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A Danish frigate intended to escort chemical weapons out of Syria. Those weapons may go, but the war and its deadly toll will go on. (Pavlos Vrionides)

The latest sign that the US is losing Saudi Arabia over Syria

By Staff writer / 12.17.13

Saudi Arabia hasn't been shy about pressuring the US into direct involvement in the Syrian civil war on the rebels' side. The latest prominent Saudi to throw his hat into the ring is Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a member of the ruling family and the ambassador to Britain. 

In an Op-Ed in The New York Times today, Prince Nawaf tied Syria policy with his own country's longstanding rivalry with Iran in the region, writing that "we believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East."

Under President Bashar al-Assad, Syria is one of only two Arab countries friendly to Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to see Mr. Assad's government toppled, to be replaced by a Sunni-dominated regime. That would to some extent rebalance the effects of the US-led war in Iraq, which toppled the Sunni Arab-dominated there that was hostile to Iran and led to its replacement by a Shiite government far friendlier to the Islamic republic along its eastern border.

Nawaf writes:

While international efforts have been taken to remove the weapons of mass destruction used by the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, surely the West must see that the regime itself remains the greatest weapon of mass destruction of all? Chemical weapons are but a small cog in Mr. Assad’s killing machine. While he may appear to be going along with every international initiative to end the conflict, his regime will continue to do everything in its power to frustrate any serious solution.

The Assad regime is bolstered by the presence of Iranian forces in Syria. These soldiers did not enter Syria to protect it from a hostile external occupation; they are there to support an evil regime that is hurting and harming the Syrian people. It is a familiar pattern for Iran, which has financed and trained militias in Iraq, Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and militants in Yemen and Bahrain.

And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

His comments need to be read with skepticism. While it's true that Syrian government forces have carried out war crimes in Syria, so have rebel units – particularly Islamist formations that, with informal flows of weapons and money from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, now dominate the forces opposed to Assad. Part of what has stayed the Obama administrations hand is fear of becoming a direct participant in a sectarian conflict that could become much uglier if the Syrian state collapsed.

The backbone of the Assad regime has been the Alawite minority – a long-ago offshoot of Shiite Islam – that he hails from. The country also has significant Shiite and Christian minorities, many of whom are afraid of what would happen to them in the aftermath of a rebel victory. Quite simply, while Assad may be running a killing machine, his men are far from the only killers in the conflict.

With the open participation of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party and militia backed by Iran, the conflict is shaping up to be a proxy war between Iranian and Saudi interests. That the House of Saud would like the US and other powers to intervene on its side in the conflict is as clear as the desire for Iran or Hezbollah for the US not to do so. None of the intentions of these outsiders is as pure as the undriven snow in this conflict.

As for Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the interim agreement struck between Iran and world powers to halt enrichment for six months while a permanent agreement is crafted may indeed fail. But the prospects of success make clear that a deal is in US interests. Getting what you want at the negotiating table is, after all, far cheaper and better for the lives and limbs of all concerned than war.

But Saudi Arabia's interests – and those of Israel, which is also opposed to efforts to forge a deal with Iran – are not really aligned with the United States' interests in this case. The Saudis don't want to see Iran, with its vast oil reserves, large economy, and substantial conventional military forces, strengthened by an end to sanctions, nukes or no nukes.

Is Nawaf right that "Al Qaeda’s activities (in Syria) are a symptom of the international community’s failure to intervene?" Well, the creation of Al Qaeda in Iraq was a result of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the strength of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been in large part thanks to Al Qaeda's already established presence just over the border. ISIS is the latest iteration of Al Qaeda in Iraq – a group that received substantial support from Saudi citizens during the US occupation of Iraq, and after.

That isn't to say direct US-led intervention sooner would have definitely made things worse on that front – but this bald assertion is made over and over by advocates of intervention (often with their own ultimate objectives unstated) without any consideration of recent history.

Nawaf asserts that "the policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region" and that as a consequence "this means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs... nothing is ruled out in our pursuit of sustainable peace and stability in the Arab World."

As a statement that Saudi Arabia will pursue its interests in the region as it sees them, this can be taken at his word. When democracy protests in Shiite majority Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni monarchy, broke out in 2011, Saudi Arabia acted in favor of stability, sending troops to participate in a bloody crackdown against the protesters. Amnesty International alleged in a report this week that Bahrain is routinely detaining and torturing involved with anti-government protests.

Don't expect Saudi Arabia to speak out against this. Its interests are aligned with Bahrain.

The country is also looking to stability at home. This week the Saudi cabinet approved a draft law that criminalizes acts deemed to "disturb public order, defame the reputation of the state or threaten the kingdom’s unity," the Associated Press reports.

None of this should lead to us overlooking the daily horrors in Syria, or the millions of people displaced and huddling for shelter in makeshift camps during an unusually cold and snowy winter across the Levant.

But it's worth considering that the Saudi military support the country continues to promise to rebels can prolong the war as much as, if not more easily, than it can end it. In this matter, as in so many, national interest is the overriding concern, no matter how nicely it's dressed up as humanitarian concern.

This undated photo provided by the family of Robert Levinson after they received it in April 2011, shows retired-FBI agent Robert Levinson. (Courtesy of Levinson Family/AP)

Levinson, Iran, the CIA, and lies

By Staff writer / 12.13.13

There's always been something a little strange about the story of Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who disappeared on Kish Island – a sort of smugglers' paradise controlled by Iran in the Persian Gulf, but with much looser rules imposed on entry and exit – in March 2007.

The US government said it had nothing to do with Mr. Levinson and didn't know why he'd gone to Kish. "He's a private citizen involved in private business" the State Department claimed in 2007. His family said he was dispatched to investigate cigarette smuggling for an undisclosed private client. Dawhud Salahuddin (born David Belfield), a US citizen who murdered an Iranian diplomat in Washington D.C. in 1980 at the behest of the new government of Ayatollah Khomeini and has lived in exile in Iran ever since, says he spent Levinson's last night of freedom with him, and in interviews over the years has suggested a government faction had detained him.

Press TV, a government propaganda outlet with which Mr. Salahuddin has worked off and on for years, said shortly after his disappearance that Levinson was in Iranian custody. "Proof of life" videos were occasionally released by Levinson's family, but without any explanation of what if any demands were being made.

You didn't have to be an intelligence pro to know that something didn't make sense about Levinson's predicament. And it turns out part of his problem was that the people he was working with weren't exactly pros.

The Associated Press broke a story yesterday saying that Levinson was working as part of a rogue CIA operation. The truth of that has been kept out of the public eye since 2007 with the cooperation of members of Congress, the Bush and Obama White Houses, and, for the past three years, the Associated Press itself.

While the AP reports that Levinson's handlers were CIA employees, they all appear to have been analysts, rather than employees expert in gathering intelligence themselves and running assets in the field. The AP says the employees running Levinson as their own private collection agent weren't authorized to do so, and that three analysts were quietly sacked in 2007 for their involvement and a further seven admonished.

How did they break the story? The AP writes:

Details of the unusual disappearance were described in documents obtained or reviewed by the AP, plus interviews over several years with dozens of current and former U.S. and foreign officials close to the search for Levinson. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive case.

The AP first confirmed Levinson's CIA ties in 2010 and continued reporting to uncover more details. It agreed three times to delay publishing the story because the U.S. government said it was pursuing promising leads to get him home.

The AP is reporting the story now because, nearly seven years after his disappearance, those efforts have repeatedly come up empty. The government has not received any sign of life in nearly three years. Top U.S. officials, meanwhile, say his captors almost certainly already know about his CIA association.

The New York Times published a version of the Levinson story shortly after the AP's report, and had been sitting on the information for many years as well.

That the AP and other American news operations give more leeway in such matters to the US government rather than private citizens is fairly well established. In 2006, when a colleague of mine was kidnapped in Iraq, the AP observed a news blackout for two days before calling The Christian Science Monitor and saying they couldn't sit on a newsworthy story anymore.

Doesn't add up

Even though the report today answers or resolves a lot of the curious statements about Levinson's disappearance – ie, there was a lot of lying going on – there's still plenty that doesn't add up.

If Levinson was taken by the Iranian government - or a faction within it - Iran could be fairly certain that he was attempting to spy on the country.

And the AP story says Salahuddin was the man that Levinson had exclusively gone to see for information about Iran's nuclear program. A former assassin from North Carolina and an American exile who's frequently talked to journalists in his 35 years and has never expressed any remorse for his actions seems a strange person to know many of Iran's nuclear secrets, or to spill the beans if he did.

He'd also be a strange person for Iranian counterintelligence not to be keeping an eye on, especially since the man who brokered the meeting for Levinson was Ira Silverman, who'd written a 2002 article for The New Yorker suggesting Salahuddin would make an excellent intelligence asset for the US.

A final strangeness is how easily a group of CIA analysts, led by Anne Jablonski according to the AP, managed to break a series of very serious CIA rules for years while not getting caught - even as they used Levinson to create intelligence product to be pushed higher up the chain. Did their training not make clear this was out of bounds? Was no one in a senior position auditing their expenses and activities?

This was six years ago now - long before a young NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was able to flee the United States to Russia with a trove of operational and technical material about American intelligence practices.

How many problems of weak supervision and auditing of employees at US intelligence agencies have we not heard about?

The US says Gen. Salim Idris had to flee Syria, chased out by the Islamic Front rebels. An Idris ally says he was chased out by an Al Qaeda-linked group and the Islamic Front is helping him. Either way, it's not good. (Bela Szandelszky/AP)

Obama's Syria policy is pretty much dead, and there are few good options

By Staff writer / 12.12.13

President Barack Obama's Syria policy, such as it's been, is now dead.

That it was on life support has been clear for a long time. But with the routing of the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) from its headquarters recently by Islamist rebel fighters, the plug should be pulled.

The US can insist that its suspension of non-lethal aid (and a trickle of weapons) to the FSA via a group called the Supreme Military Council (SMC) is temporary all it wants, but the momentum now belongs to Islamist rebels who are as hostile to US interests as they are to those of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Assad's military has won a series of victories around Damascus and Syria's second city, Aleppo, and its evolving alliance with the Lebanese Shiite military group and political party Hezbollah has strengthened both sides.

What precisely happened is a subject of some dispute. US officials, behind veils of anonymity, told reporters yesterday that the recently created Islamic Front – representing a variety of rebel units all interested in imposing the Sunni version of Islamic law on Syria – had overrun the more secular and Western-leaning headquarters of the FSA. The Islamic Front also seized a storehouse filled with US-supplied telecommunications equipment, field rations, and medicine, as well as weapons.

The claim was that FSA chief Gen. Salim Idris had been forced to flee to Qatar – a humiliating exit for a rebel leader touted by US officials as the commander of the armed Syrian rebellion. 

Today, the exiled politicians in the Syrian National Council, a US-backed civilian group, claimed that the Islamic Front had actually come to the FSA's rescue. The US has sought since last year to put this council forward as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people.  Its spokesman, Khaled Saleh, said that the FSA's base was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a rival Islamist group to the Islamic Front that sprung out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Reuters reports. The Islamic Front was then invited in by the FSA, and drove out ISIS, Saleh said. Are we clear so far? 

Maybe that's the way it happened, but the dramatically different stories told by the US and the US-favored Syrian opposition are not very reassuring. The disputed events near the Turkish border were said to have taken place over the weekend.

The Syrian National Council has often been touted as an umbrella for most of the Syrian rebellion's fighting strength (for instance by Elizabeth O'Bagy, a paid advocate for US intervention in Syria who lost her job earlier this after she was found to have lied about her academic credentials). However, in practice it has represented the FSA and little else – and not very effectively. 

Fred Hof, who previously served as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special representative on Syria, writes this week that in the absence of the kinds of guns and money that have been provided to Islamist groups by Gulf sponsors like Saudi Arabia (Hof doesn't name them), rebel units have been abandoning the FSA in droves.

Recent events have highlighted the extent to which respectable Syrian nationalists in the opposition have been sidelined, and the recent suspension of non-lethal assistance to the Free Syrian Army by the United States further attests to this reality. Fighters affiliated with the recently formed Islamic Front—a coalition of armed, non-al-Qaeda Syrian Islamist groups opposed to the Assad regime—recently seized some US-supplied, non-lethal materiel from the Free Syrian Army. Personnel of the Islamic Front can now dine on meals-ready-to-eat and communicate with one another using equipment paid for by US taxpayers. General Salim Idris, the very capable officer through whom the United States wanted all weaponry and equipment for the armed Syrian opposition funneled, has seen forces he had hoped to command migrate to Islamist formations whose sponsors and supporters deliver arms, ammunition, and money, as opposed to rations, medical kits, radios, and pickup trucks. The Coalition-affiliated Supreme Military Council and the disparate units of the Free Syrian Army loosely associated with it are now essentially out of business

"Now essentially out of business." If Mr. Hof is right, and there's very little reason to disagree with his assessment, pulling back together whatever strands of the FSA are left will be very, very hard. The temporary suspension of US aid will make it harder for what remains of its units to hang together. Moreover, a weaker FSA may mean that whatever US aid does go to Syria ends up in the hands of rebel fighters who are hostile to US interests.

Furthermore, the claim today that the FSA teamed up with the Islamic Front to stand up to the Al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS won't exactly give US officials the warm and fuzzies. The front's units have engaged in hyper-sectarian rhetoric and are opposed to any kind of political settlement that would leave in place Syria's current power structure – the only real hope for a negotiated end to the war at this point.

A negotiated end is what Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama have insisted is the only way out of the war, but the marginalization of men like Idris makes any grounds for meaningful talks even shakier than they'd been all along.

What are the options going forward for a real US strategy in Syria – where the conflict continues to cast a shadow of destabilization over Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and to some extent Turkey? None particularly obvious.

Direct military involvement is so unlikely as to make it not worth considering. A major outreach to the non-Al Qaeda Islamists, coupled with a major diplomatic effort to convince the Saudis to arm-twist their clients into compromise? Perhaps that's a way forward – though it would mean the US is supporting a group that is pushing Sunni hegemony in Syria, a country with meaningful Christian, Shiite, and Alawite minorities. The US government's mantra of support for democracy would seem to preclude that.

What else? No good options are left. In retrospect, the US might have held its nose and armed moderate rebels that could stand up to the Islamist armies. But the rebels friendly to US interests were never very obvious or well organized. The notion of a national level "Free Syrian Army" with meaningful command and control at anything beyond the local level has been mostly aspirational. As I wrote in May:

Put simply, the Syrian opposition has not come together in the way the US had hoped – not in its military composition, which now involves a lot of fellow  travelers from a regional Al Qaeda affiliate, nor on the international diplomatic front, which is fraught with infighting and doubt about the worth of a conference far from the battlefield.

Meanwhile, members of the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah continue to pour into Syria to fight for Assad, with Iranian and Russian military support for the regime lurking in the background.

Seven months on, a policy that was clearly in the process of failing has failed. And coming up with a new approach more suited to reality on the ground has only gotten harder – even as the bodies mount, and the refugees continue to flee.

The 30 years of war that followed a Soviet invasion in 1979 has been, surprisingly, a time of uplift for the lifespan of the average Afghan. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

Afghans are living longer? Yes, but not thanks to NATO

By Staff writer / 11.27.13

In writing up a post on Afghanistan considering reintroducing stoning adulterers to death to its legal system I came across several references to an old chestnut that's been peddled for years by Western officials. The claim is that war is good for longevity. Namely, that Afghan life expectancy has increased by 20 years since the US-led invasion in 2002.

I first came across that claim in 2011, when US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker made the assertion to the hawkish Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl. I wrote skeptically about it at the time, arguing that life expectancy rarely, if ever, improves dramatically in countries at war and that, at any rate, good statistics are hard to come by in Afghanistan. 

The claim is still being bandied about, usually to support the case for an extended military effort in Afghanistan. Adm. James S. Stavridis, recently retired as supreme commander of NATO, wrote in August: "Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time."

The data compiled at Hans Rosling's Gapminder has Afghanistan's life expectancy at birth at 61 years for 2012 and at 56 years for 2003. While a 9 percent improvement in a decade is nothing to sneeze at, it's not a 48 percent increase. 

But that's hardly the most interesting part. In September 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and established the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which persisted through the start of 2002. What happened to life expectancy in those years? Well, life expectancy at birth rose from 53 years in 1996 to 56 years in 2002 - a 5.7 percent gain. Should this statistic be used to argue that the Taliban should be restored to power?

Of course not. But the steady improvement in life expectancy in a country that has been wracked by war for decades, and is among the world's poorest, is a reminder that correlation is not causation. Afghanistan's gains track similar gains across South Asia. Both Pakistan and India have made similar, linear strides in life expectancy. In the 1980s, when Afghanistan was wracked by civil war, Gapminder data shows life expectancy improved from 41 years to 48, an astonishing improvement of 17 percent. Was the Soviet Union therefore a better foreign steward for Afghanistan than the US during its decade-long occupation?

What's at work here are regional and global trends: The spread of vaccines, cheaper food, and better understanding of hygiene combined with growing wealth. So, yes, Afghan life expectancy has soared while NATO has been in the country. Just as it soared when the Soviets and the Taliban were in charge.

The women's section of a Kabul voter registration drive earlier this month. (Anja Niedringhaus)

Afghanistan pushes to stone adulterers? You shouldn't be surprised.

By Staff writer / 11.27.13

Human Rights Watch reports that a draft of the new penal code being produced President Hamid Karzai's justice ministry contains provisions for stoning people to death for the crime of adultery. Unmarried people found to have engaged in sexual relations will have it a little easier – 100 lashes.

The rights group's Asia director, Brad Adams, called the proposal "absolutely shocking" and added, "President Karzai needs to demonstrate at least a basic commitment to human rights and reject this proposal out of hand."

Perhaps Mr. Karzai will. But these kinds of practices are very popular in Afghanistan, and have remained so during the 11-year NATO war there. While press releases often toot triumphantly about gains in basic rights for women that have been accompanied by foreign aid and influence, claims of great progress often aren't seen much beyond the outskirts of Kabul.

Karzai is seeking to incorporate the Taliban, a movement that elevated stoning from an informal cultural practice to the law of the land when they began to rule Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Karzai apparently doesn't see much of a problem for women in that incorporation. In October, he said that Afghan women have nothing to fear from the return of the Taliban. The country's legal system under Karzai has routinely violated the rights of women – for instance, the practice of jailing women for "adultery" (many of whom in fact are simply young women or girls trying to run away from arranged marriages) has been prevalent.

At least 172 women were in jail across Afghanistan in 2012. Of those, 101 were in jail in Herat Province. The significance of that? Herat's chief prosecutor is Maria Bashir, the only woman in that role in the country. She explained away her comparatively higher rate of prosecutions for adultery on the proximity of Herat to "permissive" Iran, the influence of which leads to more adultery in her province.

Ms. Bashir's standing is often cited as evidence for how much better Afghanistan has become for women since the Taliban were toppled in 2002. The Obama administration gave her an "International Women of Courage Award" and Time Magazine wrote in 2011 that Bashir is "establishing precedents that will become the foundations of a just and equal society."

Well, maybe.

But after a decade of war the argument that "not Taliban" equals "good for women" has been accepted far too readily. The Taliban were a catastrophe for women, of course, but the Taliban were also an organic, Afghan movement that ironically, perhaps, began in part to rise in the mid-1990s after lawless Afghan gangs began raping women across the country, willy-nilly, after the Soviets pulled out.

The Taliban attitudes toward women stem from widespread cultural beliefs, as Tom Peter pointed out last year after a mother-in-law strangled her daughter-in-law to death for giving birth to a daughter, rather than a son. 

Many in the international community are quick to blame such behavior on the Taliban or its influence, but the group appears uninvolved. Mistreatment of women is common across Afghanistan's political and ethnic spectrum and incidents like the latest murder stem from traditional practices in Afghanistan that predate the creation of the Taliban. The recent conviction in Canada of wealthy Afghan immigrant Mohammed Shafia, who murdered three of his daughters for not following his strict rules, was another reminder of such traditions.

... While murders like the one in Kunduz are at the extreme end of the spectrum, violence against women is widespread. According to a recent report by Oxfam 87 percent of Afghan women reported experiencing physical, psychological, or sexual abuse or forced marriages.

Gains for women have not been the only "successes" that aren't all they are cracked up to be after further examination. Improvements in health care, for instance, have frequently been overstated.

But as the US and its NATO partners continue to lean on Karzai to approve a bilateral security agreement that would keep foreign troops in the country beyond 2014, they should remember that the government they support will frequently condone practices that their constituents at home find abhorrent.

In Greece, things are bad. But they're not that bad. (Kostas Tsironis)

This just in: Totally unbelievable thing is absolutely untrue

By Staff writer / 11.26.13

Buried in a World Health Organization (WHO) report on healthcare in Europe released last month is an astonishing claim: In a sidebar on Greece on page 112, the WHO authors wrote:

"HIV rates and heroin use (in Greece) have risen significantly, with about half of new HIV infections being self-inflicted to enable people to receive benefits of €700 ($950) per month and faster admission on to drug-substitution programmes." 

As a picture of economic despair, what could be more poignant or horrifying than legions of Greeks infecting themselves with an incurable disease that is frequently deadly?

Press outlets quickly ran with the story. The past day has brought dozens of headlines: "Greeks self-inject HIV to claim benefits," wrote Al Jazeera. "Half of HIV infections in Greece are self-inflicted," said Fox News. "Price of fiscal austerity: Greek's self-inject HIV to claim €700 in benefits," was the headline in the Kremlin-controlled news outlet Voice of Russia.

A properly skeptical take on this claim, however, might have been more along the lines of, "Really?... No, I'm serious. Show me the evidence."

It turns out, as the WHO acknowledges today, there is no evidence – because the statement isn't true. "This statement is the consequence of an error in the editing of the report," the WHO writes.

Where did this tale come from? It started with a note published in The Lancet (a UK-based medical journal) in October 2011. "Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy" was a review of recent developments in health care and infection in Greece. The authors wrote (emphasis mine):

A significant increase in HIV infections occurred in late 2010. The latest data suggest that new infections will rise by 52% in 2011 compared with 2010 (922 new cases versus 605), with half of the currently observed increases attributable to infections among intravenous drug users.19 Data for the first 7 months of 2011 show more than a 10-fold rise in new infections in these drug users compared with the same period in 2010.20 The prevalence of heroin use reportedly rose by 20% in 2009, from 20 200 to 24 100, according to estimates from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs.

Budget cuts in 2009 and 2010 have resulted in the loss of a third of the country's street-work programmes;21 one survey of 275 drug users in Athens in October, 2010, found that 85% were not on a drug-rehabilitation programme.21 Many new HIV infections are also linked to an increase in prostitution (and associated unsafe sex).22 An authoritative report described accounts of deliberate self-infection by a few individuals to obtain access to benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes.22 These programmes offer access to synthetic opioids and can have waiting lists of 3 years or more in urban areas.

At the end of the day, what we have are "accounts" of a "few individuals" in an "authoritative report" becoming a claim hundreds of people are deliberately infecting themselves. Following the footnote bread-crumbs rather than blindly trusting the WHO when it made an absurd on its face claim would have shown it wasn't true.

Syrian government soldiers stand on their tank, in Jouret al-Shiyah neighborhood, in Homs, Syria, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013. The Syrian regime and rebels will hold their first peace talks on Jan. 22 in Geneva, in an attempt to halt the nearly 3-year-old civil war, the same city that the Iran nuclear talks were held in. (SANA/AP)

Does Iran nuclear deal pave way for Syria compromise? Not so fast. (+video)

By Staff writer / 11.25.13

There's been some speculation in the wake of an interim agreement between Iran, the US and others on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program that the thaw in relations could lead to progress on other matters of dispute, like the civil war in Syria.

Peace talks between the Syrian regime and rebels have been announced for Jan. 22 in Geneva, the same city that the nuclear talks were held in.

But the key to understanding progress on Iran's nuclear program is this: There was a middle ground available that allowed everybody to get something that they wanted. For Iran and its new centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who took office a little over three months ago with a pledge of more openness to the world and a stronger economy, there is relief from sanctions that have taken a huge bite out of the Iranian economy. For the US, there is a chance of reassurance that an Iranian nuclear bomb isn't looming, and at the cheap price of diplomacy, rather than the dear and uncertain one of war.

While it's far too soon to predict where US-Iran relations will be a few years from now, and whether this is really the first step towards the true detente that many are hoping for, this remains a relationship built on each nation's view of its own interests. And when it comes to Syria, the interests of the US and Iran could not be more divergent.

Syria's civil war has become a proxy for Iranian and Saudi rivalry in the region. The Saudis are eager for the secular-leaning regime of Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam that the Saudi religious establishment views as an assault on the purity of Islam, to fall. They want Syria's next government to be dominated by Sunni Arabs that will at the very least tolerate the flow of money from Saudi donors to jihadi groups in Syria. The US has been tacitly backing Saudi Arabia's play (the Saudis are angry that the US isn't arming Syria's rebels, but the US is on board in public with the "Assad must go" position).

The Iranians, meanwhile, are sending money, guns, and military trainers to help Mr. Assad survive, since his government remains a rare friend in the Arab world and they fear a long-term hit to their regional interests if he falls.

In short, Iran would still see the defeat of Assad as a disaster that could have destabilizing consequences for its only other close Arab friend, Iraq. Saudi Arabia, and the US, meanwhile, would view Assad's survival as a disaster. That doesn't present much ground for compromise.

For the Syrians themselves, it's also hard to see how these planned so-called "Geneva II" talks (following "Geneva I" in the summer of 2012, which accomplished nothing) will change much. The rebels are not willing to compromise yet on Assad remaining in power. Assad is unwilling to go - and there are no signs that his regime is willing to jettison him in exchange for the survival of its core. And the "rebels" aren't really anything approaching a united group - not ideologically, not in terms of command and control, and certainly not in terms of visions for the future. The whole question of who will speak for the rebels at Geneva remains a minefield.

This has been the state of play for some time. I wrote in October of last year that United Nations Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's musings about cease-fires and common ground leading to a negotiated settlement should not be taken seriously. I think that's still pretty much the case:

Brahimi is apparently telling reporters that he hopes a temporary cease-fire around the holiday, which starts on Oct. 24, will form the basis for a negotiated settlement to the war.

If he really believes that he will be sorely disappointed. There are simply no grounds for a negotiated settlement at this point. The rebels will not accept the survival of Assad's Alawite dominated Baathist regime, nor will the foreign sponsors in the Gulf of the increasingly well-armed Sunni Islamist component of the rebellion. Perhaps Brahimi is hoping that Assad and the regime hard core will use the cease-fire to negotiate their own arrests and seizure of their assets? Or perhaps the rebels, after so much bloodshed and threats from the government to lay wasted to their whole families, will decide that the current dictatorship really isn't so bad and pack it in?

Just as there isn't much common ground between Iran and the US on Syria - there isn't much common ground to be found between the rebels and the regime. At least not yet. Nations and groups will carry on pursuing their interests.

This has long been the way of things. If the current six-month nuclear agreement with Iran leads to a more durable breakthrough - one that sees Iran not hemmed in by sanctions, and countries like the US not afraid of possible nuclear proliferation - that will be thanks to focusing on areas of common interest and not the ones of inevitable dispute.

Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence agent convicted in the Lockerbie bombing that claimed 270 lives, was given a hero's welcome home by Muammar al-Qaddafi after his release on compassionate grounds in Aug. 2009. (Amr Nabil)

Another dubious conspiracy theory that won't die: Lockerbie bombing

By / 11.22.13

Lawyer Frank Duggan has devoted much time and energy to getting to the bottom of what happened over Lockerbie, Scotland on Dec. 21 1988, when 270 people were murdered when a bomb exploded on Pan Am Flight 103, bound for New York.

In 1989 Mr. Duggan was named liaison to the families of the American victims on President George H.W. Bush's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism and since the work of the commission wrapped he's stayed on as an unpaid legal adviser to the families and as a spokesman for the American victims.

I got to know him a bit in 2009, when the UK decided to release former Libyan intelligence agent Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the only man ever convicted in the attack, on "compassionate" grounds, and we've stayed in touch off and on since. Duggan and many of the victims' families were furious at Megrahi's release (he has since died) for a crime they believe was carried out on the orders of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Qaddafi's government eventually agreed to pay over $2 billion in reparations for the families.

Like many sudden, tragic events (the murder of President Kennedy comes to mind today) Lockerbie spawned a cottage industry of conspiracy theories that trundles along to this day. You know, Megrahi was a fall guy, the Libyan's weren't involved, dark murmurs that the killings were some kind of false-flag operation by the US or other states.

Earlier this month New York Magazine ran a quote (in a listsicle on conspiracy theories) that has long been popular among the conspiracy crowd:

"Your government and ours know exactly what happened, but they’re never going to tell.” —An unidentified member of George H.W. Bush’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, to a relative of a victim, according to that relative of that victim.

The problem, Duggan says, is that this never happened. He writes:

This never happened and the story has been peddled for 25 years. I served on the Commission (President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism 1989-90) and was at the meetings held in London and Scotland where the statement was allegedly made by one of us to the father of one of the flight attendants in 1989. We were charged with investigating how it was done, not who did it. Everyone had suspicions, but there was a criminal investigation, at that time the largest ever, that had this responsibility. No one really knew who did it in 1989, since the timer that turned the investigation toward Libyan terrorists was not found until a year later. A father of one of the American victims tried repeatedly to demonstrate that this statement was never made, and offered to show photographs of everyone on the trip to the person who claimed he heard this. The proponents of this fable are not interested in the truth and would rather repeat it to UK tabloids, self promoting bloggers, dubious experts in the case, and assorted nutcases. The story is a lie.

The quote appears in various places on the Internet and appears to originate with Martin Cadman, a British man whose son Bill (a passenger, not a flight attendant) was killed in the bombing. Mr. Cadman has been among the minority of victims' loved ones who say they believe that the attack didn't originate with Libya and that the US was involved in some kind of coverup. When Megrahi died in 2012, Mr. Cadman said: "The only thing I am interested in is getting to the truth. The Americans know far more than they have said.”

But he's never identified who said it to him – or why.

Three years ago Richard Marquise, a retired FBI official was was the lead investigator into the bombing, told me how maddening the conspiracy theories that Megrahi was set up were.

In his 31 years at the FBI, Mr. Marquise said he's rarely seen a "stronger circumstantial case" than the one against Megrahi, who was also caught repeatedly lying to investigators and reporters. "There's nobody else that I'm aware of anywhere in the world that has such evidence pointing to their guilt," he says.

Marquise says that "there were other people that we strongly believed were involved in terms of the planning process and ordering process.... Megrahi was the guy who was assigned to get it done. We think at least six were probably involved if you only had to make an intelligence case, but in terms of making a criminal case, we didn't have strong enough evidence."

Cadman disagrees. But with Megrahi now dead and Qaddafi dead – murdered at the end of the civil war that overthrew his dictatorship in 2011 – those who doubt the preponderance of evidence that pointed towards Qaddafi's regime are unlikely to find the different answer that they're looking for.

Delegates at the Afghan loya jirga today. The fate of the US military in Afghanistan is in their hands. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

What is a loya jirga anyways?

By Staff writer / 11.21.13

A grand meeting of Afghan tribal figures and warlords, over 2,000 people in all, is debating the future of the US military presence in Afghanistan

The so-called loya jirga has gotten off to a rocky start, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai this morning saying that any bilateral security agreement with the US wouldn't be signed until sometime after a presidential election scheduled for April. A draft accord foresees a US security presence until 2024. Should the loya jirga say no to the deal the result could be a near total US withdrawal from the country at the end of 2014. 

What is a loya jirga?

Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University who has studied Afghanistan since the 1970s, says these meetings are a kind of "invented tradition" that followed the US-backed overthrow of the Taliban. In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History Mr. Barfield argues that loya jirga are an attempt to provide legitimacy to the nascent Afghan state. 

The phrase itself is Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribes that have long dominated the central government in Kabul (and the ranks of the Taliban leadership). It roughly translates as "grand council." It's often referred to as an "ancient" or "traditional" means of coming to important decisions, but has mostly been used to rubber stamp decisions made by a king or, in recent times, by President Karzai. It's also not that ancient.

Barfield writes that after a jirga chose Ahmd Shah as the new head of the Durrani Empire in 1747 (whose members would rule Afghanistan in one form or another until 1978) the practice was dropped until 1915, when the ruler Habibullah sought backing for staying neutral during World War I. Under Habibullah's successor Amanullah, they became more frequent, though the composition of the meeting was controlled by the ruler, and so was the outcome.

Pashtuns use jirgas to hash out local problems, but raising it to a national level is a sleight of hand. When the NATO powers that helped topple the Taliban in 2001 wanted to install Karzai, an ethnic-Pashtun, as president, an "emergency loya jirga" was hastily assembled. And, in line with tradition, the result was preordained. When some delegates proposed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who had been deposed in 1973, as head of state, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzaid stepped in. 

"Only when (Khalilzaid) strong-armed the king into throwing his support behind Karzai did the leadership contest end," writes Barfield. "The obviously forced nature of the king's withdrawal and its embarrassing televised presentation undermined Karzai's legitimacy because to many Afghans it appears that it was the United States that was calling the shots."

Karzai wants to distance himself from the US before he steps down next year. That's why he's called this jirga to vote on the security pact with the US. He's seeking to create collective responsibility for a decision that is unlikely to prove popular with many Afghans. But the US insists on immunity for its forces, and any attempt to undo this protection would be a deal breaker for the Obama administration

How is it going?

The meeting is being held in a vast tent erected next to Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. At stake is vast US military aid to Afghan forces and the presence of 10,000 American troops in the country beyond 2014. But nationalist anger has grown at the presence of US troops, particularly over raids on Afghan homes looking for insurgents. Karzai told the group this morning that the agreement is in Afghanistan's interests, but that the final decision rests with the delegates.

Most Afghan watchers expect the meeting will end with support for the draft agreement - and powerful tribal chiefs haven't staged mass walkouts that would signal the deal is in major trouble. But there are no guarantees.

What about when it's over?

If the jirga doesn't approve the US security deal it isn't the end of the road. The Pentagon says it needs a deal in hand a year ahead of the current scheduled withdrawal for planning purposes. But the US won't fold up its own tent if it gets bad news over the weekend. There will still be time to finesse a renewed deal.

Even if the jirga gives its approval, Karzai says the Afghan parliament has to weigh in. And then comes the new intrigue over getting the document signed, either by Karzai or his successor. He's been pressing the US to promise heavy weaponry from the Afghan army, so the Obama administration may sweeten the deal in exchange for his signature before stepping down.

Is a bilateral security arrangement in the hands of the Afghan loya jirga? Not so fast, said President Karzai this morning. Sort of. (Rahmat Gul)

Karzai tells Afghan loya jirga that US not to be trusted

By Staff writer / 11.21.13

After more than a year of negotiations on extending the US military presence in Afghanistan, a draft agreement was reached between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration yesterday. The US gets immunity from Afghan prosecution for its troops. Afghanistan gets an open-ended commitment from the US to train, equip, and fund its security services.

The draft was hailed by Secretary of State John Kerry, and it was left with one last hurdle to full acceptance: the approval of an Afghan loya jirga – a meeting of tribal notables from across the country – that convened in Kabul this morning. Or so it seemed.

Not for the first  time, the mercurial President Karzai threw a spanner in the works. Karzai, who rose to power with US military and financial support but has taken to attacking US involvement in Afghan affairs, told the conference that the US is not to be trusted. He also indicated that regardless of the loya jirga's decision, approving the agreement will be up to his successor, who will be chosen in a presidential election scheduled for next  April.

That is almost certainly generating a collective, incredulous scream from the White House, State Department, and Pentagon. The US position has been that an agreement needed to be nailed down a year before authorization for troops in Afghanistan expires at the end of 2014, to allow for planning and budgeting.

The US was already disappointed when Karzai announced months ago that he wouldn't sign off on an agreement without the approval of both a loya jirga and the vote of the Afghan parliament. The working assumption was that those two bodies would approve, once the financial and military stakes were made clear to them. But now the question of extension is sure to be a major issue on the upcoming presidential campaign trail.

“I want this agreement to be signed after the presidential elections," Karzai told the assembly this morning. "If you agree to sign this agreement with the Americans, we will ask for some time."

Karzai also spoke of the lack of trust between him and the US and complained of how the US has spread negative stories about him "behind my back."

A discussion of signing the agreement "after" elections leaves the door open to Karzai signing the agreement himself – after his successor has been chosen but before his inauguration, which is expected in late May. But that successor, if inclined to oppose a deal, might not take kindly to a lame-duck leader tying his hands.

Karzai probably thinks he's getting maximum leverage. But delay doesn't just create the opportunity for Afghans to seek more US concessions. It also creates the chance for a political discussion about the merits of an extended stay in Afghanistan within the US Congress.

The absence of a public debate in the US on the wisdom of spending billions more on the Afghan military and police, and leaving a large contingent of soldiers in harm's way in a landlocked country, has been striking. In 2011 as Obama tried and failed to get a new agreement extending the US military presence in Iraq (Iraq refused to grant immunity from prosecution to US troops), the topic was a subject of intense media, public, and congressional interest. 

But when it comes to Afghanistan, where the US helped topple the Taliban government in 2002, there's been little political will to discuss what the US is getting for its money, and whether it makes sense to continue funding a large standing army in the country. Karzai said today the agreement would see 10,000-15,000 US troops stationed in Afghanistan, and the draft text envisions a US "obligation to seek funds on a yearly basis to support the training, equipping, advising and sustaining of [Afghan security forces]" until 2024. 

The US government has already spent $55 billion training and equipping Afghan security forces in the past decade, yet the country does not now have an army that can fund its continuing operations or arrange logistics for itself. Congress is supposed to have control over spending, and there are stirrings of discontent over Obama effectively committing spending to Afghanistan on his own authority.

NBC reports this morning that a small group of senators led by Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon are seeking an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would require a congressional vote on extending the US presence in Afghanistan. Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale told a Senate committee last year that the cost per US troop in Afghanistan topped $800,000. Assuming 10,000 troops, that's $8 billion a year before costs for "equipping and sustaining" Afghan troops. The Afghan National Army currently has about 190,000 people. The US military currently has about 40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

While there hasn't been any broad movement to oppose the extension – there is little appetite among either Democrats or Republicans to appear soft on terrorism – the more this drags on, the greater the likelihood that it could become an issue.

And the argument that a large standing Afghan army is central to US security is getting harder to make. Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in a daring raid in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is likewise believed to be living in that country. Sunni jihadis with an interest in attacking the US are on the rise in other states, particularly Yemen and Syria. And whoever leads the Afghan government after Karzai is highly unlikely to provide a base of support to a group like Al Qaeda again, since the government's finances will remain dependent on aid from the US, the European Union, and others.

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