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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

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Obama's Choice on Iran


Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran’s presidential election in Tehran June 15, 2013. (Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri)

Hassan Rouhani, the surprise winner of the June 14 presidential election in Iran—and a man who has called for better relations with the United States and a deal over Iran’s nuclear program—takes office on August 4. In anticipation of that event, lots of sensible people in the United States, including members of Congress, former diplomats, and a passel of centrist-realist Middle East experts, are calling on President Obama to do everything he can to reach an accord with Rouhani’s new government.

So the question is: Does Obama want America’s first message to Rouhani to be: “Welcome to the presidency, Mr. Rouhani. And we’re piling even more sanctions on your ass.” You’d think not. But that is the message that many Republicans and Democrats in Congress want to send, especially House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Obama should signal immediately that he’ll veto any bill that smells like more sanctions, even though it will be strongly backed by the Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and plenty of neoconservatives and other hawks.

As The Jerusalem Post reports happily:

With 360 co-sponsors in the 435-member body, the bill will pass, and is expected to be matched in the Senate after Congress’s August recess.

According to the Associated Press, the administration isn’t happy about the idea of yet more sanctions, which would be aimed at shutting down Iran’s entire oil and gas industry:

The legislation would blacklist Iran’s mining and construction sectors, effective next year, because they are seen as heavily linked to Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard corps. It also would commit the U.S. to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015, targeting the regime’s biggest revenue generator and prime source of money for its weapons and nuclear programs.

This, of course, is piling stupid on top of stupid. As even the AP says:

If Rouhani is serious about compromise, setting new sanctions in advance of talks risks undercutting him, [a U.S. official] said. Even if the new Iranian leader isn’t serious, the oil measures in particular are problematic, turning a potential U.S. diplomatic success into a failure.

If China or Japan, for example, decides to flout the U.S. demand to stop all importing from Iran, the administration would then have to weigh enforcing the law by blacklisting Chinese and Japanese banks and companies at the risk of widespread economic harm—including for Americans. The likelier result is that the U.S. does nothing, making the sanctions look hollow and eroding international solidarity on pressuring Iran.

There’s a useful counterpoint to such nonsense, coming from at least 131 members of the US House of Representatives, who’ve signed a letter to President Obama calling on Obama to take advantage of Rouhani’s election to seek a new beginning with Iran. Says the letter:

“Given the stakes involved for the United States, Israel, and the international community, it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a genuine opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. …

“We must also be careful not to foreclose the possibility of such progress by taking provocative actions that could weaken the newly elected president’s standing relative to Iran’s hardliners.”

By “provocative actions,” the letter might be referring to additional economic sanctions, but—somewhat lacking in courage—the letter doesn’t say.

Meanwhile, let’s be honest here. A letter from a rump group of 131 members of Congress, mostly the usual suspects in the progressive caucus and few others, isn’t going to stop AIPAC’s freight train. But it’s encouraging, and it provides cover for Obama if and when he chooses to veto the bill—which might or might not get through the House this week but won’t get to Menendez’s Senate until the fall.

Meanwhile, an important bloc of Iran experts—including former top military, State Department and intelligence officials—last week called on Obama to “reinvigorate diplomacy” with Iran. They wrote:

The election of Hassan Rouhani to be Iran’s next president presents a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. We strongly encourage your Administration to seize the moment to pursue new multilateral and bilateral negotiations with Iran once Rouhani takes office and to avoid any provocative action that could narrow the window of opportunity for a more moderate policy out of Tehran.

Once the new president has been inaugurated, the United States should pursue coordinated multilateral engagement on the nuclear issue through the P5+1. Additionally, the U.S. should prepare to redouble its efforts to pursue direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran to engage on issues beyond the nuclear file, such as human rights and regional security. After assessing the orientation of the new Iranian government, the U.S. and partners should prepare to offer a new set of proposals to limit Iran’s enrichment and nuclear materials stockpiles combined with stringent oversight and verification measures.

Among the signers: ex-Ambassador Chas Freeman; General Joseph Hoar, ex-commander of Centcom; Larry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense; Ambassador Tom Pickering, a former Under Secretary of State; Paul Pillar, a former top intelligence analyst at the National Intelligence Council; and many others.

Two of those who signed that letter—Pickering and Jim Walsh, an Iran expert at MIT, plus William Luers, a Columbia University professor and director of The Iran Project—explain their reasoning at length in a piece for The New York Review of Books. In it, the three experts reject “coercive diplomacy,” and they outline what a deal might look like:

It is possible to identify the core elements of a realistic first step for resolving the nuclear dispute. Iran would agree to limit its 20 percent enrichment program and not to stockpile such material—or alternatively, to end 20 percent enrichment in return for a guaranteed supply of fuel elements. (It is not yet confirmed that the 20 percent enriched fuel Iran has so far produced is of adequate quality for use in a reactor.) Iran would also agree not to separate plutonium—which could be used for an implosion bomb. In addition, Iran would fully open up its nuclear facilities to greater and more frequent IAEA oversight and adopt and implement the Additional Protocol (initially agreed to in 2003), which would augment the IAEA’s authority to carry out inspections.

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For its part, the United States and its negotiating partners would agree to accept Iran’s peaceful nuclear program (including some enrichment), and lift some of the most severe sanctions (including sanctions on trading in precious metals, European limitations on oil imports, and some banking constraints). Washington could agree to a process for the step-by-step lifting of all the UN sanctions in response to further progress. This initial agreement might provide for a verifiable trial period during which each side would be expected to comply with the interim deal.

Here’s a test of which way Obama might do. On August 4, let’s see if he sends a note of congratulations to Rouhani as he takes office. On June 14, as the election results become clear, the administration seemed to welcome Rouhani, though skeptically—and, rather churlishly, Obama didn’t send a diplomatic note to Rouhani. On August 4, he gets another chance.

Bob Dreyfuss on why negotiations with Iran have significant implications for the war in Syria.

Top US General Questions Syria War


A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah)

To say that the Obama administration has bungled Syria understates the problem. They’re badly split and confused, and President Obama seems incapable of getting it right. Hawks want bombs-away, doves want to stay out, and Obama dithers—finally giving the hawks some of what they’ve been clamoring for by deciding to arm the rebels.

The actual arming of the rebels is to be carried out by the CIA, not the Pentagon. More and more, it appears as if the US military itself wants nothing to do with Syria. In a stunning letter yesterday, released by Senator Carl Levin’s office, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the conflict in Syria a “complex sectarian war,” and he warned in explicit detail that virtually every option involving the use of military force is staggeringly expensive and might not work.

On training and advising the rebels, Dempsey said:

Risks include extremists gaining access to additional capabilities, retaliatory cross-border attacks, and insider attacks or inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties.

Bomb Syria? Said Dempsey:

The costs would be in the billions. … There is a risk that the regime could withstand limited strikes by dispersing its assets. Retaliatory attacks are also possible, and there is a probability for collateral damage impacting civilians and foreigners inside the country.

Establish a no-fly zone? Says Dempsey:

We would require hundreds of ground and sea-based aircraft, intelligence and electronic warfare support, and enablers for refueling and communications. Estimated costs are $500 million initially, averaging as much as a billion dollars per month over the course of a year.

And he concluded:

Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the very intelligent diplomat who’s in charge of the United Nations effort to find a diplomatic solution, told The New York Times that arming the rebels won’t fix things:

In an interview, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, expressed disappointment at the Congressional approval. “Arms do not make peace,” he said. “We would like to see the delivery of arms stopped to all sides.”

After dragging their feet, congressional intelligence committees have apparently approved the flow of arms to the rebels, which was announced by Obama six weeks ago but needed congressional support—since it is, incredibly, a “covert operation” by the CIA. Reports The Washington Post:

The agreement allows money already in the CIA’s budget to be reprogrammed for the Syria operation, a covert action that President Obama approved early last month. The infrastructure for the program, which also includes training, logistics and intelligence assistance—most of it based in Jordan—is already in place and the arms would begin to flow within the next several weeks.

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Meanwhile—even though in today’s briefing for reporters White House spokesman Jay Carney went over the top, saying that President Assad of Syria wants to “murder the entire country”—the administration has pretty much admitted that Assad has taken control of the war and that his departure isn’t going to happen anytime soon. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Assad is ready for peace talks—but of course the badly split, Al Qaeda-containing, prisoner-beheading rebels aren’t. Said Lavrov, meeting with a top Syrian official:

“To our regret, in contrast to the Syrian government, a significant part of the opposition, including the National Coalition, does not show such readiness.”

Meanwhile, another former top US military leader, the recently departed commander of Centcom, General James Mattis, has also weighed in urging caution before going into Syria. Said Mattis:

“Then we need to be very clear about our military end state and political end state. Otherwise you’ll invade a country, pull down a statue, and say, ‘Now what do we do?’ ” Mattis said.

In a panel moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at the Aspen Security Forum, Mattis questioned whether US interests are really at stake:

A former commander of U.S. Central Command said the United States needs to determine an endgame in Syria before it takes further military action in the beleaguered country.

In a panel moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, retired Gen. James Mattis told the Aspen Security Forum on Saturday that escalated involvement in Syria by the U.S. military would lead to “a full-throated, very, very serious war.”…

Mattis cautioned that setting up a no-fly zone would be a complicated and costly endeavor that is not a pragmatic military solution in a conflict where most of the violence is occurring on the ground.

“We have no moral obligation to do the impossible and harm our children’s future because we think we just have to do something,” Mattis said. “The killing will go on on the ground because they’re not using aircraft to do most of the killing.”

Has Obama already bungled peace negotiations with Russia on the Syria?

Kerry's Israel-Palestine Challenge


US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 28, 2013. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)

Skepticism abounds, and it’s not promising that Martin Indyk might lead the American side in Israeli-Palestinian talks that, it seems, will begin after six visits to the Middle East in six months by Secretary of State John Kerry. But the start of the talks, expected to last at least six months, is a hopeful sign.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Kerry did bring some concessions from Israel to the Palestinian side:

The secretary of state told Mr. [Mahmoud] Abbas [the Palestinian president] that the Israeli government had agreed to quietly halt building in Jewish West Bank settlements, but wouldn’t make any public announcement to that effect, according to the aide. He said [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu had also pledged to release some Palestinian prisoners before the first day of talks in Washington.

Mr. Kerry gave Mr. Abbas his own guarantee that peace talks would resume on the basis of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, the aide said.

The prisoner release, in particular has riled the Israeli far right, but the hardline minister for strategic affairs told reporters that the Palestinians to be set free “will be heavyweight prisoners who have been in jail for tens of years.”

Still, just getting the talks started isn’t the objective. The objective, of course, is the creation of a sustainable, financially stable, militarily secure Palestinian state that can create a viable future for people who’ve lived under military occupation for decades or who’ve been scattered as refugees since 1948. That’s certainly not an outcome that Israel desires, and it isn’t clear yet that either Kerry or President Obama see that as an important national security goal for the United States, either.

Kerry has created a framework that, he seems to believe, will move the talks forward. He’s engineered a vague, but promising $4 billion economic development plan for the Palestinian territories. He’s mobilized military experts, including a former US commander in Afghanistan, to work out some sort of military-security plan for the West Bank, aimed at overcoming Israeli fears about a Hezbollah-like threat arising there. He’s dispatched technical experts to work on the knotty issues, such as refugees and borders. But we’ll have to wait to see if the two sides have agreed to talks, under pressure from Kerry, just to please the United States, or if they’re willing to move forward.

Stephen Walt, in a post at Foreign Policy, expresses the skepticism in some detail. He points out that direct talks have been going on for twenty years (and, of course, Kissinger-type “shuttle diplomacy” since 1974) and that during that time the United States has acted as “Israel’s lawyer.” He notes that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s idea of a settlement involves Palestinians in “a set of disconnected bantustans,” and that Netanyahu’s coalition partners are often more hard line that he is. Meanwhile, Walt says, the Palestinians are sharply divided, and the region is a mess, from Syria to Egypt and beyond. Still, he say, there are “grounds for optimism,” though he’s expecting not much in the end. He says:

It is … possible that Obama will show more spine than he did during his first term and that he’ll get sufficient cover from groups like J Street so that he can pursue a more effective approach. That approach is going to require a combination of bribes and pressure: Kerry and Obama will have to convince both sides that a bright future is ahead of them if they can end the conflict and focus instead on economic development, but Kerry and Obama are also going to have to make it clear that things are going to get worse for both sides if they don’t.

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The ultimate imbalance in the two sides, with Israel a major, well-armed power backed by the United States and the Palestinians weak, walled-off, divided and nearly powerless, means that not only the talks but the outcome, if any, is skewed against Palestine. One wag, in an all-too-true hypothesis about the negotiations, suggests this:

The negotiation table will be round, with a hole in the center. Representatives of the Palestinian Authority will be seated in the center, while Israeli representatives will sit outside and surrounding the Palestinian delegation. The table size will be adjustable, allowing the center to shrink and the outside perimeter to expand indefinitely, at the discretion of the Israeli delegation. The Palestinian delegation will be expected to tighten their belts and/or reduce their numbers as needed in order to accommodate Israeli adjustments, and may not add cushions to their chairs without Israeli permits.

J Street, the dovish American Jewish organization that was established as a counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has allowed itself to be optimistic:

We call on Congress and American Jews to get fully behind this peace effort to give the parties the support they need to make the tough decisions necessary to resolve their conflict.

Achieving a two-state solution is a vital US national security interest and would inject much-needed stability into an increasingly unstable region. It would deal a setback to extremists and terrorists around the world who have exploited this conflict to mobilize support for their violent methods.

Such an agreement is also the only way to secure Israel’s future as both a democracy and a Jewish homeland and would provide Palestinians with a vehicle in which to fulfill their self-determination and national aspirations.

We know that difficult days lie ahead but we are convinced that with persistence, creative mediation and international support, a deal is within reach.

J Street, I’d say, has it about right. Still, after countless previous tries, the odds are that not much will be achieved. Which would be a shame.

Daniel Levy on the future for the non-right in Israel.

Obama: Don't Cancel the Moscow Trip


US President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, June 17, 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

President Obama has a long list of things to talk to Russia’s President Putin about: arms control, missile defense, Syria, Iran, North Korea, energy, oil, and, yes, that pesky leaker, Edward Snowden, who’s blown up the National Security Agency and its superspies. So, wait a second!—he’s maybe not going?

As we’ve known for months, Obama had announced that he’d travel to Moscow to see Putin around the time that he attends the meeting of the G-20 in St. Petersburg. Now there are rumors swirling—rumors that the White House is fueling—that in a fit of pique Obama just might refuse to go see Putin at all. At Wednesday’s White House briefing, Jay Carney was pressed again and again about the Moscow trip, he refused to confirm what had already been announced:

“I can say that the president intends to travel to Russia for the G-20 summit. I don’t have anything to add to what we’ve said in the past about that trip.”

Worse, when asked about comments from neoconservative hawks such as Senator Lindsey Graham that the United States ought to cancel its participation in the 2014 Olympics to be held in Russia, Carney didn’t even shoot that one down:

Q: Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that the US should boycott the 2014 Olympics if Snowden does get asylum there. What’s the White House view on that?

MR. CARNEY: Well, our view is that we’re continuing to work with the Russian government and other nations on this matter. And we hope to see Mr. Snowden returned to the United States.

Q: And if he’s not?

MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to engage in speculation about that, and the Olympics are a long way off.

It’s true that Russia has challenged the United States on a wide range of issues, including Syria. But that’s all the more reason for Obama not to act like a petulant child.

The main issue, of course, is not whether or not Snowden gets asylum in Russia. The central topic between the two countries is arms control, which Obama has said will be a chief priority in his second term. The United States also needs Russia’s cooperation on the Syrian civil war, where President Bashar al-Assad is making big gains with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. He also needs Russia’s support in the upcoming talks with Iran over its nuclear program. And lots more.

Last month, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Obama delivered a major speech—a follow on to his 2009 speech in Prague—on the importance of reducing nuclear arms. Here’s an excerpt, in which he pointedly noted that a US-Russia deal and global diplomacy could have an impact on talks with Iran and North Korea:

After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures. At the same time, we’ll work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe. And we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.

As Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association has pointed out, even Obama’s planned reductions in nuclear arms aren’t enough. In an opinion piece earlier this month, Kimball noted that the United States and Russia can work out an accord that doesn’t necessarily require a treaty that has to be approved by the notoriously treaty-shy hawks in the US Senate:

U.S. and Russian leaders need not wait for a follow-on treaty. As they explore options for a new treaty, Obama and Putin should announce parallel, reciprocal reductions to 1,000 or fewer strategic deployed warheads within the next five years, to be verified using the monitoring provisions established by New START.

This strategy would help compel Russia to build down rather than build up its strategic nuclear forces. Russia, whose nuclear force already is below the New START limits, is developing a new, heavy intercontinental ballistic missile to match U.S. force levels. More-rapid reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, which comprise 95 percent of global stockpiles, also would increase pressure on China and other nuclear-armed states to join the nuclear disarmament enterprise, an objective that leaders in Russia and United States say they support.

By scaling back its nuclear force to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, the United States can trim $39 billion from the Defense Department’s costly plan for new strategic submarines, missiles, and bombers over the next decade, according to a 2013 Arms Control Association analysis.

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The last thing Obama needs is a new cold war with Russia, on top of all the crises that are developing around the globe.

Putin isn’t making things easier, of course, by his blatant disregard for human rights at home, including the persecution of Aleksei Navalny. But there are huge issues at stake between Washington and Moscow with life-or-death consequences, and it would be a shame if Obama decides to pick up his nuclear football and go home.

Is there any hope for US-Russia peace talks on Syria?

A Deal With Russia, Iran Is Needed on Syria


Hezbollah supporters celebrate the fall of the Syrian town of Qusair to forces loyal to President Assad.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are about to get a big win in Syria. Nearly two years after President Obama declared, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Bashar al-Assad has gained the upper hand, and his forces are battering the disorganized, mostly Islamist opposition. It’s not too late for the United States to salvage something out of its absurdly bungled Syria policy, but they’ll have to move fast.

David Ignatius, writing in The Washington Post, portrays the American policy toward Syria’s rebels as just the latest is a long line of opposition movements, rebel groups and dissidents “seduced and abandoned” by the United States since the Cold War:

The story playing out now in Syria is so familiar that it’s almost a leitmotif of U.S. foreign policy. Washington wants to see a change of government so it encourages local rebels to rise up. Once these rebels are on the barricades, policymakers often get cold feet, realizing that they lack public support. This process happened in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the Prague Spring of 1968, the contras program in Nicaragua in 1984. It happened in Lebanon, Laos, southern Iraq . . . make your own list.

Ignatius has a point, although in none of those cases would it have been a good idea for the United States to intervene militarily to back up the opposition. Invade Hungary in 1956? Cuba in 1961? In the case of the rebels in southern Iraq—and here, Ignatius means those who revolted in 1991 after the Gulf War—we indeed did find out what happens when we put our armed forces where our mouth is.

Obama, who announced that the United States would supply arms to the Syrian rebels on June 13, is apparently having second thoughts. So are the British, who are backing off.

Earlier this week, in a post called “Syria Plan Blows Up in Obama’s Face,” I noted that everything that might have gone wrong in Syria for the United States has gone wrong. Obama is to blame for that: he called for Assad to quit, backed the rebels with words, set various Red Lines and teetered onto slippery slopes, and now finds himself in a situation in which the United States faces a massive strategic defeat by Assad and his Russia-Iran-Hezbollah backers. I’ll give Obama credit for resisting calls from inside his own administration to go all-in, but he’s still created a mess.

Assad’s military gains can’t be denied, and those who said it was only a matter of time before his government collapsed have been proven utterly wrong. As The New York Times, noting that the “momentum” in the war is in Assad’s favor, writes today:

In recent weeks, rebel groups have been killing one another with increasing ferocity, losing ground on the battlefield and alienating the very citizens they say they want to liberate. At the same time, the United States and other Western powers that have called for Mr. Assad to step down have shown new reluctance to provide the rebels with badly needed weapons.

And yesterday, the Times reported that the British, vociferous cheerleaders for the Islamist rebels, are having second thoughts:

After leading a determined push with France to remove legal hindrances to arming Syria’s rebels, Britain is apparently signaling a more cautious approach, even as British newspaper reports say Prime Minister David Cameron has retreated from the idea altogether.

Dennis Ross, the neoconservative fellow-traveler at the Washington Instititute for Near East Policy (WINEP), in a piece called “Is Syria Finished,” says that while it looks bad, the United States can still “win” in Syria if it goes whole hog:

This will not be easy. It will require coordinating all the disparate sources of support on the outside—from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, and France—and ensuring that all money, training, weapons, and non-lethal and humanitarian assistance are channeled in a complementary and cooperative fashion.

There should be no illusions: Should the U.S. take over the management of the assistance effort—something that will require a serious investment of time and political capital on the part of the administration—transforming the situation and the balance of power will take time, and is not a given at this point.

Three words: not gonna happen.

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The way out of the mess, though it, too, ain’t simple, is through diplomacy: Iran’s new president has signaled that he wants better relations with Saudi Arabia and that he might be open to a negotiated end to Syria’s civil war. The Russians have made their point, and it’s time for the United States and Russia to set a date for the Geneva peace conference. And already the United States is providing Hezbollah with warnings about terrorism linked to the anti-Hezbollah, anti-Shiite Sunni fanatics who oppose Assad. The good that could come from the looming American defeat in Syria is a lasting deal with Iran, Russia and their friends in the region.

Would Samantha Power’s confirmation change US policy in Syria?

Syria Plan Blows Up in Obama's Face


A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)

President Obama’s catastrophically bad idea of arming Syria’s rebels is exploding in his face like one of Laurel and Hardy’s cigars.

The rebels are battling each other—including beheadings!—amid growing atrocities by the Islamists and pro–Al Qaeda types among them. President Bashar al-Assad is chortling that the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt kicks the pins out from under the Muslim Brotherhood–led factions in Syria. Congress, normally a pushover for anything like a covert operation backed by the White House, is fighting back. And now the CIA has been forced to warn Hezbollah—yes, you read that correctly: the CIA is warning Hezbollah—that pro–Al Qaeda Syrian rebel factions are planning attacks on Shiites, including Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Let’s start with that last piece of shocking news first.

According to McClatchy, the CIA has passed on intelligence to Hezbollah that Sunni extremists—the selfsame radical-right rebels in Syria—are plotting attacks in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon. Says McClatchy:

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.

As McClatchy points out, Hezbollah has been put on the US terrorist list, so the United States can’t warn it directly, but the CIA has passed on the warnings through government officials in Lebanon. Make sure you read the whole piece by Mitchell Prothero, but the story notes that the CIA met directly with the officials and that Lebanon has already started to make arrests, after highly specific terrorist warnings were delivered. Astonishingly—just as the CIA is helping Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq battle rebels allied to the Syrian opposition and to Al Qaeda—now the United States is helping Lebanon squash the same fighters it supports against Assad! The best quote in the McClatchy piece is this one, from a Hezbollah commander:

“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”

Of course, the United States says it wants to arm and train only the “good guys” among the anti-Assad forces, although in practice that’s impossible. Meanwhile, the “good guys” (often merely less fanatical Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood types) and the “bad guys” (the Al Qaeda types, allied to the Iraq-based “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) are busily killing each other. It reached a peak with the assassination of a commander of the so-called Syrian Free Army by fighters from the Al Qaeda–linked Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the Los Angeles Times. Said the paper:

The shooting death this week of a rebel commander in northern Syria—apparently at the hands of an Al Qaeda–linked militant faction—has exposed tension between the disparate forces fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.

Reported The New York Times this weekend:

Competing rebel factions in Syria are increasingly attacking each other in a series of killings, kidnappings and beheadings, undermining the already struggling effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Here’s a highlight:

Last week, members of the Islamic State were accused of beheading two Free Syrian Army fighters and leaving their severed heads beside a garbage can in a square in Dana, a rebel-held town in Idlib Province near the Turkish border. The attack came after clashes broke out at a demonstration against the Islamic State, leaving 13 people dead.

Sure, let’s get into the middle of this. Even worse:

Recently, a fighter from the area, Abu al-Haytham, claimed that the rebel dispute began when a foreign fighter with the Islamic State raped a local boy—“the last straw,” he said—and Free Syrian Army commanders complained.

Meanwhile Congress is getting in the way. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about Congress’s objections to the terrible idea of backing the rebels. Because the operation is planned as a CIA covert op, it gets funneled to the House and Senate intelligence committees, where it’s running into big trouble. Says The New York Times:

The plans call for the C.I.A. to supply only small arms, and to only a limited segment of the opposition—the actual numbers are unclear. In addition, much of the training, which is to take place over months in Jordan and Turkey, has not yet started, partly because of Congressional objections.

“It’s not clear to me that the administration has a workable policy,” says Senator Susan Collins, Republican from Maine. Even the administration is split, with the State Department serving as the hawks:

Many in the administration say they are still seeking to satisfy themselves that they have taken all precautions possible to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of Islamic extremists in Syria. To them, the plan carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels in Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere, many of which backfired. There is also fear at the White House that Mr. Obama will be dragged into another war in the Middle East.

But others, particularly many in the State Department, argue that the United States must intervene to prevent a further deterioration of security in the region and to stop a humanitarian crisis that is spiraling out of control, officials said.

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The Assad government is making big gains on the ground, and the rebels have begun to express loud concerns that the brutal infighting will allow Assad to make faster gains on the battlefield. As The Washington Post reported:

Syrian rebels said Saturday they fear being sucked into a “side war” with jihadists as claims about an overnight attack on a weapons depot at their Idlib headquarters threatened to push the opposition deeper into a spiral of infighting.

The Wall Street Journal usefully reported that top administration lawyers and other policymakers advised the White House to exercise extreme caution in getting involved in Syria:

Members of the so-called Lawyers Group of top legal advisers from across the administration argued that Mr. Obama risked violating international law and giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the legal grounds—and motivation—to retaliate against Americans, said current and former officials.…

A reconstruction of the debate over arming the Syrian opposition shows how much administration lawyers played a cautionary role in the process, parrying calls for more assertive U.S. action by citing the risks of skirting international law, triggering a shooting war and setting legal precedents that could be cited by other countries, such as Russia and China.

Obama, of course, long resisted pressure from the national security establishment to arm the rebels, but he caved in not long ago.

Is there any hope for US-Russia peace talks on Syria?

Iran, Israel and Palestine—Does Kerry Have A Plan? An Idea? Anything?


US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 28, 2013. (Reuters/Jacquelyn Martin)

John Kerry, secretary of state, is headed back to the Middle East again—not to Egypt, where the post-coup crisis is brewing, nor to discuss Syria especially, where there’s a civil war going on, but once again in pursuit of the elusive, Israel-Palestinian peace process.

It’s his sixth visit in just six months on the job. It’s always a safe bet to plunk down your chips on the gamble that the peace process is going nowhere, but let’s watch this week’s events carefully. You’d have to think that either Kerry is crazy—a not unreasonable assumption, if it’s true that he advocated bombing Syrian airfields and runways—or that he genuinely believes that he’s getting somewhere.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared on CBS on Sunday, is ever trying to change the subject from Palestine to Iran, Egypt, Syria, anything else, and in yesterday’s telecast he had help from Bob Schieffer, who completely failed to ask a single question about peace talks. Back in 2009, Netanyahu did the same thing, when he first met with President Obama, saying “Iran, Iran, Iran” when Obama was saying “Palestine, Palestine.” By and large, Netanyahu succeeded in changing the subject during Obama’s first term, but Kerry seems obsessively focused on Israel-Palestine, and that may be a good thing. Nevertheless, in his CBS appearance, Netanyahu was back on message. Cynically dismissing Iran’s new, moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, as someone whose policy is “smile and build a bomb,” Netanyahu urged Obama to rattle some sabers:

I think it’s very important to make clear to them that you won’t allow them to have this weapon and to demonstrate that by action. That is, you can also make clear that the nuclear option which is—the military option which is on the table is truly on the table.

And of course he stressed that Iran, and not Palestine, is the thing we all ought to worry about:

Uppermost in my mind—uppermost in my mind—uppermost in my mind is preventing the greatest terror of all. And that is that the radical Islamist regime in Iran gets the weapons of ultimate terror, nuclear weapons.

So far, the Obama administration is ignoring Netanyahu on Iran, and tomorrow the P5+1 meets to get ready for the next round of talks with Iran, presumably after Rouhani takes office officially in August. Those talks, once they start, are likely to be long and protracted, and there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that Obama will make concessions to Iran via the P5+1 in order to kickstart talks with Rouhani. Still, it’s a good sign that the United States is signaling that it’s willing to meet directly with Rouhani, and it’s a good sign that Kerry is focusing on Israel-Palestine.

Speaking of which, according to The Times of Israel, the Palestinians are meeting to discuss the next round of talks, and their position is this, says the paper:

Senior Palestinian Authority figures are set to meet Sunday evening in order to discuss the negotiations. According to reports, they plan to stick with the three main Palestinian preconditions for resuming direct talks: a cessation by Israel of all construction in the settlements, agreement on the 1967 lines as a basis for talks, and a release of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails since before the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

It isn’t likely that Netanyahu will meet the Palestinians even halfway on any of that, but Kerry must be thinking something.

The last round of shuttle diplomacy, at the end of June, ended with plenty of speculation that something was cooking. He altered his schedule and spent hours going back and forth, and The New York Times reported on June 29:

Mr. Kerry’s trip had appeared to take a dramatic turn on Saturday when he ripped up his itinerary and canceled a news conference and a trip that day to the United Arab Emirates so he could continue his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders for another day.

That spurred speculation in the Israeli news media that a summit meeting among Israeli, Palestinian and American officials might be hosted by Jordan.

The next day, June 30, the Times reported that Kerry was seeing progress somewhere:

After four days of the most intense Middle East peace push in years, Secretary of State John Kerry left Israel on Sunday without securing a public commitment that the two sides would return to the negotiating table, though he insisted that “real progress” had been made and said that a resumption of talks “could be within reach.” In what has become a familiar refrain, Mr. Kerry promised to return to the region soon.

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Well, “soon” is now. He’s back. Let’s see what happens.

Henry Siegman explains why Washington's policies on Israel have already doomed the peace talks.

Egypt's Fake Mass 'Rebellion'?

Members of the Republican Guards stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi near a Republican Guards headquarters in Cairo, July 9, 2013. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

It’s looking more and more like the “popular uprising” that demanded the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi in Egypt was ginned up by Egypt’s establishment, including the military.

That’s not too surprising, but it does mean that the fractious civilian, anti-Islamist movement—including quarreling secular forces, liberals, youth and women—had better unite quickly to demand that the military step back from power.

Easier said than done. Already, many opposition leaders, especially the youth, are being squeezed out of the circles of power that are planning Egypt’s next phase:

The young activists behind the protests that led to last week’s military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi fear they once again may be overshadowed by other political forces as Egypt stitches together a coalition government ahead of new elections.… They may now find—as they did in 2011—that the youth’s street power can’t easily be turned into political capital.

Let’s start with the revelations in today’s New York Times that the movement that called for Morsi’s ouster, Tamarod (“Rebellion”), was secretly backed by an Egyptian billionaire, and that the fuel shortages and rolling blackouts that did much to spark the mass demonstrations were phony. As the Times notes, those shortages and blackouts mysteriously disappeared once Morsi was out:

Working behind the scenes, members of the old establishment, some of them close to Mr. Mubarak and the country’s top generals, also helped finance, advise and organize those determined to topple the Islamist leadership, including Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire and an outspoken foe of the Brotherhood; Tahani El-Gebali, a former judge on the Supreme Constitutional Court who is close to the ruling generals; and Shawki al-Sayed, a legal adviser to Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, who lost the presidential race to Mr. Morsi.

Sawiris openly admitted his role:

Mr. Sawiris, one of Egypt’s richest men and a titan of the old establishment, said Wednesday that he had supported an upstart group called “tamarrod,” Arabic for “rebellion,” that led a petition drive seeking Mr. Morsi’s ouster. He donated use of the nationwide offices and infrastructure of the political party he built, the Free Egyptians. He provided publicity through his popular television network and his major interest in Egypt’s largest private newspaper. He even commissioned the production of a popular music video that played heavily on his network.

“Tamarrod did not even know it was me!” he said. “I am not ashamed of it.”

To be sure, even the support of a billionaire can’t mobilize hunreds of the thousands of people, but it seems undeniable now that the masses were spurred into the streets in part by fake shortages, manipulated by wealthy, Mubarak-era black marketeers:

The streets seethe with protests and government ministers are on the run or in jail, but since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi, life has somehow gotten better for many people across Egypt: Gas lines have disappeared, power cuts have stopped and the police have returned to the street.

Worse, it seems as if the military is preparing the groundwork for a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood itself. Already, they’ve arrested many top leaders of the Brotherhood, but Egyptians are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Another New York Times article outlines the possibility that the military might issue a blanket ban on the Brotherhood, fed by charges that the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing for a violent insurrection:

The new military-led government accused Mohamed Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday of a campaign to incite violence against their foes before and after his ouster as president, offering a new explanation for the week-old takeover and hinting that the group might be banned once again.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chuck Hagel, the US secretary of defense, is the point person in dealing with the Egyptian military:

Since Egypt’s military overthrew President Mohammed Morsi last week, the job of trying to coax the Egyptian military to restore order and democracy in ways that satisfy Washington’s standards has largely fallen to newly minted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

But Hagel has little leverage to work with, and the Journal adds that before the coup last week the Pentagon specifically urged Egypt’s generals to avoid a takeover:

But the current crisis has exposed the limits of the military relationship. The army overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president despite US objections, which were conveyed privately by Mr. Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US officials said.

Hagel’s efforts won’t be made easier if Hagel’s Pentagon goes ahead and delivers fighter jets to Egypt, as seems likely:

The US is moving ahead with plans to deliver four F-16s to Egypt despite the ongoing debate about the military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi and whether it legally constitutes a coup that could shut off aid to the country.

Defense officials say senior administration leaders discussed the delivery and decided to let it continue.

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The Los Angeles Times quotes one of the young activists thus:

“I can’t say the youth have been marginalized yet. It will become clearer in the next few weeks and months,” said Shady Ghazali Harb, a youth leader. “The youth know they must now be involved deeply in political work. They have gotten rid of the true danger—the Muslim Brotherhood—and now they must be a part of what happens next.”

But the generals are flush, since Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have agreed to give or loan Egypt $12 billion. According to Bloomberg:

Kuwait will deposit $2 billion with the Egyptian central bank, give a $1 billion grant and offer $1 billion worth of oil and oil products, state-run Kuna said in a text message today. Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. pledged $5 billion and $3 billion respectively yesterday.

The money from the Gulf Arab kleptocracies means that Egypt doesn’t have to worry if the United States cuts off aid.

For more on the situation in Egypt, read Sharif Kouddous’s latest dispatch.

Al Jazeera’s Muslim Brotherhood Problem


An injured supporter of ousted President Mohammed Morsi at a field hospital in Cairo. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based, Qatar-founded and Qatar-controlled mouthpiece for one the Arab kleptocracies of the Persian Gulf, has suffered a mass resignation. Twenty-two journalists who worked for Al Jazeera quit in protest after being told by their Qatari masters to support Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

According to The Washington Times, citing Al Arabiya and The Gulf News:

The Qatari-owned media company Al-Jazeera saw 22 members of its staff in Egypt resign on Monday over what they allege was “biased coverage” of the events that unfolded in Cairo last week.

Al-Jazeera correspondent Haggag Salama was among those who resigned, accusing the station of “airing lies and misleading viewers,” Gulf News reported Monday….

Journalist Abdel Latif el-Menawy, who was head of the Egypt News Center under ex-president Hosni Mubarak, said that Al-Jazeera was a “propaganda channel” for the Brotherhood.

“Al Jazeera turned itself into a channel for the Muslim Brotherhood group,” el-Menawy told Al Arabiya. “They are far away from being professional. When the Muslim Brotherhood collapsed, they continued to play the role.”

According to The Gulf News, Anchor Karem Mahmoud said that Al Jazeera was explicitly ordered to support the Brotherhood:

Mahmoud added that the management used to instruct each staff member to favor the Muslim Brotherhood. He said that “there are instructions to us to telecast certain news.”

A few days ago, the new Egyptian government, installed by Egypt’s military, shut down an Al Jazeera office in Cairo.

Two years ago, even the semi-independence of Al Jazeera wasn’t good enough for the Qatari rulers, who installed a member of the kleptocratic ruling family, the al-Thanis, as the network’s director-general.

Al-Jazeera’s top executive, Wadah Khanfar announced he was resigning today. The network announced that it had appointed Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem al-Thani, a member of the Qatari ruling family, which owns Al-Jazeera, as its new director general.

Last week, the sheikh resigned at Al Jazeera, not to protest anything but to take up a government post in the regime of the new emir.

Back in 2011, reporting on Khanfar’s resignation, The Guardian noted that there was a great deal of unhappiness over Al Jazeera’s biased coverage of the Arab Spring–related uprising in Bahrain, where the Shiite majority rose up against a Sunni king, and it noted that other Al Jazeera officials had quit, too:

It is thought that Khanfar had become too independent a figure for the Qataris, and that he had come under pressure from them. Recently Al-Jazeera has been accused of pulling its punches over the uprising in Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia dominates regional policy. Al-Jazeera’s Lebanon chief, Ghassan Bin Jiddo, resigned in April, apparently in disagreement over coverage of some of the revolts.

As The New York Times reports, Qatar is engaged in a high-stakes game of influence against Saudi Arabia across the region, including in Syria, where Qatar backs hard-core Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda–linked fighters, and Saudi Arabia supports the supposedly moderate rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Says the Times:

Qatar, in alliance with Turkey, has given strong financial and diplomatic support to the Muslim Brotherhood, but also to other Islamists operating on the battlefields of Syria and, before that, Libya. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, by comparison, have sought to restore the old, authoritarian order, fearful that Islamist movements and calls for democracy would destabilize their own nations.

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In the Times piece, it’s reported that Saudi Arabia is tilting the balance in its favor, with Qatar having second thought about its aggressive support for the Muslim Brothers and other regional players.

Robert Scheer calls out the US for its hypocrisy in Egypt.

Congress Is Blocking Aid to Syria's Rebels


A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)

The collapse of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt will make life more difficult for Syria’s rebels. And now, according to Reuters, we learn that the House and Senate intelligence committees are blocking President Obama’s ill-conceived idea to send weapons to those selfsame rebels, many of whom are members of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and, on their right, Al Qaeda.

In a Reuters exclusive, we learn:

Congressional committees are holding up a plan to send U.S. weapons to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because of fears that such deliveries will not be decisive and the arms might end up in the hands of Islamist militants, five U.S. national security sources said.

Reuters adds that none of the arms promised by Obama have yet arrived. And it reports that both Democrats and Republicans on the committees are not enthusiastic about arming the rebels:

Democrats and Republicans on the committees worry that weapons could reach factions like the Nusra Front, which is one of the most effective rebel groups but has also been labeled by the United States as a front for al Qaeda in Iraq.

Committee members also want to hear more about the administration’s overall Syria policy, and about how it believes its arms plan will affect the situation on the ground, where Assad’s forces have made recent gains.

Reuters notes that neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor the director of the CIA, who both testified in secret before the two committees, convinced them. And the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is complaining:

Over the weekend, the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood said it felt “abandoned and disappointed” that the United States and Europe had failed to deliver promised military support to the rebels.

Now that Morsi is gone, the Syrian rebels may have greater difficulty winning support outside Egypt. Along with the Al Qaeda types, such as the Nusra Front, which has support from Qatar, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was the backbone of the anti-Assad forces in Syria. In recent weeks, Morsi has cut ties with Damascus and joined a pro-jihad conference in Egypt.

Meanwhile the rebels, ever fractious, are becoming more so. The ersatz prime minister of the main, American-backed rebel organization has quit, further roiling the movement. It appears that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two chief backers of the anti-Assad forces, are themselves squabbling.

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In Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar ended up on opposite sides there, too. Qatar, which poured $8 billion into Egypt since the fall of the Mubarak government, backed the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia—though it has supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, going back to the 1940s at least and especially in the 1970s—has applauded the military takeover in Cairo. So, no wonder that the two oil-rich kleptocracies don’t get along inside the Syrian rebel movement either. According to The New York Times, reporting on the resignation of “prime minister” Ghassan Hitto and his conflict with Ahmad Assi al-Jarba, the new president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, says:

But [Hitto] faced several challenges: despite the visits, he was seen by some rebels and activists as out of touch with the country, and some members of the often-squabbling coalition complained that he was a favorite of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and of its main foreign backer, Qatar. Many in the Syrian opposition say Qatar wields too much influence in the movement.

Mr. Jarba, who is seen as close to Saudi Arabia, a rival of Qatar for influence among the rebels, was seen as a counterweight to Mr. Hitto and his Muslim Brotherhood backers.

The shrinking of political Islam in the Middle East continues, let’s hope. Next target: Prime Minister Ergodan in Turkey.

Robert Scheer calls out the US for its hypocrisy in Egypt.

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