Warning that Syria "risks" falling into a civil war appears to be among the last cards being played in the tragic diplomatic dance around what should be done about the bloody uprising against Bashar al-Assad's Baath regime in Syria.
Depending on a country's view of the issue, the threat of a civil war breaking out is an argument for the international community to do more (though precisely what isn't exactly clear), or to do nothing, since foreign intervention will bring on that feared outcome even faster.
But the fact is that Syria has been in a civil war for quite some time. A generally accepted definition of a civil war is a fight for control of a nation, involving the state, one or more non-state actors, and at least 1,000 battlefield casualties. Syria's uprising is more than a year old, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 13,000 people have died in the fighting so far, with 2,400 dead since the middle of this April alone.
Various armed factions opposed to Mr. Assad operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and have been conducting ambushes of government troops. Assad has mustered regular troops, who have heavily shelled neighborhoods in Homs, Hama, and other towns that host rebel supporters, killing armed supporters and unarmed men, women and children alike. Irregular militias loyal to Assad, called shabiha and generally drawn from the Alawite sect Assad belongs to, have been increasingly active. Shabiha have been blamed for the massacre of 108 civilians, many of them children, outside Houla two weeks ago.
But to listen to almost every official who talks about Syria, there's no civil war yet. "I believe that in the council there's an understanding that any sliding toward full-scale civil war in Syria would be catastrophic, and the security council now needs to have that kind of strategic discussion on how that needs to be avoided," Jean-Marie Guehenno, an aide to UN Special Envoy to Syria Kofi Annan, said last week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, complaining that Russia supports Assad, said that the Russians "keep telling me they don't want to see a civil war, and I have been telling them their policy is going to help contribute to a civil war." Russian President Vladimir Putin, staunchly opposed to international action against Assad, says “we are seeing nascent elements of a civil war today. This is extremely dangerous."
UN boss Ban Ki-moon (with bonus hyperbole at the end) says ongoing massacres "could plunge Syria into a catastrophic civil war ... from which the country would never recover." (Syria's war, already devastating, could worsen. But it's amazing what countries can recover from; the US Civil War claimed more than 500,000 lives out of a population of 31 million).
So why not call Syria's civil war a civil war? My best guess is that foreign officials hope that by insisting it's a future threat, rather than a present reality, they can create more support for the notion that Mr. Annan's "peace plan" might eventually work. The fact that Syria has grown more violent, not less, as the combination of unarmed observers and jawboning has been unleashed on the problem, isn't dwelt upon. That's because the alternatives to diplomacy are foreign military action, which would be expensive, bloody, and risk a broader regional war, or doing nothing. Neither option is palatable.
Syrian rebels aren't too keen on the "civil war" label, either. They'd like to frame their uprising as one of "the people" against an illegitimate regime, not of a national house truly divided. Libya's rebels against Muammar Qaddafi also didn't like the term (I received multiple complaints from the supporters of Libyan rebels when I started using "civil war" to describe the fight in Libya last year). Mr. Assad hates the phrase too – his opponents are simply terrorists, mostly foreigners in his telling. To admit to a civil war is to admit that a large proportion of his subjects despise the regime he heads.
The London-based Syrian Observatory says that as many as 2,300 of the more than 13,400 people killed since the uprising against Assad's regime began in March last year have died since April 12.
There are of course many types of civil war, some far longer and bloodier than others. Keeping the war from deepening at home, and spreading to neighbors, is a noble international priority. But it's time to start calling this war by its proper name.
Two women have alleged that Julian Assange, the founder of the Wikileaks website, sexually assaulted them in Sweden. Mr. Assange and his supporters insist the allegations are the result of a combination of two women scorned seeking revenge and a Swedish state that is secretly conniving with the US to extradite the former hacker to the US to face charges related to his release of hundreds of thousands of US military and State Department documents two years ago.
Now Assange's nearly two-year fight against extradition to Sweden for questioning over the allegations is heading to the end game. A final decision will be made within two weeks.
The claims of the two women are complicated by the fact that both say they had previously had consensual sex with Assange. One of the two women has told Swedish investigators that she was coerced to have sex with Assange, and that he carried on without using a condom, despite her insistence that he use one. The other said he initiated sex with her while she was asleep, and without consent being given.
Could the pair be lying? That's certainly a possibility. But the insistence of Assange and his supporters that they are definitely lying, that there is no reason to take their accusations seriously, may speak to a siege mentality and, frankly, a disregard for how much difficulty women face in getting authorities to take their accusations of assault and sexual harassment seriously, particularly when their accusations are directed at powerful public figures.
The public position of Wikileaks has been that there's a secret deal between Sweden and the US to ship the Australian to American custody as soon as possible. The evidence presented? None. It's possible that the US has sought a sealed indictment of Assange, but it's also possible that it hasn't. And why Sweden? Unclear.
As British legal analyst Carl Gardner told the Monitor's Ben Arnoldy, under European law the UK would retain an effective veto over a Swedish extradition attempt. In other words, both Sweden and the UK would have to agree to the extradition. It would have been simpler to make the request while he's in the UK, with only one country in the mix.
But no matter, Wikileaks – which Assange says is dedicated to something called "scientific journalism – is convinced. On May 29, its main Twitter account wrote: "Hillary Clinton and State Dept team arrive Stockholm June 3-4; 4 days after Assange extradition decision. Fanciful to think no discussion." The US says Ms. Clinton is heading to Sweden for a climate change conference and to discuss "a range of issues, including green energy, Internet freedom, Afghanistan and the Middle East" with Swedish leaders.
Yesterday, the group wrote in a statement: "The US, UK, Swedish and Australian governments are engaging in a coordinated effort to extradite its editor in chief Julian Assange to the United States, to face espionage charges for journalistic activities."
It's not just Assange's organization making this allegation. Yesterday Wikileaks' Twitter account quoted prominent left-wing journalist John Pilger approvingly as saying, "Swedish elite has forged sinister and obsequious links with Washington."
Mr. Pilger has been one of the self-appointed defenders of Assange. In an interview with Truthout this week he dismissed out of hand the allegations made against the Wikileaks supremo. "The attempt to extradite Assange is unjust and political," he said. How does he know this? "I have read almost every scrap of evidence in this case and it's clear, in terms of natural justice, that no crime was committed."
I don't know much about natural justice, but the evidence, such as it is, are the claims made by two women in Sweden to the authorities there, on the one hand, and Assange's public denials on the other. It's a classic she-said-she-said-he-said situation, and Assange has made every effort to avoid going to Sweden to formally present his side of the story for over a year-and-a-half now.
To be sure, the US government has made it clear that it considers Assange a danger and would love to prosecute the man if it can find evidence to support an indictment (the "foreign enemy combatant" dodge against presenting evidence in court isn't available in his case). And there are indications that they may eventually find a way.
Journalist Parmy Olson alleges in her new book, "We Are Anonymous," that Wikileaks had cultivated ties with LulzSec, the loose-knit hacker collective that had five of its members arrested in the UK and US in March. The arrests followed months of investigation after LulzSec hacker Hector Monsegur was uncovered by the FBI and turned informant to avoid jail time. Mr. Monsegur, working under the handle "Sabu," provided evidence that other LulzSec members were involved in the theft of internal emails at the consulting company Stratfor, which were then given to Wikileaks for dissemination.
Wikileaks' legal protection for the documents it provides is that it doesn't solicit illegal activity, and merely acts as any news outlet would when information is provided to it. But actively soliciting illegal activity would be another matter, and something that the FBI would surely be interested in pinning on Assange.
In Ms. Olson's telling, Assange contacted one of the Lulzec members who was later arrested on June 16, 2011, because Wikileaks was interested in "infiltrating several Icelandic corporate and government sites." Olson writes that Lulzec member "Topiary" (later arrested and revealed to be Jake Davis of the UK) and Mr. Monsegur, already working as an FBI informant, participated in an Internet-relay-chat conversation with Assange and another Wikileaks supported identified only as "q."
"Assange and q appeared to want LulzSec to try to grab the e-mail service of government sites, then look for evidence of corruption or at least evidence that the government was unfairly targeting WikiLeaks," Olson writes. "The picture they were trying to paint was of the Icelandic government trying to suppress WikiLeaks's freedom to spread information. If they could leak such evidence, they explained, it could help instigate an uprising of sorts in Iceland and beyond."
If her reporting holds up (there has not yet been any independent corroboration) that provides a link, albeit an extremely tenuous one, to hackers involved in the theft of data. There's no evidence any criminal activity was ever directed at the Icelandic government, and the men involved were still involved with Anonymous, a larger hacker collective of which LulzSec is an offshoot, at the time. No evidence has been presented of any Wikileaks coordination with the successful effort to steal Stratfor's data. And if there is any such evidence, it will almost certainly come to light, given Monsegur's extensive cooperation with the FBI at the time the Stratfor files were stolen.
For now, Assange faces no formal charges of any kind. The extradition request from Sweden is for questioning, and the US has made no formal requests for his extradition, from any country. Wikileaks itself is almost entirely consumed with Assange's legal battles. There have been no actual leaks for some time.
There's good reason for that. Syria's civil war rages as hot or hotter as it has at any point since the uprising erupted early last year. President Bashar al-Assad may be ringed with international sanctions, but his security forces, from the Army to the special police, remain united and behind him. Pockets of Syrian territory are outside of government control, but not vast enclaves. Troops move freely around the country.
The Houla massacre last week, with at least 108 civilians murdered by militiamen alleged to be loyal to Mr. Assad (the BBC has published satellite images that make a convincing case of major Syrian government troop movements around the city at the time of the murders), has heightened the sense of crisis at the UN and world capitals.
The remaining option would appear to be military action designed to remove Assad from power. But the Obama administration appears to be backing away from that position, a consequence of the dawning reality of the challenges and steadfast Chinese and Russian opposition to any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) action.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, gave a series of interviews yesterday where she framed current diplomatic measures so far. On Twitter, she outlined three "mutually exclusive" scenarios for Syria. Cleaning the Twitter abbreviations from her language, she wrote: "First and best: Syria wakes up, stops killing, adheres to its obligations under multiple UNSC resolutions. Not a high probability. Second possible outcome – Russia and China need to agree – UNSC and international community assume responsibilities, exert pressure on Assad. Third and worst: violence intensifies, spills over, exploits sectarian fissures. UNSC unity gone. Annan plan gone. Most probable now."
That "most probable" is due to the fact that Russia, in particular, has shown no appetite for a UNSC resolution calling for military action. And she appears to say the US will not act without a UN mandate – "Russia and China must agree."
Her analysis is reasonable given events and tracks with the views of many knowledgeable military and regional analysts. More surprising, perhaps, was that she publicly acknowledged these facts. It's one thing to know you probably won't act without Russian approval. It's another to remove the seed of doubt that could be useful in negotiating some kind of more robust action down the line.
But something else is going on here. While some Republican leaders appear to be calling for military action in Syria, chief among them Mitt Romney, there seems to be increasing concern in the Obama administration that Syria's conflict isn't fixable by the sort of stand-off air campaign that helped Libya's rebels defeat Muammar Qaddafi. There also appears to be increasing concern that foreign forces, led by the US, would be easily led into another bloody Middle Eastern war, with an unpredictable domestic outcome and likely severe repercussions on everything from efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear program, the security of Israel, and the stability of neighbors Lebanon and Iraq, which like Syria have major sectarian fault lines.
Last night, Ms. Rice appeared to rule out arming the rebels – something called for by both Mr. Romney and Sen. John McCain. "Even in Libya, we did not take the very exceptional decision to arm the opposition," she told CNN. "And in Syria, we know much, much less about the nature of this opposition. It’s not coherent. There’s not a unified command and control. It’s a series of different groups in different cities. There’s, clearly, also an extremist element that is trying to infiltrate... I don’t think that those that are advocating that have fully thought through the consequences. That would mean that we are conceding that the only option is to see the further militarization, to see an intensified regional war."
Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security and scholar of the region who fought as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan, tells Foreign Policy that "while the Pentagon will and should prepare military contingencies, without a more cohesive Syrian opposition, an international mandate, and a viable strategy for success, the United States should not rev up the B-52s. Under current conditions, military intervention in Syria would, in the words of Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch, 'alter but not end the dynamics of a long conflict, embroiling the United States directly in a protracted and bloody insurgency and civil war.'"
That Syria is very, very different from Libya cannot be repeated enough. Qaddafi lost the eastern half of his country within days of the start of the uprising against him. A massive international air campaign eventually followed, but it still took eight months for him to be defeated. Syria is much larger than Libya, has a far more sophisticated and loyal military, and much of the fighting is inside major population centers.
All of this points to the fourth option, which Rice did not mention: Assad wins, much as his father did against an Islamist uprising against his regime centered around the town of Hama in 1982, in which around 10,000 residents of that city were put to the sword, ending a major challenge to Syria's Baath regime. That would be a horrific outcome for his opponents, as the country's torture chambers could be expected to be filled to the brim with his opponents in the aftermath, both those who fought him, and those who merely called for change.
That option is going to keep the international dialogue about what comes next bubbling along, and could eventually lead to a consensus for international military action. But for now, the fear of a Pandora's Box being opened with consequences stretching well beyond Libya is going to keep the cautious approach front and center.
Syria's Houla massacre last week was a war crime. This much is certain. After government shelling of Houla killed about 20 people there, a further 90 residents were hunted down in their homes and shops and then butchered, many of them children.
The massacre has shifted the international picture, with the mass expulsion of Syrian diplomats from Britain, the US, France, and six other countries, slightly tougher talk from the United Nations officials working with special envoy Kofi Annan, and a burst of outrage from politicians around the world. Who was responsible? The activists and their supporters insist it was the Syrian Army itself, but there is not yet any hard evidence, only indications. Analysts who know the region well expect that the murders were carried out by shabiha, pro-government militiamen who work in concert with the military.
The cui bono reasoning of some on the anti-imperial left, who suggest the massacre was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's opponents (since it makes his regime look so bad), should be dismissed as the logical contortion that it is. The Assad family has killed and tortured tens of thousands to retain power down the decades.
The slaughter yesterday, and the discovery today, of 13 bound men who were executed near Deir al-Zhour punctuate a reality that has been long apparent: UN special envoy Kofi Annan's "peace plan" for Syria is a failure, with Mr. Assad and his allies determined to hold on to power and survive. Assad emphasized that to Russian television a few weeks ago, complaining of a propaganda war against him, denying massacres of civilians and concluding that "the main thing is to win in real life."
But what is to be done? This is where all certainty evaporates, and a landscape of imperfect, dangerous choices reveals itself.
Humanitarian interventionists insist the time has come for military pressure to be exerted from the outside and they're finding allies in major capitals. French President François Hollande fumed, "it is not possible to allow Bashar al-Assad's regime to massacre its own people," though he said military action would require UN Security Council approval.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who last July criticized President Barack Obama for supporting the NATO mission that helped drive Libya's Muammar Qaddafi from power (Mr. Romney fretted about "who’s going to own Libya if we get rid of the government there?”) wants arms shipments to the rebels and "more assertive measures to end the Assad regime." He blamed President Obama for "lack of leadership [that] has resulted in a policy of paralysis that has watched Assad slaughter 10,000 individuals."
He's not alone. The Washington Post's hawkish editorial page is on board too, sort of. In an editorial largely dedicated to ridiculing Mr. Annan's failed effort ("feckless," "one of the most costly diplomatic failures in UN history") it calls for Obama to do, well, something. The paper insists the time has come for US "leadership," but through what means, and exactly to where, it doesn't say.
The Post probably didn't intend to send a message with this vagueness, but the coyness on the specifics of what the US should be doing points to a reality that makes a foreign military intervention in Syria far more dangerous than the case of Libya. Syria's armed forces are better trained, led, and armed than Libya's were under Qaddafi, and they have held firm for over a year, whereas Qaddafi suffered major leadership defections from the moment the uprising broke out in February of last year.
More worrying still is the increasingly evident sectarian nature of some of the fighting. Libya has troubled divisions, but not much in the way of religious ones. Syria is home to Sunni Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Shiites, and ethnic Kurds.
Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, a Syrian minority that has benefited handsomely under his rule and his father's before him. The majority of the people fighting him are Sunni Muslims, and there is clear evidence that among them are Al Qaeda-style jihadis whose Manichean worldview frames the Alawites as apostates who deserve death for their beliefs. The country's Christians are fearful, well aware of the grim toll on their faith in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who were forced to flee their homeland still live among them.
This is not to say that the rebellion's grievances aren't real, or that the majority of its supporters want precisely what they say they do: To get out from under the yoke of Assad's Baath regime and to live in a more democratic country. With the events of the past year there, it's impossible to fault any Syrian who wants to take up arms against Assad. But the grievances of decades, and the fresh set of wounds inflicted on the population, create the conditions for the cycle of sectarian murder and counter-murder that extracted such horrific costs on Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, and in Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003.
In Iraq, hundreds of thousands were tortured and murdered in communal violence that 100,000 US troops were largely powerless to stop. Foreign boots in Syria would be no more a guarantee of peace.
The people framed as the murderers today could be precisely the ones in desperate need of international protection tomorrow. And massacres after such an intervention will be partly on the hands of those foreign powers who got involved, no matter how well-intentioned. US officials and their counterparts in Europe are aware of these risks, as they are of political realities. Is it better to take action and risk being on the hook for future crimes that, after all, may not occur? Or is the safe play to look on aghast, let diplomacy and sanctions grind on, and hope a breakthrough – somehow, anyhow – will be found?
In Libya, the UN Security Council authorized NATO action. While from almost the moment the bombs started falling the US, France, the UK, and others clearly exceeded their mandate only to protect civilians from imminent harm, UN cover was the key to action. That was cover that Russia was willing to grant that time, choosing not to exercise its veto in the crucial vote. Later, the country was furious at how the UN mandate was used, and vowed there would be no repeats.
So far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been unmoved by the killing. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said today his country opposed new Security Council resolutions on Syria and "it is essential to give the plan of Kofi Annan time to work." Time? The plan has failed, and a suggestion that there is going to be some magical about-face by Assad if only more time is given flies in the face of every available data point.
The news from Syria, the amateur video of fathers and mothers grieving over their children, and the stills of people clearly tortured to their deaths are almost too much to bear. The demands that "something must be done" are humane, natural, a healthy reaction to the horror. But determining what that "something" is, and doing it well, is the tough, cold work that policy makers have in front of them.
I don't envy them.
Get daily or weekly updates from CSMonitor.com delivered to your inbox. Sign up today.
They've both been targets of the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders Front), a group of self-appointed morality cops who have been increasingly brazen in demanding their own chauvinistic approach to Islam be pursued in the Muslim world's biggest country.
Gaga had a concert scheduled for Jakarta's largest stadium this June 3. But in the past week the FPI has issued a series of escalating threats, with the group's leader Habib Rizieq threatening to send a mob to the airport to wait for her, and to break up the event by force if she made it to the venue.
The response? The Jakarta police caved, refusing to issue a permit for the concert citing security concerns.
That's just the most recent in a string of successes for FPI muscle-flexing, and the least serious. While there are free speech issues at play, a group of well-to-do Jakarta teenagers deprived of the chance of seeing their favorite singer is hardly a tragedy. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
GALLERY: Lady Gaga's fans
Earlier this month, the group dogged the speaking tour of Irshad Manji, a Muslim reformist and out lesbian. Her promotional effort for her new book "Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom" was cut short.
One Jakarta event was shut by police, citing security concerns. Another in the capital ended with her being escorted from the venue by the police after club-wielding FPI members showed up. A stop at the University of Gadjah Madah in Yogykarta, one of the country's most prestigious schools, was cancelled the next day after more FPI threats.
FPI arrests so far? Zero.
More disturbing has been a recent surge of harassment and closures of Indonesian churches.
Earlier today, congregants of Filadelfia Church in Bekasi, a poor Jakarta suburb, had rocks and sewage water thrown at them as they tried to enter to church to celebrate the ascension of Jesus Christ.
Catholic leaders in Central Java also complained this month they haven't been able to get a permit to build a new church, because of intimidation by the FPI and other Islamist groups.
The FPI has also been involved in recent years in attacks on Indonesia's tiny Shiite community and larger, but still small, Ahmadiyah sect, whom they consider heretics. Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been largely silent on the vigilantism.
The FPI emerged in the mid to late-1990s. In the chaotic years after Soeharto was pushed from power by mass protests in rioting in 1998, they often appeared to be more of a street gang in a symbiotic relationship with the country's notoriously corrupt police service than a genuine Islamist movement. Their thugs frequently targeted bars and establishments selling liquor in Jakarta, for instance, but relented just as soon as protection payments to the relevant police commander were increased.
For the most part, they stayed out of the small religious wars fought on Sulawesi and in the Maluku provinces (once known to Europeans as the Spice Islands) that were fueled by more radical groups like the Laskar Jihad and the Jemaah Islamiyah (the later group strongly influence by Al Qaeda's ideology), and their violence was both far more limited in scope, and far more useful to various people in power.
I hadn't thought much about the FPI for years (I left Indonesia after a decade living there in 2003). But today, with Indonesia in many ways a model for a successful democratic transition, with a growing economy and a cooling of the regional conflicts that dominated the early transitional years, they appear to be stronger than ever – and setting their own agenda. Endy Bayuni, former editor-in-chief of The Jakarta Post (whom I worked under in my first job in journalism, as a copy editor in '93), writes that the group now has 30,000 followers.
The successful disruption of an effort to place a suicide bomber on a US-bound plane is an intelligence coup any way you slice it. An agent went to Yemen, won the trust of members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), convinced them he was interested in attacking a US plane, and arranged delivery of their latest concealable bomb.
Then he scooted over the border back to Saudi Arabia and handed the bomb over. Now the underwear bomb is being poured over by experts seeking to determine how easy it would have been to get past current security procedures and what needs to be done to plug any holes in airport security.
The agent also provided information on the whereabouts of Fahd Mohammed al-Quso, a militant on the FBI's most wanted list for his involvement in the attack on the USS Cole off the port of Aden in 2000. Quso was killed in a US drone attack in Yemen's Shabwa mountains last week. Quso, who had also assisted some of the 9/11 hijackers, had escaped from Yemeni prison in 2003. He was recaptured the next year, but was released in 2007 by the government, which refused a US extradition request.
That's all pretty good work. But while a major win for international security efforts, the leak of the successful penetration to the press will now make it easier for AQAP to plug holes in its own security procedures, making it harder to put agents in place in the future. While the group would have worried when the promised bomb attack never happened, there would have been plenty of ambiguity: Perhaps the attacker had been arrested, or simply lost his nerve. Now AQAP knows to a dead certainty what happened.
The Associated Press broke the story on May 7, after keeping the story under wraps for a few days at the request of the CIA and the Obama Administration. The AP didn't identify its source or sources at all, saying only that it "has learned" of the foiled effort. The story carried a Washington dateline, which points in the direction of a leak from the US end.
"It's really, to me, unfortunate that this has gotten out, because this could really interfere with operations overseas," Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress, told CNN yesterday. "My understanding is a major investigation is going to be launched because of this."
Much of the early reporting that the CIA was responsible for disrupting the latest bombing effort has since been walked back. Saudi Arabian intelligence, led by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, are the experts on AQAP and have been keeping close tabs on the group for years. The New York Times ran a good piece yesterday, sourced to unidentified officials, that identified the man who posed as a would-be bomber as working for the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia of course has strong tribal and cultural ties to Yemen, and militants based there have been a source of intense focus for the Saudis for over a decade. One of Al Qaeda's stated goals is to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, and the Kingdom has cracked down hard, and successfully, on Al Qaeda inspired militants. Over the years, it has managed to place agents inside militant cells, and more frequently convinced militants to turn on the organization. The Saudis have provided extensive targeting information for the CIA's drone campaign in Yemen, and also uncovered an AQAP plot to bomb US bound cargo planes in 2010.
Prince Nayef, the country's counterterrorism boss (he personally delivered the warning on the cargo plane plot to the CIA), escaped an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in 2009. The attacker, the wanted Saudi Abdullah Hassan Tali al-Asiri who had fled to Yemen, contacted Prince Nayef and said he wanted to defect from the group. At an arranged meeting outside Nayef's home, he detonated a bomb hidden in his rectum, killing himself but dealing only minor injuries to his target. That bomb was built by Ibrahim al-Nasiri, Abdullah's brother, and the man believed responsible for the latest underwear bomb now being studied by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.
The surviving Nasiri is now almost certainly beyond the reach of drones. The latest news, punctuated by the killing of Quso, will have almost certainly see him and other militants relocate and rework their communication protocols. His ability to teach other militants how to construct bombs remains intact.
A lot of the initial coverage of the plot has been breathless. For instance, ABC reports that "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula... is known for its ideological purity and for carefully screening its recruits." Is it? The Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was only trained for a few weeks before heading out on his failed mission to destroy a US airliner.
He's now in federal prison on a life sentence after pleading guilty to the crime. AQAP has, if anything, shown itself to be opportunistic, and was willing to work with Mr. Abdulmutallab because he had a US visa. It's likely that the man involved with the latest foiled attack likewise was trusted because of promised access to the US, rather than because of extensive vetting.
AQAP is in fact a threat, despite its toothless international efforts so far. Abdulmutallab failed, as did an attempt to smuggle bombs on to cargo planes headed for the US. And there have been a number of high-profile assassinations of its leaders. For instance Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who'd been an important propagandist for the group, was killed in a US strike in Yemen last September. US officials said Mr. Awlaki had contact with both Abdulmutallab and US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, who murdered 12 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009.
But the group remains interested in exporting its jihad to US soil, and will continue to seek an opening. The disclosures in this latest round of spy vs. spy in Yemen's badlands will make it easier for AQAP to plug its leaks, and harder for the intelligence agents tracking them.
Former Mossad boss Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet boss Yuval Diskin have joined former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in recent weeks in warning against an Israeli attack on Iran any time soon. Mr. Barak dismissed their views as serving Iranian interests, saying the "Olmert gang is traveling around the world and speaking in a way that is serving Iran."
With Israeli elections now looking set for early September, and already being framed by the Israeli press as a referendum on the hawkish Iran policy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, expect a flood of statements, arguments and analysis on this issue in the months ahead.
Traditionally in Israeli politics, former security bosses have held a lot of sway, both directly as in the case of Barak (he entered politics after serving as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces) and more broadly in the court of public opinion. There are currently 18 former top tier security leaders in Israel: seven former heads of the international spy agency, Mossad; five former leaders of the Shin Bet internal security service; and six former heads of the IDF.
The current head of the IDF, Gen. Benny Gantz, indicated recently that war should not be imminent, that Iran is a rational actor and predicted that it will be deterred from seeking a nuclear bomb out of fear of what comes next.
Where do the former security chiefs stand? Here's an incomplete list of stated positions and leanings. I hope to update this as more people speak or change their positions.
1. Meir Dagan. The former head of the Mossad, who served from 2002-2011, called a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran "the stupidest thing I have ever heard" in March. He said that full success in destroying Iran's nuclear facilities is unlikely, and that the likely outcome would be for the country to redouble it's clandestine nuclear efforts in response to attack and remove all supervision from the International Atomic Energy Agency. He also worries about a broader war. "It will be followed by a war with Iran. It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end."
2. Yuval Diskin. Mr. Diskin ran the Shin Bet from 2005-2011. In April, he declared both Netanyahu and Barak unfit to lead Israel, accused them of "misleading the public on the Iran issue," and said that contrary to their position that military action would deter Iran "many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race."
3. Gabi Ashkhenazi. Gen. Ashkenazi, who was chief of staff of the IDF from 2007-2011, said in April that an attack on Iran would be a bad idea now, while expressing grave concern about Iran's nuclear program. “I think we still have time. It is not tomorrow morning" when Israel needs to act, he said. “It is better to persuade our friends in the world and the region that it is a global threat and [the government] has done a good job on this."
3. Shaul Mofaz. Gen. (Ret.) Mofaz was IDF chief of staff between 1998-2002, leaving his post when he was appointed defense minister. Mofaz is now a leader of the Kadima party, an opponent of Netanyahu's Likud that is now moving into campaign mode. In April he spoke in favor of Diskin's criticisms of the government on Iran issues, and said that their public attacks on the former Shin Bet head "suggested a fear" of responding to the substance of his criticisms.
4. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Gen. (Ret.) Lipkin-Shahak was head of the IDF from 1995-1998 and then entered politics, seeking to unseat Netanyahu from the premiership in 1999. He hasn't spoken about Iran's nuclear issue, but has taken consistently more dovish positions than the current government. While running for the Knesset in 1999 he described Netanyahu as "dangerous" for Israel's security and not to be trusted. Last year he was a signatory of the Israeli Peace Initiative, which calls for "the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the basis of the 1967 lines, and territory swaps on a 1:1 basis, in limited scope" and for Jerusalem to "be the capital of both peoples, whereas the Jewish neighborhoods, the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter will be under Israeli sovereignty and the temple mount shall remain under a special no-sovereignty regime (“G-d sovereignty”) with special arrangements. Israeli Jerusalem will be acknowledged as the capital of Israel." These positions put him sharply at odds with Netanyahu and his supporters.
5. Yaakov (Jacob) Perry. The former Shin Bet chief doesn't appear to have spoken about Iran recently. But last year he bemoaned the lack of lines of communication between Israel and Iran on the nuclear issue. He's also a signatory to the Israel Peace Initiative, and said in 2011 about the effort: “We are isolated internationally and seen to be against peace.... I hope this will make a small contribution to pushing our prime minister forward. It is about time that Israel initiates something on peace.”
6. Ami Ayalon. Ayalon ran the Shin Bet from 1995-2000, then went into politics with the Labour party, Likud's principal opponent in the upcoming elections. He's a signer of the Israel Peace Initiative. I can find no recent comments from him on Iran's nuclear program, but he's generally considered to be in the dovish camp, preferring a focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Recently, he's been calling for a unilateral Israeli settlement withdrawal from the West Bank, and complained that focusing on Iran is hurting more important peace efforts.
1. Ehud Barak. Gen. (Ret.) Barak was IDF chief of staff from 1991-1995. He is now the defense minister and deputy prime minister in Netanyahu's government, and is very much in the "war is coming" camp. "Israel can not afford to be duped," he said in late April. “The No. 1 responsibility is to ensure that our fate will remain firmly in our own hands.” He has dismissed the criticism of Dagan and others as politically motivated and dangerous for Israel.
2. Moshe Yaalon. Gen. Yaalon was IDF chief of staff from 2002-2005 and is now a member of the Knesset for Netanyahu's Likud and serves in the government as Minister of Strategic Affairs. He said in early May, responding to speculation that a possible attack on Iran has been taken off the table until at least after the Sept. 2012 elections, that "the election will not be a consideration in the Iranian issue. If we need to make decisions we will make them." Deputies in his office have repeatedly voiced skepticism that multilateral attacks with Iran over its nuclear program will make any progress.
1. Danny Yatom. The former head of the Mossad appeared to both take issue with Dagan's warnings, and to back him, last year. "The backlash from a strike on Iran's nuclear sites will not be as bad for Israel as will an Iran armed with nuclear weapons," he said at one point. "I don't think that those predicting apocalyptic repercussions of a strike on Tehran are correct, and even if they are, Israel can't afford to wonder if Tehran will go crazy and bomb us." Haaretz paraphrased him as saying on Israel radio however, that "he too opposed the idea of attacking Iran as it would not achieve the intended goal." If I had to guess, he's in favor of an attack if an Iranian nuclear bomb is imminent, but doesn't believe that point has been reached. But I can find no clear, contextualized comments from him in the press.
Over the past year, there have been growing questions about whether the long-promised "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains viable, with West Bank settlements expanding, direct talks largely cut off, and the growing impression that neither side is willing to make the compromises that would be required to move the ball forward.
Recently, one of the highest-profile people to throw in the towel on Oslo was Yossi Beilin, a lead Israeli negotiator on the Oslo Accords. He urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas to abandon the Oslo process as a "farce."
He wrote: "Dissolving the Palestinian Authority and returning daily control to Israel would be an action nobody could ignore... Do not hesitate for a moment!"
The PA's democratic mandate expired nearly two years ago, when scheduled elections were cancelled because of the five-year rift between Mr. Abbas' Fatah Party, which is dominant in the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist movement that now runs the Gaza Strip as a separate Palestinian enclave.
Amid on-again, off-again reconciliation efforts, the PA has trundled on under Fatah's guidance, and has shown increasing signs of authoritarianism and thuggish control of free speech, even as the Arab countries around them struggle to put that behind them.
Last week that PA blocked eight websites tied to a Fatah rival of Abbas, which had been heavily critical of the president, in an unprecedented case of Internet censorship. Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka, who shortly thereafter resigned, told the Maan News Agency that Abbas' Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni "made up his own laws to justify what was solely his decision. Blocking websites is against the public interest. I oppose it without exception.”
In March, Palestinian reporter Yousef al-Shayeb was arrested after a report alleging corruption at the Foreign Ministry, and Mr. Mughni defended the arrest as justified, calling Mr. Shayeb's reporting libelous. Two bloggers who criticized Abbas online were also recently arrested. And next week, the independent Palestinian Wattan television station is facing a $1 million defamation case over its reporting on alleged corruption involving a senior PA official.
The crackdown on the press is part of a broader pattern. In the West Bank, Hamas activists have been subject to arrest for their views for years now. (Hamas behaves in much the same manner against political opponents in Gaza, where authorities have also violently disbursed pro-Fatah demonstrations.)
In one week in April, the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq reported eight politically motivated arrests alone. "Most were university students suspected of being affiliated with Hamas and who had previously been arrested several times by the PA security forces or by the Israeli occupying forces. Others were arrested for making political statements on social networking sites or for drawing satirical cartoons."
Among those arrested was Jamal Muhammad Abu-Rihan, a political activist. His crime? Running a Facebook page that campaigns against official corruption. That sort of arrest was far too common in Mubarak's Egypt, and in Syria today.
Hamas and Fatah have dramatically different visions of the future for the Palestinian people, with Hamas far less compromising when it comes to negotiating a peace with Israel, and interested in pursuing an Islamist form of government that alarms Palestinian Christians and secularists.
Fatah and Hamas fought a brief civil war for control of Gaza in 2007, after Hamas won elections held the previous year, but Fatah refused to cede power. In Gaza, Fatah lost. There have been few signs of real healing since.
There has been some speculation that Palestinian elections may be held this year, but as yet no tangible evidence. A reconciliation deal between the two sides announced last year appears to have led nowhere.
Egypt's presidential election looms, notwithstanding fighting in Cairo today and a distinct lack of trust in the country's political institutions.
While the upheaval has led to some speculation that the vote, scheduled to start May 23, may be delayed, the smart money is on the election going ahead, barring a major new crisis (there was plenty of speculation that the parliamentary election would be delayed last December, but that vote went ahead as scheduled).
So it's worth taking a look at how these elections – the first chance for Egyptians to freely choose their leader in generations – are going to be conducted. How well will they be monitored, and will monitoring make a difference?
On that score, the rules for foreign monitors are less than ideal. The rules as set out by the Presidential Election Committee (PEC), which was appointed in a March 23 decree by the military junta that has run Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Febuary 2011, do create concerns about monitoring and transparency ahead of the most important Egyptian election for decades.
The decree says foreign monitors will be allowed, as long as they are accredited by the PEC. But three weeks ahead of the election, accreditations have not been issued. Today is the deadline for applications, and May 7 is the deadline for approval or denial, which will be decided on by the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and Egypt's National Security Agency.
The rules are restrictive – they bar Egyptians from working with foreign groups as monitors, which increases costs and decreases the pool of people available with the language skills and local experience to be effective.
Egypt's ruling generals also appear interested in controlling the flow of information. Article 8 of the decree says that complaints of irregularities should be funneled through the PEC to handle as it seems fit, and Article 10 seeks to prevent monitors "from making any statement to the media." Article 11 requires reports written by monitoring groups after the election to include the PEC's "official response" to their findings. Article 12 allows for the PEC to cancel the accreditation for a foreign group if it "appears" that the group itself is responsible for the violations it reports and states specifically that existing laws governing elections, including jail time, may be applied if a monitor is deemed to have caused a violation.
Now, on the one hand it seems reasonable to hold monitors responsible if they, say, are found to be stuffing ballot boxes. But on the other, Egypt's legal processes are heavily politicized, particularly at the moment, as the efforts to prosecute members of a group of foreign NGOs earlier this year demonstrated all too well.
Monitors, if approved, will walk with care.
The steady unraveling of Egypt's "transition process" continued today, with clashes outside the Ministry of Defense as thugs armed with guns and knives sparked a melee that left at least 11 people dead and dozens injured.
A small group of Islamist protesters demanding the reinstatement of salafi sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail into the presidential race were attacked by a group of armed young men in civilian dress, according to reporters on the scene. Despite the fighting occurring so close to the defense ministry, no major effort to provide security was evident.
Egypt's transition has been run by a military junta, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), since Hosni Mubarak was pushed from office in February 2011. The next step to returning to some semblance of normalcy are presidential elections scheduled to begin in just three weeks.
But every other step leading up to this point has gone badly wrong.
A new constitution has not been written, as originally hoped, meaning the Mubarak-era document, which concentrated all real power in the hands of the president, remains in force. The elected parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, has walked off the job, demanding that the government ministers appointed by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi be replaced. A team of Mubarak-era judges are now considering a recommendation that they declare the parliamentary election unconstitutional, an act that would dissolve parliament and probably lead to mass street protests from Islamists. And two of the most popular candidates for the presidency have been disqualified.
Those two are Abu Ismail and Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater. Ismail, a popular salafi preacher who favors the imposition of Saudi-style Islam on Egypt, was earlier disqualified because his deceased mother was said to be a US citizen. Mr. Shater, a key Muslim Brotherhood strategist, was disqualified because of Mubarak-era convictions related to his political activities.
The deaths in Cairo overnight and in the morning, which came during hours of fighting, are just the latest evidence to activists, both Islamists and the secular-minded protesters who fueled the uprising against Mubarak last year, that the generals running Egypt and the institutions they control are not to be trusted. The electoral commission overseeing the presidential election answers to SCAF, and many Egyptians are convinced that political machinations are as important to the actions of the judiciary as points of law.
The use of unarmed thugs, or baltigaya, was frequent under Mubarak, a tactic to throw the thinnest veneer of deniability over government decisions to crack heads in the street. The protesters are convinced that was what happened in the clashes today. Perhaps they're wrong. It could be the mob was sent by a political rival of the salafis. But that would, in some ways, be even more unsettling, since it would mark the spread of the use of violence as a key tool of Egyptian politics.
Leading presidential candidates Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood member, and Mohammed Mursi, the Brotherhood's choice now that Shater has been thrown out, criticized SCAF for allowing this mornings violence. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the salafis main party, Al Nour, announced they were boycotting a meeting scheduled with Tantawi today in protest. The FJP holds about 50 percent of parliament, while Al Nour has roughly 20 percent.
Egypt's presidential election is supposed to start May 23. But the road between now and then is fraught with dangers. On May 6, a constitutional court is scheduled to rule on the legality of the parliamentary elections that finished earlier this year. Another court already disqualified the body that Parliament had set up to try to write a new constitution, enraging Islamists who said the legitimate flow of power from the ballot box was being thwarted. Tossing the Parliament out entirely would probably push that rage into overdrive.
And with the failure to provide security today for what was, after all, a small protest by recent Cairo standards, raises questions about how safe and secure the first round of the presidential elections can be, with the stakes high, the temptations to intimidate voters barely restrained by the military or police.
Egypt, if wisdom isn't shown by the men in power in the days ahead, could turn 2012 from the year in which the gains of the revolution was supposed to be ratified into the year when a long, chaotic period of street power, protest and counter protest, began.
At the moment, the institutions meant to channel popular aspirations don't appear to be working very well.