News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
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.
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. (Courtesy of FBI.)
Lots and lots of questions remain to be answered about whether or not the Tsarnaev brothers acted alone, were part of some international conspiracy involving Al Qaeda and its allies, or were simply inspired or radicalized by some errant imam. So far, it appears that they acted “alone.” But the question of the “Chechen connection”—or, the “Dagestan connection”—lingers.
One question: What, indeed, did Russia tell the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers, who visited parts of Russia in 2011? Whatever they said, the FBI ended up interrogating Tsarnaev, looking into his records and his activities, and talking to his family. Apparently, they found nothing suspicious.
It’s entirely possible that there was nothing suspicious to find. Which raises the question, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, of whether or not the very act of the FBI’s interrogation of Tsarnaev helped radicalize him. An angry young man, increasingly aware of Russia’s brutal suppression of Chechnya, might have been pushed over the edge by the questioning itself, especially if he was guilty of nothing more than simmering anti-Russian Chechen nationalist feelings back then.
Concerning Tsarnaev’s history, The Washington Post reported:
The exact trajectory of Tsarnaev’s journey into radicalism is still emerging, but it first surfaced in 2011 when he somehow entered the radar of the Russian security services. It accelerated in late 2012 upon his return to the United States from a six-month visit to the Caucasus, when friends and relatives noticed a new religious and political fervor. And it ended in violent death after he was identified by the FBI as one of the suspects in a coordinated bombing that killed three and injured more than 170 near the finish line of Monday’s race.
And the Post notes that there was a great deal of violence during the time that Tsarnaev spent in the Dagestan-Chechnya region:
A police operation in Dagestan and Chechnya in mid-February last year, shortly after Tsarnaev’s arrival in the region, led to the deaths of 17 police officers. Twenty-four others were wounded. On March 7, 2012, a female suicide bomber killed herself and five police officers. Less than two weeks later, on March 23, a Muslim cleric and his bodyguard were killed by a remote-controlled bomb. Ten days later, three rebels and a soldier died in a gun battle.
In a report today, The Wall Street Journal says that Russia’s intelligence service is telling the United States that Tsarnaev met with a “militant” last year:
US investigators are looking into a Russian intelligence report that alleged Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev met with a suspected militant during his six-month visit to Russia in 2012, according to American law-enforcement officials.
But, the Journal says, who said what to whom is disputed:
The accuracy of that report and whether it was shared before the attack in Boston is a subject of debate. According to one account, Russia’s security service told the Federal Bureau of Investigation about it in November. US law-enforcement officials said they didn’t receive any such information and are trying to determine if it is true.
Adding to the mystery, the Journal reports that the unnamed contact for Tsarnaev was apparently killed in a raid by Russian security forces:
The alleged contacts in Dagestan included at least six meetings between Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whose family traces its roots to Chechnya, and the unnamed suspected militant, the American law-enforcement official said.
Russia carried out an operation against suspected militants, killing the contact, and Mr. Tsarnaev left Russia before he could be questioned, the official said.
Russia is notoriously obsessed with Chechyna, especially since a wave of massive bombings and other terrorism swept Moscow just before the rise to power of Vladimir Putin—and which, indeed, helped catapult him into power. For that reason, the FBI and the CIA take information about Chechens from the Russians with a chunk of salt.
As Michael Hayden, a former director of the National Security Agency and the CIA, told The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake:
The FSB is mad at a lot of Chechens. Not all of them are terrorists, and even fewer of them are dangerous to the United States.
The Daily Beast adds, not without reason:
Those [former intelligence and law enforcement] officials pointed to the FSB’s habit of treating much behavior by Chechens as suspicious, and nearly all such behavior as terror-related. The Tsarnaev request, they speculated, was likely triggered by the FSB’s concern that he would participate in or provide support to Chechen insurrectionists in Russia, rather that by any sense of a threat to American interests.
Properly enough, various members of Congress—mostly Republicans—are asking for the FBI to release its file on Tsarnaev from 2011. Their motivation, I’d suspect, is less because they want to get to the bottom of the issue and more because they’re hoping to find some way to embarrass the Obama administration by discovering some lapse in the inquiry. In any case, though, the FBI ought to release the complete file on Tsarnaev immediately, so we can all judge for ourselves.
UPDATE The Washington Post reports that the surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, says that he and his brother were motivated chiefly by anger over America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, more generally, "US actions in the Muslim world." They were, says the Post, "self-radicalized," according to US officials. The officials also disputed the idea that Russia had serious concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, since they allowed him to travel freely in and out of the country.
The bombers may be ethnically Chechen, but the United States shouldn't be drawn into Moscow's heavy-handed anti-terrorist operations in the Caucasus, Robert Dreyfuss writes.
Vladimir Putin first won political popularity by cracking down on separatist movements in the Northern Caucasus. (Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti.)
When President Obama meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, they’ll have a lot to talk about. Some things on the agenda will have prime importance: the crisis in Syria, talks with Iran, disarmament and nuclear weapons among them. Far less important are issues on the fringe, including the deplorable state of human rights in Russia and now, after the Boston bombings, terrorism.
Terrorism, all agree, is bad. But marrying the already-overblown US “war on terrorism”—complete with drones, war in Afghanistan and questionable treatment of suspects at home—to Moscow’s heavy-handed, bloody assault on mostly Muslim rebels in the Caucasus just isn’t a good idea. There’s no doubt that Putin and the security services in Russia would love the United States to become an active ally in cracking down on radical and militant Muslim groups from Central Asia to the Caucasus to, well, Syria, where the United States is supporting the very same radical Muslim insurgents that it opposes elsewhere, including in Iraq.
But that’s a terrible idea.
Happily enough, at least one of the Chechnya-based extremist Muslim groups said, in a statement following the revelation that the Boston bombers were former Chechens, that is has no beef with Washington. As quoted in The Wall Street Journal, the Command of the Mujahedeen of the Vilayat in Dagestan said:
The Caucasian Mujahedeen are not fighting with the United States of America. We are at war with Russia which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims.
The group went on to suggest that the Russian security services themselves might have had a hand in the bombings, although there’s no evidence to support such a conspiracy theory. Said the group:
If the US government is really interested in establishing the true organizers of the explosions in Boston, and are not simply playing along with Russia, they should focus on the involvement of Russian security services in the events.
Incidentally, even though it has been widely reported that the Russians first alerted US authorities to the activities of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older brother involved in the marathon attack, the Journal reports that Russia’s intelligence service, the Federal Security Service, itself says that it has been unable to find any connection between the Tsarnaevs and the Mujahedeen.
As The Washington Post reports:
The exact trajectory of Tsarnaev’s journey into radicalism is still emerging, but it first surfaced in 2011 when he somehow entered the radar of the Russian security services. It accelerated in late 2012 upon his return to the United States from a six-month visit to the Caucasus, when friends and relatives noticed a new religious and political fervor.
But, when they interviewed Tsarnaev in 2011, at Russia’s request, the FBI found nothing worrisome.
It isn’t clear how many Russians, Chechens or otherwise, have been flagged by the Russian security services to the FBI over the years, who then found themselves interrogated by the FBI. It’s impossible to believe that Tsarnaev was the only one. But, as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle tells us, the very act of looking at something can alter it. Did the FBI’s interview of Tsarnaev in 2011 contribute to his radicalization? Could it be that the act of interrogating him, while he was already angry and distressed about Russia’s brutalization of Chechnya, intensified his anti-Russian feelings and broadened them to include an anti-American animus, too? Seems likely to me.
If so, it’s a perfect illustration of why the United States should stay out of Russia’s jihad against Chechnya.
What further complicated the US-Russia relationship is America’s very own jihad against the government of President Assad in Syria. There, where Russia supports the government, the United States is quietly intensifying its support to Al Qaeda–linked rebels who are leading the other side of the civil war. (Of course, the United States says that it wants to ally with moderates in the war, not Al Qaeda, but that’s easier said than done!) Both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say that they want a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and that necessarily would involve a US-Russian concert of power. But, as the Post reports, the after-effects of the Boston bombs make it more difficult. Says the Post:
The possible link between the Boston Marathon bombings and Chechnya’s struggle for independence from Russia is likely to harden Russian opposition to any outside intervention in Syria and complicate the question of whether to arm the Syrian rebels.
Russia fought two wars to put down Chechen separatists and is accused of ongoing brutality involving what it calls terrorist elements in majority-Muslim Chechnya and the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. The experience underpins Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his two-year fight to put down a rebellion he calls terrorism.
And the paper quotes Mark Katz, a Russia specialist, who says:
Moscow will undoubtedly point to the bombing to further its argument that terrorists are active in Syria as well as Chechnya.
If Moscow does indeed point to that fact, it will be correct.
The United States needs Russia’s cooperation on Syria, on Iran, and in other areas of strategic importance. But there are irritants.
One irritant in US-Russia relations is, as always, the ill-conceived plan to place US missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Last week, Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, traveled to Moscow to discuss the issue (among other topics), and it seems he didn’t make much progress. According to Reuters:
Russia and the United States remain at odds over US plans for an anti-missile shield in Europe following talks in Moscow this week with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, a senior aide to President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.
“There is no progress on missile defense,” Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said, according to news agency RIA. … Ushakov said that U.S. proposals he said were laid out in a message delivered by Donilon contained little that was new and “did not make us very happy”, though he added that Russia would examine them further, RIA reported.
And then there is human rights, a long-standing roadblock to better Washington-Moscow ties. The default impulse in Washington is jump up and down and demand that Russia give dissidents and others more political freedom, but inevitably that gets in the way of strategic cooperation.
In an op-ed in The New York Times today, veteran reporter Bill Keller writes of the case of Aleksei Navalny, an activist and blogger—whose platform, Keller notes, backs “free-market libertarianism”—who is being persecuted by the authorities. It’s easy to sympathize with Navalny, perhaps the most celebrated of Russia’s dissidents, and I do. But when he meets Putin in September, let’s hope that Obama doesn’t spend much time on Navalny and other victims of repression in Russia. As Keller himself says, after highlighting Navalny’s case:
For the United States, Navalny’s case calls for calibrated diplomacy. President Obama and Putin have a bilateral summit scheduled in September, and the administration is busily trying to salvage a relationship on the rocks. It would be wrong to let the case impede cooperation in combating terrorism (as the Boston-Chechnya connection reminds us) or the downsizing of nuclear arsenals or possible Russian cooperation in resolving the crises of Syria and Iran, not that much cooperation has been forthcoming so far. But it would be wrong, too, to pretend Navalny’s case didn’t matter.
Personally, I don’t care if the case “impede(s) cooperation in combating terrorism.” But solving Syria, Iran, North Korea, arms control and many other critical issues already gives Obama a long agenda when he sees Putin.
By September, let’s hope, the Boston bombings too will be ancient history.
The Boston bombers Chechen identity has challenged the mainstream media’s terrorist tropes, Leslie Savan writes.
Police officers in New York, which was on heightened alert after the Boston Marathon bombings. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid.)
While the “massive manhunt” continues for a 19-year-old kid in and around Massachusetts, it’s a good idea to step back and remember that terrorism is really just a nuisance. Unfortunately, the near-hysteria that seized the country on 9/11 continues unabated, now provoked by the bombings at the Boston marathon.
Post 9/11, that frenzy led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the passage of the nefarious Patriot Act, the creation of the Northern Command at the Defense Department, the funneling of countless billions of dollars from the Department of Justice and other agencies to law enforcement and police departments around the nation, the setting up of intrusive “police intelligence units” in cities and even small towns, and much, much more.
Now we have to wall-to-wall coverage of a small but high-profile bomb attack that killed three people and injured about 200. Horrible, yes. But it’ll pass.
As John Mueller, the author of Overblown frequently points out, the chances that an American will die in a terrorist attack are about 1 in 3,500,000. Personally, I’m not worried about it. Compare that to the fact that the chance that you’ll die this year in a car accident is about 1 in 8,000. And so on.
Earlier this week, I blogged about the fact that terrorism in the United States is very, very low and declining, from a high point in the 1970s to almost nothing today.
Maybe the young men who carried explosives-packed pressure cookers into downtown Boston on Monday have some murky ties to terrorists in Russia or Chechnya, and maybe they don’t. Maybe Al Qaeda is involved, and maybe it isn’t. But if the sort of mini-terrorism that we saw in Boston is the best that they can do, then it’s hardly a threat of major proportions.
Here and there, a few commentators are making this point. But if you watch CNN, Fox, MSNBC and other television or cable news channels, you’d think it was the end of the world. Happily, Doyle McManus, a veteran journalist, writes this:
As horrible as Monday’s attack in Boston was, the kind of mass terrorism that 9/11 seemed to herald — a wave of bombings in public places — simply hasn’t happened. There have been interrupted plots — in Times Square, on airplanes — but there had been abortive plots before 9/11, too.
As political scientist John Mueller of Ohio State University is fond of pointing out, Americans are more likely to die by drowning in a bathtub than from a terrorist attack, even after Boston.
So the question isn’t, “Why are we in such danger?” Instead, it’s, “Why are we so safe?”
What’s more worrying, to me at least, is the bubbling up of domestic, right-wing terrorist groups and individuals who might commit atrocities out of sheer hatred of government and racial bigotry. The oddball, anti-government loon who sent ricin-filled letters to the White House and to a Mississippi senator last week is the perfect example. He is probably mentally ill, but it appears that he’s harbored typically right-extremist views about government for a while. Ditto the emergence of Aryan Brotherhood of Texas and similar gangs, who may or may not have ties to the killing of a Colorado corrections official.
Journalism has disgraced itself, of course, in covering the Boston bombings. A Los Angeles Times story recounts many of the errors, confusion and missteps by CNN, the New York Post, and other outlets. After describing how the New York Post stupidly put photos of the wrong people on its website, it goes on:
On Wednesday, CNN, Fox News and the Associated Press erroneously reported that an arrest had been made in the case. Other outlets, including The Times, then reported what those other news outlets were saying. NBC and the New York Times did not report the faux arrest, nor did they report what others were saying.
But CNN had a double dose of egg on its face when veteran reporter John King said his sources told him that the arrestee was a “dark-skinned male.” King qualified the statement as much as possible, and cautioned not to leap to conclusions, but once he uttered the phrase, the damage was done.
Claims feed into stereotypes and affirm our worst prejudices. A Saudi Arabian kid running from the blast must be the suspect. A couple of swarthy backpack-toting kids watching the race must be the suspects. The New York Post promulgated both those stories.
This is how hysteria starts.
The hysteria started twelve years ago.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on how terrorism is actually at an all-time low.
Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling to meet with Syrian rebels and favors greater US involvement. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin.)
Curious it is, as Yoda might say, that Obama administration officials are openly in disagreement about whether to escalate America’s involvement in the civil war in Syria. The good news: the administration is confused, and it finds the situation in Syria confusing. The bad news: step by step, the United States is edging closer to direct involvement in the war.
Most encouragingly, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that White House and other US officials no longer seem to want a victory by the Syrian rebels. In case you don’t read the Journal, its story began this way:
Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don't want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the "good guys" may not come out on top.
And, it appears, the Obama administration now prefers a diplomatic solution rather a military victory by the rebels, because of Al Qaeda’s increasing influence. Says the Journal’s report:
Administration officials fear that with Islamists tied to Al Qaeda increasingly dominating the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, too swift a rebel victory would undercut hopes for finding a diplomatic solution, according to current and former officials. It would also shatter national institutions along with what remains of civil order, these people say, increasing the danger that Syrian chemical weapons will be used or transferred to terrorists.
Inside the administration, it seems that no one wants to make a decision one way or the other, although since late in 2012 President Obama has rebuffed top aides – including Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, and Gen. Martine Dempsey – who urged that the United States back the rebels with military support. Amazingly, when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testified before Congress yesterday, he said that Obama hadn’t asked for his opinion:
We’ve not been asked. As I said, I’ve not been asked by the president.
General Dempsey chimed in thus:
We’ve had national security staff meetings at which we’ve been asked to brief the options, but we haven’t been asked for a recommendation.
In reporting the conflict inside the administration, including what appears to be Secretary of State John Kerry’s more interventionist point of view, The New York Times wrote:
In a long day of hearings, Mr. Kerry highlighted the opportunities in working with the opposition and stressed the need to step up the pressure on the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Hagel, joined by Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the Pentagon was moving to deliver medical supplies and food rations to that opposition. But highlighting the risks of deeper involvement in Syria, General Dempsey said the situation with the opposition had become more confused.
The differing assessments came as the White House is considering what steps to take next in [the] conflict.
Said Kerry, who’s traveling to the region again to meet with the Syrian opposition (though presumably not with Al Qaeda):
The United States policy right now is that we are not providing lethal aid, but we are coordinating very, very closely with those who are.
And the United States is covertly training Syrian rebels in Jordan, though again presumably not the Al Qaeda types. And, as the Los Angeles Times reports, the United States is sending troops to Jordan, including a command unit, inching closer to open involvement. In a piece titled “US takes step toward possible military intervention in Syria,” the LA Times said:
The Pentagon is sending about 200 troops to Jordan, the vanguard of a potential US military force of 20,000 or more that could be deployed if the Obama administration decides to intervene in Syria to secure chemical weapons arsenals or to prevent the two-year-old civil war from spilling into neighboring nations.
Assad, who shows no sign of being willing to step down, pointed out correctly that if Damascus falls, it may well be Al Qaeda that takes control, with the threat then that terrorism will spread from Syria into the West. As The Washington Post reports, Assad said:
Just as the West financed al-Qaida in Afghanistan in its beginnings, and later paid a heavy price, today it is supporting it in Syria, Libya and other places and will pay the price later in the heart of Europe and the United States. ... We hope that Jordanian officials ... will be more aware because the fire will not stop at our border and everyone knows that Jordan is as exposed as Syria.
The same Post article quoted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, making a pitch for a diplomatic solution, and he too warned about the possible spread of terrorism:
If the priority is peace, changes and democratic reforms, it’s necessary to force the warring parties to sit down for talks. If Assad’s departure is the priority, the cost of such geopolitical approach will be more casualties. If we allow those making the emphasis on (a) military solution to control the situation, those horrors ... will multiply and the terrorists’ influence in the region will grow.
In this case, Assad and Lavrov are right, and it seems some parts of the Obama administration have begun to see the light, at least if The Wall Street Journal report is accurate. But, in its report, the Journal also suggests that Kerry is the main advocate inside the Obama administration for upping the pressure on Syria to the point that Assad quits. So far, that’s not working. The Journal reports that James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, believes that Assad is staying put. Says the paper:
"His perception is that he's winning," Mr. Clapper told the House intelligence committee. "He seems very committed to seeing this through and does not seem to be interested at this point in leaving or voluntarily stepping down."
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Robert Dreyfuss notes that terrorism has actually beeh on the decline in the United States.