There has been much discussion of whether the murders and siege at Westgate, one of the poshest malls in East Africa, indicate a resurgence for the Somali group or the desperate act of a desperate terrorist movement. This is in some ways the wrong question.
A group of committed men with rifles will almost always have the capacity to take over a shopping mall, or a hotel, or even a school and wreak havoc, particularly in parts of the world like Kenya, which has a highly unstable and lawless neighbor in Somalia on its northeastern flank and imperfect security services. While in this case the attackers say they were motivated by Kenya's involvement in the military effort to dislodge Al Shabab from Somalia, the lasting impression for most observers will be the savagery of killing men, women and children enjoying a weekend day out.
To be sure, some will disagree. Fox News ran a story yesterday citing "experts" as determining the rampage would lead to a surge in recruitment for Al Qaeda and aligned movements in the US, since it demonstrates a continued potency for terrorist tactics.
Those experts, I think, are going to be proven fortunately mistaken.
The nihilistic violence that Al Qaeda and aligned groups engage in has long been a major hindrance to recruitment for Al Qaeda. During the height of the war in Iraq, the penchant of Al Qaeda's local affiliate for murdering civilians at prayer, on the way to work, or out shopping for dinner, played a crucial role in stiffening the Iraqi public's resolve against the movement.
In 2005 Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri entreated the then leader of the movement in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to leave off the wanton killing of civilians, saying it was undermining Al Qaeda's long term goals. He was ignored, and by 2007 Sunni Arab tribes that had been passively supportive of Al Qaeda fighters had turned on the movement.
The Westgate attack is precisely the sort of killing that Zawahiri, if his statements are anything to go by, understands hurts the movement. The death of one of the victims helps explain why.
Elif Yafuz, a Dutch woman who was 8 months pregnant, was gunned down when the attack began, along with her Australian partner Ross Langdon. I learned a little bit about them from friends on Facebook, who knew the couple from their time in Jakarta. Ms. Yafuz had devoted her adult life working on malaria and HIV eradication in Asia and Africa.
She received her Ph.D. from the Harvard School of Public Health earlier this year, with a dissertation that focused on malaria in eastern Africa, building off of fieldwork in Uganda. She and Mr. Langdon had recently returned to Africa, and she had started a job with the Clinton Foundation, focusing on malaria vaccine programs in Tanzania.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the mosquito-borne disease is one of the great killers of children. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that malaria claimed 655,000 lives in 2010, 91 percent of those in sub-saharan Africa. Of those who died from the disease that year, an estimated 86 percent of the victims were children. As bad as that picture is, it's a big improvement from the middle of the last decade, with deaths down about 30 percent since then.
One of the reasons for that is the work of people like Yafuz. Former President Bill Clinton said in a statement on her death: "Elif devoted her life to helping others, particularly people in developing countries suffering from malaria and HIV/AIDS. She had originally worked with our Health Access Initiative during her doctoral studies, and we were so pleased that she had recently rejoined us as a senior vaccines researcher based in Tanzania. Elif was brilliant, dedicated, and deeply admired by her colleagues, who will miss her terribly."
Nairobi has become a regional hub for both aid workers and businessmen in eastern Africa, and if Al Shabab gets its way, the ability of those people to work and contribute to improving standards of living will grow harder and more dangerous. Less work would be done, and more children would die, if the Shabab gets its way. And that's the message sent by the attack.
While some people may find that a compelling message, they are thankfully few and far between. Will more attacks like the ongoing one in Nairobi follow? Certainly possible. But these are the acts of people striking, directly and indirectly, at the innocent and the weak. Such attacks do resonate - but they generate revulsion and horror.
Holocaust denial, suggestions that Israel needs to "vanish from the page of time," vows that no one could stop the Islamic Republic if it wanted a nuclear weapon, and claims that a nefarious cabal inside the US government was behind the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington – he seemed to relish inflammatory rhetoric whenever he had the world's attention.
One of Mr. Ahmadinejad's favorite venues for such comments was the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, and from 2005 until last year, he rarely missed a chance to stir the pot.
To be fair, President George W. Bush's infamous "axis of evil" speech (that named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea) was only three years earlier – not exactly the sort of thing to reduce international tension itself. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad's choice of words throughout his time as president not only kept tension simmering, but was also cited as evidence that Iran couldn't be negotiated with over its nuclear program or anything else. The only thing that would deter the country from its chemical weapons program (that Iran insists does not exist) was force, the argument went. "Just listen to that guy!" was the refrain. "He's crazy and dangerous."
So the replacement of Ahmadinejad with Hassan Rouhani, a political rival who favors deescalation with the US and more diplomatic rhetoric, would be good news, right?
Not for everyone, apparently. The Obama administration may be considering positive gestures of their own towards the new Iranian president (a White House spokesman today said that a meeting between Obama and Rouhani, the first between a US and Iranian president in 33 years, hadn't been ruled out), but Israel and many friends of Israel are deeply alarmed at the prospect.
As Mark Landler wrote in The New York Times yesterday ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech tomorrow at the UN: "The Israeli government, clearly rattled by the sudden talk of a diplomatic opening, offered a preview Sunday of Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-edged message, in which he will set the terms for what would be acceptable to Israel in any agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 'A bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all,' the Israeli official said, reading a statement from the prime minister’s office that he said reflected Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks."
In a statement last week, Mr. Netanyahu said: "The Iranians are continuing to deceive so that the centrifuges continue spinning. The real test lies in the Iranian regime’s actions, not words... while Rouhani sits down for interviews, he also continues to move ahead with the nuclear program. The Iranian regime’s goal is to reach a deal that would require it to give up an insignificant part of its nuclear program, while allowing it to … charge forward quickly toward (acquiring) a nuclear weapon whenever it chooses.”
Pro-Israel hawks in Congress see it similarly. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (R) of Florida, said it would be a mistake for President Barack Obama to sit down with Rouhani when he's in the US this week. Supporters of dialogue think the new Iranian president offers an opportunity for constructive engagement absent for years, but she says that Rouhani's friendly words mask sinister intentions.
"Rouhani is a master of deceit who has been putting on an all-out charm offensive since he took office, replacing Ahmadinejad. In many ways Rouhani is much more dangerous than Ahmadinejad," she said in a statement. "At least with Ahmadinejad you get what you see – his hatred for Israel and the United States is not disguised with rhetoric or spurious gestures of goodwill... The Administration must not fall for this charm offensive, and must increase the pressure on the regime with more sanctions until Iran completely abandons its nuclear pursuit and dismantles its program."
So in her view, Rouhani's comments are all about concealment and deception, evidence that he is untrustworthy and the only way to deal with Iran is to demand its total capitulation – even before Iran's leader can get a face to face with the US president.
Is that likely to be forthcoming? It hasn't happened for decades yet.
On Aug. 21, a chemical weapons attack hit the largely Sunni suburbs of eastern and western Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and the US on the brink of going to war with the Syrian government.
Since then, the US has pulled back from its threats of imminent attack in response to a promise from President Bashar al-Assad, brokered by Russia, that he will fully disclose his chemical weapons stockpile and cooperate with its full decommissioning.
Although the evidence of responsibility was scant in the early days after the attack, the Syrian government's possession of chemical weapons was a fact, and the chances that Syria's rebels had obtained a nerve agent like sarin (the substance that the US, France, and now the United Nations all say hit Ghouta on Aug. 21) was highly unlikely.
Last week, UN inspectors said the use of sarin at Ghouta was indisputable, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attack "the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988." The UN inspectors were careful not to say who they thought was responsible for the attack – determining responsibility was excluded from their mandate – but other generally credible groups say they're convinced that the attack came from the Syrian military.
Human Rights Watch writes in a 22-page report that it is convinced that government forces carried out the attack, arguing that eyewitness testimony, an examination of the rockets used to deliver the sarin, and doctors testimony all point in that direction.
"The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers," the group wrote.
But there have been many who insist that the attack was a sort of false flag operation carried out by rebels, designed to make Assad look responsible and draw US to war. Exhibit A for those making this argument was an Aug. 29 article that appeared on the website of startup Mint Press, under the bylines of Yahya Ababneh and Dale Gavlak. Ms. Gavlak is a longtime stringer for the Associated Press, based in Jordan, and her association with the piece led to claims that an "AP reporter" had "confirmed" the attack was carried out by the rebels.
The article in its first iteration didn't pass the smell test. It claimed that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the country's intelligence chief, had supplied chemical weapons to untrained rebels and that an accidental release in tunnels where the weapons were being stored led to the deaths. "They didn't tell us what these weapons were or how to use them," the article quotes a female fighter known only as "K" as saying. "We didn't know they were chemical weapons."
This claim is mindboggling: A senior Saudi official simply handing out chemical weapons – and concealing their nature from the recipients? This claim could illustrate "not credible" in the dictionary. Nevertheless, the story was tailor made to be believed by the "anti-imperial" left – with a Saudi intelligence agent known for his close ties to the US placed at the center of it.
People who closely track the Syrian civil war, led by Eliot Higgins' of the Brown Moses blog, began digging into this strange story. The wheels of the story began to come off last week, and the tale has only gotten stranger.
First, Ms. Gavlak contacted Mr. Higgins last Friday, and said her byline was "incorrectly used" by Mint Press. She wrote that "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece" and that Mint Press had refused to remove her byline from the article. Why she waited for three weeks is unclear – if my byline was inappropriately used on any article, let alone one with such explosive claims, I (and I think most) reporters would be screaming that fact from the rooftops the moment it happened.
In a follow-up email, with a statement from her lawyers, Gavlak indicated she'd brokered the story to Mint Press on Mr. Ababneh's behalf, that she'd edited the story, that she provided biographical information on Ababneh to Mint Press, and that she told Mint Press in an email "I helped him (Ababneh) write up his story but he should get all the credit for this."
Who is Ababneh? So far it's unclear. He's been identified as a Jordanian reporter by Gavlak, but the truth is certainly not yet determined. Brian Whitaker, a Guardian reporter focused on the Middle East who also maintains a blog, writes that he looked at a LinkedIn profile of Ababneh's that asserted he had worked for Al Jazeera and al-Quds al-Arabi (a major pan-Arab newspaper) but Whitaker could not find his byline in the archives of either website or anywhere else. The LinkedIn profile was deleted on Saturday.
Whitaker also found a reader comment made on an Aug. 26 article about Syria, three days before the Mint Press story, in the UK's Mail on Sunday by a "Yan Barakat" who told a very similar story about Prince Bandar and chemical weapons to the one that would appear three days later. "Barakat" wrote that he came by the story from "some old men" who'd "arrived in Damascus" from Russia. One of the men from Russia "told me they have evidence that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."
A little more internet sleuthing from Whitaker found a Facebook page for Yan Barakat and photos of the man, who described himself as a Jordanian journalist. The pictures appear to be of the same man pictured in the deleted Linkedin profile for Ababneh. There is also a profile page on the Russian social media site VK (much like Facebook) under the name "Yahya Barakat" that contains pictures of a man that looks both like the Yan Barakat and Yayheh Ababneh pictures. The profile says the man's hometown is St. Petersburg, Russia (this story was edited after first posting; the original version incorrectly said the VK page stated he was "born" in St. Petersburg).
The Russian government has repeatedly insisted that the chemical weapons used in Syria were carried out by rebels. At the end of last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the attack was a false flag operation. "We have every reason to believe that it was a provocation, a sly and ingenious one," he said.
What happened here? It's all pretty much conjecture at this point, but clearly someone "got played." Whether Ababneh was one of the victims or one of the players is hard to say.
Human Rights Watch did take up the claim in its report on chemical weapons use at Goutah, and wrote that it found no reason to give it any credibility.
"Human Rights Watch has investigated alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks, and has found such claims lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene," the group wrote. "Claims that the August 21 deaths were caused by an accidental explosion by opposition forces mishandling chemical weapons in their possession are inconsistent with large numbers of deaths at two locations 16 kilometers apart, and documentation of rocket attacks on the sites that morning, as evidenced by witness accounts, the damage visible on the rockets themselves, and their impact craters."
The information war, like the real war in Syria, is likely to carry on for some time. Caveat lector – Let the reader beware.
On Wednesday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an evolution of Al Qaeda in Iraq, seized control of the Syrian town of Azaz from the Free Syrian Army, a rebel umbrella group favored by the United States.
Azaz is north of the battle-scarred city of Aleppo, and along one of the key resupply routes that rebels have relied on, given its proximity to the Turkish border.
The intra-rebel fighting - with jihadis on one side, so-called "moderates" on the other - illustrated that from a US perspective, the civil war in Syria is about far more than "good guy" rebels against "bad guy" regime supporters. The BBC reports today that the warring rebel factions have agreed to set aside their differences, at least for now.
"The BBC's Paul Wood, on the Syrian border with Turkey, says that under the ceasefire deal in Azaz the two rebel sides have agreed to exchange prisoners and hand back property," the BBC reports today. "It is unclear whether the ceasefire will have an impact on clashes between the groups elsewhere in the country, (Wood) says."
The overt signs of disunity among Syria's rebels comes a day before Syria's government is expected to detail the extent of its chemical weapons arsenal and the locations where the weapons are held, a reminder that questions of what foreign countries should do about Syria's war, and the risks that could take form if and when the current order is defeated, shouldn't be far from any government's mind.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Janes Terrorism and Insurgency Center, has been tracking the war in Syria almost since its beginning. I touched on some of his work in this post a few days ago and he was kind enough to email some more details on his estimates about the nature and number of "operationally active" rebel fighters. He emphasizes that they're estimates and that this is not an exact science.
Jihadists – 10-12,000
Hardline Islamists – 30,000
Ikhwani Islamists – 30-40,000
Genuine moderates – 20-25,000
Kurds – 10,000
The definitions: A "Jihadist" would be someone with a similar world-view, tactics and objectives as those of Al Qaeda. These people are interested in opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a mere stepping stone to the creation of a caliphate, governed by the Islamic law they believe prevailed at the end of the prophet Mohammed's life. They're willing to achieve this end through force, and see the United States as the most powerful enemy standing in the way of their ultimate ends.
A "hardline Islamist," to Lister, is someone who shares the jihadi worldview and cooperates with them in Syria, but are committed to fighting for the cause only within Syria. The "Ikhwani" are "brothers," as in the Muslim Brotherhood; they would like to bring Islamic law to Syria, but have a generally more tolerant interpretation of what that means and are willing to pursue their ultimate goal more slowly and with less imposition of their beliefs by force.
The "moderates" are those who aren't interested in imposing their personal religious beliefs on others, and the Kurds are the ethnic-Kurds, who are often most interested in the interests and occasional nationalist aspirations of their own ethnic group.
Lister says it's hard to put Syrian insurgents in one box or another and keep them there. Rhetoric and statements of intent vary over time, stated goals do as well, and the military side of the Syrian rebellion is a shimmering landscape of alliances of convenience, falling out, and moments of reconciliation, as the fighting in recent days in the countryside north of Aleppo attests to.
"The principal conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the real majority of the Syrian opposition is of an Islamist character of some kind. However, the line between the hardline Islamists and Ikhwani Islamists can be extremely blurry and often varies over time," he writs. "Also, many of the larger groups vary in their politico-religious nature according to where in the country they’re operating. Crucially, insurgent dynamics in Syria are constantly shifting."
One thing he firmly believes is that statements that so-called "moderates" dominate the fight against Mr. Assad, as both US Secretary of State John Kerry and influential politicians like Senator John McCain have asserted, are not accurate.
"The key point of these calculations is really just to underline that the image of the Syrian opposition being dominated by nationalist and sometimes secular groups is simply not borne out. That being said, jihadists are most certainly not a majority force either and Ikhwani Islamists do not and should not necessarily be perceived negatively at all."
His second sentence there is worth examining. That fighters support the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood does not, ipso facto, mean that they're a threat to US or other Western interests. The movement, in its various incarnations across the Arab world down the decades, has largely confined itself to local politics and power. During the brief period when Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - the movement's flagship - was in power in Egypt until a military-backed coup against them last July, the Egyptian brothers were happy to cooperate with US security interests in the region.
While the average American might not want to live under a Muslim Brotherhood government, that is a far different thing from the movement being a security threat to the US.
Another point of Lister's that I agree with is that the sheer numbers of fighters backing a particular cause don't determine outcomes. Zeal, weaponry, and strategic intelligence are probably more important in determining outcomes. Lister writes:
"It also worth noting however that numbers are not always representative of strategic potential and on the ground impact. Despite composing the smallest component of the anti-government insurgency, jihadists have proven remarkably adept at spreading their military resources across large swathes of territory, joining battles at the pivotal moment, and exploiting their superior organizational structures to establish political control and influence over territory."
The history of the world has often been written by small, capable and deeply committed groups. Were most Russians Bolsheviks in 1916?
Lister further suggests that the US-Russia agreement on decommissioning the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile, a key to which was the Obama administration's promise to hold off on threatened strikes against Assad, may feed into the narrative of those rebels who support Al Qaeda.
"While the US-Russia deal is being presented by some as a key to solving the Syrian conflict, it does in fact serve to further bolster the line presented by jihadists: that the genuine moderates and their supporters in the West do not present a strong enough force to ‘win’ the conflict," he wrote to me (a few days ago, before the reported ceasefire in Azad). "Clashes in several northern and eastern provinces between jihadists and moderates in recent days suggests these tensions are coming out into the open."
The good news, if you don't share the jihadi worldview, is the movement's almost preternatural ability to alienate the civilian populations they swim among. In Iraq during the height of the insurgency there, particularly with its attacks on US forces in predominantly Sunni Arab provinces like Anbar, Al Qaeda in Iraq managed to alienate Sunni Arab populations who hated the US presence in the country, and the government they were installing. How? They started bullying local people, often killing them, for daring to disagree with their vision of he future.
Al Qaeda in Iraq managed to turn the very people they relied on for support against them, and were dramatically weakened in Iraq as a result.
Jihadis are strong in Syria now. Anyone who says otherwise is ignoring a long string of reporting from inside the conflict. But guaranteeing any future on the basis of that fact is unwise.
I came across an old clip from Get Smart, Don Adam's hit '60s TV series about a bumbling American spy, that made me think about the news lately: Edward Snowden's defection to Russia with a trove of National Security Agency secrets, the role of trust in the debate over what the US should do about the war in Syria, and the security theater that continues to plague air travelers here in the US and abroad.
In the clip, the Chief is worried about a break-in at a secure conference room, thinking that listening devices might have been installed there ahead of a secret meeting. Smart tells him not to worry, saying he's got the only key and that since it's bolted to his pants, no one is going to be able to get it (of course the pants can be removed easily - just as Snowden, a man with classified access, was able to leave the country easily).
Smart's boss then declares that everything going forward should be "class A" security - the secretest of top secrets. Smart looks uneasily at a more junior agent in the room, and demands that the "cone of silence" be deployed. The plexiglas prop descends upon him and The Chief - making it impossible for them to hear each other, but the junior agent on the outside can hear them both and relays their comments to each other (sometimes security measures can make internal communication more difficult while not necessarily securing it from outsiders. The security theater aspect is reminiscent of the TSA, which continues to force millions of passengers to remove laptops from bags before they go into x-ray machines for no good reason whatsoever.).
After that farce ends, Smart asks the Chief why they don't just cancel the conference? He's told: "If I had to admit I was afraid to hold a meeting here in our own building, the very agency that's responsible for our nation's security, I'd be laughed right out of the business." (Some level of trust is needed within intelligence agencies - including vigorous counterintelligence work.)
Finally, he tasks Smart with sweeping the conference room for bugs and explosives, and warns him not to tell even his closest colleagues about their concerns. Smart is incredulous that senior agents can't be trusted. He has it explained to him that on some things, no one can be above suspicion - and then he tells Smart that he's the "only man I can trust... there's always someone in whom we must have faith." As he does so, two arms that looked like light sconces on the wall come alive and pat Smart down from behind. Only then does The Chief tell Smart "I trust you completely." (the old "trust but verify." Consider how the Syria war is being discussed. Lots of people with possible agendas making claims about what is and is not so, but insufficient suspicion in US government circles about their various motives.)
How many of Syria's rebels have a world view that views the United States as a global scourge and are inspired by ideologies akin to those espoused by Al Qaeda? Lots. How many is "lots"? Well, that's uncertain, depends on definitions, and is the subject of hot debate.
Consider a headline yesterday from The Telegraph of the UK. "Syria: nearly half rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, says IHS Jane's report."
Pretty scary sounding, no? But in fact, based on the work of the Jane's analyst Charles Lister, at least as it's cited in the report, the headline could have easily been: "Only 10 percent of Syria rebels aligned with Al Qaeda" or "A majority of Syria rebels not fighting for Islamist causes."
The report cites a Jane's study estimating there are roughly 100,000 rebel fighters in Syria, that about 10,000 are Al Qaeda-style jihadis – meaning that they're interested in a broader war beyond Syria's borders, ultimately targeting the West – and that about 30,000 are "hardline Islamists." That latter term means they favor a strict version of Islamic law for Syria and are generally unfriendly to US and other Western interests in the region, but want to confine their struggle to their own country.
Ten percent of the men under arms in Syria's rebellion being aligned with Al Qaeda is something to worry about, of course. But that was probably inevitable, and doesn't necessarily mean that a rebel victory destines the country for becoming a launching pad for Al Qaeda attacks on foreign interests.
Consider Libya. In the Libyan war against Qaddafi in 2011, aided by the US and other NATO powers, Islamist fighters with experience in Afghanistan were frequently in the front lines, and far more of the men fighting alongside them said they were fighting to bring Islamic law to their country, but that they'd put their weapons down once the war at home was over. Islamist militias have remained a threat to Libya's stability since – the attack on the US consulate-cum-CIA operation in Benghazi a year ago is evidence of that. But there's been no sign that Libya is approaching anything like a base of support for attacking US interests.
Or consider Iraq, where Al Qaeda grabbed the gilt-edged opportunity presented by the US-led invasion with both hands, and established a strong presence in the country during the height of that war. While many Iraqis were "radicalized" during that period, and carried out horrific attacks on both Iraqi civilians and US and Iraqi troops in the country, Iraq has likewise not emerged as a place from which major threats to the US have emanated (the current hotbed for that danger appears to be Yemen.)
But Mr. Lister, writing in Foreign Policy a few weeks ago, says Al Qaeda style fighters in Syria are widespread, and among the best fighters in the ranks of the rebellion.
In the last one-and-a-half years, jihadists have established a concrete foothold in the heart of the Middle East. Jabhat al-Nusra maintains an operational presence in 11 of Syria's 13 governorates and the roughly four-month-old Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – an extension of Al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) front group, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) – is catching up fast.
This is not to mention at least 10 other decidedly jihadist groups operating on a more localized level across the country. Clearly, this remarkable expansion in jihadist territorial spread and influence is of long-term concern to the West, and it is for this reason that jihadists are so concerned...
While the focus today remains on the current conflict in Syria and on how it will one day end, if Assad does eventually fall, a second battle will inevitably commence: one that will decide who, if anyone, takes the reins of power in Syria. Within such a situation, jihadists will very much be involved.
Is Lister right? I know he's highly respected and in my experience always careful in his research and conclusions. But the most important thing to take away from his work, and the way it was spun by The Telegraph, is that information is one thing – analysis of what it all means is something else. Neither doomsday conclusions (which he is careful not to draw) or happy-clappy claims that "good rebels" are in the lead and in control are possible.
In the US, until recently, a puppies and rainbows view of the Syrian rebellion was in vogue. A few weeks ago, 26-year-old researcher Elizabeth O'Bagy at the hawkish Institute for the Study of War think tank in DC had a star turn, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Republican Sen. John McCain brandishing an Aug. 30 op-ed she wrote for The Wall Street Journal that asserted "The conventional wisdom – that jihadists are running the rebellion – is not what I've witnessed on the ground."
In the piece she went on to assert: "Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces, and they have recently been empowered by the influx of arms and money from Saudi Arabia and other allied countries, such as Jordan and France."
Was Ms. O'Bagy right? It's hard to say. That word "moderate" is a slippery one that is rarely well-defined. In the war I'm most familiar with first hand, Iraq, Saudi money flowed to "moderates" bent on killing US forces and their allies during the occupation. The majority of "actual" fighting forces? While this was seized upon by both Sen. McCain and Secretary Kerry as evidence that there was little to worry about in arming Syria's rebels, it's unproven and contradicted by many other assessments of the state of rebel forces in Syria.
O'Bagy's op-ed attracted a lot of attention after McCain read from it at a Senate hearing on attacking Syria. First it was pointed out that the Wall Street Journal failed to mention that in addition to working for the Institute for the Study of War, she was also employed by the Syria Emergency Task Force (SETF), a group that supports Syria's rebellion and has been lobbying the US government for greater US support. Failure to mention her conflict of interest was waived off as a mere oversight. Then some reporters started doing a little digging and found that Ms. O'Bagy had not only lied about obtaining a PhD from Georgetown, she'd also lied about ever being in a Phd program at the university.
Those lies led to her being fired by ISW and SETF. But what's most troubling is that despite the history of lies fed to the US government by exiles seeking US involvement in foreign wars (Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress' role in stovepiping claims of Iraqi WMD programs ahead of the 2003 invasion of that country should be top of mind) she was listened to in the first place.
In Washington circles her work with SETF was known – and she herself relied on one particular wing of Syria's complex rebellion, a wing that she relied on to arrange her travel and meetings inside Syria, to arrive at her conclusions. The SETF's leadership is largely composed of Syrian exiles, much as the Iraqi National Congress's leadership was composed of Iraqi exiles. Should such people be taken at their word when they seek US assistance?
Machiavelli's 550-year-old advice to rulers comes to mind. "How dangerous a thing it is to believe those who have been driven from their native city, for such men as those have to be dealt with every day by those in authority," he wrote in his Discourses on Livy. "And as for their vain promises and hopes, their burning desire to return home is so great that they naturally believe many things that are false, and to these they skillfully add many more, so that between what they believe and what they say they believe, they fill you with so much hope that, should you base a decision on this either you incur useless expense or you undertake an enterprise that leads you to ruin."
So who are Syria's rebels? They're a diverse group, all fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad's repressive and violent regime. If they win, they will then duke it out among themselves to decide what kind of order will emerge in Syria. Who will win the war after the war? Only time will tell – and the decisions of foreign powers will play a hand in that.
The US "knows" that the Syrian government used a chemical weapon near Damascus on Aug. 21. France "knows" that happened too. The problem is that what France knows is different than what the US knows, and both can't be right.
As President Barack Obama continues to seek to marshal congressional support for air strikes to punish the government for its alleged use of sarin, a powerful neurotoxin, the case of Iraq - when the US rushed to a decade of war based on weapons of mass destruction that the government just "knew" were there - is casting a pall of skepticism over the government's claims.
This morning Obama said he's confident that Congress will authorize use of force against Syria, and asserted: "We have a high confidence that Syria used... chemical weapons that killed thousands of people."
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But France, as eager for an attack on Syria as the US, does not share that confidence when it comes to the number of dead. A report released to parliament by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that summarizes French intelligence findings says that based on analysis of videos taken inside Syria, only 281 deaths from a chemical attack could be confirmed. (Adding after this story was originally posted: The French summary also says the country's intelligence thinks it likely many more died. Quoting from the French government translation to English of their summary: "Other independent assessments, produced for instance by the NGO “Doctors without borders” mention at least 355 deaths. Several technical numberings, from different sources, assess the final toll at approximately 1500 deaths. Work carried out by our specialists, by extrapolating an impact model of a chemical attack on the population of the mentioned sites, is consistent with these figures.")
There is obviously a big difference between "thousands" and 281, and the Obama administration has not been clear on how it arrived at this number. It has also not explained how it arrived at Secretary of State John Kerry's claim on Friday of 1,429 dead, nor how that has since increased to "thousands."
My skepticism is not to say I believe that nothing happened, or that I think this was some kind of false flag operation (The Brown Moses blog, which closely tracks the Syrian war, particularly munitions, had a good piece over the weekend pouring cold water on a conspiracy theory that Saudi Arabia, in league with Syrian rebels, had used gas to lure the US into war).
On the balance of what information has come out, the large number of video and survivor accounts, and the claims of groups like Doctors Without Borders, I think it's more than likely that some quantity of nerve agent was released on Aug. 21, that it cause many deaths, and that it was done by members of the Syrian military. The US says tissue samples show sarin exposure in the area where the deaths are alleged to have occurred.
But my opinion, or that of anyone else, isn't "evidence." Nor are assertions of what anyone "knows." The correct response to a claim of knowledge is to ask how you know what you know, and to share the convincing evidence. Given the run-up to the Iraq war, making a casus belli on the claims of chemical weapons possession and use requires far more transparency. It is too easy to argue against the claim in the absence of that evidence, too hard to convince both a skeptical American public and the world that the truth is being told.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called US evidence for Assad's use of chemical weapons "absolutely unconvincing." His deep skepticism is unsurprising – Russia supports Assad and is staunchly opposed to a US strike – but his criticism carries some water because of the inconsistencies and lack of precision from the US on how it has arrived at its conclusions.
The bigger debate to be had – over what, if anything, should be done in response to Syrian chemical weapons – is whether stand off strikes as proposed by Obama will do any good.
The humanitarian case for war could have been clearly argued weeks ago, on the basis of the death of more than 100,000 Syrians killed by more conventional means and a large number of thoroughly verified war crimes, among them the indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods, summary executions, and the torturing to death of captives. The decision not to act until now was out of fear that US involvement could lead to more death, not less, and perhaps strengthen the hands of the Al Qaeda-style jihadis who have played a prominent role in the war against Bashar al-Assad's government.
But as the International Crisis Group wrote in a statement released Sunday, the action being mulled by Obama isn't really about addressing humanitarian concerns.
The administration has cited the need to deter and prevent use of chemical weapons – a defensible goal, though Syrians have suffered from far deadlier mass atrocities during the course of the conflict.
The administration also refers to the need, given Obama's asserted "red line" against use of chemical weapons, to protect Washington's credibility – again an understandable objective, though unlikely to resonate much with Syrians.
But the priority must be the welfare of the Syrian people. Whether or not military strikes are ordered, this only can be achieved through imposition of a sustained ceasefire and widely accepted political transition.
The ICG writes that the chances of forming an international consensus to support US-led strikes are next to zero, and doubts that a limited attack would deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons again if his back was against the wall and he was facing defeat. The group expresses concern that Assad could intensify conventional attacks on rebels and civilians in response to a US strike. Whatever slim chance the US could have brokered a diplomatic solution will evaporate after an attack.
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But since the case that's being made is one built around chemical weapons, it seems that the first order of business is getting the facts straight, and presenting the evidence for those facts in a clear and convincing manner. The discussion around the wisdom of acting will continue, but if this is about defending US credibility, a full accounting of the cause for war will need to be made.
Egypt's military-backed government over the weekend signaled an expanded crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by announcing that deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president in June 2012 and deposed this July 3, would be put on trial for inciting violence.
That decision came less than two weeks after President Hosni Mubarak, who headed a military-backed dictatorship for 30 years until February 2011, was released from prison and placed under house arrest while awaiting a trial of his own. Morsi, meanwhile, remains in the secret prison Egypt's military whisked him to shortly after it removed him from office.
Looking a little further, the current regime appears eager to shut down most political avenues and media outlets it can't control. On Sunday, it released and deported three foreigners who were arrested while reporting in Cairo for Al Jazeera English. Last Friday, the offices of Al Jazeera Egypt Live (Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr) in three Cairo locations were raided and shut, their broadcasting equipment confiscated, for what government-controlled newspaper Al Ahram said was a lack of "professional ethics." Previously Al Jazeera Arabic's local offices had been shut down, though correspondents continue to file reports from inside the country.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the government is trying to suppress dissent.
"The Egyptian government is widening its censorship campaign against critical media in Egypt to undermine coverage of Muslim Brotherhood protests," Sherif Mansour, the group's regional coordinator, said in a statement. "Like their predecessors, authorities apparently fail to grasp that the attempted suppression of dissenting voices only compounds the dissent."
Al Jazeera Arabic, owned by Qatar's ruling monarchy, which is an enthusiastic backer of the Brotherhood, has had some of the friendliest coverage of the Brotherhood among major television outlets, and Egypt's military and military-friendly news outlets have painted them as a propaganda outlet for the Islamist movement.
The big picture: It appears that a battle has been joined in Egypt, with the military and its appointed civilian leaders seeking to put the genie of greater media freedom back in the bottle. The presence of Al Jazeera and other regional broadcasters in Tahrir Square during the uprising against Mubarak electrified not just the country, encouraging more people to get out of the house and join protests, but the region.
Controlling the flow of pictures and reporting stems the chances of a repeat. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood are no friends of press freedom either. Pro-Morsi protesters attacked reporters from local station ONTV, a staunch supporter of the coup, and broke their equipment on Friday. During Morsi's year in power, defamation suits and suits alleging defamation of religion were used to silence critics.
The increasing flow of disinformation, fabrications, and outright lies on Egyptian media pushed outgoing US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson into a rare, extremely angry statement holding Egypt's interim rulers responsible for a fabricated article in Al Ahram late last month. An article written by the government newspaper's Editor in Chief Abdel Nasser Salama reported that Patterson was part of a conspiracy with Muslim Brotherhood members and foreign militants to destabilize Egypt and divide it into two smaller countries.
"I am writing to adamantly deny the outrageous, fictitious, and thoroughly unprofessional headline article that appeared in your paper on August 27. Your article’s claim that I personally am involved in a conspiracy to divide and destabilize Egypt is absolutely absurd and dangerous," Patterson wrote to Mr. Salama. "I am particularly disturbed to think that Al Ahram, as the flagship state-run paper in Egypt, is regarded as a representative of the government’s viewpoint. We will, therefore, raise this article at the highest levels of the government to protest its publication and the irresponsible behavior that led to it."
Ahram has long been a tool for state propaganda, and is emerging as an important figure in Egypt's ongoing information wars. Local television is likewise focused on the threats of the Brothers, allegations of ties to foreign plots, and warnings of the need for stability and order.
Plus ça change.
Before the Iraq war began in March 2003, the elected representatives of the American people, the US intelligence community, and large portions of the American press were in lockstep with the Bush administration: Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in large quantities and something had to be done.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet said US evidence of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq amounted to a "slam dunk," Secretary of State Colin Powell waived a vial of fake anthrax at the United Nations and went on at length about biological weapons program that could kill tens of thousands of people, and the nation's newspapers battled to carry the most breathless "scoops" possible, spoon fed by obliging but anonymous sources.
It was, of course, all completely false. And as President Obama stands on the brink of military action against Syria over claims that the government of Bashar al-Assad used an as-yet-unspecified chemical weapon near Damascus earlier this month, the press and the intelligence community are doing what they failed to do then: Push back on claims of certainty – and assertions that a military response is warranted.
The comparison can be overdone. Obama and those speaking for him have insisted that there will be no invasion and that there's no plan to replace Mr. Assad by force. Polling shows a US public that wants to stay out of a war in Syria (a recent Reuters poll found 46 percent of Americans opposed to military intervention if Assad had used chemical weapons to attack civilians, with 25 percent supporting military action). And there's pretty strong evidence that a chemical weapon of some sort really was used on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21, with Doctors Without Borders saying about 350 people were killed and many more injured by what appeared to have been some kind of neurotoxin.
But the history of the Iraq war is informing the discussion of what happened and what the US knows about it in a healthy way. Exhibit A for this is an Associated Press story this morning which quotes unnamed intelligence officials pushing back on Obama's claims.
Yesterday, Obama told PBS "We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences." Today, AP quotes multiple US officials as saying precisely the same thing: That US intelligence on the matter is "not a slam dunk."
A decade ago, US intelligence was stovepiped to present desired conclusions by government officials, and the reputation of the CIA and other intelligence outfits took a serious hit when the truth came out. This time, a much clearer picture is being presented on what they know, what they think happened and can't prove, and how much they don't know at all.
Most important, US intelligence officials say they don't know where all of Syria's chemical weapons are or whether Assad was involved in giving an order for chemical weapons to be used. That raises serious questions about what exactly proposed air strikes would target.
And then there's the question of whether attacking Syria serves US interests, or humanitarian ones, at all. Among people who follow the region closely, there are many doubts.
Political scientist Marc Lynch, writing at Foreign Policy, can't see much good in attacking Syria, and worries that it will lead to broader US military involvement, however much Obama insists that won't be the case.
The rumored air strikes would drag the United States across a major threshold of direct military involvement, without any serious prospect of ending the conflict or protecting Syrian civilians (at least from non-chemical attacks). They likely would not accomplish more than momentarily appeasing the whimsical gods of credibility. The attack would almost certainly lack a Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, the response from Arab public opinion to another U.S. military intervention has been predictably hostile; even the very Arab leaders who have been aggressively pushing for such military action are refraining from openly supporting it. And nobody really believes that such strikes will actually work.
... Washington suffers no shortage of suggestions for getting more deeply involved in Syria's civil war. Over the last year and a half, I've read dozens of think tank reports and thousands of op-eds urging U.S. military intervention in some form, from no-fly zones to arming the opposition to air campaigns. Not one has made a remotely plausible case that these limited means will resolve the war in ways favorable to Syrians, the region, or America. The honest ones admit that limited intervention is a wedge toward mission creep (as if Iraq had not proven that full-scale intervention is bound to fail). The rest rely on an alarming series of best-case assumptions that fall apart on close inspection. Seriously, when was the last time any best case scenario actually materialized in the Middle East?
He isn't the only one worried about a slippery slope to war. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in July about the lessons the Iraq war and the law of unintended consequences as he outlined possible US military approaches to Syria. He specifically addressed a mission to contain Syria's chemical weapons:
This option uses lethal force to prevent the use or proliferation of chemical weapons. We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.
... All of these options would likely further the narrow military objective of helping the opposition and placing more pressure on the regime. We have learned from the past 10 years; however, that it is not enough to simply alter the balance of military power without careful consideration of what is necessary in order to preserve a functioning state. We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. Should the regime's institutions
collapse in the absence of a viable opposition, we could inadvertently empower extremists or unleash the very chemical weapons we seek to control.
Joshua Foust wonders why the US would intervene in Syria when so many other humanitarian disasters are ignored, and worries that US intervention on the scale proposed could lead to more bloodshed, not less, in the country.
And will those bombs alter the growing fracture of both pro- and anti-regime militias, which will promise bloodshed no matter what regime is leftover? There is also a steep credibility gap on the part of U.S. planners. The crackdown in Bahrain, for example, was met in the U.S. government with silence. Ongoing, horrific human rights abuses by U.S. allies in places like Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even Iraq are never met with scorn — just indifference.
Recent human rights atrocities, like the Sri Lankan mass killings of Tamil rebels in 2009, merited barely more than a shrug. And last year’s conflict-famine in Somalia, which killed a hundred thousand people in just a few months, warranted a shrug from the international community. When so many other massive tragedies go ignored, there is no easy answer for why Syria, why now.
To be sure, some in the US think punitive strikes won't be enough and are urging Obama to do far more. A group of 74 pundits and former officials, many of them major backers of the Iraq war, released an open letter to Obama on Tuesday calling for immediate action to help the country's rebels defeat Assad:
Moreover, the United States and other willing nations should consider direct military strikes against the pillars of the Assad regime. The objectives should be not only to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons no longer threaten America, our allies in the region or the Syrian people, but also to deter or destroy the Assad regime’s airpower and other conventional military means of committing atrocities against civilian non-combatants. At the same time, the United States should accelerate efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements of Syria’s armed opposition, with the goal of empowering them to prevail against both the Assad regime and the growing presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated and other extremist rebel factions in the country.
Signers of that letter include Paul Bremer, Karl Rove, Dan Senor, Doug Feith, and Leon Wieseltier, men inside the government and out who insisted that the invasion of Iraq was the right thing to do and would herald a new era of freedom and peace in the Middle East. They are urging their counsel be taken once again.
Will it? This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are briefing Congress on military options for Syria and the US has moved Navy destroyers into striking distance in the Mediterranean.
But at the very least, if the US does move toward war with Syria, it will be with a government and a public whose eyes are far more open to the dangers than they were a decade ago.
The gnashing of teeth over Syria that's been emanating from various Obama officials and members of the DC punditocracy since last week has rested on a common but rarely examined assumption: That among the vast ranks of tools for man to kill man invented down the ages, chemical weapons are particularly heinous.
But is it true? If you relied on the Obama administration, you'd think so. The US government says there was a chemical weapons attack on a Sunni Arab suburb of Damascus on Aug. 21. On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement about the "immoral" and "unacceptable" use of chemical weapons, and the pattern of claims from the White House since has clearly been in the direction of some sort of US assault designed to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But "because he used chemical weapons" is not a reason "why." Nor is "because Obama said the word 'red line.'" Or because, as Secretary Kerry had it, chemical weapons are "immoral." A State Department spokeswoman said today, when asked if the US would wait for UN Security Council permission to attack Syria: "We cannot allow diplomatic paralysis to be a shield to the perpetrators of these crimes."
What are these crimes? And how do they differ from the crimes of the past few years?
The alleged number of dead from the alleged chemical attack is about 350 people – less than 0.35 percent of the total number deaths in the Syrian war, which is now well over 100,000. In over two years of fighting children have been tortured to death, area fire weapons like mortars and rockets have rained down on crowded civilian neighborhoods (a war crime), suicide bombs from rebels have killed civilians and soldiers alike on the streets of Damascus (ditto), and both sides have executed captives with a liberal hand.
If the immorality of a weapon lies in its capacity to kill, then the humble assault rifle or machete are far more immoral instruments of death. Yes, theoretically chemical weapons could kill far more in a short period of time, but that hasn't been the track record. Consider Iraq's use of chemical weapons to kill about 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988 – the most horrific and perhaps the most deadly use of chemical weapons since WWI (Iraq's use of chemical weapons on the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war which then raged may have been worse).
But the massacre at Halabja occurred as a tiny portion of Saddam Hussein's Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan that began in 1987 and ran until early September 1988. In 1987 Hussein named his cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid as military commander for Iraq's separatist north with one task: Destroy Kurdish opposition. Majid, who soon earned the nickname "Chemical Ali," pursued the mission with a horrific zeal.
Human Rights Watch and many others labeled the campaign a genocide. They had good reason.
Majid issued orders for large swathes of the Kurdish countryside to be depopulated. Over 2,000 villages were destroyed, crops and livestock were systematically eradicated, tens of thousands executed in detention, others tortured to death while family members were forced to watch. Many more died of starvation. In short, Majid had made it illegal to be Kurdish and alive in a large swathe of traditionally Kurdish territory. He was quite explicit about it:
"All persons captured in those villages shall be detained and interrogated by the security services and those between the ages of 15 and 70 shall be executed after any useful information has been obtained from them," reads one executive order from 1987 laying out the plan. HRW estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed during the Anfal.
Yet today, Halabja is spoken of by the lightly informed as some particularly evil moment rather than as one small piece of a much larger patchwork. The true evil of the Anfal campaign was not that chemical weapons were used, but that so many were killed with the deliberate intent that a whole culture and community would be wiped out.
It is hard to understand what moral good could be accomplished by a few cruise missiles lobbed at Syria by the Obama administration in retaliation for a presumed chemical weapons attack there at this point. The message would seem to be "Kill if you must, but kill by other means."
And it is not just Assad that is doing the killing. Frequently in America politicians will be head to say something like "Assad has killed 100,000 of his own people" but that is not true. Tens of thousands of his soldiers and supporters have fallen at the hands of various rebel groups. While the worst atrocities have been carried out by Assad's forces, the white hat/black hat moral clarity of some on Syria blinds some from the realities of war.
Bashar al-Assad is a brutish tyrant, much like his father before him. He is engaged in a battle for survival – as are large numbers of his supporters. The complexity of Syria - and the very real chance there could be a genocide targeting the Alawite minority that Assad belongs to if he is defeated, have been among the reasons staying the Obama administration's hand on going to war until now.
Perhaps an argument can be made that the balance of risk, reward and national interest have shifted recently. If so, that would be an interesting argument to hear – but the use of chemical weapons would not make much sense as its center piece.