2011-05-26T09:41:56.317-04:00A new reality for Syria: "The ground under the Syrian regime is shifting rapidly, and relations with its precious few friends outside Iran have deteriorated dramatically. Perhaps none of these reversals in friendships has been as sudden and curious, but also as telling of the geopolitical flux underway, as the rift with Qatar."
2011-05-19T17:37:40.561-04:00An end to the Syria pipe dream: "At last it would seem the Obama administration is recognizing that its policy of “hope” toward Bashar al-Assad was a pipe dream. Now the administration needs to formulate an entirely new Syria policy to match this conclusion, no matter how reluctant it may be to abandon its old paradigm."
2011-05-09T18:54:28.366-04:00Delusional hope over reality: "With every passing week, it becomes clearer that the Obama administration has no intention of revising its Syria policy and ending the delusional hope of reviving the Syrian-Israeli peace track and distancing the Assad regime from Iran. When it comes to Damascus, the administration is content to remain in its own echo chamber."
2011-04-28T09:02:22.074-04:00Behind the curve on Syria: "The Obama administration’s latest decision to impose targeted sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle actually highlights that, even at this point in the game, the White House’s operating principle with the Syrian regime remains “behavior change.” Washington is continuing to hold out delusional hope that Assad will miraculously “reform.”"
2011-04-27T19:31:24.808-04:00Advocating for Assad: "As the Syrian popular uprising unfolded over the last month, one of the more remarkable things to witness has been the commentary of the majority of professional Syria watchers, many of whom have given public relations advice to the Syrian dictator and uncritical reproductions of official Syrian talking points."
2011-04-27T19:34:55.461-04:00This site has been on hiatus for a while now. If any of my readers still frequent or subscribe to this blog, I will be automatically linking my weekly NOW Lebanon column, which appears every Thursday, for those who are interested.
2010-11-07T14:46:32.016-05:00My latest article in the Weekly Standard examines the consequences of going on Iraq Study Group autopilot.
2010-09-30T11:00:45.842-04:00After meeting with Sec. Clinton on Monday, Syria's Walid Moallem came out with a brazen interview in the WSJ that trashed every single US item of concern. Most remarkable was his denial that Syria was passing weapons on to Hezbollah. Well, the newspaper owned by his boss's cousin says different. In fact, the Syrians have all but admitted their intention to pass along the Russian Yakhont anti-ship missile to the Shiite militia. I discuss that in my column today:
The first report came out in the Kuwaiti al-Rai in April, around the time when the story of Syria’s smuggling of Scuds to Hezbollah was still raging, along with assessments of growing military integration between Syria and Hezbollah in preparation for the next war with Israel.
The authors of the al-Rai report, known for their access to Hezbollah sources, quoted Syrian sources in laying out the shape of the military response to any Israeli attack against Syria. One element in this so-called “Syrian scenario” described in the report is of relevance here. It claimed that “Syria has prepared plans to hit the entire Israeli coast in case of a war against Lebanon and Syria, and Syria will use ground-to-sea missiles as well as imposing a blockade against Israeli naval targets, military and non-military, in order to shut down all Israeli ports.”
The report concluded with the Syrian sources warning Israel about the potency of the “unified military efforts” of the Syrian leadership and Hezbollah.
The theme of naval targets surfaced again about a month later in Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s “Liberation Day” speech. Nasrallah essentially echoed verbatim the Syrian claim reported in al-Rai, contending that his group possessed the capability to hit “all military, civilian and commercial ships” heading to “any port on the Palestinian coast from north to the south,” even threatening to target the port of Eilat on the Red Sea.
Then came the clincher. Immediately after Nasrallah’s speech, it was none other than the Syrian daily al-Watan, owned by Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, which offered the exclusive and detailed interpretation of what Nasrallah was referring to in his speech.
The paper’s report, headlined “Hezbollah possesses ground-to-sea missiles with a 300 km range,” described that the new missile was not the C-802, which Hezbollah had used to hit the Israeli Sa’ar warship, the Hanit, during the 2006 war. Rather, the new missile, according to “impeccable information” obtained by al-Watan, had a range of 300 kilometers, and covers the entire Israeli coastline.
Of course, it is precisely the Yakhont missile that has that range, as well as the capacity to carry a 200 kg warhead. In other words, the Syrians, by putting out an exclusive report, in their own media (and not through a leak to a Gulf newspaper, as is often the case), ahead of everyone else, were sending an unambiguous message regarding their intentions.
2010-09-08T11:18:24.546-04:00My column this week is on Musa Sadr's disappearance in Libya 32 years ago. I briefly note a couple of quotes by some authors about the possible role played by Khomeini and some of his lieutenants in the disappearance, while exploring the politics and history behind it.
"The Sadr Brigades Organization [formed by the Imam's sister to avenge his disappearance] has revealed the following...
A certain Jalaleddine Farsi, who had run for president in Iran, then withdrawn his candidacy, as his great-grandfather was of Afghani origin, thus rendering him ineligible, by the terms of the Iranian constitution, and the late Muhammad Saleh Husseini, then Imam Khomeini's Mideast representative and director of Islamic liberation movements, met on August 26, 1978, with Major General Saleh Abu Shereida, chief of Libyan Intelligence and close confidant of Qaddafi at the Beirut International Hotel.
Abu Shereida had entered Lebanon that same day on a forged Moroccan passport. He had a lengthy meeting with the two men and left Beirut on the morning of August 28.
That afternoon, Husseini met an Amal official he knew slightly and told him, 'I'm heading to Libya -- is there anything I can do for you there?' 'No, have a good trip and give my regards to Imam Sadr,' was the reply. Husseini answered, 'Whatever you say, but you might as well know your friend isn't coming back.'
On the evening of August 27, 1978, Husseini and Farsi flew to Libya. We have documentary evidence that proces the two were among the kidnappers of the Imam and his companions, and thought it right to share it with the masses and the officials of the Islamic Republic.
2010-06-22T10:25:24.228-04:00Here are my two latest pieces on Hezbollah. The first, from last week, analyzes aspects of Nasrallah's speech on the anniversary of Khomeini's death. The second, out today, looks into Hezbollah's financial networks worldwide, in light of two recent arrests of Hezbollah operatives in Ohio and Paraguay.
2010-05-25T18:49:24.170-04:00Ron Ben-Yishai in Ynet today:
At this time, Hezbollah serves as Iran’s long strategic arm, aimed at deterring Israel from attacking Tehran’s nuclear program by threatening the Jewish State’s military and civilian home front. For the Syrians, Hezbollah constitutes an important component in its war plan, and therefore Damascus arms it with whatever it possesses. In Syrian eyes, the group’s aim is to pulverize the Israeli home front, while splitting the IDF’s offensive effort between Lebanon and Syria, thereby also preventing an outflanking operation on the west that would target Syria’s defensive posture in the Golan.
For that reason, a solution to the Lebanese problem cannot be found in Baalbek, in Beirut, or in Hezbollah’s fear of other ethnic groups in Lebanon. The root of the Lebanese problem is in Damascus and Tehran, and this is where Israel should be seeking a solution, with American help. If possible, this should be done via the combination of military deterrence and effective international pressure. Yet should this fail, the other option is a well-planned military campaign, which will be launched before the rockets start to explode in our territory.
2010-05-20T09:52:01.756-04:00In this week's column, I talk to Paul Berman about his new book.
2010-05-20T09:50:09.532-04:00My commentary on the recently-busted IRGC cell in Kuwait (and Bahrain), and its implications.
2010-05-03T15:57:02.108-04:00Here's my piece from last Tuesday on the recent House hearing on Syria. It saw the first time that an administration official, in this case, Asst. Sec. Jeffrey Feltman, actually spell out what the administration's held as its Syria policy. Basically, it's all about "linkage."
As some of us reasoned, Bashar al-Assad made his gamble with the Scuds calculating that this peace processing impulse would be the administration’s default position. If the US endgame is a comprehensive peace deal, one that by definition involves Syria, then Assad can buy immunity and even leverage, simply by declaring he wants peace.
Thus, Obama becomes trapped by his own “big game”. If Syria is deemed necessary for his regional peace/containment edifice, then the US will not be able to declare engagement a failure and suspend it, or else the entire edifice collapses. The result is the confused paralysis evident in the administration’s reaction to the Scud crisis: doubling down on engagement and the need to convince Assad that his “real” interests lay not with Iran but with the US.
Depending on how the Obama administration deals with the situation, the risk is that Assad will draw the lesson that he enjoys impunity – especially if Washington’s impulse is to address the problem by calling for resumed peace talks between Syria and Israel.
Furthermore, the Syrian president may calculate that, in the event of a conflict, the administration will ultimately prevent the Israelis from going all the way with Syria and, instead, pressure them into entering negotiations. If Assad senses that he is protected, expect him to push the envelope even further – at Lebanon’s expense, of course.
... In his conceptual framework, the peace process is just warfare by other means.
2010-04-21T11:28:15.475-04:00An excellent piece by Lee Smith in Tablet Magazine today:
The argument over how to engage Syria encompasses, then, both sentimental and strategic logic. It’s a debate in which emotions run surprisingly high for a country that has nothing like the significance of China, Russia, or Iran, because finally the argument is little more than a shadow play. Washington doesn’t like the fact that Syria kills Americans and our friends, but since we are not willing to stop them by killing those Syrians responsible, there is little that we can do about it. So, we argue with ourselves about sending an ambassador to Damascus.
The reality is rather more consequential than the phony argument over Syria policy would suggest. The issue is finally about terrorism, which is not the work of shadowy networks hiding in caves and rogue operators whose grievances about the end of the Ottoman caliphate and the plight of the Palestinians can be soothed by an American public diplomacy campaign. This is a fiction, and the truth could not be any clearer. As Syrian support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a host of other organizations shows, Islamic terrorism is how Middle Eastern regimes fight for their strategic interests. If we let Syria off the hook for its proven acts of terror against U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, as well as U.S. allies in Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq, we have all but announced that in the event of future attacks on the U.S. homeland we will never retaliate against the states without which so-called stateless terrorist organizations cannot exist. We will have effectively disabled any deterrence we have against our adversaries and make our cities vulnerable to anyone who can lie his way past the Transportation Security Administration.
Obama’s public diplomacy is premised on the notion of reaching out to the Muslim masses and encouraging moderate streams of Islam, a strategy that is incongruous with a diplomacy that also reaches out to Muslim states that not only breed and support extremism but also arm it to kill Americans.
2010-04-19T12:10:53.137-04:00Here's, belatedly, my piece from last Tuesday on Syria's smuggling of Scuds to Hezbollah:
The Syrian president made a telling remark at the last Arab League summit to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. He observed that “the price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.” And therein lays the problem. Assad has not been made to feel that the costs of continued destabilization can be prohibitive. Instead, all he gets from Washington are weak statements in response to his actions, and rarely from high-ranking administration officials.
Assad’s mantra is that “peace and resistance are two sides of the same coin.” As he sees things, it’s not either peace or resistance. For him the two are simultaneous tools of attrition, with peace talks providing Syria with impunity as Assad pursues “resistance.” In his conceptual framework, the peace process is just warfare by other means.
2010-04-11T16:54:26.548-04:00My column from Tuesday on the rumor that Walid Jumblatt has been asked by Hezbollah and Syria to allow Hezbollah to set up positions in the Barouk mountains, and its possible repercussions on the Druze in the event of renewed conflict with Israel.
2010-03-27T18:41:36.438-04:00Here's my NOW Lebanon piece from Tuesday on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing with the nominee for US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford. While Ford did note that sanctions will remain in place so long as Syria supports Hezbollah, the overall approach was one of pretending that we know Syria's interests better than its regime does and that the task of diplomacy is to remedy the regime's false consciousness. In other words, it's diplomacy as missionary work.
2010-03-15T16:26:22.298-04:00I'm very late posting this, but here's my piece from last Tuesday in NOW Lebanon about the John Kerry factor in the recent incoherent development in the US policy toward Syria.
Landis told As-Safir that Kerry's role is essential in Syrian-American relations because he carried messages from the US administration during his visits to Damascus and he is playing a role in reassuring the Syrians and in confirming that Syrian-American relations remain on the White House's agenda. [Landis] considers that Kerry is also trying to distance Obama from "the traditional policy at the State Department which is not eager to engage with Syria."
It was confirmed that Sen. John Kerry played a role in pushing up the date of the [Senate Committee on Foreign Relations] hearing in order to "confirm the continuation of the dialogue due to Syria's axiomatic role," after eight Republican congressmen asked Secretary of State Clinton to postpone the discussion of appointing an ambassador, noting the need "to not engage for the sake of engaging."
Syria will attempt to diversify its channels with as many American interlocutors as possible to play them off against each other. The Obama administration would do well to restrict the number of cooks in the Syria kitchen.
2010-03-04T12:56:00.293-05:00So who's more prone to terrorism and violence, people who are well off or poor people? Well if you're Juan Cole everything is flexible.Cole is at his absolute funniest when he tries to project academic seriousness. And, once again, he does not fail to deliver. This time, it's a hysterical rant against Martin Kramer over a talk that Kramer recently gave. After arguing that Kramer was a Nazi, a scientific racist and an advocate of genocide, Cole puts on his academic robe and belittles Kramer for his lack of depth in the "social sciences," (when in fact, Kramer relies on mainstream "social scientists" and ideas; maybe Cole thinks Alan Richards [pdf] also lacks that "depth") submitting the following dictum:"Studies of groups that deploy violence against civilians for political purposes show that they are characterized by higher than average education and income, which correlate with smaller family size."Needless to say, as with the rest of the post, this has nothing to do with what Kramer was actually talking about. However, I found that quote rather curious in that it struck me as undermining everything Cole and his ilk have been saying for years. For instance, wasn't Shiite "radicalization" supposedly a product of socio-economic deprivation?To answer that question I went straight to the source. In 1986, Cole edited a book with Nikki Keddie entitled Shi'ism and Social Protest. In the introduction of the book, Cole and Keddie wrote:The differential impact of capitalism, or of modernization, on various groups and classes, usually involving growing gaps in income distribution and life-styles, often brings forth protest, especially in a context of rapid social change. ... Similarly, economic development in Iraq and Lebanon did not proportionately benefit Shi'is, who remained predominantly proletarians and subproletarians or peasants. (Pp. 12-13.)Then, the following corresponding remark was made about this "impact of modernization":Fundamentalism and Khomeinism seem stronger in places that have undergone disruptive modernization. (P. 22)So the "impact of modernization" led to "growing gaps in income distribution." etc., that "did not benefit Shi'is," which brought forth "social protest," and it was in this "social context" that "fundamentalism and Khomeinism" seemed "stronger."I don't know about you, but it doesn't quite add up with Cole ca. February 2010: "Studies of groups that deploy violence against civilians for political purposes show that they are characterized by higher than average education and income, which correlate with smaller family size."It does, however, enhance the overall comedic value of the post and of Juan Cole in general. But it creates a dilemma: which is more hilarious? Juan Cole blogger extraordinaire and El Presidente of the "global Americana institute," or Juan Cole the academic (whose bitterness that Kramer is somehow affiliated with Harvard while he was denied a position at Yale is quite palpable in the post)? It's a tough call. Either way, both characters offer the consistent delirious derangement that makes Cole such an endless source of entertainment if one actually had time to kill.[...]
2010-02-26T20:14:57.836-05:00I'm a bit late in posting this, but here's my piece in NOW Lebanon from Tuesday on Obama's incoherent Syria move. I argue that the Syria "policy" is neither a policy nor is it about Syria. It's an incoherent tactical move resulting from Obama's floundering Iran policy and lack of an overall strategy in the region. The justifications offered by the administration are so illogical that they crumble under their own weight. This is a failure before it even begins. Proof came rather swiftly at the Assad-Ahmadinejad summit in Damascus, where the two terror-sponsoring dictators publicly mocked Secretary Clinton and the US. We shall see how that will affect, if at all, the confirmation of the newly-nominated US ambassador. Already one Democrat has voiced his displeasure with Obama's move, and that was before the Damascus summit and Assad's statements.Aside from mocking Clinton's statement, and reaffirming his strategic alliance with Iran, Assad also said: "We discussed the situation of the resistance in the region and how to support these resistance forces. It is self-evident to say that this support is a moral and national duty in every nation, and also a religious legal duty, since we are today in a religious occasion [the birthday of Islam's prophet Muhammad]."Other items critical of Obama's initiative include, aside from the Washington Post editorial posted right below, these two articles by David Schenker and Matt Brodsky.Schenker raises an issue I've written about in the recent past -- the fate of Imad Mustapha:The one potential benefit of a senior U.S. diplomat returning to Damascus is said to be a quid pro quo involving the imminent departure from Washington of Syria's longtime ambassador, Imad Moustapha. Since 2000, Moustapha has served as chief regime propagandist and spinmeister, and his incessant leaking and mischaracterizations of U.S. policy initiatives have proved a complicating factor in the relationship.Finally, to revisit the nauseatingly repetitive argument of the Syria-Iran alliance, see this article and this old blog post of mine on the subject.Addendum: Forgot to add this piece on the Damascus summit by Jonathan Spyer:As such, the Ahmedinejad trip to Syria is not merely an opportunity for the two leaders to re-affirm the long-standing close ties between their regimes – and Syria’s links with the Islamic Republic of Iran date back to 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution. Rather, the visit represents a showcasing of the shared regional strategy of “resistance” to the US and its allies in the region....And all of this comes apparently with little cost. In spite of it, all the West, the US and Israel, still apparently want to be friends. Why then would Assad be inclined to “distance” himself from Iran? The answer is that he wouldn’t, and he won’t – as was on vivid display this week in the visit of the Iranian president to Damascus.[...]
2010-02-19T12:35:47.007-05:00An excellent, must-read editorial in the WaPo today on the Obama administration's cluelessness on Syria:Don't expect progress from talking to SyriaFriday, February 19, 2010THE NOTION that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad can somehow be turned from his alliance with Iran and sponsorship of terrorism is one of the hardiest of the Middle East. No number of failed diplomatic initiatives, or outrages by Mr. Assad, seems to diminish its luster. The latest attempt to test it comes from the Obama administration, which this week nominated the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and dispatched a senior State Department official, William J. Burns, to meet with Mr. Assad. "I have no illusions," Mr. Burns said afterward, "but my meeting . . . made me hopeful we can make progress together."We don't disagree with the administration's selection of an ambassador or Mr. Burns's visit; both represent a modest delivery on President Obama's campaign promise of "direct engagement" with regimes such as Syria. But it's worth noting that Mr. Burns has done this before: He met with Mr. Assad in 2004 on behalf of the Bush administration. Earlier, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell "engaged" Mr. Assad. So have House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, and numerous European notables, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When he was Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert negotiated extensively with Mr. Assad through Turkish intermediaries.Not a few have come away hopeful, at first. Ms. Pelosi memorably declared that "the road to Damascus is a road to peace." Yet none so far has produced the slightest change in Mr. Assad's behavior or in his unacceptable ambitions. Having carried out a campaign of political murder in Lebanon, including the killing of a prime minister for which he has yet to be held accountable, Mr. Assad continues to insist on a veto over the Lebanese government. He continues to facilitate massive illegal shipments of Iranian arms to Hezbollah, dangerously setting the stage for another war with Israel, and to host the most hard-line elements of the Hamas leadership. He continues to harbor exiled leaders of Saddam Hussein's regime and to allow suicide bombers to flow into Iraq for use by al-Qaeda.Mr. Assad wants the United States to lift sanctions; he wants the European Union to grant Syria trade privileges; he wants Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and grant Syria the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; and he wants Syria's check on Lebanese sovereignty accepted. In exchange for all this, he is offering -- well, not much, it always turns out. He told one group of Western visitors that he would no more break with Iran than the United States would break with Israel. He says that Syrian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas is not on the table. He has promised to check suicide bombers bound for Iraq but has never done so.The exercise of talking to Mr. Assad serves a certain purpose, since it allows a skilled diplomat such as Mr. Burns to lay out the administration's incentives for changed behavior as well as its red lines, and it might make Iran's paranoid leaders nervous. But anyone who thinks the Obama administration has come up with a way to change the Middle East through detente with Syria would do well to study the history of Mr. Assad's decade in power. That gambit has been tried, by more Western diplomats and politicians than can be counted, and the results are clear: It doesn't work.[...]
2010-02-17T10:14:03.992-05:00My latest in NOW Lebanon on the recent report of the resumption of North Korean-Syrian cooperation on "sensitive military technology":
This weapons proliferation should make those who advocate “containing” Iran pause. If proliferation has been a feature of North Korea’s behavior, then supporting militant groups has been Iran’s path to center stage in regional politics, and Syria’s means of remaining relevant. For all the talk of threats by non-state actors, the basic fact remains that they are being supplied weapons and offered deterrence umbrellas only by states.
2010-02-09T09:55:49.520-05:00Here's my piece in NOW today on Iran's complex naval arms smuggling network:
Iran is playing an old game in Middle Eastern power politics: building regional influence through arms supplies to those who can further its agenda. For all the talk about non-state actors, the Iranian smuggling networks highlight that political violence and destabilization in the Middle East remain first and foremost a state enterprise.
2010-02-03T10:19:19.611-05:00An extremely important piece by Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post today that you should definitely read.
[W]hile Iraq is being exorcised from our debate, its reality is bound to obtrude on our consciousness. The U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq will not alter the geostrategic importance of the country even as it alters that context.
Mesopotamia has been the strategic focal point of the region for millennia. Its resources affect countries far away. The dividing line between the Shiite and the Sunni worlds runs through its center -- indeed, through its capital. Iraq's Kurdish provinces rest uneasily between Turkey and Iran and indigenous adversaries within Iraq. It cannot be in the American interest to leave the region as a vacuum.
But Iraq has largely disappeared from policy debates in Washington. There are special envoys for every critical country in the region except Iraq, the country whose evolution will help determine how American relevance to the currents of the region will be judged. The Obama administration needs to find its voice to convey that Iraq continues to play a significant role in American strategy. Brief visits by high officials are useful as symbols. But of what? Operational continuity is needed in a strategic concept for a region over which the specter of Iran increasingly looms.
The outcome in Iraq will have profound consequences, above all, in Saudi Arabia, the key country in the Persian Gulf, as well as in the other Gulf states and in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, financed by Iran, is already a Shiite state within the state. The United States therefore has an important stake in a moderate evolution of Iraq's domestic and foreign policies.
America needs to remain an active diplomatic player. Its presence must be perceived to have some purpose beyond withdrawal. An expression of political commitment to the region is needed.
As the United States, through its ongoing withdrawal, creates the perception of a growing vacuum, regional states are stepping in to grab a piece of the Iraqi pie. The lack of public attention paid in the US to the statements quoted earlier, and their implications, affirms how far Iraq has dropped in the American national consciousness. This can only be to the detriment of America’s interests and to those of its Iraqi ally.