flew his Russian-built MIG-21 to Jordan and defected.
Turkey does frequently conduct bombing raids inside another neighbor – Iraq. Kurdish separatists from Turkey shelter in that country's autonomous Kurdistan and often stage attacks on the Turkish military across the border, usually drawing reprisals. Earlier this week, Turkish warplanes pounded what the government said were rebel camps inside Iraq, after an attack on a military base in Turkey left eight Turkish soldiers and over two-dozen Kurdish rebels dead. The country is unlikely to be looking for another front to fight on.
Inside Syria, the war is set to drag on. An unarmed UN mission to monitor a cease-fire that was agreed to in April, but never adhered to, has been suspended. Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, the leader of the mission, was in New York this week and all but conceded that it has failed and an adjustment of approach is needed. With reports of better armed rebel groups, financed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, a quick resolution to a war that has displaced hundreds of thousands already is not on the cards.
A Syrian government pilot defected to Jordan with his plane today, and Russia continued to complain that a British insurance company stood in the way of a shipment of armaments designed to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime to survive.
But the most interesting piece of news today is about weapons flowing to rebels inside the country.
The New York Times reports, citing anonymous sources, that CIA officers have been helping to pick and chose which Syrian opposition groups receive weapons supplied by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The light weapons are being smuggled into Syria by Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, the Times reports. CIA "officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels," the Times writes.
The US is now wading into ever murkier waters in Syria with unpredictable consequences. That the Syrian rebels have been better armed in recent months was obvious by their ability to take out government tanks and the hundreds of Syrian government soldiers killed. Saudi Arabia sees the regime of Bashar al-Assad as little more than a client of its great rival, Iran, and would like nothing better than to see it replaced by a Sunni Islamist government that would realign in the direction of the oil-rich, religiously conservative monarchy. Qatar, a fellow Sunni monarchy, shares a similar view toward a government dominated by Syria's Alawite majority, followers of a offshoot of Shiite Islam – a religion that the Gulf monarchs view with fear and contempt.
The US, too, would like Assad to go. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been unequivocal on this point, and US officials hope that if Assad falls, that will further isolate Iran in its showdown with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear program. But the US is far more squeamish about the sort of regime that might replace Assad than its friends in the Gulf, and that's where the road the US is following grows more perilous.
CIA officers are keeping weapons out of hands of "terrorist groups?" Perhaps. But an anti-tank weapon given to rebels via the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is liable to end up anywhere once it crossed the border. Weapons are as fungible as cash in war zones, and typically flow to the best financed and effective. And some of the most effective rebel formations appear to be led by precisely the kinds of Islamists the US fears most.
The AP's Ben Hubbard has a profile out today of one such group, the Falcons of Damascus based out of the northern Syrian town of Sarjeh and led by Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, who has lost 20 relatives fighting Assad over the past year, one of them his 16-year-old son. "One of northern Syria's most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they don't shy away from rougher tactics themselves. They have released prisoners in bomb-laden cars and then detonated them at army checkpoints – turning the drivers into unwitting suicide bombers," wrote Hubbard, who just spent two weeks with rebel groups.
He also points to the lack of coordination among rebel groups, the claims of the Free Syrian Army leadership notwithstanding. "Rebel coordination rarely extends beyond neighboring towns and villages and never to the provincial or national level. Many rebels don't even know the commanders in towns two hours away."
The presence of hardcore Islamists, some of whom were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the US, was an issue in the Libyan civil war, as was weak levels of coordination between regionally based rebel commanders. But Libya is a fairly religiously homogeneous country in a much more stable neighborhood.
In Syria, the civil war is already heavily tinged by sectarian issues – with the governing minority Alawites squared off against the Sunni majority, with the country's Christian population watching nervously from the sidelines. The country shares borders with Iraq and Lebanon – which have suffered sectarian bloodletting of their own in the recent past – as well as Israel.
The difference between providing weapons yourself and merely directing who gets them is a vanishingly slim one – so slim that the jump from the latter to the former is an easy one to make. While the US isn't there yet, it's inching closer. US arms flows and support to the mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the South Vietnamese in the 1950s all began with a trickle.
There are various cries from politicians and activists in Washington for the Obama administration to create "safe zones" in Syria for civilians, to provide more weapons, or to extend a no-fly zone over the country. Those are set to grow louder as the conflict continues to deepen. It's hard to see to the kinds of weapons flowing to the rebels proving decisive against Assad's well-armed military, so the short-term prospect is for a longer conflict.
Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an overview of the United State's last military confrontation with Syria – in Lebanon in 1982 – earlier this year that shows how limited interventions can end with disastrous and unpredictable consequences. The fight was in Lebanon, where Israel had invaded the south to try to wipe out the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Syria had vast influence in the north. Zenko writes:
In the aftermath of the full-scale Israeli invasion months earlier in 1982, which sought to drive out the PLO and install a friendly regime in power, Lebanon had become a war zone. The Lebanese military and various militias were receiving weapons, military training, operational guidance, and money from a number of countries, including Israel, Syria, the Soviet Union, Iran, and the United States....
While the United States was supposed to have been a neutral entity in Lebanon as part of the MNF, by summer 1983 it had openly sided with the pro-Israeli Lebanese government. To support the Lebanese military, the U.S.S. New Jersey was authorized to shell the Druze militia and Syrian military forces in the mountains surrounding Beirut. As Colin Powell later described the response: “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target: the exposed Marines at the airport.”
The October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut claimed 241 US lives and later came to be blamed on the militant group Hezbollah, a Shiite organization radicalized by the Israeli invasion and the war in Lebanon that was in its formative stages in 1983. Hezbollah has long been a client of Iran and Syria, and today is a stronger military force than at any time in its history. Russia remains close to Assad, just as it was to his father, Hafez, in 1983, and the politics of the region remain as explosive and byzantine as they were a generation ago.
The US must tread carefully.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians are gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square, angry at events of the past few days and over the likelihood that Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, may have just won the presidency.
The votes are still being counted with results expected Thursday. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Mr. Shafiq have both declared themselves the victor. Who won? Who knows? But what's certain is that Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has declared its intention to maintain control of Egypt's politics and its own affairs. The parliamentary election that the Muslim Brotherhood won has been cancelled and the military has appointed itself an interim ruler with sweeping powers, including oversight of the constituent assembly that's supposed to write a new Egyptian constitution. For added turmoil, an Egyptian court is considering outlawing the Brotherhood and its new political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
For now, the military order that has governed Egypt for 50 years remains in charge, never mind that Mr. Mubarak was pushed from power a year and a half ago.
The power grab in the past week by the Egyptian military and lingering Hosni Mubarak-era establishment, operating through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is such a blatant attempt to prevent a truly democratic and republican system of government from taking root in the country that it cannot possibly succeed. It will generate tremendous counter forces in society from tens of millions of ordinary and politicized Egyptians, who insist on achieving the promise of the January 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, and ushered in a slow transition to a more democratic system of governance... This display of monumental political greed, shortsightedness and sheer stupidity will now send Egypt into a protracted period of political struggle, in which various political forces in the country compete openly for power and legitimacy
There were a lot fewer happy voters joyously waving their ink-stained index fingers than in any of the previous election days. Frankly, this never felt like a finger-waving sort of vote. Welcome to the new, apathetic Egypt. Part of it is voter fatigue, part active boycott, and part a widespread disillusionment at the options. The seemingly endless possibilities unleashed by the revolution had somehow come down to yet another showdown between the unreformed regime and the Muslim Brotherhood... The current constituent assembly now faces an undefined deadline to show progress; otherwise, SCAF will unilaterally form its own assembly. Either way, the generals retain the right to veto any aspects of the proposed constitution that are "in opposition to the goals of the revolution or its basic principles ... or the common principles of Egypt's past constitutions."
The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes. No, not Thomas Hobbes --- Calvin and Hobbes. Analysts have been arguing since the revolution over whether to call what followed a transition to democracy, a soft coup, an uprising, or something else entirely. But over the last week it's become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball.
For those who don't remember Bill Watterson's game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!").... Watterson's game theoretic analysis suggests that Calvinball's absence of rules does not automatically bestow victory on Calvin. The game is going to continue for a long time, at least until the players finally settle on some more stable rules which command general legitimacy. Perhaps the SCAF might not automatically dominate SCAFball?
The (Supreme Constitutional Court's) actions today, occurring in the context that they do, reshape Egypt's transition process -- so much so that some Egyptians will likely wonder if they are in any "transition process" at all. That concern is justified. The "process" part was already dead. Now the "transition" part is dying... If the details are unclear, the overall effect is not. What was beginning to look like a coup in slow motion is no longer moving in slow motion. The rulings themselves are perfectly defensible. The SCC is diverse enough in its composition that it is not anybody's tool...
But that may not matter in the long run. The dispersal of parliament, the sudden constitutional vacuum, the Shafiq surge, the reversion of state-owned media, the revival of a key element of the state of emergency by a decree from an unaccountable justice minister -- all these things point in one direction. Last March I wrote that, "unless the SCAF has the appetite for a second coup, or somehow discovers a way to shoehorn in its puppet as president, the constitutional vehicle that gave the military such political authority will soon turn into a pumpkin." Now it appears that the SCAF has regained its appetite and an old-regime candidate may soon win the presidency.
Cairo-based political analyst Issandr El Amrani, who runs the indispensable Arabist blog, focuses today on US support for Egypt's military rulers, and the fact that the Obama Administration elected earlier this year to keep an over $1 billion military aid package to Egypt flowing on the basis of US national security.
The national security waiver exercised by the Obama administration in March was premature and unwarranted, and now they have egg on their face. Washington can buy itself a few days to figure out what's going to happen in Egypt this week — this is what the recent statements frm the State Dept. being "troubled" by the recent developments amount to but the clock is ticking: they will either have to suspend the aid or be openly in favor of SCAF's constitutional coup if they continue it... More Americans need to care about this, too. I'm not Egyptian, and care mostly about this for American reasons. It's not just that I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize the US defense industry and pampered generals in Cairo. It's also that I don't want the blowback when Egyptians turn to Americans and say, "you supported our dictators". The time has come: the US may not be able to influence developments in Egypt, but at least it can stop underwriting them.
For now, protesters are gathering at Tahrir again, the voters who went to the polls in the parliamentary election have been disenfranchised, and the young revolutionaries who started this process are looking at the prospect of a Mubarak protege taking power, on the one hand, or an Islamist politician that in practice, if not in name, will be a junior partner to the generals. As Kristen Chick reported over the weekend, the chaos of the past year and a deteriorating economy have left many Egyptian's tired, and a little nostalgic, for the stability of the past. But more turmoil looks likely for the near future. SCAF has seen to that.
In campaigns abroad, victories for Egypt's military are few and far between.
There was the loss of more than 20,000 men in the country's ill-fated intervention in Yemen in the early '60s, the humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, and the October 1973 offensive against Israel in the Sinai that ended in a draw.
But on the field of political battle at home, Egypt’s military reigned supreme, at least since the 1952 Free Officers coup that ended Egypt's monarchy and placed Gamel Abdel Nasser in the presidency. When he died, Free Officer Anwar Sadat succeeded him. And after Islamist gunmen murdered Mr. Sadat in 1981 in part over the peace deal he'd signed with Israel the previous year to secure the return of the Sinai Peninsula, Air Force Gen. Hosni Mubarak succeeded him.
Now, the votes are being counted from Egypt's first-ever free presidential election. Results are expected Thursday. Ahmed Shafiq is a retired officer and long-time confidante of Mr. Mubarak's, putting him very much in the mold of Egypt's leaders for the past 60 years. A victory for Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, would be something else again: a real break from the past with a leader hostile to the military's position as a state within a state.
IN PICTURES: Egypt elections
Is it an exciting race, with two extremely different candidates tussling to shape Egypt's future? No, at least, not anymore.
On the eve of polls opening last Saturday, the military junta that has ruled Egypt for the past 18 months took all the air out of the proceedings by decreeing itself Egypt's real power. This was only a formalization of a long-standing state of affairs, but it removed the pretense that Egypt is in the middle of a transition to full civilian rule, overseen by a benevolent military eager to get back to barracks. If Mr. Morsi wins, his hands will be completely tied. If Mr. Shafiq wins; welcome to Mubarak 2.0.
What happened to the ‘transition’?
What did they do? The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, decreed that the military should govern its own affairs and effectively gave itself a veto over new legislation and the writing of a new constitution.
Who gets to appoint Egypt's senior officers? Egypt's current senior officers.
Who has the power to declare war? Egypt's senior officers.
Who will the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new Egyptian constitution answer to? Egypt's senior officers.
Nathan Brown, a leading scholar of Egyptian politics, writes "the supplementary constitutional declaration really does complete the coup in many obvious ways – basically returning martial law (in its more original sense rather than the 'state of emergency' that just expired), making the military unaccountable, and grabbing back oversight of the political system for the military just weeks before the scheduled end of military rule."
The weekend decree was the coup de gras for Egypt's "transition," if that was understood as a process designed to align Egypt's affairs with a dramatically more democratic direction. Perhaps it was naive to think the results could be different. After all, the military has been driving the transitional bus all along. The millions of Egyptians who took to the streets last year, in a collective national howl of outrage that could be summed up as "we're not going to take it anymore," precipitated Mubarak's departure – but were not the proximate cause.
The decision to oust Mubarak
That decision came when the military decided it had too much to lose by violently putting down the swirling protests and much to gain by simply jettisoning the aging Mubarak who, at any rate, had left many senior officers uneasy with his maneuverings throughout the past decade to set up his son Gamal, a Western-educated banker with no military experience, for the throne. At the key moment, it was the military's decision to make. Just as now.
Earlier this month, a group of Mubarak-appointed judges beholden to SCAF dissolved the Egyptian parliament elected at the start of this year, essentially telling the 30 million Egyptians who went to the polls amid so much hope in December and January that their voices don't matter. Hardly surprising then, that turnout for the presidential election fell substantially.
The Brotherhood had been the big winner at the ballot box, with about 50 percent of parliament. Now, it's hoping to win a presidency that in many ways will be subordinate to the military. Democratic legitimacy for the process has been removed.
Rolling back concessions
And the junta has been steadily rolling back the concessions of the past year. Striking Egypt's hated emergency law, which allows for the indefinite detention of political activists and others deemed a threat to the state, was one of the top demands of the activists who led the uprising against Mubarak. And at the end of May, the law that had been in force since Sadat's assassination in '81, was finally allowed to lapse. A gain of the revolution? It seemed so.
But last week, the military restored to itself sweeping powers to arrest and hold civilians. The emergency law had returned under another name less than two weeks after it had gone away.
To be sure, the military says that all its new powers are "temporary" and "transitional," to be replaced when a new constitution is written, when a new parliament is elected, and after yet another presidential election (a military spokesman said yesterday that the president Egypt elected over the weekend will only be allowed to serve for a few months, until a constitution is written). But every military move over the past 18 months has been in the direction of greater power for the generals, not less power. History indicates that the longer a junta remains in power, the more difficult it is to remove it from power.
Many respected scholars who study Egypt have urged that Egypt's ruling generals not be seen as a group of evil geniuses, brilliantly playing their post-uprising cards into a position of maximum power. Rather, the junta has a set of general principals and a lot of power, but no master plan, stumbling along from one ad hoc decision to another.
Perhaps. But the cumulative effect of their decisions is clear. The Egyptian military – handsomely supported by the US for decades – remains in the driver seat.
The original version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the Free Officer's coup.
The UN has suspended its two-month old observer mission in Syria. Norwegian General Robert Mood, who was running the effort meant to monitor a cease-fire that never materialized, is now expected in New York next week to discuss what comes next. That is likely to be a messy and inconclusive conversation.
Russia remains as committed as ever to opposing UN Security Council authorization of international military action. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said this week that Russia has been shipping defensive weapons to Syria to prevent outside military intervention, and in an interview published in The New York Times yesterday, the head of the Russian government's arms export agency Rosoboronexport said those shipments include advanced air defense systems.
"These mechanisms are really a good means of defense, a reliable defense against attacks from the air or sea,” Anatoly P. Isaykin, Rosoboronexport's general director, told the paper. “This is not a threat, but whoever is planning an attack should think about this."
That's a pretty clear indication that Russia won't allow a resolution like UNSC 1973, which authorized the NATO air campaign over Libya last year that helped drive Muammar Qaddafi out of power (and to his death), to go forward. Russia abstained from the Libya vote, but later said it felt betrayed after a promise to use force only to directly protect civilians expanded into a campaign to destroy Mr. Qaddafi's regime.
That leaves diplomacy over a deepening civil war that has been strongly colored by the sectarian cleavages of Syria. President Bashar al-Assad and the core of his regime are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while his opponents are mostly drawn from Syria's Sunni majority. Fury over a death toll that has topped 13,000 in more than a year of fighting leaves few in Syria in the mood for reconciliation. Further complicating matters is Saudi Arabian support for the rebels and their loosely organized fighting force, the Free Syrian Army. In recent months, the FSA has shown signs of being better armed, and deaths among Mr. Assad's military have been rising.
Mood's decision to suspend his 300-member unarmed observer mission makes good sense. Observers have come under stone-throwing attacks in a number of locations in recent weeks, and the war in Syria is chaotic, with forces of both sides in the field sometimes appearing to be outside of any central control. Assad loyalist militias, known as shabiha, are heavily armed and have been accused of carrying out massacres of civilians. Suicide bombings by supporters of the rebellion have been on the rise. That some of his own people could join the growing list of the dead in Syria was the driver of Mood's decision.
And, sadly, little has been lost by the suspension. Though special envoy Kofi Annan announced a cease-fire and a six-point plan to end the war in April, the fighting in Syria never cooled. A 300-member mission is paltry in a country of more than 30 million people, and it has struggled to bear witness to the worst of the fighting, let alone stop it. Mood said the suspension will be reviewed "on a daily basis."
"The lack of willingness by the parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men, women and children are being killed every day," Mood said in a statement released by the observer mission. Bassam Imadi, a member of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group based in Turkey, told VOA: "I think it is also high time to announce that the mission has failed - even the whole initiative of Mr. Annan has failed.''
Syrian opposition groups say around 60 people have been killed by government forces in the past 24 hours, while the government announced a funeral for more than two dozen soldiers it says were killed by rebel fighters.
What does the war look like? This video roundup of damage to Syrian cities was posted on the Syrian observer mission's Youtube page a few days ago.
Poking fun at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is something of a parlor game for people who closely follow the Middle East. His penchant for starting columns with quotes from anonymous taxi drivers who, with astonishing regularity, confirm his own views of the world and what needs to be done, inspired a parody account on twitter called Taxi Wisdom (sample response to a Cairo journalist writing "Cab driver from Cairo airport explained everything to me. Going home now." Taxi Wisdom: "How it's done!") He also frequently gets strings of basic facts wrong when making his arguments.
Well, after two recent columns in which he cites anonymous young women turning to him for advice, an enterprising band of writers have decided to broaden the circle of women who can turn to the Pulitzer Prize winner for his wisdom. Their blog is called "Mr. Friedman, could I ask you a question?" and it's my favorite of the genre so far.
First, some background. The amusement (or anger, depending on your point of view) really kicked into overdrive last year following a March 1 column in which he proposed a series of "not-so-obvious" factors contributing to the Arab uprisings that, to be generous, were not-so-obvious because they were completely disconnected from unfolding events.
The first factor he cited is President Barack Obama, and the scenario he invented was breathtaking in the completeness with which it was made up entirely from thin air. "I’m convinced that listening to Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech — not the words, but the man — were more than a few young Arabs who were saying to themselves: 'Hmmm, let’s see. He’s young. I’m young. He’s dark-skinned. I’m dark-skinned. His middle name is Hussein. My name is Hussein. His grandfather is a Muslim. My grandfather is a Muslim. He is president of the United States. And I’m an unemployed young Arab with no vote and no voice in my future.'"
I have spoken to hundreds of young Egyptians both before, during and after the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Not one of them has ever uttered a statement even remotely like this. The experience of almost everyone else with ties to Egypt is the same. That Mr. Friedman was a priori convinced of what was going on in the hearts and minds of millions of Egyptians based on -- well, nothing but his own opinions -- speaks for itself.
And the assumption that local folks were incapable of recognizing they were living in economically desperate conditions, ruled by autocrats, without events abroad to enlighten them didn't end there. His second example was "Google Earth," on the theory that Shiites in Bahrain were enraged about unequal distribution in land there after using the internet-based map. Actually, they have been well aware of this daily fact of life for some time.
He then goes on to cite Israel (since it convicted a former president on corruption charges), the Beijing Olympics (because it show-cased China's economic progress and the benefits of professionally-managed authoritarianism), and Palestinian Authority President Salam Fayyad because, in Friedman's take, he was running the West Bank like China. Friedman even coined a new "ideology" he calls "Fayyadism," which says "judge me on my performance, on how I deliver government services and collect the garbage and create jobs — not simply on how I “resist” the West or Israel. Every Arab could relate to this. Chinese had to give up freedom but got economic growth and decent government in return. Arabs had to give up freedom and got the Arab-Israeli conflict and unemployment in return."
This list drew chuckles from just about everyone who has covered the Arab uprisings on the ground. The West Bank under the Palestinian Authority is seen by almost no Arab as a model to emulate. Obama's Cairo speech, well-received at the time, ultimately disappointed a young Arab public that felt the US president had promised much, and delivered nothing. Their feelings about Israel go without saying. In Cairo journalist circles, the acerbic Sarah Carr's take on all this became legendary.
The requests from women that Friedman cited follow the traditional pattern of his columns -- an anonymous young woman asking to have the world explained to her by Friedman, which he then obliges. In the first, an anonymous receptionist at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo asks him after he requests a corporate rate for the New York Times: "'Can I ask you something?' Sure. 'Are we going to be O.K.? I’m worried.'” (Friedman writes that "I made a mental note of that conversation because she sounded like a modern person"). In the second, from a few days ago, an anonymous young Egyptian woman approaches him at a conference in Istanbul and says: "Mr. Friedman, could I ask you a question? Who should I vote for?” (Egypt's presidential election is tomorrow, and the run-up has been very rocky).
The "could I ask you" blog has a lot of funny digs at the Friedman oeuvre. My favorites so far: "Mr. Friedman, how does one get from Beirut to Jerusalem?- Jawahar, Shatila refugee camp;" Mr. Friedman, does my self-determination make me look fat? - Aisha, Al Hamlah;" and "Mr. Friedman, what could you teach me about globalization and democracy in the Middle East if you took a ride in the cash cab? - Lindsey, Manhattan."
Well worth a few minutes of your time. (Of course, I'm just jealous, jobbing hack that I am, that I never get asked these questions.)
With the decision to dissolve parliament yesterday, Egypt's Constitutional Court did more than send a message to 30 million citizens that their votes don't count. It concentrated even more power in the hands of the military junta that has run the Arab world's largest country for 18 months and counting.
In so doing, the wildest hopes of the revolutionary activists and average citizens who poured into the streets of Cairo and a dozen other cities in January and February of 2011 have been dashed. Former Gen. Hosni Mubarak may have been forced out by the protests, but the military establishment and the tools of political repression that Egyptian state apparatus have wielded so effectively since the 1950s remained in place.
Egypt's transition, such as it is, continues to lurch on. But any hope of a fundamental change – of a military subordinated to civilian control, an end to indefinite detention of political activists by security agencies, a reset of a sclerotic and corrupt government bureaucracy – has been dashed, at least for now.
Nathan Brown of George Washington University had a sharp, grim assessment of what he termed "Cairo's Judicial Coup" yesterday: "The [Supreme Constitutional Court's] actions today, occurring in the context that they do, reshape Egypt's transition process – so much so that some Egyptians will likely wonder if they are in any 'transition process' at all. That concern is justified. The 'process' part was already dead. Now the 'transition' part is dying."
Perhaps high hopes were always naive. Mubarak, after all, was not a supreme dictator. He was merely the man at the top of a pyramid of military businesses, fiefdoms carved out by retired generals and their cronies, and a national order designed to make the average Egyptian more subject than citizen. Yesterday's decision to dissolve parliament was made by a "Constitutional" court appointed by Mubarak that operates under a set of constitutional decrees issued by senior officers, who were also appointed by Mubarak. Only the thinnest veneer of checks and balances has been thrown over the process.
What is Egypt's governing document at the moment? A constitutional declaration issued by the generals in March. Article 58 of that document is perhaps the most salient. It begins: "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] runs the affairs of the State." It goes on to say that SCAF controls legislation, the budget, the cabinet, and foreign affairs. In other words, everything.
In the past 24 hours the junta dispatched riot police across the capital to head off protests, though there has as yet been no sign of major mobilizations like those that swept Egypt early last year. The country's economy, fragile to begin with, has plummeted in over a year of turmoil. Egyptians are tired, and struggling.
Do they still want democracy? Yes. In a Pew poll released in May, 67 percent of Egyptians said "democracy is preferable to any other kind of government." But their priorities indicate a mass return to the streets over the military's meddling in the political process is unlikely. An improved economy was ranked most important by Egyptians, followed in order by a "fair judiciary," "uncensored media," and "law and order." Free and fair elections came in sixth on that list, and the lowest priority to the Egyptians polled was civilian control of the military.
The country now turns toward a presidential election tomorrow in which the military's choice, Ahmed Shafiq, squares off against the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi. Mr. Shafiq, an air force officer who served in Mubarak's cabinet for years and was appointed his prime minister as part of his last ditch effort to cling to power, was one of the big winners on Thursday. The same court that dissolved parliament ruled THAT a law seeking to disqualify senior Mubarak officials like Shafiq from holding the presidency was unconstitutional. Shortly thereafter, Shafiq delivered what sounded like a victory speech to a cheering crowd shouting "President Shafiq" in Cairo. He barely mentioned the fact that parliament, the only body in Egypt with a shred of democratic legitimacy, had been removed from the scene.
The Brotherhood were the big winners in the parliamentary election, winning half of the seats. That record has now been wiped clean. Mr. Morsi, and his Islamist organization that has struggled against the military for decades, may still grab the brass ring tomorrow, but it's hard to see Egyptian army commander Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his fellow officers bowing down to kiss it. Morsi was measured in his comments yesterday. While former Muslim Broterhood official Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh complained of a "coup," Morsi urged his followers to abide by the court's decision. At any rate, there can be no coup without a change of power. The military's control has only been reasserted, not lost.
But denying the fruits of the ballot box to popular forces in any society is a dangerous one, and the history of elections overturned against Islamists in the Arab world is grim. The Algerian military's nullification of elections in 1991, when Islamists looked set to win, touched off a decade of civil war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and spawned virulent jihadi terrorist groups.
While that particular outcome is vanishingly unlikely in Egypt at the moment, Islamist groups have been sent a message that the ballot box is not, in fact, their road to success. While the Brotherhood renounced violence in pursuit of its goals over 40 years ago, smaller militant Egyptian groups have also come in from the cold in recent years. The reactionary salafi sect came in second in the polls, and a young generation of Islamist activists with no memory of how militant groups were crushed in Egypt in the past have just been delivered a punch to the gut. A return to the terrorism that plagued Egypt in the '80s and '90s has just become more likely.
Did the court do the technically right thing? Perhaps. The law on disqualifying senior officials was broad and vaguely written. The parliamentary election was run under a byzantine set of rules that reserved two thirds of the seats for political parties, and one third for "independent" candidates. Ahead of the election, electoral officials allowed politicians affiliated with parties to run as independents. Shafiq was also allowed to run in the first round of the presidential election (the vote tomorrow is a run-off) without a ruling being made on the constitutionality of the law seeking to disqualify him.
As a practical matter, these questions should have been decided before Egyptian's went to the polls – not after, or mid-stride. The political effect of the decisions has been to spread more confusion, and disillusion. It's a basic rule of political transitions that the sooner military rulers are removed from the scene, the better the chances of fundamental change. Egypt's junta originally promised to be out of the governing business by October 2011.
The new Egyptian parliament had little power in practice, with a set of extra-constitutional rules written by the SCAF, hanging over them. But the legislature at least represented something new in Egyptian politics: A body freely chosen by the Egyptian people. That, at least, gave it some moral heft and a potential bully pulpit in dealing with the generals and the winner of the presidency.
Sitting generals have manipulated Egyptian politics, either overtly or in powerful ways behind the scenes, since Lt. Anwar Sadat was dispatched to inform the world of the Free Officer's Coup in 1952. The officer's Revolutionary Command Council made Gamal Abdul Nasser president, and when he passed in 1970, it was military men who decided that Mr. Sadat, Nasser's vice president, would be allowed to succeed him.
But before he was allowed to take the reins (never mind that was the formal legal solution), the senior generals demanded Sadat agree to a set of conditions that would protect the Egyptian military from civilian control. Sadat agreed to give the senior generals then running the Arab Socialist Union a voice in all major initiatives, effective veto power over major initiatives. Only then, was he allowed to take power.
Egypt's next president is almost certain to be presented some version of those demands. Already, the generals sought to impose a set of principals on civilian politicians that would leave their empires beyond the reach of elected officials.
Is all lost? No. Egypt is poor, and struggling. But you only have to look at Iraq after Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003, or Syria today, to see what a truly horrific transition looks like. Wisdom and compromise may yet prevail. But those qualities have been tragically absent until now.
I looked up from my desk, and a wave of nausea and anger washed over me as a I saw the body of a little girl in a party dress. The images were twinned to a UN report that alleges 1,000 children were killed in Syria last year, largely by the regime, and that kids had also been subjected to sexual assaults and torture by security forces.
But then I started thinking. How often had I seen on CNN the broken bodies of children killed in Iraq during the US occupation, or by NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan, or by drone strikes in Pakistan? The answer I came up with from my own recollections was "never." I asked around the newsroom, and most folks there agreed.
IN PICTURES – Conflict in Syria
The point is not to draw equivalencies, but simply to point out the implied argument made by the unusual choice to show these murdered kids: A special horror is unfolding in Syria, and the world (read, the US) must do something to stop it.
Perhaps the world should. But far less explored are the practicalities of military intervention, the risks that horrors as great or greater await by widening Syria's civil war into an international conflict. For now, a simple narrative is being spun of a depraved Assad and his helpless victims. Serving that cause yesterday were claims from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Russia was rushing deliveries of attack helicopters to Assad's army "which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
Russia is denying that claim, saying it's only repairing MI-24 (Hind) gunships which were sold to Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, more than a decade ago. Either way, such helicopters would be more useful for fighting the Free Syrian Army or other armed rebel groups than targeting civilians. Syria has thousands of tanks, mortars, and artillery pieces and 600,000 soldiers who are the main threat to civilian population centers.
So if you were for, or against, going to war with Syria before the claims were made about the helicopters, your thinking shouldn't be shifted. And make no mistake, the longer Syria's war goes on, the greater the likelihood that President Assad will follow in his father's footsteps with a truly horrific massacre. In 1982, Assad the elder had at least 10,000 residents of the city of Hama killed in an atrocity that ended an Islamist uprising against his Baath regime.
In the US, there are surprising signs of support for a US intervention. A Monitor/TIPP poll conducted from June 1 to June 8 found that 15 percent of Americans think the US should "take the lead" in a military intervention in Syria and that 19 percent think the US should "lead from behind encouraging and bolstering military action by many countries but not driving it." The poll's margin of error was plus/minus 3.3 percentage points.
While the most popular answers were the US should not get involved militarily (29 percent) or only if "no ground campaign is involved" (27 percent), it's surprising that 34 percent of Americans are willing to consider a direct military engagement in another Middle Eastern country when the war in Iraq just ended and the war in Afghanistan continues. More atrocities in Syria will surely tip the needle closer to public support.
Many opinion makers are pushing for a US-initiated invasion as soon as possible, from the neocon John Bolton to the influential columnist and liberal interventionist Nick Kristof. Mr. Kristof offers an emotion-laden, moralistic call to arms over Syria (and Sudan) while ignoring the uncomfortable question of whether that really serves American interests.
The reliably hawkish Mr. Bolton at least tries to make the case. He argues in a piece for the National Review this week that President Barack Obama should ignore the concerns of some that unilateral action could put the US at loggerheads with Russia, and undermine whatever slim hopes that negotiations with Iran (another key backer of Mr. Assad) over its nuclear program could succeed. In fact, he seems to relish the prospect.
First, he regrets that President George W. Bush didn't extend the war in Iraq to Syria in 2003. He writes: "In the days just after Saddam’s ouster in 2003, conditions were optimal (if nonetheless imperfect) for overthrowing Assad and replacing his regime with something compatible with American interests."
Then he asserts that since Syria is close to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah in Lebanon that "regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest, as well as the interests of Israel and our Arab friends in the region."
Then he suggest a broader conflict might be a good idea: "Significantly, US intervention could not be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia," he writes. "This the Obama administration is unwilling to do, although it should."
Does he remember what happened the last time he successfully led the charge for a US-led war in the Middle East?
RELATED – Syria conflict: 5 warring factions
Saddam Hussein was among the most vicious tyrants of the last half of the twentieth century, which is saying something. Bolton and others pushed hard for a war they promised would be quick and cheap and would transform Iraq into a prosperous bastion of democracy that would serve as a beacon for the region. Instead, half a million Iraqis died as the country became a magnet for Al Qaeda-style jihaddis and a sectarian civil war broke out that tens of thousands of US troops could do little to contain. The cost to the US was somewhere north of $1 trillion, not to mention the nearly 5,000 US soldiers who died and countless more who lost their health and limbs.
Today, violence is far down from the peak of the war, but terrorism is a sort of background radiation seeded there by the war and that continues to ooze through the Iraqi nation. Today's sectarian car-bomb attacks against Shiite pilgrims in at least four different Iraqi cities, which killed at least 65 people, are just the latest outrage. The US government estimates that 13,600 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2007. Last year, that number dropped to 3,063, but that was still high enough to place Iraq second, after Afghanistan, in the annual terrorism death toll.
The Iraqi central government remains split between hostile Shiite and Sunni factions. Basic service delivery such as medical care and electricity remains poor. Corruption and torture by the police and politically motivated prosecutions remain commonplace. Between one-half and two-thirds of Iraq's ancient Christian community have been driven out of the country since 2003. And a regime that was a staunch opponent of Iran (the country that Bolton promises will inevitably need to be confronted in the event of war in Syria) has been replaced with one that is friendly to it.
And while the violence unfolding in Syria is heart-wrenching, it isn't currently directed at the US. The Iraq war drew in jihadis from around the Middle East, eager to kill US soldiers in the name of Islam. Hundreds of Sunni jihadis have already entered Syria from the Middle East and South Asia to fight Assad's Alawite dominated regime. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam that Sunni jihadis view as apostates, and they're eager to replace the Baath regime with an Islamic caliphate, just like the one they foolishly believed they could impose on Iraq. US boots on the ground and supporters of Al Qaeda have traditionally been a volatile combination.
A US-led effort to oust Assad? If the US made it a priority, there is little doubt that could be accomplished relatively quickly (just as in the case of Saddam Hussein). What comes next? Just as unpredictable and dangerous.
You'd have to have a heart of stone not to feel for the Syrian people or ponder a righteous war to save the country from more pain. But sound decisions aren't made from emotion. And actions from the best of intentions can sometimes lead to outcomes as grim or grimmer than any now currently imagined.
In a hastily convened UN General Assembly meeting following a massacre of dozens of unarmed civilians in Syria yesterday, Special Envoy Kofi Annan all but admitted that his six-point plan to bring peace to Syria has been a dismal failure.
In a speech filled with condemnation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Annan said that, while he appealed to the Syrian leader directly a week ago to restrain his armed forces and the irregular shabiha militias working with them, the pace of the slaughter has only increased. He said the militias in particular appear to have been given "free rein" by the government.
On Friday, 108 civilians were massacred in a group of villages known as Houla in Homs Province. First, government forces shelled the area and then, according to the UN, shabiha moved in with guns and knives. Among the slaughtered were 49 children. Early accounts out of Mazraat al-Qubair, near the city of Hama, from yesterday, suggest a similar series of events unfolded there yesterday. The UN says 78 people were murdered there, though has not been able to independently confirm events. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said unarmed UN observers came under rifle fire when they attempted to visit the area.
The international moral outrage over Syria's war has reached a boiling point, but what is to be done about it, if anything, is still being worked out. Mr. Annan spoke of the need to maintain international unity on Syria and said that "the international community now must take that unity to a new level." Is that a call for military action? Perhaps. He also said "it is ... our collective responsibility to act quickly, the process can't be open-ended. The longer we wait the more radicalized and polarized the situation will become."
With the regime upping the ante with the two major massacres of civilians in a week, any hope of cooling the situation with talk in the short term has evaporated. The sectarian nature of the splits within Syria, with the minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to rallying around him, and the country's majority Sunni Arab population in an uproar, makes a negotiated settlement even less likely. While government forces have hoped that major doses of terror like those delivered in Mazraat al-Qubair and Houla would shock the uprising into acquiescence, more likely is that they've set in motion a cycle of revenge that will feed Syria's civil war for some time to come.
Fact is, there isn't international unity over Syria. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her demand today that "Assad must transfer power and depart Syria," but the US position, until now at least, has been that it wouldn't consider military action without UN Security Council authorization. And Russia and China, which both wield vetoes on the council, continue to staunchly oppose international action. In a joint statement yesterday, Russia and China insisted they are "decisively against attempts to regulate the Syrian crisis with outside military intervention" and also said they oppose efforts to remove Mr. Assad from power.
Annan said in his speech today that "as we demand compliance with international law and the six point plan it must be made clear that there are consequences if compliance is not forthcoming." But, what consequences? And even if additional sanctions could be agreed upon, would they be more frightening to Assad and his supporters than the loss of power and position? Muammar Qaddafi of Libya was summarily executed by his former subjects when he lost his war to hold on to power. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who went far more peacefully and quietly, was just sentenced to spending the rest of his life in jail, with two of his sons also facing long jail terms. Assad is surely looking at the fates of his regional fears and betting that fighting, and winning, is in his own best interests.
For now, his efforts to win that war are bloody and vicious. The UN High Commission for Human Rights says the use of torture has been wide spread in government detention centers. The children of wanted rebels are rounded up to generate leverage to convince their parents to surrender. Some of those children have been subjected to "sexual violence" while in custody, the UN says. In Homs, a stronghold of support for the uprising, government snipers man rooftops, and indiscriminantly shot people when they venture out of their homes for supplies. Heavy artillery and rocket fire continues to pound densely populated areas.
A farmer who survived the slaughter at Mazraat al-Qubair by hiding in an olive grove, told Reuters of how the area was pounded with artillery, then mixed units of regular Army and shabiha moved in. He watched them enter three houses, heard gunshots, then they emerged and set the homes on fire. He returned home to find nothing but charred bodies, most from a large Sunni Arab family in the area.
Mazraat al-Qubair is about 10 miles from Hama, which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, turned into a killing ground in 1982. The city was a center of support for an Islamist uprising against the country's Baath regime, and the elder Assad put it down after he moved tanks and infantry into the city and killed everything that moved. Human rights groups estimate that at least 10,000 people were killed in that slaughter.
Now the ghosts of Hama are being joined by a new generation of victims. Thirty years ago the international community did not intervene, and the Assad regime survived and has thrived in the decades since. The younger Assad is now running his father's playbook, and seems unlikely to shift course in the face of condemnation or scolding from podiums at the UN.
IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria
This week terrorism continued its descent from the greatest, scariest threat known to man to its proper place in the order of things: A bloody tactic that is as old as man and that is declining in frequency as most other forms of violence are.
The National Counterterrorism Center's annual report for 2011 was released on Tuesday and what it points to is a less violent (though still plenty violent) world. Total "terrorist" attacks fell 12 percent from the previous year and are down 29 percent from 2007, which the center says is a five year low. There were over 10,000 attacks classified by the government as terrorism across the world last year, claiming 12,500 lives. None of them were in the US, and three-quarters of the fatalities were in just four countries: Afghanistan (3,353), Iraq (3,063), Pakistan (2,033), and Somalia (1,101).
The cost in American lives? The report says 17 American "private citizens" were killed in terrorist incidents last year, 15 in Afghanistan and one each in Jerusalem and in Iraq. Though the report doesn't say, it's safe to assume the US citizens killed in Afghanistan were mostly aid workers or private contractors. Not to say they deserved what happen to them, but that these were people who placed themselves in a war zone (much as reporters do) fully aware of the risks. Trouble didn't come looking for them. The number of American's killed in terrorist attacks in 2010? 15.
As Micah Zenko points out, between 2000 and 2010 an average of 29 US citizens were killed each year by falling televisions, dressers, and other household furnishings. Yet we haven't declared war on the killer flat-screens rampaging through the heartland.
To be sure, terrorism is declining from a high base, thanks to the surging use of the tactic in Afghanistan and Iraq following the 2002 and 2003 US-led invasions of the two countries. Last year, the US military presence in Iraq was mostly about packing up and leaving, with far fewer patrols or offensives. Iraq, still the second most terrorism plagued country in the world by the US reckoning, saw attacks fall sharply last year. There were 13,600 people killed in terrorist attacks in Iraq in 2007, and that number fell to 3,654 by 2009 and to 3,063 last year.
And then there are issues with how "terrorism" is defined.
The word "Mexico," for instance, appears nowhere in the US report. Mexico had over 13,000 drug-related killings last year, and many of them targeted judges, cops, or citizens who had stood up to drug traffickers. High profile massacres, including leaving the bodies of the dead swinging from busy highway overpasses, were often designed to frighten populations into staying out of the drug dealer's way. The ultimate interests is financial, rather than political, but the tactic is much the same.
Is it time to start thinking about spending less on counterterrorism?
Certainly, part of the safety US citizens enjoy has had to do with the steps taken by the Bush and Obama administrations since 2001. In the past year, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Pakistan, and Abu Yayha al-Libi, an important cleric for Al Qaeda, was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan in just the past week. Vast sums have been poured into everything from airport security to intelligence. The decade since 9/11 was the longest ten-year stretch without a major terrorist attack on US soil since the 1960s as $1 trillion was poured into various initiatives.
The panicked warnings of politicians after the shock of 9/11 (former New York mayor and self-appointed terrorism expert Rudy Guiliani said in 2005 "Any one of these security experts, including myself, would have told you on Sept. 11, 2001, we're looking at dozens and dozens and multiyears of attacks like this") turned out to be driven more by fear than reason.
So one argument is, the money we're spending is working so we should keep on spending it. Perhaps. But at what other costs?
Last year, John Mueller of Ohio State and Mark G. Stewart of Australia's University of Newcastle, coauthored a paper looking at the costs and benefits of counterterrorism spending. What they found should fill any fiscally conservative politicians heart with glee: Based on our spending, we're grossly overestimating the risks of terrorism on US soil.
"We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day," they write. "Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely."