But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too

But I Knew That He Knew That I Knew He Knew Too

According to Sheera Frenkel, Israeli officials were made aware by Saudi Arabia of the backdoor talks between the US and Iran detailed in depth by Laura Rozen at Al Monitor this past weekend, which culminated in the interim Geneva agreement. In brief, the deal will see Iran recoup some US$7-8 billion in sanctions relief through 2014 if, in exchange, Tehran does not enrich any more uranium over 5%, allows for new IAEA site inspections, and downgrads its remaining enriched-to-20% uranium stockpile. Some outstanding issues, like the Arak heavy water reactor under construction and Iran's "right to enrich," remain to be discussed in talks down the road. Saudi Arabia would not have been a venue for these talks, of course - nor would its closest GCC associate, Bahrain, given the Al Khalifas' mistrust of the Islamic Republic - but other Gulf states were. Namely Oman -- which the US uses as a third party to approach untouchables like the Taliban and the Islamic Republic -- and perhaps the UAE as well (unlike its Saudi neighbors, the Emirati Cabinet very quickly  welcomed the interim accord). News of the meeting went from these states to Riyadh and then probably got to Tel Aviv, obviously infuriating the Israelis because they were not told up front about the talks. 

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That never-ending path to democracy

That never-ending path to democracy

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

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Qatar's ambitions and American universities

I just published an investigation into American universities in Qatar in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The piece is behind a subscription wall, but here is the intro: 

Sixty years ago, Doha was little more than a trading post along a barren coast. Today the capital of Qatar is a giant construction site, its building frenzy a testament to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's outsized ambitions and resources.

Under the emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani—and now his son Tamim, who took over in June—Qatar has become a regional power broker and a deep-pocketed patron of culture, science, and education. Doha's curving seaside promenade boasts an Islamic-art museum designed by I.M. Pei. The city is building a new airport, an elevated train line, and air-conditioned stadiums to play host to the 2022 World Cup in the simmering summer heat.

As another part of its bid to make Qatar a global player, the al-Thani family has recruited an important ally: American higher education. On 2,500 acres on the edge of the desert here, the ruling family has built Education City, a collection of modern buildings, each home to a branch of a well-known university, including Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Northwestern. Those institutions are crucial to the emirate's goal of becoming "a modern society with a world-class education system at its heart," writes Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who directs several of the higher-education ventures, in an email.

Yet some observers wonder if Education City, like many other attention-grabbing ventures here, is intended to do little more than bolster Qatar's international "brand." While professors say they are free to discuss sensitive topics in the classroom, outside the luxurious walls of the campus, speech is censored and political activities largely banned. Sometimes overzealous customs agents hold up shipments of books to the campus. Security authorities have even detained a foreign researcher who asked discomfiting questions.

Allen Fromherz, a historian who taught at Qatar University, which is not part of Education City, believes that the emirate's welcoming of foreign universities is intended to introduce only limited change. In his bookQatar: A Modern History, he says the emirate cultivates an image of modernity and openness but that Qatari society is still largely tribal, with power concentrated in the hands of a very few.

"How do you transform into a nation without also transforming the traditional, monarchical, patriarchal system?" he asks.

As the small but natural-gas-rich country emerges onto the world's stage, this and other questions are unavoidable: Are the American universities actors in the country's future or merely props? Can they teach students to think critically about the contradictions and changes in Qatar while under the patronage of its ruling family?

Look who's talking

 

Can Iran and the US reach a nuclear deal in the coming months, one that preserves Iran's enrichment program yet satisfies the US's sanctions regimen against the Islamic Republic? It is possible, but the pressure for the current negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif to fail is immense, and comes from multiple domestic actors in both countries, as well as from American allies in the Middle East.

Obama's biggest stumbling block domestically is Congress, and the myriad lobbying groups opposed to a negotiated solution with Iran as long it remans an Islamic Republic. There are some Iranian associations (like the former terrorist organization MEK), but most of the pressure comes from Israel advocacy organizations like AIPAC, along with neoconservative think tanks such as the FDD or AEI. These groups - except for AIPAC - cannot really push Obama, but they can and have been pushing Congress. Republicans, especially, want to claim credit for sanctions bringing the Iranians to the UN with all this talk of cooperation and hints of nuclear concessions - but then, the issue arises of who is willing to say: "the sanctions have worked, let's talk concessions" instead of "Iran is bleeding white financially, tighten the screws and go for broke." And procedurally, this spider's web - as the International Crisis Group calls it - of sanctions cannot just be overridden by the President. Already, the Senate is mulling whether or not to enact even more sanctions, and this is no bluff. This is a concerted effort to pull Obama away from diplomacy and send Rouhani back empty-handed.

There are also other competing interests on the US side: Israel and the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. All are united by their fear and animus towards Iran's regional ambitions.  

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Egypt and its patrons

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Egypt's new patrons? A poster in Cairo thanks the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE -- and Russia.  

Why does Egypt receive between $1.3 and $1.5 billion of US aid annually?

"Because of Israel" is the most common answer to that question. Certainly, that is driving much of the American political wrangling over whether aid should be suspended. The New York Times reports that during the back-and-forth among the US and its allies leading up to Morsi's ouster, Israeli officials argued against cuts, and told the military not to put stock in US threats to cut off aid. The Israelis, like the US, greatly prefer the Egyptian security forces to be in charge of the country. Whatever, the depredations of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, or the counterrevolution, Egypt is too valuable for any American leader to risk "losing."

But though the Muslim Brotherhood signaled it might be less hostile to Hamas or Iran than Mubarak was, in practice the former president did little to change existing policies. Under Morsi's short presidency, the Egyptians even stepped up the destruction of smuggling tunnels into the coastal strip (moreover, the Egyptians were reportedly instrumental in negotiating an end to Operation Pillar of Cloud last winter).

Both Israel and Egypt have many shared interests in the Sinai, especially as the security situation deteriorates. Though Egyptian pressure on Gaza is massively increasing now, it was never seriously in jeopardy under the Brotherhood given that the terrorists and criminal gangs in the Sinai were going after both the SCAF- and Brotherhood-led Egyptian state, and it served Morsi little to champion the Palestinian cause while in office.

The massive corporate investment in Egyptian or Saudi defense expenditures certainly contributes to Congressional deliberations against aid cuts. And while one might examine the head of President Obama, and whether his reluctance to "take sides" really suggests a desire to reduce a US commitment to Egypt, the fact that the aid has not yet been publicly cut off suggests that Washington has tacitly taken a side: that of the military's, guarantor of the status quo.

It was, in fact, not just the Israelis telling General Sisi et al. to pay no mind to the US law that requires all aid to be suspended to a country if a coup takes place there. It was King Abdullah telling the Egyptian generals that the Kingdom would make up for any cutoffs in economic or military aid - the latter, almost assuredly in the form of American-made weapons in Riyadh's possession.

Riyadh's role is extremely important in all of this, especially with respect to Iran's containment. As the CNAS think tank noted in February 2011, Egypt's strategic importance in the wider region has nothing to do with the current deployment of US forces in the country, where the only fully staffed America military station is a US Navy medical center. It instead has to do with the nightmare scenario that would threaten the US's interests in the Persian Gulf: the sudden collapse of any one of the Gulf monarchies that host the radar sites, listening posts, airfields, and weapon emplacements pointing at Iran:

"The United States has no military bases of its own in Egypt. Its headquarters for directing air and ground troops in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, are in Qatar. Stockpiles of tanks, ammunition, fuel, spare parts and other war materiel are warehoused in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. U.S. missile batteries are deployed along the Persian Gulf's west coast. The U.S. Navy's regional headquarters is in Bahrain.

But in contingencies or crises, American forces have depended heavily on Egyptian facilities built with U.S. aid to U.S. specifications to accommodate U.S. forces as they move from the United States and Europe to Africa or westward across Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf. American nuclear powered aircraft carriers, whose jets are playing a major role in Afghanistan, rely critically on their expedited use of the Suez Canal, giving them easy access to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf."

Jane's Defence Weekly presented an analysis of commercial satellite imagery compiled between 2011 and 2012 to illustrate the expansion of US, UK, and GCC "conventional combat capabilities" in the Persian Gulf. The analysis highlighted the most salient points of this cooperation, which all ultimately leads back over that waterway and the Saudi desert to Egypt's own airspace and port facilities.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the failure of the Brotherhood's political experiment in Egypt may be necessary for the House of Saud's survival is not farfetched. Though security concerns largely determine American actions, for the Saudis, there is also the matter of not wanting competition from the transnational Brotherhood as a mass Islamist movement.

While in years past, the Saudis supported the Brotherhood in Egypt - against Nasser, primarily, whose pan-Arabism and meddling in Yemen during the Cold War threatened the House of Saud's shaky legitimacy. But then the Brothers' messaging and aspirations began to appeal to dissidents within the Kingdom, as did other rival Islamist precepts, threatening absolute monarchy with the prospect of replacement. In recent years, top Saudi officials have made extremely negative remarks about the Brotherhood, most notably the late Crown Prince Nayef. Last month, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal fired a Kuwaiti preacher from his Al Resalah channel for having pro-Brotherhood leanings. As a Foreign Policy article recently noted about Saudi efforts to arm anti-Assad Syrian militias, "Saudi Arabia does not only despise the Muslim Brothers, but political Islamic movements and mass politics in general, which it sees as a threat to its model of absolute patrimonial monarchy."

Conspiring against the truth

My latest post for the Latitude blog of the New York Times takes a look at the truly mind-boggling conspiracy theories being woven by the security services and an eager-to-please press in Egypt today. 

On Tuesday, a front-page story of the state-owned newspaper Al Ahram was titled: “A New Conspiracy to Shake Stability Involving Politicians, Journalists and Businessmen.” Citing anonymous “security sources” the article purported to reveal the details of an agreement to “divide Egypt” allegedly struck between Khairat el-Shater, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson, which involved helping 300 armed fighters enter the country from Gaza. It also claimed that the police foiled a plan to take over government buildings and declare an independent state in southern Egypt (“with the previous promise of recognition from the United States and some European countries”). The piece concluded by promising that charges would soon be brought against the unnamed conspirators.
As I argue in the piece, the point here is to create a black-is-white, up-is-down alternate reality in which the military is fighting a US/Muslim Brotherhood alliance and in which the police and state security are national heroes rather than reviled criminals. In crafting this narrative, Fox News has played a surprising supporting role: segments on Obama's supposed support for the Muslim Brotherhood have been subtitled into Arabic and broadcast here. 

 

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In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins

You know those nightmarish images of chemical attack victims in Syria you saw (or if you are like me, glimpsed and then avoided looking at) last week? It should be our goal to keep that shit coming, says some Washington think tank jerk in the New York Times Op-ed pages:

... a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.

There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

[...]

Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.

This view has been circulating in US policy circles for months. This guy just comes out and says it. 

✚ The Middle East greets Barack Obama's re-election with a shrug

The Middle East greets Barack Obama's re-election with a shrug

My article for The Guardian on the Middle East and Obama's re-election.The basic take: no one should be expecting to Obama to offer solutions to Arab problems, and many in the Arab world simply no longer care about who's in charge in Washington as they once did. And that's a good thing.

Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

The delisting of the MEK

Years of hard work by the MEK, their lobbyists, parts of the Israel lobby (esp. when it overlaps with the anti-Iran lobby and the neocons) have finally borne fruit. A rather strange, cultish organization that once bombed Iran's parliament is no longer on the US list of designated terrorist organizations. It comes at the time of the most concerted effort to put pressure on the Iranian republican regime since its creation, and with much talk of war as background chatter.

There's an aspect of the delisting of the MEK that may have some merit: the refugee issue, i.e. where resident of Camp Ashraf might end up because they're no longer welcome in Iraq (as they were under Saddam Hussein, and ironically aren't under the Iran-leaning Iraqi government that the US overthrow of Saddam made possible.) But it shouldn't overshadow the many other reasons the MEK — a fundamentalist guerrilla movement, essentially — will now make a handy recipient of US (and other) funding should things continue to heat up with Iran. Or indeed the story of how this was possible: perhaps not so much because geostrategic calculations as intense lobbying and a lot of money.

Selected links: 

  • On US decision to delist MEK | The Back Channel
  • MEK decision: multimillion-dollar campaign led to removal from terror list | World news | guardian.co.uk
  • US takes Iranian MEK group off terror list - FT.com
  • Iranian Group M.E.K. Wins Removal From U.S. Terrorist List - NYTimes.com
  • By Delisting the MEK, the Obama Administration is Taking the Moral and Strategic Bankruptcy of America’s Iran Policy to a New Low « The Race for Iran
  • MEI Editor's Blog: The MEK is Delisted
  •  

    The Bush White House Was Deaf to 9/11 Warnings

    The Bush White House Was Deaf to 9/11 Warnings - NYTimes.com

    As I've always suspected, heard from officials in the know — a must-read by Kurt Eichenwald in NYT on the Bush administration's scandalous negligence of the Bin Laden threat because it was obsessed with Saddam:

    The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

    But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

    In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

    “The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden,” the daily brief of June 29 read, using the government’s transliteration of Bin Laden’s first name. Going on for more than a page, the document recited much of the evidence, including an interview that month with a Middle Eastern journalist in which Bin Laden aides warned of a coming attack, as well as competitive pressures that the terrorist leader was feeling, given the number of Islamists being recruited for the separatist Russian region of Chechnya.

    And the C.I.A. repeated the warnings in the briefs that followed. Operatives connected to Bin Laden, one reported on June 29, expected the planned near-term attacks to have “dramatic consequences,” including major casualties. On July 1, the brief stated that the operation had been delayed, but “will occur soon.” Some of the briefs again reminded Mr. Bush that the attack timing was flexible, and that, despite any perceived delay, the planned assault was on track.

    Yet, the White House failed to take significant action. Officials at the Counterterrorism Center of the C.I.A. grew apoplectic. On July 9, at a meeting of the counterterrorism group, one official suggested that the staff put in for a transfer so that somebody else would be responsible when the attack took place, two people who were there told me in interviews. The suggestion was batted down, they said, because there would be no time to train anyone else.

    And then people laugh when you suggest Bush should have been impeached. In fact, it's him and his senior team (Rice, Cheney, Hadley, Rumsfeld etc.) who should be held to account. It's still not too late, 11 years after the attacks.

    What do Egypt's new top generals think of Amreeka?

    Some of the military officers who have risen to prominence after the recent shuffle/purge/power grab in the senior ranks of the Egyptian military are pretty unknown. The military is an isolated institution, and only a few of its members became very public figures over the last year and a half. There have been many rumors that the new top honchos are American favorites, chiefly on the spurious ground that they have been in contact with the US in the past. The truth is we don't know much about them, or specifically how they feel about the United States. 

    Wouldn't it be nice if one of these guys had written, say, a 10,000 word essay on his views of the future of US strategy in the Middle East?

    Well it turns out one of them — no less than Sedky Sobhy, the new Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, the number two in the hierarchy — did just that while studying in a military school in the US, as many Egyptian officers do. And he's written a rather thoughtful essay advocating for one of my pet causes: a complete US military withdrawal from the Middle East. It's titled "THE U.S. MILITARY PRESENCE INTHE MIDDLE EAST: ISSUES AND PROSPECTS" and was carried out as part of a Masters in Strategic Studies at the US Army War College in 2005, when he was Brigadier General. It's available on a US army website

    Here's the basic gist from his conclusion:

    The future challenges and prospects ofthe U.S. military presence inthe Middle East in general and Gulf in particular are inseparable from the overall U.S. national security strategy in this region. This national security strategy cannot define the issues within the narrow geographic context of the Gulf region and its oil resources, or the narrow confines of rather outdated "containment" concepts. It is this author's opinion that the security challenges for the U.S. interests inthe Middle East and the Gulf, including Iraq, are interlinked with the ideological foundations that underpin these challenges. The solutions of security challenges inthe Gulf will not necessarily be solely found in Baghdad or in the Gulf itself. These solutions will find their ideological underpinning ifthe U.S. were to truly work for a permanent settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The U.S. can continue to pursue its current strategy in the Gulf that is largely based on its U.S. military presence and potential. This strategy will not lead to the solution of political problems that are deeply rooted in ideological, religious, and cultural causes. The U.S. and its willing partners will continue to be immersed in a long-term asymmetric military conflict without clear political and ideological goals. Truly international cooperation, and heeding the ideological, religious, and cultural concerns of the Arab and Muslim world, can successfully change the current course of events.

    I don't agree with everything but I like the way he thinks. Some choice excerpts after the jump.

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    Powers continue jockeying over influence in Syria

    The New York Times reports that the CIA has been on the ground in Turkey vetting armed opposition groups in Syria. The anonymous sources cited by the Times say that the US itself is not providing weapons to the rebels, in keeping with its earlier declarations to not directly arm them, but is apparently tracking weapons going into Syria and “advising” allies in the region as to which groups should get what weapons. Reports on alleged Western intelligence gathering operations along Syria’s borders several months ago were denied then, but the Times asserts that the CIA presence has been on the ground “for several weeks” at least.

    The promise of weapons sales to the rebels has been advanced as a cost-effective way for the US and its allies to direct the course of the Syrian uprising’s armed resistance to the Assad regime. With arms comes influence - or so Washington, Doha and Riyadh hope - and the armed opposition has been hard-pressed to provision itself.

    Even with these promises, armed groups in Syria, who are frequently at odds with one another, have relied and continue to rely on materials produced by Syrian expatriates, captured battlefield detritus or purchased from black marketeers. With the exception of equipment seized from a battlefield or brought over by defecting soldiers, the regime can still bring much greater firepower to bear, which manifests itself in the form of besieging and shelling neighborhoods concealing (or thought to be concealing) insurgents fighting the Syrian Army. As such, some factions of the anti-Assad movement continue to call for direct foreign military intervention, notably from the Turkish Army.

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    Bilal Ahmed's story of FBI harassment

    Bilal Ahmed, who contributed this piece on Yemen a few weeks ago, on his and his family's experience being harassed by the FBI because he traveled to Yemen:

    The message was clear: I was being treated this way because I am a Pakistani with an Arabic name. It seemed, as it still does, impossible that at any point during the harassment I was considered an American. Americans do not receive visits by counterterrorism officials for no reason. Similarly, Pakistani-Americans, integrated minorities with hybrid identities, would not be treated this way as their “American” side was impossible to ignore. The “American” part of their identity guaranteed that even Pakistani-Canadians such as myself would be treated equally in the United States. No. I wasn’t an American. I wasn’t a Pakistani-American. I was ultimately only a Pakistani. The moment I traveled to Yemen, I became suspicious because I was only regarded as a Pakistani. One professor agreed with my statement on the matter, “there is no such thing as a Pakistani-American. The hyphenation has been destroyed by the war.”

    Read the rest at Souciant.

    The US military's Islam problem

    The US military: the word's most advanced fighting force, technologically bleeding edge, probably the most complex logistics and planning effort by anyone on the planet. The core of the American empire. Unfortunately, it is also plagued by complete morons and, apparently, a culture of tolerance for genocide. Danger Room reports:

    The U.S. military taught its future leaders that a “total war” against the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims would be necessary to protect America from Islamic terrorists, according to documents obtained by Danger Room. Among the options considered for that conflict: using the lessons of “Hiroshima” to wipe out whole cities at once, targeting the “civilian population wherever necessary.”

    The course, first reported by Danger Room last month and held at the Defense Department’s Joint Forces Staff College, has since been canceled by the Pentagon brass. It’s only now, however, that the details of the class have come to light. Danger Room received hundreds of pages of course material and reference documents from a source familiar with the contents of the class.

    The real culprit here is the infiltration, of course facilitated by the Bush administration, of ultra-conservative religious warriors into its administration, and perhaps also to an extent the strong presence some of the wilder branches of the Born Again Christian movement in the officer corps. But consider that this was taught:

    “We have now come to understand that there is no such thing as ‘moderate Islam,’” Dooley noted in a July 2011 presentation (.pdf), which concluded with a suggested manifesto to America’s enemies. “It is therefore time for the United States to make our true intentions clear. This barbaric ideology will no longer be tolerated. Islam must change or we will facilitate its self-destruction.”

    . . .

    International laws protecting civilians in wartime are “no longer relevant,” Dooley continues. And that opens the possibility of applying “the historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki” to Islam’s holiest cities, and bringing about “Mecca and Medina['s] destruction.”

    Oh boy.

    "Curveball" confesses to lying about WMDs

    Man whose WMD lies led to 100,000 deaths confesses all - The Independent

    A man whose lies helped to make the case for invading Iraq – starting a nine-year war costing more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of pounds – will come clean in his first British television interview tomorrow.

    But Mr Janabi, speaking in a two-part series, Modern Spies, starting tomorrow on BBC2, says none of it was true. When it is put to him "we went to war in Iraq on a lie. And that lie was your lie", he simply replies: "Yes."

     

    "Curveball", the Iraqi defector who fabricated claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, smiles as he confirms how he made the whole thing up. It was a confidence trick that changed the course of history, with Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi's lies used to justify the Iraq war.

    He tries to defend his actions: "My main purpose was to topple the tyrant in Iraq because the longer this dictator remains in power, the more the Iraqi people will suffer from this regime's oppression."

    The chemical engineer claimed to have overseen the building of a mobile biological laboratory when he sought political asylum in Germany in 1999. His lies were presented as "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence" by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, when making the case for war at the UN Security Council in February 2003.

    Of course the real crime is not an Iraqi trying to manipulate foreign powers — it's the US and UK officials who decided to believe him because they wanted the war anyway. And none of these have yet been prosecuted.

     

    Will the US approve aid to Egypt?

    Probably — but it will be more embarassing this time round.

    I know everyone is tired of this story, but POMED has an updated backgrounder [PDF] on the whole US–Egypt NGO affair. It's particularly important now because the Obama administration is on the verge of approving military aid to Egypt for the current financial year, and the DC desire to just move along is now being challenged by calls to restrict aid by the likes of Amnesty International.

    In other words, this story is not going away in Egypt — where the trial off NGO workers continues  and the departure of the Americans has enraged the political class — or in the US where it involves powerful lobbies and interests clashing yet again with the concern over Egypt's direction in Congress and civil society. Note for instance how the report cites statements by the Obama administration that should prevent it from approving the aid: 

    These statements illustrate that Egypt continues to violate “freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law,” and thus preclude Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from certifying the allocation of military aid to Egypt. Nonetheless, the Obama administration could waive the requirement on national security grounds as stipulated in the omnibus bill. 
    The bulk of the $1.3 billion of Egypt’s military assistance is paid directly to American weapons manufacturers by the U.S. Department of Defense. These companies have been contracted to manufacture and ship tanks, planes, guns and ammunition to Egypt. 
    Here you will find a list of these defense contractors and the value of their contracts. Payments to these contractors are due in the coming weeks, forcing the U.S. to decide whether to deliver military aid now in order to avoid incurring late payment penalty fees.

    These statements illustrate that Egypt continues to violate “freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law,” and thus preclude Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from certifying the allocation of military aid to Egypt. Nonetheless, the Obama administration could waive the requirement on national security grounds as stipulated in the omnibus bill. 
    The bulk of the $1.3 billion of Egypt’s military assistance is paid directly to American weapons manufacturers by the U.S. Department of Defense. These companies have been contracted to manufacture and ship tanks, planes, guns and ammunition to Egypt. 
    Here you will find a list of these defense contractors and the value of their contracts. Payments to these contractors are due in the coming weeks, forcing the U.S. to decide whether to deliver military aid now in order to avoid incurring late payment penalty fees. 

    Update — Here's some press reports on the matter:

    Egyptian NGOs condemn foreign orgs crackdown

    A large number of Egypt's leading human rights and social development NGOs have issued a statement condemning the indictment of 44 NGO workers that has created a diplomatic crisis between the US and Egypt. This is the first concerted condemnation of the manufactured NGO crisis, and comes as the Egyptian media in recent days (despite SCAF head Tantawi's conciliatory statements towards the US after meeting with Pentagon officials) unleashed a campaign against the US and NGOs more generally (as being foreign pawns, etc.). I consider this a very positive development, and a courageous move for these NGOs that have a lot more to lose from a crackdown on civil society.

    Here's the opening part of the statement:

    February 15, 2012

    Orchestrated campaign against human rights organizations: Facts absent; the public intentionally misled

    The undersigned organizations strongly condemn the ongoing slandering and intimidation of civil society organizations, particularly human rights groups, and note that the referral of 43 Egyptian and foreign nationals to a criminal court is politically motivated. The affected institutions have been operating for several years without being asked to suspend their activities and without their offices being shut down. Moreover, in October the Egyptian government asked two of these organizations to monitor the parliamentary elections, although Article 2 of Decree 20/2011 regulating the role of civil society in monitoring elections - issued by the chair of the Supreme Elections Commission - specifically bars non-Egyptian NGOs from monitoring elections unless they present a permit from the Foreign Ministry authorizing them to do so in Egypt. Although this permit is limited to election monitoring, it nevertheless legitimizes the licensed organizations, insofar as a permit to engage in such a specific activity necessarily assumes the organization’s legal, legitimate presence in Egypt.

    In a sudden disregard of these facts, the raiding the offices of these and other Egyptian organizations with armed forces and their referral to trial raise numerous questions. Indeed, it makes one question whether this development is in fact based on considerations for “the rule of law” and “judicial independence,” as senior government officials claim. 

    Here's the full statement in PDF.

    Why I root for Ron Paul

    I've been thinking a lot about Ron Paul and the Republican primaries lately. I am a social libertarian but don't like many of Paul's small-government ideas (or, for that matter, that he named his son after Ayn Rand). But I think he has the best foreign policy ideas out there, ones against maintaining an endless empire of US bases in the Middle East and against foreign aid. I really like this argument by Philip Weiss:

    Ron Paul represents the opportunity to push an antiwar agenda inside the center-ring political system. His candidacy might actually force Romney and Obama into more antiwar positions. If he disappears, that prospect all but vanishes. An attack on Iran might actually be in the balance. If he sticks around, we might actually have a presidential debate in which candidates openly dispute aid to Israel and an attack on Iran and what Paul has called apartheid conditions on the West Bank, an honesty no other candidate is capable of.

    If you care about the antiwar issue, joining with Ron Paul is like seculars joining with the Muslim Brothers to get rid of Mubarak. You needed a broad coalition to push Hosni out. And in the end, that coalition did the impossible; it moved Obama. Obama wouldn't have jumped in if not for Tahrir. He needed political cover. A broad coalition gave it to him.

    But what if leftwing secular social-media types had stood around Tahrir Square asking the smart question, Hey what do these folks-- Muslim Brothers and Salafis-- want to do with the role of women in politics? They would never have gotten rid of Mubarak.

    I wouldn't stress the Tahrir comparison too much, but there are good reasons to support Ron Paul among the sorry lot of Republican candidates this batch and the frankly unappetizing prospect of Obama being re-elected. Precisely because Paul brings in, along some wacky libertarian ideas, this anti-war, anti-imperialism, "isolationist" element to US foreign policy. It's a strong plus for him, one of the few things that really makes him stand out if you can stomach the other stuff.

    The way I see it, there are good reasons to support Ron Paul in the Republican primaries and wait for him to become popular enough to disrupt the nomination process. If he does well enough, the Republican establishment will push through a candidate of its choice but alienate Paul voters, making the chance of a third party or independent campaign by Paul more likely. Since for me, overall, Obama is still more desirable as a president than any of the current crop of Republicans, this ensures he gets re-elected, but probably without a majority. In this situation, the Republican establishment is weakened, the Democratic establishment is weakened, and the candidate who stood on his own values is rewarded even if he has no chance at the presidency. And in the meantime, on foreign policy at least, Paul helps keep people honest in the foreign policy debate. As Phil writes:

    And Obama will be a better policymaker the longer Ron Paul is in the process. Paul will actually give Obama more political capital to take on the warmongers and neoconservatives by raising consciousness on these issues. I don’t want Ron Paul's foreign-policy ideas to be in the margins of political life, I want them in the mainstream. That is what he represents.

    As an independent who leans progressive (but has a secret Tory heart) and is repulsed at the Democratic party's support for Israel and the warmongering of the last decade, Paul just makes sense — precisely because he has little chance of getting power but some of his ideas deserve better airing. Too bad he came third in Iowa, but I hope sticks around.

    Mixed Messages from Syrian National Council on US, Israel

    According to Reuters, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria - the two largest opposition coalitions in Syria - signed on the last Friday of 2011 a unity pledge that "reject[s] any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign." However, remarks delivered to the U.S. and Israeli press by a Council spokesman seem to contradict the Council's stated support for the new joint policy.

    The rejection of (Western) military intervention is a significant concession on the part of the Syrian National Council - the smaller, more diaspora-oriented of the two main coalitions - as the Council had been calling for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone ("Safe Area for Syria"). The Council's representatives have compared the situation in Syria to that in Libya (as such, it is not surprising that the transitional government in Libya is the only foreign government to have formally recognized the Council). Those analyzing the feasibility and costs of such intervention argue that Syria's extensive air defense system and high population densities will make a no-fly zone difficult to enforce, leading to heavy civilian casualties and, ultimately, require major troop deployments.

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