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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Sunday. (Abir Sultan/AP)

Is Israel trying to lead the US to war with Iran?

By Staff writer / 08.15.12

After months of quiet, the drumbeat out of Israel for a war with Iran has started again. Iran is on the verge of a nuclear bomb, a point of "no return" as some Israeli politicians have it, and squadrons of anonymous sources, credulous reporters, and columnists have been mobilized to get out the word.

What happens next? Almost certainly a few months of quiet. And then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or a fellow hawk will strike up the band and we'll do this dance again.

Israel's security establishment is far from united on Iran, with many warning that a preemptive war could do more harm than good to Israel's interests. Israel and Western powers have been periodically warning that the Islamic Republic of Iran was on the verge of building a nuclear bomb since the early 1980s. As far back as 1992, Mr. Netanyahu, then a member of the Israeli parliament, said that Iran was five years away from a bomb and that its nuclear program must be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US."

That doesn't mean this latest round of the "sky is falling" Iran-Israel nuclear dance should be ignored. Rumors of war have a habit of becoming war when they carry on for long enough. Israeli anxiety about a nuclear Iran isn't feigned, and it would like to remain the region's sole nuclear armed state. And while it's hotly debated whether Iran is actually seeking the bomb, merely the technical skills to build a bomb, or only a peaceful nuclear power program, increasing technical confidence in Iran will always frighten Israelis. Some day it's possible that the band will play on.

The art of persuasion

But until then the talk of war is best seen as an attempt to sway American politicians and public opinion. Netanyahu and his allies, as a matter of national interest, want to persuade the US to go to war with Iran under certain conditions, well aware that striking a definitive blow against Iran's nuclear program is beyond their own capacity. Home Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Maariv newspaper, according to the BBC, that the country is prepared for a month-long war in the wake of a strike that he predicts would claim about 500 Israeli lives, and that "the United States is our greatest friend and we will always have to coordinate such moves with it."

That would appear to rule out unilateral action by Israel. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday that "I don't believe they've [Israel] made a decision as to whether or not they'll go in and attack Iran at this time... the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate. These sanctions, the additional sanctions, have been put in place, they're continuing to have an impact."

Netanyahu is popular in the US Congress, and his allies believe that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be more hawkish on Iran than President Obama, particularly a second-term Mr. Obama with little to fear in the way of the political repercussions of a softer stance towards Iran. In regards to the next four years, the window of maximum Israeli leverage on US policies toward Iran is the next three months.

'They assume the US will not attack'

That argument is supported by a piece written by Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran commentator on Israeli intelligence and military affairs, this week. Mr. Ben-Yishai quotes an anonymous "senior" Israeli official as laying out what the US needs to do to get Israel to tone down its rhetoric. "The Iranian regime is certain that in any case 2012 will pass peacefully," said the official. "They assume the US will not attack for fear of soaring oil prices and because of the presidential elections. They do not believe we will attack without a green light from Washington. Therefore, it is in the Americans' interest to convince the Iranians that the US may attack, not to convince us not to attack."

Ben-Yishai then asks "so what, according to the official, must the US do to prevent Israeli warplanes from taking off en route to Iran?" and answers that "Obama must repeat, publicly [at the UN General Assembly for instance], that the US will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and that Israel has a right to defend itself, independently... Israel is also demanding that Washington inform Iran that if significant progress in the negotiations with the P5+1 group [the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany] is not made within the next two weeks, the talks will be suspended."

The official also says Israel demands even tighter US and EU sanctions on Iran, a US military buildup in the Persian Gulf, and a promise from Obama to attack Iran before there is strong evidence it is on the verge of a nuclear bomb.

That's quite a list. And should be taken for what it is – a low cost effort to sway America's national security stance on Iran, rather than as a guarantee of a unilateral Israeli strike if Obama does not accede. For the moment, the Obama team seems convinced that national security decisions should be made in Washington.

Painted into a corner?

Gary Sick, a scholar of the Persian Gulf who served on the National Security Council for Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, thinks that an Israeli attack isn't imminent.

"It is worth remembering that Israel acquires significant leverage from this constant perception of imminent war," he writes. "My only concern is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, having made the case so often and so publicly for Israel’s right and even duty to attack, will have painted himself into a corner where there is no escape without actually risking national catastrophe. Yes, that is a possibility. But I have sufficient confidence in the operation of Israeli democracy and the instinct for self preservation of its leaders to regard that possibility as vanishingly small."

On the other side of the equation, leaks are being made about Israel's preparations for war in an attempt to head them off.

Richard Silverstein, a critic of the Netanyahu government who reports on Israeli national security, told the BBC today that a former Israeli senior minister from a previous government had given him a briefing paper that the minister told him Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are using to make the case for war inside the current cabinet. On his blog, Mr. Silverstein writes that the document is a "sales pitch" for war. In his translation, it says

A barrage of hundreds of cruise missiles will pound command and control systems, research and development facilities, and the residences of senior personnel in the nuclear and missile development apparatus.  Intelligence gathered over years will be utilized to completely decapitate Iran’s professional and command ranks in these fields.

After the first wave of attacks, which will be timed to the second, the “Blue and White” radar satellite, whose systems enable us to perform an evaluation of the level of damage done to the various targets, will pass over Iran.  Only after rapidly decrypting the satellite’s data, will the information be transferred directly to war planes making their way covertly toward Iran.  These IAF planes will be armed with electronic warfare gear previously unknown to the wider public, not even revealed to our U.S. ally.  This equipment will render Israeli aircraft invisible.  Those Israeli war planes which participate in the attack will damage a short-list of targets which require further assault.

Is the document real? It would be a shocking security breach if so, and Silverstein offers no evidence of its accuracy beyond his anonymous sources and his own judgement. But there is plenty of strategic messaging, smoke, and mirrors to go around on Israel's war plans for Iran.

If Israel were to unilaterally attack, the US would almost certainly be drawn into the war. Obama's advisers know it. Watch for pushback from them on the idea in the days ahead.

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Syrian soldiers investigate the scene after a bomb attached to a fuel truck exploded outside a Damascus hotel where UN observers are staying in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday. (Muzaffar Salman/AP)

Syria's civil war and the geopolitics overtaking it (+video)

By Staff writer / 08.15.12

Syria's civil war grinds on. Rebel forces claimed responsibility for a massive bomb blast in Damascus today that they said targeted a meeting of senior officers in Bashar al-Assad's Army. In the past week, rebel forces were routed from some neighborhoods of Aleppo, the country's commercial capital, after a hail of shells killed rebel fighters and civilians alike and left many districts of the city in ruins.

In other parts of Aleppo, the battle rages on, and for good reason. The loss of Syria's largest city would prove catastrophic for Mr. Assad. But the focus there is creating other problems for the regime. Reuters reports that the focus on Aleppo has left the eastern and overwhelmingly Sunni desert province of Deir al-Zor unprotected. Home to most of Syria's oil production and a long border with Iraq, across which fighters and supplies move relatively freely (jihadis flowed into Iraq from the Syrian side during the worst of that country's civil war) it's just the last front in an expanding war. 

Much of the country has been swept up in lawlessness and banditry. While the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the main rebel armed force, operating under the umbrella Syrian National Council, most of the rebel units are autonomous and locally run. Some take care to avoid harming civilians, others are unconcerned, operating out of heavily populated neighborhoods, and still others are indistinguishable from bandits. Government forces are as bad or worse, systematically looting conquered neighborhoods as a form of collective punishment and indulging in the torture for which the country's Baath regime is justly famous.

IN PICTURES: Conflict in Syria

The United Nations mission in Syria, which began with naive promises and quickly unraveled, is at this point irrelevant to the course of the conflict. Kofi Annan is no longer in charge, and though there's speculation that Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will take his place, today's bomb attack in Damascus was next to a hotel filled with UN staff – a reminder of how dangerous it has become to move around even the capital, let alone the country's full-fledged war zones.

At this point, a diplomatic resolution to the war is almost impossible to imagine. Mr. Assad's regime has absorbed major body blows, including the defection last week of Prime Minister Riad Hijab (a Sunni), but has not come close to cracking. The minority Alawite sect that Assad belongs to sees itself as locked into a war of group survival, not just regime survival.

The majority of the Sunni community that most rebel fighters draw from also fear surrender more than a continuing war. The history of Syria under Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor Hafez is one of unrelenting state terror for regime opponents.There would be absolutely no reason not to expect mass killings and whole families sent to state security dungeons would follow an abandonment of arms. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda-style jihadis have also entered the Syrian mix, much as they established a presence in Iraq during the sectarian civil war that began there after the US-led invasion in 2003. 

So internally, the battle lines within Syria are clearly drawn. And no matter how much anyone might try to wish away the sectarian nature of the conflict, that is the reality. The external component of the war is just as sectarian. 

On one side, there are Saudi Arabia and Turkey, aiding the rebels and hoping for the fall of Assad's regime. On the other, Iran and its local junior partner Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia based in Lebanon. The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies are desperate for a Sunni Islamist order to take root in Syria, both as a black eye for their hated Iranian enemies and as way to spread their own vision of a religiously strict political order across the Arab world. The US is a partner in this effort, albeit a reluctant and nervous one. The US and the Syrian rebellion may see the war as a fight for democracy.

But America's close regional partner Saudi Arabia despises democracy and has far different ambitions, much as it did in Iraq. There, Saudi Arabian interests lost, and a Shiite political order is emerging that is far more in Tehran's orbit than in Riyadh's or Washington's. In Syria, the demographics are far more in favor of Saudi Arabia's interests, and the Kingdom sees an opportunity to reshape the regional balance against Iran.

The Iranians, for their part, are standing firm with Assad. Long gone is the time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were feted on the streets of Arab capitals as symbols of resistance to Israel and US power in the region, never mind that they were Shiites. Today a squalid sectarian view of regional power is more common, with Iran seen as responsible for the death of children and general carnage in Syria much as the US was seen by the so-called Arab street in the middle of the last decade.

Iran is eager for the Alawite-dominated regime in Syria (the Alawite sect is an offshot of Shiite Islam) to stand firm. Iranian government mouthpiece Press TV reports that Syrian Ambassador to Iran Hamed Hassan said that Syria has "fallen prey to an axis of evil that centers on Tel Aviv and Washington" and that is also working through Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Iran agrees. The head of Iranian national security Saeed Jalili visited Damascus last week and said, "What is happening in Syria is not a domestic issue, but a conflict between the resistance axis and its enemies in the region and the world.”

Already the risks of a metastasizing sectarian conflict are clear. This week, rebels released a video of a bruised Lebanese man identified as Hassan Selim Meqdad. Mr. Meqdad said in a propaganda video released by his captors that he was a fighter from Hezbollah dispatched to Syria to fight on behalf of Assad. However, Hezbollah denied he was one of their fighters, and his family insists he was in Syria working for a Lebanese bank and has no ties to Hezbollah.

But the response in Lebanon was swift. Meqdad's Shiite clansmen said today they'd seized 20 Syrians and would hold them until he's released. In a propaganda video of their own released to a Lebanese TV station, two of the captives identified themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army.

Average Lebanese, with fresh memories of the horrors of their own civil war, are watching all this with some apprehension. While there is no sign of a major problem inside their country yet, the longer the Syrian war drags on, the greater the chance of spillover there will be. Syria, like Lebanon, hosts many Palestinian refugees, and both a flood of them or of Syrian Sunnis across the border – or perhaps, Alawites in the case of major reversals for the government – will heighten tensions inside the country.

And the complications don't stop there. Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights. Syria, like Turkey and Iraq, hosts its own restive Kurdish population, some of whose members are eager to carve out an enclave for themselves along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan. And while the Sunni Arab states of the region are hoping that the uprising wins, they also have to worry about the establishment of a major jihadi presence in Syria. Al Qaeda and like-minded groups hate the House of Saud almost as much as they hate the "apostate" Alawites.

About the only thing that can be said with certainty about Syria's war at this point is that it won't end soon, and that geopolitical maneuvering will have as much impact on its course as the desires of the country's 20 million people.

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Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi speaks during the Laylat al-Qadr at Egypt Al-Azhar Conference Center in Nasr City in Cairo on August 12. Morsi dismissed Cairo's two top generals and quashed a military order that had curbed the new leader's powers, in a move that further stamped his authority on the country and its army. (Reuters)

What exactly has Egyptian President Morsi done? (+video)

By Staff writer / 08.13.12

It will be some weeks before the dust settles and strong assessments of the significance of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's reshuffle of the country's military brass this weekend become possible.

One point that was made over eight months ago by Robert Springborg, a scholar of Egypt's military, is worth keeping in mind. Then, he pointed out that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who ran Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) until being unceremoniously dumped by President Morsi on Sunday, was not in as strong a position within Egypt's military establishment as he often appeared. SCAF was then running the country, and rumors were rife that General Tantawi might seek to upend Egypt's transition to democracy. But Mr. Springborg warned of important divisions within the military over Tantawi:

"General Tantawi must be aware that his perch atop both the SCAF and the military (indeed, for the moment, the entire state), is precarious. For years he was Mubarak's instrument to control the military. The measures he employed – including promoting the incompetent over the competent, minimizing training and general preparedness, redirecting the institution's primary efforts to economic rather than military pursuits, and ladling out dollops of patronage to retain loyalty – resulted in an indulged officer corps, but also one that harbors profound resentments. Those resentments have been greatly exacerbated by the SCAF's mishandling of the transition, especially the deployment of military units for crowd control, outright intimidation and even killing of demonstrators, and converting military bases into detention facilities."

Indeed, Egypt's military is a shell of a fighting force, run more by CEOs than fighting men. A stark reminder of that was the16 poorly trained and equipped Egyptian border soldiers who were killed by jihadists in the Sinai on Aug. 5. The Free Officers coup in 1952 that spawned the military-led order that prevailed until Hosni Mubarak was driven out by a wave of popular protests in February 2011 was driven by a sense of humiliation among the officer corps at the 1948 defeat to Israel. The officers blamed their defeat on corruption and politicking among both civilian leaders and senior officers. Sixty-years later the Egyptian military is once again a tool of patronage and personal advancement more than a fighting force, and that must sting for many of Tantawi's subordinates. 

Most analysts of Egyptian politics reason that Morsi must have had clear signals from members of SCAF and the military more generally that they would be happy to live without Tantawi. The 75-year-old Tantawi himself may have been happy to step aside in exchange for a guarantee that his own financial dealings wouldn't receive the same scrutiny as the Mubarak family's. Whatever really happened, there is plenty to chew on in Springborg's prescient piece.

What exactly has happened in the past week or so in Egypt? A timeline below.

August 5: After well over a year of sporadic attacks on pipeline traffic, kidnappings, and attempted infiltrations of the Israeli border, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by militants as they broke their Ramadan fast. The attackers, with stolen military vehicles, then attempted to attack an Israeli border post, which ended in their deaths. In the months before the attack, Israel had said it was deeply worried about security in the Sinai (it's building a sophisticated fence along much of the desert border) and US officials like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had repeatedly reached out to Tantawi and urged him to do more to get the violence in the Sinai under control.

August 8: In response to the attack, Morsi fired the country's head of intelligence as well as the head of the presidential guard, the head of the central security forces, and other officials. In hindsight, it appears he was ensuring the loyalty of the security officials most responsible for his own well-being.

August 11: The police tried to confiscated all copies of that day's edition of al-Dustour, a paper that has launched strident attacks on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The edition carried an editorial urging Egyptians to stand with the military against the Muslim Brotherhood. Ahead of that move the government had also suspended the broadcast license of Al-Faraeen TV, which has repeatedly attacked the Brothers. Dustour editor-in-chief Islam Afifi and Tawfiq Okasha, an outrageously conspiratorial television host on Al-Faraeen, have been charged with insulting Morsi, and Mr. Okasha faces a further charge of incitement to murder the president. Given what came next, many Egyptians have theorized that Morsi viewed their activities as a trial balloon for a move against him by SCAF. Five days earlier, Morsi had appointed Muslim Brotherhood member Salah Abdul Maqsud as Minister of Information, which many Egyptian journalists worry portends a new wave of government censorship.

August 12: Morsi sacks Tantawi and the heads of the army, navy, and air force. He also issues a document that effectively nullifies constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had sought to circumscribe the civilian president's power. Shortly after the announcement, many wondered if the military would fight back. There has been no sign of that since, and state media has carried reports that SCAF was both consulted and approved of his decision.

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Newly-appointed Egyptian Minister of Defense, Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, left, meets with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Aug. 13. (Egyptian Presidency/AP)

Egypt's Morsi cleans house. But a coup? Hardly

By Staff writer / 08.13.12

Have President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood swept away Hosni Mubarak's old guard and set the stage for a rapid Islamization of the Egyptian government?

Almost certainly not. President Morsi's moves yesterday, taken in consultation with the Islamist movement that vaulted him to the presidency, were a bold reworking of the rules of the Egyptian transitional game. He sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the heads of the air force, army, and navy, appointed a respected judge as his vice president, and with the stroke of a pen undid a set of restrictions that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had imposed on Egypt's political transition.

By any measure, he and his movement are in a much stronger position than they were Saturday. But how long that position of strength will last, and how much Morsi will be able to accomplish, given the country's perilous financial position and tremendous political polarization, are far from clear. The military's still substantial influence, Morsi's need for foreign cash and support, and the fears of a sizable minority of Egyptians about the Brotherhood's goals have littered the political landscape with minefields.

Morsi announced that Tantawi would be kept on as an adviser, and many of the sacked generals were given senior posts in government companies or in the state bureaucracy. Though rumors flew around Egypt that Tantawi and former Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan were under house arrest, on allegations that they'd been plotting a coup, that seems highly unlikely. Replace a general? Sure. Send a message to the rich and powerful officer corps that they could end up stripped of their wealth or joining Mubarak in jail? That's the sort of thing that could galvanize the military and bureaucracy against him.

Carefully planned

Though the move seemed like a bolt from the blue, it was clear that Morsi and his advisers had been laying the ground work for some time, and the chance that they felt out many senior officers before going ahead is very high. In hindsight, the ball got rolling after Aug. 5, when jihadis in the Sinai Peninsula attacked and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border with Israel. It was the deadliest attack on Egyptian troops in decades and a black eye for the security services, which have appeared helpless or unwilling to enforce order in the Sinai.

Morsi quickly fired intelligence boss Mourad Muwafi, the head of the military police, the head of the central security forces, and the head of the presidential guard, among others. The presidential guard and the CSF are directly responsible for the safety of the president and the capital, so it's not surprising he'd want people who owed their jobs to him in those posts before making any other moves.

On Saturday, the government banned the distribution of that day's edition of al-Dustour, a paper that has been sharply critical of Morsi and the Brothers. The Saturday edition carried an editorial accusing the Brotherhood of seeking to transform Egypt into an Islamic Emirate and urged Egyptians to stand with the military in the fight against Islamist politics. And opponents of the Brotherhood have called for street protests against the president on Aug. 24. That's plenty of context to understand why the Brothers might want to flex their muscles.

But has the situation in Egypt been transformed, as some takes have it?

For instance, The Times of London begins its story on yesterday's changes thus: "The sweeping away of the junta's old guard was a daring move by Egypt's President, reminiscent of the crucial scene of The Godfather when Michael Corleone does away with all his family's enemies in one fell swoop while cutting deals with others." 

The piece does immediately caveat that dramatic opening paragraph. "Yet the fact that Mohammed Morsi, the 'spare tyre' President who came to power only because the junta managed to block the Muslim Brotherhood's favoured candidate, appears to have consulted military leaders hints at yet another backroom deal in Egypt's cut-throat politics."

No coup and no killings

But still, no: Morsi has not, in fact, liquidated his toughest opponents, as Michael did in the famous Godfather sequence showing his henchman slaughtering his enemies while he attends his son's baptism and promises to "renounce Satan and all his works." The new heads of Egypt's military branches come from within the system, and the outgoing old guard retains both influence and the great wealth that Egypt's senior officer class has long been rewarded with.

The various articles that write of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood somehow executing a "coup" likewise miss the mark. At the moment, Morsi is the only Egyptian politician with any electoral legitimacy. When SCAF was running the show, the elected parliament was dissolved under a court order. SCAF itself? A group of generals, all of whom owed their position to Mr. Mubarak, who had sought to keep Egypt's civilian politicians under wraps.  He has simply exchanged some of the personalities within the bureaucratic and military pyramid.

This is not to say that Morsi and the Brothers aren't seeking to solidify their political position. That's clearly the objective from recent moves and the whole political dance that continues to unfold in Egypt. Marc Lynch turned his keen eye to events in Egypt over the weekend, arguing this is at most a mid-game gambit, not a master stroke.

"My general take is still that the current phase of Egyptian politics is going to be a long, grinding institutional war of position. That kind of politics can be deeply frustrating for an engaged public sphere, since so much of it takes place behind the scenes and in indirect maneuvers rather than in thrilling street protests or the realm of public debate.  For example, presumably Morsi and his team have been carefully preparing the ground for this weekend's moves during the weeks where his administration appeared to be passive, floundering, and ineffective. In this arena, Morsi's moves were a bold and unexpected frontal assault on the senior military leadership, but not a decisive one.  His appointment of the respected jurist Mahmoud Mekki as Vice President could be seen as another such bold move in institutional combat, by potentially co-opting or intimidating the judiciary. But bold as the moves were, they don't instantly wipe away the real power centers in Egyptian politics. Morsi today is more of a President, but Egypt is a long way from the "Islamic Republic" being bandied about by the Brotherhood's critics"

Long and grinding indeed. Hosni Mubarak was forced from power in February 2011. Today, the country does not have a sitting parliament, a new constitution, or a clear sense of political direction. When will parliamentary elections be held, and who will win? Will Morsi try to use his new powers to ram a new constitution through that will enrage secular forces in society, or try to appoint a more inclusive body to write the new rules of the game? Actions on those matters, hopefully soon, will begin to add some clarity to what has just happened.

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Egypt's president Mohamed Mursi (r.) speaks with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi this July. Mursi ordered Egypt's two top generals to retire, including Hussein Tantawi who led the nation after Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and appointed two generals in their place, the presidential spokesman announced on August 12. (Sherif Abd Monam/Reuters/File)

Egypt's President Morsi fires senior general Tantawi, asserting his power

By Staff writer / 08.12.12

The expected showdown between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the military establishment that has consistently maneuvered to preserve its own power and privilege arrived today, far sooner than almost everyone expected. 

President Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that ran Egypt from the time Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 until Morsi's election earlier this year. Also fired were the acting chiefs of Egypt's military branches, who all served on the council. Morsi also unilaterally annulled constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had taken the power to legislate out of Morsi's hands.

The reaction so far from the military? None.

There have been no statements, no mobilization of troops, no evidence that they're going to stand up to Egypt's first elected civilian president. The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed for decades and that the security establishment of Egypt was focused on containing for over 50 years, now theoretically holds all the formal political power in the Arab world's largest country. He can legislate, nominate members of the constitutional drafting committee, set foreign policy, and apparently shuffle the senior ranks of the military at will.

Egypt's elected parliament was dissolved by a court order earlier this year backed by SCAF, and the only official balancing authority against the presidency left are the courts. But will the judges act against Morsi's moves today absent overt backing from the military? That seems unlikely, but all things are possible in a country with neither a democratic tradition nor any history of civilian political authority. 

"So far, it either seems like [the military is] acquiescing, which is totally out of sorts with how they've played everything for the past 18 months ... or it suggests there are bigger divisions within SCAF than maybe we were led to believe," says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York who has been studying Egypt's transition. "There's been a very clear implicit message until now that the army is not going to turn over all the keys of power to the [Muslim Brotherhood] and now that they've made the ultimate power play there hasn't been a response."

In many ways, the move is a simple assertion of civilian authority over the generals, something the US has been urging for the past year-and-a-half. But a politically-neutered army, if that's what has just happened, is not exactly what the US is interested in, given the Muslim Brotherhood's stance towards Israel, particularly given that Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, is an offshoot of the organization.

Also ousted today were Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan, Navy Commander Mohab Memish, and Air Force Commander Reda Hafez. Morsi appointed senior judge Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president, and named Abdel-Fatah El-Sissi as the new minister of defense. General Mohamed el-Asser, who was appointed deputy defense minister, told Reuters "the decision was based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council." Morsi's government said most of the fired generals would be retained as advisers or given senior civilian jobs in the state bureaucracy.

The absence of a parliament and a new constitution had until now left SCAF, a group of generals who owe their position to the now jailed Mr. Mubarak, as the only counterbalance to the presidency. The rules of the political contest in Egypt have been completely fluid, or in scholar Marc Lynch's coinage, an Egyptian version of Calvinball, with the rules constantly and capriciously changed by the players to see what they can get away with.

Today, Morsi has just declared "I win, you lose" to SCAF, and every hour that passes without a counter move by the army increases the chances that his declaration will stick.

"People like Tantawi and Enan do have a kind of ideological allergy to the Muslim Brotherhood. But now all their political power is gone, your senior leaders have been sacked, and now the president has all the levers of authority," says Mr. Hanna. He suggests that either the military is unwilling to take the nuclear option – a naked military coup – or the Brothers have been able to cut deals with other senior generals.

Either way, "now Morsi is a dictator on paper ... from my perspective, from any perspective, that's worrying. This is acting by fiat," says Hanna.

Egyptians who have been suspicious that the Brotherhood will seek to wrest full power for itself, and try to wipe away Egypt's secular state in favor of an overtly Islamic one, were alarmed by today's move. It followed the government seizure of Saturday's edition of Al-Dustour, a daily paper owned by a Christian, for "fueling sedition" and "harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law." Tawfiq Okasha, a conspiratorially-minded television personality sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck, who has repeatedly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, was banned from foreign travel today. The television station he helps run had its broadcast license suspended last week.

Is this a pure power grab by the Muslim Brotherhood? It is far too soon to say, and some analysts doubt that the military's political power has been anywhere close to crushed. The military establishment still controls vast portions of the Egyptian economy and is central to ongoing efforts to restore order in the Sinai Peninsula. And the generals, after all, have the keys to the country's arsenal.

Issandr El Amrani writes that the senior officers who were promoted today were part of the establishment, not figures from left field, and "this continuity suggests to me that we are dealing with a reconfigured SCAF that is nonetheless a powerful entity that still has powers parallel to the presidency and other civilian institutions. It is not, as the initial reaction to today’s news largely was, a victory by Morsi over the military. Rather, it is a reconfiguration of the relationship."

Still, he writes: "These moves will be seen by many opponents of the Brotherhood as a power grab, and the fact that Morsi has amassed considerable power (again, on paper) is indeed cause for concern. The power to appoint a new constitutional assembly is particularly key, if he ends up using it, I certainly hope it will be to appoint something acceptable to non-Islamists rather than impose the one Islamists wanted earlier this year (unfortunately, the MB’s sense of electoral entitlement makes me pessimistic here.)"

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Egyptian Army honor guards carry the coffins of 16 soldiers killed in an attack over the weekend by suspected militants in Sinai at a military funeral in Cairo, Tuesday, Aug. 7. (Thomas Hartwell/AP)

With 16 Egyptian soldiers murdered, Sinai is front and center for President Morsi

By Staff writer / 08.07.12

The murders of 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday by militants, who then sought to use stolen armored cars to storm the Israeli side of the border, has been commonly framed as evidence of the "deteriorating" security situation in the Sinai Peninsula, and evidence that the country's new president, Mohamed Morsi, must come to grips with a "new" crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

In fact, the Sinai has been a long-running problem in Egyptian security. In 2004, coordinated attacks killed 34 people near Taba, an Egyptian city popular at the time with Israeli tourists. That was Egypt's first terrorist attack since 1997, when a massacre of tourists at Luxor sparked a wide-ranging and successful crackdown on militant groups. Then in 2005, a series of bombs struck Sharm al-Sheikh, another Sinai resort town (Mubarak spent much of his time at a villa there), killing more than 80 people.

The government of Mubarak responded ferociously to the attacks in the Sinai. After Taba, more than 3,000 residents of Al-Arish on the peninsula were arrested under draconian security laws. Few of the detainees had anything to do with the attacks, and local and international human rights groups who interviewed detainees said many had been tortured.

Were those methods "successful?" Well, there hasn't been a major terrorist attack on tourists in the Sinai since the bombing at the beach resort of Dahab in April, 2006. (This piece has been updated since it was published. The original version omitted the Dahab attack.)

But the crackdown by state security in the territory, seized by Israel after the 1967 war and only fully returned to Egypt in 1989, increased the alienation of the region's Bedouin communities from the central government. The Bedouin were already receiving far less in government financial support than most of the rest of the country. On top of that, the dysfunctional situation where Egypt formally participates with Israel on restricting the transfer of goods and people to and from Gaza but tolerates the smuggling tunnels to Gaza as a circuit breaker on economic and social upheaval there, has empowered local gangsters and smugglers, and fed corruption inside the Egyptian security services. Weapons, tax-free cigarettes, baby diapers, and illegal drugs all flow through the region.

So in Sinai, the table is set for militants to operate. Nothing new there. But it's a new order in Egypt that will have to deal with it. And in that process, a whole series of risks and challenges are going to burble to the surface: civilian political authority vs. the power of the Egyptian military; an Egyptian-Israeli relationship that is almost certainly going to end up reconfigured as a consequence of the arrival of democratic politics in Egypt; an informal agreement between Israel and the Egyptian military over Gaza that clearly isn't working. 

The Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi almost certainly doesn't want to run the old Mubarak playbook of "round up everyone with a beard," given his own beliefs and his constituency. And his sympathy for Hamas would probably time-limit any increased policing of the smuggling tunnels to Gaza. But it isn't entirely up to him.

Dead letter promises?

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains at least as powerful a political player in Egypt as the elected president, and today, military officials told the Egyptian press they'd be sending teams to destroy the Gaza tunnels, insisting that the security breach entirely emanated from the strip. Will they follow through? And what will Morsi do when the inevitable claims of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza emerge? We'll see. For the moment, his promise to ease the restrictions on Gaza is a dead letter. And Egypt's generals have a new tool to use in cementing their own political power. 

In Gaza, the effects of the attack were immediate. Not only did Israel and Egypt close the official border crossings, but Hamas immediately responded by closing the smuggling tunnels into Egypt to assist in looking for surviving attackers (most of them appeared to have been killed by Israeli forces). Local residents were anxious about food and fuel shortages, and angry over the attack, which buried any chances of Egypt substantially easing its end of the blockade any time soon.

The cui bono thinking that's inevitable after events like these leads to very few potential winners.

Who's involved?

The attack was almost certainly carried out by jihadis, who have long operated in the Sinai, where sophisticated smuggling groups, a local population that resents central government authority, and a sparse population give them plenty of room to operate. But in Gaza, as on the Egyptian side of the border at Rafah, there was fury at the attacks, which both Egypt and Israel claimed involved militants who had crossed into Egypt from Gaza. Judging by the history of attacks, Egyptians will almost certainly have been involved as well.

Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a far cry from the nihilistic fellow travelers of Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda-style militants despise the modernist Muslim Brotherhood as too accommodating of the modern world and its political conventions.

But Gaza does have Al Qaeda-inspired militants living and working there. In August 2009, Hamas forces took on an Al Qaeda-inspired group that sought to declare an "Islamic emirate" in Gaza. The battle on the Gaza side of Rafah ended with 22 people dead, six of them Hamas security forces. Despite that defeat, jihadi groups continue to operate in Gaza, and their ultimate aim is to seize power from Hamas, however unlikely that is to come to pass.

While most there will assume Hamas had nothing to do with an attack that is a black eye for Morsi and hurt the Gazan economy, nevertheless they are the power in the Strip, and will receive plenty of blame for any increase in suffering. Anything that delegitimizes Hamas – and the Brotherhood in Egypt – is seen as positive by jihadis.

Can they win? No. Can they create a great deal of mischief and misery? Yes. The killings on Sunday are evidence enough of that. Are the Egyptian military and Morsi, more rivals than partners, likely to bring a durable stability to the Sinai, with an Egyptian constitution as yet unwritten, and parliamentary elections looming in the not too distant future? 

Well, one can hope.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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Reuters hacked by pro-Assad propagandists again, this time on Twitter

By Staff writer / 08.05.12

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are stepping up the social media propaganda war, and in the past few days have made Reuters their favorite target.

On Friday, Reuters said its "blogging platform" was hacked illegally. The hack involved at least two false stories being posted in favor of the Assad regime. Overnight, hackers managed to seize control of a popular Reuters Twitter account and briefly blasted out propaganda in Reuters' name to its followers.

According to the news service, the twitter account @ReutersTECH (thanks to Khadijah Britton for pointing this out) was hacked and then renamed to @ReutersME. While the account has since been suspended, a screen cap of the deceptive tweets captures the flavor of internet hacking, complete with sophomoric snark and patently absurd claims.

One says "FSA source confirms heavy losses within their ranks due to the superiority & sheer force of the Syrian army." ("FSA" stands for the Free Syrian Army, the nominal umbrella for insurgents fighting against Syria's Baath regime). Another says "FSA source complains that Syrian army 'broke their back' in Salah al Deen." These are the sorts of things that commanders of armies simply don't say, at least not until after the war is over and their side has lost (while much is uncertain about Syria's future, the fact that the civil war is set to grind on for a long while yet is clear).

The snark comes in statements targeting the US. One tweet says "Friends all along: Obama signs executive order to release classified info that US never stopped funding Al Qaeda since '80s" (in fact, the US has never funded Al Qaeda). Another says "Obama takes Al Qaeda off the List of terrorist organizations" and yet another says "Clinton vows to 'make Egyptian pay a heavy price' after being humiliated with chants mentioning Monica" (a reference to Bill Clinton's long affair with a White House intern). 

It's hard to know if this kind of ham-handed propaganda has much impact. It probably doesn't, though fake news reports have become a popular tool for online propagandists, thanks to the ease with which hoaxes can be set up on the Internet. When a fake story was planted in the press about the Egyptian parliament planning to legalize necrophilia, many of the ignorant ran with it.

Last week Julian Assange pursued his long running feud with the New York Times Bill Keller by having WikiLeaks participate in creating a fake news story under Mr. Keller's byline. While that didn't involve a hack, the hoax was elaborate, with a website set up to look just like The New York Times and fake Twitter accounts created to astroturf the tale.

The Syrian civil war, with limited access for journalists but a proliferation of rebels and regime supporters with smart phones and Internet connections, has been a particularly fertile propaganda battlefield. Far too often, unconfirmed claims emerging on Twitter or YouTube are taken as fact, and presumably the pro-Assad hackers were seeking to amplify this phenomenon in recent days.

What good does it do them? It's hard to imagine much. These kinds of hoaxes are run to the ground fairly quickly and the only people they appear to take in are those inclined to want to believe them in the first place.

But they're certainly a reminder of the need for caution in approaching online information. If something looks extraordinary, assume it is until you have solid confirmation otherwise.

(This was updated after first posting to remove a reference to how many followers the Reuters account had since there are conflicting claims).

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Ideas. Big, glib, unsupported ideas

By Staff writer / 08.03.12

Evgeny Morozov, scourge of techno-utopianism and flabby writing, has produced a great read on the cult of "ideas" that is TED, the conference and publishing empire. 

No not ideas, those brainwaves that have sparked human progress and upheaval throughout the centuries. But "ideas," the modern facsimile of the real thing that all too often lack the intellectual heft, the research rigor, and the plain old genius of the ideas that really matter.

Do ideas change the world? Of course. The enlightenment was a set of ideas that changed the course of history. Great ideas led to the modern container ships and ports that transformed global commerce. Evolution, the plate tectonics revolution in geology, special relativity, these are profound ideas. The impact of the internet and communication technologies on the modern age hardly needs to be stated. 

But much of the discussion about ideas now burbles around ideas about ideas, grand visions, and sweeping promises that more often than not fade away like so many late night college bull sessions in the light of day. Mr. Morozov, author of 2011's The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, sets his sights on three new books published by TED in an amusingly written essay for The New Republic. He is withering about Parag and Ayesha Khanna's Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:

"The “technological” turn in Khanna’s “thought” is hardly surprising. As he and others have discovered by now, one can continue fooling the public with slick ahistorical jeremiads on geopolitics by serving them with the coarse but tasty sauce that is the Cyber-Whig theory of history. The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms. With their never-ending talk of Twitter revolutions and the like, techno-globalists such as Khanna have a bright future ahead of them.... what does Hybrid Reality actually argue? There are several disjointed arguments. First, that technology—“technology with a big ‘T,’” as they call it—is supplanting economics and geopolitics as the leading driver of international relations. This means, among other things, that Washington deploys tools such as Flame and Stuxnet simply because it has the better technology—not because of a strategic and military analysis. It is a silly argument, but wrapped in tech-talk it sounds almost plausible. For the Khannas, technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes." 

His lengthy examination of the Khanna's new book, with its admiration for autocracies ("technocracies" as the Khannas have it) like China compared to "the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy" is worth reading in full.

But he's at his most engaging when he takes on the TED phenomenon itself. After acknowledging that a TED talk he gave in 2009 was helpful to his own career, Morozov writes:

"I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

Felix Salmon, the Reuters columnist, nods approvingly at Morozov's piece, and links it to the recent travails of Jonah Lehrer, a peddler of "ideas" who lost his job at The New Yorker this week after he was proven by Michael C. Moynihan of Tablet to have fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan in Lehrer's book Imagine: How Creativity Works (one wonders if there are more falsehoods to be uncovered).

Mr. Salmon views Lehrer as a product of the TED age, where narrative rules, and easily digestible explanations of complex reality are taken for the real thing. He writes that the TED approach "devalues intellectual rigor at the expense of tricksy emotional and narrative devices."

"For all that Jonah Lehrer ultimately wound up blogging for the New Yorker, he has always been a creature of TED much more than he has been a creature of journalism. Check out Seth Mnookin’s post, today, on Jonah Lehrer’s missing compass: the way that Lehrer remixed facts in service of narrative is very TED. Mnookin says that Lehrer had “the arrogance to believe that he has the right to rejigger reality to make things a little punchier, or a little neater”. A journalist would call that arrogance — would call it, indeed, the action of a man with no moral compass. On the other hand, a TED curator, or a monologuist, might see things very differently."

It isn't just TED of course. We live in an age of the grand "idea", and that can do far more harm than leading a young writer down the path to fib-town. The so-called neocons who dreamed big dreams of transforming the world, with the Iraq war at the center of their cleansing, revolutionary vision, could slot in nicely here. And today, many of them remain as committed to their vision as ever. At the Aspen Security Forum, another "ideas" shop, Stephen Cambone this week called the US invasion of Iraq "“one of the great strategic decisions of the first half of the 21st century, if it proves not to be the greatest... it will be one of the greatest strategic victories of the United States because…. of the aftershocks that you see flowing through the region, whether it be in Libya, or in Egypt, or now in Syria."

Mr. Cambone was Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence from 2003-07. Iraq today is riven by sectarian tensions. Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, is living in exile avoiding what he claims are entirely politically motivated terrorism charges from the country's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a closer friend to Iran (which is alleged to be shipping weapons to Bashar al-Assad over Iraqi airspace) than he is to the United States. July was the most violent month in the country since 2010 and its post-Saddam order is wobbling.

That Iraq had something to do with the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya last year is a powerful meme that's hard to kill. But economic desperation and sclerotic regimes had far more to do with it. Will Iraq come good? More on that Monday.

Ah, the power of ideas. Good ones and bad ones.

The below video released by TED earlier this year was not intended as a parody. Really.

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People gather to inspect the damage to the Libyan intelligence building after a bomb explosion, in Benghazi, on Aug. 1. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Worrying signs of lawlessness in Libya

By Staff writer / 08.01.12

A lot has gone right in Libya since the successful war to topple the regime of Muammar Qaddafi last year. An election was finally held last month and the country's new political leaders have avoided open fighting for power that some feared would follow in the wake of Mr. Qaddafi's ruinous time in power.  

But some of the militias who fought Qaddafi resemble little more than criminal gangs today. Generally untouchable, they continue to swagger through Libya's towns and cities, demanding special treatment as a reward for their role last year. Many of them are now technically integrated into the security services, but continue to operate with impunity.

The Associated Press reports that a bomb blast hit a military intelligence building in Benghazi early this morning, and overnight a militia raided a local jail, releasing Salem al-Obeidi, who is accused of being behind the murder of Abdel Fateh Younes outside of Benghazi last summer. Mr. Younes was a longtime military enforcer for Qaddafi who defected to the rebellion. He was vying for its military leadership at the time of his murder.

It hasn't been a good week for security in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and at the heart of the uprising. In the early hours yesterday, seven Iranian members of that country's Red Crescent were kidnapped there. The Iranians were invited there for a conference to discuss coordinating aid efforts with their Libyan counterparts and were kidnapped as they sought to return to the high-rise Tebesti Hotel where much of the foreign press that covered the war based themselves. Amnesty International writes:

"At 1am on Tuesday, the delegation was intercepted on a road in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and driven away by a group of unidentified armed men, who did not present an arrest warrant. The exact fate and whereabouts of the seven Iranian Red Crescent members remain unknown. Their Libyan driver was left untouched and allowed to go free... According to (Libyan Red Crescent) General Secretary Abdulhamid Elmadani, efforts to approach all known security, military and civilian bodies in Benghazi have not yet been successful in locating the Iranian delegation’s exact whereabouts or identifying their captors."

Kidnapping that many people requires organization, advanced knowledge of their movements, and a place to hold the captives. Agence France-Presse reports, citing an unnamed Libyan "security official," that the group is being held for questioning by a militia. "Members of the brigade holding the Iranians are questioning them to determine whether their activities and intentions aimed to spread the doctrine of Shiite Islam," AFP quoted the security official as saying. Iran is a Shiite state, while Libya is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab.

While it's probably safe to assume that a negotiated release of the Iranians will eventually occur, as has happened with other abductions and arrests in the past, this is yet another black mark for the new Libya. 

A New Zealand-born documentary maker was arrested and held for three days last month after interviewing Qaddafi loyalists from Tawergha who have been homeless since the end of the war. She was accused of spying before being released and expelled from the country. An Australian lawyer seeking to represent Saif al-Islam, one of Qaddafi's sons, was detained for 26 days last month (also on allegations of "spying") before her eventual release.

To be sure criminal behavior by militias has been an ongoing thorn in the side of the emerging order, rather than the disaster that many feared. A militia seized and briefly held the main airport in Benghazi in February, for instance, but order was soon restored.

But the steady drumbeat of problems is worrying. If it isn't dealt with, "rat-a-tat-tat" can transform into "boom."

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This image made from amateur video released by the Ugarit News and accessed Tuesday, July 31, purports to show Syrian government forces in Damascus, Syria. (Courtesy of Ugarit News via AP video/AP)

In Syria, hardening sides, and risks of an even bloodier civil war

By Staff writer / 08.01.12

Syria's Bashar al-Assad praised his military today in a written statement and once again branded the uprising against the Baath regime as led by "terrorists." He vowed that his regime will win the Syrian civil war. "Today, as every day, our people look to you as you defend their honor and dignity and give the nation back its stability," his statement said.

But in fact, whatever unity existed among Syria's diverse population, where the minority Alawite sect Mr. Assad hails from has long held a privileged position, has dissolved during 17 months of war. This time the use of torture, summary executions, and collective punishment of whole families that had been so successful down the decades for Assad and his father Hafez has only served to enrage regime opponents, largely drawn from the country's Sunni Arab majority.

Rebel groups continue to hold out against a central government counterattack in parts of Syria's largest city and commercial capital, Aleppo; the country's economy is collapsing from both the war and international sanctions; and some rebel groups are claiming that more arms and money are flowing in from outside to support their cause. Unnamed rebels told NBC yesterday that they'd received a shipment of two-dozen "anti-aircraft missiles" via Turkey. While that report is unconfirmed, the rebels have been receiving outside support for some months now.

So the Syrian regime that is led by Assad is in big trouble, right? Well, yes and no, if a new report from the International Crisis Group report on Syria out this morning gets it right.

The ICG argues that while the Baath regime has been weakened, many Syrians see regime survival now as matter of personal survival. And that whatever chances there ever were for a negotiated end to the war from the side of Assad and his supporters has now vanished. The Sunni-dominated rebel groups, for their part, don't have the military capacity to win Syria's civil war any time soon. And that, the ICG argues, is a recipe for a much deeper humanitarian crisis, with the risk of full-on sectarian bloodletting.

"There are more than enough ominous trends, none more alarming than these: a regime seemingly morphing into a formidable militia engaged in a desperate fight for survival; an Alawite community increasingly embattled and persuaded its fate hinges entirely on the regime's; and an opposition that, despite sometimes heroic efforts to contain them, is threatened by its own forms of radicalisation. Together, this could portend a prolonged, ever more polarized, destructive civil war... both the regime – by design – and its opponents – through negligence – appear to have ensured that a large portion of the Alawite community now feels it has no option but to kill or be killed."

The ICG does propose steps that rebel forces could take to contain the danger. But they are steps that few organic uprisings have ever been able to take in modern history, requiring a great degree of leadership, accountability, and a willingness of commanders in the field to focus more on long term questions of reconciliation than the rough justice the men fighting under them, many of whom have lost family members in the war, will be demanding.

"The regime almost certainly will not change its ways, and so the burden must fall on the opposition to do what – given the immensity of its suffering – must seem an improbable undertaking: seriously address the phenomena of retaliatory violence, sectarian killings and creeping fundamentalism within its ranks; rethink its goal of total regime eradication and instead focus on rehabilitating existing institutions; profoundly reassess relations with the Alawite community; and come up with forward looking proposals on transitional justice, accountability and amnesty... No single indiscriminate massacre of Alawites has yet to be documented, but given current dynamics one almost assuredly lies around the corner."

The paper acknowledges repeatedly that taking those steps is unlikely. But it bears underlining. The so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is fighting the central government is an army in name only. It is a lose collection of semi-autonomous militias, with a variety of ideologies and political agendas behind them. And the Syrian National Council (SNC) that has sought to present itself as the civilian face of the uprising, a sort of government in waiting, is wracked with political divisions of its own.

A disunited opposition

Manaf Tlass, a Sunni whose father was one of Hafez Assad's strongest and closest hands and was himself a powerful loyalist of Bashar Assad, left the country a few weeks ago and has been shopping himself as a potential broker for a transition, someone who could help keep Syria's institutions – including its security apparatus intact – in the event of rebel victory. That has obviously made many supporters of the uprising uneasy, but has been music to the ears of many international powers, including the US, who now view the American decision to dissolve Saddam Hussein's military and to purge that country's Baath party from political life in 2003 as the single greatest cause of the horrific civil war that followed there. 

The SNC, composed as it is of longtime exiles and recent regime defectors, has rarely been able to maintain the appearance of unity that was so crucial to the Libyan revolution garnering international support. A reminder of that came yesterday, with the announcement of the creation of the "Council for the Syrian Revolution,"  a competitor to the SNC.

So the various opposition personalities abroad are not united, and not really in control of the fighters opposed to Assad on the ground anyway. Local commanders, with new status and real power in their communities, are unlikely to take orders from the outside. The political apparatus around Assad is little better at this point, with his government reduced to governing by force and force alone. It's of course the rule of violence, and the corruption that surrounds it, that set the stage for the uprising. Greater doses of violence reconfirm to the rebellion the necessity of their war.

What kinds of violence? Torture and executions? Sure. Arbitrary shelling of civilian neighborhoods known to harbor rebels? Of course. But the report catalogs just how bad it has gotten. Both the Syrian military and the civilian shabiha militias fighting for Assad have, since the turn of this year, been engaging in "industrial-scale" looting of civilian homes and businesses in restive areas. Arson is a common tool of punishment.

"One of the distinctive traits of the so-called military solution has been the army’s tendency to shell towns and neighborhoods without ever undertaking a ground operation, as if recapture was not an objective," the ICG writes. "As a result, opponents have come to see the regime as capable of the most horrendous exactions. They have come to believe reports that it deliberately targeted children, massacred in cold blood entire families, and engaged in other forms of arbitrary killings, sexually abused women, summarily executed detainees and burned bodies."

What of the international community? Russia and China have successfully opposed international action, something that the US, at any rate, has little stomach for. Kofi Annan has failed as a peace envoy, both because of great-power rivalry and the domestic dynamics of the Syrian war.

The ICG authors write that the future of Syria will hinge on how the Alawites, which make up an estimated 10 percent of the population, are treated in the aftermath of regime defeat. They admit that for the opposition, doing the right thing will be difficult. 

"How will it ensure, tomorrow, that the transition includes the Alawites as full-fledged partners? How can it dismantle the structures of the regime
without punishing the community that, more than others, depended on it? How creative and forward looking can it be regarding questions of transitional justice, accountability, amnesty and the safeguarding of some current institutions? There are no easy responses. As opposition leaders no doubt will be quick to point out, the mood on the street – which, so far, they have felt compelled to respect – hardly is amenable to generous, open-minded proposals."

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