The 48-hour ultimatum issued today by Egypt's unelected military brass comes amid a wave of protests that appear to dwarf the popular uprising that drove Egypt's military-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak from power 27 months ago.
While what happens next is anyone's guess, Egypt is undoubtedly in its most dangerous moment since former President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in 2011. The military is front and center in Egypt's politics once more; the Muslim Brotherhood feels cornered and threatened by what it deems to be counter-revolutionaries; and the crowds in Tahrir Square and elsewhere are demanding something different – but what they want, exactly, is far from clear.
Today Egypt's so-called democratic transition is a failure, with the strongest evidence of that the rapturous crowds chanting their love for the Army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In January and February 2011, a massive show of street power led SCAF to dump Mubarak overboard. Then came a period of ham-handed military rule, with show trials of activists, organized sexual assault on female protesters (what else to call the so-called "virginity tests" forced on them within weeks of the military takeover?) and the torture of democracy activists like Ramy Essam.
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Eventually, the military appeared to back out of politics and reasonably free elections were held, first for a parliament that was packed with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, and then a squeaker of a presidential election that saw the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi narrowly defeat Ahmed Shafiq , a retired Air Force general who served in Mubarak's cabinet for eight years and as his last prime minister.
Since then, the parliament was dissolved by court order, a new Constitution written mostly by the Muslim Brotherhood was rushed through, and many of Egypt's democracy protesters who backed Morsi as the candidate of change over a longtime Mubarak servant have come to rue the choice. Inflation has jumped, government receipts have fallen, and anger over Morsi's failings has swept away Egyptians' anger about decades of authoritarian rule.
Now the canny military is once again the darling of many at Tahrir, who seem to welcome a soft military coup as the best option for the country. Steven Cook, a keen observer of Egyptian politics, marvels at how the generals – with the help of incompetent civilian politicians – have rehabilitated their image.
Of all the arresting images that emerged from yesterday’s mass protests in Egypt, the ones that struck me most were those of military helicopters dropping Egyptian flags down to the crowds below. The Egyptian commanders have been pilloried for many things in the last two and a half years, but for a group of people who eschew politics and maintain thinly veiled contempt for politicians, they are shrewd political operators. After the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, sullied the image of the senior officer corps—if not the military itself—the Ministry of Defense is in the strongest position it has been in since February 11, 2011.
...The possibility that June 30 would end in significant bloodshed in Egypt’s streets—beyond the sixteen deaths and almost eight-hundred injuries—also played into an unarticulated strategy on the part of both counter-revolutionary forces embedded within the state and anti-Brotherhood activists to encourage the officers to reset the political system. Both groups believe that a military intervention would fulfill their specific, but diametrically opposed interests. For those within the state who have been working diligently to undermine the Brotherhood in virtually every way, the goal is the restoration of the old order. For Egypt’s myriad activists who have coalesced in a profound and at times pathological hatred of Morsi, a “do-over” transition would surely improve their electoral prospects. General Abdelfattah al Sisi and his deputies are not so dim-witted as to fall into the trap the political forces have set for them, however.
Cook concludes his piece by writing "this morning General al Sisi is the most powerful man in Egypt. To rule, but not govern…" The accuracy of his comment is borne out by the statement Sisi issued today that brings up the prospect of a coup. It is simultaneously with "the people" and vague enough that it could justify almost any action – or inaction.
"The armed forces reiterates its call to meet the demands of the people, and it gives everyone 48 hours as a last chance to carry the burden of the ongoing historic circumstances that the country is going through," Sisi said in his nationally broadcast address. "If the demands of the people are not met within the given period of time (the military) will be compelled by its national and historic responsibilities, and in respect for the demands of Egypt’s great people, to announce a roadmap for the future, and procedures that it will supervise involving the participation of all the factions and groups.”
The "demands" of "the people?" Most Egyptians demand more jobs, better living standards, an end to police brutality, and a more dignified life in their homeland. But they are from a consensus on how to meet those demands. Tens of millions of Egyptians continue to support Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, just as tens of millions of other Egyptians view them as dangerous failures. Some of these are most worried about the Brotherhood's desire to further Islamicize Egyptian society and public life; others are uncomfortable with the neo-liberal economic policies the Brothers favor; and still others merely want a do-over.
It's become a tired cliche to describe Egyptian society as "polarized," but some cliches are useful because they're the best way to describe the reality. The effect of democratic elections, and the legal chicanery that has followed them, has been a breakdown of social trust and further division of society. Opposition forces, from groups that yearn for the stability and heavy-handed governance of the Mubarak era to those who want a real democracy – not just elections, but the trimmings of civil society, separation of powers, and political compromise – have failed to build workable opposition coalitions.
That has left Egypt with two stark choices: The military, or Morsi. At the moment, the military is clearly the more palatable choice for large swaths of the protesters, who have been described as dangerous rabble by Morsi. He says they're the ones standing between the will of the people and its realization, not him. It's not hard to understand why he sees it that way.
The Muslim Brotherhood's offices in Cairo were overrun last night and set on fire by protesters. Similar attacks were carried out in other cities. Did the military, or the police, intervene to protect them? No.
Egypt's politics are sick, and getting sicker. And while the Morsi presidency's singular achievement has been to divide Egypt's people in a shockingly short period of time, the movement he hails from spent 80 years struggling for power in Egypt. That power was delivered at the ballot box, but now it is facing the threat of being removed from power within two days, unless Morsi pulls the unlikeliest rabbit out of his hat in the interim. What will the Muslim Brothehood rank and file do then?
The example of Algeria can't be ignored. In 1992, the Algerian military cancelled elections that the country's Islamic Salvation Front was set to win. That set the stage for a decade of civil war that claimed at least 150,000 Algerian lives and convinced a generation of Islamists in that country that peacefully participating in electoral politics was a foolish choice.
Sisi surely knows this history. But as hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to fill Egypt's streets demanding Morsi irhal ("go!") – just as they did with Mubarak in early 2011 – he appears to have left himself few options.
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Yesterday I wrote about Dillard Johnson's new book "Carnivore," published by the News Corporation's HarperCollins and heavily promoted by News Corporation outlets like the New York Post and Fox News.
The promotional effort around the book has carried a hard-to-believe, almost impossible claim: that Johnson had 2,746 "confirmed" enemy kills over the course of two tours in Iraq. His first tour came during the 2003 invasion and the second for roughly 12 months starting in February 2005. The claimed kills, which first surfaced in NewsCorp's New York Post on Monday ("With 2,746 confirmed kills, Sgt. 1st Class Dillard Johnson is the deadliest American soldier on record — and maybe the most humble"), was then repeated on a number of Fox News programs this week and mirrored around the Internet.
Similar claims are made in HarperCollins' publicity for the book ("He is recognized by the Pentagon to have accounted for more than 2,000 enemy killed in action," says the book jacket; "Credited with more than 2,600 enemy KIA, he is perhaps the most lethal ground soldier in U.S. history," says both the book jacket and a blurb the publisher supplied to Amazon; the book cover calls him "One of the deadliest American soldiers of all time.")
Mr. Johnson says there's one problem: It isn't true.
RECOMMENDED: America's deadliest soldier or stolen valor?
He says the book doesn't contain that claim, that he never claimed to have killed 2,746 enemy fighters in Iraq, and that he didn't kill that many people in Iraq. He says a combination of innocent mistakes by others and a desire by HarperCollins and his co-author to promote the book have led to the impression he's making claims that he hasn't made. He says a personal and informal total of likely enemy fighters killed during engagements in the Iraq invasion has been attributed to him, when in fact the total includes shooting from the Bradley he commanded as well as shots fired from Bradleys around him and commanded by others – his wingmen.
"Am I one of the deadliest American soldiers of all time? Probably not," says Johnson. "Do I think I did a lot of damage with my vehicle and stuff, with me being decisive? Yeah, absolutely."
These and other claims have drawn angry denunciations from a large number of soldiers who served with him in Iraq, who say he played an important role in their effort but did not come close to what's been written about him in the press.
Johnson says he agrees, and says the attribution of so many dead to him personally traces back to a 2004 Pentagon history of the invasion, On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was interviewed for the book and says it's been wildly misinterpreted, especially since the chapter he features in was excerpted by Soldier of Fortune magazine, with editorial changes made by someone there that exaggerated his personal role in the fighting.
His assertion of 121 "confirmed" sniper kills made in his book has also drawn howls of derision. Johnson is not trained as a sniper and was not equipped with a sniper rifle. He says his personal tally of 121 enemy killed during his second tour is correct, but that "I didn’t use a sniper rifle, I am not a sniper. Nowhere in the book does it say that I’m a sniper. It’s in the jacket, again, but I didn’t write that." He told me that all these kills were with M4 and M14 rifles.
He told Fox New's Laura Ingraham on the O'Reilly Factor – the evening after an appearance on Fox & Friends that morning that infuriated many veterans, and prompted angry emails from some former comrades – that the 121 kills involved "the M14 and my M4 personal rifle and some 203 ones." A 203 is a single shot grenade launcher and attributing specific deaths to a grenade launched over distance is both difficult and definitely not a form of "sniping."
Johnson explains that the choice of "sniper" in the book was for ease of understanding for the general civilian public. "When you look inside the cover and see the talk about the 121 confirmed sniper kills [that's because] most civilians don’t know what a designated marksman is," he says. He said his platoon didn't have many trained marskmen and that since he was a naturally good shot, he took on those kinds of duties to protect himself and his men.
Some of Johnson's stories have shifted over time.
He told Ms. Ingraham this week that the long shot, which he says in that interview was 821 yards, "was sort of a sniper battle from a rooftop and I got this guy. It took me 15 shots. He was a better shot than me. I just had better equipment and he was missing all around me and I basically just got lucky." But here's what Stars and Stripes reported him as saying about the incident on Dec. 20, 2005:
“I used my laser rangefinder to give me the distance to the enemy location, it was 852 meters exactly, a long shot,” Johnson said then, according to a 2nd Brigade Combat Team press release carried by the newspaper. He reported there were two insurgents there and that they were firing towards his rooftop position. “I engaged one enemy shooter with my own rifle. My first round fell short but it must have scared him because he stood up to run away. The next round I fired, hit him and he went down,” Johnson said.
On his O'Reilly appearance, Johnson corrected his host when she attributed 2,746 kills in Iraq to him personally. He says he wished he'd done that in the earlier Fox & Friends interview but that he was only on for about three minutes, and as it was his first television appearance, he was a little flustered.
"I was trying to get that in on Fox & Friends, but didn’t have time. Did on O’Reilly with Laura Ingraham," he tells me. He told Ingraham:
"As far as the kills go ... I’m not really proud of those numbers being out there, it was part of the battle damage assessment that we did. My gunner actually did, you know, most of those or over half of those in the vehicle there and I was just present on the vehicle ... which I was the commander of."
Soldiers in general don't like to keep body counts, and while they may be proud of killing enemies in engagements, keeping their buddies safe, and accomplishing their missions, bragging about kill numbers is generally seen as uncouth, if not a downright creepy. Johnson agrees with that, and says there's no intent to brag about killing. Rather, he says, he kept track of enemy dead by counting rifles on the battlefield after engagements (on the reasoning that "one rifle equals one man") as a way to keep senior officers as informed as possible about the course of the war.
Johnson was kind enough to speak to me for about two hours last night. I'm currently sifting through my long notes of my conversation with him, and will revisit the story after I read his book myself this evening.
RECOMMENDED: America's deadliest soldier or stolen valor?
Update: I spoke to Mr. Johnson after this story was first published. He says his new book doesn't claim that he killed 2,746 enemy combatants or that he has 121 sniper kills. He says while those numbers are on the book jacket, and in HarperCollins' publicity for the book, that the claim is never made in the text of the book and that it is inaccurate. He says he is not responsible for the publisher's writing. The 2,746 number he says is his battlefield estimate of those killed by both him and the men he was fighting with. Johnson says the he did kill 121 enemy combatants on his second deployment to Iraq, with M4 and M14 rifles, and that the choice of the term "sniper" was because average readers don't understand the difference between a marksman and a sniper. He says that Mr. Spaid could not have read the book, that Spaid's claim that dismounts were extremely rare during the invasion are inaccurate, and that Spaid wasn't in a position to speak to what Johnson witnessed and experienced. Johnson says that while he once gave an estimate that he'd perhaps fired 7,000 depleted uranium rounds from his Bradley during the invasion of Iraq that he gave that estimate to an interviewer while wounded and at Walter Reed hospital in 2003 and that it was only an estimate. He is uncertain about how many rounds were fired. He says the story about cutting the wire is true, that it was the sort of wire you might buy at the hardware store for a dryer, and that it's played for laughs in the book. He says that he regrets that he did not correct the Fox and Friends interviewer's statement that he had 2,746 confirmed kills in Iraq, but that it was his first television appearance and he was a bit flustered; he says he did correct this assertion on a later airing of the O'Reilly Factor on Fox (available here) and in other media interviews. Johnson said his motivation in writing the book was so that his comrades would get more credit for what happened and so there would be less focus on him, correcting a failure in emphasis in an official US Army history of the Iraq invasion published in 2004 that he was interviewed for. Tomorrow, I'll write more fully about my interview with Johnson with more details on his war experience.
A new war memoir, "Carnivore" by Dillard Johnson, makes some rather extraordinary claims, according to media appearances and promotional material from publisher HarperCollins. But it's looking likely that these claims are exaggerated, and in some eyes are veering towards stolen valor territory.
The book is subtitled "A memoir by one of the Deadliest American Soldiers of All Time" and in it Sgt. 1st Class Johnson and his co-author write that he had 2,746 "confirmed" enemy kills during his time serving in Iraq, with 121 of those "confirmed sniper kills, the most ever publicly reported by a US Army soldier."
But his claims have sent the online veteran community into an uproar, with many vets calling them implausible and some men who served with him saying his statements are downright falsehoods. He served as a commander of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with the 3rd Squadron, 7th US Cavalry, which took the lead in the charge to Baghdad after US forces went over the berm to invade Iraq in March 2003.
"I don’t want to take away from what [Johnson] did do, he did do great things: led a platoon, completed the missions," Brad Spaid tells the Monitor. He is a former staff sergeant who served with Johnson in Iraq and now has a civilian job with the Veteran's Administration and has read the book. "We lost some really good NCOs, guys that we really looked up to, and we feel that … on Facebook and blogs other vets are coming out and calling us out and calling us liars and idiots, and it takes away from what we really did…. We don’t want to become a laughing stock, we want to be remembered for what we did and move on."
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That Sergeant Johnson (who received a Silver Star) and his fellows in the 7th Cavalry faced heavy fighting and performed admirably in Iraq is beyond question. The brief unit history on their website recounts that "combat operations for Operation Iraqi Freedom began on March 20th when the squadron crossed into Iraq as the lead element of the [3rd Infantry Division]. The Squadron attacked to Baghdad fighting both the Republican Guard and the Saddam Fedayeen. It was the longest cavalry charge in the history of the world and it ended in the capture of Baghdad."
But while I haven't yet read the book, the headline claim is an extraordinary one, based on my five years covering the Iraq war between 2003 and 2008. An ounce of common sense also comes into play.
In late 2007, after Johnson had left Iraq, statistics provided to USA Today by the US-led coalition, estimated that 19,429 militants had been killed by all coalition forces, including Iraqi ones, since the start of the war in 2003. Johnson's claimed "confirmed kills" of 2,746 would amount to 14 percent of all those deaths, an astonishing number for a single soldier who did not serve in the hottest battles of the post-invasion war.
His statement is even more remarkable when compared to the brief history given at the unit's home page, which recounts that "by the time the Squadron had redeployed it had killed 2,200 Iraqi personnel, 64 tanks, 41 armored vehicles, numerous active air defense systems, as well as trucks and civilian vehicles used as suicide bombers."
The squadron experienced heavy fighting between the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 and when it left in August. It returned to Iraq for 12 months in 2005. Former Staff Sgt. Brad Spaid, who was with the 3/7th's Apache Troop in Iraq in '03 and with the Crazy Horse Troop that Johnson belonged to in '05, estimates that they only had about six engagements during that second deployment with at most five to six insurgents killed in each one. Yet Johnson's confirmed kills claim is 124 percent of the total on the unit's history page for 2003 and, by Mr. Spaid's reckoning, would still be well above 100 percent of the total if he claimed every single kill made in 2005.
To be sure, the real number of militants killed by US forces in Iraq is essentially unknown, any statistics a combination of guesswork made amid the haze of battle when units were running on to the next engagement, not spending time counting up dead bodies and figuring out who delivered the shot that struck them down. A press contact for HarperCollins' William Morrow imprint, which published "Carnivore," had not returned a call for comment at the time of publication.
Whatever the uncertainty around body counts, the claims invite incredulity, and will raise doubts about any other claims made in the book, which is currently being heavily promoted by the NewsCorp media empire. NewsCorp owns HarperCollins and the tone of NewsCorp's news properties about the book has been gushing and uncritical. For instance the company's New York Post carried an "exclusive" on June 23 that begins:
With 2,746 confirmed kills, Sgt. 1st Class Dillard Johnson is the deadliest American soldier on record — and maybe the most humble.
As a commander of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle nicknamed “Carnivore,” Johnson, 48, helped lead the ground assault during Operation Iraqi Freedom, overwhelming the enemy with a relentless show of military might that left a trail of dead in his wake.
Johnson was obliged to report confirmed kills to his superiors, cataloging the dead in a green journal that revealed the astonishing tally — which only began to come light as he and co-writer James Tarr were researching his exploits for his memoir.
And here's a partial transcript of his appearance on Fox and Friends yesterday morning (titled: "True stories from one of America's deadliest soldiers") with the interviewer in full "hooah!" mode (the transcript is mine; I've summarized the interviewer's comments):
Interviewer: "Hear this incredible story, and meet this incredible man. With 2,746 confirmed kills Army Sgt. 1st Class Dillard CJ Johnson is one of the deadliest American soldiers on record..."
Johnson: "I've just always been lucky I guess, you know, it's better to be lucky than good. I grew up and I always wanted to be Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury from the comic books and I believe in America and what it stands for."
Interviewer: You've got 100 plus sniper kills, why did you write this book?
Johnson: I wrote this book "because I kept winding up in other books and magazines and stuff over an insert from 'On Point.' It was out there in public domain, and all these other writers kept using it. And Charlie Horse really deserves, Crazy Horse, the unit I was in, really deserves the credit for what went on over there as far as the battle and the confirmed kills. And the confirmed kills aren't as if I went out there and actually counted bodies to go through this – a lot of them are attributed from the book 'On Point' and the other ones are when I actually did battlefield assessment to give my commander an evaluation of what was going on out there. But there were other troopers that did as much as I did or even more out there with it."
Interviewer: What should people understand about our fighting men and women?
Johnson: "They should really know that there's nobody out there doing this for a paycheck. They're doing it for love of country and love of their fellow soldier and they're putting their entire life on hold and their life at risk every day so that people can enjoy the freedoms that they have.... I don't think people really understand, you know, when we go to war with someone else, they don't understand what that country was like and everything else. America has been very fortunate as far as how our civilians act and everything else and we don't have the same culture that these other countries do, and all we can really do when we go to these other countries [is] give them a fighting chance, you know, for democracy..."
Dennis Goulet, who was the leader of the troop's 4th platoon (Johnson was the 3rd platoon's sergeant), writes that he doesn't believe Johnson's sniper claims, particularly an account of killing two insurgents at a range of 852 meters. "I can tell you ... the man was no sniper," he writes in an e-mail. "The only weapon system he had that could reach that far would be the Barrett or the Bradley gun. I was either with him on every mission and if I wasn't with him, every enemy engagement would have to be reported to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and it's not like he was out there by himself."
A Dec. 14, 2005 release put out by a public affairs officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team appears to say that Johnson killed two Iraqi insurgents at 852 meters in an engagement at Salman Pak, just south of Baghdad. (I write "appears" only because I can only find the release on unofficial sites like this one, not on official military sites, but it looks legitimate). But neither Mr. Goulet nor Spaid has any recollection of this achievement.
Goulet says the .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle the unit carried was "seldom used" and doesn't recall Johnson killing anyone with it. I'm "not trying to discredit the man's service to the country, but there are hundreds of others that deserve recognition for their service, to include five men who lost their lives in 2005. It's about all who served in 3-7, NOT Johnson," writes Goulet.
Spaid says there are other elements in the book that ring false to him. In the book, Johnson recounts firing 7,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition from his Bradley Fighting Vehicle (nicknamed "Carnivore" and so yielding the title of the book) and dismounting to fight hand-to-hand. Spaid says at the time the heavy armor unit was not trained for that kind of infantry fighting and doubts that happened, recalling that he was only issued a 9mm pistol "with about 27 rounds" at the time. "We never dismounted, we were heavy armor."
Spaid says he checked with the Master Sergeant responsible for tracking ammunition used during that deployment – an important job since guns require maintenance after firing a certain number of those rounds and could explode, injuring or killing their crew, if they didn't get it. He says the sergeant told him "for Johnson to go through 7,000 depleted uranium rounds, that would have been 1/3 of what we’d been given for the entire invasion to be split between 50 or 60 Bradleys." He also points out that a Bradley carrying that many rounds would be physically impossible.
Other stories he casts doubt on include Johnson's claim that he cut through a 220 volt cable with a small knife to darken an Iraqi hut he was hiding in when insurgents entered. "That area where he was – there wasn't electricity," says Spaid. "And I've been to college, I think that many volts would melt a knife that size, even if it was insulated, not just leave a few nicks."
The tales of the 7th Cavalry in Iraq are filled with heroism, tragedy, and obstacles overcome, and I hope to revisit some of those stories later this week so that it isn't all about Johnson.
But as the saying goes, the first casualty when war comes is truth. Sometimes the casualties continue to accrue long after the guns have fallen silent.
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The US is often accused of arrogance in international affairs and it's not hard to see why. US officials frequently speak of behavior that is "not acceptable" from other nations. Or they tell other countries and leaders what they "must" do. Or, if they're feeling a little more accommodating, they merely "urge" other countries "to do the right thing" in their best disappointed parent voice.
But the matter of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole a trove of NSA secrets, leaked some of them to The Guardian, and now appears to have fled to the international terminal at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, helps bring to the surface how weak such rhetoric makes the US look, particularly when it's either unwilling or incapable of imposing its will.
There are a great many things that the US would like to see happen in the world, but standing on the sidelines while "demanding" this or that only serves to make you look like an adolescent, incapable of seeing the wants and needs of others. While sometimes such rhetoric is designed to fool a domestic audience that the government is "doing something," even worse is how often US officials seem to believe that tough talk alone can achieve results.
Fairly typical was Secretary of State John Kerry's comment yesterday, when it still wasn't 100 percent clear that Snowden had fled from Hong Kong to Russia. "It would be very disappointing if he was willfully allowed to board an airplane" to Russia, Kerry said. He also said the US would be "deeply troubled” if that had happened "and there would be, without any question, some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences... I’d urge them to live within the law. It’s in the interest of everyone.”
He directed those comments at both China, Hong Kong (a special administrative region of China) and Russia. The net effect of them? A red rag to Putin, some minor laughter in Beijing.
And, "law"? Whose law? "Everyone's interests?" Neither China or Russia view their interests as tied at the hip to America's, and the reluctance of two countries who are constantly beaten up by the State Department over poor free speech and human rights records have frankly been enjoying the spectacle of America chasing after a so-called whistleblower. Russia said the rock band Pussy Riot violated its blasphemy laws, appealed for understanding, and sentenced its members to prison. The State Department tsk-tsked:
The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia. We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.
A false equivalency? Perhaps. But that's not how Moscow sees it. Sovereignty is sovereignty, local laws are local laws, and we don't appreciate the yankees telling us how to run our own affairs.
What's it all about?
Far more than Snowden.
For over a year now, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her successor Secretary of State Kerry, and President Obama have insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "must go," notwithstanding that Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, disagrees strongly.
In May Secretary Kerry said "we've made it crystal clear that we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance" to Syria while at the same time the White House spokesman said: "Our position is that Syria's future cannot include Bashar al-Assad."
That's all very interesting. But it has made Russia, if anything, less-inclined to agree with the US than before. Russia doesn't want to lose its naval base in Syria. It is more frightened of jihadis taking over the country than even the US, because of concerns of destabilization in the Caucasus. Russia doesn't like the precedent of the US determining which global governments survive. Flush with oil and gas wealth and an aggressive nationalism under Putin, Russia wants to be an equal, not a subordinate.
Putin and Russia were particularly stung by their decision to abstain from the UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone for Libya in 2011 (just as Russia was stung years ago by the US decision to back eastward expansion of NATO). The US had promised that air-power would be used for defensive purposes only, the UN resolution spelled this out and yet the air campaign that was carried out was an offensive one designed to help the rebellion prevail over Muammar Qaddafi.
Better to stay mum
Russia, not surprisingly, is unlikely to take the US on its word in the near future and has also felt insulted by the lecturing it frequently hears from Washington. While it might feel good to talk tough sometimes, it's generally better to stay mum unless you're willing to go the whole way.
Yet in the US, most of the political criticism of the Obama folks is not the failure to find creative diplomatic solutions or build bridges but they don't talk tough enough.
Sen. John McCain is rather typical of this "lead by leading" school of criticism.
"For nearly five years now we have sent a signal to the world that we're leading from behind, that we are impotent, that we don't act when we say that we're going to... we need to show more leadership," Senator McCain told CNBC. He told CNN that Putin is an "old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire" and "when you withdraw to fortress America, when you believe in light footprints, when you show the world you're leading from behind, these are the consequences of American leadership."
Perhaps that makes for a good soundbite, but as policy advice, it's incoherent. Putin and other country leaders don't do things they don't want to do because the US refuses to show "leadership" or because of their fundamentally nefarious nature. They generally don't like to do things precisely because they don't see them as in their interests, and either need convincing that America's estimation of their interests is better than their own, or at least be offered a reasonable compromise in return for holding their noses and doing us a favor.
In the case of Snowden, they've gotten mostly bluster from the Obama administration as they have in the case of Syria (a subtext to McCain's comments today; the senator is a leading hawk on the country and supporter of its rebellion).
Today Snowden is in Moscow (more or less. He's reported to be holed up in the airport). And it's a moment that Putin is likely savoring, while playing up a rule of law argument of his own: "We can hand over foreign citizens to countries with which we have an appropriate international agreement on the extradition of criminals," Putin told reporters today. "We don't have such an agreement with the United States ... Thank God, Mr. Snowden committed no crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation."
There have been some signs of dawning awareness that public comments haven't been helping. Mr. Kerry said today about Russia: "We are not looking for a confrontation. We are not ordering anybody," though he followed it up with a sentence that surely made Putin smile: "We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody."
If Snowden is to be believed, he is carrying a trove of information on the NSA's abilities, programs, and targets. Moscow's intelligence agents currently have a whale of a potential source just on the outskirts of town. And that makes it likely the US is desperate to get him back. He may fly on soon. But it's not hard to imagine what Putin thinks when he hears of a "routine" extradition request from a country with which Russia does not have an extradition treaty. Something along the lines of: "If I give up this man that could undermine your spying operations against me, what of greater value will you give me in return?" What indeed?
"I don't want public attention because I don't want the story to be about me," the former NSA contractor said then. "I want it to be about what the US government is doing."
If that was really his desire, he's certainly gone about it in a funny way. From that day, every step he's taken couldn't have been better calculated to draw attention to himself. Over the weekend he even turned the media dial up when he fled from Hong Kong to the loving bosom of Mother Russia.
Mr. Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, has staked out a consistently anti-American and techno-libertarian position in the past few years. The US government is motivated by malice and power lust in his worldview, its rivals like Russia (where state-owned broadcaster RT ran a show of Assange's) get a free pass, and secrecy is an evil in and of itself. Though he presents himself as a champion of free-speech, Assange has sought refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador in London, never mind that the country has a poor and deteriorating record on freedom of speech. The Committee to Protect Journalists listed Ecuador and Russia as two of the 10 worst places to be a journalist in the world past year.
Like Assange, Snowden has requested asylum in Ecuador. And while Snowden is avoiding US arrest and prosecution for leaking classified documents, Assange is hiding out in the embassy to avoid extradition to face rape and sexual assault charges laid against him by two women in Sweden. So jumping into the boat with Assange will do Snowden's cause, whatever it turns out to be, little good in the US, nor will his sojourn in Russia, no matter how long it lasts.
Leaving aside a discussion of whether Snowden has done the right thing, his actions have undermined the likelihood he'll reach a much broader audience in the US, where voters are already inclined to approve of government surveillance as a safety measure. There is inevitable speculation today, fair or unfair, that Snowden will be interviewed by the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB.
And the simple fact of the matter is that this is being played for political advantage by all sides. Assange and WikiLeaks are seeking regained relevance and publicity, Ecuador would likely love to use its embrace of a "whistleblower" to fight its developing image of an increasingly repressive state, and Russia (which deals with its leakers rather more harshly than the US does) is surely enjoying tweaking the nose of the US, which frequently lectures it about its own country's track record on basic freedoms.
What is Snowden's agenda?
Originally, it seemed to be about violations of the US Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches. But during his stay in Hong Kong, he expanded his roster of leaks from claims that the NSA was carrying out wide-spread surveillance of US citizens to disclosing information about US surveillance programs against China, which is emerging as one of America's great rivals for strategic influence.
That choice weakened any future claims he might make that his decision to violate the terms of his top-secret clearance was motivated solely by a sense of patriotism or commitment to his own interpretation of the Constitution. While his opinion may prove right (the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a constitutional challenge to one of the programs though others claim that Snowden has dramatically overstated the extent of US domestic surveillance), today comes news that his agenda was far bigger.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reports today that Snowden told the paper on June 12 (why it sat on the news til now they didn't say; it probably had to do with a promise that they'd wait until he left) that he'd taken his job with NSA contractor Booz Allen with the express intention of gaining access to US secrets so he could steal them and release them to the world.
"Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: 'Correct on Booz,'" the paper writes. "His intention was to collect information about the NSA hacking into 'the whole world' and 'not specifically Hong Kong and China' ... 'If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of US network operations against their people should be published.'"
I am not certain what to think about Snowden's actions. There's no question the federal government's powers have expanded since 9/11, particularly when it comes to civil liberties. But Snowden has not stood up in an act of civil disobedience, pointed the finger and accepted the consequences.
He's consistently associated himself with people and nations that don't have America's best interests at heart since his first leaks hit The Guardian, and as he looks for aid around the globe, he carries with him what he claims are four laptops filled with documents and information stolen from NSA systems.
The notion that a little-known Palestinian linguistics professor with no political support base of his own could be appointed Palestinian prime minister and somehow strengthen the West Bank's Palestinian Authority (PA), setting the stage for an eventual peace with Israel, was at best a little whimsical.
But Rami Hamdallah's attempted resignation after just two weeks on the job should demonstrate that such hopes, expressed by the US and Israel, were more folly than whimsy.
Agence France-Presse reports, citing a "PA official," that Mr. Hamdallah submitted a written resignation today "following disagreements with his two deputies."
While it's not clear yet whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will accept his resignation, it hardly matters. Mr. Hamdallah's technocratic predecessor Salam Fayyad tried to quit multiple times before it finally stuck. The fact will remain that whoever is given responsibility for day-to-day management of the PA will be hamstrung by a lack of political legitimacy, real control over the government's finances, and the absence of anything resembling a workable peace process.
Mr. Fayyad, who held his post for six years, in some ways jumped before he was pushed. He introduced changes into how the PA is governed that threatened the entrenched Fatah party that Mr. Abbas leads and for years had been at odds with Abbas, who also worried that Fayyad was building a power base of his own. Hamdallah is seen as both a less politically dynamic and less experienced politician than Fayyad, but had vowed to tread the same path while in power.
Clearly, he's been finding that rough going. The PA hasn't had a parliament since 2007, when Hamas swept PA elections and Abbas's Fatah party refused to concede power or defeat. A brief civil war split the Palestinian territories in two, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Fatah's central committee, with Abbas at its head, running the West Bank in the name of the PA.
The splintering of at least nominal Palestinian unity since 2007 has weakened the PA's standing with its own people and in potential negotiations with Israel, which has dramatically expanded settlements in the West Bank in the interim. There have been no elections since and while there have been occasional gestures toward political reunification, neither Hamas nor Fatah have been willing to compromise, and the US and Israel have been staunchly opposed, since those two nations consider Hamas to be a terrorist group.
Whether Hamdallah stays or goes is irrelevant to the more important reailty: The dream of foreigners that a technocratic, apolitical Palestinian Authority largely disinterested in confrontation with Israel – which The New York Times columnist Tom Friedman amusingly called Fayyadism – is pretty much dead.
There is an aging group of Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah leaders around Abbas, who have failed to deliver the Palestinian state that the creation of the PA was all about. In the West Bank, there is no current political alternative to them. And Israel has grown very comfortable with the status quo, since the building of the separation wall has dramatically heightened their own security and the pro-settlement bloc in Israeli politics has gone from strength to strength.
While US Secretary of State John Kerry has been making vague promises of West Bank economic development and a restarted peace process, the position of the PA, reliant on external funding and taxes that Israel collects – and sometimes withholds – on its behalf, continues to deteriorate.
His weakness appears to be the very reason Hamdallah was attractive to Abbas in the first place.
"He’s a gray figure," Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist and expert on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, told Monitor reporter Joshua Mitnick earlier this month. "I think that Abbas was looking for someone who is an administrator and not a politician, while retaining the confidence of the international community that the PA would not become corrupt."
Gray figures aren't really going to cut it anymore. And while the average Palestinian doesn't like official corruption anymore than the "international community" does, mollifying the international community isn't what they - or any public - want out of their leaders, elected or appointed.
Meanwhile, as the situation grows tenser, Israelis fear a third intifada could be in the offing, and the prospects that the Palestinian Authority can accomplish what it was created to do continue to dim.
President Barack Obama decided to arm Syria's rebels earlier this week. That sound you are now hearing? Raspberries, both from people who want the US government to throw its full weight behind a rebel victory, and from those who think the US should wait out the Syrian civil war on the sidelines.
Obama has pulled the classic maneuver of a compromise that satisfies no one and irritates everyone. But the decision, and the points of agreement from various analysts who disagree sharply about what the US should be doing, is particularly troubling in what it says about the lack of strategic care going into all of this (one commentator on twitter said it was looking like an "etch-a-sketch intervention.")
Does President Obama have a strategic objective in mind? He hasn't outlined one in public yet, and it's hard to divine one amid the morass of unnamed sources quoted in DC press reporting on the decision.
Sure, the US would like a stable, democratic Syria that's friendly to America and Israel, hostile to Sunni jihadis and the Shiite movement Hezbollah, and distant from Iran. Obama says he'd like to see a negotiated, political transition - notwithstanding both sides are committed to victory and nothing but victory. But that is just an empty aspiration if there isn't a meaningful road-map for getting from point A to point Z. That's not to say the US must have an answer to this question, or even that there's a plausible one to be found. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to ride the tiger and limit the fallout for your own interests.
But best practice in those kind of situations is to not get involved at all. Simply pouring more weapons into the situation and hoping for the best isn't a smart option. And if the Obama administration has cracked the code, or thinks it has, it's time it starts sharing that with the American public before the US risks getting dragged into another Middle Eastern war.
What's more, the limited amount of support currently on offer is highly unlikely to lead to anything resembling a decisive advantage for the rebellion writ large, particularly if the US is successful in keeping the new weapons out of the hands of jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra - among the most effective fighters on the opposition side.
Criticism of Obama's decision have been pointed - both from people who want a robust US effort to help the rebels win, and from those who think the US should steer clear entirely. Shadi Hamid is in the former camp, and he writes that:
What makes Obama's decision so unsatisfying -- and even infuriating -- to both sides is that even he seems to acknowledge this. As the New York Times reports, "Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement."
To some extent like the 2010 Afghanistan "surge," this is a tactical move that seems almost entirely detached from any clear, long-term strategy. A source of constant and sometimes Kafkaesque debate among interpreters of Obama's Syria policy is figuring out what exactly the policy is in the first place. Secretary of State John Kerry has been promoting the Geneva II peace conference, but his explanations of US goals have tended to confuse. For example, there is this: "The goal of Geneva II is to implement Geneva I." But no one is quite sure what the goals of Geneva I were, except perhaps to "lay the groundwork" for Geneva II.
George Washington University's Marc Lynch, an occasional adviser to the administration on Middle East foreign policy who would like to see the US limit it's military involvement in the war, writes the decision to send weapons is probably Obama's "worst foreign policy decision since taking office."
Nobody in the administration seems to have any illusions that arming the rebels is likely to work. The argument over arming the FSA has been raging for well over a year, driven by the horrific levels of death and devastation, fears of regional destabilization, the inadequacy of existing policies, concerns about credibility over the ill-conceived chemical weapons red line, and a relentless campaign for intervention led by hawkish media, think tanks, Congress, and some European and regional allies.
... Obama's move is likely meant as a way to "do something," and perhaps to give Secretary John Kerry something to work with diplomatically on the way to Geneva II, while deflecting pressure for more aggressive steps. The logic behind the steps has been thoroughly aired by now. The dominant idea is that these arms will help to pressure Assad to the bargaining table, strengthen the "moderate" groups within the opposition while marginalizing the jihadists in the rebellion's ranks, and assert stronger U.S. leadership over the international and regional proxy war. Much of it sounds like magical thinking.
Earlier this week columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reported that Gen. Martin Dempsey dressed down Secretary Kerry over the apparent absence of clear objectives and the danger of directly attacking the Syrian government. Mr. Goldberg cites this only to "several sources" with no further identification, so the usual caveats apply as to the motives and honesty of the anonymous. But if true, it's a fascinating window into the debate between the professional soldiers and civilian leaders in the Obama administration.
At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime -- specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
Dempsey informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: To be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria’s integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties. At a time when the U.S. military is exhausted, and when sequestration is ripping into the Pentagon budget, Dempsey is said to have argued that a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn’t welcome.
... Dempsey was adamant: Without much of an entrance strategy, without anything resembling an exit strategy, and without even a clear-eyed understanding of the consequences of an American airstrike, the Pentagon would be extremely reluctant to get behind Kerry’s plan.
The talk of many of the purveyors of conventional DC wisdom about all this is instructive in its fundamental incoherence. Consider the musings of David Ignatius yesterday about the White House's plans.
In Ignatius' estimation "the reality is that, despite his decision last week to arm the opposition there, Obama is still playing for a negotiated diplomatic transition" and that "Obama wants to bolster moderate opposition forces under Gen. Salim Idriss until they’re strong enough to negotiate a transitional government. He wants to counter recent offensives by Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed forces aiding President Bashar al-Assad. And he wants to keep Arab nations from bolting the U.S.-led coalition backing Idriss and instead arming radical jihadists."
It's hard to know where to start with the above. Some Arab nations already are arming jihadis, and the efforts to arm the "nice" rebels exclusively haven't worked, with strong evidence that weapons that started to flow through Jordan at the end of last year quickly ended up in the hands of jihadi fighters, who have been an enormous battlefield asset to the uprising.
Strong enough to "negotiate a transitional government?" That in reality would be "strong enough to win." Assad and his supporters view the fight as one for existence and survival, have the backing of Iran and Russia, and see little upside in negotiating a "transition" that ends up with them in exile or swinging from the gallows. If Assad doesn't fear imminent defeat, he isn't going to negotiate his exit. And rebel commanders, both under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and of the jihadis, have been united in demanding Assad's removal from power as a precondition for any meaningful peace talks.
Finally, it's unclear what the sending of light weapons - Obama has been frustratingly vague on what exactly he's willing to give them, and it will take a while to set up supply routes and vetting procedures - will do to substantially change the situation. The Syrian army is professional and well-equipped; Hezbollah is one of the most capable fighting forces in the region. Without anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft weapons - and professional training in their use - it's hard to see extra bullets or rifles making much of a difference beyond, perhaps, prolonging the agony.
Meanwhile, Russia looks on. President Vladimir Putin drew his own red line this week over any kind of no-fly or no-drive zone over Syria. His country continues to hold back on a promised delivery of the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system to Assad that has alarmed Israel and the US. The greater the US slips towards a policy of regime change, the more likely he is to deliver those and perhaps other weapons.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai continued his traditional disdain for the US today, furious that America might be involved in peace talks with a Taliban office being set up in the Gulf emirate of Qatar and suspending negotiations on an extended US combat presence in the country.
A day after the US praised the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar and said it wanted to facilitate talks between both sides, Mr. Karzai's government said it would not participate in peace talks with the Taliban there. It also said it was suspending long-stalled negotiations with the US over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow for the extended presence of US troops inside the country.
Karzai continues to gamble that the US can be bent to his will in a high stakes game of chicken, counting on President Barack Obama to make compromises in his favor for fear of being seen as the president who "lost" Afghanistan. But whatever happens over the SOFA, or whether talks with the Taliban start in Qatar or not, they are not likely to mitigate the looming storm-clouds over the troubled country.
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In a statement, Karzai rejected any US mediation role with the Taliban and insisted that talks take place inside Afghanistan. But the Taliban office in Qatar – a country that uses its oil and gas wealth to support Sunni Islamist causes around the world – had been in the works for 18 months. Inasmuch as the US has an exit strategy designed to prevent a hot civil war erupting again in Afghanistan, like the one that broke out after the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, this is it.
To be sure, the notion is now far-fetched of any negotiated settlement between the Taliban and Karzai, who is term-limited out of office next year at the same time America is scheduled to withdraw the last of its combat troops. US and other NATO forces are more capable than the Afghan National Army, and the Taliban is looking forward to more favorable fighting terrain. Make concessions now? Why would they?
And while the latest Karzai eruption has officials at the US Embassy in Kabul and in Foggy Bottom holding their heads yet again (Karzai has this year alone accused the US of conspiring with the Taliban to conduct suicide attacks and carrying out war crimes against Afghan civilians), there are more important signs of the challenges facing Afghanistan this week.
Exhibit A is the outbreak of fighting in Jowzjan Province this week, in which forces loyal to Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum – a key member of the Northern Alliance that worked with the US to drive the Taliban from power in 2001 – attacked the office and home of governor and Karzai appointee Mohammad Alem Sayee in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.
Mr. Dostum is an ethnic-Uzbek and a major player in Afghanistan's civil war, repeatedly accused of war crimes like the massacre of prisoners during that conflict. His militia was also accused of atrocities in post-Taliban Afghanistan, too – like the murder of thousands of Taliban prisoners being transported to Sheberghan in 2002, one reason he was in exile on the eve of Karzai's fraud-tainted reelection in 2009. But in a deal with Karzai, Dostum was allowed to return home before the election, and his militia insured the votes went his way in Jowzjan and other areas in the Uzbek north. In return, Dostum was named chairman of the Afghan armed forces joint chiefs of staff.
But alliances in Afghan politics and war have always been fluid and ephemeral, and with Karzai looking like a lame-duck, the vast amounts of foreign military and aid spending that have enriched Dostum and so many others drying up, and a new reality looming, it appears that Dostum is flexing his muscles. Governor Sayee alleges that Dostum has lately been distributing fresh weapons to his forces and has asked the Karzai government to take legal steps against Dostum.
That's not likely to happen. For a decade now, warlords like Dostum have been the "good guys" in the US strategic equation, but they're no more likely to play nice in a post-occupation country than the Taliban will.
The so-called Afghan surge engineered by Gen. David Petraeus ended in 2012 without accomplishing its objectives of setting the stage for political reconciliation and strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The country's electoral politics have been driven by vote buying, ballot stuffing, and intimidation, and former US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry was describing Karzai himself as an "inadequate strategic partner" as long ago as 2009.
But, well, you don't go to war with the strategic partner you wished you had. And that's the ultimate concern as Afghanistan lurches towards its next transition.
Karzai is on the way out, a longer-term US troop presence remains an open question, and would-be kingmakers like General Dostum are waiting in the wings.
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It's a typically sweltering summer in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to repair an inadequate electricity network, reach a badly needed loan agreement with the IMF, or repair fraying relations with the United States.
But amid the heat and anger, the movement that catapulted President Mohamed Morsi to power last year has bigger fish to fry. Namely, joining the increasingly heated Shiite-Sunni sectarian rhetoric around the Syrian civil war.
Speaking in plainly sectarian terms, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told Reuters that "throughout history, Sunnis have never been involved in starting a sectarian war" and that the movement backed a declaration issued by a group of regional clerics on Thursday that called for "jihad with mind, money, weapons - all forms of jihad" in Syria.
While his history is a little shaky, or at least one-sided, the increasingly intolerant religious rhetoric around the war in Syria is worth paying attention too. The Muslim Brotherhood frequently insists that it's separate from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that it founded and is now headed by Morsi, a long-term Brotherhood stalwart. But in practice the two are inseparable, and this kind of talk is dangerous.
The Brotherhood's belligerent rhetoric would appear to match the Obama administration's shift on arming Syria's rebels. But the way they're talking about the war in Syria - with calls for jihad, rooted in anti-Shiite enmity - will not be giving many people in Washington the warm and fuzzies.
The powerful involvement of jihadi groups like the Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration designated a terrorist group at the end of last year, has been a key reason the US has been so reluctant to provide direct military aid to the rebellion. The US fears that weapons it supplies will end up in jihadi hands and that the consequences, if such groups prove decisive in driving Bashar al-Assad and his cronies from power, will not be entirely to American likings.
While the US and close friend Israel have been at odds with Assad's Baath regime in Syria for years, there's no guarantee that what could replace him would be more to either country's taste. And the willingness of Egypt, which overthrew its long-standing secular dictator in 2011, to apparently countenance support of Sunni jihadi groups, also contains seeds of warning.
Hosni Mubarak's Egypt fought for years against Al Qaeda style militant groups at home, and worried about blow back from militants going abroad to fight in foreign jihads and bringing their ideals home. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who took the reins of Al Qaeda after the killing of Osama bin Laden, is an Egyptian and former leader of the country's Islamic Jihad.
And while Zawahiri and Al Qaeda hate the Muslim Brotherhood for its embrace of electoral democracy and what they consider other ideological deviations, the new Egypt is far more comfortable, it seems, with taking the risk of allowing people to go fight abroad than the old one. An aide to President Morsi told Reuters that the government was not sending fighters to Syria but "could not stop Egyptians from traveling and would not penalize any who went to Syria.
Morsi may further clarify his position tomorrow, when he's scheduled to speak at a Syria solidarity conference and mass rally in Cairo tomorrow. Also at the event will be influential Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has already called for jihad in Syria, and Saudi preacher Mohamed al-Arifi, who has in the past praised Osama bin Laden, called for jihad in a sermon in Cairo today. Another influential Saudi preacher appeared to call for jihad at Mecca's Grand Mosque today as well.
Sunni-Shiite rivalry has rarely been far from the surface in the modern Middle East, as Saudi Arabia's jockeying with Iran for regional influence over the years, and the horrific toll of the Sunni-Shiite war that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, make clear.
But now in this hot summer, the rivalry is being stoked again by the horrors of Syria's civil war. And while religious fervor may end up (or not, who knows?) turning the tide for the rebellion in Syria, it's likely to reverberate back out across the region in unpleasant ways.
Wayne White, a former senior State Department intelligence analyst for the Middle East, is someone I had the pleasure to get to know a little bit while I was covering the Iraq war between 2003-2008. In those years I'd talk to him every couple of months or so, and was glad I did.
Why? More often than not events bore out his analysis. So when he has something to say about the region, I pay attention.
The Obama Administration finally has decided to provide lethal military support to the Syrian rebels. Yet, if Washington’s main focus is providing arms, a detailed review of just that one option suggests it probably would not be enough to prevent some additional regime successes. Moreover, giving arms only to so-called “vetted” (or moderate) rebel groups could aggravate tensions between disparate opposition camps, perhaps leading to rebel infighting. Some believe a US goal in supplying arms now (aside from bolstering the rebels) would be to re-balance the situation as a prelude to negotiations. Yet, getting the many combatants-—especially the rebels–to stand down is unlikely, so the outcome of limited arms shipments could be familiar: more prolonged bloodletting and destruction.
He argues that the US determination to limit arms to fighters that say they're opposed to the ultimate agenda of jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra risks "being too selective militarily to have much overall impact" and points out that "rebel military vanguard has been radical Islamist in character - even al-Qaeda affiliated - for some time now." If Obama is hoping to put enough pressure on Assad to engage in meaningful peace talks, White expects the president will be disappointed.
It is no wonder it took the Obama Administration since late last summer to formulate a policy on lethal American support for Syria’s rebels, with limited regime chemical weapons use only partly driving yesterday’s decision. But even by mid-2012, supplying enough weapons to make a difference without providing them to extremists already had become an iffy proposition militarily. And with the opposition disunited, with some component groups bitterly opposing talks and rebels now regaining hope for victory over the regime with US help, useful diplomatic engagement also seems less promising than when Secretary John Kerry went to Moscow early last month.