Events in Syria are rapidly unraveling. Earlier today President Bashar al-Assad abandoned his claims that the regime was merely fighting terrorists sent by foreign powers to destabilize Syria and said the country is in a "real state of war." Today some of the war's heaviest fighting near Damascus took place and a pro-Assad television station about 12 miles south of the capital was overrun by rebels, who killed employees there.
While Mr. Assad's military has fought ferociously to put down the rebellion, using the heaviest mortars in the world and launching artillery barrages on majority Sunni towns like Hama and Homs, there has been some restraint. So far there has been no repeat of the Hama massacre of 1982, when Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, leveled much of that city to put down an Islamist uprising, killing more than 10,000 Syrians.
The younger Assad's acknowledgment of the war around him today could signal a turn to more ruthless tactics. If that happens, it will be against an armed opposition that has steadily grown more lethal in recent months, with arms paid for by the Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar flowing to the rebels, an increasing tempo of attacks on government security forces, and an increasing adoption of the tactics that Sunni insurgents employed with devastating effect against US forces and their allies in the war in Iraq. At the moment, both sides see the total destruction of the other as the way to end the war.
An international meeting is scheduled in Geneva for this weekend at which world powers will discuss Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she has "great hope" for a positive outcome. But with Syrian ally Iran excluded from the talks and Syrian enemy Saudi Arabia, which is backing the rebels, not expected to attend, she will probably be disappointed.
Syria was a major entry point for foreign jihadis into Iraq during the height of the war there, and it was presumed that Assad's regime turned a blind eye to the Syrian, Egyptian, and Libyan fighters passing through his territory. After all, the US had been grumbling about regime change in his country, so anything that kept US troops tied down next door was to his advantage.
But veterans of the Iraq conflict have now joined the fight against Assad, who is a member of the Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose followers are viewed as apostates by Sunni fundamentalists. The Alawites are a minority in Syria, but they have dominated senior government positions and the military officer corps for decades.
Among the techniques deployed by insurgents are improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against government convoys. Roadside IEDs generated most of the US casualties in Iraq, and though solid data is hard to come by, they're probably responsible for most of the more than 400 Syrian military deaths reported by the government so far this month. IEDs are popular among insurgents because they're cheap to make and are less risky to deploy than direct assaults on heavily armed regular troops.
There are also indications that the bombs are increasingly sophisticated. The Brown Moses blog, which aggregates news about Syria's war, points out growing reports of the use of explosively formed penatrator IEDs in Syria, which penetrate further than regular IEDs. David Enders reported earlier this month that some rebel groups have acknowledged to him the growing presence of EFPs in Syria.
The weapon amounts to a curved copper cap fixed over the explosives in the bomb. The explosives hit the copper cap, forcing it into a fast-moving slug of metal than can penetrate armor.
“They are hard to get and expensive,” a young IED maker complained to Enders, who wrote the "former university student [spends] his days making bombs with fertilizer, mostly by packing it into empty cooking-gas containers... for targeting tanks, he packs truck axles cut in half full of explosives."
In Iraq, senior US officers complained that Iran was providing the insurgents with EFPs. But workshops for the construction of the bombs were also found inside the country, and it's axiomatic that the longer a war drags on, the more technically proficient local insurgents become in the manufacturing of bombs. In the case of Syria, Iran is an ally of the Assad regime. There are also indications of workshops to build the explosives inside Syria, as this video purports to show.
The assault on the pro-Assad TV station this morning is also a reminder that it's not just civilians on the rebel side that are being killed in the expanding war. At least three people were killed in the assault on the Ikhbariya TV station and there were claims that the rebels took hostages, although this has not been confirmed. Supporters of the uprising said the attack was appropriate, since Ikhbariya is a government propaganda outlet.
Propaganda is indeed a major part of the regime's survival effort. But when foreign journalists Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin were killed in a government artillery barrage on a rebel-held section of Homs earlier this year, there were howls of outrage from the opposition. The two were part of a group traveling with the rebels, staying in a flat that amounted to an information hub for the local uprising. The information war cuts both ways, and is due to continue.
From a tactical perspective, the ability of rebels to strike at a major regime symbol so close to Damascus could signal real trouble for Assad – if they manage to follow up with further assaults. While there have been few signs of the regime crumbling from within, there have been reports of more defections in recent days. A loss of control of routes into Damascus would increase the pressure on Assad and plant seeds of doubt among more of his supporters – something he will fight desperately to avoid.
I covered the Iraq war for five years, at the height of the sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites. Syria, with its ruling Alawite minority and majority Sunni population, already seems pointed down that ugly road. The below video purports to be of successful rebel IED attacks on government forces, practically indistinguishable from the sort of propaganda that Sunni insurgents issued about their attacks in Iraq.
In the past week Egypt's Mohamed Morsi has rung up a string of firsts. The first freely elected president in Egyptian history. The first Islamist head of state in the Arab world. And first in line to receive the blame – or the praise – for the Egyptian ship of state's course. At the moment, it has practically run aground amid political turmoil and a shrinking economy.
The tasks in front of Morsi are daunting. Investment in Egypt has collapsed since Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by a popular uprising in January and February of 2011, the country's senior officers have demanded an increased share of formal political power, and a politicized judiciary has become an erratic, unpredictable player in the country's politics – dissolving the freely elected parliament, considering a petition to ban the Muslim Brotherhood that drove Morsi to the presidency, and making pronouncements on the constitutionality of efforts to write a new constitution.
And though Morsi won the presidency fair and square, the Egyptian public is sharply divided. Ahmed Shafiq, a retired officer who served as Mubarak's last appointed prime minister and who represented the military class's interests in the presidential race, received over 49 percent of the national vote. Some of those votes were out of a straightforward desire for the stability that largely prevailed under Mubarak's military-backed regime. But many were cast against an Islamist presidential candidate whose organization's stated goal is the imposition of the Islamic sharia on Egypt's people..
On Morsi's side of the ledger were many voters who don't approve of the Muslim Brotherhood's free market economic approach or determination to transform Egypt into a state governed by Islamic law. Instead, these voters saw a civilian Islamist president likely to be at loggerheads with the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as preferable to restoring the state of affairs that had prevailed in Egypt since the Free Officers coup of 1952 until this week.
For the moment, furious back room lobbying and negotiations are taking place in Cairo. Morsi is scheduled to be officially sworn in as president on Saturday, and after he formally takes office he'll be in charge of appointing a prime minister and a cabinet. The military would like to influence his choices, as would the revolutionary and secular parties that hold little electoral legitimacy at the moment but were major forces in shaping the uprising that ousted Mubarak.
Morsi promised in his victory speech last weekend to be a compromising head of state, and has promised that his cabinet will include secular politicians, at least one member of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, and women. He's also said that he'll appoint a vice president without ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), an organization he cut formal ties with after being announced the winner.
Who exactly he'll pick has yet to be determined and Egyptians are warily looking on. He could appoint women, but all of them loyalists from the Muslim Sisters. He could appoint a Christian or two, but a compliant one (one of the FJP members of the parliament was a Copt). A substantial number of Egyptians are frightened that events of the past few weeks are the leading edge of a full Islamist takeover of Egyptian life, with repressive Saudi-style social codes, a step backward for women, and an increased marginalization of the ancient Coptic community. Morsi's aides insist they shouldn't be scared, but the truth of their assurances will start to be revealed in the coming weeks.
The April 6 Youth Movement, an umbrella group of mostly secular-leaning politicians who were deeply involved in the uprising, formally supported Morsi against Shafiq. But this week they also set up a website called the "Morsi Meter" to measure the new president's success in meeting his campaign promises. So far, the meter reads: "Promises that have been achieved: 0 out of 64." The website has the promises grouped in three categories: Security, traffic, and bread.
These are the sort of tangible, difficult to deliver things that millions of Egyptians are looking towards.
Crime has risen in the past year-and-a-half, on the one hand, while a corrupt police force that relies on torture to obtain confessions from alleged criminals remains on the beat. Millions of Egyptians rely on government-subsidized bread to survive – the Egyptian government is the largest wheat buyer in the world – and the size and quality of Egypt's subsidized loaves has declined in recent years. Where the money will come from to turn that situation around remains uncertain. At the time of Egypt's uprising, the country's foreign reserves stood at $36 billion. Today, they are around $15 billion.
Egypt remains without a constitution, and its rules are now a hodgepodge of the Mubarak-era constitution and a series of constitutional amendments issued by SCAF since February of 2011. A constitutional assembly packed with Islamists and appointed by the now dissolved parliament, which the Muslim Brotherhood and allies from the Islamist Al Nour party dominated, is still technically in control of the process, and is scheduled to meet on Saturday. But an Egyptian court is set to rule on the constitutionality of the assembly itself on Sept. 4. The court could well dissolve the grouping, a move that would probably be backed by the senior officers, who have indicated they would like to control the drafting process.
The military's most recent declaration contains a vaguely worded statement that gives the military the power to dissolve the group if it "encounters obstacles that prevent it from completing its work," which effectively gives it a veto over the whole process even if the court rules to leave the body in place.
Finally, there are the questions of new elections. For now, there are three effective independent branches of government: the president, the courts (packed as they are with Mubarak-era appointees) and the military council, likewise a manifestation of the old regime. If and when a new constitution is written, new parliamentary elections will be held (assuming the courts don't throw another curve ball and overturn their earlier decision). And after that, the military has indicated it would like fresh presidential elections. If so, Morsi may end up with less than a year on the job, rather than a full term.
The political clock is ticking in Egypt. Though measuring presidents on their first hundred days is an American practice popular with journalists and pundits, but rarely truly indicative of how a presidency will play out, in the Egyptian case it's probably apt. President Morsi may not have much more time than that.
The firmly held belief in the US, Israel, and other countries that the Baath regime of Bashar al-Assad holds large quantities of chemical weapons is a major factor under consideration for all the international players involved in the Syrian crisis.
Hard data on Syria's chemical and biological warfare capabilities is scarce, but the country is believed to have one of the largest chemical agents stockpiles in the world, including VX and Sarin nerve agents. It also has an impressive number of surface-to-surface missiles, such as Scud-Ds which can be fitted with chemical warheads, and modern Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries, including portable shoulder-fired systems.
"This is unknown territory," says Charles Blair, senior fellow for State and Non-State Threats at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists. "We have never been through the potential collapse via a very bloody ethnic civil war of a country that is likely armed with a very large stockpile of chemical weapons.”
... The main concern in the West is that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in Syria will attempt to obtain chemical agents from Syrian stockpiles. Al Qaeda has been seeking chemical and biological weapons since at least the late 1990s. Documents seized by US troops in Afghanistan in 2001 indicated that Al Qaeda was working on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, possibly attempting to weaponize biological agents. In 2009, a British tabloid reported that an Al Qaeda group in Algeria was forced to abandon a training camp after experiments to weaponize bubonic plague led to the deaths of 40 militants.
I wrote last week about reports of CIA involvement in determining which rebel groups receive weapons, and expressed some concern that they could be a first step towards a broader US involvement in Syria's civil war. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are backing the rebellion; Iran and to a lesser extent Russia are backing Assad. That's one messy situation to get in the middle of.
But I neglected to mention Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and long-range missile systems, an issue that is probably at the top of the list of concerns of every US soldier and intelligence officer working on Syria. While the collapse of the Baath regime isn't imminent, it's certainly possible. And if that day comes, finding a way to secure the country's chemical weapons – which could end up almost anywhere, given the country's porous borders and history of smuggling over the Iraqi, Turkish and Lebanese borders – will be paramount.
It's a safe bet that the US operatives making contacts with rebel groups in Turkey are bringing up this issue, and seeking to create relationships and cut deals that will give the US and its allies a head start on locking down Syria's chemical weapons if that day ever comes. Fear of so-called weapons of mass destruction is an issue that could see the US form temporary alliances with militant groups it wouldn't touch with a barge pole under other circumstances.
This morning Egypt's president elect told Iran's Fars News Agency – a government outlet with close to ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards – in an interview, "We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region."
The story caught attention around the world, particularly among those inclined to see the Muslim Brotherhood's victory as alarming. Many took the interview as evidence that the Sunni Islamists of Egypt are about to make common cause with the Shiite theocracy of Iran. While that isn't likely, a desire for Egypt to be less beholden to the US on the part of Mr. Morsi would hardly be surprising. After all, the US financed a regime that spent decades pursuing Morsi and his allies for their political beliefs.
But Egypt also doesn't want to antagonize the US, the country's largest aid donor, at a time of financial crisis needlessly. Soon after the Fars interview appeared, an unnamed Morsi spokesmen took to regional media and said he hadn't granted any interview to Fars.
What's true? Who knows.
Iranian state media frequently serves a propaganda function. And it's also likely that Morsi is having his cake and eating it too.
That's been a bit of a pattern with him, adjusting his comments to suit his audience.
In his victory speech Sunday, he struck the right tone. "I am intent with your help to build a new Egypt ... a constitutional, democratic, and modern country," he said. "We Egyptians, Muslims, and Christians ... are advocates of civilization and construction."
Does he mean it? Many secular-leaning Egyptians and Coptic Christians will wait and see.
But what is certain is that Morsi and the movement he comes from are pragmatic and cautious. Morsi went out of his way to single out the military for praise in his remarks, even though in the days leading up to the announcement of his victory he'd bitterly complained about the extra-constitutional constraints the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had placed on the power of the presidency (the military basically removed any possibility of civilian oversight of their affairs and gave itself a major role in foreign policy and writing the next constitution).
He threatened not to take the oath of office in front of the Constitutional Court because that would amount to acknowledging SCAF's decrees. But today, he relented. The threat had been a negotiating position with the military. Did he get something in exchange? Again, who knows.
Donald Trump weighs in on Egypt
Games aren't just being played in Egypt.
Fox News has been on a bit of tear in seeking to make Morsi out to be a major threat to world peace. Yesterday, their website carried a video that purported to be Morsi delivering a fiery anti-Israeli speech, but was in fact delivered by another man. The misleading video remains uncorrected today on the Fox website.
Then this morning the gang on Fox and Friends brought on reality television star Donald Trump to explain the implications of Morsi's election (he apparently sidelines as an Egypt expert) and how it was all President Obama's fault to viewers this morning.
"Obama's foreign policy has been a disaster. Now the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt which is about as bad as it can get and we give billions and billions of dollars to Egypt," said Trump. "We could have helped Mubarak stay, he was a friend of ours, and he was a friend of Israel. And we dropped him like a red hot potato ... he was dropped so quickly that it was incredible."
He emphasized his point on Twitter later. "The Islamists have won," Trump wrote. "Just as I predicted, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Egypt. Barack Obama never should have abandoned Mubarek (sic)."
Mr. Trump is so fundamentally wrong on this matter that it's hard to know where to begin pointing it out.
The Obama administration actually dragged its feet on urging Mubarak to step down, worried precisely about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power and the loss of a military-backed dictatorship that had been a fairly reliable client of the US for decades.
Unprecedented protests against Mubarak swelled over Cairo on Jan. 25, 2011. To longtime Egypt watchers, the sheer size of the crowd and the exuberance with which average Egyptians had thrown off the shroud of fear Mubarak had kept around them, it was immediately clear that something had irrevocably shifted.
In late 2010, Mubarak had carried out the most rigged election in Egyptian history (all Egyptian elections under his regime were rigged, but some more gently than others) and he was maneuvering to have his son become his successor. The Egyptian people had had enough.
But the Obama administration, cautious as ever, was slow to throw its weight behind the forces of democracy and change. Here's Hillary Clinton on Jan. 25: "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."
On Jan. 27, Vice President Joe Biden was sent out to praise Mubarak as a friend of the US, insist he should remain in charge, and dismiss suggestions he was a dictator. Within days, security forces and plain-clothes thugs loyal to the regime were out on the streets, beating and sexually assaulting democracy activists and imprisoning some of their leaders.
On Feb. 5, Obama's special adviser on Egypt, Frank Wisner, was saying it was "critical" that Mubarak remain in power to manage a transitional period. It was only after this point, as Egypt veered towards violence and it was clear to most observers that Mubarak had lost help of securing his ongoing political role, that the US government's rhetoric shifted in a far more negative direction. Mubarak finally stepped down on Feb. 11.
Quite simply, the Obama administration's behavior was the precise opposite of how Trump described it.
The Obama lost Egypt meme
He's not the only one. Later in the day, John Bolton who was one of the leading proponents in the Bush administration for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which ended with a Shiite Islamist government friendly to Iran replacing a secular Sunni one that had been hostile to the Islamic Republic, came on Fox to continue pushing the "Obama lost Egypt" meme. As the presidential race heats up, this line of attack will probably be a frequent one.
But it's, again, outrageously at odds with reality.
The US government in fact had little influence over unfolding events in Egypt in 2011, or in the past few weeks. Egypt's military has managed Egypt's transition in the past year-and-a-half and has placed itself in what appears to be a senior position over Morsi, who comes from the military's old enemy the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yes, the US has continued to fund the Egyptian military to the tune of $1.3 billion a year during the transition, but that's not something that helped Morsi. Instead, he won the presidency because the Egyptian people preferred him to his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, a retired officer and long-time aide to Mubarak who would have carried on the military dominance of Egypt that stretches back to 1952.
Would the US and Obama have preferred if the Egyptian's had chosen Shafiq? Almost certainly.
Was there something he could have done about it? No. The US may send money to Egypt, but that buys far less leverage in internal politics than many in the US imagine.
That money has helped secure the peace with Israel for 30 years, and it likely to continue to do so. Morsi obliquely referred to the peace arrangement with Israel in his victory speech Sunday ("We will maintain international charters and conventions and the agreements and commitments Egypt has signed.") and is also beholden to a military establishment that wants no change.
Could he seek to scuttle the agreement with Israel some day, or try to alter its terms? In his heart of hearts, he probably would like to. And someday the Brotherhood's position in Egypt may be much stronger than it is now. But the group's popularity is a fact of life.
And the result of acting against a popular democratic transition in Egypt is never mentioned by the people who imply that Obama or his aides somehow failed to control that foreign country sufficiently. Would they have liked the US to back a violent military coup, and perhaps a violent purge of Islamist activists? Perhaps a military intervention? They never seem to say.
Egypt, for all its problems, has embarked on a brand new journey. Morsi will be seeking to maximize his power inside Egypt, and will be hemmed in by both secular Egyptian parties and a military that are eager to find advantage for themselves. Little will be certain during what promises to be a long transition except this: Spin will be imparted on unfolding Egyptian events, in service of all kinds of agendas.
The Muslim Brotherhood is in many ways the founder of modern Islamist movements, with roots extending back 84 years. Though it long ago abandoned violence as a political tactic, and was harshly repressed by ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, it remains a highly controversial organization. In US political circles, it's hardly uncommon to hear to the organization mentioned in the same breath as terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. More reasonably, many Egyptians fear the organization will seek to replace Egypt's civil code with Islamic law. After all, the group's primary slogan is "Islam is the solution."
But the organization also has a history of pragmatism, and caution. Egypt is waiting for a national address from their new president any moment now, and all indications from the Brotherhood is that it will be conciliatory, with promises from Morsi to include secular-leaning Egyptians in his new government. Downtown Cairo was flooded with Morsi supporters, celebrating the stunning turn of events: A man once imprisoned for political crimes by Mr. Mubarak is now president -- Mubarak is now in jail, and will probably end his days there.
IN PICTURES: Rulers of Egypt
But sure as the dawn will come, some outlets in the US scarcely hesitate to turn up the volume of fear and disinformation. Shortly after Morsi's victory was announced earlier today, the Fox Nation website of Fox News put up a short unsigned blog headlined "Muslim Brotherhood Takes Egypt, Cleric Declares: 'Our Capital shall be Jerusalem, Allah Willing.'"
Embedded in the short blog is a video, which identifies the source as "Breitbart Non-syndicated" that purports to be a speech from Egypt's President Morsi. Before the speech begins, the following text appears upon the screen: "Rabbilive.com introduces... Egypt's newly elected president as declared by the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, Israel's new neighbor."
Then a fiery sermon begins with a bearded man, the prayer callous on his forehead prominent: "Our capital shall not be in Cairo, Mecca or Medina," he says, according to a translation provided by the US State Department-funded Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization founded by a retired Israeli colonel. "It shall be in Jerusalem, Allah willing. Our cry shall be 'millions of martyrs march towards Jerusalem.'"
Scary stuff, right? Egypt's new president, within hours of his victory, essentially promising to immediately launch war on Israel. There is of course one problem. The man in the video isn't actually Mohamed Morsi. It's the preacher Safwat al-Hegazy delivering an address in support of Morsi a few weeks ago. Morsi later distanced himself from Hegazy's remarks, saying ""Jerusalem is in our hearts and vision. But Cairo is Egypt's capital."
It says at the top of the misleading video "Brietbart non-syndicated," but Rabbilive.com appears to be the source of the misleading text. Breitbart.com is the right-wing website founded by Andrew Breitbart. Here's that website's post today on the video.
Make no mistake. The political sea-change in Egypt is going to create challenges for foreign powers and shift relationships built with the Egyptian autocracy over decades. A Morsi government will not be as reliably friendly to Israel's interests as Mubarak's was. The militant Islamist group Hamas, based in the Gaza strip, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's worth bearing in mind that the Egyptian military has sought control over Egyptian foreign policy -- as suspicious of the Brotherhood as Israel is. And the Egyptian economy will be more reliant than ever for foreign aid in the immediate future. The US, eager for Egypt not to make any provocative moves over its peace deal with Israel, is likely to play a restraining role as well.
Misinformation serves no one, though many will be taken in. At the time of this writing, the Fox Nation blog had 6,100 recommendations from Facebook users.
IN PICTURES: Rulers of Egypt
The Greece vs. Germany showdown at Euro 2012 later today has plenty of spice going into it thanks to the backdrop of politics. Greece in political and social turmoil due to its debt crisis, with Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel holding the purse strings.
Michael Steininger took a look at the political backdrop for us today, with wealthy (and to Greeks, arrogant) Germany facing off against poor (and to Germans, lazy) Greece:
“I hope this match will be Angela Merkel’s first and last at these championships,” Greek goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis told his nation's media, referring to the fact that the chancellor is going to attend the match in Gdansk. Greek newspapers urged their national squad to “push Germany out of the Euro.” And even Germans are not sure if Merkel’s presence in the stadium will be a good idea.
“I truly hope that Mr. Samaras is going to be there too, sitting next to her,” says German columnist Hans-Ulrich Jörges. “Otherwise the Greeks really believe they are playing against Merkel.”
Here is the German dilemma: Of course they want to win the match. But do they want to do so at the price of more Greek misery? A look into the Twittersphere reveals that many Germans would answer that question with a resounding “Yes.” “Dear Greeks, score one goal against us and we ask our money back,” a German Twitter user threatens. Another advises the Greeks that losing the match “is free of charge.” And there is this picture being re-Tweeted over and over of the Greek national squad's jersey sporting the logo of the German finance ministry as sponsor.
But this match has been played out before, with the showdown framed as a clash between two great cultures. On the one side: Nietzsche, Schlegel, Kant and Beckenbauer (yes that Beckenbauer) against Plato, Heraclitus, and Socrates. No, not this Socrates:
But that Socrates.
Well, I'll let Monty Python explain the rest. And given the way elimination matches at important soccer tournaments play out, fans might be lucky for a late brainwave to seal the points in regular time.
Turkey says one of its fighter jets was shot down by Syrian air defenses over the Mediterranean today, a potentially alarming development as Syria's civil war is deepening and signs are emerging that Turkey is assisting the arming of that country's rebels.
Leading Turkish daily Hürriyet quoted an "official" source as saying Syria shot the plane down and that the two pilots were successfully rescued at sea. The Turkish government news agency Anatolia said the plane was an F4 Phantom, a US-made fighter that debuted in the 1950s and is often used for both bombing and reconnaissance. Turkey's fleet of F4s have been upgraded over the years with the assistance of both the US and Israel. Anatolia quoted Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan as saying Syria has apologized the incident.
While there's no hard evidence yet that Syria shot the plane down, it's safe to assume that Turkey has been intensely monitoring developments in next-door Syria with every resource at its disposal, with thousands of Syrian refugees having poured into its territory, and elements of the loose-knit Free Syrian Army operating from within Turkish territory.
The chance this incident will lead to a major escalation in the conflict – with Turkey overtly fighting the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad – is extremely remote. Turkey isn't eager for war with Syria, and vice verse. President Assad has his hands full fighting his own people.
But the loss of the plane is a reminder of how hot the situation is becoming, with Russia having claimed it's rushing more air defenses to Syria to help its ally protect itself from outside interference. Jostling for supremacy over Syria's skies, if only in the interests of spying and collecting information, is likely to intensify, making future incidents rather more likely than not. While the events today are no tipping point, future ones that result in the death or capture of pilots could prove to be another matter entirely. Earlier this week, a Syrian pilot flew his Russian-built MIG-21 to Jordan and defected.
Turkey does frequently conduct bombing raids inside another neighbor – Iraq. Kurdish separatists from Turkey shelter in that country's autonomous Kurdistan and often stage attacks on the Turkish military across the border, usually drawing reprisals. Earlier this week, Turkish warplanes pounded what the government said were rebel camps inside Iraq, after an attack on a military base in Turkey left eight Turkish soldiers and over two-dozen Kurdish rebels dead. The country is unlikely to be looking for another front to fight on.
Inside Syria, the war is set to drag on. An unarmed UN mission to monitor a cease-fire that was agreed to in April, but never adhered to, has been suspended. Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, the leader of the mission, was in New York this week and all but conceded that it has failed and an adjustment of approach is needed. With reports of better armed rebel groups, financed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, a quick resolution to a war that has displaced hundreds of thousands already is not on the cards.
A Syrian government pilot defected to Jordan with his plane today, and Russia continued to complain that a British insurance company stood in the way of a shipment of armaments designed to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime to survive.
But the most interesting piece of news today is about weapons flowing to rebels inside the country.
The New York Times reports, citing anonymous sources, that CIA officers have been helping to pick and chose which Syrian opposition groups receive weapons supplied by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. The light weapons are being smuggled into Syria by Syria's Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, the Times reports. CIA "officers have been in southern Turkey for several weeks, in part to help keep weapons out of the hands of fighters allied with Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, one senior American official said. The Obama administration has said it is not providing arms to the rebels," the Times writes.
The US is now wading into ever murkier waters in Syria with unpredictable consequences. That the Syrian rebels have been better armed in recent months was obvious by their ability to take out government tanks and the hundreds of Syrian government soldiers killed. Saudi Arabia sees the regime of Bashar al-Assad as little more than a client of its great rival, Iran, and would like nothing better than to see it replaced by a Sunni Islamist government that would realign in the direction of the oil-rich, religiously conservative monarchy. Qatar, a fellow Sunni monarchy, shares a similar view toward a government dominated by Syria's Alawite majority, followers of a offshoot of Shiite Islam – a religion that the Gulf monarchs view with fear and contempt.
The US, too, would like Assad to go. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been unequivocal on this point, and US officials hope that if Assad falls, that will further isolate Iran in its showdown with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear program. But the US is far more squeamish about the sort of regime that might replace Assad than its friends in the Gulf, and that's where the road the US is following grows more perilous.
CIA officers are keeping weapons out of hands of "terrorist groups?" Perhaps. But an anti-tank weapon given to rebels via the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is liable to end up anywhere once it crossed the border. Weapons are as fungible as cash in war zones, and typically flow to the best financed and effective. And some of the most effective rebel formations appear to be led by precisely the kinds of Islamists the US fears most.
The AP's Ben Hubbard has a profile out today of one such group, the Falcons of Damascus based out of the northern Syrian town of Sarjeh and led by Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, who has lost 20 relatives fighting Assad over the past year, one of them his 16-year-old son. "One of northern Syria's most powerful and best-armed commanders, Al-Sheikh boasts more than 1,000 fighters, and they don't shy away from rougher tactics themselves. They have released prisoners in bomb-laden cars and then detonated them at army checkpoints – turning the drivers into unwitting suicide bombers," wrote Hubbard, who just spent two weeks with rebel groups.
He also points to the lack of coordination among rebel groups, the claims of the Free Syrian Army leadership notwithstanding. "Rebel coordination rarely extends beyond neighboring towns and villages and never to the provincial or national level. Many rebels don't even know the commanders in towns two hours away."
The presence of hardcore Islamists, some of whom were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the US, was an issue in the Libyan civil war, as was weak levels of coordination between regionally based rebel commanders. But Libya is a fairly religiously homogeneous country in a much more stable neighborhood.
In Syria, the civil war is already heavily tinged by sectarian issues – with the governing minority Alawites squared off against the Sunni majority, with the country's Christian population watching nervously from the sidelines. The country shares borders with Iraq and Lebanon – which have suffered sectarian bloodletting of their own in the recent past – as well as Israel.
The difference between providing weapons yourself and merely directing who gets them is a vanishingly slim one – so slim that the jump from the latter to the former is an easy one to make. While the US isn't there yet, it's inching closer. US arms flows and support to the mujahedin fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the South Vietnamese in the 1950s all began with a trickle.
There are various cries from politicians and activists in Washington for the Obama administration to create "safe zones" in Syria for civilians, to provide more weapons, or to extend a no-fly zone over the country. Those are set to grow louder as the conflict continues to deepen. It's hard to see to the kinds of weapons flowing to the rebels proving decisive against Assad's well-armed military, so the short-term prospect is for a longer conflict.
Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an overview of the United State's last military confrontation with Syria – in Lebanon in 1982 – earlier this year that shows how limited interventions can end with disastrous and unpredictable consequences. The fight was in Lebanon, where Israel had invaded the south to try to wipe out the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Syria had vast influence in the north. Zenko writes:
In the aftermath of the full-scale Israeli invasion months earlier in 1982, which sought to drive out the PLO and install a friendly regime in power, Lebanon had become a war zone. The Lebanese military and various militias were receiving weapons, military training, operational guidance, and money from a number of countries, including Israel, Syria, the Soviet Union, Iran, and the United States....
While the United States was supposed to have been a neutral entity in Lebanon as part of the MNF, by summer 1983 it had openly sided with the pro-Israeli Lebanese government. To support the Lebanese military, the U.S.S. New Jersey was authorized to shell the Druze militia and Syrian military forces in the mountains surrounding Beirut. As Colin Powell later described the response: “When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship, they found a more vulnerable target: the exposed Marines at the airport.”
The October 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut claimed 241 US lives and later came to be blamed on the militant group Hezbollah, a Shiite organization radicalized by the Israeli invasion and the war in Lebanon that was in its formative stages in 1983. Hezbollah has long been a client of Iran and Syria, and today is a stronger military force than at any time in its history. Russia remains close to Assad, just as it was to his father, Hafez, in 1983, and the politics of the region remain as explosive and byzantine as they were a generation ago.
The US must tread carefully.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians are gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square, angry at events of the past few days and over the likelihood that Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, may have just won the presidency.
The votes are still being counted with results expected Thursday. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Mr. Shafiq have both declared themselves the victor. Who won? Who knows? But what's certain is that Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has declared its intention to maintain control of Egypt's politics and its own affairs. The parliamentary election that the Muslim Brotherhood won has been cancelled and the military has appointed itself an interim ruler with sweeping powers, including oversight of the constituent assembly that's supposed to write a new Egyptian constitution. For added turmoil, an Egyptian court is considering outlawing the Brotherhood and its new political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
For now, the military order that has governed Egypt for 50 years remains in charge, never mind that Mr. Mubarak was pushed from power a year and a half ago.
The power grab in the past week by the Egyptian military and lingering Hosni Mubarak-era establishment, operating through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is such a blatant attempt to prevent a truly democratic and republican system of government from taking root in the country that it cannot possibly succeed. It will generate tremendous counter forces in society from tens of millions of ordinary and politicized Egyptians, who insist on achieving the promise of the January 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, and ushered in a slow transition to a more democratic system of governance... This display of monumental political greed, shortsightedness and sheer stupidity will now send Egypt into a protracted period of political struggle, in which various political forces in the country compete openly for power and legitimacy
There were a lot fewer happy voters joyously waving their ink-stained index fingers than in any of the previous election days. Frankly, this never felt like a finger-waving sort of vote. Welcome to the new, apathetic Egypt. Part of it is voter fatigue, part active boycott, and part a widespread disillusionment at the options. The seemingly endless possibilities unleashed by the revolution had somehow come down to yet another showdown between the unreformed regime and the Muslim Brotherhood... The current constituent assembly now faces an undefined deadline to show progress; otherwise, SCAF will unilaterally form its own assembly. Either way, the generals retain the right to veto any aspects of the proposed constitution that are "in opposition to the goals of the revolution or its basic principles ... or the common principles of Egypt's past constitutions."
The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes. No, not Thomas Hobbes --- Calvin and Hobbes. Analysts have been arguing since the revolution over whether to call what followed a transition to democracy, a soft coup, an uprising, or something else entirely. But over the last week it's become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball.
For those who don't remember Bill Watterson's game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!").... Watterson's game theoretic analysis suggests that Calvinball's absence of rules does not automatically bestow victory on Calvin. The game is going to continue for a long time, at least until the players finally settle on some more stable rules which command general legitimacy. Perhaps the SCAF might not automatically dominate SCAFball?
The (Supreme Constitutional Court's) actions today, occurring in the context that they do, reshape Egypt's transition process -- so much so that some Egyptians will likely wonder if they are in any "transition process" at all. That concern is justified. The "process" part was already dead. Now the "transition" part is dying... If the details are unclear, the overall effect is not. What was beginning to look like a coup in slow motion is no longer moving in slow motion. The rulings themselves are perfectly defensible. The SCC is diverse enough in its composition that it is not anybody's tool...
But that may not matter in the long run. The dispersal of parliament, the sudden constitutional vacuum, the Shafiq surge, the reversion of state-owned media, the revival of a key element of the state of emergency by a decree from an unaccountable justice minister -- all these things point in one direction. Last March I wrote that, "unless the SCAF has the appetite for a second coup, or somehow discovers a way to shoehorn in its puppet as president, the constitutional vehicle that gave the military such political authority will soon turn into a pumpkin." Now it appears that the SCAF has regained its appetite and an old-regime candidate may soon win the presidency.
Cairo-based political analyst Issandr El Amrani, who runs the indispensable Arabist blog, focuses today on US support for Egypt's military rulers, and the fact that the Obama Administration elected earlier this year to keep an over $1 billion military aid package to Egypt flowing on the basis of US national security.
The national security waiver exercised by the Obama administration in March was premature and unwarranted, and now they have egg on their face. Washington can buy itself a few days to figure out what's going to happen in Egypt this week — this is what the recent statements frm the State Dept. being "troubled" by the recent developments amount to but the clock is ticking: they will either have to suspend the aid or be openly in favor of SCAF's constitutional coup if they continue it... More Americans need to care about this, too. I'm not Egyptian, and care mostly about this for American reasons. It's not just that I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize the US defense industry and pampered generals in Cairo. It's also that I don't want the blowback when Egyptians turn to Americans and say, "you supported our dictators". The time has come: the US may not be able to influence developments in Egypt, but at least it can stop underwriting them.
For now, protesters are gathering at Tahrir again, the voters who went to the polls in the parliamentary election have been disenfranchised, and the young revolutionaries who started this process are looking at the prospect of a Mubarak protege taking power, on the one hand, or an Islamist politician that in practice, if not in name, will be a junior partner to the generals. As Kristen Chick reported over the weekend, the chaos of the past year and a deteriorating economy have left many Egyptian's tired, and a little nostalgic, for the stability of the past. But more turmoil looks likely for the near future. SCAF has seen to that.
In campaigns abroad, victories for Egypt's military are few and far between.
There was the loss of more than 20,000 men in the country's ill-fated intervention in Yemen in the early '60s, the humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, and the October 1973 offensive against Israel in the Sinai that ended in a draw.
But on the field of political battle at home, Egypt’s military reigned supreme, at least since the 1952 Free Officers coup that ended Egypt's monarchy and placed Gamel Abdel Nasser in the presidency. When he died, Free Officer Anwar Sadat succeeded him. And after Islamist gunmen murdered Mr. Sadat in 1981 in part over the peace deal he'd signed with Israel the previous year to secure the return of the Sinai Peninsula, Air Force Gen. Hosni Mubarak succeeded him.
Now, the votes are being counted from Egypt's first-ever free presidential election. Results are expected Thursday. Ahmed Shafiq is a retired officer and long-time confidante of Mr. Mubarak's, putting him very much in the mold of Egypt's leaders for the past 60 years. A victory for Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, would be something else again: a real break from the past with a leader hostile to the military's position as a state within a state.
IN PICTURES: Egypt elections
Is it an exciting race, with two extremely different candidates tussling to shape Egypt's future? No, at least, not anymore.
On the eve of polls opening last Saturday, the military junta that has ruled Egypt for the past 18 months took all the air out of the proceedings by decreeing itself Egypt's real power. This was only a formalization of a long-standing state of affairs, but it removed the pretense that Egypt is in the middle of a transition to full civilian rule, overseen by a benevolent military eager to get back to barracks. If Mr. Morsi wins, his hands will be completely tied. If Mr. Shafiq wins; welcome to Mubarak 2.0.
What happened to the ‘transition’?
What did they do? The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, decreed that the military should govern its own affairs and effectively gave itself a veto over new legislation and the writing of a new constitution.
Who gets to appoint Egypt's senior officers? Egypt's current senior officers.
Who has the power to declare war? Egypt's senior officers.
Who will the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new Egyptian constitution answer to? Egypt's senior officers.
Nathan Brown, a leading scholar of Egyptian politics, writes "the supplementary constitutional declaration really does complete the coup in many obvious ways – basically returning martial law (in its more original sense rather than the 'state of emergency' that just expired), making the military unaccountable, and grabbing back oversight of the political system for the military just weeks before the scheduled end of military rule."
The weekend decree was the coup de gras for Egypt's "transition," if that was understood as a process designed to align Egypt's affairs with a dramatically more democratic direction. Perhaps it was naive to think the results could be different. After all, the military has been driving the transitional bus all along. The millions of Egyptians who took to the streets last year, in a collective national howl of outrage that could be summed up as "we're not going to take it anymore," precipitated Mubarak's departure – but were not the proximate cause.
The decision to oust Mubarak
That decision came when the military decided it had too much to lose by violently putting down the swirling protests and much to gain by simply jettisoning the aging Mubarak who, at any rate, had left many senior officers uneasy with his maneuverings throughout the past decade to set up his son Gamal, a Western-educated banker with no military experience, for the throne. At the key moment, it was the military's decision to make. Just as now.
Earlier this month, a group of Mubarak-appointed judges beholden to SCAF dissolved the Egyptian parliament elected at the start of this year, essentially telling the 30 million Egyptians who went to the polls amid so much hope in December and January that their voices don't matter. Hardly surprising then, that turnout for the presidential election fell substantially.
The Brotherhood had been the big winner at the ballot box, with about 50 percent of parliament. Now, it's hoping to win a presidency that in many ways will be subordinate to the military. Democratic legitimacy for the process has been removed.
Rolling back concessions
And the junta has been steadily rolling back the concessions of the past year. Striking Egypt's hated emergency law, which allows for the indefinite detention of political activists and others deemed a threat to the state, was one of the top demands of the activists who led the uprising against Mubarak. And at the end of May, the law that had been in force since Sadat's assassination in '81, was finally allowed to lapse. A gain of the revolution? It seemed so.
But last week, the military restored to itself sweeping powers to arrest and hold civilians. The emergency law had returned under another name less than two weeks after it had gone away.
To be sure, the military says that all its new powers are "temporary" and "transitional," to be replaced when a new constitution is written, when a new parliament is elected, and after yet another presidential election (a military spokesman said yesterday that the president Egypt elected over the weekend will only be allowed to serve for a few months, until a constitution is written). But every military move over the past 18 months has been in the direction of greater power for the generals, not less power. History indicates that the longer a junta remains in power, the more difficult it is to remove it from power.
Many respected scholars who study Egypt have urged that Egypt's ruling generals not be seen as a group of evil geniuses, brilliantly playing their post-uprising cards into a position of maximum power. Rather, the junta has a set of general principals and a lot of power, but no master plan, stumbling along from one ad hoc decision to another.
Perhaps. But the cumulative effect of their decisions is clear. The Egyptian military – handsomely supported by the US for decades – remains in the driver seat.
The original version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the Free Officer's coup.