Tuesday 30 April 2013

Obama reports Assad to Putin for cheating!

President Obama on the phone and file picture of a Syrian chemical attack victim

U.S. President Barack Obama has reported the Syrian president to his backer in the Kremlin for cheating and dabbling with chemical weapons.
That’s how I read this official White House “readout” of President Obama’s call with Russian President Vladimir Putin:
President Obama spoke by phone today [Monday] with President Putin of Russia to convey his condolences on the tragic hospital fire outside of Moscow that killed dozens last week, and to reiterate his appreciation for the close cooperation that the United States has received from Russia on the Boston marathon attack. The two Leaders discussed cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues going forward, including with respect to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.  President Obama and President Putin reviewed the situation in Syria, with President Obama underscoring concern over Syrian chemical weapons. The Presidents agreed to stay in close consultation and instructed Secretary [John] Kerry and Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov to continue discussions on Syria. Finally, both Presidents noted that they look forward to meeting in person in June at the time of the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland and again in September for a bilateral Summit in Russia.
Game Over
“Game Over” is a message in video games signaling that the game has ended, often due to a negative outcome.
It’s Game Over in Syria,” Lebanese journalist, author and political analyst Samir Atallah writes today for the leading Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat.
In his words, paraphrased from Arabic:
While Barack Obama looks high and low for the red line in Syria, the Arab Mashriq seems about to fall into the netherworld.
Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are going to rack and ruin as viable civil states. There was never a winner in wars fought by men with no colors other than the inferno colors.
Jabhat al-Nusra has set up its republic, its laws, its courts, its economy and its bakeries in all the localities it captured in and near Aleppo.
The regime in turn is trying to carve up a separate republic for itself in Homs.
For their part, the “civilians” in Istanbul keep pining for news from Ahmet Davutoglu, the learned politician who knew everything except all that has happened.
Each and every side in the conflict crossed the entire the red lines the White House preacher is hunting for.
They are all losers. And the Syria we knew is the biggest loser of them all.
What did Russia gain from Jabhat al-Nusra spreading in the north all the way to Damascus?
What did Iran benefit from most of Syria falling in the Takfiris hands?
What did America reap from the war, which her ambassador in Damascus started by visiting Hama, only to end up reading false reports about the whereabouts of Jihad Makdissi?
Originally, the prevailing view was the regime did not know what it had on its hand.
No one who had Syrian blood on his hands knew anything about the pothole he was jumping into. That’s why there are hands drenched in blood but no life-saving hands.
The world fought the war outwith the Security Council.
The Arabs fought it outwith their League.
The regime fought it from the start outwith any acceptable or negotiable solution.
Clock chimes are ringing out Syria’s end.
For a year now, the red line has been without benchmark or terms of reference.
The first red line was the Russian-Chinese veto.
The second red line came in Geneva with ambiguous Action Group resolutions akin to an open invitation to keep up the ruination.
The third red line considered the use of chemical weapons a game-changer – as if suggesting all other lethal and destructive weapons are green lines in the race to obliterate Syria as a nation-state.
In the end, Russia will evacuate its citizens, America will issue a travel warning to its citizens, and Iran will pull out its Revolutionary Guards, leaving Syria in shreds.
“Game Over” Iraq’s Mohammed al-Douri told the United Nations in announcing the [Saddam] regime’s fall.
It’s “Game Over” in Syria.
Press Briefing
I wrote in my post last week, “I doubt Obama would ever lift a finger against Assad.”
For those who wish to continue reading, here is how the dithering continued at yesterday’s press briefing by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:
Q. Jay, on Syria, some questions are being raised about whether the Syrians actually used sarin on their people.  What confidence does the United States have in this evidence?  And can you characterize what exactly the evidence is in any way and what standards you’re trying to meet in terms of establishing it?
CARNEY:  We have established with varying degrees of confidence that chemical weapons were used in limited fashion in Syria and the agent is sarin, as we have said.  We have some physiological tests that are part of that collection of evidence. But there is much more to be done to verify conclusively that the red line that the President has talked about has been crossed. 
And it’s very important that we take the information that’s been gathered thus far and build upon it, because an assessment of varying degrees of confidence is not sufficient upon which to base a policy reaction, as we’ve said and as the President said in the Oval Office on Friday.
So our work continues.  We have a team -- or the United Nations has a team ready to deploy to Syria within 24 to 48 hours if Assad allows that team in and follows through on his stated commitment and interest in having this matter investigated.  And we are working with the French and the British and other allies and partners to gather more evidence.  Chain of custody is an important issue -- establishing not just that there was an incident of chemical weapons used, but how the exposure occurred, under what circumstances, who specifically was responsible, and again, the chain of custody, how the incident itself was brought about.
Q. You say physiological.  Can you be any more specific about what that evidence is and who is holding it?
CARNEY:  Physiological is tangible evidence.  And beyond that, I’m not going to be specific about it or methods and sources in terms of gathering evidence.  It is a piece in the puzzle that needs to be put together to establish the kind of verifiable, reviewable evidence that can be corroborated that we need to establish as we make decisions about policy.
Q Jay, on Syria, where exactly is that red line?
CARNEY:  The President has made clear, as he did again Friday, that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups would cross a red line.
What we have made clear, and we can go over it again, is that we have established with varying degrees of confidence that there have been incidents of chemical weapons used, sarin, in particular, in a limited fashion in Syria.  We are now working to build upon that evidence to increase the amount of evidence to find specifically what happened, what occurred, who was responsible and build that case, if you will.
Q. So is it the use of any amount of chemical weapons?
CARNEY:  There’s not a gradation here that I can engage in.  I can tell you that there have been, as we have assessed with varying degrees of confidence, incidents of the use of chemical weapons in a limited fashion.  But the issue here is chain of custody.  It is going on more than simply intelligence assessments.  I think our history provides us with examples of why we need to be especially assiduous when it comes to evaluating and gathering evidence in matters related to these kinds of issues.  And that's what we're doing. 
Q. But I'm trying to understand -- because I heard the President say "systematic use" on Friday -- so is it any amount? Is it a small amount?  Does it have to be a large amount to cross the red line?
CARNEY:  I think that the issue here is the use by, we believe, the regime -- because we are highly skeptical of any accusations that the opposition may have used chemical weapons -- the use by the regime of chemical weapons against the Syrian people or the transfer by the regime of some of its chemical weapons stockpile to terrorists --
Q. Any amount -- even a limited amount?
CARNEY:  I don't have an amount to give you.  Obviously, the nature of chemical weapons varies depending on the agent.  The use of chemical weapons can depend on the instance and the chain of custody.  So that's what we're investigating now.  That's what we're calling on Assad to allow the United Nations to investigate. 
So this is a very serious matter.  The President made clear this was a very serious matter.  And it is because that it is so serious that it is essential to establish a broader process of verification that will allow us then to assess whether that red line has been crossed and what the policy response will be.
Q. And on chain of custody, does it have to be something that is directed by Assad and his --
CARNEY:  We have said the use by the regime of chemical weapons would be President Assad's responsibility.  And we believe and have assessed that the chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria are under the control -- continue to be under the control of the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad. 
Again, I don't want to speculate on the incidents that we have assessed with varying degrees of confidence have occurred or may have occurred.  We are further investigating all credible information about possible use of chemical weapons in Syria and call on Assad to comply with his own request for an investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria by allowing that team in to investigate.  It's ready to go.
Q. And just one more.  How long do you think this process takes?  Are we talking like --
CARNEY:  I don't think it's possible to say necessarily, because building -- the building blocks that create the evidence necessary to make these kinds of assessment depend on what we're able to gather and it's a complex process.  Establishing the use of chemical weapons and the incidents involved and the chain of custody is not easy business, but it is essential business. 
Again, if you're as serious as the President is about this kind of transgression, if it were to occur, you need to be sure of your facts and you need to have facts that can be corroborated and that can be reviewed and that are airtight.
Q. So it could be weeks, it could be months.  It could be impossible --
CARNEY:  I don't have a timetable for you.  I would not give you a timetable.
Q    Jay, I wanted to follow on Syria, Jon’s questions about the timeline and whatnot.  Understanding, as you say, that the evidence has to be airtight -- because nobody should suggest that the administration rushed through this -- if it takes months and months to verify this or maybe a year, doesn’t that keep the door wide open for Assad to use chemical weapons?  I mean, when the President was in the briefing room here some months ago he made it seem like there will be action taken if this line is crossed.  If it drags on for months and months, it seems like the door could be open for Assad to do this again.
CARNEY:  Well, I certainly appreciate the question and I understand it.  What I won't do is speculate about how much time might be required to gather the evidence necessary to be able to assess clearly in a way that can be corroborated and reviewed whether or not this red line has been crossed.
I think all Americans would hope and expect that on a matter of this seriousness that we would be very careful in that process and would insist upon gathering all the facts, and not rushing to take action in a policy sense in reaction to assessments that are very important but are based on incomplete information.
So we need to build upon the excellent work that's been done thus far.  We call upon Assad to allow the inspection team from the United Nations to conduct the investigation that Assad himself asked for.  But we are not relying on the United Nations alone; we are working with our partners and allies as well as the Syrian opposition, very importantly, to gather more facts and evidence because this matter is so serious.
Q. I appreciate that.  Going back to Syria quickly.  The Free Syrian Army over this weekend said that Israeli Air Force jets flew over Assad’s palace and that they bombed a chemical weapons site near Damascus this weekend.  Do you have any more information about that and what the message is to Israel?
CARNEY:  I don’t have any information on that.
Q. And then, finally, if I can quickly, as we speak about Syria, can you explain -- there’s some sense that the White House is perhaps out over its skis, to use a colloquial phrase, in terms of the issue on Syria; that the language that was used before to describe this red line as this being a game-changer is now the policy doesn’t meet that place, that the words perhaps got a little bit ahead of policy right now.  If the White House wasn’t 100 percent sure when they put out the information to the Hill late last week, why right now?  Why not wait to have said something to -- created this new, complex situation?
CARNEY:  Well, I think, as you know, the President made clear the fact that there was a red line for the United States long before this report came out because he was making clear to President Assad how seriously we would view the use or transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons.  And he made that clear again on Friday when asked about this in his meeting with the King of Jordan.  And that is why we have to be so thorough in our review of and collection of evidence to prove that chemical weapons have been used.  And I think the American people would expect nothing less. 
That’s why we have made clear that while there is some evidence that leads to an assessment of varying degrees of confidence that chemical weapons have been used in a limited way in Syria, more evidence needs to be gathered to build upon the work that’s been done thus far, and that includes working with allies and partners who care deeply about this issue and have their own assessments that have been made.  It includes working, very importantly, with the Syrian opposition, and it includes urging President Assad to allow the United Nations team into Syria.
Q. So given the challenge that’s posed by the last part of your answer, which is Assad’s willingness to allow inspectors in there, if he doesn’t allow inspectors in, as appears increasingly to be the case given that hasn’t happened to this point, can the White House or can this administration ever reach a point of certitude to know that chemical weapons are being used, to mandate this reaction that the President has discussed, a game-changer? 
CARNEY:  I think that it is certainly easier if you were to have a team on the ground allowed entry by the Assad regime, but we are not waiting for that process.  We are moving forward, as we have already, to collect information and gather evidence.  We are relying and working with the Syrian opposition, as well as our allies and partners in that effort.  And that effort will continue. 
But there is no question that this not easy business and it needs to be thorough, and we need to establish the highest possible level of confidence in the assessments that we make.  And that's why we’re assembling the facts in the way that we are.
Q. Thank you, Jay.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Delving into the Muslim’s mind ahead of the next terror wave

File pictures of Homs  (top) and Grozny (below)

This think piece by Jamal Khashoggi -- Saudi Arabia’s analyst, author and kingpin of the impending Al Arab TV news channel -- appears in Arabic in his weekly column for al-Hayat daily
Investigators crowding around Dzhohkar Tsarnaev, the second Boston bombings suspect, would wish to probe his mind.
But they find it hard to question him by the book, as he lies critically wounded in hospital.
They would be looking for an answer to the question puzzling them most. How, they wonder, did an immigrant Muslim teenager fully integrated in American society, who – in the words of one of his friends – “became like anyone of us Americans” and who (as he wrote on one of his social media pages) loved life and money, turn into a terrorist killer of innocents?
Amateur terrorists, who are not affiliated to any organization and who self-recruit through the Internet, are the security analyst’s nightmare.
The analyst is unable to find leads to track them down and expose them before they commit their crimes.
Two such cases came to light last week in Canada and France. In both instances, two young men mirrored the case of the two Tsarnaev brothers suspected of the Boston marathon bombings.
The phenomenon, best described as “the case of the two Tsarnaev brothers,” might trigger a new wave of Islamophobia.
Surely, someone must now be asking on rightwing American TV channels or printed media pages, “How can I make sure my Muslim neighbor, who seems gentlemanly, amiable and no less American than anyone of us, won’t suddenly turn out to be a terrorist?”
Though it sounds awkward to Muslim and Arab ears, the question is justified.
It reminds me of the words of my friend Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, head of Alarabiya News Channel.
Rashed came in for a lot of flak when he coined his famed phrase, “Not all Muslims are terrorists; sadly though, most terrorists in the world are Muslim.”
To help investigators striving to probe the mind of Dzhohkar Tsarnaev, let me map for them information from the brain waves of an angry Muslim.
I am already aware that an American or Western politician would automatically dismiss as “justification for terrorism” any attempt to dwell on reasons for a Muslim’s wrath.
The politician realizes that discussing anger motives inevitably leads to revisiting old files that better remain closed and the apportionment of blame.
Oblivious of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key role in the Chechnya massacres, some congressmen are urging greater security cooperation between Washington and Moscow instead of setting up a congressional fact-finding panel, for example.
As world politicians are transfixed by global counter-terrorism cooperation, they would do well to brace themselves for the next wave of “Islamic” terror.
I anticipate such a wave by virtue of a “pattern” set by its antecedents.
The first wave in the mid-nineties was a reaction to the incidents in Bosnia and Algeria.
The next wave, in the early years of the second millennium, revolved around Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya.
The third wave will surge as a sequel to the massacres in Syria, now the fountainhead of Muslim ire.
The ire is fed by incessant images of injustice, desecration and abuses.
Angry Muslim youths are exposed to a daily flood of video clips showing Syrian regime forces torturing to death and killing civilians or cutting their victims’ limbs.
TV news channels bar such images, but they are for show on YouTube, when their rightful place should be the International Criminal Court instead of the social media platforms.
Contrasting the revolting clips from Syria are those emerging from Burma. They show opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi receiving her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo and Burmese gloating over newfound freedoms. But they recount little about the abhorrent persecution, hate, killing, burning and rape of Muslims in Myanmar.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhohkar might have watched such video clips, which could have reignited their indignation as ethnic Chechens.
They must have also seen loads of images showing the suffering of their countrymen and co-religionists. They could have come across images of Russian soldiers laughing as their officer uses a small Swiss knife to bleed a Chechen fighter to death.
Here again, the place for such images should be the International Criminal Court, though no Chechnya referrals as yet.
What Bashar al-Assad is now doing in Syria is what Putin did in Chechnya before. Pictures don’t lie. They show Syrian cities biting the dust, much like Grozny.
Today’s irate Muslim mind sees that the guardian angel of Assad and his regime is the same man who pulverized Grozny and killed more than 100,000 Chechens.
The irate Muslim mind pays no heed to things like the international situation or the balance of interests.
It’s an incensed mind turning thoughtless.
Had the Tsarnaev brothers been thinking straight, they would not have targeted the marathon in Boston, the compassionate city that embraced them.
The aftereffects of film recordings on the fuming Muslim mind are massive. They magnify in the Muslim’s mindset:
  • A sense of injustice
  • The feeling of belonging to a targeted minority
  • Suspicions that Americans are supporting Assad on the quiet and remain closemouthed on Putin’s crime and the Burmese opposition leader’s hypocrisy, and
  • A belief that Muslims have been on the receiving end of the nastiest crimes in the previous century and to date -- the two exceptions being the Jews’ suffering at the hands of the Nazis and the Armenians’ suffering at the Ottomans’ hands. But whereas Jews and Armenians received global apologies and reparations, there was nothing of the kind for Muslims.

In context, no one should underestimate the hurt the Palestinian Nakba etched on the Muslim Arab memory. No population was uprooted from its native land such as the Palestinian population. Yet no one is prepared to offer Palestinians an apology. And who would even dare launch a museum in New York commemorating the Nakba?
Also, who would dare call for an official Russian apology to the 1.5 million Chechens evicted from their homes and forcibly dispersed across the former Soviet Union, where tens of thousands of them succumbed to disease and starvation?
When Chechen survivors revolted in their quest for independence, they were met by Russia’s fire and brimstone as the world looked away.
One can imagine how stories of the horrors and crimes committed in Chechnya dulled the rationale of an angry Muslim’s mind, turning a civil young man into a dangerous terrorist.
Some will read into my think piece a justification for terrorism. It is not.
No one can justify terrorism. But the only way to eradicate it is to address its causes.
Someone needs to have the courage to stand up and tell the West in the face: Your double standards are causing the rage breeding terror.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Obama still dithers as Syria withers

Cartoon by Patrick Chappatte

I chose this cartoon (right) because I doubt Barack Obama would ever lift a finger against Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. president will keep dithering, even if Iran produced “the bomb” and nuked a city held by the Syrian president’s opponents.
I reached this conclusion after reading, scrutinizing and pondering Obama’s remarks in the Oval Office going into his bilateral meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah.
When strong evidence emerged earlier this year that Assad forces were moving chemical weapons, the White House insisted the action did not cross the line Obama set. By “move” the weapons, a White House spokesman said, Obama meant transferring them to a terror group, like Hezbollah.
After the British and French governments wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying they had evidence of chemical use in Syria, Obama had his secretary of state and defense secretary say separately the intelligence regarding the attacks remained inconclusive.
Hardly four weeks after Obama’s March visit to Israel, where he said proof of chemical weapons use would be a “game changer,” Israel’s senior military intelligence analyst said the Assad regime had repeatedly used chemical weapons in the last month, and criticized the international community for failing to respond.
With the mounting evidence forcing Obama’s hand, the White House found nothing better in midweek than write letters to congressmen saying, “"Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin.”
But the letters added: "Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experiences, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making."
This gets us to last night’s round of dilly-dallying by Obama in the presence of King Abdullah.
THE PRESIDENT:  I want to welcome to the Oval Office once again King Abdullah.  His Majesty is a great friend of the United States.  Jordan is a great partner to the United States on a whole host of issues.  And obviously, although we just recently saw each other -- and I want to thank again His Majesty for the extraordinary hospitality that he showed during our visit -- there remain a host of very urgent issues in the region that we’re going to have an opportunity to discuss.
First of all, I want to congratulate His Majesty on a series of reforms that he’s initiating inside of Jordan, and we want to find out how we can continue to be supportive and helpful in creating greater economic opportunity and prosperity in the area.
We have been supportive with respect to loan guarantees and other efforts, in part because we’ve also seen King Abdullah take some very important steps to further open democratization and entrepreneurship and economic development inside of Jordan.  We want to encourage that because we think Jordan can be an extraordinary model for effective governance in the region.
We’re also going to have an opportunity to talk about the Middle East peace process.  And the last time I saw King Abdullah, I’d just come out of Israel and the West Bank in consultations with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. And Jordan, like the United States, has an enormous stake in peace.  And we do think that there’s a window of opportunity that needs to be seized, and so we will both consult in how we can jumpstart serious conversations that could lead to a peaceful settlement and both a secure Israel with normalized relations with its neighbors and a Palestinian state that was sovereign.
Of great urgency right now obviously is the situation in Syria.  Jordan has experienced a huge influx of refugees coming into the country from Syria, people who’ve been displaced.  Jordan historically has maintained open borders and allowed these refugees on a humanitarian basis to come in, but it’s an enormous strain on a small country.  And we are mobilizing international support to help with these refugees, but obviously our goal is to create a stable Syria, where civilians are not at risk. 
And we both agree that at this point, President Assad has lost legitimacy and that we need to find a political transition that allows a multi-sect, democratic transition to take place so that Syria can be a place where all people can live in peace and harmony.
This will be difficult to accomplish.  And yesterday, some of you saw that I asked my people to brief Congress about the fact that we now have some evidence that chemical weapons have been used on the populations in Syria.  Now, these are preliminary assessments; they’re based on our intelligence gathering.  We have varying degrees of confidence about the actual use, but there are a range of questions around how, when, where these weapons may have been used. 
So we’re going to be pursuing a very vigorous investigation ourselves, and we’re going to be consulting with our partners in the region as well as the international community and the United Nations to make sure that we are investigating this as effectively and as quickly as we can.
But I meant what I’d said, and I will repeat that it’s, obviously, horrific as it is when mortars are being fired on civilians and people are being indiscriminately killed.  To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law.  And that is going to be a game changer. 
We have to act prudently.  We have to make these assessments deliberately.  But I think all of us, not just in the United States but around the world, recognize how we cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations. 
So this is going to be something that we’ll be paying a lot of attention to -- trying to confirm, and mobilize the international community around those issues.
But in everything that we do, we very much appreciate the kinds of support, advice, counsel, and partnership that we have with His Majesty and the people of Jordan.  And we look forward to a fruitful consultation this afternoon.
HIS MAJESTY KING ABDULLAH:  Mr. President, thank you very much.  We’re delighted to be back here again.  And may I first start off by expressing, on behalf of myself and the delegation and people of Jordan, our heartfelt condolences on the tremendous tragedies both in Boston for the bombings, as well as that of Texas -- especially that of Boston.  We've always stood together in our fight against terrorism, and this is an issue that we will always be strong partners there.
As you've mentioned, sir, on the issue of the peace process, when you were in Jordan, we had mentioned this is the homework stage.  Jordan will continue to work very closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians, obviously with our American allies to see how we can bring both sides closer together.
But one of the major concerns that brings us here to Washington together, as you alluded to, is obviously the challenge with Syria, the fragmentation of Syrian society, which is becoming more and more alarming. 
Since your last visit to Jordan five weeks ago, we've had over 60,000 refugees -- up to over half a million, so we're at 10 percent of an increase of our population.  We're so grateful to the support that you and the American people have given to our country.  You couldn’t do more, quite honestly, and we're so grateful.  I just wanted to express our appreciation on behalf of myself and the Jordanian people for that.
I think, sir, that we are both working very hard to look for a political solution for a Syria that is one that is, as you mentioned, inclusive so that we're bringing everybody together, which is sort of our last hope to -- as we're now seeing the surge of the second threat appear, which is that of militant terrorist organizations that have risen over the past several months.
But I am confident, with your leadership and with meetings that we will have today, that we can find a mechanism to bring a solution -- to an end as quickly as possible. 
Lastly, sir, you had the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed, who is one of our strongest strategic allies.  And I know that is his position with the United States, as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- the three of us are working very hard in cooperation with the United States to try to find a quick and just solution to the Syrian crisis. 
So I look forward to our discussions later this afternoon, and I hope that together we will be able to alleviate the suffering.
Q. Mr. President, why has the red line been crossed --
PRESIDENT OBAMA:  You guys all have the same question?
Q. Yes.
Q. You know that they are --
PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Hold on a second, miss --  one at a time. 
What we have right now is an intelligence assessment.  And as I said, knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used.  Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community.  And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this. 
And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime.  But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists -- all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region. 
So we're going to be working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use.  In the meantime, I've been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues. 
So this is not an on or off switch.  This is an ongoing challenge that all of us have to be concerned about.  And we're going to be working with the international community and our partners to keep our eyes on what's happening on the ground, to gather any evidence of potential chemical weapon use and, at the same time, to continue to help with a moderate and inclusive opposition to help bring about the day when the Syrian people can once again focus on living their lives, raising their children, starting businesses, and obtaining basic freedom and human rights. 
This is going to be a long-term proposition.  This is not going to be something that is solved easily overnight.  But I know that King Abdullah is committed to trying to find these kinds of solutions.  So am I. 
Thank you everybody.

Friday 26 April 2013

Iran’s Shiite counterattack… from Syria to Iraq

From top clockwise, Lebanon's Nasrallah with Iran's Khamenei, Iraq's Maliki and Syria'sAssad

Shiite powerhouse Iran seems to have drawn the battle lines for Shiite-Sunni warfare in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq -- a total area of 634,000 square kilometers with an overall population of 58 million.
Syria’s minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam — dominates Bashar al-Assad’s regime while the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian president are mostly from the Sunni majority.
Assad's major allies – Iran, its Lebanese Hezbollah cat’s-paw and Tehran’s Iraqi surrogate Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- are all Shiite.
Closely allied with Damascus since the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Tehran remains Assad's main political and diplomatic backer, arms supplier and financier.
Iranian advisers help man Assad’s war room and Iranian Revolutionary Guards are present in Syria in numbers ranging into the hundreds, though exact figures cannot be determined.
Last January 48 Iranians held hostage by rebel fighters in Syria were released in exchange for 2,130 prisoners held by the Syrian authorities.
The Syrian opposition said the 48 Iranians captured in August 2012 were members of the Revolutionary Guards on their way to join pro-Assad forces. Iran said they were simple pilgrims on their way to the Shiite shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab in southern Damascus.

Shiite fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq are now deployed in the Syrian capital’s Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood.
Ten weeks ago Iran’s point man in Lebanon and Syria was ambushed and killed by Syrian opposition forces while travelling overland to Beirut from Damascus.
The semiofficial Fars news agency identified the slain Revolutionary Guards commanding officer as Hassan Shateri. In Lebanon, Shateri was posing as “Hessam Khoshnevis,” head of an Iranian agency set up to help rebuild Hezbollah-controlled areas devastated by the 2006 war with Israel (see my February 14 post).
More recently, Iran and Hezbollah built a 50,000-strong “People’s Army” of Syrian militiamen to bolster Assad’s depleted regular army.
Hezbollah is now playing a more deepening and barefaced role in the Syria war just across the Lebanese border.
Assad warplanes this week provided Hezbollah fighters with aerial cover to help them advance near the strategic town of al-Qusayr in Homs province.
The border region near Homs on the Syria side is strategic because it links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawites and is also home to the country's two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus.
The battle for al-Qusayr has inflamed tensions in Lebanon, where two Sunni clerics this week called for volunteers to head to Syria and defend the oppressed in al-Qusayr and Homs. 
In Iraq this week, the killings of scores of Sunni protesters by forces of the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government have raised fears of a return to all-out sectarian war.
The trouble began on Tuesday when the army stormed an encampment in the village of Hawija, where Sunnis had been holding protests since late December, leaving dozens dead and injured.
That incident set off a wave of revenge attacks that hit five different Sunni-majority provinces, killing dozens more people and culminating with Sunni gunmen taking control of the town of Sulaiman Bek in Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, on Wednesday.
The violence is the deadliest so far linked to demonstrations that erupted some four months ago in Sunni areas of the Shiite-majority country.
The Sunni protesters have called for the resignation of Shiite Prime Minister Maliki and railed against the alleged targeting of their community by the authorities.
“The Sunni uprising, having now turned violent, represents a significant challenge to Maliki, whose consolidation of power over the security forces and the judiciary, and his targeting of high-level Sunni leaders for arrest, has raised alarms among world powers,” according to The New York Times.
“Mr. Maliki has presided over an unwieldy power-sharing government, which nominally gives prominent roles to Sunnis but in reality has resulted in political stasis, and he has signaled in recent months that he would prefer to move to a majority government, dominated almost solely by Shiites. On Tuesday, two Sunni ministers quit to protest the raid in Hawija, and the largest bloc of Sunni lawmakers suspended participation in Parliament.
“Mr. Maliki made no public comments on the situation Wednesday, but on Tuesday, after being pressed by American officials and the United Nations, he said he would open an investigation into the events in Hawija, and promised to hold military officers accountable for any mistakes.
“The deteriorating situation in Iraq highlights the sectarian tensions that have risen across the region, particularly amid the raging civil war in Syria…
“In Iraq, the central government has aligned with the Syrian government and its greatest ally, Iran, while Sunnis here have sided with the rebels, and they now appear to be emboldened by the events in Syria to challenge their own government.
“The sectarian fissure is evident in the rhetoric of the Sunni rebellion here [in Iraq]: militants over the last few days have referred to Iraq’s army as a force loyal to Iran, while many Shiites here have cast the formerly peaceful Sunni protesters as Muslim extremists beholden to al-Qaeda…”
John Drake, an Iraq specialist with risk consulting firm AKE Group, was quoted this week saying “the fact that this is a predominantly Shiite government and it's predominantly Shiite security forces opening fire on predominantly Sunni individuals (civilians or militants) is going to have an impact on sectarian relations and could prompt a rise in sectarian violence as a result."
Lebanese political analyst Elie Chalhoub, writing for the Beirut daily al-Akhbar, which is close to the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran-Iraq alignment, says official opinion in Baghdad is divided.
Political sources close to the Maliki government suspect outside forces –“including Syrian armed gangs and regional forces” -- are trying to exploit the Hawija events to help carve up a Sunni enclave in Iraq.
Military sources on the other hand blame the violence on “measures taken by Iraqi army units along the border with Syria in the last 10 days. Let’s not forget Hawija, on the Iraqi side of the border, sits opposite Deir Ezzor, which is Jabhat al-Nusra’s nerve center.
“Iraqi forces succeeded, to a large extent, in tightening the noose on Takfiri groups that sneak fighters and arms into Syria from Iraq.”
Walid Choucair, pan-Arab daily al-Hayat’s Beirut bureau chief, today blames turmoil in the region on “The clarion call by Iran to shore up Assad.”
The Syria crisis, he explains, “has entered a new phase of intense Iranian involvement.”
The reason is Tehran cannot continue seeing its regional cards come under threat as they are in Syria, Iraq, the Gulf and Yemen.
It is no coincidence, says Choucair, that most live events in the region bear Iran’s signature. For example:
  • “Hezbollah’s overt and unabashed participation in fighting alongside Syrian regime troops to recapture territory from opposition forces as deep inside Syria as Homs.”
  • “Execution by Maliki, Tehran’s favorite point man in Baghdad, of his threat to crack down on opponents and tribesmen who have been challenging his policies for months in al-Anbar province, and by ordering the army to bomb protesters west of Kirkuk and then in Baghdad.”
  • “Assad’s warning that terrorism will come back to haunt the West and his latest pep talk to a visiting deputation of regime loyalists from Lebanon (see my post, “Assad on Black Sunday...”).
  • Release of a photo showing Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei receiving Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. The still aims to tell Lebanese Shiites that Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in Syria has the blessing of Vali e-faqih (or Guardian Jurist).

Also writing for al-Hayat in the same vein -- under the title, “The counterattack… from Syria to Iraq” – is Zuhair Qusaybati.
“Any parallel,” he wonders, “between the Iraqi army’s storming of the Sunni protesters’ encampment in Hawija and the joint campaign by Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces on the rebel-held area of al-Qusayr?”
Yes, says Qusaybati.
The similitude is that Tehran’s allies in Iraq and Syria “are implementing what can be described as an Iranian counterattack” in anticipation of “the grand bargain” between the United States and the Islamic Republic over the latter’s nuclear program.
America suffices with watching for the time being. It is hedging its bets on Iran drowning in quagmires of religious and sectarian wars.
Jordanian-Palestinian writer Yasser Zaatra, in a think piece for Aljazeera portal, speaks of Iran becoming a bane to Shiite Arabs.
Initially, he says, Iran leaders described the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt as an “Islamic revival.” They changed their minds when the Arab Spring reached Syria.
Zaatra says most Shiite Arabs subscribed to Tehran’s immoral stand, causing a serious sectarian split in the region – whether in places like the Gulf and Lebanon, where Shiites are in the minority, or in predominantly Shiite countries such as Iraq and Bahrain.
Iran’s mobilization of Shiite Arabs against the majority Sunnis in Syria triggered an unprecedented backlash among the historically tolerant Sunnis of the Arab and Islamic worlds, according to Zaatra.
The cause of this sectarian polarization is chiefly Syria and what happened earlier, when Iran put Iraq under its thumb and dictated a sectarian agenda on Iraq’s new Shiite rulers – who incidentally “entered Baghdad riding U.S. tanks.”
Shiite Arabs – whether in Iraq, Lebanon or the Gulf -- have no interest in a confrontation with their neighbors or fellow citizens and vice-versa. Ethnic and sectarian wars leave no winners, Zaatra remarks.
“The arrogance of power has got to the Iranian leaders’ heads. It made them lose sight of the true balance of power in the Islamic world, where Shiites are in a minority of only about 10 percent – and a lower percentage in the Arab world…”