Thursday, September 20, 2012

Coming To Grips With Impotence

Can we really expect  the US. President  to be able to fix the Middle East?


The Arab world is in the midst of an extraordinary political and social revolution -- authoritarian leaders have been toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and all three countries find themselves on the bumpy to road to democracy. In Syria, a bloody civil war goes on unabated; in Iraq, the transition from U.S. occupation to political stability continues at an uncertain clip. In short, the region is experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime transition toward representative government and away from autocracy and political suppression.

And yet, in the United States, all anybody seems to want to talk about is "us." Pundit gabfests and editorial pages are full of arguments about how the United States -- or more directly the Obama administration -- screwed up, lost the Arab Spring, or in some manner contributed to the present state of instability. The Romney campaign has, not surprisingly, settled on the narrative that American weakness and mixed messages from the White House are the cause of the current violence. But little of this is supported by evidence and almost all the talk is based on extraordinarily disconnected navel-gazing. 

In reality, events in the Middle East today have little to do with current U.S. policy. When it comes to the seismic shifts that are roiling the region today, Washington is as much a casual onlooker as it is an active participant. The unceasing efforts to pin blame on U.S. politicians elides the fact that the violence and instability in the region right now is largely beyond America's ability to control it. Realizing that reality -- one that has been true for generations -- would go a long way toward creating a more rational and reasonable approach to American foreign policy.

It's certainly true that U.S. embassies have become a focal point of violent protest over the past week. That is due in large measure to a shockingly tasteless video about Mohammed produced by jackass filmmakers (and I use that latter term advisedly) in California and the fact that a small percentage of Muslims are a bit touchy about blasphemy.

But to assert that this violence is exclusively a result of this movie (as the White House has done) or to place blame on current administration policy -- or as Richard Williamson ludicrously suggested, that the presence of Mitt Romney in the White House would have prevented it -- is to ignore the fact that U.S. involvement in the Middle East predates the current crisis. 

Conservatives who are blaming Obama for an alleged lack of will or mixed messages appear to believe that Arab grievances against the United States began when Obama took office and have no antecedents in decades of U.S. policy in the region. As Liz Cheney wrote in the Wall Street Journal, America's adversaries no "longer fear us."

"Ask the mobs in Cairo who attacked our embassy, or the Libyan mobs who killed our diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Ask the Iranians, who make unhindered daily progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon," writes Cheney, without a hint of irony about her own tenure as a Middle East diplomat in the Bush administration.

To accept the conservative critique of Obama is to embrace the dubious notion that the Iraq War, U.S. support for non-democratic leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and elsewhere, the support for the Shah and overthrow of Mosaddegh in Iran, and practically uncritical support for Israel for the past two decades has nothing to do with why some individuals of the Arab world might view the United States with a healthy dose of suspicion. That might also explain why Washington doesn't quite have the leverage that the president's critics believe it should.

However, beyond these long-standing frustrations (and it's worth noting that, while the United States is not exactly brimming with popularity in the Arab world, it doesn't mean that all Arabs hate us -- only an exceedingly small percentage do enough to actively protest), what is happening today in the Arab world reflects a tension far larger than one's views about America's role in the region. There are emerging fault lines between Salafists and more secular reformers in Egypt, between various factions in both Libya and Tunisia, between democrats and those with more authoritarian belief systems. For generations, politics in the Arab world have been suppressed and channeled into anger against outsiders while these societies ossified and regressed. In the last year, the region underwent an extraordinary and much-needed reformation -- with Arab citizens being allowed for the first time in modern history to express a political opinion about and cast a ballot for the leaders who rule their land.

This is the sort of democratic awakening that leads occasionally to instability and even less than salutary results for the United States, but it's one that is necessary and long overdue. That it may lead to situations in which long-standing anger toward the United States is used as a political tool is hardly surprising or unusual. Indeed, it's worth remembering that the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 was driven in large measure by internal Iranian politics.

To be sure, America is not a complete bystander in these disputes. It clearly has a few levers at its disposal -- and certainly in the case of Libya it played a critical role in toppling Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi from power. In Egypt, U.S. foreign assistance gives America greater influence then it would have otherwise. But short of military intervention or covert operations, America is hardly able to play a lead role -- in large measure, because U.S. policymakers, utilizing the traditional tools of diplomacy and foreign assistance, have little ability to directly shape political outcomes. That Americans continue to believe -- and that our political leaders continue to foster the fiction -- that we can mold events happening in countries roiled by political change in ways that benefit our interests is the highest form of political narcissism.

Indeed, this weekend on ABC's This Week we were provided with a fascinating insight into how this is issue is discussed at elite levels. Jake Tapper scolded U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, asking "Why does the U.S. seem so impotent, and why is the U.S. even less popular today in some of these Muslim and Arab countries than it was four years ago?"

Rice shot back, "Jake we're not impotent," to which Tapper asserted: "It just seems that the U.S. government is powerless as this maelstrom erupts."

The reality is that the United States is, for the most part, impotent to control events thousands of miles outside its borders in sovereign nations that have their own belief systems and discrete sources of information. And not just in the Middle East, mind you. To suggest otherwise is as wrong-headed as the assertion that if President Obama only said nice words about the Green Movement in Iran or more aggressively spoke up in support of U.S. power, then ... magically, democratic, pro-U.S. events would occur.

The reality is that even in places where the United States has intervened militarily, like Iraq and Afghanistan our ability to affect outcomes is, at best, limited. But the abiding conceit in both Rice and Tapper's statement is that idea that we're anything but powerless.

Of course, the exceptional notions of U.S. power and influence that shape so much of our political discussions on foreign policy don't lead to these sorts of conclusions. We are as the expression goes, the world's "indispensable nation" -- and it's a notion that is voiced regularly by those who seek to be president. And it's certainly true that Washington plays an outsized role on the global stage -- one able to influence global events far more than Sweden or Swaziland. But there are limits to that power and influence and we're seeing them right now in the Middle East.

But unless we are prepared to meddle more directly and flagrantly in the region the United  States is not going to be able to, as the New York Times complained last week, decisively "help the transition to democracy from autocracy" or "draw a hard enough line against Islamic extremists." Instead, America's best approach is to try and shape events around the margins -- and support those groups that share large U.S. interests and values. And it's the sort of work the United States should be doing: supporting civil society groups, providing assistance and diplomatic support to countries moving in a more open and democratic direction, but with the humility to understand that there is only so much the United States can accomplish and that too much meddling and intervention can result in blowback.

That's a message you're not going to hear on the campaign trail. Republicans will keep on insisting that Obama should be do more and Obama officials will insist that their policies for the region are working in shaping positive outcomes.

But don't believe a word of it. We're more impotent then we think and the sooner we realize it, the better our foreign policy will be.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 19/09/2012
-Michael A. Cohen is a columnist for Foreign Policy's Election 2012 channel and a fellow at the Century Foundation

What's Non-Lethal About Aid To The Syrian Opposition?

 By Louisa Loveluck

As pressure increases on western governments to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria, "non-lethal" assistance has become the promise of the hour. The term is ubiquitous, cropping up in White House press briefings and the European Union's arms embargo on Syria.

Yet despite the pervasive nature of the term, it does not yet have a widely accepted legal definition. Broadly speaking, it is used to describe equipment and intelligence that cannot be directly used to kill. This can encompass anything from helmets and body armor to more facilitative assistance such as encrypted radios and satellite imagery. In practice, the lines between non-lethal equipment and its lethal counterparts are more blurred. In fact, both are required for a soldier to maximize the use of his weapon. As Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, points out, "a guy with a helmet and a radio is more likely to use his gun effectively because his protection increases his survivability and his radio [improves] his targeting through better communication."

Nevertheless, the distinction between lethal and non-lethal weapons is a crucial one for the governments involved in their supply. According to Wezeman, any move toward arming the rebels would be "very politically sensitive indeed." As Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague has emphasized, the British position is "not about taking sides." How the move toward assisting the rebels will be seen within the Assad regime's inner chambers is perhaps another story.

To date, the bulk of the formalized non-lethal assistance deliveries to Syria's loosely organised rebel fighting brigades are coming from the United States, Britain, and France. The U.S. State Department has set aside $25 million to supply Syria's opposition with non-lethal assistance, distributing 900 pieces of equipment through its Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). The British government has currently set aside £1.9 million for its own deliveries, distributing these through a slowly expanding network of vetted contacts. The French approach has been slightly different. Focusing instead on targeted areas, Francois Hollande's administration has identified five specific "rebel held" areas within which to concentrate its assistance. These are all within Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Idlib, governorates that have faced waves of intense bombardment from regime forces in recent months.

Tracing the passage of western non-lethal assistance is a tricky endeavor. As with the rebel's growing arsenal of weapons, it is often difficult to establish whether a single item was sourced from a British shipment, smuggled across the border, or looted internally from regime stocks. However, several known types of assistance have found their way to Syria through British, U.S., and French efforts: body armor, communications equipment, intelligence support, and satellite imagery.

Emphasizing that arming the Syrian rebels would involve breaching the EU's arms embargo on the country, the British government has focused instead on providing body armor and helmets as part of its assistance package. Hague told the press that this is viewed as "lifesaving protective equipment for civilians to help those carrying out vital work in the crossfire." Similar commitments have also come from the United States and France. Body armor is, of course, a vital part of any soldier's tool kit. For many, this will be the difference between life and death.

One of the most widely documented forms of non-lethal assistance has been communications equipment. This includes encrypted radios, satellite phones, and SIM cards. The United States, Britain, and France have publicly committed to providing such assistance. Although justified on humanitarian grounds -- British assistance can be used to warn civilians of impending regime assaults according to Hague -- these can also be used by rebel brigades to enhance their fighting capabilities. As Wezeman points out: "The rebels have [increasingly] got the kind of firepower they require but then need the means to organize their fighting. This is where [communications] equipment is essential in a military campaign on this level." In the case of Libya, it has been argued that similar efforts to organize rebels with command-and-control equipment played a significant role in enhancing their coordination and fighting capabilities.

Although communications equipment remains sparsely distributed, those who receive it gain an important tool with which to counter extensive regime surveillance and signal-jamming efforts. It also allows brigades to communicate securely across different areas, opening channels that can be used to give prior warning of government attacks.

Another significant avenue for non-lethal support is through intelligence. Syrian opposition officials report that British intelligence officers are stationed in two Cyprus military bases. Here they collect information that is then passed on to rebel commanders. This allows opposition fighters to preempt the regime's movements. It also provides the means to plan surprise attacks, a tactical necessity for fighters so outgunned by the state's extensive arsenal.

According to the Syrian officials, intelligence support has facilitated a number of successful ambushes in Idlib and Saraqib, including an attack on 40 army tanks. The assault on two large columns of government troops as they moved toward Aleppo was well documented when it happened in early August, although the source of the intelligence was not revealed at the time.

The men of the rebel Farouk Brigade, tasked with defending the town of Talbiseh, appear lightly armed in the face of the regime's firepower as they face daily incursions from government forces. But their M16s and worn anti-aircraft guns are aided by more high-tech paraphernalia: high-resolution satellite imagery. Access to recent images of the areas in which they are operating provides a small but significant advantage to the groups who possess them. Not only can they get a better picture of areas they may not be able to easily reach in person, but they also receive prior warning of regime troop build-ups.

The U.S. Department of Defense is believed to be one source of such images. This would be consistent with previous non-lethal assistance to fighting groups in Libya. In addition, the United States is currently the only country with the technological capacity to conduct regular satellite photography missions over Syria.
Western non-lethal assistance is not solely confined to the battlefield. Governments are also providing software in an attempt to help the rebels circumvent the regime's extensive internet surveillance efforts. This offers an important level of security for the beneficiaries, allowing them to leave their communication channels open. To this end, the U.S. State Department is distributing software as part of its assistance package to the opposition. According to Professor Philip Howard, a fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, the State Department has been investing in "circumvention tools" for several years now. A range of tools for making internet users anonymous have also been developed by the New America Foundation and the University of Toronto. As well as specific software packages, the United States is already likely to be providing direct satellite link-ups and internet radios. As Professor Howard explains, these are "important tools that make for direct connections to the internet."

Western non-lethal assistance will be of varying significance for different fighting groups in Syria. Although the United States, Great Britain, and France are encouraging greater coordination between countries providing external assistance, the passage of equipment remains slow. It is also sparsely distributed, and British officials admit privately that assistance packages only reach small groups within any given rebel brigade. Furthermore, the equipment's usefulness will vary according to the size and strength of each brigade's arsenal. Tactics are only as strong as the tools that implement them. If a Free Syrian Army foot soldier uses a gun that lacks the key constituent parts to function properly -- a common problem with weapons that have been looted internally -- then command-and-control equipment simply cannot be used to the same effect.

Current levels of assistance are unlikely to hasten the final stage of Syria's bloody crisis. Nor are they expected to increase significantly in the near future as the United States, Great Britain, and France remain committed to solving the conflict through diplomatic means. But as this high diplomacy continues apace, the devastating reality of Syria's war gouges deeper into the collective memory of a nation. Many will be questioning why such grand promises of assistance have done little to avert the unfolding tragedy.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 20/09/2012
- Louisa Loveluck is a freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bibi's Blunder

How Netanyahu killed the Israel lobby.


Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

Starting Sunday evening, we marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Numerologists with too much time on their hands noted that the digits of the year 5773 add up to the same numerical value as the word tovah, meaning good. That is supposed to be an omen, I suppose. But ever since Madonna embraced Kabala, I've been dubious about it. I like my omens more concrete and, where possible, drenched in irony.

Fortunately, this New Year has begun auspiciously even for skeptics like me -- because it has been ushered in by a fierce debate that may finally have done in one of the most pernicious and enduring myths of our time: that of the existence of an all-powerful Israel Lobby. Neatly, providing just enough irony to offer the honey sweetening we Jews look for to start off each year, the myth has been done in by the most unlikely of perpetrators: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel.

The irony and even the deed may have been cloaked for many by the circumstances under which they occurred. That is due in part to the fact that there have been so many other stories dominating the headlines recently. For example, last week's story of Netanyahu's decision to publicly confront his most important ally and the resulting further decline in U.S.-Israel relations would have dominated the news at virtually any other time. But the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the riots that spread across the Middle East forced it into the background. (Indeed, the confrontation between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands would have been and should have been big news in any week in which those other two stories did not occur.)

But even the story of the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans did not end up dominating the news last week. Instead, that story was partially elbowed aside by the self-inflicted wounds Mitt Romney delivered to his campaign when he precipitously offered up a critique of the Obama administration in the middle of the breaking news of the tragic attack. Barack Obama would have had a bad week indeed if Romney had simply kept his mouth shut. Very real questions exist about embassy security and the intelligence that could have led the United States to secure its compounds in the region differently. The Israel rift is ill-timed. In fact, there is virtually not one single area of U.S. foreign policy in Middle East that is moving in the right direction at the moment. And all that would have had the president on the defensive if his luck in being confronted by one of the most inept challengers in recent presidential campaign history had not kicked in once again.

The bad advice Romney is getting and, more importantly, acting upon, brings us back to our exquisite New Year's irony. Because at least one of those giving bad advice to the Romney campaign is Dan Senor, former mouthpiece of the United States in Baghdad, "Morning Joe" talking head, and one of the original shoot-first, aim-later neocon functionaries who has undermined the GOP's once-solid claim to national security competence. In Sunday's New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd cited Senor among others in her attacks on Romney for falling, as he has, under the thrall of the discredited far right of his party's foreign policy establishment. This triggered an avalanche of criticism from some, like my good friend Jeff Goldberg, who attacked her for her use of imagery that he asserted was anti-Semitic.

Goldberg is invariably smart, often witty, and typically right. But in this instance, he, like Romney, should have stood back and let silence do its work. Because the imagery to which he objected, that of "an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews," while tiresome, was really secondary to the bigger issue at stake. Through what seems to be careful if ill-considered collaboration, Netanyahu, Romney, Senor, and Co. were in the midst of blowing up one of the overarching myths of which the Jewish snake/Gentile dolt imagery was just one component.

And here we see the perils of believing your own hype -- apparently Bibi and friends actually believed the idea of the all-powerful Israel Lobby. Whether through Romney's bald-faced pandering to that perceived lobby with his ugly comments about the cultural inferiority of Palestinians or, more shockingly, through Netanyahu's decision to take sides in the 2012 presidential campaign, they seem to think that if they can portray Obama as "weak on Israel" they will materially advance their own causes. It's worth noting, of course, that those interests are different. For Romney, the approach only works if it undermines Obama in key states, notably Florida. For Netanyahu, it would work if the fear of losing Jewish support pushed Obama to get visibly tougher on Iran, to accept, for example, the Israeli leader's call for clearly demarked and more aggressive "red lines" with Iran.

Netanyahu, who dug in deeper this weekend with a high-profile showing on Meet the Press, seems to have swallowed the myth of the power of the Jewish Lobby so completely that he has bet his reputation and his country's future relationship with its most important ally on it. But here's the problem: Whatever lobby exists for Israel, it neither lives up to its press clippings nor to what it may have been in the past. And this week before Rosh Hashanah proved it.

In the first, instance, the Obama administration bravely kicked off last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's outright rejection of the idea of red lines, a strong message that they would not be bullied, even in an election year, regardless of the political consequences. This was further underscored later in the week when the Obama administration allegedly rejected a meeting with Netanyahu. The rejection was leaked by the Israelis hoping the lobby would be outraged. The administration held its ground, in part because they knew something that Netanyahu did not: American Jews do not vote as a monolith, they don't vote Israel's interests first, they don't like foreign leaders trying to meddle in U.S. elections, and the polling results show it.

Since Romney and Netanyahu first started making their play to harness the power of "the lobby," their standing in the polls has slipped. In Florida, Obama has gained ground since this effort started and is up by as much as 5 points in the most recent NBC News poll for that state. In fact, even with Netanyahu making the rounds of the Sunday morning television shows this past weekend, he found his points being publicly rebuffed by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, showing yet again that the Obama team is not giving in to the power of the approach -- or that somehow AIPAC's puppet masters have lost their touch. Michele Bachmann may be calling for Obama to meet with Netanyahu. Paul Ryan may be howling. But here's the problem: Romney and Ryan and their cheerleader Bibi are very likely to end up on the wrong side of the November results.

In short, this year is getting off to a good start for those of us who have always found the notion of some dark Jewish conspiracy of super-K Streeters to be laughable. Jews are just as divided, just as sometimes impotent and sometimes successful as anyone else. Of course, if I said it, the list of commenters suggesting that somehow I was part of the cover operation for this lobby would be long. But when it is none other than the prime minister of Israel who proves once and for all the limitations of the lobby and, by November, will have proved that estimations of Jewish political influence of all types are overstated, well, then that's something worth celebrating.

And if the myth survives the drubbing the facts are giving it this fall, well, then it will at least prove once and for all that it is what many of us, like Jeff Goldberg and I, have been arguing for a long, long time: The Israel Lobby is just another boogie monster cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices.

Happy New Year, everybody.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 18/09/2012
- David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Syria’s Secular And Islamist Rebels: Who Are The Saudis And The Qataris Arming?

Out of Istanbul, the two Gulf states play a game of conflicting favorites that is getting in the way creating a unified rebel force to topple the Assad regime


image: Syrian rebels take position during clashes with regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo, Sept. 14, 2012.
Syrian rebels take position during clashes with regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo, Sept. 14, 2012.

Vast swathes of northern Syria, especially in the province of Idlib, have slipped out of the hands of President Bashar Assad, if not quite out of his reach. The area is now a de facto liberated zone, though the daily attacks by Damascus’s air force and the shelling from the handful of checkpoints and bases regime forces have fallen back to are a reminder that the rebel hold on theterritory remains fluid and fragile.

What is remarkable is that this substantial strip of ‘free” Syria has been patched together in the last 18 months by military defectors, students, tradesmen, farmers and pharmacists who have not only withstood the Syrian army’s withering fire, but in some instances repelled them using a hodgepodge of limited, light weaponry. The feat is even more amazing when one considers the disarray among the outside powers supplying arms to the loosely allied band of rebels.

As TIME reports here, disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons — Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups – including various shades of secular and Islamist militias–under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

The middlemen of the two countries operate out of Turkey, the regional military power. Ankara has been quite public with its denunciation of Assad even as it denies any involvement in shuffling weapons across the border to Syrian rebels. It claims its territory is not being used to do so. And yet, as TIME reported in June, a secretive group operates something like a command center in Istanbul, directing the distribution of vital military supplies believed to be provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and transported with the help of Turkish intelligence to the Syrian border and across to the rebels. Further reporting has revealed more details of the operation, the politics and favoritism that is undermining the task of creating a unified rebel force out of the wide array of forces trying to topple the Assad regime.

(The FSA is nominally headed by the Turkey-based Riad al-As’aad. Both As’aad and his chief FSA rival General Mustafa Sheikh are not party to the Istanbul control room which supplies and arms rebels who operate under the FSA banner. The two men each have their own sources of funding, and are independently distributing money and weapons to selected FSA units.)

According to sources who have dealt with him, Saudi Arabia’s man in the Istanbul control center is a Lebanese politician named Okab Sakr. He belongs to the Future Movement, the organization of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which has a history of enmity with Damascus (Syria was accused of complicity in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father Rafik). The party has not made Sakr available to TIME, denies his involvement in any weapons deals and insists that Sakr is in Belgium “on leave” from his political duties.

However, Sakr appears to have been in the southern Turkish city of Antakya in late August. A TIME inquiry with an Antakya hotel confirms Sakr was in the area at the time. According to rebel sources who dealt with him, theLebanese politician was there overseeing the distribution of batches of supplies — small consignments of 50,000 Kalashnikov bullets and several dozen rocket-propelled grenades – to at least four different FSA groups in Idlib province as well as larger consignments to other areas including Homs. The FSA sources also say he met with some commanders but not others – a selectivity that led to much chagrin.

That kind of favoritism has caused problems on the ground in many ways. According to FSA sources, prominent activists and members of the Istanbul control room, Sakr was mainly responsible for designating the representatives in Syria’s 14 provinces to whom the Istanbul center would funnel small batches of light weapons — Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers and ammunition – to reach FSA groups operating in each area. But the 20 or so Syrians selected (some areas like Damascus have more than one representative) to distribute armaments were not all effective. These representatives were “supposed to deliver the support inside but they did not have a presence on the ground, they weren’t known,” says an influential U.S.-based Syrian activist with wide contacts inside Syria who played a role in setting up the Istanbul operations room. “I saw this weak point, so I connected Okab to people I knew were working on the ground, and I wasn’t the only one to do this, others did too because we wanted the room to succeed.”

But the selectivity has bred further favoritism in the distribution of arms. “Those who received goods would distribute them as they wanted. They started sending to people and saying, ‘this is a gift from me to you,’” a member of the control room representing eastern Syria told TIME. Other representatives were blunter, seeking pledges of loyalty from FSA groups inside the country before delivering the goods. To try to alleviate the problem, the provincial representatives were cycled in and out of the room’s operations but the problems remained. “The weapons are all being distributed in secret,” says one fighter inside Syria angrily, “and what is secret will stay unclear.”

The situation is compounded by Qatar’s man — a major who defected from Assad’s army who has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment. The Qataris want to focus on aiding the regional military councils, FSA groupings within Syria set up earlier this year partly in order to get around the favoritism of the representatives. (There are at least 10 military councilsscattered throughout the country.) Goods would be delivered to a council, and then distributed to the brigades under its umbrella. In practice, it wasn’t quite as easy, or smooth. “We were given lists by brigade leaders of their men, but we stopped believing the numbers,” says a member of the Istanbul room from Syria’s Idlib province. However, the Saudis – via Okab Sakr – appear to only want to support certain groups within the councils, but not others.

“We felt that the sides giving us support weren’t on the same page,” says the control room member from eastern Syria. “They started having side meetings with some groups.” Still, he says, “what is most important is that the guys receive weapons, whether that is via an operations room or directly, we don’t care. Nobody knows the truth from the talk,” he says. “We have been lied to [by the international community] and we have lied to the guys inside, saying weapons would arrive in a week, in 10 days, and months have passed and someareas haven’t received supplies. So, unless I see it, and see it distributed, even I don’t believe it.”

In the town of Bdeeta in Idlib province—which happens to be the hometown of Riad al-As’aad–rebel fighters complain bitterly about the lack of assistance. “We are licking our plates, we beg for salt,” says Abu Mar’iye, who heads the Martyrs of Ibditha group in the tiny town, home to some 2,000 people. “It’s not enough, even the weapons that arrive, it’s like a drop, just enough so the fighting continues, so we can kill each other but not win.”

The men claim that groups with higher media profiles, those thatproduce the most sensational snippets of amateur video, the ones with the most Youtube hits, receive the largest share of the spoils, regardless of the strategic importance of their operations. The videos serve as advertisements to solicit funding and weapons, not only from the Istanbul command center, but from private donors including clerics in the Gulf with massive fund-raising abilities. “They taught us; hit, film it, I’ll support you,” says a fighter named Nasr.

Colonel Afif Suleiman, the head of the Idlib Military Council, agrouping of 16 military units from across the vast province, is unhappy with the support he gets from the control room. He is angry with Sakr who he says “got involved in the issue of weapons to split our ranks, to divide the revolutionaries.” Sakr, he says, recently “chose three people on our council and supported them, I won’t name them. They are not the largest units. There is one big group but the others are just regular ones,” Suleiman told TIME. “He formed a rift within the council and we are working to heal this rift. We clarified the issue to our Saudi brothers about Okab. They promised that there will be no support, either military or financial, except via the councils. This is what they recently promised us.”

To complicate things further, the Qataris reportedly have strongties to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood while the Saudis “don’t want any ties to anything called Muslim Brothers,” says Ahmad Zeidan, the nom de guerre of a member of the Idlib military council. According to several sources, the large group in the Idlib military council that Sakrsupported – to the aggravation of Colonel Suleiman — is Jamal Maarouf’s Martyrs of Syria Battalion, because it “has a more neutral view of the Brothers,” a U.S.-based activist said.

The other big group in the Idlib military council is Ahmad Abu Issa’s Suqoor al-Sham, an Islamist group also based in Jabal al-Zawya. Abu Issa is also no great friend of the Brotherhood. On August 19, he announced his withdrawal from an Islamist coalition because he said the Brotherhood politicized it by naming it after their party, rather than calling it something that reflected the diverse nature of the grouping.

It’s debatable how much support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has within Syria – politically and militarily – given that since the 1980s it has been a capital offense to be a member of the party. There has been much talk that the MB has little influence on the ground, and that it will provide military and logistical support only in exchange for pledges of loyalty, part of its attempt to beef up its numbers. It’s a claim vigorously denied by Molham Aldrobi, an executive member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a founding member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the exiled political group that tried torepresent the opposition early on. “This is absolutely not true. We do not discriminate based on loyalty to the MB,” he told TIME from his home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “The MB does exist in the ground, we work under the FSA umbrella,” he said, although he would not disclose the number of units, nor where within Syria the MB’s military groups were strongest. He did say, however, that there was at least one member of the MB in the Istanbul operations room.

Still, the Brotherhood is only one of the many Islamist groups operating in Syria. Some, like the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham are not strictly part of the FSA, although in Idlib the group is part of the Military Council and therefore gets a smattering of support from the Istanbul control center  as well. It’s a reflection of the fact that in most cases in Idlib at least, rebel offensives are joint operations betweengroups of Free Syrian Army fighters, Islamists, Salafists and even the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group that some claim has ties to al-Qaeda. Still, the bulk of Ahrar al-Sham’s substantial funding reportedly comes from Kuwait.

Similarly, some FSA groups, like Abu Issa’s Suqoor al-Sham, are also part of wider Islamist networks. It’s largely to maximize the amount of support they can get. In a major development, Abu Issa has joined a powerful new pan-Syrian Islamist coalition called the Jabhat Tahrir Syria, or the Syrian Liberation Front, which groups several formidable, battle-hardened rebel outfits including the famed Farouk Brigades of Homs.

Abu Issa insists that he will remain part of the Idlib Military Council and that the Liberation Front will not overshadow anyone, even though it will likely be the most powerful armed body in Syria. “We acknowledge the others just as they acknowledge us. The military councils can be a part of it,” he said. But the rebel leader bristled when asked about the influence of foreign players like Sakr. “We will not accept becoming tools for anyone, nor do we accept any living being, whether foreign or from within the revolution, acting in a manner to divide revolutionaries,” he told TIME.

Abu Issa, Suleiman and Maarouf, along with other high-profile rebel leaders from other provinces, spent much of August shuttling between Syria and Turkey to attend high-level meetings with diplomats and senior Syrian opposition. But U.S. diplomacy has yet to grasp the full complexity of the Syrian crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision to snub the SNC during an August trip to Istanbul was widely viewed as belated recognition by many activists inside Syria that the exiles comprising the body have littlesway or credibility. The fact is, the guys with the guns do, although the State Department denies any direct contact with members of the FSA. (The SNCdoes not have a role in the arming of the rebels inside Syria, though some individual SNC members are in the Istanbul control room, representing theirregions.)

The Obama administration does not deal directly with the armed opposition but it has authorized a non-profit organization, the Syrian Support Group, to fundraise for the FSA. The SSG is comprised of Syrian exiles in the U.S and Canada as well as a former NATO political officer.

Zeidan of the Idlib Military Council doesn’t seem to differentiate between official U.S. policy and that of the SSG. He says he’s been in contact with members of the SSG for months. “I know that they are afraid of something called Al-Qaeda, it’s all a big lie,” said Zeidan. “They talk about Ahrar al-Sham and Suqoor al-Sham. They are conservative Islamists, but they are not extremists. Many of these groups just want support.” He adds, “We are fighting to have a democratic country, not so that we can install people with American or European or Saudi agendas… We want to topple the regime, so whoever offers us help, we will call our units whatever they want as long as they support us. We just want to finish.”

-This report was published first in TIME on 18/09/2012

Monday, September 17, 2012

Embassy Protests And Middle East Unrest In Context

By Stephen Zunes

It seems bizarre that right-wing pundits would be so desperate to use the recent anti-American protests in the Middle East—in most cases numbering only a few hundred people and in no cases numbering more than two or three thousand—as somehow indicative of why the United States should oppose greater democracy in the Middle East. Even more strangely, some media pundits are criticizing Arabs as being “ungrateful” for U.S. support of pro-democracy movements when, in reality, the United States initially opposed the popular movements that deposed Western-backed despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, and remains a preeminent backer of dictatorships in the region today.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney falsely accused President Obama of “apologizing” for what the Republican presidential nominee referred to as “American values” and of “sympathizing” with those who attacked diplomatic missions rather than promptly condemning them. (What apparently prompted this misleading attack was a tweet from the U.S. embassy in Cairo prior to the worst attacks reiterating U.S. opposition to "efforts to offend believers of all religions" and "the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.")

What incited many of the protests was an outrageously offensive anti-Islamic movie produced by Christian extremists in California, but there is a lot more to the protests than this triggering event.

For years, the Christian right and Islamic right have sought to provoke extremism and hatred as part of an effort to seemingly validate the stereotypes of the other. As Hani Shukrallah remarked about the film in the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “The obvious, outward motive of such attempts is not difficult to discern: to show Muslims as irrational, violent, intolerant and barbaric, all of which are attributes profoundly inscribed into the racist anti-Muslim discourse in the West. And, it’s a very safe bet that there will be among us those who will readily oblige.”

The attacks on two U.S. consulate offices in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya, are far more significant, though these appear to have been the work of Ansar al-Sharia, an extremist Islamist militia which took advantage of a protest to launch their armed assault avenging the killing of a Libyan-born al-Qaeda leader by a drone strike in Pakistan. Ironically, the United States allied with these extremists in the armed uprising against the Gaddafi regime last year.

Indeed, last week’s tragedy in Libya should raise questions about the wisdom of backing such armed uprisings, even against a brutal dictator. In Egypt and Yemen, where dictatorships were overthrown largely through mass nonviolent action not supported by Washington, the worst damage protesters at the U.S. embassies could do was to seize parts of the grounds and burn the American flag. In Libya, where the dictator was overthrown in an armed revolution that was supported by Washington, two consulate buildings were destroyed and four Americans were killed in a coordinated assault with automatic weapons, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades. Historically, autocratic regimes overthrown by armed struggle are far more likely to descend into violence and chaos (and/or a new dictatorship) than authoritarian regimes toppled through largely nonviolent methods.

In a country of barely 6 million people, more than 200,000 Libyans are armed members of militias outside the control of the Libyan government. Even though the recent Libyan elections appear to have been free and fair, and the winners largely consisted of moderates open to a democratic political system, the legacy of the war and the NATO intervention will likely remain a problem for some time to come.

In the rest of the region, where uprisings against dictatorships came largely in the form of unarmed civil insurrections, radical Islamists have been severely weakened, as the popular revolts demonstrated how U.S.-backed regimes could be toppled without embracing terrorism or extremist ideologies. The need to manipulate a hysterical reaction to an obscure, albeit offensive, film is indicative of just how desperate the far-right-wing Islamists have become in asserting their relevance. These extremists were able to stir up crowds in cities in more than a dozen Islamist countries with false claims that the film was a major Hollywood production which, like movies in Egypt and many other countries in the region, must have been subjected to review and approval by government censors before being released to the public.

Ironically, the Prophet Muhammad faced worse defamation in his lifetime but refused to curse his enemies, following the words of the Qur’an to “Repel evil with something that is better, lovelier.”
In short, anti-democratic forces in both the United States and the Arab world want to discredit the pro-democracy struggles in the Middle East: on the one hand, Republicans and others who unconditionally support pro-Western dictatorships, U.S. interventionism, and the Israeli occupation; and, on the other extreme, radical Islamists who want to counter their increasing marginality. Fortunately, the reactions by these chauvinistic forces are more a relic of the past than they are a harbinger of the future.

In thinking about an appropriate U.S. response, it is important not to repeat the mistakes of U.S. policy in recent years. It is extremely unlikely that such vitriolic anti-American protests would have taken place were it not for decades of U.S. support, during both Republican and Democratic administrations, of allied dictatorships and the Israeli occupation, not to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the ongoing military strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Indeed, interviews with demonstrators in Yemen and elsewhere not surprisingly found grievances towards the United States that went far beyond the film itself.

It is also noteworthy that the apparent producer of the offending film was a Coptic Christian immigrant who presumably developed his extreme hatred toward Muslims as a reaction to the persecution of his fellow Copts in his native Egypt. Much of that persecution was a direct result of the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime’s attempts to deliberately foment hatred and division between Egyptian Muslims and Christians. Despite the regime’s discrimination and oppression against the Copts—including the infamous 2010 bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria by agents from Mubarak’s Interior Ministry, which killed dozens—both Republican and Democratic administrations provided the Mubarak dictatorship with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military and financial backing.

It is particularly tragic, then, that the victims of last week’s upsurge in violence included Ambassador Christopher Stevens, one of the United States’ most knowledgeable and respected diplomats. The outpouring of grief and remorse from Libyans and others indicates that most Arabs, despite their understandable resentment of U.S. policy, recognize that there can still be good individuals representing the United States abroad.

The best thing that can be done in the memory of Stevens and other victims, then, is to redouble efforts to end U.S. support for Arab dictatorships and Israeli occupation forces. Indeed, the best defense against extremists are political systems that honor people’s demands for freedom and justice.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy In Focus on 17/09/2012
-Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Iran Acknowledges Elite Troops In Syria

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Michael Peel in Abu Dhabi

Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Jafari

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards are helping the Syrian government, the force’s head said on Sunday, but he refused to be drawn on whether Iran would intervene militarily to help Damascus in the event of foreign military intervention.

In the first official acknowledgment of an Iranian troop presence on the ground in Syria, Brigadier General Mohammad-Ali Jafari said the guards were not involved militarily in the 18-month conflict but were “giving intellectual and advisory help and exchanging experiences” with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Gen Jafari’s remarks came in a rare international press conference in which he said US bases would be targeted and “nothing would remain” of Israel should Israel attack Iran – the most explicit threats yet made by a senior Iranian official.

Gen Jafari said members of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas forces, known as the Qods, were in Syria as well as Lebanon. Gen Jafari said Iran did not give military support to the Assad regime, as “Arab and non-Arab countries” did to Syrian opposition groups, but instead provided advice and gave “other assistance in economic fields” to help defend the government in Damascus.

“Since the establishment of the Qods forces . . . due to the special conditions in the region, in Lebanon and in Syria, some members have been present, but this does not mean a military presence there,” the general said.

With regards to a military agreement signed between Syria and Iran in 2006 – and widely believed to cover the possibility of intervention to protect Damascus in the case of attack – he said: “This agreement will depend on the circumstances. It is not clear [now] that if there is a military strike against Syria, Iran will act militarily or will provide military support [to the Syrian government],” he said.

The Syrian regime is one of Tehran’s main regional allies, with the Damascus regime dominated by members of the Alawite religious minority, an offshoot of the Shia Islam followed by most Iranians. Tehran is also close to the radical Lebanese Shia group Hizbollah.

There have long been reports of an Iranian troop presence on the ground in Syria, although this has never before been confirmed in Tehran. There is significant foreign involvement in the Syria crisis: the regime is heavily armed with Russian weapons, while the militarised rebel groups that appeared in response to a brutal government crackdown are backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Western nations have also been supporting the opposition.

On Israel, Gen Jafari issued a riposte to elements of the Israeli government that have been arguing for military action against Tehran over its nuclear programme. “It is clear that nothing would remain of Israel [if it attacks Iran], considering its small size and numerous vulnerabilities vis a vis Iran’s mass of missiles,” he said.

He added that, since Israel was “too small to dare attack Iran on its own”, any attack on Iran would need permission from Washington and thus make the US a target for retaliation. He acknowledged that the US had strong military capabilities in the region, but said its bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were “highly vulnerable” and its regional defence system could counter some but not “the mass” of Iran’s missiles.

The general said that, in the event of a military confrontation with Israel, it was “unlikely” that Iran would remain committed to international nuclear non-proliferation agreements. But he added that Iran would still choose not to produce nuclear weapons as this was against religious teachings.

Despite tough international sanctions by the US and the EU, Iran has repeatedly said it will not scale back its nuclear programme, which it says is aimed at generating electricity, not developing weapons.

Amid aggressive rhetoric from some parts of the Israeli government about military action against Iran, the US has reiterated there is still time for diplomacy and has opposed any unilateral military strike.

This week, the US and more than two dozen allies plan to hold the largest naval exercise yet in the Middle East, in an exercise designed to ensure that the strategic Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran remains secure.

Gen Jafari played down the importance of the manoeuvre and warned that “in case of any incident [Israeli war], they [US] surely cannot establish security in the region or the Strait of Hormuz” and stressed that any attack against Iran would “naturally affect the energy supply” through the strategic waterway.

The general also hinted that an attack against Iran could increase the chances of terrorist attacks on Israel and the US.

Any military confrontation, he said, would be a “conflict between Islam and heresy” which would encourage “Muslims around the world and not only in the region” to defend Iran. He reminded Israel that it neighbours Muslim states such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

“Naturally, if there is any act against Iran, the response to threats would begin from the very same borders [of Israel],” he said. Hizbollah would “surely not remain silent” and “most probably will on its own move” to help Iran, he said.

-This article was published in The Financial Times on 16/09/2012