News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (AP Photo)
The US war in Syria is underway.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the CIA has already begun shipping weapons to “vetted Syrian rebels.” Says the Journal:
The Central Intelligence Agency has begun moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and plans to start arming small groups of vetted Syrian rebels within a month, expanding U.S. support of moderate forces battling President Bashar al-Assad, according to diplomats and U.S. officials briefed on the plans.
Most worrisome is that, with American support, Saudi Arabia is shipping Manpads, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, to the rebels, despite the risk that those deadly arms could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda and its allies:
Talks are under way with other countries, including France, about pre-positioning European-procured weapons in Jordan. Saudi Arabia is expected to provide shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, known as Manpads, to a small number of handpicked fighters, as few as 20 at first, officials and diplomats said. The U.S. would monitor this effort, too, to try to reduce the risk that the Manpads could fall into the hands of Islamists.
Saudi officials have told their American counterparts that they believe Riyadh can identify a small group of trusted rebel fighters and provide them with as few as 20 Manpads initially, reducing the risk that the weapons will fall into the hands of radical Islamists, a major U.S. and Israeli concern.
Ever naïve, the United States is asking the Syrian rebels to please, please don’t give any weapons to the Al Qaeda types in the coalition arrayed against President Bashar al-Assad’s secular government. Notes The Hill:
The Defense Department is seeking assurances from Syrian opposition leaders that U.S.-provided weapons to rebels in the country will not end up in the hands of Islamic militants.
Now that we know that Secretary of State Kerry is leading the hawkish faction inside the Obama administration, it appears that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are the “doves.” In a news briefing yesterday, Hagel and Dempsey made it clear that while they’ll carry out President Obama’s orders to arm the rebels, they’re not exactly happy about it. In reading the transcript, you have read between the lines, as both Hagel and Dempsey said that they’d support “the decision” by Obama. Said Hagel:
On Syria, I think the central point of your question is always going to be a factor. The opposition represents many different groups. And we will always be and have to be assured that assistance we give to the Syrian military council gets to the right people, and that isn’t a decision that can be answered quickly. It’s a constant process of assessment.
So that still remains as part of the overall objective and what we’re—we’re trying to do. We support what the decision is and what the president decided to do. As to your question, direct military and U.S. military involvement there, no.
And Dempsey added:
Well, the only thing I’d add is, you know, we—we support the decision that was made to provide direct support to the Syrian military council, the details of which I won’t discuss, but we support the decision.
Militarily, what we’re doing is assisting our partners in the region, the neighbors of Syria, to ensure that they’re prepared to account for the potential spillover effects. As you know, we’ve just taken a decision to leave some Patriot missile batteries and some F-16s in Jordan as part of the defense of Jordan. We’re working with our Iraqi counterparts, the Lebanese armed forces, and Turkey through NATO, and that’s—that’s what we’re doing at this point.
And Dempsey flatly shot down the idea of a no-fly zone, calling it “an act of war”:
A no-fly zone, by the way, is just one option of many that we have analyzed and—and prepared. It will be difficult, because the Syrian air defense system is sophisticated and it’s dense. As I’ve said many times, if that is a decision that the nation takes that we want to impose a no-fly zone, we’ll make it happen, and we can do that with a combination of standoff munitions, electronic jamming, long-range attack, and close air attack. We—we can, if asked to do so, establish a no-fly zone.
My concern has been that—that ensuring that Syria’s airplanes don’t fly addresses about 10 percent of the problem, in terms of the casualties that are taken in Syria. And if we choose to—to conduct a no-fly zone, it’s essentially an act of war, and I’d like to understand the plan to make peace before we start a war.
It’s apparent that the idea of a harmonious Obama administration on Syria is poppycock, and that there are deep splits in the administration over how to approach this civil war. As I’ve written repeatedly, Obama resisted going to war in Syria for a long time, though he created a dangerous slippery slope for himself by calling for Assad’s ouster, helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply arms to the rebels, ordering the CIA to train select rebel fighters in Jordan and, of course, drawing a foolish “red line” over the use by Syria of chemical weapons. By agreeing to arm the rebels, however, Obama has finally caved in to the hawks’ (including Bill Clinton’s) pressure. There’s still time for him to right himself, by accelerating plans for the Geneva peace conference and by inviting Iran to attend, but it’s not looking good.
Secretary of State John Kerry is America’s top diplomat, but he is leading the charge for military action in Syria.
Edward Snowden. (Courtesy of guardiannews.com)
President Obama is risking a serious break in relations with both Russia and China over the travels of Edward Snowden. “We are not looking for a confrontation,” said Secretary of State John Kerry. But the United States just might get one if it’s not careful.
Snowden, still apparently hanging out in the transit area of Moscow’s airport, isn’t talking. But, at least in the view of US intelligence specialists, it’s all too late, and both China and Russia have harvested Snowden’s classified bounty.
Kerry sounded downright schoolmarmish, in an earlier statement: “There are standards of behavior between sovereign nations. There is common law. There is respect for rule of law.”
Meanwhile, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, slammed China for letting Snowden travel to Moscow:
“The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust. We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem.”
The Chinese, it appears, found a way to ignore or misplace American demands that Snowden be extradited.
“We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive, despite a valid arrest warrant. And that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.”
Snowden’s travels have posed delicate diplomatic problems for both Beijing and Moscow, although it’s also possible that either one or both of them have reaped a bonanza if they’ve gotten their hands on whatever is in Snowden’s several laptops and thumb drives—either because Snowden gave them the material or, more likely, because their intelligence agencies have managed to acquire the information surreptitiously. As The New York Times reported:
American intelligence officials remained deeply concerned that Mr. Snowden could make public more documents disclosing details of the National Security Agency’s collection system or that his documents could be obtained by foreign intelligence services, with or without his cooperation.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said over the weekend that Snowden still has more than 200 classified documents in his possession, and some of them could be doozies. Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who first published Snowden’s initial documents, says that there are “thousands.”
One former intelligence official said Russian authorities were almost certain to debrief Snowden and seize any computer files he carried into the country.
In a separate piece, the Post says that the same thing probably happened in China:
“That stuff is gone,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”
Another Post article suggests that US officials are petrified:
“They think he copied so much stuff—that almost everything that place does, he has,” said one former government official, referring to the NSA, where Snowden worked as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton while in the NSA’s Hawaii facility. “Everyone’s nervous about what the next thing will be, what will be exposed.”
Both countries have rebuffed American efforts to get them to hand over Snowden. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, was in high dudgeon, though some of his comments seemed wry and almost tongue-in-cheek. Russia can’t extradite Snowden, Putin said, because “Mr. Snowden, thank God, has not committed any crimes on the Russian Federation territory.”
Russia, meanwhile, hilariously sent a passel of reporters on a wild goose chase to Cuba.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, sounded angry indeed:
“We have no connection with Mr. Snowden, nor with his relation toward the American justice system, nor with his movement around the world. He chose his own route and we, like most of those here, found out about this from the press.… He didn’t cross the Russian border, and we consider the attempts we are seeing to accuse the Russian side of violating United States law as completely ungrounded and unacceptable, or nearly a conspiracy accompanied by threats against us. There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us.”
A Chinese official, speaking for the government, said that US concerns about Snowden’s comings and goings in Hong Kong were “groundless” and “really make people wonder.”
Meanwhile, the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong daily, published an interview with Snowden in which he said that he’d deliberately sought to work for Booz Allen Hamilton, the intelligence contractor, so he get ahold of information on surveillance that he could blow:
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”… Asked if he specifically went to Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence of surveillance, he replied: “Correct on Booz.”
US officials should check their history before going after whistleblowers.
John Kerry. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
When I’m wrong, I’m wrong—and I’ll admit it. I was wrong about John Kerry, President Obama’s secretary of state. I really did think that he’d instinctively put diplomacy above war, but he’s failed the first real test, in Syria, and he’s failed it badly. I overestimated him.
The first hint of Kerry’s bellicose approach to Syria was in a June 14 New York Times article, and I missed the reference to the State Department, in an article devoted to Obama’s decision to supply the rebels with arms. In it, the Times said—without naming Kerry—that “State Department officials” were pressing Obama to bomb Syria:
Some senior State Department officials have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria that the Assad government uses to launch the chemical weapons attacks, ferry troops around the country and receive shipments of arms from Iran. But White House officials remain wary.
Then we learn, in a piece by Jeffrey Goldberg for Bloomberg, that Kerry was virtually pounding the table for war in that June 12 meeting:
Flash-forward to this past Wednesday. At a principals meeting in the White House situation room, Secretary of State John Kerry began arguing, vociferously, for immediate U.S. airstrikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime—specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces.
It was at this point that the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the usually mild-mannered Army General Martin Dempsey, spoke up, loudly. According to several sources, Dempsey threw a series of brushback pitches at Kerry, demanding to know just exactly what the post-strike plan would be and pointing out that the State Department didn’t fully grasp the complexity of such an operation.
If that story is true, it ought to be grounds to fire Kerry.
The Washington Post is reporting that “other nations,” presumably the rebels’ chief backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have taken Obama’s decision to arm the rebels by stepping up the supply of heavy weapons to the anti-Assad forces:
Syrian rebels said Friday that newly arrived shipments of heavy weaponry could swing the momentum on the battlefield in their favor, after a shift in U.S. policy opened the door for others to send them arms.
Worse, the Los Angeles Times reports that the CIA and US Special Forces are training rebel fighters in the use of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and that they’ve been doing this for a while, apparently in anticipation of the Obama-Kerry decision to jump into the war:
White House officials refused to comment Friday on a Los Angeles Times report that CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year, saying only that the U.S. had increased its assistance to the rebellion.
The covert U.S. training at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.
Assad’s forces are still making gains across Syria, after taking control of a strategic, rebel-held town, Qusayr, near the Lebanese border and moving toward rebel-controlled areas around Aleppo and in the Damascus suburbs. It isn’t clear, yet, if the US arms and the Saudi-Qatar arms pipeline can turn the tide. But it will certainly make things in Syria bloodier.
Kerry, who is carrying out Obama administration policy, still insists that he’s working hard to get the Geneva peace conference on Syria rolling. However, if Kerry is indeed a war hawk behind the scenes, his credibility with the Russians will plummet. In any case, Kerry’s style is to keep his private advice to Obama private, as revealed in a New York Times profile of Kerry over the weekend:
As for Mr. Kerry, he has made clear from the time he joined the administration that he is not one to air his advice to the White House in public.
At his first meeting with his staff on the seventh floor of the State Department, officials say, Mr. Kerry used a Boston sports analogy to explain his role in the administration. The secretary of state would be like Bill Walton, the basketball star who helped the Celtics win a championship, and would help the Obama team by creating shots and passing the ball at the right moment.
“There’s no more ‘me,’ only ‘we,’ ” he told his aides.
I hate sports analogies when it comes to matters of war and peace, or life and death, and Kerry’s Bill Walton reference leaves me cold. In time, Kerry may make Hillary Clinton, the hawkish former secretary of state, look like a quiet dove.
Greg Mitchell reminds the administration—and the media outlets that continue to report its claims without question—that the public still opposes intervention in Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry. (AP Images)
Secretary of State John Kerry is leaving on a trip that will take him, among other places, to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Lots on the agenda, of course, including the fitful beginning of the US-Taliban talks. But topping the list is the war in Syria, where Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the chief backers—and providers of arms—to the ragtag rebel forces battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Were American policy different, in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Kerry could avail himself of an opportunity to tell those two Persian Gulf kleptocracies to start winding down the war. Unfortunately, he probably won’t do that, since the US decision to start sending arms directly to the rebels means that the fighting will escalate. If Kerry was interested in the success of the oft-postponed Geneva peace conference on Syria, he’d suggest that Qatar and Saudi Arabia help establish a cease-fire on the ground in Syria if Russia would work with Assad to do the same on the other side. A cease-fire would create better conditions for peace talks and an eventual settlement.
Instead, Kerry seems to have a more limited message for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, namely, to ask them to funnel weapons solely through the supposedly moderate military force led by General Salim Idris, the US-backed military man who heads the so-called Supreme Military Council. (It’s not exactly “supreme,” since it doesn’t control the militant factions of the rebel movement, including the fighters allied to Al Qaeda and to Al Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.) In any case, according to a senior State Department official, who briefed reporters on the eve of Kerry’s visit:
“The goal of the meeting is to be very concrete about the importance of all of assistance … being fully coordinated and go through only the Syrian Opposition Coalition, specifically the Supreme Military Council run by General Idris.… So that is the fundamental goal of the discussion, and to be very concrete about that.”
The other part of the discussion, the State Department officials say, will be to ask Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help corral the various parts of the rebel movement—presumably not including Al Qaeda!—to settle on a specific, agreed-upon leadership group that is able to speak for the movement as a whole. That’s a tall order, since the squabbling and backbiting among the rebels has been unchecked since the start of the conflict in 2011.
Of course, if there is to be a Geneva meeting—and it now seems to have been postponed until September—the Syrian opposition forces will have to (1) unite, (2) agree on a leadership, and (3) agree to go to Geneva. Even General Idris, the most pliable of the leaders, has repeatedly said that he won’t attend Geneva unless his fighters get heavy weapons from the United States, including anti-aircraft missiles. (In contrast, Russia has won the agreement of the Syrian government to attend Geneva, if and when it happens.)
Idris is under a lot of pressure, especially from the United States, to unify the rebel fighters, but that’s easier said than done:
First Idriss has to impose discipline on his own officers and improve the reputation of the military council, which have proved less effective than hardline Islamist units and has struggled to assert its authority on the battlefield. … Convincing skeptical Syrian rebels—who see Idriss as more of a spokesman and arms procurer than genuine leader—is a tougher challenge, and increasingly urgent as Assad’s forces win back rebel ground.
Despite the worrisome decision by the Obama administration to give arms to the rebels, there’s a slight silver lining. The arms, it seems, will be limited to small arms and ammunition, which won’t be enough to turn the tide of battle on the ground, which seems to be tilting in favor of Assad in recent weeks. Obama himself seems reluctant to tout the American intervention in Syria, and of course he refused to announce it himself last week, instead sending a lowly White House functionary out to tell the press. And so far, at least, both Obama and Kerry seem committed to the Geneva talks, despite the enormous difficulties that lie in its path.
Still, as I’ve written in the past, Obama is on a very, very slippery slope in regard to Syria. One false step and he’ll go tumbling down into the quagmire of yet another Middle East war—and unlike Iraq, which had zero allies, Syria has the backing of Russia, Iran and Iraq, along with Hezbollah.
Having won control of a strategic town, Qusayr, near the Syrian border with Lebanon, earlier month, Assad’s forces are making gains in other parts of the country, including around the Damascus, as Reuters notes:
Opposition fighters once threatened Assad’s dominance of Damascus but are now struggling to repel his forces, who have been emboldened by winning a strategic border town further north and have help from Lebanese Hezbollah militants and Shi’ite Iraqi fighters. … Assad’s forces are also advancing on the Sayyeda Zainab district, which houses an important Shi’ite shrine and has been used as a rallying call for Shi’ite fighters.
Another Reuters story notes that France is considering supplying the rebels with “heavy weapons” —without noting what that means, exactly—but it, notes that the government’s forces are making big gains in Syria:
Assad’s troops have since turned their attention to retake Aleppo, the Damascus suburbs and parts of the south of the country where they have been mired in a bloody stalemate with rebels for nearly a year.
Suddenly, it doesn’t look so good for the anti-Assad forces. Until recently, the fall of Assad was considered—using George Tenet’s words, in another context—a “slam dunk.” Perhaps Obama believed that Assad would collapse easily, just as the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia did. Instead, having put America’s prestige on the line over Syria, Obama now faces the possibility of a humiliating defeat at the hands of Assad, Russia and Iran.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post has run an important piece by Colum Lynch and Joby Warrick calling into question the basis for Obama’s claim that Syria has used sarin gas against the rebels. Here’s the lede of that piece:
Despite months of laboratory testing and scrutiny by top U.S. scientists, the Obama administration’s case for arming Syria’s rebels rests on unverifiable claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, according to diplomats and experts.
Greg Mitchell reminds the administration—and the media outlets that continue to report its claims without question—that the public still opposes intervention in Syria.
An Iraqi military helicopter flies over Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad. Reuters/Stringer
On the tenth anniversary of the April 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s secular, nationalist government, Paul Wolfowitz—a neoconservative and key architect of the American invasion of Iraq—wrote a lengthy apologia for the war. In it, he concluded: “It is remarkable that Iraq has done as well as it has thus far.” Besides Wolfowitz, various other members of the George W. Bush administration have similarly weighed in, insisting that the unprovoked, illegal war against Iraq was the right thing to do.
Many Iraqis would disagree.
Since that April anniversary, thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered in sectarian and political violence. In May, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in a relentless wave of bombings, suicide attacks, assassinations and other violence, according to the United Nations, and nearly 2,000 have been killed since April. No doubt, those totals understate the true scope of the killing.
Some of the violence is a spillover from the civil war in Syria, where a panoply of Islamist militias, some directly linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), are waging a battle against the secular, authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad. In Iraq, the AQI forces may or may not be allied with remnants of the old Iraqi order, including Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the top Baathist official still active in the armed resistance to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Duri, who reportedly is still living underground in Iraq, has set up a group called the Naqshbandi Order, led by ex-Baathists. Both AQI and Duri’s forces draw strength from Iraq’s complex web of Sunni tribes, and—although most of the people killed by Sunni-led violence in Iraq are Shiites or supporters of Maliki—many of the dead are Sunnis who are cooperating with Maliki or are neutral.
In the following, The Nation has compiled a partial list of the major incidents of mass killing since the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s fall:
April 5: 20 dead, 55 wounded in two bombings in Baquba, Diyala province. Eyewitness: “It was like a red pond. People were running over the dead ones. The place was full of blood.”
April 15: 37 dead, 140 wounded in twenty separate attacks, “mostly car bombings, in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Hilla, Fallujah, Nasiriya and Tikrit.”
April 15: At least fifteen candidates assassinated in local election races.
April 18: twenty-seven dead, dozens wounded by suicide bomber in a Baghdad café.
April 23: forty-four killed in clashes between Sunni protesters and government forces.
May 20: eighty-six killed, 250 wounded in nine car bombings and a wave of suicide attacks in Baghdad, Basra, Hilla, Balad and other Iraqi cities.
May 21: forty dead in another wave of bombings and suicide attacks.
May 27: fifty-three killed and 100 wounded in wave of bombings in Shiite areas of Baghdad. “Eight car bombings hit Shiite neighborhoods, including Huriya, Sadr City, Baya, Zafaraniya and Kadhimiya.”
May 30: thirty dead, dozens wounded in another bombing wave.
June 10: “Insurgents attacked cities across Iraq on Monday with car bombs, suicide blasts and gun battles that killed more than seventy people in unrest that has deepened fears of a return to civil war.”
June 16: 33 killed, 100 wounded in car bomb attacks in five southern Iraq provinces and two of Iraq’s major northern cities, Tikrit and Mosul.
There are many more such horrific incidents.
Much of the recent violence stems not from the war in Syria but from the April 23 clash between peaceful Sunni protesters, who object of Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian rule, and Maliki’s heavy-handed security forces. As Michael Knights described it:
On April 23, the federal military miscalculated when its raid on a protest site in the northern town of Hawija turned into a bloody firefight, and scores of civilians were killed. This event has the potential to become an iconic rallying call for insurgent groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the neo-Baathist Naqshbandi movement, which can fit it into its calls for ongoing resistance against a “Safavid occupation” of Iraq—a reference to the Persian dynasty that evokes Sunni Arab fears of the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Anthony Cordesman, a conservative military strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, usefully points out that Iraq, not Syria, is the pivotal nation in the Middle East, and that its unraveling could become catastrophic. Still, it would be folly for the Obama administration to reengage in Iraq, and even Cordesman notes that the United States “has limited cards to play”:
The U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement exists on paper, but it did not survive the Iraqi political power struggles that came as the United States left. The U.S. military presence has been reduced to a small U.S. office of military cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and it is steadily shrinking. The cumbersome U.S. arms transfer process has already pushed Iraq to buy arms from Russia and other suppliers. The U.S. State Department’s efforts to replace the military police training program collapsed before they really began. The United States is a marginal player in the Iraqi economy and economic development, and its only aid efforts are funded through money from past years. The State Department did not make an aid request for Iraq for FY2014.
The neoconservatives, having promoted and launched the war in 2003, have lately turned against the very Iraqi government they installed. Back in 2003, the Bush administration and the folks at the American Enterprise Institute happily made common cause not only with Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite activist who, it turned out, had close ties to Iran, but also with a whole array of Iranian-linked Shiite groups, including the aptly named Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Maliki’s Dawa Party. Now that those same Shiites are working closely with Iran, the neoconservatives have turned sharply against Maliki, and they’ve released a long series of reports condemning his rule. Consider, for instance, the recent report by the neoconservative-led Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Back in 2003, the neocons bitterly assailed the Sunnis of Iraq, and they called for the United States to adopt the “80 percent solution,” that is, to ally with Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds, who together makeup about 80 percent of Iraq’s population. Now, the ISW says:
The political participation of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is critical to the security and stability of the state. At present, they are functionally excluded from government, with those that do participate coopted by the increasingly authoritarian Shi‘a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Without effective political representation, the Sunni in Iraq are left with few alternatives to address their grievances against the Maliki government. The important decisions lie ahead on whether to pursue their goals via political compromise, federalism, or insurgency.
Just as in the civil war in Syria, in which many neoconservatives can’t find “good guys” to support—because Assad’s government has been demonized and the rebels are shot through with Al Qaeda types—in Iraq they have the same problem. They don’t like Maliki, because he is more and more allied with Iran, as evinced by the fact that Maliki is allowing Iran to airlift arms and ammunition to Damascus over Iraqi airspace. On the other hand, the neocons—and the Obama administration, too, it appears—can’t ally themselves with the Sunni-led Iraqi resistance, since it also has Al Qaeda connections. Indeed, the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni-led rebels tied to Al Qaeda have announced that they are in fact a single organization.
The lesson here: the Middle East is a very complicated place. Invading it, occupying it, and changing its ethnic and sectarian balance should be avoided at all costs. President Obama, who opposed the war in Iraq, should heed that lesson and stay out of Syria ten years later.
Is the media responsible for the “male gaze”? Read Jessica Valenti’s argument here.
Taliban fighters. (Reuters)
The BBC, The New York Times, and other news outlets are reporting the crucial news that the United States and the Taliban will start peace talks in Doha, Qatar.
For months, as the United States has moved to drawdown its remaining forces in Afghanistan, President Obama has seemingly neglected diplomacy. For years, it has been apparent that as the United States and the rest of the military coalition backing Kabul departs, an accord involving the Taliban and the Afghan government—and backed by the United States, Pakistan, India, Russia and Iran—is critical if Afghanistan is to avoid slipping into full-blown civil war in 2015.
Now, it seems, diplomacy is being rekindled. According to the BBC:
US officials told reporters the first formal meeting between US and Taliban representatives was expected to take place in Doha next week, with talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban due a few days after that.
The announcement came in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where negotiations have been under way for more than two years with a number of international participants in an attempt to start peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
In a televised speech announcing the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, Mohammed Naim, a Taliban spokesman, said their political and military goals “are limited to Afghanistan” and that they did not wish to “harm other countries.”
That statement, presumably, is a Taliban pledge not to work with Al Qaeda. A Taliban commitment to break completely with Al Qaeda has been a key demand of the United States since the talks between the two parties began. Says the Times:
Senior Obama administration officials in Washington said the Taliban statement contained two key pledges: that the insurgents believed that Afghan soil should not be used to threaten other countries, and that they were committed to finding a peaceful solution to the war.
“Together, they fulfill the requirement for the Taliban to open a political office in Doha for the purposes of negotiation with the Afghan government,” a senior administration official said.
American officials had long insisted that the Taliban make both pledges before talks start. The first element, in particular, is vital—it represents the beginning of what is hoped will be the Taliban’s eventual public break with Al Qaeda, the officials said.
Yesterday, Reuters reported that President Karzai of Afghanistan is sending members of the High Peace Council, the often-disparaged but critical group that is assigned the task of talking with the Taliban, to Doha:
Karzai said three principles had been created to guide the talks — that having begun in Qatar, they must then immediately be moved to Afghanistan, that they bring about an end to violence and that they must not become a tool for a “third country's” exploitation of Afghanistan.
And Pajhwok, the Afghan news service, noted that a group of former Taliban and other leading Afghans had agreed to the opening of the Taliban office in Qatar:
Former jihadi leaders and some prominent politicians who held a meeting with President Hamid Karzai on Monday agreed to the opening of a Taliban political bureau in Qatar for the sake of a sustainable peace and stability in the country.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Supporters of Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election. (Reuters/Fars News/)
Here’s a question for the White House: Do you think it’s a good idea to greet the new president of Iran, who might be willing to seek a long-lasting accord with the United States, with a head-on confrontation with Iran and Russia in Syria?
Hint: the answer is no.
Hassan Rouhani, who’ll take over as president of Iran in August, stunned the world with an outright, 50-percent-plus victory in the June 14 election. By all accounts, he’s a thoughtful, centrist cleric with a moderate outlook. As president, Rouhani will have a lot of power, but he will still have to operate within Iran’s very intricate political system—just as, say, President Obama has to do in dealing with Congress, the courts, his own fractious Democrats, the Pentagon and public opinion. In Rouhani’s case, he has to maneuver around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, Iran’s own conservative-dominated parliament, Iran’s judiciary (and the Guardian Council), the entrenched power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other centers of power.
Thus, Rouhani will need all the help he can get. Some of that help will have to come from the United States, including positive signals that Washington is ready to deal. But an American-backed war in Syria, aimed at forcible regime change against Iran’s chief regional ally, can only weaken Rouhani and stiffen the opposition of Iranian hardliners, including the IRGC. And, of course, the best way for the United States to aid Rouhani in his internal battles will be do sweeten the offer in the now-stalled nuclear negotiations, finally making it clear that Washington is ready to endorse Iran’s enrichment program under proper international safeguards.
In his first post-election news conference on Sunday, Rouhani couldn’t have been more explicit. “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.” And, in a televised debate just before the election, Rouhani explicitly addressed the nuclear issue. “We have to calculate our national interests. It’s nice for the centrifuges to run but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run.” That doesn’t mean that Rouhani is ready to give away the store on the nuclear issue. He won’t. Not only that, he can’t. But it does mean that—like his chief patron, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire businessman who’s been chafing under economic sanctions—he recognizes that Iran’s hard line on enrichment has led to the country’s political and economic isolation from the West. Unlike Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator and ultra hardliner—who, in his own, failed presidential campaign, called for Iran to live under a “resistance economy”—Rouhani and Rafsanjani realize that the nuclear program isn’t Iran’s number-one priority, especially when a workable deal can be so easily reached.
The initial response by the United States to Rouhani’s surprise win was mixed. Naturally, in the United States the right, the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby—and Israel itself—are going out of their way to say Never mind the Iran election! Move on—there’s nothing to see here! But the White House reaction has nevertheless been welcoming—in words, at least. Dennis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said:
“I see it as a potentially hopeful sign. I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations—Iran’s relations with the rest of the world—there’s an opportunity to do that.”
Not that the United States was exactly gracious in greeting Rouhani. As Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian, notes:
The Obama administration needs to take stock and think hard after this surprise result, especially as its first reaction was full of hasty blunders. It patronised Iranian voters by saying they showed “courage in making their voices heard” and was rude in urging Rouhani to “heed the will of the Iranian people”. If the White House is really “ready to engage the Iranian government directly”, as it said on Saturday, why did it not have the courtesy to send Rouhani a message of congratulations?
In any case, nice words won’t help Rouhani get the upper hand at home. If the war in Syria escalates, the United States—by arming the rebels, authorizing a covert operations project by the CIA, building up US forces in Jordan—could push Iran and Russia to meet the United States on the Syrian battlefield. And unless the United States offers Iran an explicit deal to eliminate sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal, Rouhani may not have the leverage that he’ll need at home.
The Wall Street Journal, in an important news analysis, says that the United States and Europe are ready to test Rouhani in future negotiations:
The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions, U.S. and European diplomats say.
But it’s a one-way test, according to the Journal:
Washington and Brussels are eager to quickly test whether Mr. Rohani’s unexpected victory could pressure Mr. Khamenei into softening his position on the nuclear issue or scaling back Tehran’s broader rift with the West, these officials said.
Nothing, you’ll notice, about whether the United States will itself make a more palatable offer to Iran in the hope that its new leader will respond in kind.
Rouhani, who was Iran’s negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami—the godfather of the reformist movement who, like Rafsanjani, endorsed Rouhani just says before the election—is a shrewd negotiator himself. In his campaign, defending himself against the hardliners (including Jalili), Rouhani often made the point that when, under his watch, Iran suspended its enrichment program, that allowed Iran to forge ahead by quietly building facilities to advance the program later on. Now, Rouhani skeptics in the West are using those statements against him, trying to portray his as sneaky or duplicitous. But the fact is, no deal was reached in 2003–05, and no deal has been struck since. It’s time for a deal.
Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration insider who’s been critical of the White House, says that now the United States has to negotiate with far more flexibility than its shown so far:
To take advantage of Rouhani’s victory and break the logjam over nuclear negotiations, Washington has to put on the table incentives it has thus far been unwilling to contemplate. It will have to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to Western demands. At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports. Ahmadinejad is faulted in Iran for wrecking the country’s economy. Populism, mismanagement, and international isolation have combined to put Iran’s economy into a downward spiral. Between 2009 and 2013, real GDP growth has fallen from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, unemployment has risen to 17 percent, and inflation has grown to 22 percent—and those are official numbers, which tend to downplay the gravity of the economic crisis. It is estimated that 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Reformists will grow in strength if they are able to show that they can reverse that trend by at least getting the West for the first time to offer negotiating away specific sanctions.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran June 15, 2013. Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri
UPDATE—Iran’s interior ministry confirmed on Saturday that Hassan Rouhani, the standard-bearer of the reformist movement and a decided moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, will be the next president, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August. His election means big changes, and a new attitude that will eventually carry over into foreign policy.
Celebrations, including dancing in the street, greeted the announcement that Rouhani had won.
Here’s an account by the Associated Press:
Wild celebrations broke out on Tehran streets that were battlefields four years ago as reformist-backed Hasan Rowhani capped a stunning surge to claim Iran's presidency on Saturday, throwing open the political order after relentless crackdowns by hard-liners to consolidate and safeguard their grip on power.
"Long live Rowhani," tens of thousands of jubilant supporters chanted as security officials made no attempt to rein in crowds — joyous and even a bit bewildered by the scope of his victory with more than three times the votes of his nearest rival.
Saeed Laylaz, a pro-reform economist and shrewd observer of Iranian politics (who I met in Tehran in 2009, before he was arrested in the post-election crackdown), told the New York Times:
“There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani. First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy.”
The paper also quotes a late-in-the-campaign speech by Rouhani, who said, “Let’s end extremism.”
He’s emerged as something of a champion of women’s rights and liberalization of the morality-police repression in the name of ultra Islam, which no doubt helped him amass a total of 50.7 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff on June 21.
ORIGINAL POST—The apparent victory by Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election yesterday is a game-changer.
As he went to the polls yesterday, here’s what Rouhani had to say:
“I have come to destroy extremism and when I see that these extremists are worried by my response and my vote I am very happy. It means that with the help of the people we can instill the appropriate Islamist behavior in the country.”
And another campaign quote from Rouhani:
“It is not that Iran has to remain angry with the United States forever and have no relations with them. Under appropriate conditions, where national interests are protected, this situation has to change.”
The results aren’t official yet, but Rouhani, who’d been endorsed by two former presidents, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—the billionaire businessman who’d backed the reformists in 2009 and the godfather of the reformist movement—was riding an electoral wave. As the votes mounted, his total passed the critical 50 percent threshold that would avoid a runoff election next Friday. The other candidates, including a passel of conservatives supposedly including the one “anointed” by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, all had percentages in the teens or below.
So much for the idea that elections in Iran are a joke. So much for the idea that Iran’s voters were so disenchanted by the aftermath of the 2009 election that they’d boycott the vote. So much for the idea that Khamenei, insisting on the election of an ultra-conservative, would rig the vote count against Rouhani, who’d emerged as the standard-bearer for the reformist movement. So much for those analysts who argued that the Green Movement was dead and buried.
Rouhani himself is a critic of the post-2009 crackdown and he’s hinted that he’ll act to release those still held, presumably including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the 2009 reform candidates who’s vote was hijacked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has called for a “rights charter” and said that he’d encourage “freedom of expression, thought and discussion.”
Meanwhile, the former nuclear negotiator for Iran under President Khatami and, before that, top national security adviser to President Rafsanjani will have a chance to “reset” relations with the United States. Just as important, the emergence of Rouhani as president of Iran gives President Obama a tremendous opportunity to restart talks with Iran on a new basis; and the fact that Iran’s next president won’t be named Ahmadinejad means that all of the efforts by hawks, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby to demonize Ahmadinejad are now for naught.
Now that Rouhani might be president, it also means that many of the former officials, ambassadors and policy experts ousted by Ahmadinejad (and kept in political exile by the conservative coalition and military-dominated bloc that ruled Iran under him) can return to office.
The results, of course, have to be certified by the Interior Ministry, still under the control of Ahmadinejad. And, there’s still a chance that the Guardian Council will weigh in. But the announced results so overwhelmingly favor Rouhani that he seems locked in, and if his total falls below 50 percent he’d still be a shoo-in in a two-person runoff.
Listen, now, to the American right-wing and neoconservatives, who’ll argue that the election doesn’t matter, since Ayatollah Khamenei controls policy and decision-making. True, under the Iranian system, the supreme leader is very, very powerful. But Rouhani’s election means that there will be a new team in place, and that Khamenei will have to accommodate it. The last time a reformist was president, intended reforms—enacted by a reformist-controlled parliament—were nearly all overturned by the Guardian Council, with Khamenei’s approval. On the other hand, President Khatami, with Rouhani at the head of the nuclear negotiation team, did indeed negotiate with the European Union in good faith, and at one point (until the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005) Iran suspended the enrichment of uranium temporarily in order to help the talks succeed.
Now, Rouhani says, speaking of the crisis in relations with the United States:
“We have to gradually defuse this hostility, take it down a notch to a tense relationship, and then move toward reducing the tensions.”
Let’s hope so.
Jack Straw, the former UK foreign secretary, who’d met Rouhani, had this to say:
This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result. What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rouhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West. On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
Here’s the thing about a slippery slope: sometimes you maintain your footing and don’t go tumbling down, and sometimes you slip and slide right into disaster. With the apparent decision to arm the Syrian rebels, President Obama looks like he’s going to go kersplat! onto his face and land smack dab in the Syrian quagmire.
It is, of course, a quagmire partly of his own making. Though he’s instinctively resisted getting directly involved in Syria, Obama’s first mistake was made in 2011, when he demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down. Not only did Obama have no power to make that happen, but by demanding it he turned a relatively small-scale rebellion into a raging civil war pitting an amalgam of rebels, including large numbers of Sunni extremists and Al Qaeda types, against a fully armed modern state army. Second, Obama compounded his mistake by helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the rebels, despite the fact that much of that aid went to the extremists. And then he ordered the CIA to get involved in training the rebels, secretly, in Jordan. Finally, his comments about a “red line” if and when Syria used chemical weapons gave ammunition to hawks, neoconservatives and the far right to demand that Obama go to war in Syria once evidence of a very limited, marginal use of some gases became apparent.
That’s the slippery slope that Obama created, and now he tumbling in.
So yesterday the White House decided to send weapons to the rebels. Reading the White House’s statement on the matter, it’s clear that they’re not quite ready to go all in, but that’s the problem with a slippery slope: once you send in small arms and ammunition, next comes anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and—oops!—before you know it, you’re bombing Syrian airports and imposing a no-fly zone.
The President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.
Saying “coming weeks” makes it sound as if adding the weapons isn’t all that urgent, but the message is clear: the United States will be arming the Supreme Military Council, and it will get worse. Added the White House, the United States will “increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC.” In case we missed the point, the White House added: “These efforts will increase going forward.”
In fact, it may be too late for the United States to alter the course of the war. The commander of the Syrian Military Council himself has flatly turned down Secretary of State John Kerry’s invitation to attend a peace conference, insisting instead that the rebels get advanced, high-tech weapons. In recent weeks the Syrian government has made important battlefield advances, and by all accounts the tide of war has turned sharply against the Saudi Arabia– and Qatar-backed fighters, the Al Qaeda forces and others.
As in Vietnam, when the United States persisted in that hopeless war in part because it felt like to withdraw would damage American credibility, in Syria there is a real chance the President Obama will slide all the way down the slope to full-scale war simply because he won’t want to tolerate an Assad victory. Such a victory would be a big win for Assad, for Iran, for Hezbollah—and for Russia, too, which has bet on Assad’s ability to hang on. If that happens, it’s only because Obama naïvely bet that the Arab Spring movement that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia—and in Libya, with an American military push—would easily knock off Assad.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Saeed Jalili. (Wikimedia Commons)
Iran, it turns out, is having a real election after all.
Tomorrow and over the weekend, I’ll report on the actual election results—and what they might mean for Iran’s relations with the United States and for the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But today, the election itself.
Last month, after the Guardian Council—the oversight body whose dozen members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by the Khamenei-controlled judiciary—disqualified two opposition-minded candidates (including a former president of Iran) from running, some American Iran-watchers concluded that Iran shouldn’t bother having the election at all. The seeming ultraconservative in the race, Saeed Jalili, now had the field to himself, they said, and had been “anointed” by Khamenei as Iran’s next president; and even many late reports suggest that Jalili is still Khamenei’s preferred candidate.
But that doesn’t mean that Jalili is a lock, and he might not have enough support to qualify for the June 21 two-man runoff if no one wins 50 percent in the first round on June 14. In fact, according to some polls—though in Iran, especially, polls are not overly reliable—Jalili is now in third or fourth place in advance of tomorrow’s election. Not only that, but the reformist movement in Iran is roaring back, in support of Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the race and an ally of former President Mohammad Khatami, who this week endorsed Rouhani. Rouhani got another endorsement from another former president, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the would-be candidate who was excluded by the Guardian Council in May.
Another candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the quirky conservative who is the mayor of Tehran, is roughly tied with Rouhani, with Jalili in third or fourth place. Given Iran’s system, in which a lot happens behind the scenes—including the election count—that doesn’t mean Jalili ought to be counted out. But his sternly worded election slogans, in which he pledges no compromise in talks with the United States and says that he favors a “resistance economy,” which could tumble Iran into North Korea–like economic isolation, don’t seem to be resonating with Iranian voters.
There is one sense, of course, in which the election doesn’t matter. Whoever wins the presidency in Iran will still be beholden to Khamenei, who makes the key decisions—including about the nuclear file. But in the past, Iranian presidents have had a real impact, within the system’s relatively narrow lanes, and Khamenei may give the president—whoever he will be—some leeway to act. It’s also possible that Khamenei himself is undecided about which way to go in Iran’s quandary.
Still, the establishment in Iran doesn’t seem happy about Rouhani’s prospects. According to a former Iranian diplomat who spoke to The Nation on background, Rafsanjani and Khatami withheld their endorsement of Rouhani until the very eve of the election in order not to provoke the election authorities and the Guardian Council. (Indeed, even this week there were rumors, apparently untrue, that the Guardian Council would take action to bar Rouhani.) As a popular reformist, the only cleric in the race, and as a former nuclear negotiator under Khatami, Rouhani is gaining momentum. The only other reformist in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out last week in order to allow reformists, centrists and moderates to gather around a single standard-bearer. But when Rouhani submitted a campaign video biography for broadcast by Iran’s television network, astonishingly the broadcasters—loyal to the conservative establishment—refused to run it unless Rafsanjani’s endorsement of Rouhani were deleted.
The presence of several other conservative (“principlist”) candidates in the race—besides Jalili, the most prominent is Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati—might split the principlist vote and divide establishment-minded clerics. The Washington Post, reporting from Qom, Iran’s clerical capital and religious center, notes that the thousands of mullahs and ayatollahs there don’t seem to have a preferred candidate. When the Post visited Velayati’s campaign office in Qom, he found it staffed by only two teenagers.
After their experience in 2009, when millions of Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the election’s outcome, it’s understandable that many reformists, liberals, business people and middle-class voters might be reluctant to count on Rouhani. Unlike 2009—when I spent two weeks in Iran watching the election excitement build—this time, according to The New York Times, there is far less visible electioneering, street demonstrations, posters and leaflets, and other election paraphernalia visible in Tehran. The authorities, mindful above all of suffering through another 2009-style upsurge, have taken steps to limit political expression and debate, and they’ve changed the format of the televised debates drastically to lessen public interest in the outcome.
But quite a few observers of the election note that a substantial portion of the coalition that backed Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009 is once again ready to go to the polls, even though other voters say that a boycott is the best way to express their political feelings. But, just as Rafsanjani and Khatami backed Mousavi four years ago, the support of the two former presidents has once again excited Iranian voters.
James Harkin chronicles the fight for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.