No Love Triangle: Yemen’s president, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Washington D.C.

Yemeni president for 30-plus years, Saleh developed a love/hate relationship with al-Qaeda and Washington DC

Review of Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: al-Qaeda and America’s War in Yemen

“After two months of fighting, Yemeni forces retook Ja’ar and the Abyan capital of Zinjibar from al-Qaeda in June.” Global Post, Sunday August 5, 2012

On Saturday August 4 2012, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 mourners at a funeral in Ja’ar near the Yemeni port of Aden. The target, a defector from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), managed to escape with minor injuries. On Tuesday August 7, U.S. drones killed 10 al-Qaeda militants in separate strikes aimed at moving vehicles in Yemen. On Saturday August 18, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the grenade-assault deaths of about 20 Yemeni intelligence and security personnel.

This tit-for-tat was not front page news, nor did it become a hot pundit topic at magazine sites like Foreign Policy. Even if the media weren’t in a 2012 presidential campaign frenzy, there would still be Egypt, Israel-Iran, Af/Pak and of course Syria. Yemen, a rather exciting place, has slipped through the cracks now that the hullabaloo over the drone assassination of American-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 had its fifteen minutes. Awlaki preached death to Americans in videos on YouTube, and President Obama was keen on destroying the New Mexico native.

To his credit, author Gregory Johnsen doesn’t spend much time on Awlaki, by far the most media saturated aspect of U.S. relations with Yemen. Johnsen’s most important contribution is chronicling a tribal, desert nation’s quasi-government caught squarely in the 21st century crusade against religious extremism. Though its not meant to be analytical or biographical, the book is disappointingly superficial—yet its relevance and clear delivery override the quibble.

FLASHBACK to 1990

Johnsen relays the rise of Yemen’s Islamic militants since the 1980s, when the government of President Abdullah Ali al-Saleh encouraged its young men to go wage jihad in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and the true inspiration for al-Qaeda, Shayk Abdullah Azzam, were already there. Azzam had issued fatwas claiming it was the duty of all Muslims to defend their Afghan brethren and testified that he’d seen miracles in the battles against the evil Soviet machine. The day he was supposed to meet Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a Yemeni cleric on his way to becoming the religious rationalizer of al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), Azzam was assassinated by a mujahadeen faction in the Afghan Civil War. Like Azzam, Zindani manipulated the Quran in key ways—primarily saying it allowed war with infidels as well as violence against Muslim apostates, a concept known as taqfir. Though not a true member of al-Qaeda, Zindani is still a major CIA target.

Nineteen ninety was a big year. Like East and West Germany, Yemen looked to benefit by uniting after the Soviet Union broke down and the Cold War superpower payments ended. The North and South (a Soviet client) unified as al-Qaeda fighters from both halves came home from Afghanistan. Saleh, president of North Yemen since 1978, retained the presidency and the leader of the People’s Democratic Republic in South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Bid, got the vice slot. However, the rival rulers undermined one another from the get-go. Machiavellian Saleh joined up with jihadis and the embryotic AQY to launch guerilla attacks on the Marxist South through the early nineties, culminating in a short civil war in ’94.

Also in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saleh made a principled yet disastrous decision to stick by the Iraqis against a broad multinational coalition, including key Yemeni financial backers. Secretary of State James Baker told Yemen’s ambassaor at a United Nations vote on whether to go to war with Iraq: “This will be the most expensive no vote you ever cast.” Saudi Arabia struck back at its southern neighbor by suspending all aid and sending a million Yemeni migrants back down to the poorest Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa.

Osama bin Laden had concerns of his own stemming from the Gulf War and the U.S. coalition’s Operation Desert Shield. The Islamic purist got busy trashing the Saudi Royal family for allowing Americans (women soliders even!) to set up shop on the peninsula. So he went to Yemen, the birthplace of his larger-than-life father and a country where jihadi renegades could easily integrate—its inhospitable deserts and mountain caves make it the Afghanistan of Arabia. Bin Laden set up training camps and cells, plotting to drive out all infidels from the holy land. The Yemeni cell’s first mission—to bomb U.S. Marines staying at a hotel in the southern port city of Aden—failed to kill any Marines but succeeded in driving away Western naval vessels. That would end up as the highlight of AQY’s political agenda until the 2000 USS Cole attack.

9/11

Johnsen cites Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower often and that is the book to read if you want to know about al-Qaeda from its official inception in 1987 to its escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Thankfully The Last Refuge breaks new ground after 9/11. AQY was not involved in the coordinated jetliner strikes that killed 2,819 people in and above Virgina, Pennsylvania and New York City. But the resulting War on Terror was the dawn of a new era for them as much as anyone else. President Saleh became an official U.S. client (and form of mercenary), hunting down fighters from a CIA list for cash. At the top of the list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, dubbed the godfather of AQY, and the tale of his assassination shows Saleh’s limits and America’s advancing role. Harithi escaped Saleh’s soldiers when his tribal hosts in the eastern desert used rocket propelled grenades to fend off the government and its tanks. It seemed al-Qaeda might be able to hold its own against Saleh in the fractious pseudo-nation. But post-9/11, the U.S. began flying predator drones over Yemen. Harithi was the highest profile remote kill from 2002 to 2009 (when the CIA hit Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan).

Soon Saleh and his Political Service Organization (PSO) proved a capable arm of American justice and, aside from the destruction of a French oil tanker in 2002, AQY bungled, floundered and flailed for most of the new century. Just like Guantanamo Bay, the PSO prisons quickly filled up with all manner of “suspects.” Johnsen doesn’t dwell on the Saleh government’s morally questionable tactics, rampant nepotism or shady dealings—much like in Afghanistan, Western concepts of corruption are simply the way things get done. But Saleh’s behavior during the 2005 elections is telling: the twenty-seven year ruler claimed he wouldn’t run for president then had the media and/or thugs intimidate anyone who announced his candidacy. Guess who got elected. Another unintentionally amusing scene involves the frequent scolding of Saleh by U.S. officials: “Ill prepared for the meeting, the Yemeni president could only sputter in frustration as [Condoleezza] Rice ‘rapped him over the knuckles’ on corruption and lack of reform.” Saleh is the most interesting character in the most dramatic position—his famous “dancing on the heads of snakes” analogy proves well-suited—among the Yemeni people, AQAP and Washington. Yet, we get no insight into his personal or family life or friendships. And there are no comparisons of Saleh to America’s classic or modern client strongmen; no examination of why al-Qaeda in Yemen never tried to assassinate him. Johnsen has to cover a unique stretch of 21st century war and, again, can be forgiven for presenting mostly raw material.

The Last Refuge effectively points out the cyclical trend of prisoner radicalization that comes back to haunt the governments in Sanaa and Washington. After his massive roundups, President Saleh greenlighted a program to let the men out if they swore to renounce violent jihad. In a form of faith rehab, Judge Hamud al-Hitar set about reinterpreting the Quran for the incarcerated. The biggest obstacle was trying to convince these hardened jihadis that serving President Saleh, a man who dealt directly with the Great Satan, represented legitimate Islam or Sharia. (The failure of the program is noticed by the Bush II administration.) If that weren’t bad enough for Saleh and the PSO, the AQY gang escaped prison in 2006 in another comical anecdote.

Books like The Looming Tower allow us to see the men of al-Qaeda develop into murderers for a cause. No matter how much we are disgusted by their actions, the details enable us to put ourselves in the shoes of terrorists. The personal biographies of bin Laden and cofounder Ayman al-Zawahiri, who both grew up privileged, help first-world folks understand them as rebels. Tower gets around looking like a terrorist-sympathizing tome both because it gives a mindnumbingly comprehensive account of terrorism and goes into detailed bios of American agents as well. The Last Refuge doesn’t provide enough character study to really feel for these bitter holy warriors, but the tale of the Saudi Asiri brothers is an example of Johnsen’s surface inspection of their motivations. The elder, Ibrahim, becomes an expert bombmaker who designs the underwear bomb for the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner attempt. The device he makes for his younger brother, Abdullah, is to be self-detonated while concealed rectally. In his suicide mission to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayif, the security chief and archenemy of the Saudi AQ, Abdullah is the only one killed though he was standing only a yard from his target. The ill-conceived bomb caused his head to pop off and put a hole in the ceiling. A reader might get emotionally invested in if Johnsen could relate Ibrahim’s response—it’s not as if Nayif is a guiltless civilian.

The Last Refuge confirms that, whether its misguided acts of violence or spurring a government to overreact and punish the guiltless, al-Qaeda and similar groups unhinge the lives of innocent Muslims infinitely more than they terrorize the thoughts of Westerners. Often by accident, U.S. intelligence massacres civilians close to an al-Qaeda target. Then these genius jihadis retaliate by blowing up Muslim women and children at Arab amusement parks (e.g., Baghdad, August 16, 2012).

In January 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a combo of cells from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, announced its birth via a 19-minute introduction video that included former inmates Guantanamo Bay. This upended newly inaugurated President Obama’s plans to the close the Cuba detention center the same week. Johnsen anchors his narrative with this stunningly timed intro exemplifying the complex issues that arise when governments, in effect, go vigilante. However, certain recent revolutions have quickly made Gitmo, black sites and rendition passé—and put Yemen on the historical backburner once again.

The Arab Awakening affected AQAP in two ways. First, the Islamic insurgents saw that popular movements were more effective at removing Western-backed dictators—such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whom Zawahiri had tried to assassinate a dozen times—than their suicide bombers. The revolts also reinforced the take-away from al-Qaeda’s failures during the Iraq War: Murdering scores of the local Muslims causes them to side with the Great Satan against pure Islam. Second, directly related to the first, Saleh, a thirty-three year ruler, was forced to resign and flee. He didn’t learn from Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad in Syria: Murdering scores of your countrymen causes them to turn against you.

In August, the author told The Yemen Times, “in 2011 and 2012, AQAP started taking over towns in southern Yemen—reinventing itself in a matter of speaking by changing its name to Ansar Al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law. The new group had essentially exactly the same membership as AQAP, but the new name was meant to project a kinder, gentler image.” Al-Qaeda’s coordinated attacks across the globe (from Yemen and Iraq to Pakistan) at the end of Ramadan 2012 beg to differ. As noted above, AQAP has gone back to the goal of massive civilian casualties in the hopes of gaining an illusory political end.

The title, The Last Refuge, harks back to the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula. “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen,” the Prophet Muhammad, knowing he might not make it back from his violent quest of conversion, told his followers. Now, hunted as outlaws throughout the world, this deluded group of Islamic fundamentalists has heeded the prophet’s timeless wisdom by settling. Is Johnsen saying al-Qaeda, with its belief in a violent worldwide conversion, the truly faithful? Is the jihadi aim to restore the caliphate and strict Sharia at all costs what the Quran really says? Thankfully, this story doesn’t bare that out. Indeed, if one otherworldly idea comes across, it is that any powerful god is not on al-Qaeda’s side.

Good News! Obama Centrist, Realist

Get it?

It can be really depressing studying foreign policy and international conflicts. It’s mostly bad news. Especially when, in addition to the death, destruction, terrorism and war reporting on mainstream media, you must also study the conspiracy sites. Blogs like The Ugly Truth, which I found off a link on a great foreign policy roundup of blogs. I signed up for the newsletter and the next day received 10 emails of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda (not necessarily all untrue). Though there are worthwhile alternative media perspectives among the posts, 10 highly subjective posts in a day is both lazy and desperate. And gratuitous: Commenting on the link to a story about how U.S. sanctions are compromising the safety of Iranian airlines, The Ugly Truth editors noted

ed note–which means that if (when) there is some crash of an Iranian airliner, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, more likely than not it will be due to the American (Israeli) sanctions put in place. 

Just in case we didn’t see what this post had to do with Israel. Thanks for making your bias so blatant, The Ugly Truth. Another Ugly bias example is the tying of Israel to the Syrian opposition. From what I’ve read, Israel is at worst ambivalent about the somewhat one-sided Syrian Civil War. And I read a lot of different sources. For instance with Syria, Aljazeera English’s website is predictably anti-Assad, Russia Today is mildly anti-U.S. so they support Russia’s position even while they criticize the Kremlin and report on protests. The Economist is capitalist, imperialist and interventionist and The New York Times is, well, getting better.

They no longer just trumpet that “Massacre in Syria blamed on Assad, says everyone”, and try to use vague terms when they don’t know something (like “bloody clash”) instead of just repeating what the Syrian opposition claims (like “civilian massacre”). The Times got a bit of a beatdown, and rightly so, for its reporting on Iran’s nuclear program because it kept substituting “weapon” with what should have been “capability.” As in, it’s been proven Iranians want a “weapon” as opposed to just the capability to build one. Foreign correspondent David Sanger wrote the most egregious substitutions.

And this brings me to the good news. David Sanger’s new book about the Obama foreign policy, Conceal and Confront, came out recently. Guess who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this week. The Times writer was getting his book reviewed in the Times about what he wrote about for the Times. This must be a totally objective review, right? No, of course not. But to tell the truth, I didn’t care. I was just so happy that Sanger’s book was not a hatchet job of the President’s record. There are plenty of complaints to level at Obama from both the left—legit concerns like drone strike legality—and the right—mostly bullshit, like Obama’s no friend of Israel—but, like Sanger, I believe that President Obama, aside from the Af/Pak surge, has a strangely decent, pragmatic and limited so-called doctrine.

First of all, to address the Israel criticism, the main reason there was tension between Washington and Jerusalem, was Obama wanted to avoid dragging us into war with Iran. We definitely don’t want to go to war with Iran, because if there were any case at all for it, Mitt Romney would be howling. Republicans don’t want to go into Syria, even John McCain has shut up about it. Hell, we told Turkey not to go to war with Syria.

No politician in the U.S. can sell any more American war. Republicans shut up about the lack of soldiers left in Iraq, even while Iraq teeters on the edge (you’d think Romney would attack with that). With soldiers in Afghanistan being blown up or murdered by their allies almost weekly, Obama’s strategically ridiculous decision to surge with 30,000 troops and announce a short-ass withdrawal date at the same time has worked to his political advantage pre-election. Accelerating the withdrawal was cynical yet shrewd.

The other Republican criticism, correct if not utterly hypocritical, has Obama running an imperial presidency. Notice how no one in Congress actually bitched about Obama’s decision to help NATO topple Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, just how he didn’t check with Capitol Hill first. Every president gets this “overreach” criticism at some point.

Obama is certainly impenetrable to the charge of softie, ordering countless more drone strikes than W. and virtually assassinating quantities of al-Qaeda and Taliban officers. He refused to apologize for a chopper strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, even though Pakistan is a client-ally we need. He ordered the Afghanistan surge and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet and unleashed a cyberwar on their nuclear program (detailed in Sanger’s book).

Our defense department’s pivot toward East Asia strategy has led to an arms race with China, the budding superpower. And this all in one term. By the way, we are sending warships to the Persian Gulf right now.

Where Obama’s foreign policy sought restraint was in the Arab Awakening. Bravo! The left attacks him for not acting in some inspirational role with the Egyptian masses and the right attacks for betraying Hosni Mubarak, whom they claim was an ally. He was just another corrupt client and a greedy dictator who started killing his own people. That’s why we “betrayed” him, Monica Crowley. Crowley is a racist fear-monger who preaches that Obama would rather see America destroyed than win a second term and that Sharia law is strangling America.

State and Defense had to walk a tightrope through the Mideast revolts, often following a healthy dose of rhetoric with, well, nothing. It was the sanest thing to do in such a complex situation. Hillary Clinton is meeting with new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The rightist Islamophobia critique again fails because Egypt’s Islamists—a comparatible Third Reich for Republicans and Fox News—are still off-set by the military, whom the U.S. supported to help keep things status quo. Clinton is asking the SCAF to give power to the President Morsi, but only in public. Both cynical and shrewd again.

As a realist who understands how low our country can sink (from Rumsfeld/Cheney’s Iraq and Iran-Contra to Pinochet), I have such confidence in current best practices, with regard to this epoch of unstable nations, religious extremism and runaway deficits, that should Mitt Romney become president, I predict little will change. It can’t get that much worse, can it? Never mind.

As the Times review of Sanger’s book reads: “But in truth [Obama] has positioned himself nicely within a political sweetspot, one where Americans are loathe to see their country relinquish its premier global position but wary of unnecessary wars undertaken on wispy rationales.”

Russia’s Realpolitik Only Real Metric for Syria

We in the West really really want the tide to be turning against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Especially, it seems, The Economist, who headlined this piece in November 2011 “The tide turns against Bashar Assad” and this one about nine months later “The tide begins to turn.” But they’re not the only media outlet or organization that never misses a chance to suggest the imminent downfall of the villainous Assad.

Most recently, the defection of a former top member of the military and one-time buddy of Bashar, Manaf Tlass, has caused a stir. The “Good Sign” subhead, referring to the high-level defection in this BBC piece was at least put in quotes, but still calls out the optimism expressed by the Friends of Syria in Paris.

Mr Laurent Fabius [French foreign minister] described it as a “hard blow for the regime” that showed Mr Assad’s entourage was beginning to realise the regime was unsustainable.

Further analysis in the piece from Mohamed Yehia of BBC Arabia

This would also be damaging and embarrassing for the Damascus government, as it would be explained as an indication that cracks are appearing at the top of the ruling establishment and could encourage other Sunni defections.

Finally, near the end, this little tidbit is acknowledged

Brigadier General Tlass has been under a form of home arrest since May 2011 because he opposed the security solution that the regime has been implementing, sources say.

So if ex-General Tlass hasn’t been an active part of the military for over a year, how is this a huge damaging blow? Basically, as the Syrian government spokesman claimed, Tlass had escaped. It’s only a “hard blow” in minds around the world that want to see it as such, not a practical “hard blow” for the regime. It’s bad PR but changes no calculations for Damascus and only shows the brutal efficiency with which even trusted dissenters were corralled and rendered impotent.

Granted this could encourage other Sunni defections, but one could imagine that those who haven’t defected after a year won’t be inspired by one high-ranker who is cushioned by a wealthy family in Europe. Usually toward the end of these stories it’s revealed that there have been no mid-to-upper level Alawite defections. Alawites comprise the vast majority of military command and government officials.

No doubt the latest rash of defections is not good for Assad and doesn’t bolster the regime’s image. Yet I don’t think Assad has cared about the Western world’s perception of his government for a while now.

A much more accurate bellwether about the turning of tides in Syria—the glowing neon sign of imminent regime change—will be when Russia decides to change its view of the Syrian situation. This will reflect the moment when Assad starts thinking about making a plea, and is willing to negotiate. But according to reports on a meeting between top Syrian National Council members and Russia, this is not yet the case

Russia refuses to shift its controversial position on the crisis in Syria, the exiled opposition Syria National Council (SNC) said after talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov….

Underlining the gulf between the SNC and Moscow, Lavrov said Russia wanted to understand in the talks if there were “prospects” of the opposition groups uniting and joining a platform for dialogue with the Syrian government.

In my opinion, Russia is the only outside participant looking for a real solution to the massive blood-letting in Syria. This is because no one else seems to consider the Syrian opposition as part of the solution. True the opposition is dispersed and the SNC cannot speak for factions of the Free Syrian Army or others on the ground, which is the insurgency’s greatest weakness.

But do the West, the Arabs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Turks, the U.N. and the Friends of Syria expect Bashar al-Assad to knock off all the killing because Kofi Annan says so, while the rebels keep ambushing security checkpoints and taking over Syrian towns? If the opposition is not ready to negotiate under terms that include Assad still in power—and they may never be—then outside negotiations are pointless. The international community and the SNC can try to pressure Russia to pressure the Syrian regime, but it’s clear that Russia is backing negotiations between the regime and the opposition for as long as Assad feels he can stay in (now relative) power.

The missing player in the various peace-plan scenarios in Turkey—the country with the most leverage over the opposition and the one that can most readily protect them. I’ve written more here about how Turkey must be at the forefront of any peace talks and is the only nation or organization (aside from the opposition itself) in the position to achieve a working ceasefire.

Turkey could save Syrian civilians and the Arab uprisings too

The popular revolts that spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 never posed a threat to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The reason for this can be traced far back to the charismatic leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his modernization program, which focused on nationalism and secularism, throughout the 1920s and until his death in 1938. Though he became more and more autocratic, his baptism of a Republican parliament and lip service to “people’s sovereignty” had a lasting effect. His successor, Ismet Inonu, sided with the United States in the post-WWII Cold War era and, to gain Western favor and liberal bona fides, even allowed the formation of a second party, the Democrats. As France and Britain lost their hold on the Middle East, military officers in Egypt, Syria and Iraq initiated bloody coups. Turkey was not immune to this rash of military takeovers. Yet, while the other governments morphed into socialist dictatorships, the Turkish generals “introduced a new constitution that was surprisingly liberal and progressive…. By the end of 1961 they had transferred power to a new parliament that chose Inonu as their prime minister.” [i]

And so began a tradition in Ankara that happened again in 1971 and 1980: The armed forces usurped control from weak, ineffectual coalition governments who were often besieged by violent radicals from both the left and the right. But remarkably, after banning various political parties and revising the constitution, the generals would then relinquish power to a new civilian leadership. The outlawed parties would simply rename themselves for the eventual elections, which were usually reinstated within three years. This occurred for the last time in February 1997 in what was dubbed “the postmodern coup.” Turkish generals, including Erol Ozkasnak and Cevik Bir, issued a set of demands that led to the June removal of a democratically elected prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, and his Islamic Welfare Party. The officers proceeded to engineer the ban of religious-based parties and politicians, such as the popular Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The problem was that the Muslim populace, as it had done for decades, continued to insist upon some form of Islamic leadership with its vote. Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoglu (the current foreign minister), and Abdullah Gul (the current president) used the postmodern coup as a teachable moment. Soon these men had formed the Justice and Development Party (made up of the former Islamic Welfare Party), which placated the military by eschewing fundamentalist ideology and Sharia law, but played to devout Muslims by being socially conservative. By 2002, the AKP was swept into office and in 2007 Erdogan and these center-rightists in parliament won again. [ii]

In an ironic twist, the men responsible for the post-modern coup are now being rounded up by Erdogan, the current prime minister, and brought to testify for their actions. The civilian government was responding to rumors of another coup plot by the military. According to an April 2012 Hurriyet Daily News article, General Bir reportedly said while in custody

“Protecting the Turkish Republic is the duty of the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK]. Religious fundamentalism was the primary internal threat according to the National Security Policy Document at that time. . . . We conducted all of our work in accordance with our legal and constitutional duties. If we hadn’t done our duty, we would have committed illegal acts” [iii]

In spite of questionable maneuvers on both sides, the sociopolitical balance between a secular military willing to cede power to civilians and a popular Islamic party willing to avoid the specter of religious law is a primary reason that Turkey’s Sunni Muslim population did not feel inspired to act in the Arab Awakening.

Turkey often appears to be the best model of a with a working Islamic democracy on the global scene. And considering its neighbors, NATO and the Obama administration—which increasingly need Turkey (often a less controversial ally than Israel or Saudi Arabia) as a steadfast partner—have an interest in promoting that reputation. Yet according to Human Rights Watch, the Turkish government still has a lot of room for liberal improvement:

The government has not prioritized human rights reforms since 2005, and freedom of expression and association have both been damaged by the ongoing prosecution and incarceration of journalists, writers, and hundreds of Kurdish political activists, particularly through the misuse of overly broad terrorism laws.[iv]

While the Kemalist tradition of discrimination against political Islam has softened, nationalist pride and political insecurities still fuel Ankara’s unwillingness to suffer dissent or resolve problems with Greece, Armenia and Kurdish groups. Turkey is far from an idyllic open society, but its degree of religious moderation, free-ish markets and steady progress toward smoothe transfers of power have kept it on the cusp of becoming a Western-style democracy.

EGYPT & LIBYA

Though the Arab Awakening had little effect on Turkish citizens, it quickly changed the nature of the AKP’s regional foreign policy. The ouster in Tunisia of President Zine El Abidene Ben Ali, the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the toppling of Libya’s Colonel Mummar el-Qaddafi and the insurgency threatening the Assad dynasty in Syria all came as a shock to Ankara, as it did to the world. But the ruling party positioned Turkey on the right side of history. Said a November 2011 paper published by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (“Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People Power,’ ” funded partly by the European Union):

Turkey has embraced the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East and has called for the establishment of governments that will have popular support and legitimacy. For example, in an interview with The New York Times, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu proclaimed regarding Turkish-Egyptian future relations: “It will be an axis of democracy of the two biggest nations in our region, from the north to the south, from the Black Sea down to the Nile Valley in Sudan.” [v]

In Cairo, one could argue that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is using the twentieth-century Turkish philosophy toward government. Despite promises of a complete and legal June 2012 transfer of power, the military used Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court to bar the most popular, and therefore powerful, presidential candidates on various technicalities. When it appeared that a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood—whose Justice and Freedom Party won the majority in January’s parliamentary elections—had a good chance at becoming president, the junta nullified those elections as unconstitutional (again using the Court) and dissolved parliament, effectively ending a voter-backed Brotherhood takeover. To an Egyptian public thirsty for a voice at the voting booth and an end to emergency-law, this did not sit well. Many from the grass-roots movement that ended Mubarak’s reign headed to Tahrir Square in protest, and Egyptian politicians of all stripes labeled these efforts by the SCAF a veritable coup. The outcry subsided once Mohammad Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, secured the presidency on June 24, 2012, but the SCAF’s intentions to remain a ruling entity are clear: they preemptively limited presidential powers in regard to foreign policy and the budget.[vi] Though Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Major General Mohamed Said al-Asser congratulated Morsi and lauded the election outcome as proof of their transitional progress,[vii] the uneasy dynamic in Cairo should look familiar to students of modern Anatolian history. Even with its imperfections, Turkey is the best example for a redeveloping Egypt that has begun its democratic growing pains in earnest. President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood should create a socially conservative, implicitly secularist and anticorruption-based coalition with the powerful SCAF while easing toward a free-market economy and liberal constitution. Morsi’s disassociation with the Brotherhood, ostensibly to appear independent, is a step in the right direction.

During the rebellion in Libya, Ankara’s response showed flexibility and pragmatism. Erdogan, Davutoglu et al, at first rejected calls for foreign intervention to aid the rebels. The thousands of Turkish workers in that country plus significant business connections to Colonel Qaddafi, naturally, gave the Turks pause. But when Qaddafi began to boast about massacring Libyan civilians and his removal became more feasible internationally, the AKP did not hesitate to change course and back the U.S./NATO plan to overthrow the 40-year dictator. The Arab Awakening strengthened Turkey’s geopolitical hand, especially with the West. According to Democracy Digest

Turkey is the “biggest winner of the Arab Awakening,” according to a new survey of Arab public opinion, but the United States remains distrusted and President Barack Obama relatively unpopular, despite Washington’s support for democratic reform. Turkey has played the “most constructive” role and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is considered the most admired leader by a large margin, according to the Brookings Institution’s latest annual “Arab Public Opinion Survey.” [viii]

SYRIA

Alas week after week, one major component of the Arab uprising tests Turkey’s role in the phenomenon: the one-sided civil war in Syria. It’s proximity and relative sovereignty (as opposed to Lebanon) put Turkey literally on the front lines of regional response to the escalating violence. In February 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered advice and assistance to his one-time ally:

Since the beginning of the riots, when Erdogan phoned Bashar al-Assad every day and only called for the implementation of major reforms, there has been a significant change for the worse in relations…. Davutoglu said regarding this change of policy: “We wanted [Assad] to be the Gorbachev of Syria, but he chose to be Milosevic.” vii

Indeed, the regime of Bashar al-Assad conducted a brutal crackdown on all manner of protest and dissent within Syria, the extent of which—systematic torture of women and children in gulag-type prison—is coming to light 16 months later.[ix] Due to the long shared border, Turkey, unlike the European Union, the Arab League and other nations who could criticize Assad’s actions from afar, had much more at stake in which side to take. Yet the Erdogan government took a stand against Damascus, and well before the summer, when Syrian tanks rolled in on demonstrators in Homs and began killing more than one hundred civilians on a given day. One reason might have been the expectation that Syrian refugee camps in Turkey would quickly reach five-figure populations, as they did by June.[x]

In cutting off diplomatic relations so quickly, the Turks must have presumed, correctly, that, along with thousands of refugees, they would be hosting the Syrian military defectors and armed opposition who make up the ever more formidable Free Syrian Army (FSA). By providing protection to the FSA and the exiled Syrian National Council, Turkey was already a de facto enemy of Damascus. They must have also presumed, incorrectly, that Bashar al-Assad was fated to fall soon, or if not, some kind of NATO/Western intervention aimed at regime change was imminent. Late in 2011, as both the regime and the opposition dug in for a protracted conflict, and “buffer zone” proposals along the border were scrapped at the behest of the West, the international media pointed out how Ankara’s tough talk left it in an awkward position.

Even carrying out its threats against al-Assad and deciding upon sanctions against Syria took Turkey quite a while. Only after the Arab League decided to impose sanctions against Syria in late November did Turkey follow and in a more subtle manner. It emphasized that its sanctions were not directed against the Syrian people and that vital supplies like water and electricity were not included in them.[xi]

A stalemate of sorts has slowly taken shape. The Syrian opposition had overrun and held many towns by early 2012, such as Idlib, parts of Homs and Hama, and even reaching to the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The February 4 Homs massacre of possibly 500 civilians from shelling marked the regime’s take-no-prisoners tactics to recover these cities, which they did. The Syrian military, backed by continued Russian and Iranian arms, held the advantage throughout May but mass defections by Sunnis and a growing FSA have once again made this conflict appear endless.

But a constant question remains: Who comprises this insurgency? Bashar al-Assad and his spokespeople have long dubbed them armed terrorist gangs. After suicide bombings rocked Damascus in early 2012, claims that elements of al-Qaeda have entered the fray add to the uncertainty. In fact, the Free Syrian Army is simply a catchall rubric overlying myriad factions with little internal contact, unity or oversight, and no significant connections to the exiles of the Syrian National Council. There is still no clear central opposition leadership that any outside powers seem to consider getting safely behind. And Turkey is far from the only nation, bloc or organization that appears helpless to act.

INTERNATIONAL CRISIS

Syria’s internal war has impacted the international community more than all the other Arab revolts combined. Generating rifts within the United Nations Security Council and rupturing Sunni and Shiite communities, the segregated former French mandate continues to exacerbate dividing lines (despite its lack of oil). While Russia and Iran back their client president and his Alawite majority government—opposing foreign intervention on the rebel side, along with China—President Obama has called for the dictator to step down and end the Assad family’s 30-plus-year rule. Though reports have surfaced that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are quietly supplying arms to the Syrian rebels, with some oversight from the CIA, the United States remains on the sidelines in terms of material support. Within the Middle East, the conflict has been called a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, allying itself with the mostly Sunni insurgency, and Iran, who has a proprietary Shiite bond with the elite Alawite circle of Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile Russia’s attempts to send helicopter gunships and additional high-powered weaponry have met stiff resistance from Great Britain and the U.S. in both word and deed.

It’s not for lack of trying that the international community has failed to be effective. From March 2012 onward, Kofi Annan, as a special representative from the United Nations, has met with Bashar al-Assad numerous times and has received various conditional guarantees of a cease-fire that was never intended to come to fruition. Annan’s much remarked upon six-point plan for peace could not halt either side from continued violence for even twenty-four hours. U.N. Observers are neither able to stem the tide of bloodshed nor even avoid being used to parrot propaganda from whichever side is interviewed.viii As of July 2012, the Observer mission has been scaled back due to safety concerns.

In April, the Turks hosted a second Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul where dozens of nations debated cease-fires, calls for humanitarian aid, sanctions against the Syrian government and other potential solutions. Various sets of nations, including the U.N. Security Council as well as representatives from several Syrian opposition groups have met in Cairo, Geneva and Paris throughout the spring and summer with no practical program to decrease the fighting on the ground. Instead, the internal war has intensified. With a death toll of more than 15,000 and rising, even the regime’s allies have acknowledged the need for a negotiated settlement including some kind of power-shift in the Syrian capital. However, Russia, represented by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, will not agree to any plan that necessarily has Bashar al-Assad stepping aside. The long-time military partnership between Moscow and the Assad dynasty—massive arms deals and the fact that Syria hosts a Russian naval base in Tartus—is too important.

Five main factors preclude Western or Arab intervention, making the Syrian conflict endlessly frustrating for those who have to both live within and witness its horrors: The opposition’s lack of coherence and unity; the potential explosion of an Iraq-like sectarian powder keg; Iran- and Russia-backed artillery and logistical support for Assad; the Russian/Sino dissension in the U.N. Security Council; and a war weary and increasingly austerity-bent West. Israel, both condemning Assad’s brutality and afraid of a more radical Islamic takeover, remains ambivalent and divided.

TURKEY’S OPTIONS

 

With military intervention against Assad unlikely and a protracted civil war ensuing, Turkey is in a quandary due to its rapidly deteriorating relationship with Damascus. A war of words was to be expected, with Turkey lumped into the group of nations “legally, ethically, and politically responsible for the crimes committed by the terrorist groups” according to Syria’s information minister.x Turkish officials claim Syria is now supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists, whom the Turks have been battling in the Southeast and Iraq.xi But there are more pressing matters: Not only are refugees multiplying, but as of April, cross-border skirmishes have started to flare upix —and these are poised to escalate. The Turkish army has mobilized at the border and scrambled warplanes, after Syrian anti-aircraft guns downed a Turkish F4 that briefly strayed into it neighbor’s airspace.

This posturing, without any diplomatic front, may lead to Prime Minister Erdogan’s most extreme option, full-on war. Though his citizenry is less than thrilled about this prospect.[xii] In fact, Turkey’s foreign ministry has already had to deny reports that it is gearing up for an attack on Syria aimed at regime change.[xiii] As noted above, there are several reasons military escalation is a bad idea. First and foremost, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rejected it, implying that Turkey would be on its own.[xiv] Without U.S./NATO support, there is no guarantee of victory against Syrian forces bolstered by Iranian and Russian weapons and advisors as well as terrorist proxies. Should Turkey conspire with anti-Assad nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove the dictator covertly, the result would invite a similarly destabilizing mess, if not a Syrian declaration of war.

On the purely hypothetical other hand, if Erdogan were to make a friendly deal with Damascus and expel the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, he risks alienation and anger from the U.N., NATO and all of his Sunni neighbors. The rather unthinkable move would be a reputation-damaging betrayal striking at the heart of Turkish pride and integrity. And Syrian refugees would be led into a slaughterhouse.

 

The Turkish government has no choice but to protect its border and therefore enable Syria’s foes—and its growing list of defectors. However, if Ankara decided to change tactics and open up a diplomatic line to Damascus, this could be used as a bargaining chip. And indeed, it is in Turkey’s best interest to act as negotiator between the hostile parties and move to the forefront of the peace-plan effort—as it has done between Syria and Israel and the U.S. and Iran.xi With far more leverage than the United Nations, in the form of both threats and assistance, the Turks needs to be open to talks with Tehran, Moscow and most of all Bashar al-Assad himself. Prime Minister Erdogan should be sitting where Kofi Annan has sat and must work to bury the hatchet. The brutal dictator, despite his crimes against humanity, is not going anywhere. (While high-level defections continue, as with Brigadier General Manaf Tlass in July, they are all Sunni officers and mostly those who were already under house arrest.) Without foreign intervention, this civil war has the potential to play out for years.

Though the opposition will be virulently against this course, Turkey, as their host and defender, has considerable leverage over them as well—and no other nation or group has it. Turkish soldiers must be at the border, ready to protect the Syrian opposition and refugees, but they must take care never to provoke Syria’s armed forces. Foreign Minister Davutoglu should be at every meeting between Clinton and Lavrov and Annan and Assad. That the ever-convening international community has not worked to press this initiative shows a lack of will to end the bloodshed as well as a delusional dream that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite accomplices will step down. The goal is a ceasefire, effectively saving thousands of civilian lives, and only one country has the ghost of a chance at working toward a real one.

Turkey has been acknowledged as a Muslim beacon of prosperity and liberalism in the Middle East and has indeed made admirable choices, often at once pragmatic and idealistic, during the Arab Awakening. But it has watched, waited and reacted long enough. The fledgling democracy must take the opportunity to assert itself as the major regional player and pursue an aggressive role as peacemaker—which will gain it the respect of the West without alienating it from the greater Middle East or Russia. Turkish expertise and tradition in balancing secular and Muslim government should be exported to Libya, where thousands of Turks reside and where business cooperation may help to stabilize the fractured nation. It should be offered to an Egypt grappling with an identity swinging between a military junta and religious populists. In Syria, the Turks are the best suited to build the bridge connecting the regime in Damascus and the scattered opposition. That bridge, as flimsy as it may be, is desperately needed to stop the daily massacres and the growing sectarian tragedy that is already set to poison future generations. It goes without saying that Turkey itself should lead by example, clean up its own back yard with respect to the Kurdish question, Armenia and Greece, and shed its antiquated and artificial attempts to gird it nationalist pride by suppressing non-Turks. To be seen as fervent in trying to solve these issues at home and taking the reins of the region’s conflicts would bestow Turkey with true national pride and international prestige.


[i] Long, David E.; Reich, Bernard; Gasiorowski, Mark, editors. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Sixth Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 2011.

[ii] Long, David E.; Reich, Bernard; Gasiorowski, Mark, editors. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, Sixth Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 2011.

[iii] “12 Nabbed in Feb 28 Coup Case” Hurriyet Daily News, April 19, 2012. www.hurriyetdailynews.com/12-nabbed-in-feb-28-coup-case.aspx?pageID=238&nID=18855&NewsCatID=338

[iv] Human Rights Watch, hrw.org

[v] “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss.

European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012.

www.euromesco.net/images/papers/papersiemed14.pdf

[vi] “U.S. Warns Egypt’s Military Over “Power Grab.” Aljazeera English. June 7, 2012. www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/06/201261813938457956.html

[vii] “How the Military Won the Egyptian Election.” Time. Jay Newton-Small and Abigail Hauslohner. July 9, 2012.

www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2118304,00.html

[viii] “Turkey Is Big Winner of Arab Awakening.” Democracy Digest. November 2011.

http://www.demdigest.net/blog/2011/11/turkey-is-biggest-winner-of-arab-awakening/

[x] “Turkey Allows Limited Access to Syrian Refugee Camp.” Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey. June 19, 2011.

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/default.aspx?pageid=438&n=turkey-allows-limited-access-to-syrian-refugee-camp-2011-06-19

[xi] “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss.

European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012

www.euromesco.net/images/papers/papersiemed14.pdf

[xii] “The Tide Begins to Turn.” The Economist. July 7, 2012. www.economist.com/node/21558276

[xiii] “Report: Turkey Tells West It Might Launch Offensive Against Syria.” Today’s Zaman. Turkey. June 27, 2011.

http://www.todayszaman.com/news-248653-report-turkey-tells-west-it-might-launch-offensive-against-syria.html

[xiv] “U.S. Tells Turkey to Back Off Syria.” NOW Lebanon. Tony Badran. March 22, 2012.

http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=378866

Agreement on Syria Reached Without Syrians

Sergei Lavrov may not be invited to Bashar’s house for dinner anymore

The June 30 round of United Nations–led chats about the Syrian conflict, once again starring envoy Kofi Annan—but not including Iran or Syria—has led to an “agreement” that would “support” a new “transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition…that could potential strip the president of his executive authority” as the Wall Street Journal attempts to put it. The reason anyone should take this seriously is that Russia has pledged its support for this creation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton still verbally jousted over whether this means President Bashar al-Assad actually has to give up power.

I doubt that those in villages besieged by mortar shells or militiamen, as well as those security forces routinely ambushed by the rebels, will be sleeping any more soundly in coming months. No doubt commentators will be skeptical of the agreement’s efficacy in stemming the almost 40-killings-a-day average in the near future.

In all fairness to those trying to stop the bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than the Syrian conflict. For the world to bear YouTube and AlJazeera English witness to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in the 21st century is both a human tragedy and a tragedy of the nation-state system. (On the bright side, at least the United States didn’t directly cause this one.) But it is clear from the year-plus of international hand-wringing, including this latest quarter-measure, that there is little will or call to stop it by military means.

It’s not only the U.N., whose observers are manipulated by both sides on the ground, that’s having little luck coming up with solutions. Op-ed writers and think-tankers are having a hard time coming up with new angles on this stalemate of death and destruction. Knowledgable realists can no longer get away with advocating intervention as editors at The New Republic and John McCain once did. Even as recent events, such as the Houla massacre of women and children and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian guns, have exacerbated tension with the U.N. and NATO, the echo chamber of condemnation against the Syrian government continues to ring hollow. And debates over whether or not to call it a “civil war,” while ostensibly altering international legal actions, are exercises in semantics.

While speculation about the nature of the opposition and CIA involvement mounts, little has changed in Syria in the last six months aside from the rising death toll and heated rhetoric between Russia and the U.S. There are three main reasons intervention is currently untenable: the fragmented and Islamic nature of the opposition, the Syrian regime’s backers (Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China), and the war-weary, insolvent West. Without intervention, there is little hope this bloody revolt will not end without at least another 10,000 slaughtered.

It never seems to fail that after the regime gains the upperhand by retaking a rebel stronghold, more high-level military officers defect to the Free Syria Army in Turkey and the insurgents are re-supplied by their regional Sunni benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The consistent back and forth portends an endlessly even match, piling high civilian atrocities and refugees.

But there is some good news: U.N. observers and Human Rights Council still can’t piece together whether government forces or rebel groups were behind the massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Why is this good? When reports of the Houla massacre first surfaced, media outlets blamed the al-Assad government without question based on a very early report of some U.N. folks—remember all that “tipping point” talk? Eventually stories with eyewitness accounts trickled in from Europe that at least gave the Syrian regime spokesman’s denials some weight. When both the Syrian opposition and the powers-that-be in Damascus have every reason to belch propaganda, the media has a responsibility to admit to itself and its subscribers that the fog of war has descended and that it’s OK to say “We don’t know.”

A BRIEF GLIMPSE AT SYRIA SIX MONTHS AGO

In mid-December 2011 James Harkin’s report from Homs, the foremost symbol of the decimation wrought by the regime against its own cities, was published in Newsweek.

Homs, where [Mohammed] lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It’s where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”

Bombs started detonating on the streets of Damascus, which previously had not seen much violence, with increased frequency. On January 6, an explosion killed 26 just two weeks after a bomb targeting security installations killed 44, which had officials believing al-Qaeda had stepped in. The nonstop fighting persuaded Arab League monitors to flee Syria, saying their mission to forestall bloodshed was a failure.

Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who deployed on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan, have only bought Assad more time to crush protests…

On January 11, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the public for the first time in six months. Cheering thousands show that his support among the people can still be wielded as a countermeasure to the reams of negative press his regime has received worldwide. He said:

“We do not close the door for solutions or suggestions, and we do not close any door for any Arab initiative, as they respect Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of our decision and care about the unity of our nation.”

“There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian.”

The fact that al-Assad needed to come out and say that has its own inferences. In the January 6 Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, author of a book that came out in June 2012, The Syrian Rebellion, gave a sharp critique of Bashar al-Assad’s regime—overstating his case by comparing Syria to a “North Korea on the Mediterranean”— and the do-nothing West. He bemoaned the fact that the Syrian people are on their own, as they very much are six months later.

The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial.

Another voice pushing forceful regime change, according to the Washington Times,Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board.

Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.” “And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians. Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria. “The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.

The Syrian opposition and their divided institutions-in-exile were ambivalent about foreign intervention.

The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the Syrian National Council’s calls for foreign intervention – one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.

Under their pact, the two sides “reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.”

Paul Mutter at Salon.com summed up the myriad intervention considerations and comparisons to Libya at the time.

Other prominent voices in the insular but influential world of neoconservative thought include a team of defense specialists at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently issued a report concluding, “Intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks,” while also asserting that “intervention also presents policy opportunities.”

Media Strikes Iran’s Nuclear Facilities As Talks Fail

The recently wrapped up Moscow talks between the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the second round after those held Baghdad in late May, have failed to bear fruit. To play the blame game and castigate just one side would be an exercise in schoolyard oversimplification.

In the end, it seems Iranian negotiators could not entertain a strict demand to “stop, shut and ship”—stop enriching, shut down the Fordow site and ship out their load of 19.75 percent uranium. Not a shock that they balked: this is basically telling a proud nation it has no right to an independent nuclear program, that it should dismantle years of hard, complicated work and toss hundreds of millions of rials into the Gulf. Meanwhile Iranian promises of a fatwa against nuclear weapons, of full cooperation with the IAEA, and of low-grade enrichment limits—should sanctions be relaxed—did little to assuage the U.S. and its cohorts. Rightly so: Why would the Western nations trust an antagonistic, power-hungry regime who will say or do anything to improve its chances at regional hegemony? Indeed, much has been written about how both sides have overplayed their hands, feeling they have the leverage to walk away from the negotiating table.

This breakdown means we must prepare for the return of an endless onslaught of articles baldly assuming an imminent military strike on Iran’s enrichment facilities, similar to those we saw on cover stories through January and February. We will see not only straight-up calls for a pre-emptive attack but articles like those in The New York Times that correctly caught flak for their subtle allusions to Iran’s nuclear arsenal, which doesn’t exist. Back then, the eager calls by warhawks in the U.S. and Israel to bomb Iran backfired, even as scare tactic, by prompting numerous Israeli military and Mossad vets to denounce the plan as nothing short of stupid.

Fast forward to June: Even before the negotiations officially ended, the calls for strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities were coming in loud as well as insidious.

Jumping the gun and surprising no one was The Weekly Standard’s Jamie Fly and Will Kristol. Though the bulk of their advice amounted to “isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program,” the buildup to this gem was meant to manipulate the uninformed. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but using a 1936 Winston Churchill speech to make the implicit/explicit connection of Iran to Nazi Germany is tired, cliched and wrong. Points awarded for not referencing the classic warmonger Chamberlain-Munich-1938 catch-all (which was probably considered) though I predict this will be regurgitated ad nauseam soon.

The merits of this Authorizarion to threaten Iran with ordnance are debatable but Kristol et al come at it from the specious, hackneyed litany of complaints of Iran’s “record of murder and mayhem,” including all its foiled assassinations and of course the plot to “kill the Saudi ambassador (and American bystanders)” in Washington. According to the U.N.’s take on the matter, “the resolution, which was introduced by Saudi Arabia, doesn’t directly accuse Iran of involvement but calls on the country ‘to comply with all of its obligations under international law’ and to cooperate in ‘seeking to bring to justice’ the people who allegedly plotted to kill the envoy.” Not to mention the two-way street comparison in this scenario: The cyber-attacks, sabotage and murders by U.S. and Israeli intelligence aimed at stalling Tehran’s nuclear progress actually worked. I won’t get into the slew of arguments (e.g. Iran has never attacked another country) against Fly and Kristol’s junior high analysis of supervillain Iran.

An example of the less straightforward “imminent war” insinuation came Thursday from Reuters in Jerusalem: “Israel Says Clock Ticking After Iran Talks Fail.” Can you feel the doomsday chill yet? How about:

“Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.”

This provocative lede, upon further reading, is misleading, as the third paragraph relays: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.” (Emphasis added)

Note the journos habit of asking questions designed to get juiced-up headlines about when we can expect the war to start. No one has brought up military action except the reporter/writer/editor of the story. Read till the end and the piece balances out somewhat but, unfortunately, Reuters is picked up by tons of blurb driven news sites like Yahoo! where the audience isn’t expected to read on. Headlines and ledes are all we have time for these days.

The Washington Post stoked its own fears with the headline “Faltering Iran talks stoke fears of new conflict.” Even with a day of talks left, the questionable lede was concocted to spook us:

The near-collapse of nuclear talks with Iran has ushered in what experts on Wednesday described as a dangerous new phase in the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

What experts end up describing are potential actions resulting from the sanctions due to hit Iran on July 1, taking us down the slippery hypothetical path of what Iran could do if these sanctions have a particularly nasty effect: “Worsening economic hardship could drive Iran’s leaders to adopt more aggressive and confrontational policies.” Not quite as scary as the dangerous new phase we’ve already entered into.

The third sentence in the piece also particularly troublesome: “At the same time, prominent Israeli and U.S. politicians are renewing calls for preparations for a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear progress.”

While a specific example is provided of a U.S. Republican senator calling for the Pentagon to prepare bunker-busting bombs, not one Israeli politician is mentioned, even off the record and anonymous. And of course, reserved for the very last line in the piece, apparently offered as a token to balance the story, is a Democratic Congressman calling on his right-of-the-aisle brothers to take a deep breath and calm down.

Nitpicky you say? Try this lede from the June 21 Wall Street Journal:

“Tel Aviv – Israel is unlikely to launch a strike on Iran as long as sanctions on Tehran intensify and diplomatic efforts continue, despite the failure of international talk… Israeli officials and security experts say.”

Given all the pre-emptive strike hullabaloo we’ve heard for the last two years, isn’t this the real story? That Israel is not shouting about how their window to attack is closing. Instead of America and Israel gearing up for a jet-fighter strike, the Journal piece talks about the breakdown in talks as the impetus that has “fueled talk of military options.” Illustrating how a story can be written to show the realistic thinking of those in power, it goes on to quote officials on the record and describe high-level discussions on how the U.S. could better use the threat of attack as a bargaining chip. Note: In no way could this be taken to mean an attack is imminent or unavoidable.

Alas, the Wall Street headline still reads: “Strike on Iran Stays on Hold, FOR NOW.” (Emphasis added)

And this is only the beginning.

Islamic Democracy, Oxymoron?

The Supreme Leader

 “Everybody in the Arab world remembers 2009.”

- Marc Lynch, author of The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolution of the New Middle East, on NPR’s ‘Brian Lehrer Show,’ Monday March 26, 2012

THE REAL POWER IN IRAN

It’s hard to remember a time when Iran wasn’t associated with its current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. With his provocative anti-Zionist declarations to the world and his U.N. Assembly appearances decrying the evils of the U.S., he has become a Western media pariah. His photo adorns most articles about Iran and its defiant nuclear program. I am guilty of this as well.

But more and more Ahmadinejad, both inside and outside of Iran, should be seen as a nuisance who is fading from the scene. The parliamentary elections of March 1, 2012, weakened him. The majles immediately called him out for reckless economic policies and other questionable actions. Now there is gossip about impeachment in Tehran.

Would the Islamic Consultative Assembly, as the legislature is known, go after a president without the consent of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei? Unlikely. Since Ahmadinejad’s latest perceived insubordination—sacking an intelligence chief close to the Supreme Leader—Khamenei has made a public statement about eliminating the office of the president in 2013. Apparently he hasn’t been a big fan of the last few chief executives.

While President Ahmadinejad is no paean to justice and liberty for all, Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his death in 1989, and the conservative clerics of the Islamic Republic are the true enemy of any Islamic democracy. This was made clear by the rigged presidential election of June 2009 and confirmed by the brutal and immediate reaction to the Arab-inspired Green Movement surge in February 2011.

These Mideast revolts for an Islamic democracy are linked. After the uprisings began in late January, Iran’s 2009 reform candidate Mir Houssein Mousavi claimed on his website: “What we are witnessing in the streets of Tunis, Sana, Cairo, Alexandria and Suez take their origins from the millions-strong protests in Tehran in 2009.” In those mass Arab demonstrations aided by laptop and cellphone, Facebook and Twitter, Iran’s student activist Daneshjoo News saw what they had started, adding a high-tech angle to civil disobedience. The Internet guru of the Egyptian revolution, Wael Ghonim, gave a speech calling for Iranian support of the Arab uprising. He told the people of the Islamic Republic “We learned from you.”

Heeding these calls for solidarity, a reinvigorated Green Movement planned giant rallies in mid-February 2011. But they would be shutdown.

“On the streets of Tehran, a new slogan is being sprayed: ‘Seyed Ali go be with Ben Ali’” says the Wall Street Journal. A sentiment that Khamenei should go the way of ousted Tunisian president Zine Abidine Ben Ali. This would not stand.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad found a strategy they agreed upon: Co-opt the Arab uprisings as pro-Islamic, anti-Western phenomena and crush any revitalized movement before it starts at home. The crackdown on protests was comprehensive and included cutting Internet and cellphone reception. Opposition candidates, such as Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi, were placed under house arrest. Revolutionary Guards and police used tear gas, live rounds and beatings—but were careful not to be caught on video killing protestors this time.

As the Arab Awakening continues in different forms in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other countries—with everything from massacres to progress—one can argue that the liberal movement in Iran is neutralized. One might conclude that the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and their armed forces are solely concerned with the preservation of their regime.

FLIRTING WITH DEMOCRACY

It wasn’t always this way in Iran, but how would Westerners know? Back in the late nineties, the American media wasn’t covering President Khatami encouraging a free press to flourish in Iran. The U.S. focus during the liberal Seyed Hussein Khatami’s eight years as president was first Saddam Hussein, then al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then Saddam again.

Khatami allied with the centrist political parties and tried to implement democratic changes at home, while curbing the Islamic Republic’s practice of sponsoring terrorism abroad. When he started reaching a hand toward America, Ayatollah Khamenei slapped it back, re-emphasizing that the U.S. is always a virulent foe. Led by the Supreme Leader, conservatives in the Guardian Council, the body that passes bills from parliament, blocked attempts at legal reforms. Sometimes the Revolutionary Guards went further:

“In July 1999 [the Guards] closed a popular reformist newspaper, triggering six days of severe rioting that shook the foundations of the Islamic regime.”

Indeed, Iranians are no strangers to protest. But they were still under the impression they could speak with their votes, and maybe a movement wasn’t deemed necessary yet. The reform parties continued to win seats in parliament in mid-term elections and Khatami easily became a two-termer in 2001.

THE MOVEMENT’S ROOTS

Having effectively shut down Khatami’s liberal agenda, the conservatives took full control in 2005. The Guardian Council disqualified serious liberal contenders, so after Khatami’s two-term limit, the reformers were forced to run a somewhat weak platform of unknowns. The women and younger voters who turned out in 1997 and 2001 became disillusioned and didn’t vote en masse. The Bush Administration gave the conservatives a boost by including Iran in the Axis of Evil, therefore reinforcing right-wing aggressive stances. Voting results point to the long-time centrist and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani splitting the liberals. But skeptical Iranians would say the Supreme Leader and the conservatives helped hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a surprising victory in a low-turnout affair.

Often seen as an uneducated religious zealot, whether for real or as a tactic, Ahmadinejad awakened the opposition. His nepotism, brashness and ego, which put off even Ayatollah Khamenei, gave disparate liberal groups something to galvanize them. Protests against Ahmadinejad during the December 2006 parliamentary elections helped reformists secure a partnership with Rafsanjani’s centrists. By 2008, according to Iranian journalist Hooman Majd, even conservatives were split over the unpopular president.

For Iranian dissenters, as for the Arab revolutionaries, frustration was like seeping gas filling a room for years. And as the cliché goes, it just needed the spark to spread like wildfire.

JUNE 2009

Was there any way the embattled, unpopular president could have been re-elected with 64 percent of the vote? In his book The Ayatollah’s Democracy, Hooman Majd notes:

“While it would have been impossible to prove that Mousavi was more popular than the president, it is also a virtual impossibility that Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker of Parliament and liberal cleric, could have received only one-twentieth the votes he did four years ago, and less votes than there were card-carrying members of his own political party.”

Clearly supporters of Mousavi didn’t accept it. According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper:

“As the official results were announced, baton-wielding riot police clashed with angry Mousavi supporters in some of the most serious unrest Tehran has seen in years.”

“Riot police on motorbikes used batons to disperse Mousavi supporters who staged a sit-in near the interior ministry, where the results were announced. Up to 2,000 Mousavi supporters erected barricades of burning tyres and chanted “Mousavi take back our vote! What happened to our vote?”

The results according to Wikipedia’s ‘Iranian Presidential Election, 2009′:

“On the night of 14 June the pro-Ahmadinejad Basij paramilitary group raided Tehran University, injuring many.”

“On 15 June millions of protesters marched on Azadi street and Mousavi made his first post-election appearance.”

The mass demonstrations were met with violence by the Basij (security forces) and Revolutionary Guards, just as Khamenei had promised in a speech warning protesters. It took a viral video of a young, attractive woman named Neda shot dead in the street to drive home what was happening. With the help of instant, mobile technology, cyber witnesses around the world experienced a movement creating itself with more immediacy and truth than ever before.

That a web-connected Arab generation wouldn’t be paying very close attention to the 2009 protests in Iran is unlikely. The Heritage Foundation in their “Index of Economic Freedom 2012″ cited a correlation between Iran mid-2009 and North Africa in early 2011:

“Facebook and Twitter feeds during Iran’s Green Movement include messages from young Egyptians blaming themselves for not following the Iranian lead.”

“Both the Arab Spring and Iran’s Green Movement were organized by groups of youngsters frustrated with their gloomy economic prospects. Importantly, they had no ties to extremist fundamentalism; they were “non-ideological,” and their solidarity and integrity were unprecedented.”

“The Iranian government’s violent and deadly response to protests … sparked outrage and antagonism against the regime and sowed seeds of discontent against dictatorship and repression that spilled throughout the region, inflaming aspirations for economic and political freedom.

In twenty years, historians and writers will tie the Green Movement to the Arab Awakening (they are only eighteen months apart) as they analyze how technology gave a new era of revolutionaries instant global exposure.

THE FUTURE

Though the liberal movement in Iran has gone underground, the Greens always had a serious disadvantage when compared to the Arab countries with more secular rulers, as the Heritage study observes:

“Iranian protesters faced a regime with strong fundamentalist ideology, wielding a weapon—“religious authenticity”—that other authoritarian regimes in the region lacked, observes Nader Hashemi, a teacher of Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.”

Messianic righteousness has historically been used to justify brutal repression, and it has been used to do this in Iran since the 1979 revolution, even though much of Iran’s privileged class is secular. In contrast, the Arab uprisings, awash in speeches of freedom and democratic reform, has resulted in a turn away from secularism and given Islamic parties more power. Thus a fundamental question is brought to the forefront again for Muslims societies in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy?

There was certainly a pretense of “one person, one vote” and other civil liberties before 2005 in Iran. As Majd writes:

“Years ago, President Seyed Mohammad Khatami had told me elections in Iran were generally fair—fair, that is, if the winner of any election won by more than three or four hundred thousand votes.”

While detailing the conservative conspiracy to rig the election in June 2009, Majd also cites revolutionary leader Knomeini’s promise of an “Islamic democracy” and the seeds it planted in those hopeful of its truth:

“But there are still many believers in the possibility of an Islamic democracy, including leaders of the opposition, backed by some of the senior Ayatollahs, such as Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei.

Sanei and his fellow reform-minded partners, ex-president Khatami and Green Party candidate Mehdi Karroubi, seem to believe a theocracy and a democracy can coexist. But Turkey, the supposed model, still jails those critical of the regime and refuses to recognize the Kurdish minority. But perhaps if the will of the people can bring about open, peaceful transfers of Islamic leadership, the Western powers and Israel can stop inadvertently radicalizing Muslim populations.

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