Saturday, February 18, 2012

Bashar al-Assad Isn’t The First Syrian Leader To Regret Messing With Homs

The epicenter of Syria's revolt has long been the butt of jokes. But Homs may get the last laugh.
One day, the late Hafez al-Assad was going to visit Homs. His defense minister ordered the Honor Guard to fire 21 shots to welcome the Syrian president as he descended from the plane. A Homsi soldier asked him: "Sir, what if I succeed in killing him with the first shot -- shall we waste 20 more of them for nothing?"
In light of the increasingly bloody crackdown on Homs by President Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, that joke is no longer considered funny. The droll image of Syria's third-largest city is fading away as the Assad regime's assault, now in its 11th month, escalates. It is the slow death of an old reputation: For centuries, laughter has filled the cafés of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama as Syrians exchanged jokes mocking the intelligence of the Homsis.
The typical jibe goes something like this: A Homsi approaches a man on the street. "Where is the other side of the road?" he asks. "There," answered the man, pointing at the other side. "For God's sake," said the Homsi. "When I was there they told me it is here!"
Why the Homsis? Perhaps they have become the butt of Syria's jokes because they are the country's eternal rebels. Throughout history, they have held a unique place in Syria's social and political fabric, prompting amazement, ridicule, and even anger from their neighbors. The Homsi jokes reflect the competing moral values, uncertain social boundaries, and competing power structures of Syrian society, whether in times of peace or war.
It all began two millennia ago. The inhabitants of the ancient city of Emesa, which would become Homs, were known for worshiping Elgabalus -- the God of the Sun -- as well as for keeping pagan traditions, such as the celebration of the "Day of the Fool," alive. On this day any form of bizarre behavior was tolerated, and soon the celebration has become a very popular event in the city. Although Homsis later converted en masse to Christianity and then Islam, celebrating the "Day of the Fool" remained a tradition until the middle of the 20th century, according to French scholar Jean-Yves Gillon.
But this strange holiday is not the only reason Homsis are treated as Syria's iconoclasts. In the 7th century, Homs was conquered by the Muslim army of the famous military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. Soon, it became the first Syrian city with a significant Muslim population -- a fact that encouraged Caliph Umar, the second caliph following the death of Prophet Muhammad, to assign Homs as regional center. Inhabitants of other historical cities -- such as Hama, Palmyra, and Tartus -- envied their new overlords, as seen by the sharp increase in the number of poems denigrating Homsis.
In the conflicts between what would become the Umayyad dynasty and Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the Homsis sided with Ali, with many of them joining his forces in the Battle of Siffin in 657. After the defeat of Ali in 659, Homsis lost their privileged status and then, eight decades later, when one of the tribes in Homs revolted against the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, many of them were slaughtered, tortured, and mutilated.
Due to its strategic position, Homs often became a center of intrigue for several rebelling dynasties -- and the scornful narratives continued to flow. "I was walking in Homs and saw a flock of goats followed by a camel," the famous prose writer and poet al-Jahiz wrote in the 9th century. "I heard a man asking, ‘Is this camel from the family of the sheep?' ‘No,' replied the other. ‘It is an orphan so they adopted it.'"
The negative stereotypes about Homsis returned in force during the 11th century, when the Mirdasid dynasty recaptured the city and converted it to Shia Islam. Homsis very soon became victims of the polemical debates between Sunni and Shia clerics. The famous Sunni cleric Ibn al-Jawzi recorded many ironic narratives about the strange habits of Homsi religious officials and the supposed stupidity of their followers.
According to one anecdote, three Homsi religious students were discussing a hadith - a saying of Prophet Muhammad -- about the parts of the human body. "The nose is for smelling, the mouth is for eating, the tongue is for speaking," they concluded. "But what is the ear for?" As the hadith did not give the answer, they decided to ask their sheikh.  On their way to the sheikh's house, however, they saw a tailor patching a cloth. The tailor was cutting pieces of yarn and hanging them on his ear. "God has sent us the answer," the students concluded, and returned to the mosque.
Homs has long been a bastion of resistance -- first as a Muslim stronghold in the efforts to repel European invaders during the Crusades, and then as a base for Mamluk commanders' war against the Mongols. But such heroism did not rid Homsis of their age-old stigma. Rather, many linked Homsis' victories to their alleged simple-mindedness.
According to one anecdote, on the "Day of the Fool," the elders of Homs decided to open the city's gates to the enemy. The Mongols entered and found people wearing their clothes backwards and walking backwards on the streets. The Mongol leader thought the locals were sick, and immediately ordered a retreat to avoid the infection of his soldiers. The real history of Homs, however, does not show such a good sense of humor: After the fall of the Mamluks, the city was ravaged by Arab bedouin raids and began to decline.
Once incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century Homs regained its status as an economic center, becoming a hub for the trade of silk, olive oil and animals linking the northern and southern cities of the empire. Due to its booming economic activity and weaving industry, a British consul labeled Homs "the Manchester of Syria" in the late 19th century.
The city's golden years, however, came to an end with the demise of the Ottomans. Homs was incorporated into the state of Damascus during the French Mandate that followed World War I. Due to their city's declining economic importance, Homsis quickly joined the revolution against the French in 1925, with bandits in the region launching raids against French troops. One of the generals of the revolution, Mazhar al-Sibai, was also of Homsi origin.
By 1932, tensions had ebbed sufficiently that the French moved their military academy from Damascus to Homs, where it remained the sole military academy in Syria until 1967. Hafez al-Assad himself was a graduate of the academy -- but his years in the institute did not make him sentimental toward the city. The Alawite president stabilized his grip on power by cutting deals with the Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo -- leaving Homs's majority Sunni community in the lurch.
As a result, Homsis were again consigned to play the role of the fool in coffee-house jokes. During the 1973 war, a typical gag goes, a Homsi soldier was playing with a grenade. His fellow soldier warned him to watch out as it might explode. "Don't worry," replied the Homsi. "I've got other ones!"
Once again in its tumultuous history, Homs finds itself in the eye of the storm. As Bashar al-Assad's regime continues its horrifying assault on the city, gallows humor has become the order of the day. "Why do the Homsis rebel?" a pro-Assad voice asked on Twitter recently. "They are fed up with the Homsi jokes."
This time, however, nobody is laughing.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 17/12/2012
-Omar Adam Sayfo is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern politics

Friday, February 17, 2012

Islamists’ Ideas On Democracy And Faith Face Test In Tunisia

By ANTHONY SHADID (This article was reported and written before Mr. Shadid’s death in Syria)

Said Ferjani, an Islamist, plotted a coup in Tunisia and fled to Britain to join other Islamists seeking asylum
The epiphany of Said Ferjani came after his poor childhood in a pious town in Tunisia, after a religious renaissance a generation ago awakened his intellect, after he plotted a coup and a torturer broke his back, and after he fled to Britain to join other Islamists seeking asylum on a passport he had borrowed from a friend.
Twenty-two years later, when Mr. Ferjani returned home, he understood the task at hand: building a democracy, led by Islamists, that would be a model for the Arab world.
“This is our test,” he said.
If the revolts that swept the Middle East a year ago were the coming of age of youths determined to imagine another future for the Arab world, the aftermath that has brought elections in Egypt and Tunisia and the prospect of decisive Islamist influence in Morocco, Libya and, perhaps, Syria is the moment of another, older generation.
No one knows how one of the most critical chapters in the history of the modern Arab world will end, as the region pivots from a movement against dictatorship toward a movement for something that is proving far more ambiguous. But the generation embodied by Mr. Ferjani, shaped by jail, exile and repression and bound by faith and alliances years in the making, will have the greatest say in determining what emerges.
Their ascent to the forefront of Arab politics charts the lingering intellectual and organizational prowess of the Muslim Brotherhood, a revivalist movement founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher in a Suez Canal town in 1928. But intellectual currents that once radiated from Egypt now just as often flow in the other direction, as scholars and activists in Morocco and Tunisia, perched on the Arab world’s periphery and often influenced by the West, export ideas that seek a synthesis of what the most radical Islamists, along with their many critics here and in the West, still deem irreconcilable: faith and democracy.
More often than not, they are asking societies for trust that, given the experiences of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution or the Islamist-led coup in Sudan in 1989, authoritarian leaders and secular forces are reluctant to offer.
Mr. Ferjani, a 57-year-old self-taught intellectual as exuberant as he is pious, acknowledges the doubts. In one of several interviews, he declared that history — a word he uses often — would judge his generation not on its ability to take power but rather on what it did with power, which has come after four decades of activism.
“I can tell you one thing, we now have a golden opportunity,” he said, smiling. “And in this golden opportunity, I’m not interested in control. I’m interested in delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic, democratic system. This is my dream.”
A Chance Encounter
Nothing in Mr. Ferjani’s childhood really set him on the path to realize this ambition. Born in Kairouan, a town reputed by some Muslims to be Islam’s fourth holiest city, he was not especially pious as a child. His father, a shopkeeper, never managed to provide enough for his family. He remembered going three days without food once, and wearing cheap sandals to school. “Poverty, we tasted it,” he recalled.
By his own account, he was unruly and rambunctious until he turned 16. That year, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, an Arab nationalist turned Islamist who had studied in Egypt and Syria before returning to Tunisia, took a job teaching Arabic in Kairouan. Mr. Ghannouchi would stay only a year before setting out to eventually form the Islamic Tendency Movement, then the Ennahda Party, but he left a legacy with his students.
“He was always talking about the world and politics,” Mr. Ferjani said. “Why as Muslims are we backwards? What makes us backwards? Is it our destiny to be so?”
The questions posed by Mr. Ghannouchi have shaped successive generations of Islamists, a term that never captures their diversity. The theme was examined in the work of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose notion of missionary work proved so successful over 50 years. It was there, too, in the works of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian thinker whose writings resonated long after he was hanged in 1966, helping give rise to a militant Islamism that bloodied the Middle East. Later, “The Hidden Duty,” a text that laid the groundwork for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, tried to resolve the issue. So did Mr. Ghannouchi, who endorsed pluralism and democracy, even as revolution raged in Iran.
In Kairouan’s colonial-era Negra Mosque, Mr. Ferjani and a hundred other youths gathered to study them all. “Read, read, read, read,” he recalled. “Even when I walked, I read.”
Mr. Ferjani eventually made his way to Tunis, the capital, where he joined his old Arabic teacher’s group. “Politics was there from the beginning,” he said in the interview.
Tunisia was ruled at the time by Habib Bourguiba, who was so secular that he once made it a point to drink orange juice on television during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Mr. Bourguiba, in power since 1957, cracked down on Mr. Ghannouchi’s followers, and with the prospect of many of them being executed, Mr. Ferjani said he helped in plotting a coup d’état. He met many of the organizers at a video store he ran in a low-slung building of white stucco and blue shutters, across the street from Parliament.
Seventeen hours before they were to carry it out, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mr. Bourguiba’s interior minister, led his own coup. Ten days later, on Nov. 17, 1987, Mr. Ferjani was arrested. He spent 18 months in jail, where his interrogators strapped him to a bar in what he called “the roasted chicken” position and fractured his vertebra with an iron rod. Unable to walk, the pain searing, he would be carried by prisoners on their backs whenever he had to move.
“They were extreme experts in how to make the torture felt in every part of the body,” Mr. Ferjani recalled. “I would stay awake until 5 a.m. in the morning. I’d pray till dawn, then I’d sleep, and I’d only fall asleep because there was nothing left in me.”
Five months after his release, still in a wheelchair, he trained himself to walk 50 yards so that security would not notice him at the airport. He shaved his beard and borrowed a friend’s passport. Then he caught a flight to London and sought asylum.
Crucible of Exile
Islamists of Mr. Ferjani’s generation wear prison time like a badge of honor. But exile, especially for the Tunisians, was often no less formative.
The London where Mr. Ferjani traveled became a hub of sorts for Islamist politics in the 1990s. Mr. Ghannouchi soon arrived there, joining Mr. Ferjani. Salafis from Saudi Arabia mixed with their frequent adversaries, Shiites from Bahrain, finding more common ground in London than at home.
Ahmed Yousef, a scholar and Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, recalled a similar environment in the United States, where he made lifelong contacts at conferences in Washington. Among the connections: Saadeddine Othmani, a Moroccan scholar and politician; Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, a Syrian Brotherhood leader; Abdul Latif Arabiyat, an Islamist leader from Jordan; and Abdelilah Benkirane, a Moroccan who is now the prime minister.
The environment became less permissive after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, Mr. Yousef said, but until then, “it was like paradise.”
“In exile, people feel they need each other,” said Azzam Tamimi, a Palestinian scholar and activist in London, who has written a biography of Mr. Ghannouchi. “Back home, the national environment imposes itself on you. Priorities become different.”
Mr. Ferjani compared his years in London to the intellectual awakening he underwent in Kairouan in the 1970s. Settling with his wife and five children in the neighborhood of Ealing, he remained in Islamist circles, soon embroiled in the debates over Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but broadening his horizons into civil society. He took classes on the history of Europe, democracy, the environment and social change.
He said he understood what Mr. Tamimi called the “common roots and common ground” of Islamist activists, many of whom never expected to return home.
“We know each other,” he said. “But knowing is one thing, doing things together in every sense — as many may think — is another. In politics, it’s not that we all agree.”
Embracing Democracy
Through Mr. Ferjani’s years in exile, the dominant image of political Islam was the bloody record of Egypt’s insurgency in the 1990s, the Algerian civil war and the ascent of Bin Laden, whose Manichaean view of the world mirrored the most vitriolic statements of the Bush administration.
But no less dramatic was the shift under way within various currents inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Ghannouchi, his own thoughts evolving in exile, became an early proponent of a more inclusive and tolerant Islamism, arguing a generation ago that notions of elections and majority rule were universal and did not contradict Islam. Early on, he supported affirmative action to increase women’s participation in Parliament, a break with the unrelenting notion of missionary work that so long defined the Brotherhood.
“Frankly, the guy who brought democracy into the Islamic movement is Ghannouchi,” Mr. Ferjani said. As Mr. Ghannouchi himself put it in an interview late last year, at a conference in Istanbul attended by Islamist activists from Tunisia to the Palestinian territories, “Rulers benefit from violence more than their opponents do.”
In debates that played out across the Arab world, though often ignored by the West, the questions of reconciling democracy and Islam raged from the 1990s on. In the middle of that decade, a young Egyptian Islamist named Aboul-Ela Maadi broke from the Brotherhood and formed the Center Party, declaring its support for elections and the alternation of power and, as important, dissent and coalitions with non-Islamic parties.
Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an enormously influential Egyptian cleric based in Doha, Qatar, often sided with the progressives. (In 2005, he turned heads by declaring on Al Jazeera satellite television that “freedom comes before Islamic law.”) Though the Brotherhood still resents Mr. Maadi for his defection, it has largely adopted his ideas, which had seemed so novel in 1996.
Those debates reverberated across the region. Mr. Yousef, the Palestinian, remembered the impact of reading Mr. Ghannouchi’s monthly magazine, Al Maarifa, as a student in Egypt. In Libya, Ali Sallabi, who once debated politics with jihadists in the prisons of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, cited Mr. Ghannouchi and Sheik Qaradawi as inspirations.
Critics view the shifts as tactical, even rhetorical. But the very essence of the debates has marked a fulcrum in the intellectual currents of today’s political Islam.

“Al-sama’ wa’l-ta’a,” went the old Brotherhood ideal, which translates as “hearing and obeying.”
“That’s over,” said Tariq Ramadan, a prominent Islamic scholar based in London and a grandson of Mr. Banna, the Brotherhood founder. “The new generation is saying if it’s going to be this, then we’re leaving. You have a new understanding and a new energy.”
He noted that in contrast to Mr. Ferjani’s earlier years, when Egypt was the source of new Islamist thought, the influences are now more pronounced of exiles in Europe, scholars in North Africa like Mr. Ghannouchi and Ahmed Raysouni, and Islamist parties like Ennahda in Tunisia and Mr. Benkirane’s Justice and Development Party in Morocco.
“It’s not coming just from the Middle East anymore,” Mr. Ramadan said. “It’s coming from North African countries and from the West. There are new visions and there are new ways of understanding. Now they are bringing these thoughts back to the Middle East.”
From his perch in London, Mr. Ferjani incorporated talk of Westminster when formulating his idea of a charismatic state, whether led by Islamists or others. After vehemently rejecting the left, he now embraces Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism.
Exile, he said, “changed me a lot, profoundly.”
Applying Theories
On a brisk winter day, Mr. Ferjani sat in Ennahda’s offices in Tunisia, a five-story building whose plastic sign inscribed with its name lent a sense of the unfinished.
Nearly a year had passed since he had returned to Tunis, draped in the red national flag and walking effortlessly through the airport. He carried a passport that was his. His beard had gone gray, save for a mustache that served as a reminder of his youth in Kairouan. About 200 people met him at the terminal.
“No place for traitors in Tunisia, only for those who defend her!” he sang, joining the crowd as it recited the national anthem. “We live and die loyal to Tunisia.”
On this day, his mood was more somber. In protests, secular activists were denouncing the caliphate that they believed was sure to rise from the victory of Ennahda in elections in October. Newspapers opposed to the party were full of stories of abuses by puritanical Islamists and Ennahda’s supposed tolerance of extreme practices. In well-to-do cafes, some Tunisians viewed Ennahda’s success in existential terms, talking of an inevitable intolerance sanctioned by religion that would extinguish Tunisia’s cosmopolitanism. The cultural debates seemed to overshadow what everyone agreed was more pressing: an ailing economy.
“Frankly, we’re on top of things,” Mr. Ferjani said.
But in a less guarded moment, he asked, “Can you really solve problems of 50 years in less than one month with a government that is less than one month old?”
In an interview, Mr. Ferjani had once quipped, “You know, power corrupts.” As he sat at the party headquarters on this day, he wrestled with those questions of power. Next to him were stacks of the party’s newspaper, The Dawn. One column railed against “counterrevolutionary media”; another darkly hinted at conspiracies. The front page declared, “Parliament is against sit-ins and for listening to the demands of the people.”
“We don’t fear freedom of expression, but we cannot allow disorder,” he said. “People have to be responsible. They have to know there is law and order.”
He suggested that protesters should obtain permission from the police. He worried that the news media was too reckless. He hinted that the forces of the ancien régime were still plotting. In the cramped room, his exuberance had turned stern, and his words were hesitant.

“Everybody has to be careful not to be dragged into a dictatorial instinct, no matter what happens,” he said. “We can’t lose the soul of our revolution.”
This, he said, was the test.
-This report was published in The New York Times on 18/02/2012
-David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting from Cairo

At Work in Syria, New York Times Correspondent Dies


                         Anthony Shadid, center, with residents of Cairo last February.
Anthony Shadid, a gifted foreign correspondent whose graceful dispatches for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Associated Press covered nearly two decades of Middle East conflict and turmoil, died, apparently of an asthma attack, on Thursday while on a reporting assignment in Syria. Tyler Hicks, a Times photographer who was with Mr. Shadid, carried his body across the border to Turkey.
Mr. Shadid, 43, had been reporting inside Syria for a week, gathering information on the Free Syrian Army and other armed elements of the resistance to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose military forces have been engaged in a harsh repression of the political opposition in a conflict that is now nearly a year old.
The Syrian government, which tightly controls foreign journalists’ activities in the country, had not been informed of his assignment by The Times.
The exact circumstances of Mr. Shadid’s death and his precise location inside Syria when it happened were not immediately clear.
But Mr. Hicks said that Mr. Shadid, who had asthma and had carried medication with him, began to show symptoms as both of them were preparing to leave Syria on Thursday, and the symptoms escalated into what became a fatal attack. Mr. Hicks telephoned his editors at The Times, and a few hours later he was able to take Mr. Shadid’s body into Turkey.
Jill Abramson, the executive editor, informed the newspaper’s staff Thursday evening in an e-mail. “Anthony died as he lived — determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces,” she wrote.
The assignment in Syria, which Mr. Shadid arranged through a network of smugglers, was fraught with dangers, not the least of which was discovery by the pro-government authorities in Syria. The journey into the country required both Mr. Shadid and Mr. Hicks to travel at night to a mountainous border area in Turkey adjoining Syria’s Idlib Province, where the demarcation line is a barbed-wire fence. Mr. Hicks said they squeezed through the fence’s lower portion by pulling the wires apart, and guides on horseback met them on the other side. It was on that first night, Mr. Hicks said, that Mr. Shadid suffered an initial bout of asthma, apparently set off by an allergy to the horses, but he recovered after resting.
On the way out a week later, however, Mr. Shadid suffered a more severe attack — again apparently set off by proximity to the horses of the guides, Mr. Hicks said, as they were walking toward the border. Short of breath, Mr. Shadid leaned against a rock with both hands.
“I stood next to him and asked if he was O.K., and then he collapsed,” Mr. Hicks said. “He was not conscious and his breathing was very faint and very shallow.” After a few minutes, he said, “I could see he was no longer breathing.”
Mr. Hicks said he administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation for 30 minutes but was unable to revive Mr. Shadid.
The death of Mr. Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent who had a wife and two children, abruptly ended one of the most storied careers in modern American journalism. Fluent in Arabic, with a gifted eye for detail and contextual writing, Mr. Shadid captured dimensions of life in the Middle East that many others failed to see. Those talents won him a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 2004 for his coverage of the American invasion of Iraq and the occupation that followed, and a second Pulitzer in 2010, also for his Iraq reporting, both of them for The Washington Post. He also was a finalist in 2007 for his coverage of Lebanon, and has been nominated by The Times for his coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings that have transfixed the Middle East for the past year.
Mr. Shadid began his Middle East reporting career as a correspondent for The A.P. based in Cairo, traveling around the region from 1995 to 1999. He later worked at The Boston Globe before moving to The Post, where he was the Islamic Affairs correspondent and Baghdad bureau chief. He joined The Times at the end of 2009.
He was no stranger to injury, harassment and arrest. In 2002, while working for The Globe, he was shot and wounded in the shoulder as he walked on a street in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. During the tumultuous protests in Cairo last year that led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Shadid was hounded by Mr. Mubarak’s police, and during a police raid, he had to hide the computers used by Times reporters.
Mr. Shadid, Mr. Hicks and two other Times journalists, Stephen Farrell and Lynsey Addario, were arrested by pro-government militias during the conflict in Libya last year and held for more than a week, during which all were physically abused. Their driver, Mohammad Shaglouf, died.
In the 2004 citation, the Pulitzer Board praised “his extraordinary ability to capture, at personal peril, the voices and emotions of Iraqis as their country was invaded, their leader toppled and their way of life upended.” In the 2010 citation, the board praised “his rich, beautifully written series on Iraq as the United States departs and its people and leaders struggle to deal with the legacy of war and to shape the nation’s future.”
He spoke of the risks he took while reporting in an interview in December with Terry Gross on the NPR program “Fresh Air.”  “I did feel that Syria was so important, and that story wouldn’t be told otherwise, that it was worth taking risks for,” he said of an earlier trip to Syria in which he entered the country from Lebanon on a motorcycle across a rugged stretch of land.
Mr. Shadid was not afraid to butt heads with his editors to protect a phrase, scene or quotation that he considered essential to making his point.
His final article for The Times, which ran on Feb. 9, was a behind-the-scenes look at the tumultuous situation in Libya, where rival militias had replaced the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. It ran long, at more than 1,600 words, which was typical of Mr. Shadid’s work. It was splashed on the front page of the newspaper and the home page of the Web site,, which was also typical.
Mr. Shadid also had a penchant for elegiac prose. In the opening of a new book, “House of Stone,” to be published next month, he described what he had witnessed in Lebanon after Israeli air assaults in the summer of 2006:
“Some suffering cannot be covered in words,” he wrote. “This had become my daily fare as reporter in the Middle East documenting war, its survivors and fatalities, and the many who seem a little of both. In the Lebanese town of Qana, where Israeli bombs caught their victims in the midst of a morning’s work, we saw the dead standing, sitting, looking around. The village, its voices and stories, plates and bowls, letters and words, its history, had been obliterated in a few extended moments that splintered a quiet morning.”
-This story was published in The New York Times on 17/02/2012

Why the Egyptian Military Fears a Captain's Revolt

The generals ruling in Cairo face a new challenge to their authority -- rising discontent within the army's middle ranks.
Battered by a fractious security situation and embroiled in an escalating feud with the United States, Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has found it easier to take power than to govern. Now, according to Western diplomatic and Egyptian military sources, it's facing another challenge -- maintaining control over an increasingly restive officer corps.
The SCAF is deeply concerned with the growing friction between itself and mid-ranking officers, a Western diplomat with intimate knowledge of the council's internal workings told me.  As a result, the council has been increasingly reluctant to do anything that would risk causing its relationship with the Army to deteriorate further.
"[SCAF] is not giving out orders that could be disobeyed, not even potentially," the diplomat said. "It knows it cannot ask its soldiers to do something they don't want to do. If it asks soldiers to, say, fire on protesters, SCAF knows it could end up with something like the Russian Revolution," the source added, in reference to an army mutiny that helped precipitate the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917.
There are signs that the SCAF has taken steps to make sure the Army isn't put in a position where it has to bear the brunt of popular anger. For example, the much-maligned Interior Ministry's police forces were deployed during the clashes in Cairo and elsewhere following the Port Said soccer riot. This stood in contrast to previous crackdowns, such as the now infamous "blue bra" attack in December on a female protester, when Army personnel took the lead.
Although the Army has stayed out of more recent street clashes, it remains the ultimate guarantor of the SCAF's power. It is overseeing security at polling stations for the ongoing Shura Council elections, for example, and deployed on the streets ahead of a planned general strike. Last weekend's walk-out went off without incident, saving the Army from the awkward decision of how aggressively to crack down on protesters.
One Army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, said that there was growing disquiet among his colleagues, who feel that the Army is being manipulated to suit the SCAF's political ambitions.
"It is totally crazy that we are getting asked to keep law and order in the country. This is the job of the police, not the Army," he said. "But there are certain things they know they cannot make us do."
The military has already endured dozens of desertions since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, predominantly among its officer class. According to Western diplomatic sources, the SCAF has expedited dozens of promotions for younger officers in a bid to keep them on board with its proclaimed goal of handing over power to a civilian government after the presidential election, which was recently moved up to May.
It is a poorly guarded secret that officers have been receiving extra pay since protests began, but the remuneration handed out by the SCAF may be even larger than previously thought. Another Western diplomat said that he had seen evidence of regular payments of up to $11,600 to officers holding the rank of colonel and higher. A previous report by an Egyptian army insider, in which he alleges that reserve officer salaries doubled during the protests in January and February, supports this account.
It is the officer class, the diplomat said, that the SCAF is most concerned with appeasing.
"Many of these are officers, often trained in the United States, that come back to Egypt and cannot figure out why the military and the country is still being run by military people," the diplomat said. "Very senior officials do not want to risk a split, and infantry members mostly follow orders, but the officers are the ones to watch."
In the meantime, the SCAF is increasingly at risk of losing Egypt's primary international financier. The prosecution of 16 Americans who work for several non-governmental organizations has badly frayed ties with the United States, and several prominent U.S. senators have already said that the $1.3 billion of annual U.S. military assistance should be withheld as a result. But Robert Springborg, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School who has written extensively on Egypt's military establishment, said that the SCAF may be trying to escalate tensions with the United States to better maintain order within its own ranks.
"The degree of escalation suggests the SCAF wanted to provoke a confrontation," Springborg said. "Part of the SCAF's calculation is that many of its officers are not happy and it is therefore frightened of a coup."
"By provoking the U.S., [SCAF leader Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi is seen as standing up to them, so any attempt of officers acting against him could be painted as a move by the U.S.," Springborg added. "He's frightened to death, and this is a preemptive move to make less senior military personnel less keen to move against him."
As the SCAF prepares to hand over formal power to civilian rule, some officers have been critical of Egypt's rulers for not doing enough to preserve the military's prerogatives in the future government. Ahead of the anniversary of Egypt's Jan. 25 uprising, for example, the SCAF announced a series of measures designed to assuage popular anger -- officially ending the Emergency Law, which had prevailed since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and ordering the release of thousands of civilians held in military jails.
"There are some good people [in the SCAF] but most of them don't understand what it is they are doing," the Egyptian Army officer said. "They panic and they give into protesters' demands. Giving in every time people gather in Tahrir Square is not how democracy works."
As unrest foments within the ranks, so too does corruption in the armed forces, which reportedly controls up to 40 percent of Egypt's economy. The Western diplomat said that graft has actually risen since Mubarak's ousting, as the military took the reins of the state.
"It has increased, because the older heads that remain know they can get more things past the younger officers," the diplomat said.
Faced with a population chafing under military rule, an angry superpower ally, and a restive officer corps, it's not easy being an Egyptian general these days. As a result, the SCAF's strategy seems to be to hand power over to a civilian government that will preserve its privileges -- and pray that everything doesn't come crashing down before then.
"SCAF is already treading on eggshells when it gives its orders," the diplomat said. "It cannot keep this up for too much longer."
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 16/02/2012
-Patrick Galey is a journalist based in Cairo. He writes for the Telegraph in London and tweets @patrickgaley

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Syria Is Trending Toward The Libya Model

By James Dobbins
The situation today in Syria bears considerable resemblance to that of a year ago in Libya. In both cases an aroused population is seeking to oust a long established dictator, and is being savagely repressed as a result. In both cases, rather remarkably, the rest of the Arab world, including a number of equally authoritarian regimes, has sided with the popular uprising and called for the overthrow of the existing regime. In both cases, some level of external intervention will probably be needed to ensure such an outcome. Finally, from an American standpoint, the United States has much to gain from regime change—even more in Syria than in Libya.
There are some important dissimilarities, to be sure. Syria is more divided along religious lines, and regime change is likely to be accompanied by sectarian reprisals of a quite ugly nature. In terms of allies, Libya's "Brotherly Leader" Muammar Qadhafi was entirely friendless, whereas Syrian President Assad can count on backing from his more powerful neighbor, Iran, and at least diplomatic support from Russia and China. Syria also borders Israel, with which it has been in cold war since 1967. Each of these factors could complicate any American intervention—the first by associating it with possible atrocities, the second by raising the specter of a competing intervention from Iran and making a UN Security Council endorsement less likely, and the third by allowing Assad and his supporters to portray the intervention as pro-Israeli and thus anti-Arab.
Nevertheless, if the Syrian opposition clearly asks for American help, if the rest of the Arab world supports such a military intervention, and if America's European allies prove ready to join in—and indeed lead—such an effort, the United States should contribute those military assets which only it can provide. It was the French and British governments that took the political lead in putting together the Libyan military intervention. In the case of Syria, that sort of leadership should fall to Turkey—a NATO ally, a Middle Eastern state bordering Syria, and a Muslim society with a moderate Islamist government.
A U.N. Security Council mandate for such an intervention would be highly desirable but not essential. As was the case with Kosovo 13 years ago, strong regional support and broad international endorsement would suffice to lend the effort adequate legitimacy. All the above conditions have not yet been met, but events continue to trend toward an intervention built on the Libya model. Once again the United States may be called upon to lead from behind, which is definitely the safest, and in this situation also the wisest, position from which to do so.
-This commentary appeared on U.S. News & World Report, Debate Club on February 14, 2012
-James Dobbins, a former U.S. assistant secretary of State, is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Anyone Who Tells You They Know What Will Happen in Iran Is Lying

If the past half-century of American political history has taught us anything, it's that we can't possibly know the consequences of bombing -- or not bombing -- Iran.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama told the world, "America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal." The decisions the U.S. president must make to attain this end are extraordinarily difficult, and whatever policy he chooses will have a profound and lasting effect on global politics and U.S. foreign policy. For some, the answers lie in history. Yet the best response to the Iranian threat may emerge not by looking to the past but by transforming the way experts and policymakers interact.
The decision on the table is remarkably complex: Should the United States launch a preventive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities or encourage its Israeli allies to do so? To answer this question, one would need to, at a minimum, imagine and make judgments on plausible scenarios that could emerge from each choice. If the United States chose not to bomb Iran, would countries in the region eschew their own nuclear weapons and work with the United States to balance against and contain a nuclear Iran? Or would Iran's nuclear capability drive neighboring states to "bandwagon" and ally with Iran or even seek their own nuclear weapons, undermining U.S. influence while destabilizing the region? And if the United States did successfully strike, what would be the chances that such military action would lead to an overthrow of the regime and its replacement with a government both friendly to the West and willing to forgo nuclear weapons? Or could a military strike provide a lifeline to an unpopular regime, inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the region, and unleash a wider military conflagration? And how would other global powers, such as China and Russia, react to these scenarios?
Based on our experiences -- one of us a former senior policymaker, the other a historian of U.S. foreign policy -- we are convinced that the "right" answer, but the one you will never read on blogs or hear on any cable news network, is that we simply cannot know ahead of time, with any degree of certainty, what the optimal policy will turn out to be. Why? Even if forecasters could provide probabilities about the likelihood of a narrow, specific event, it is simply beyond the capacity of human foresight to make confident predictions about the short- and long-term global consequences of a military strike against Iran.
In fact, as Philip Tetlock demonstrated in Expert Political Judgment, a 20-year study that looked at over 80,000 forecasts about world affairs, self-proclaimed authorities are no better at making accurate predictions than monkeys throwing darts at a dart board, and they are rarely held accountable for their errors. (According to Tetlock's research, knowing a lot about an issue can actually make you a worse political forecaster than knowing very little.) Policymakers and elected officials, on the other hand, not only face public condemnation and the potential loss of their jobs if a decision turns out poorly, but they also carry the often heavy personal burden of responsibility for a failed policy. Understanding the different environments in which the expert and decision-maker operate is critical to understanding why expert ideas have less influence on policymaking than might be ideal.
This gulf is tragic, as there is much each world could learn from the other. We believe that if different types of experts -- the best strategists and historians, for example -- were brought together with statesmen in an environment that encouraged honest debate and collaboration and not point-scoring, where participants were encouraged to acknowledge how little anyone can actually know about the future effects of U.S. actions, the possibility to achieve both greater coherence and greater humility in the U.S. foreign-policymaking process would be greatly enhanced.
In such an environment, both camps might be tempted to explore the past to find examples of policies that can guide their decision-making. Although at first blush this seems wise, it is not fail-safe. And the deliberations over Iran provide a case in point.
Four decades ago, historian Ernest May warned against the tendency of policymakers and analysts to employ simple but misleading historical analogies in justifying difficult policies. Would allowing the aggressive, dangerous regime in Iran to acquire nuclear weapons be akin to another Munich -- the wartime conference at which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain infamously capitulated to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's outrageous demands? Or would a dangerous military action halfway across the world bog America down in another Vietnam -- a quagmire of a war that saps American blood and treasure and is not justified by national interest? In both cases, the simplistic use of lessons from the past distorts more than it reveals. There is no guarantee that using a more recent historical incident -- for example, the erroneous intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that led to an eight-year, trillion-dollar U.S. military intervention -- would be any more helpful in making policy toward Iran.
Even more sophisticated and nuanced uses of history are not without their difficulties. When thinking about the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, some historians have pointed to how Lyndon B. Johnson's administration responded to China's nuclearization in October 1964. After weighing the potential benefits and costs of a preventive strike, the United States accepted and actually downplayed the significance of China's nuclear capability. Mao's China -- which had been reckless abroad and ruthless at home -- did not become more dangerous as an atomic power. In fact, in less than a decade after its nuclear test, China had become a de facto ally of the United States and a crucial partner in the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. It is hard to imagine such an alliance if the United States had decided to strike in 1964.
Does this argue against striking Iran? Not necessarily. The Johnson administration's decision not to strike China can only be understood in a larger and long-since forgotten context: an important shift in U.S. strategy aimed at managing the complex, interconnected issues of global nuclear proliferation, relations with the Soviet Union, the war in Southeast Asia, and the political and military status of Germany.
What is often forgotten in the story is that the same policymakers who eschewed preventive strikes against China in the fall of 1964 made several other related decisions they considered even more momentous. First, they made a bold decision to work with their Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, to aggressively pursue a global nuclear nonproliferation regime. Most controversially, this policy shift included prohibiting some of the United States' closest allies from acquiring atomic weapons. Many experts both within and outside the U.S. government worried this policy shift could be a potentially catastrophic mistake. It was foolish, many argued, to think cooperation with the Soviets was possible, nor was it prudent to try to prevent sovereign states, particularly friends of the United States, from possessing their own deterrent. Denying modern weapons to West Germany, some experts predicted, could lead to a resurgence of nationalism and even militarism, as it had during the interwar period. In the end, U.S. policies to slow the spread of nuclear weapons were quite effective, as there are far few nuclear states in the world today than anyone in 1964 would have predicted. Furthermore, the most alarming forecasts about how countries like West Germany and Japan would react to their non-nuclear status were, fortunately, wildly off the mark.
The fall of 1964 also saw these same policymakers decide to escalate U.S. military efforts in Vietnam, in part to demonstrate to non-nuclear countries -- Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and, yes, West Germany -- that the United States would defend vulnerable countries, even if they were threatened by a nuclear-armed state or its proxy, in this case China and North Vietnam. As Henry Rowen, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, wrote at the time, "A U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia may come to be attributed in part to the unwillingness of the U.S. to take on North Vietnam supported by a China that now has the bomb." Walt Rostow, the U.S. State Department's policy planning director, argued that the Johnson administration could make "U.S. military power sufficiently relevant to the situation in South-east Asia" to eliminate the impulse of states in the region to acquire their own atomic weapons. If the United States abandoned South Vietnam, it was feared, America's allies might lose faith in the country's promises to protect them and respond by seeking their own nuclear weapons. A nuclear tipping point that might start with Japan could spread throughout East Asia to include Australia, Indonesia, and South Korea. Unchecked, proliferation pressures could move to other regions of the world, even to West Germany's nuclearization, threatening the stability of Central Europe.
Examined on their own merits, two of the policies -- the decision not to launch a preventive strike against China and the decision to cooperate with the Soviet Union on limiting the spread of nuclear weapons -- might be judged great successes, while the third -- the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam -- is seen as a disaster. But can they really be examined apart from one another? Decision-makers worried that if China were struck, cooperation with the Soviet Union on creating a robust nuclear nonproliferation regime could have been foreclosed. But if the United States stood back while the South Vietnamese government collapsed, might states in the region (and the wider world) have interpreted U.S. policy as a retreat caused by China's atomic detonation? Wouldn't those under the protection of the United States -- including West Germany -- worry that in light of the circumstances they would need to guarantee their own security, even if it meant acquiring their own nuclear weapons?
If Vietnam is understood at least in part as a function of the Johnson administration's successful efforts to encourage nuclear nonproliferation, seek détente and cooperation with the Soviets, and manage the German question, the policy -- if still disastrous in its consequences -- makes more sense. The difficulty inherent in assessing U.S. foreign policy is made clear by the fact that all three policies were crafted by the same policymakers in the same administration at the same time. The point here is not to judge any of these decisions, justify the war in Vietnam (quite the contrary), or even to accept this historical interpretation of the events of late 1964, but only to highlight how misleading it can be to cherry-pick particular policies without a greater understanding of the complex, horizontal connections between seemingly unrelated issues -- linkages that are rarely recognized by those outside the world of the top decision-makers.
Circling back to U.S. deliberations over a nuclear Iran, there are other, interrelated policies, both in the Middle East and worldwide, that would be enormously influenced by a U.S. decision to strike or not strike. While pundits can examine the issue in isolation, policymakers have to think about how their decisions will reverberate over time and on issues seemingly unrelated to the theocracy in Tehran, such as global energy prices, the war in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, North Korea's nuclear capacity, the strength of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime, the credibility of America's promise to protect its allies with its nuclear weapons, relations with China and Russia, and the trajectory of the Arab Spring, to name a few.
Reading most experts, one might think that effective foreign policy consists of choosing between a series of discrete, binary choices and assigning probabilities based on either clear and parsimonious (if disputed) laws of international politics or facile analogies with past circumstances. The truth, as every experienced policymaker knows, is that there are rarely simple solutions when facing radical uncertainty in a complex international environment. This explains why policymakers often prefer to "muddle through," buy time, or seek a compromise between extreme policy options, if only to decrease the downside risk of any decision. While these "second best" policies are the very positions most likely to draw fire from pundits, they are often less likely to lead to disaster than the bold but untested recommendations of prominent experts.
Is there a way that experts could contribute more constructively to policymaking? During a recent workshop hosted by the University of Texas, historians, strategists, and current and former statesmen gathered to find answers. One big idea emerged: singular theories, models, and historical analogies, in isolation and unchallenged, are of little value to policymakers. But various theories, models, and histories taken together and tailored to the realities faced by policymakers could potentially provide quite a bit of insight.
How? Imagine a group of experts and statesman meeting off the record, temporarily suspending their desire to predict, blog, or be on television, and spending a day or two intensely debating alternative scenarios that might emerge from a U.S. decision to bomb or not bomb Iran. We are talking about something more than the "war-gaming" that occasionally takes place; this would be a deeper, broader endeavor that looked beyond the immediate consequences of a policy choice in order to reflect upon and wrestle with the longer-term, unknown futures that U.S. actions might bring. A somewhat similar effort was tried before: President Dwight Eisenhower's well-known and successful "Solarium" exercise. Imagine a comparable effort, including both outside experts and government decision-makers, incorporating many of the innovations that have emerged since 1953, such as game theory, scenario planning, and detailed historical case studies Not only might novel policy ideas emerge, but a rigorous vetting of contrasting futures could act as de facto contingency planning should a particular policy choice turn out to be wrong. Such an exercise could also sensitize outside experts to the inherent difficulties, tradeoffs, and unintended consequences of making U.S. foreign policy, which might reduce the shrillness and polarization that often characterize policy debates and make expert knowledge more useful and accessible.
The benefits of exercises where pundits and policymakers acknowledge that perfect intelligence is unattainable and where the advantages of both admitting and forgiving honest mistakes about an unknowable, uncertain future are recognized, would be enormous. If nothing else, the humility and flexibility that ensued could lead to more-effective long-range policies. Although such a process may not tell us whether bombing Iran or not is "right," it will better prepare us for the unexpected, unintended, and challenging consequences that will surely result, regardless of which policy is chosen. Given the enormous long-term stakes of the choices before the U.S. president, it is the least that policymakers and experts can do.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 14/02/2012
-Francis J. Gavin is director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas and the Tom Slick professor of international affairs at the LBJ School of Public Affairs
-James B. Steinberg is dean of Syracuse University's Maxwell School and university professor of social science, international affairs, and law. He served as deputy secretary of state to Secretary Hillary Clinton from 2009 to 2011 and as deputy national security advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 2000

Syrian Ambassador To Washington Moved To China

By Josh Rogin
                                    Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustapha
The Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha has been missing in action for months. So where did he go? As it turns out, he moved to China!
Moustapha, who is the subject of an FBI investigation for his alleged role in intimidating Syrian-American protesters and their families, is still listed as the Syria's ambassador to the United States on the Syrian embassy's website. But on his personal blog Feb. 8, he suddenly announced he and his family had moved to China, in a post entitled "A Fresh Start from the Middle Kingdom."
"Now that we have moved to China, I plan to resume blogging about my life, family and friends in China, as well as writing on Chinese culture, history and art," he wrote in his first post since August 2011. "I have a feeling that this is going to be a wonderful journey of learning, exploring, and, most importantly, serendipitously discovering one of the most remarkable world civilizations. I hope you will enjoy my Chinese adventure."
Moustapha had been implicated in the Justice Department's look into Syrian spying activities in Washington, an investigation that resulted in the October arrest of Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a Syrian-American living in Virginia. Soueid stands accused of working as an agent for the Syrian intelligence service as part of a conspiracy to harass the Syrian-based families of protesters and dissidents in the United States.
"Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa is involved in activities that vary between espionage, threatening Syrian dissidents, and lobbying and organizing rallies in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, in June.
In July, it was reported that the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau were investigating the Syrian embassy for using its diplomatic staff to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington for the purpose of threatening their families back in Syria.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the embassy's information was being used back in Syria to arrest and even attack family members of protesters. Moustapha dismissed the allegations as "slander and sheer lies." But he stopped blogging and disappeared from Washington soon thereafter.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned to Washington last week, not as a diplomatic punishment to the Syrian regime, but because the streets surrounding the American compound in Damascus became too dangerous. But if Washington wants to formally expel the Syrian ambassador to the United States, it will have to send that notice to him in Beijing.
Or the State Department can just leave a comment on his blog, since he seems to be using it again.
Ironically, Moustapha himself seemed to predict the currently unfolding events in Syria on his blog last March, when he wrote a post about the Egyptian revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
"What has happened in Egypt in the past month is something of great historic significance," he wrote. "The ramifications of this revolution will continue to unfold, and its impact will reverberate for years to come."

-This report was published in Foreign Policy on 14/02/2012