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A council controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide who can run for Iran’s presidency. (AP Photo/Hayat News Agency, Meisam Hosseini.)
This is the first in a series of posts about Iran’s crucial presidential election on June 14.
If Iran is a dictatorship, its politics is remarkably rough and tumble.
Not only does the coming presidential election look like it might well be wide open and contentious, but it could have a lot to do with whether or not talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers will be successful when they resume.
As I’ve been writing for more than a year now, the talks with Iran have been largely frozen because both the United States and Iran were engaged in crucial presidential votes. To be successful, both sides will have to make significant concessions to the other—and thus to pay a political price at home, where hardliners in both countries will oppose any deal that’s half-a-loaf. That’s still hard, but with both elections out of the way maybe the roadblocks can be bulldozed.
As the June 14 election draws closer, a vast array of would-be candidates has registered to run. In a few days, the Guardian Council—the body in Iran that vets candidates for, among other things, their commitment to Islamic piety and to the Islamic Republic itself—will decide which of those will be approved to run for president, giving the candidates just a few short weeks to make their case.
In one sense, of course, that’s hardly democratic, since the Guardian Council would instantly bar anyone who doesn’t fit its preconceived standards from running—and that almost certainly includes women, a number of whom have filed for candidacy, along with anyone who’d overtly challenge Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And, of course, Khamenei wields near-total power over the council, six of whose twelve members are appointed by Khamenei and the rest by Iran’s judicial authority, whose leader is also a Khamenei appointee.
Still, for a political system like Iran’s, the major candidates who’ve emerged so far represent a broad range of Iran’s establishment. One of them, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a top aide to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has carved out a position that leans more nationalist than Islamist, and he’s emerged as a favorite even for some of the Green Movement’s partisans because both he and Ahmadinejad have challenged the clergy’s power. Both Ahmadinejad and Mashaei appear to be seeking an independent political power base within Iran’s system, and there has been speculation that the two men might be trying to emulate Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s move in Russia, who repeatedly switched jobs as president. Ahmadinejad, who cannot run in 2013 for a third term, has fallen out of favor with Khamenei and the conservative clergy, including Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, who had been Ahmadinejad’s chief clerical backer and purported mentor in 2009.
It’s far from certain that Khamenei and the Guardian Council will allow Mashaei to run. Iranian conservatives frequently attack the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei group, several of whose allies have been either arrested or ousted from their government positions since 2009, as the “deviant current,” and they’ve been accused of witchcraft, sorcery and worse. One of the sins allegedly committed by Ahmadinejad and Mashaei has been to imply that they are in direct, spiritual communication with the Mahdi, a mystical descendant of the Prophet Mohammad who, many Shiites believe, went into “occultation” centuries ago. The political implications of Ahmadinejad’s link to the Mahdi is that he short-circuits the clergy itself, whose ayatollahs claim that mantle of mediator between their followers and the Mahdi. In any case, were Mashaei to be ruled ineligible to run, it could trigger a political crisis, especially if President Ahmadinejad sought in retaliation to postpone the election.
Another candidate—who also might be declared ineligible—is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president (1989-1997). Like Mashaei, Rafsanjani didn’t register as a would-be candidate until the very last moment. He said that he wouldn’t announce his candidacy unless Ayatollah Khamenei gave permission, and although there is no overt sign that Khamenei did so, Rafsanjani’s family and others are hinting that the former president received a last-minute phone call from Khamenei giving him the okay.
In 2009, Rafsanjani strongly backed the reformist candidacy of Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In 2013, Rafsanjani has garnered an official endorsement from former President Mohammad Khatami, the godfather of the reformists. Rafsanjani is trying to cast his candidacy as a chief opposition both to the conservatives, of whom there are several candidates vying for Khamenei’s semi-official backing, and to the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei faction. Despite his complex and controversial past, both as a billionaire businessman and as the man who oversaw assassinations of dissidents in the 1990s, Rafsanjani presents himself as a practical and pragmatic doer who can restore relations with the United States and West, solve the Iranian nuclear dispute, and fix the economy. (As in the United States, the economy—not the nuclear issue!—is the No. 1 issue in the election.)
In different ways, both Ahmadinejad-Mashaei and Rafsanjani are relative “doves” on the nuclear issue, however. In early talks with the Obama administration in late 2009, Ahmadinejad seemed to endorse an interim deal over Iran’s 20-percent-enriched uranium that was later scuttled by his domestic political opposition, presumably with the backing of Khamenei. And Rafsanjani, who is closely allied with wealthy businessmen and the bazaar leaders who resent Western sanctions against Iran, would dearly like to get the nuclear issue out of the way so that the Iranian economy could be freed of the shackles imposed by the sanctions, which have badly hurt the Iranian oil and energy, high-tech, aviation, and automobile industries, among others.
But few if any Iranian politicians are willing to cave in during talks with the United States and the P5+1 over the nuclear issue. Perhaps the leading conservative candidate, who many observers suspect will garner Khamenei’s ultimate backing on June 14, is Saeed Jalili, who is the leader of Iran’s national security council and currently serves as Iran’s chief negotiator in the nuclear talks. Both as a candidate and as a negotiator, Jalili will stand firm in support of Iran’s fundamental right to enrich uranium, on its own soil. On May 16, following talks in Istanbul with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s representative in the negotiations, Jalili gave a clarifying interview to Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor in which he reiterated, once again, that so far the proposals from the United States and the P5+1 have been “unbalanced,” since they don’t recognize Iran’s enrichment right and because they’re asking Iran to make nearly all of the concessions. Said Jalili:
“Their proposals are unbalanced. The other party needs to appreciate that they need to table proposals that have the necessary balance. If they accept to do so, then we can engage in talks that will hopefully bring about that required balance. … As you might appreciate, the US is in no position at the moment to issue ultimatums. And this language, unfortunately, is the language—the words—that created so much headache for the US around the world. After everything is said and done, the Americans usually make such mistakes. And as each day passes, they seem to make fresh mistakes. These mistakes do not come cheap; they are very expensive.”
It’s almost inconceivable that Khamenei will make concessions to the United States and the P5+1 without getting major concessions in return, and so far the Obama administration has not been willing to offer those. In that sense, by supporting Jalili—who is well known to American officials and others—Khamenei could underline his refusal to sign off on any deal that doesn’t allow Iran to continue a carefully monitored civilian nuclear program, including enrichment of uranium. By the same token, none of the other candidates are likely to do so, either.
Finally, one interesting candidate—who, also, may or not be approved by the Guardian Council—is Hassan Rouhani, a long-time Iranian national security official. Like Jalili, Rouhani also was Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, with Khamenei’s support, but under the regime of President Khatami. In addition, however, Rouhani is close to Rafsanjani, under whom he served on Iran’s national security council in the 1990s, and it’s possible that either Rouhani or Rafsanjani could step back and support the other’s candidacy. Indeed, Rafsanjani’s son and daughter prominently attended Rouhani’s announcement of his candidacy last month.
Rouhani, too, has been outspoken about improving relations with the United States. “It is not that Iran has to remain angry with the United States forever and have no relations with them,” he said. “Under appropriate conditions, where national interests are protected, this situation has to change.” To be sure, in a series of speeches, Ayatollah Khamenei too has declared that Iran might be willing to restore ties with the United States, and nearly all of the candidates have echoed that view. Still, Rouhani seems to be unafraid to make better relations with a West a key plank of his campaign, though he too focuses overwhelmingly on Iran’s economic problems:
“My government will be one of prudence and hope and my message is about saving the economy, reviving ethics and interaction with the world. Inflation is above 30 percent, the reduction in the value of the national currency, unemployment and zero economic growth are among the country’s problems.”
There’s a lot more to say about Iran’s election and its implications for U.S.-Iran relations, and there are plenty of other candidates—including powerful conservatives, such as the mayor of Tehran—who have thrown their hats and turbans into the ring.
But let it not be said that Iran doesn’t have a vibrant political debate. In 2009, that debate spilled over into the street following what many thought was the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad. But if anything, there are more and greater contrasts today between those seeking to run for president than before.
Does it have meaning for the talks with the P5+1 over the nuclear issue? Yes. Not only do the potential candidates have differing approaches, I suspect, but the election itself might say something about Khamenei’s own views about Iran’s future relations with the West. We’ll see. If the Guardian Council bars Rafsanjani, Mashaei, Rouhani, and others and endorses only strict, “principlist” conservatives as candidates, it could signal that Khamenei won’t give an inch in the talks. If the council lets a hundred flowers bloom, or at least a handful or so—and there are hints that as many as ten candidates might win approval—then perhaps it’s a tea leaf signaling that Khamenei will have a little more give later this year when talks resume in earnest.
To be continued.
Read Bob Dreyfuss on the latest possibilities for peace talks on Syria.
John McCain confers with Charles Schumer. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File.)
John McCain, who seems never to have met a country he didn’t want to bomb, now appears never to have seen a peace conference he didn’t want to wreck.
Speaking about the current plans to convene a conference on Syria involving both the government of President Assad and the rebels, and co-sponsored by the United States and Russia, McCain had this comment:
It’s fine with me to have meeting or gathering or conference or whatever it is. But the only way that the Russians are going to be cooperative on this effort is if they believe that Assad is losing. That’s why we should act before any conference takes place…. That means a no-fly zone, that means [giving] heavy weapons to the resistance.
Leave aside the snarky comment “or whatever it is.” (It’s a peace conference, and it’s a desperate, last-ditch effort to prevent catastrophic bloodshed and a regional crisis, Senator McCain.) By proposing to provide heavy weapons to the “resistance,” which includes Islamists of all stripes, some of whom are allied to Al Qaeda, McCain is essentially suggesting to sabotage the conference itself.
In a hopeful sign, Assad has provided Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a list of attendees for the conference. So far, at least, the rebels have not done the same, but Secretary of State Kerry is diligently working on the Syrian Free Army and the other Syrian groups to attend. Kerry warned Assad that if his side doesn’t take part in the conference, to be held sometime in the next few weeks, the United States will increase its aid to the rebel side and “unfortunately the violence will not end.” But that seems like a needless threat when, thus far, it’s the rebel side that hasn’t agreed to negotiate.
Let’s not underestimate the huge difficulties that stand in the way, with extremists and sectarian killers on both sides of the fight and a path to a settlement that is far from clear. It would probably start with a cease-fire, a suspension of arms deliveries to both sides, the provision of humanitarian aid across Syria, and a decision to negotiate indefinitely on what a transitional government might look like. That, at least, is what I see as the right way to go.
At least one rebel video shows a commander cutting open the body of a victim and eating what appears to be his heart. In the video, the monstrous fighter says: “You slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them.” That’s not an act calculated to encourage comity on either side. But, of course, there are terrible atrocities on both sides.
The Alawites, who belong to an offshoot of Shiism, are fearful that the rebels—who are led by fanatical Sunni extremists and Al Qaeda types—will exterminate them if they are victorious. By the same token, widespread atrocities against Sunnis in Syria are being carried out by government forces.
Here’s more from what Kerry said yesterday:
I have talked with almost all of the foreign ministers in the core group who will be meeting next week together in order to lay plans for this negotiation. The members of the opposition have been in touch.… It’s only been five days since this was announced and a huge amount of work is already under way. When we announced it, we said towards the end of the month (of May) or early June. We expect it to be exactly that, somewhere in early June, I would hope, and that’s our current expectation.
We believe the … best way to settle Syria is through a negotiated settlement.
One key issue is whether or not Iran will be asked to attend. In 2001-2002, of course, Iran was powerfully helpful in stabilizing post-Taliban Afghanistan, though that cooperation dried up when President Bush decalred Iran to be part of his “axis of evil” weeks later. Because Iran is a leading backer of Assad, it would be very useful to involve Iran over Syria. Here’s a brief exchange from the State Department briefing yesterday with Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman:
QUESTION: Jen, can you rule out the Iranians participating? Were they invited?
MS. PSAKI: In terms of the participants, that’s being discussed now. I can’t tell you who is—who will be and who won’t be participating at this stage.
QUESTION: Do you have any problem if the Iranians attend the meeting?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to parse that. We’re discussing this with the possible participants, with a number of people as we lead up to the planning for the conference.
So at least the Obama administration isn’t ruling out a role for Iran.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on the Moscow spy flap and why Ambassador Michael McFaul should be fired.
A screenshot from the RT video showing alleged spy “Ryan Fogle.”
As if President Obama’s week hasn’t been bad enough, with catastrophic scandals emerging over IRS political targeting and the Justice Department’s scary spying into the Associated Press—never mind the trumped-up, but badly bungled flap over Benghazi—now the White House has to deal with a spy crisis in Moscow.
Although most spy flaps involving the United States and Russia are usually swept under the Top Secret carpet, this one could not come at a worse time. It blew up on the virtual eve of a summit meeting between Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and just at the start of a critical effort aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.
The Russian broadcast network RT has helpfully posted video of the alleged American spy, whose appearance in photos and video is eerily reminiscent of the photos of the Boston bombers: young, tousled hair, baseball cap and all. The man, Ryan C. Fogle—is that his real name? And did he really go spying about in Moscow carrying his real ID and embassy papers? While also carrying wigs and other disguises? Oy vey!—was nabbed with stacks of 500-euro notes and a written pledge to give $1 million to an informant (i.e., a spy) he was trying to recruit.
The FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, says:
“FSB counter-intelligence agents detained a CIA staff member who had been working under the cover of third political secretary of the US embassy in Moscow.… At the moment of detention, special technical equipment was discovered, written instructions for the Russian citizen being recruited, as well as a large sum of money and means for altering appearance.”
The Russians are kicking him out, but they’ve summoned Ambassador Michael McFaul to the woodshed for a talking-to.
McFaul, who’s been something of an agent provocateur himself—chumming it up too often with Russian dissidents and human rights groups, who, while often well-meaning, aren’t exactly at the heart of US-Russia relations—is a troublemaker. And while the CIA often does what it wants to overseas with only limited notification to the American ambassador, Obama could recapture the high ground with Moscow by firing McFaul, who’s past his sell-by date.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the event unfolded as a “previously scheduled session on U.S. support for Russian civil society began.”
The spying effort seems so twentieth century, with all the accouterments of the run-of-the-mill spy movie. As the Journal reports:
State-run media also posted a series of photos released by Russian security services that purportedly showed Mr. Fogle’s detention.
One appeared to show Mr. Fogle being handcuffed on the ground while wearing a baseball cap, a light-blue checked shirt and a dirty-blonde wig. The series of photos also included an image of what appeared to be Mr. Fogle’s U.S. Embassy identification card and another of his official Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomatic card. The diplomatic card was set to expire on April 29, 2014, three years after its issue date.
Another image shows a table strewed with the items recovered from Mr. Fogle’s detention. On the table are two wigs, three pairs of glasses, three Ziploc bags filled with thousands of euros, a microphone, a knife and an RFID Shield, a sleeve that protects passports and credit-cards with computer chips from being read remotely.
Again, oy vey. The embassy third-secretary was also caught with (get this) a compass. Yes, a compass. As The Washington Post reports:
“Who uses a compass these days?” asked Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who studies Russian security affairs. “This would be a phenomenal breach of tradecraft. This isn’t what they teach you at the CIA.”
The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement that hit the right note, namely, that the events are a poor counterpoint to the upswing in diplomacy between Washington and Moscow:
“While our two Presidents have reaffirmed their willingness to expand bilateral cooperation, including between intelligence agencies in the fight against international terrorism…such provocative Cold War-style actions do not contribute to building mutual trust.”
Precisely. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Suspected Boston bombers the Tsarnaev brothers. (Courtesy of Wikimedia.)
Can we stop talking about “connecting dots”?
I’m all for investigating and catching terrorists, especially before they do their evil deeds. At the same time, however—as the latest reports about the bombings at the Boston Marathon show—“connecting dots” can often be a euphemism for overly intrusive, civil liberties-violating snooping, spying, and deployment of government and FBI infiltrators, provocateurs, and worse.
The New York Times reports today that the FBI “did not tell the Boston police about the 2011 warning from Russia about Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” and it adds:
Had [the Boston police department] learned about the tip, in which Russian officials said that Mr. Tsarnaev had embraced radical Islam and intended to travel to Russia to connect with underground groups, “we would certainly look at the individual,” [Police] Commissioner [Edward] Davis told the House Homeland Security Committee.
Wow. Let’s unpack that for a second.
First of all, since 9/11 there has been a huge and unprecedented expansion of city and state police intelligence units, many of which engage in something close to outright spying. The idea that the Boston police department ought to be shadowing every person who has committed no crime, merely on the basis of tip from the notoriously excessive and unreliable Russian secret service—especially after the FBI, which investigated Tsarnaev and questioned him and his family—is scary. In addition, so far at least, we have no idea just how many potential “terrorists” the Russians have warned us about. It can’t be only the Tsarnaevs. Dozens? Hundreds? No other bombs have gone off since 9/11. Do we want police departments tracking innocent people?
Second, at least some of this is driven by politics. The very committee that Commissioner David testified in front of is controlled by radical-right Republican extremists who can’t wait to find some flaw in the administration’s handling of the Tsarnaev case so they can use it against the president. These are the same bizarre, obsessive Republicans who have sunk their teeth into a utter non-scandal over the September 11, 2012, assault on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, and won’t let go. The Times quotes Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican on the committee, who says:
We learned over a decade ago the danger of failing to connect the dots. My fear is that the Boston bombers may have succeeded because our system failed.
Maybe, but the fact is that we don’t want to live in a country where we have 100-percent effectiveness against terrorism, because that would be a police state.
Third, let’s stop talking about close cooperation with the Russian secret police. I don’t trust Russia’s oppressive secret services one bit, certainly far less than I trust the FBI and the CIA, and that isn’t very much. It is true that Moscow is battling an incipient Islamist revolt in the Caucasus region of southern Russia, in Chechnya, Dagestan and elsewhere. However, their version of how to fight that insurgency is akin to Bashar al-Assad’s version, namely, kill anything that moves. And in many ways, the insurgency in southern Russia, to the extent that it has migrated from nationalism and separatism to some version of radical Islamism a la Al Qaeda, is Russia’s doing. But engaging in ethnic cleaning and destruction of whole cities and towns in Chechnya and elsewhere since 1994, the Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin did a lot to create the vary radicalism that Putin is now fighting. Let’s give the FBI credit, perhaps, for trying to distinguish between a real tip from the Russians and a spurious one.
At yesterday’s dog-and-pony show in Congress, the Republicans—backed by an old ally, neoconservative former Senator Joe Lieberman—tried to wave the bloody Boston shirt about “stove-piping” and the FBI’s alleged failure to alert the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston to the Tsarnaevs. Never mind that the FBI, after looking into Tsarnaev, found nothing. Said Lieberman, in typical high dudgeon, finger-wagging:
The fact that neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security notified the local members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force is really a serious and aggravating omission.
Well, no, it’s not.
In addition, as more information begins to emerge about Tsarnaev’s 2012 visit to Russia, it appears as if the radical Islamists that he came into contact didn’t try to radicalize him but the reverse. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Tsarnaev … got a cool reception from some of the Islamists he hoped to bond with. … While Mr. Tsarnaev did find a circle of friends, some congregants at the Salafist mosque dismissed him as strange. Others said they feared his brashness would attract even more attention to them from Russian authorities.
And the Times adds:
On Sunday agents from the Federal Security Service [FSB], the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, interrogated Mr. Tsarnaev’s cousin, who is in police custody, asking if he impressed the young man with “extremist” views, his lawyer said.
But the cousin, Magomed Kartashov, told them it was the other way around. In interviews, several young men here agreed, saying that Mr. Kartashov spent hours trying to stop Mr. Tsarnaev from “going to the forest,” or joining one of the militant cells scattered throughout the volatile region, locked in low-level guerrilla warfare with the police.
Meanwhile, the Russian security services apparently killed several of the people that Tsarnaev had contact with. Whether they were actual terrorists or just radical Islamists with anti-Moscow (and anti-Washington, perhaps) views can’t be known. Like those killed by American drones, who are often mere radicals who may or may not hate the United States, those killed by the Russians may or may not be guilty of anything other than crossing the FSB.
So, yes, let’s collect and connect the dots. Just not every dot, everywhere, all the time.
Rather than help the Russians track people who have committed to crime, we should engage with them on finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, Robert Dreyfuss writes.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow this week. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.)
It’s an open question whether the new US-Russian initiative to convene a peace conference over Syria can work or not. But it’s the right move at the right time. It was welcomed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the beleaguered United Nations representative on Syria, who’s hinted that he might resign over the diplomatic impasse thus far. “This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time,” said Brahimi.
The peace conference would be based on a 2012 joint resolution issued by the United States, Russia and others.
The bombs-away crowd isn’t happy. Elliot Abrams, the neoconservative hardliner who worked for George W. Bush and then somehow found his way into the Council on Foreign Relations, issued a fiery blast at President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, who met in Moscow this week with President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov:
Faced with this challenge what did Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry do? They asked Putin for help. This is astonishing in itself, for the last four years offer proof that Putin is an enemy of the United States and seeks to weaken us, not to help us. The notion that we have common interests in Syria beggars belief.
The picture of an American secretary of state hanging around for three hours, desperate to see Putin and seek his help, is pathetic–and suggests a profound misjudgment of Putin (who has nothing but contempt for weakness) and of Russian policy.
According to The New York Times, the “the aim would be to push the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition to attend.” The paper added:
Russia and the United States announced on Tuesday that they would seek to convene an international conference within weeks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, jointly intensifying their diplomatic pressure on the combatants to peacefully settle a conflict that has taken more than 70,000 lives and left millions displaced and desperate.
Russia is, it seems, increasingly unhappy with the turn of events in Syria, where its ally, the government of Bashar al-Assad, is using heavy weapons against a lesser-armed, civilian armed resistance. It’s an important breakthrough for the United States and Russia to demand that both the government and the rebels attend a conference, because if either side refuses to do so it will reflect badly on the patron of the side that won’t attend. For Russia, were Assad or his representatives to refuse to negotiate, it might mean that Russia would be forced to abandon them; if the rebels refuse to attend, the United States would be hard pressed to continue to support them.
The rebels ought to be careful. Already, some of them are expressing unhappiness and skepticism about the conference, since many of them refuse to talk to Assad and they don’t want to see Assad remain in power, either temporarily—in a transitional period—or permanently.
So far, despite intense political pressure from neoconservatives and the right, including John McCain et al., and from Israel—which bombed the Syrian capital over the weekend—Obama has resisted getting more directly involved. However, there’s little doubt that the United States is using the possibility of stepped-up American involvement, including arming the rebels directly, in order to convince Russia to co-sponsor a last-ditch conference. Russia, though, has reasons of its own to seek some sort of stability in Syria, since the last thing it wants is a takeover in Damascus by ultra-militant, Al Qaeda-led rebels who might form alliances with Muslim extremists in Russia.
The neocons are apoplectic over the fact that Obama, having said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer” and a “red line,” still hasn’t decided to bomb Syria. Obama is being properly cautious, and he’s backed by public opinion polls that show that Americans don’t want to get involved in yet another Middle East war.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on how Israel’s bombing of Syria has invited Obama to take sides in a growing region-wide conflict.
Barack Obama in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Baz Ratner.)
If Israel’s bombing of Syria, which apparently killed more than 100 Syrian troops, is meant as a warning to Iran—as various analysts in Israel and The Jerusalem Post suggest—then the message is: We can strike a nearby, war-embattled nation just minutes from our bases. It really says little about Israel’s ability to strike Iran, a far more complex target much, much farther away. But it does put Israel into a firm alliance with Saudi Arabia (and the Sunnis) in a very dangerous Sunni vs. Shiite sectarian conflict.
President Obama, who, as noted in this blog, repeatedly, awkwardly boxed himself in with his off-the-cuff “red-line” comments about Syria’s alleged (and let us repeat, “alleged”) use of chemical weapons, should decline Israel’s violent invitation to take sides in the anti-Iranian crusade. But John McCain, who’s wanted to bomb Syria from the start, is urging Obama to accept Israel’s invitation to join the fight. Unfortunately, too many Democrats, mostly liberal interventionists and allies of the Israel lobby, agree.
Perhaps his readiness to intervene in Syria will be tempered by the fact that it now appears as if the Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons, too, according to the United Nations. But as The New York Times reports, the United States and its allies were, “in secret,” already discussing air strikes against Syria. But Obama should instead seek an immediate cease-fire, with Russia’s support—Secretary of State John Kerry is heading for Moscow—and then work out a political accord.
In any case, it’s hard to take Israel’s assertion that its strikes against Syria on Friday and again on Sunday, more massively, were aimed simply at rockets that may or may not have reached Hezbollah in Lebanon. From early reports, it appears that the attacks were aimed at key bastions of the Syrian government and military in and around the capital, Damascus:
The attack, which sent brightly lighted columns of smoke and ash high into the night sky above the Syrian capital, struck several critical military facilities in some of the country’s most tightly secured and strategic areas, killing dozens of elite troops stationed near the presidential palace, a high-ranking Syrian military official said in an interview.
Last night, speaking on CNN, Syria’s deputy foreign minister said that the new attacks mean that Israel is now firmly in an alliance with Al Qaeda against President Bashar al-Assad. He’s right. It’s an alliance that the United States, already entangled in the war, doesn’t need to join.
The attacks also create a major public relations problem for the rebels, mostly militant Islamists, Al Qaeda types, Muslim Brotherhood activists, and other Sunni religious folks, all of whom are not enthralled by the idea of getting overt Israeli help in toppling Assad. According to The New York Times, the rebels issued a confused statement noting that they don’t want assistance from “external occupying forces,” that is, from Israeli forces occupying Palestine. Some of them are critical of the Assad government for refusing to confront Israel.
Syria is threatening to retaliate against Israel, but really there isn’t much that they can do, and Iran, too, isn’t likely to allow itself to be provoked by the Israeli attack. That could change though, if Israel continues to bomb Syria in what would be an overt alliance with the rebels. But with Benjamin Netanyahu now in Beijing, it isn’t likely that Israel will continue to attack Syria, for now. However, President Obama, who’s tried, mostly, to stay out of the war, is very likely to do what Senator McCain wants now.
Writing in The New York Times today, Bill Keller says (in an op-ed) that Obama shouldn’t worry about his concern that going to war in Iraq was a bad idea, since “Syria is not Iraq.” Keller, of course, was in favor of invading Iraq in 2003, so we can take his advice with a grain of salt. As he says in the op-ed:
[D]uring an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment.
Oh, well—oops! A few hundred thousand dead. Time to move on. And bomb Syria. As Keller says, “Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”
The vast majority of Americans oppose military involvement in Syria, Robert Dreyfuss writes.
Barack Obama meets with then–Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. Russia will likely play a key role in any diplomatic solution in Syria. (Reuters/Jim Young.)
Having backed himself into a tight corner by proclaiming a “red line” over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama may have really trapped himself. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, he’s slip-sliding toward war in Syria. The only bright spot is that he hasn’t given up on diplomacy, and he seems to realize that involving Russia is critical to finding a political resolution to the crisis. On Monday, Obama spoke with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and he’s sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow.
Obama should take a long look at a New York Times/CBS poll that reveals that despite right-wing warmongering on Syria, the American public is overwhelmingly opposed to American involvement there. According to the poll, Americans oppose involvement by a margin of 62 to 24 percent.
The Washington Post broke the story yesterday that Obama is tilting toward arming the Syrian rebels—but not yet. The Post reported that he is “preparing to send lethal weaponry to the Syrian opposition,” but that a final decision is weeks away, with diplomacy yet to come:
But Obama, who spoke by telephone with Putin on Monday and is sending Secretary of State John F. Kerry to Moscow in the coming days, is likely to make a final decision on the supply of arms to the opposition within weeks, before a scheduled meeting with Putin in June, the officials said.
In his news conference yesterday, Obama didn’t say anything about the decision to arm the rebels, many of whom have close ties to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups, but with the shameful failure of intelligence about Iraq’s WMD in mind he did express caution about rushing to a conclusion about Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial board has been calling on Obama to go to war and complaining about Obama’s supposedly “vanishing” red line, reported (in its news columns, which are far more objective) that Obama’s comments make war less likely:
Mr. Obama’s comments at a news conference Tuesday made clear that he wasn’t poised to act unilaterally and suggested he would look for an international consensus in deciding whether President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons before committing military forces. In doing so, Mr. Obama made the prospects of a military response more remote.
And, although White House officials insist that Obama is seriously thinking about arming the anti-Assad fighters, the Journal adds:
Meanwhile, top White House and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials say there is little appetite in the alliance for military intervention in Syria.
Perhaps to cool the fire of war, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—who last year advocated direct US arming of the rebels—told a press breakfast that he’s not optimistic that American intervention would solve the crisis:
“Whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire—which is an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria—that’s the reason I’ve been cautious about the application of the military instrument of power,” Dempsey said Tuesday at a lunch with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome.”
The general added that he is not recommending the use of military force, although arming the rebels wouldn’t necessarily involve military force. A no-fly zone, or strikes against Syrian government positions, would. He questioned the utility of a no-fly zone, in particular:
He also noted that only ten percent of the Syrian opposition casualties have occurred through the Assad regime’s use of air power, raising the question of how much a no-fly zone would accomplish.
Perhaps—and let’s be Pollyannaish here—Obama is letting it be known that he’s considering arming the rebels and taking other aggressive actions in order to convince Putin, and Russia, that the United States is serious about Syria. If so, that can’t be the right strategy. Real, serious diplomacy, with the UN’s Lakhdar Brahimi at its center, is the right focus.
For more on Syria, read Robert Dreyfuss on Congressional Republicans’ siren song for intervention.
Senator Lindsey Graham is one of several Republican lawmakers calling for US intervention. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon.)
Part I of “Stay Out of Syria” can be found here.
Even as a stunning article in The New York Times ripped the cover off Syria’s civil war, neoconservatives—along with “liberal interventionists” such as the aptly named Anne Marie Slaughter—want war.
Let’s start with the Times. In a page-one piece over the weekend, the paper described the true face of the rebels leading the fight against President Assad, reporting in great detail that the vast majority of them are either violent Islamist extremists with ties to Al Qaeda or slightly less militant, but still dangerous, Islamists. The key conclusion of the piece:
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
Read that again: there is no secular fighting force in Syria. So, who exactly is the United States supposed to back? Added the Times:
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Readers of this blog know that for months I’ve been writing that the anti-Assad forces are mostly right-wing, extremist Islamists. They draw their support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, especially from ultra-wealthy individuals in those countries who are probably the same people who’ve backed Al Qaeda and the Taliban since the 1980s. Back then, they operated in concert with the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, in support of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Now they’re flexing their muscles once again, in support of an increasingly radical Syrian jihad. A big danger is that if a Sunni-led jihadist movement takes over in Damascus, it will radically exacerbate the Sunni-Shiite conflict across the region, pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against Iran, with Iraq as the epicenter of the conflict. Iraq is already tilting into civil war again.
Even as Republicans demand direct US intervention in Syria, various liberal interventionists are demanding the same, with Slaughter making a spurious and invidious comparison to—what else?—Rwanda. Just as many pro-Israel radicals constantly invoke the Holocaust, whose mass atrocities occurred nearly seventy years ago, Slaughter and her cohort can’t help but bring up Rwanda every time civilians are being killed. Joining with Slaughter all too often are key allies such as Samantha Power and, unfortunately, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who is line to become President Obama’s national security adviser.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post titled, “Obama should remember Rwanda as he weighs action in Syria,” Slaughter waves the bloody flag of “genocide” about the civil war in Syria, and she puts the onus on Obama to makes good on his promise that the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces would trigger a game-changing US military action. She writes:
Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons? That is a question you must be in a position to answer.
Lots of people have died in Syria since 2011, perhaps 70,000 or more, but it hardly qualifies as genocide. If Damascus were to engage in the massive, unrestrained use of poison gas against its civilian population, it would be different—although even in that case it’s hard to see what good options the United States might have. So far, at least, the cases of chemical-weapons use, if any, seem to have been extremely limited, and Obama is right to approach the crisis in Syria very, very cautiously—even though he boxed himself in by saying, last year, that use of WMD by Assad would be a game-changer.
Meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose intelligence service is cooperating the CIA to train anti-Assad rebels, Obama made an important shift in rhetoric, saying that what might trigger a US military response is the “systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations.” That’s an important qualification, since so far there’s been no systematic use of such weapons, only a tinyhandful of unconfirmed cases. Meanwhile, US intelligence agencies are uncertain about what the initial reports of poison gas really mean.
That hasn’t stopped militant right-wingers in the United States, too, from demanding that the United States go to war in Syria. They’ve proposed all sorts of actions, from air attacks to no-fly zones, and they’re using Obama’s own red-line rhetoric against him, as conservative writer Joe Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) does in a recent piece in Foreign Policy:
You’ve got to hand it to him. Bashar al-Assad may be a cruel and ruthless dictator, but he does know how to play his cards. His careful, incremental introduction of chemical weapons into the Syrian conflict has turned President Barack Obama’s clear red line into an impressionist watercolor, undermining the credible threat of US military intervention. Despite Obama’s statement on Friday that “we’ve crossed a line,” Assad knows that the United States does not want to be dragged into a Middle Eastern civil war and is attempting to call Obama’s bluff.
Perhaps the most bombastic of the critics is South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Bombs-away Graham makes the point that, having warned Assad against use of gas, Obama now has to take action or risk credibility in dealing with Iran and North Korea. Said Graham:
If we keep this hands-off approach to Syria, this indecisive action toward Syria, kind of not knowing what we’re going to do next, we’re going to start a war with Iran because Iran’s going to take our inaction in Syria as meaning we’re not serious about their nuclear weapons program.
Along with Graham, Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, that noted expert on Syria, called on Obama to bomb Syria:
Graham and Chambliss agreed there’s no need for the US to send troops there. The US, they said, could intervene by taking measures such as bombing Syrian air bases. “You don’t need to go deep into Syria to do that,” Graham said. “If you could neutralize the air advantage the Syrian government has over the rebels, I think you could turn the tide of battle pretty quickly.”
Well, no, you can’t. What you can do is provide direct assistance to Islamist fighters—and then what?
Of course, it was the selfsame Institute for the Study of War that houses Joe Holliday that recently published an alarming report by Elizabeth O’Bagy that dissected the alarming alliance between Syrian Al Qaeda types and Al Qaeda’s Iraq branch.
Media Matters, which monitors conservative media outlets, has pointed out that Fox News and other publications and broadcast sources are beating the drums for war in Syria without quite knowing what, exactly, to do:
William Kristol wants to go to war in Syria, but he won’t say what that war should look like. Appearing on Fox News Sunday to discuss reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the Weekly Standard editor (and noted Iraq war hawk) attacked President Obama as “totally irresponsible” for indicating that he doesn’t want “to start another war,” saying: “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
When host Chris Wallace pointed out to him that there are “no good choices” for intervening in the Syrian conflict and asked, “so what do you do?,” Kristol brushed it off without indicating how he thought the president should respond: “You do what you think is best. You’re commander in chief, you’ve got an awful lot of options.”
Kristol’s call for (non-specific) military action got a boost from Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume, who observed: “There’s something to be said for doing something. That if they cross a line, you’ve got to do something. Now whatever it is may not directly affect the chemical weapons use, but if it directly affects and harms the regime’s prospects in the war, that would at least be a consequence.”
Obama isn’t likely to pay attention to the likes of Kristol. But he is, however, capable of listening to people such as Slaughter, Rice and Power.
The solution that Obama ought to be pursuing, nearly full-time—since the crisis in Syria has risen to Number One on his priority list—is a diplomatic solution. The key is working with Russia, but there’s an emerging diplomatic initiative by Egypt, which sent top-level representatives to Iran in search of a coalition including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt to use its influence on all warring parties to the conflict. The Egyptian delegation met with nearly the entire top-level leadership of Iran’s foreign policy establishment, which is important because Iran is Syria’s main regional ally. Besides talking to Russia, Obama ought to be encouraging the Egyptian initiative, which could be helpful in opening doors into Iran, too.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on why the United States needs to deal with Russia on Syria.
Barack Obama has said weapons of mass destruction would be a “red line” in the Syria conflict. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
President Obama set a trap for himself last year, when he said that if Syria were to use chemical weapons in the civil war there it would be a “game changer” that would trigger direct US involvement. Now, it appears, he’s stepped in it.
In 2012, Obama managed to veto a plan proposed to him by nearly his entire national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, General Martin Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, last but not least, General David Petraeus of the CIA. Among other things, they wanted the United States to send advanced weapons to the rebels in Syria, many of whom are radical-right, fundamentalist Muslims allied to Al Qaeda. Rightly, Obama said no. But the “red line” about Syrian weapons of mass destruction was left open.
If, indeed, the United States goes to war in Syria, it will look less like Iraq 2003–11 and more like Afghanistan 1979–88, that is, a war in which the United States backs an Islamist-dominated insurgency against a Russian-backed regime. Of course, the United States is already involved. The CIA is training Syrian rebels in Jordan, and it is coordinating the flow of arms to the rebel fighters from their anti-democratic, kleptocratic backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who see the battle in Syria in part as a Sunni-led jihad against an apostate, quasi-Shiite government controlled by the Alawites and allied to Iran.
Does Obama want to get mixed up even further in a Sunni-Shiite regional conflict, one that is already having blackly devastating effects next door in Iraq? Let’s hope not.
Virtually the entire right, from John McCain to The Wall Street Journal to the neoconservative movement and The Washington Times, is thumping the tubs for war against Syria. Now that the White House has acknowledged, with some caveats, that sarin gas has apparently been used in Syria, President Obama will come under enormous, and probably irresistible, pressure to go to war. Still, the White House is cautious in its assessments, and in its letter to Congress the White House said:
Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient. Only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.
You can read the whole text of the White House letter here.
Nowhere does the Obama administration say what it might do. But the options seem ominous: drone strikes, a raid by US Special Forces to seize chemical weapons stockpiles, an all-out decision to arm the rebels, air strikes against Syrian military positions and the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria, complete with air strikes to destroy President Assad’s air force. Maybe all of that.
The New York Times reports:
The Pentagon, administration officials said, has prepared the president a menu of options that include commando raids that would secure chemical weapons stockpiles and strikes on Syrian planes from American ships in the Mediterranean. Last year, the United States secretly sent a 150-member task force to Jordan to help deal with the possibility that Syria would lose control of its stockpiles. Mr. Obama could also provide more robust aid to the rebels, including weapons.
Even Congress is divided, and at least one former Obama administration official, Gary Samore, said that despite the “red line” threats there are few reliable options for the United States to pursue. “If you look at all the options… there are just so many of them that you’re talking about a very large-scale military intervention,” he said. “The military options are really horrendous.” He’s right. Indeed, the United States can kill a lot of Syrians, cripple Assad’s forces and tilt the balance of the war back in favor of the opposition. But then what? There’s no clear result, and in the meantime the war will spread more rapidly into Lebanon, Jordan, and especially into Iraq.
In Iraq, the polarization and low-level conflict there that has produced violence for years is accelerating wildly now, with armed Sunni tribes nearing all-out revolt against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian, Shiite government. Some of the Sunnis are closely tied to the Syrian rebels, and Maliki is supporting Assad and getting help from Assad’s chief ally, Iran. Al Qaeda in Iraq recently announced that it is one and same organization as the Al Nusra Front in Syria, and the two groups have united under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Every notch up in the war in Syria ratchets up the conflict in Iraq, too, and if the United States gets directly involved in Syria it will lead it to a head-on confrontation with Iraq.
But the terrible consequences likely to follow from attacking Syria haven’t dissuaded Representative John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, from demanding war. “After two years of brutal conflict, it’s past time for the president to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad’s tyranny to an end,” Boehner said.
Fact is, if gas was used in Syria, it would appear to have been a very small case or two, perhaps in Aleppo and Damascus, perhaps by a rogue commander or perhaps as a test of American resolve by Assad. It’s possible that Syria might escalate the use of gas, but it’s far more likely that Assad has gotten Obama’s message from last December loud and clear, and that he won’t risk forcing America’s hand. That’s especially true because from recent battle reports it appears that pro-Assad forces are making significant gains in the fighting.
As of yet, Obama hasn’t committed to yet another war in Southwest Asia. But the squeeze is on. War, however, isn’t the answer. Diplomacy is.
To truly take steps to end the Syria conflict—and avoid a proxy war—the US will need to strike a deal with Russia, Robert Dreyfuss writes.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have spoken about the difficulty of drafting a Syria peace plan. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.)
This isn’t exactly a news bulletin, but the United States and Russia need to strike a deal on Syria, and fast. Various analysts, and Secretary of State John Kerry, say that’ll be hard, but them’s the breaks. No one said diplomacy was going to be easy.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had agreed to look for ways to revive a Syrian peace plan, but admitted that doing so would be extremely difficult.
We are both going to go back, we are going to explore those possibilities, and we are going to talk again about if any of those other avenues could conceivably be pursued. … I don’t think there’s a difference of opinion that [President Bashar al-Assad’s] leaving may either be inevitable or necessary to be able to have a solution.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, was noncommittal over the idea of Assad leaving power. But Lavrov did say, according to CNN, that he’s concerned the Western powers are hyping the threat of weapons of mass destruction (i.e., gas) in Syria:
The NATO ministers also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who warned that reports of chemical weapons in Syria must be carefully investigated to avoid a repetition of the “Iraqi scenario” in which unconfirmed allegations that the regime of Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction were the basis for the US-led invasion.
He accused Western nations of trying to “politicize the issue” and broadening the investigation. Experts were supposed to be sent to Syria to study the possible use of chemical weapons in Aleppo; instead, Lavrov said, investigators demanded access to all facilities in Syria and the right to interview all Syrian citizens.
“I believe that is too much,” he said.
Indeed, it’s too much. The prime movers behind charges that Assad is using chemical weapons is Israel’s notoriously provocative intelligence service, which yesterday revealed that it has concluded that Assad’s forces are using poison gas. “To the best of our professional understanding, the regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months,” said the head of Israel’s army intelligence. But, as The Washington Post reports, the Obama administration isn’t buying it, at least not yet:
The Obama administration expressed caution Tuesday about new claims by Israel that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against rebels.
US officials said they are still evaluating whether the Syrian regime has employed chemical weapons, a step that President Obama has said could trigger direct US involvement in a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people.
The administration’s caution is in part because Obama has set himself up by saying that any use of poison gas by Syria would change the calculation that so far has kept the United States out of directly intervening against Assad.
Bob Corker, a right-wing, Republican senator from Tennessee, is one of those in Congress demanding that the United States get directly involved in backing the rebels. But, in an op-ed in The New York Times today, Corker says that a US-Russia accord on Syria is key:
When it comes to Russia, America must display a deeper understanding of Russia’s regional interests and take advantage of our shared concerns about Islamic extremism. Russian leaders believe that Syria is becoming a safe haven for extremists, and we should take that concern seriously while at the same time insisting on sending aid to moderate groups. This could be the basis for a new understanding with Moscow and a shared approach toward Syria.
Only Russia can convince Mr. Assad that he must step aside, which is an essential first step toward a negotiated solution, and only the United States is in a position to persuade the Friends of Syria—a group of 11 nations—to isolate extremists and bring the core of the opposition to the negotiating table.
Of course, it’s not that simple. In recent months, it is true, Russia has quietly been distancing itself from the government in Damascus. Perhaps, Moscow might compromise on seeking some sort of coalition government involving Assad partisans and rebels. But not if it includes the extremist, Al Qaeda–allied forces that seem to have the upper hand in the fighting. Even some of the “moderate” Islamist rebels in Syria will have to be elbowed out of the deal, with more establishment-minded anti-Assad forces coming to the fore.
Meanwhile, as Lavrov pointed out, the hubbub over chemical weapons use in Syria could tip the balance and force Obama’s hand, leading to a direct US intervention, with anything from a no-fly zone to big-time arms support for the rebels to drone strikes. The Washington Post, in yet another neoconservative-influenced editorial, calls on Obama to “honor” the WMD “red line” that he created last year:
Though his policy on Syria has been weak and muddled, Mr. Obama has been very clear that the United States “will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” as he put it last month. He has said that such use would be a “game-changer.”
The Post, like many neoconservatives and Israel, too, is itching for another Middle East war. In 2012, Obama flatly rejected advice from Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and Gen. Martin Dempsey to arm the rebels. Let’s hope he stays the course.
Did FBI questioning push Tamerlan Tsarnaev toward extremist views? Read Robert Dreyfuss on the Boston bombers.