Saturday, March 17, 2012

U.S. Faces A Tricky Task In Assessment Of Data On Iran


                     Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
While American spy agencies have believed that the Iranians halted efforts to build a nuclear bomb back in 2003, the difficulty in assessing the regime’s ambitions was evident two years ago, when what appeared to be alarming new intelligence emerged, according to current and former United States officials.
Intercepted communications of Iranian officials discussing their nuclear program raised concerns that the country’s leaders had decided to revive efforts to develop a weapon, intelligence officials said.
That, along with a stream of other information, set off an intensive review and delayed publication of the 2010 National Intelligence Estimate, a classified report reflecting the consensus of analysts from 16 agencies. But in the end, they deemed the intercepts and other evidence unpersuasive, and they stuck to their longstanding conclusion.
The intelligence crisis that erupted in 2010, which has not been previously disclosed, only underscores how central that assessment has become to matters of war and peace.
Today, as suspicions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions have provoked tough sanctions and threats of military confrontation, top administration officials have said that Iran still has not decided to pursue a weapon, reflecting the intelligence community’s secret analysis. But if that assessment changes, it could lift a brake set by President Obama, who has not ruled out military options as a last resort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Publicly and privately, American intelligence officials express confidence in the spy agencies’ assertions. Still, some acknowledge significant intelligence gaps in understanding the intentions of Iran’s leaders and whether they would approve the crucial steps toward engineering a bomb, the most covert aspect of one of the most difficult intelligence collection targets in the world.
Much of what analysts sift through are shards of information that are ambiguous or incomplete, sometimes not up to date, and that typically offer more insight about what the Iranians are not doing than evidence of exactly what they are up to.
As a result, officials caution that they cannot offer certainty. “I’d say that I have about 75 percent confidence in the assessment that they haven’t restarted the program,” said one former senior intelligence official.
Another former intelligence official said: “Iran is the hardest intelligence target there is. It is harder by far than North Korea.
“In large part, that’s because their system is so confusing,” he said, which “has the effect of making it difficult to determine who speaks authoritatively on what.”
And, he added, “We’re not on the ground, and not having our people on the ground to catch nuance is a problem.”
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes, but American intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have picked up evidence in recent years that some Iranian research activities that may be weapons-related have continued since 2003, officials said. That information has not been significant enough for the spy agencies to alter their view that the weapons program has not been restarted.
Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, agrees with the American intelligence assessments, even while Israeli political leaders have been pushing for quick, aggressive action to block Iran from becoming what they describe as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
“Their people ask very hard questions, but Mossad does not disagree with the U.S. on the weapons program,” said one former senior American intelligence official, who, like others for this article, would speak only on the condition of anonymity about classified information. “There is not a lot of dispute between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities on the facts.”
In trying to evaluate the potential perils of Iran’s nuclear program, the United States’ spy agencies have spent years trying to track its efforts to enrich uranium and develop missile technology, and watching for any move toward weaponization — designing and building a bomb.
Hunting for signs of the resumption of a weapons program is more difficult than monitoring enrichment and missile-building activities, both of which require large investments in plants, equipment and related infrastructure. American intelligence officials said that the conversations of only a dozen or so top Iranian officials and scientists would be worth monitoring in order to determine whether the weapons program had been restarted, because decision-making on nuclear matters is so highly compartmentalized in Iran.
“Reactors are easier to track than enrichment facilities, but obviously anything that involves a lot of construction is easier to track than scientific and intellectual work,” said Jeffrey T. Richelson, the author of “Spying on the Bomb,” a history of American nuclear intelligence. “At certain stages, it is very hard to track the weapons work unless someone is blabbing and their communications can be intercepted.”
The extent of the evidence the spy agencies have collected is unclear because most of their findings are classified, but intelligence officials say they have been throwing everything they have at the Iranian nuclear program.
While the National Security Agency eavesdrops on telephone conversations of Iranian officials and conducts other forms of electronic surveillance, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency analyzes radar imagery and digital images of nuclear sites. Outside analysts believe high-tech drones prowl overhead; one came down late last year deep inside Iranian territory, though American officials said they lost control of it in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, clandestine ground sensors, which can detect electromagnetic signals or radioactive emissions that could be linked to covert nuclear activity, are placed near suspect Iranian facilities. The United States also relies heavily on information gathered by inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency who visit some of Iran’s nuclear-related facilities.
But collecting independent human intelligence — recruiting spies — has been by far the most difficult task for American intelligence. Some operational lapses — and the lack of an embassy as a base of operations ever since the hostage crisis three decades ago — have frequently left the C.I.A. virtually blind on the ground in Iran, according to former intelligence officials.
In 2004, for example, the C.I.A. put a whole network of Iranian agents in jeopardy after a technological mistake by an agency officer, according to former intelligence officials.
In 2005, a presidential commission that reviewed the prewar failures of the intelligence on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction faulted American intelligence on Iran, saying it included little valuable information from spies.
More recently, the C.I.A. suffered a setback in efforts to question Iranian exiles and recruit nuclear scientists. Two years ago, agency officials had to sort through the wreckage of the strange case of Shahram Amiri, an Iranian scientist who apparently defected to the United States in 2009 and then returned to Iran in 2010 after claiming he had been abducted by the C.I.A.
His case is eerily similar to that of Vitaly Yurchenko, a K.G.B. officer who defected to the United States in 1985 and went back to the Soviet Union later that year, claiming he had been drugged and kidnapped by the C.I.A.
Like Mr. Yurchenko, Mr. Amiri’s case has provoked debate within the agency about whether he was a genuine defector, and whether any of the information he provided can be trusted.
The United States and Israel share intelligence on Iran, American officials said. For its spying efforts, Israel relies in part on an Iranian exile group that is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, the Mujahedeen Khalq, or M.E.K., which is based in Iraq. The Israelis have also developed close ties to Kurdistan in northern Iraq, and they are believed to use Kurdish agents who can move back and forth across the border into Iran.
American intelligence officials, however, are wary of relying on information from an opposition group like the M.E.K., particularly after their experience in Iraq of relying on flawed information provided by the Iraqi National Congress, an exile group run by Ahmad Chalabi.
“I’m very suspicious of anything that the M.E.K. provides,” said David A. Kay, who led the C.I.A.’s fruitless effort to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “We all dealt with the Chalabis of the world once.”
Just as in 2010, new evidence about the Iranian weapons program delayed the National Intelligence Estimate in 2007, the last previous assessment. Current and former American officials say that a draft version of the assessment had been completed when the United States began to collect surprising intelligence suggesting that Iran had suspended its weapons program and disbanded its weapons team four years earlier.
The draft version had concluded that the Iranians were still trying to build a bomb, the same finding of a 2005 assessment. But as they scrutinized the new intelligence from several sources, including intercepted communications in which Iranian officials were heard complaining to one another about stopping the program, the American intelligence officials decided they had to change course, officials said. While enrichment activities continued, the evidence that Iran had halted its weapons program in 2003 at the direction of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was too strong to ignore, they said.
One former senior official characterized the information as very persuasive. “I had high confidence in it,” he said. “There was tremendous evidence that the program had been halted.”
And today, despite criticism of that assessment from some outside observers and hawkish politicians, American intelligence analysts still believe that the Iranians have not gotten the go-ahead from Ayatollah Khamenei to revive the program.
“That assessment,” said one American official, “holds up really well.”
-This article was published in New York Times on 17/03/2012

Friday, March 16, 2012

Could Peace Finally Dawn In The Troubled Middle East?

The initiatives launched by Ashton on Iran and Annan on Syria, if successful, could silence drums of war
By Patrick Seale

                                                      Could peace finally dawn over the Middle East?
After all the bellicose bluster of recent weeks, there is a faint chance that the tide of war may be receding in the Middle East — especially in the two hot spots of Iran and Syria. The latest developments in these countries suggest the possible opening of a new phase of dialogue rather than of conflict.
This month has seen the launch of two important initiatives by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, and Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general. If successful, they could trump the hawks and silence the drums of war. It remains to be seen, however, whether the parties themselves will have the sense to seize the opportunities now being presented to them.
Gaza is the major exception to this somewhat more promising picture. Israel’s air strikes — conducted in the name of its pitiless and provocative policy of ‘targeted killings’ or extra-judicial assassinations — have this past week taken the lives of some 25 Palestinians (until the Egyptian-brokered truce last Monday) and wounded close to a 100 more. Palestinian factions struck back with rockets, wounding a dozen Israelis. But these painful events should not distract attention from the bigger picture.
Just when Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, was at his most histrionic and bellicose at the recent American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) convention in Washington — shamelessly comparing Iran to Auschwitz — Baroness Ashton took the wind out of his sails by offering to resume talks with Tehran on the nuclear issue. Her initiative took the form of a letter to Tehran on March 9 offering renewed talks with the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany) ‘within the coming weeks at a mutually convenient venue.’ The goal of the talks, she stressed, remained ‘a comprehensive negotiated long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature’ of Iran’s nuclear programme. Her letter was in response to one last September by Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, expressing Iran’s readiness for talks.
Meanwhile, just when Syria seemed to be sinking into the hell of a sectarian civil war, Annan, mandated by both the UN and the Arab League, embarked on a mission aimed at stopping the killing and creating the conditions for a negotiated settlement. After calling on the Arab League secretary-general in Cairo, he held two long meetings with President Bashar Al Assad in Damascus on March 10-11, before travelling to Doha for talks with the Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani (the Qataris have been vociferous in wanting to arm the Syrian rebels) and then on to Turkey for meetings with the Syrian National Council.
Do the initiatives of Ashton and Annan have a chance of success? They at least have the advantage of setting the international agenda for a while. They could, however, be easily sabotaged. The hawks will not easily give up.
Israel detests the idea of the great powers negotiating a settlement with Tehran, since it knows that talks must inevitably result in recognising Iran’s right to enrich uranium, if only to modest levels for purely civilian purposes. Netanyahu wants Iran’s entire nuclear programme shut down — his goal is ‘zero enrichment’ — a demand which no Iranian regime, whatever its colouring, could possibly accept.
On his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu tried to secure a pledge from President Barack Obama to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or to lend American support to an Israeli strike. He failed to get the pledge he wanted. Although Obama reaffirmed his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he also made very clear to Netanyahu that sanctions and diplomacy must first be given a chance to work.
For all Netanyahu’s tough talk, it is highly unlikely that Israel will dare attack Iran on its own. Its strategy has been to get the US to do the job for it — in much the same way as pro-Israeli neo-conservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, manipulated intelligence to push the US into war against Iraq in 2003 on Israel’s behalf.
Israel wants at all costs to protect its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons. It has a nuclear arsenal estimated at between 75 and 150 warheads, a range of sophisticated delivery systems, and a second strike capability based on long-range missiles mounted on German-supplied submarines. In contrast, there is as yet no convincing evidence that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. America’s annual National Intelligence Estimate — the collective opinion of its 16 intelligence agencies — has repeatedly confirmed that Tehran has not so far taken any such decision.
Talk of Israel facing an ‘existential threat’ from Iran has no basis in fact. Rather it is Israel’s neighbours who risk annihilation. As the former French president Jacques Chirac once said: If Iran were ever to contemplate launching a suspect missile towards Israel, Tehran would be immediately obliterated.
The issue is not, and has never been, about ensuring Israel’s survival, but rather about ensuring its regional military supremacy — a supremacy which, over the past several decades, has given it the freedom to strike its neighbours at will without being hit back. If Iran were ever to acquire a nuclear weapon — or merely the capability of building one — Israel fears this would restrict its freedom of action. It might even be a step towards creating a regional balance of power, which Israel is determined to prevent. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that if Iran were supplied with 20 per cent enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor and medical purposes, it would immediately stop enriching uranium to that level, restricting itself to 3.5 per cent enrichment for electricity generation. (He repeated this pledge to Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post on September 13, 2011; to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times on September 21, 2011; and to Reuters on September 22, 2011. To Iranian TV in October 2011, he declared: ‘If they give us the 20 per cent fuel, we will immediately halt 20 per cent.’) In return, however, he would no doubt expect a US guarantee that it would not seek to overthrow the Iranian regime by subversion or force. The outline of a deal with Iran is, therefore, already on the table.
As for the Syrian conflict, neither Al Assad nor his opponents seem yet ready to compromise. Having flushed out the rebels from Homs, Bashar is now seeking to drive them out of their other strong-points before contemplating a negotiation. For their part, the rebels seem to believe that — with fresh fighters, weapons and funds flowing in to them — they must eventually triumph. Both sides are almost certainly mistaken. Annan’s task is to persuade them that there can be no military solution to the conflict, and that, sooner or later, they must sit down and negotiate a way out of a crisis which is destroying their country.
The time has surely come for Obama to lend his full weight to the two initiatives of Ashton and Annan. He is fully aware of the urgent need to spare the region — and the US itself — another catastrophe such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
-This commentary was published in The GULF NEWS on 16/03/2012
-Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Goldilocks Principle

No one's perfect, and surely not President Obama. But in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy, it's hard to argue he hasn't done most things just about right.
                                                                              American President Barack Obama
Gas prices and bad news from Afghanistan aside, the presidential gods seem to be looking more favorably on Barack Obama these days. Not only are job numbers rising, but as the campaign debates have revealed, the U.S. president's Republican opponents are having a hard time finding a sweet spot on which to attack his foreign policy. And here's why.
Almost four years in, Obama's approach to the world might seem like the poster child for dashed hopes, deflated dreams, and unrealized expectations. Yet the president's foreign policy also reflects a pretty impressive tale of competence in the rough and tumble world in which America now operates.
Despite some tactical blunders and far too much Panglossian rhetoric early on, Obama has gotten the big issues just about right, and like the unnamed English general who claimed that some of his greatest victories were the battles he never fought, Obama has managed to stay out of trouble too.
With the exception of killing Osama bin Laden, the president has had no spectacular victories -- but no spectacular failures either. Indeed, on balance, he has crafted a policy suited to his times and to American interests. Not too cold, not too hot on key issues, Obama has defined a mix of "just right" policies that would make Goldilocks proud.
It certainly didn't start out that way. Obama has always fashioned himself a transformational political figure destined to alter the arc of America's domestic and foreign policies. He came into office with the economy as his most important priority, which meant some retrenchment with regard to expending his time and America's resources abroad.
Still, as an internationalist by temperament and experience, Obama was a man of the world committed to improving America's image. Just as on the domestic side, where fixing the economy was to be accompanied by transformative social change, Obama wanted to do big things abroad.
If George W. Bush had sought to transform the world through regime change, preventive war, and the division of the world into Manichaean poles of good and evil, right and wrong, Obama set out to produce his own countertransformation -- largely through engagement, diplomacy, multilateral cooperation, high-sounding rhetoric, and the symbolic power of his persona.
Either it was a very smart approach designed to substitute words for deeds at a moment when resources and political capital for an active role abroad were in short supply, or it was a naive ideal out of touch with the realities of the cruel world the president had inherited.
Within days of his inauguration, the president would announce the first of two special representatives (for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan) in what was to become an empire of envoys, and he set a high bar for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a higher one for a settlements freeze. In June 2009, he would drive the Arabs and Europeans wild with excitement and expectation with his speech in Cairo, raising their collective hopes that, finally, American policy toward the region would be fair and tough (toward Israel) and that the Arabs would finally get a hearing from a man who understood them. To America's adversaries, Iran and Syria, he seemed to offer serious engagement. And to the international community, in a 2009 speech in Prague, he offered a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Back on Planet Earth, Obama's foreign policy 1.0 proved long on good intentions and nice-sounding words but very short on strategy and results. It didn't last long. Within two years, the transformer-in-chief seemed to have been transformed himself: He proved unwilling to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, stepped up the drone war (over a three-year period, the president has approved at least 239 strikes, more than five times the 44 approved by his predecessor), stepped back from the settlement freeze and his fight with Israel over the peace process, toughened sanctions on Iran and kept them on Syria, and surged in Afghanistan. The president's 2.0 seemed a lot tougher and far less transformative.
That Obama took on some of the policies of a less reckless, less ideological, and much smarter version of Bush is indisputable. And the reason was pretty clear: In inheriting two wars (three, if you count the so-called global war on terror), the new president had very little room to maneuver.
Between the generals invested in a win, the Republicans waiting to pounce, and the deep commitment in American lives and treasure, not to mention the always present concept of U.S. credibility, early extrication was never an option. So Obama surged and doubled down on the good war in Afghanistan and got out of the bad one as quickly as possible in Iraq. Not much room for bold, transformative action here. Best to concentrate on fixing the economy and color between the lines.
Even without the parameters laid down by his predecessor, the world Obama had visions of transforming just wasn't going to cooperate. America wasn't in absolute decline, but its own broken economic house and the new competitiveness of a number of powers great and small made challenges to American leadership and power more than credible.
This new world is defined by asymmetrical wars in which tribal politics, ethnic divisions, and loyalties trump military power; by historical conflicts driven by trauma, memory, and religion, immune to the charms and persuasions of American diplomacy; by the presence of spoiler states like Iran and Syria with regional ambitions that conflict with America's own; by nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah that America can neither engage nor destroy; and by allies -- some close (Israel), some not so (Pakistan) -- that have proved to be tough traders when it comes to protecting their interests.
In this world, being loved counted for very little. Being respected -- even feared -- mattered far more. And the president was not nearly as respected, let alone feared, as he needed to be. Sadly, for the great power, president "yes we can" heard "no you won't" far too frequently. From Hamid Karzai to Nouri al-Maliki, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Mahmoud Abbas, everyone said no to America without much cost or consequence -- all of which undermined U.S. street cred.
Still, despite the flaws, uncertainties, messy outcomes, and screw-ups, an honest man or woman would have to say that Obama has fared pretty well in this less-than-brave new world. He isn't a transformer of U.S. foreign policy offering bold new visions or spectacular military victories or diplomatic triumphs. He's more the cautious actor searching quite deliberately for that middle ground between what's desirable and what's possible.
And he's getting better at it. His call to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was a sound one. In doing so, he found the balance between what America's staying could possibly have achieved and the positive benefits of extrication from a war in which America's direct presence no longer really mattered. And even though he surged in Afghanistan, he's on a glide path toward extrication from a war that can't be won there too.
The same search for the middle was evident in Libya, where Obama found the right balance -- however messy it was -- between doing nothing and everything unilaterally. He assembled a coalition for cover (consisting of the U.N. Security Council, NATO, and the Arab League, too) that actually succeeded in removing Muammar al-Qaddafi without putting America in a position where it would have to own yet another Muslim country.
His reaction to the Arab Spring was another balancing act: try to get on the right side of historic political change, but understand that Washington's role and influence really aren't determinative anymore. Obama seems to understand intuitively that if you stand in the way of history's power you'll likely get run over by it. So he operated from the sidelines, supporting change in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, precisely where America belonged.
We see the same wise caution on Syria, where the president has rightly resisted the calls from Congress and the chattering classes for half-baked ideas that could get America in an encumbering, open-ended intervention with no clear goals. America may yet be drawn in, but it will only be after all other options have been exhausted and a strategy with clear goals, with responsibility shared with others, and without illusions emerges.
Iran may yet constitute Obama's greatest challenge. There may simply be no middle ground. But the president has found a "just right" Goldilocks approach for the moment. He has also bought time and space for diplomacy and the heightening of nonmilitary pressures on the Iranian regime. But unless the mullahs back down on the nuclear issue -- or the Israelis do -- we're drifting toward a confrontation.
All presidents make mistakes. The only question is whether they learn from them and make the necessary adjustments.
Barack Obama set out to end two wars and improve America's global image in the process. His goal was not to withdraw from the world, but to be wiser about how and where the United States projects its power. We can forgive him for setting expectations way too high and for overreaching, in large part because -- unlike his immediate predecessor -- he has steered clear of disaster. In the process, the president has learned to respect history's power, the future's uncertainties, and America's limitations. And for that he has made America's foreign policy all the stronger.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 15/03/2012
-Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published this year

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Secret Assad Emails Lift Lid On Life Of leader's Inner Circle

• Messages show Bashar al-Assad took advice from Iran
• Leader made light of promised reforms
• Wife spent thousands on jewellery and furniture
By Robert Booth, Mona Mahmood and Luke Harding
                                                                        Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with his wife Assmaa
Bashar al-Assad took advice from Iran on how to handle the uprising against his rule, according to a cache of what appear to be several thousand emails received and sent by the Syrian leader and his wife.
The Syrian leader was also briefed in detail about the presence of western journalists in the Baba Amr district of Homs and urged to "tighten the security grip" on the opposition-held city in November.
The revelations are contained in more than 3,000 documents that activists say are emails downloaded from private accounts belonging to Assad and his wife, Asma.
The messages, which have been obtained by the Guardian, are said to have been intercepted by members of the opposition Supreme Council of the Revolution group between June and early February.
The documents, which emerge on the first anniversary of the rebellion that has seen more than 8,000 Syrians killed, paint a portrait of a first family remarkably insulated from the mounting crisis and continuing to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.
They appear to show the president's wife spending thousands of dollars over the internet for designer goods while he swaps entertaining internet links on his iPad and downloads music from iTunes.
As the world watched in horror at the brutal suppression of protests across the country and many Syrians faced food shortages and other hardships, Mrs Assad spent more than £10,000 on candlesticks, tables and chandeliers from Paris and instructed an aide to order a fondue set from Amazon.
The Guardian has made extensive efforts to authenticate the emails by checking their contents against established facts and contacting 10 individuals whose correspondence appears in the cache. These checks suggest the messages are genuine, but it has not been possible to verify every one.
The emails also appear to show that:
• Assad established a network of trusted aides who reported directly to him through his "private" email account – bypassing both his powerful clan and the country's security apparatus.
• Assad made light of reforms he had promised in an attempt to defuse the crisis, referring to "rubbish laws of parties, elections, media".
• A daughter of the emir of Qatar, Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani, this year advised Mr and Mrs Assad to leave Syria and suggested Doha may offer them exile.
• Assad sidestepped extensive US sanctions against him by using a third party with a US address to make purchases of music and apps from Apple's iTunes.
• A Dubai-based company, al-Shahba, with a registered office in London is used as a key conduit for Syrian government business and private purchases by the Syrian first lady.
Activists say they were passed username and password details believed to have been used by the couple by a mole in the president's inner circle. The email addresses used the domain name, a conglomerate of companies used by the regime. They say the details allowed uninterrupted access to the two inboxes until the leak was discovered in February.
The emails appear to show how Assad assembled a team of aides to advise him on media strategy and how to position himself in the face of increasing international criticism of his regime's attempts to crush the uprising, which is now thought to have claimed more than 10,000 lives.
Activists say they were able to monitor the inboxes of Assad and his wife in real time for several months. In several cases they claim to have used fresh information to warn colleagues in Damascus of imminent regime moves against them.
The access continued until 7 February when a threatening email arrived in the inbox thought to be used by Assad after the account's existence was revealed when the Anonymous group separately hacked into a number of Syrian government email addresses. All correspondence to and from the two addresses ceased on the same day.
The emails appear to show that Assad received advice from Iran or its proxies on several occasions during the crisis. Ahead of a speech in December his media consultant prepared a long list of themes, reporting that the advice was based on "consultations with a good number of people in addition to the media and political adviser for the Iranian ambassador".
The memo advised the president to use "powerful and violent" language and to show appreciation for support from "friendly states". It also advised that the regime should "leak more information related to our military capability" to convince the public that it could withstand a military challenge.
The president also received advice from Hussein Mortada, an influential Lebanese businessman with strong connections to Iran. In December, Mortada urged Assad to stop blaming al-Qaida for an apparent twin car bombing in Damascus, which took place the day before an Arab League observer mission arrived in the country. He said he had been in contact with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon who shared the same view.
"It is not out of our interest to say that al-Qaida organisation is behind the operation because this claim will [indemnify] the US administration and Syrian opposition," Mortada wrote not long after the blasts. "I have received contacts from Iran and Hezbollah in my role as director of many Iranian-Lebanese channels and they directed me to not mention that al-Qaida is behind the operation. It is a blatant tactical media mistake."
In another email Mortada advised the president that the regime needed to take control of public squares between 3pm and 9pm to deny opposition groups the opportunity to gather there.
Iran and Hezbollah have been accused throughout the year-long uprising of providing on-the-ground support to the regime crackdown, including sending soldiers to fight alongside regime forces and technical experts to help identify activists using the internet. Iran and Hezbollah both deny offering anything more than moral support.
Among others who communicated with the president's account were Khaled al-Ahmed, who it is believed was tasked with providing advice about Homs and Idlib. In November Ahmed wrote to Assad urging him to "tighten the security grip to start [the] operation to restore state control and authority in Idlib and Hama countryside".
He also told Assad he had been told that European reporters had "entered the area by crossing the Lebanese borders illegally". In another mail he warned the president that "a tested source who met with leaders of groups in Baba Amr today said that a big shipment of weapons is coming from Libya will arrive to the seashores of one of the neighbouring states within three days to be smuggled to Syria."
The emails offer a rare window on the state of mind of the isolated Syrian leader, apparently lurching between self-pity, defiance and flippancy as he swapped links to amusing video footage with his aides and wife. On one occasion he forwards to an aide a link to YouTube footage of a crude re-enactment of the siege of Homs using toys and biscuits.
Throughout 2011, his wife appears to have kept up regular correspondence with the Qatar emir's daughter, Mayassa al-Thani. But relations appear to have chilled early this year when Thani directly suggested that the Syrian leader step down.
"My father regards President Bashar as a friend, despite the current tensions – he always gave him genuine advice," she wrote on 11 December. "The opportunity for real change and development was lost a long time ago. Nevertheless, one opportunity closes, others open up – and I hope its not too late for reflection and coming out of the state of denial."
A second email on 30 January was even more forthright and including a tacit offer of exile. "Just been following the latest developments in Syria … in all honesty – looking at the tide of history and the escalation of recent events – we've seen two results – leaders stepping down and getting political asylum or leaders being brutally attacked. I honestly think this is a good opportunity to leave and re-start a normal life.
"I only pray that you will convince the president to take this an opportunity to exit without having to face charges. The region needs to stabilise, but not more than you need peace of mind. I am sure you have many places to turn to, including Doha."
The direct line of reporting to Assad, independent of the police state's military and intelligence agencies, was a trait of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades until his death in 2000 ushered the then 36-year-old scion into the presidency.
Assad Sr was renowned for establishing multiple reporting lines from security chiefs and trusted aides in the belief that it would deny the opportunity for any one agency to become powerful enough to pose a threat to him.
His son has reputedly shown the same instincts through his decade of rule. The year-long uprising against his decade of rule appeared to be faltering this week as forces loyal to Assad retook the key northern city of Idlib.
Much of Assad's media advice comes from two young US-educated Syrian women, Sheherazad Jaafari and Hadeel al-Al. Both regularly stress to Assad, who uses the address sam@alshahba, the importance of social media, and particularly the importance of intervening in online discussions. At one point, Jaafari boasts that CNN has fallen for a nom-de-guerre that she set up to post pro-regime remarks. The emails also reveal that the media team has convinced Twitter to close accounts that purport to represent the Syrian regime.
Several weeks after the email was compromised in February, a new Syrian state television channel broadcast two segments denying that the email address had been used by Assad.
Opposition activists claim that this was a pre-emptive move to discredit any future leaking of the emails.
The US president, Barack Obama, signed an executive order last May imposing sanctions against Assad and other Syrian government officials.
In addition to freezing their US assets, the order prohibited "US persons" from engaging in transactions with them. The EU adopted similar measures against Assad last year. They include an EU-wide travel ban for the Syrian president and an embargo on military exports to Syria.
-This article published in the Guardian on 14/03/2012

Egypt: Will There Be A Place For Women's Human Rights?

By Hania Sholkamy
On March 8th 2011 a small number of civil society and development professionals along with a few students and academics staged a celebration of International Women’s Day in Tahrir square. This was a month after the fall of Mubarak and the assumption of control by the army. It was a time of seemingly infinite possibility and boundless liberation. It therefore came as a surprise when the few hundred huddled in the middle of the square were berated, ridiculed and finally chased into the side streets and physically attacked.  This was the first appearance of what would later come to be known as the ‘third’ or ‘invisible’ hand- the hand that later tormented and killed hundreds of protestors. This hand is assumed to be operated either by the old establishment, or by the military or by Egyptians fed up with protestors: in short, it is the hand of counter revolutionary elements! However there was little sympathy for those attacked in the square. Progressive political groups were un-interested in questions of gender equality and justice.
A year later, on the 8 March 2012, a grand demonstration took place in Cairo. There were feminist, human rights activists, political parties from the socialists to the social democrats, pioneers from the 9th March movement for academic freedoms and members of Kifaya . Thousands showed up and marched from the Egyptian journalists’ syndicate to Parliament, winding their way down the heart of Cairo and through Tahrir square holding up banners demanding equal representation for women in the yet to be selected constitutional committee, and registering their anger at proposed changes to personal status laws which could mean that Egyptian women will lose some of their rights.
What a difference a year can make! Women’s human rights have over the past year gone from oblivion and ignominy to becoming a cause celebre of the people. This past week there were daily chat shows on television celebrating women inviting labour activists, socialists, feminists, and scholars of Islam to discuss gender-based rights and women’s representation. There were also celebrations to honour veterans from the field of women’s activism, and Angham, one of Egypt’s leading divas sang a specially composed song  that praises women as ‘half the world”.  Missing from these celebrations and demonstrations was the strongest and largest political force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and their Freedom and Justice Party.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) organized a seminar and an all-day conference on the subject, during which they distanced themselves and their position on women’s issues from the rest of the women’s movement. The women’s committee of the party has begun to formulate a gender narrative that focuses on the sanctity of the family, and on women’s reproductive roles and responsibilities. They have condemned the changes made to personal status laws over the past decade, taking a populist position that panders to the public’s perceptions - or misperceptions - of  so-called ‘Suzanne Mubarak’s laws’.  These are the legislative reforms that that have enabled women to exit bad marriages, keep custody of their children beyond the ages of 7 years for boys and 9 years for girls, travel without having to get their husband’s consent for each journey, and to contest gender based discriminations through the office of an ombudsman and the intercessions of a national machinery for women. These laws were changed seemingly by presidential fiat and appropriated by Mubarak’s entourage, but in fact were achieved by the slow and accumulated efforts of national, regional and global feminist and human rights lobbies and groups.
The FJP have been harping on nationalism and patriarchal pride. They have projected the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as a global ‘American’ conspiracy to destroy the Egyptian Family and to impose western morality. Various young women aligned to the party have appeared on television and in public events making similar claims. This seems to be an opinion that pervades the FJP circles.
Moreover the party has vehemently condemned the newly appointed National Council for Women, and has withdrawn their own member of Parliament who was amongst the 30 members of the newly appointed board. They have plans to turn the national women’s machinery into a council for the family. Their frustrations with the Council were expressed recently - albeit in an unfortunately exaggerated gesture - when they protested  the absence of Mervat el Tellawy from a panel discussion on women’s status on March 5th  2012.  Ms Tellawy did not show up because she was on the tarmac of  Shannon airport after her flight from New York to Cairo experienced engine failure, and made an emergency landing in Ireland. This, by all accounts, constitutes  a  case of ‘force majeure’; however the good sisters stormed out ↑ of the hall shouting abuse at the Council and at Ms. Tellawy  .
The FJP are not alone in their opposition to the National Council for Women. Secular feminists and socialists have also condemned the new council. They have voiced concerns regarding the names of appointees, and were against the way in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) made the appointments without consultation; the SCAF did not even consult the appointees themselves. But this is as far the convergence between secular and religious women activists go.  Other than sharing a condemnation of the NCW (for different reasons - both substantive and procedural), the Muslim Sisters and the women’s movement share little else.
The FJP narrative is Islamic in its reference points but has little to do with Islamic reformism or feminism. It is a narrative that is conservative and constrained by the deference of the women of FJP to the male members of their party. This is not only a disappointment for most observers, but is also a major problem for the FJP itself. Rather than expending some effort to forge alliances with women’s groups from civil society and other political parties to address obstacles to gender justice and to social rights, they have made common cause with their male  party members against the agenda of activists and women’s right proponents. They  have chosen an oppositional stance and condemned reforms for gender justice without really sharing their own ideas or consulting their peers on their program. At best this may reflect a lack of networking capabilities on their part; but at worst it could be a sign of elitism and sense of superiority. The sisters have chosen to remain under the wing of their triumphant brothers rather than dialogue with their diverse sisters from a rainbow of political orientations and positions! They have also ignored the venerable tradition of reformism within the theological discourses of Islam. Feminists like Omaima Abu Bakr, and theologians like Amna Nosseir are two of many who are searching for progressive interpretations of scriptures that can become a foundation upon which Muslim women can launch their activism. The women of FJP have yet to share their own theological and social program, or to reveal their biases and political positions. So far they seem to be keen on conforming with their party line, which is insensitive to issues of gender equality and justice.
The FJP have not inspired women but rather have frightened them. It is to them, I think, that we owe the robust demonstrations of this year. By failing to champion women’s rights they have made the general public, rights movements, and political parties, wake up to the women’s cause and take to the streets and the airwaves.
Now another opportunity presents itself for the FJP women’s committee to show some leadership. The cases of forced virginity tests performed on women demonstrators under detention have created public outrage. The verdict in the Samira Ibrahim ↑ case - a young woman who pressed charges against her aggressors -  was announced and a military court pronounced the doctor, who performed the virginity test on this young woman when she was in custody last year, innocent ↑ .
Will the FJP - and the Muslim Sisters - side with Samira, or will it ignore this brave woman’s fight for the sanctity of her body?
-This commentary was published by Open Democracy on 14/03/2012

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Assad's Toxic Assets

By Bilal Y. Saab, Chen Kane, and Leonard Spector
The battle of Homs is over and Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have taken control of the besieged city. Yet despite what they viewed as a "tactical defeat," Syria's armed rebels, who are operating under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- a group of defected soldiers from the Syrian military -- vowed to continue the fight until the Syrian regime is toppled.
The balance of power tilts heavily in favor of the Syrian forces and, barring unforeseen circumstances, will likely remain so for months to come. But there is an increasing possibility that the governments of Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait could provide financial, military, and logistical assistance to the FSA in the not so distant future, bolstering its overall strength. Yet public statements by senior Qatari and Saudi officials expressing their governments' desire to arm the FSA notwithstanding, there is no evidence yet of substantial amounts of money or weapons being transferred to the rebels.
Should regional governments and Western powers commit to turning the FSA into an organized and well-armed military force that is capable of both defending its members and launching offensive attacks against Syrian forces, Assad's ability to crack down on the opposition will likely be degraded. But there is also the risk that such a strategy could not only fail but also have unintended consequences for the Syrian people and the region. Indeed, while a stronger FSA could put a dent in the repression campaign of the Syrian government (especially if the rebels receive anti-tank weaponry, improvised explosive devices, and modern communications equipment necessary for effective command and control), further militarization of the Syrian uprising is also likely to deepen and intensify domestic conflict, possibly causing a full-blown civil war. Facing what could be a more potent foe, the Syrian government will show no restraint in its application of military force, seeking to crush all forms of armed resistance once and for all. In the event that Syria slides into full-blown civil war, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon will bear the brunt of the spillover. Specifically, these countries will have to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence inside Syria (hundreds, if not thousands, have already arrived in Turkey and Lebanon), an outcome, which could cause heavy economic burdens and much societal stress for the host countries. Increasing sectarian bloodshed in Syria will also encourage al Qaeda and other radical Islamist actors to expand their involvement inside the country for the purpose of saving their Sunni co-religionists and establishing a base of operations in the region.
In this potential -- and highly probable -- scenario of widespread chaos in Syria, regional and international security concerns abound. High on a list of security worries for Washington and other Western capitals is the fate of the Syrian government's stockpiles of chemical and potentially other mass destruction weapons. There are sharp disagreements among analysts and policymakers in the United States over what to do in Syria to stop the bloodshed. Some, including Senator John McCain, are calling for air strikes against government assets. Others such as Senator Lindsay Graham prefer arming the rebels. And another group favors efforts to establish a more effective diplomatic approach with Russia and China. However, all government agencies inside the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama concur on the critical need to keep a close eye on Syria's chemical arsenal and other strategic weapons. "We're watching this. We're watching it carefully," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, describing the State Department's efforts to monitor the safety and security of the Syrian government's chemical arsenal. At the Pentagon, Defense Department spokesman George Little stated that the U.S. military "remains concerned" about Syria's deadliest weapons, but considers them secure for now. At the White House, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor noted that "Syria is a country of significant proliferation concern, so we monitor its chemical weapons activities very closely." At a February 14 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned that the United States was keeping a close eye on defections and the command structure of the Syrian army "to make sure they [the chemical weapons] are still under control of the regime." Three days later, in a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senators Susan Collins, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Jeanne Shaheen urged the Obama administration to clarify U.S. plans for securing or neutralizing Assad's chemical arsenal.
These statements and others by senior U.S. officials indicate that the Obama administration is cognizant of the possibility that the Syrian government's stockpiles of chemical weapons might get lost or used against civilians or U.S. and Israeli interests should things fall apart in Syria and the regime lose its grip on power. A CNN report mentioned that the U.S. military has calculated it could take more than 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons facilities and production sites, which are estimated at 50 spread across the country (not to mention several storage sites and research centers). In addition to using satellites and other monitoring equipment to watch the suspected chemical weapons sites, Washington is also conducting talks with Syria's neighbors (specifically Jordan) about the need to cooperate on border security to prevent smuggling of sensitive materials. Israel is also worried about proliferation and its security and the country's military has recently held a unique exercise -- dubbed "Dark Cloud" -- aimed at preparing the country for potential biological, chemical, and radioactive attacks. While Israel's Defense Ministry holds its "Orange Flame" exercise simulating a biological attack on an annual basis, "Dark Cloud" was the first time the Israeli defense establishment and emergency services simulated a radioactive "dirty bomb" attack, though the exercise was planned before the Syrian uprising's start. 
Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), an international agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons and requires states that join the treaty to destroy their stockpiles. Therefore, precise information on the nature and quantity of its suspected chemical agents is lacking. The Syrian government claims that it does not have a chemical weapons program, only research sites for medical civilian use. However, the CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies estimate that the country has a chemical weapons program dating from the early 1980s that is one of the largest and most developed in the world. Syria is also suspected of having a biological weapons program, but it is believed to be far less sophisticated than its chemical program. Thanks to assistance and knowledge obtained from the Soviet Union (and later Russia), Egypt, West Germany, France, Iran, North Korea, and possibly other countries over a period of 20 years, Syria was able to acquire an offensive chemical weapons capability that continues to serve as the regime's strategic deterrent against Israel's assumed nuclear capability and, perhaps more important, as an insurance policy against potential domestic threats. Syria allegedly has large quantities of mustard gas and sarin, which the regime has integrated over the years into its vast repertoire of missiles, rockets, artillery shells, and airdropped munitions. Mustard gas is a blistering -- though not necessarily fatal -- agent that was used extensively in World War I and reportedly during the 1980 through 1988 Iran-Iraq War. Sarin, which is lethal if inhaled even in very small quantities, is the nerve agent that killed 13 people and sickened about 1,000 during a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 by the Japanese cult of Aum Shinrikyo. In addition to mustard gas and sarin, Syria may also be in possession of VX, a deadly nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment. In short, Syria's chemical weapons program is thought to be massive and diverse and can be used in combat operations and delivered through various means.
With the Syrian army's takeover of Homs, armed resistance against regime forces seems to have considerably abated. Homs was a crucial battle for both sides because the city was the epicenter of the uprising. The rebels' defeat in Homs was a huge morale and strategic setback to their mission. As things currently stand, the FSA, which is now on the defensive, does not hold any substantial piece of land. "We are exhausted and depressed," one fighter said. "We don't have enough weapons to defend ourselves." In this current strategic environment, the fate of Syria's chemical weapons program seems secure and under the control of regime forces. However, realities on the ground can quickly change especially if regional and international powers decide to arm, train, and fund the FSA or even intervene militarily in support of the rebels. Should that happen and chaos gradually sweeps the country, six scenarios regarding the future of Assad's chemical assets can be identified:
1. Deliberate use by the regime against civilians, rebels, Israel, or U.S. interests in the region: Lieutenant Abduleselam Abdulrezzak, a defector from the Syrian armed forces who reportedly worked in chemical labs has claimed that the Syrian military used chemical weapons against civilians in the Baba Amr area of Homs. The Russian Foreign Ministry strongly denied that the Syrian army used nerve gas in Homs allegedly under the supervision of Russian specialists. While nothing should be ruled out given the regime's mass atrocities so far, Abdulrezzak's and others' testimony have not been independently confirmed or verified, and may be propaganda against the regime. However, it is possible that the regime could use chemical weapons against its domestic opponents in the future (there are unconfirmed reports that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982), but only under narrow circumstances -- i.e., when facing overwhelming opposition and in a last bid for survival. The prevailing assumption is that such a strategy by Assad and his cronies is extremely risky and self-defeating. Surely Assad must know that the moment he uses these outlawed, mass destruction weapons NATO jets will come bombing his palace. That may be true and external military intervention should theoretically deter Assad from attacking his own people with chemical weapons, but what is unclear still is how Assad will weigh the costs and benefits of such a momentous decision, especially at a time when he may be facing an existential threat at home. He might calculate that he has a better chance of surviving a NATO onslaught than, for instance, a growing rebellion in Damascus. Furthermore, there is a sectarian dimension to his potential calculation. As leader of the Alawite sect, Assad may see himself as the guardian of his communal group. Should he sense that the end is near he and his entourage could have a strong incentive to use extraordinary means to defend themselves and prevent the extinction of their clan. Another factor that is unclear is the extent to which such a critical decision is taken by one man - Assad -- or by a coterie of senior figures in the Assad regime. Would cooler heads prevail among the Syrian generals? Or would Bashar and his brother Maher, commander of the Republican Guard, decide to escalate to the point of no return?
2. Unauthorized use by radical generals or army units under fire: The regime's deployment of its finest army and special forces units (who are all Alawi and loyal to Assad) to places like Hama, Homs, Latakia, and al-Safirah (a village which is approximately 12.5 miles southeast of the city of Aleppo) to guard the chemical weapons production facilities is indicative of Assad's precautionary measures and his acute awareness of the game-changing effect of these assets. Should armed rebellion flare up again in areas that host chemical weapons facilities (Latakia and al-Safirah have been quiet so far) and munitions storage sites including Dumayr (25 miles northeast of Damascus), Khan Abu Shamat (36 miles east of Damascus), and Al Furqlus (in Homs) and government forces find themselves facing overwhelming opposition, the generals on the ground could decide, without Assad's authorization, to use chemical weapons against their opponents. They could also be tempted to act preemptively, "using them before losing them." Strict orders by Assad are likely to be given to all units on the ground regarding the terms of use of "special weapons," but control may prove to be elusive in the fog of war and lack of discipline, compounded by extreme fears of revenge by the enemy, could reign supreme.
3. Transfer to other countries or sub-state actors: Should Assad start to feel that his grip on power is weakening he could decide to transfer some of his country's chemical agents to his allies, such as Iran and Hezbollah. This would be an extremely risky course of action (Assad must know that any transfer of mass destruction weapons is perceived as a red line by Israel and the United States) and might precipitate external military intervention, but one possible incentive for Assad could be to bolster his allies' deterrence capabilities against their adversaries, out of a sense of solidarity or firm belief in the trilateral strategic alliance. Another scenario in which Assad could be encouraged to transfer chemical weapons to his allies is a coup against his rule. Sensing that he is about to be toppled and thus lose control of the chemical arsenal, Assad could order whatever remaining units loyal to him to salvage and smuggle as much chemical agent as possible to Iran and Hezbollah, assuming either party will be willing to receive such sensitive materials.
4. Loss of control to terrorist groups: In the heat of intense battle and under circumstances of regime weakening as well as deepening and expanding involvement of terrorist elements on the Syrian battlefield, there is a possibility that chemical agents could fall under the control of al Qaeda. That there are 50 of these sites makes it even more likely. Al Qaeda has a strong presence in Yemen (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and Algeria (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), a still significant following in Iraq (al Qaeda in Iraq), and several cells in Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon's northern region. Despite testimony by U.S. military officials, there is no incontrovertible evidence of al Qaeda operating inside Syria as of now. Al Qaeda leaders have shown a strong interest over the years in acquiring weapons of mass destruction and it would be foolish not to assume that its cadres will have laser-like focus on the chemical weapons facilities and munitions storages that are scattered across the country.
5. Rebel attacks on sites: Unable to seize all chemical production facilities and munitions storage sites, rebels might opt to target some of them in an effort to deny government forces the ability to use chemical weapons at a particular location. But to cause considerable damage to the facilities, the rebels must have heavy weapons and artillery, which they currently lack. Even if they acquire heavy weapons in the future that can damage fortified buildings, this would still be an extremely risky strategy because air contamination would be an issue for both sides (unless the rebels receive gas masks and protective gear). Furthermore, the moment the rebels decide to escalate and hit chemical sites, government forces might retaliate with force and use planes to deliver chemical agents by air.
6. Rebel seizure of sites: Should the rebels seize some of the sites, safeguarding them from terrorist elements and government forces will be a huge challenge. It is one thing to seize a facility, yet quite another to protect it. Government forces can destroy a seized chemical weapons facility either by hitting it with a missile or rocket or bombing it by air, caring less about the contamination effects. What could deter government forces from launching an attack against a chemical weapons facility is the additional seizure by rebels of a missile base (establishing some form of balance of terror). Homs, Hama, Dair al Zour, al-Safirah, and Aleppo all host missile facilities, for example. Some of these facilities have missiles that are suspected to already contain chemical warheads, although it is uncertain which ones.
It is impossible to assess with any degree of precision the likelihood of these scenarios. Given the regional dimension of the Syrian crisis and its interconnectedness with several other strategic concerns related to the Middle East as a whole (including the problem of Iran's nuclear program), the multidimensional challenge the United States faces in Syria could unfold in some very unpredictable ways. Yet none of these scenarios is so extreme or improbable that it does not merit careful consideration. Indeed, in this fluid environment and uncharted territory, everything is possible. This is a case that is rather unique in the history of the world (Libya is not even close given that late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi gave up his Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) programs and destroyed most of them before his regime collapsed). The Obama administration is doing the right thing by exercising caution on Syria, by talking to its allies about the myriad of security threats surrounding the crisis, by creating an international coalition to deal with the problem, and by closely monitoring any unusual activity on Syrian territory. Some additional measures can be taken to prevent worst-case scenarios. For example, an offer of immunity should be extended to members of the Syrian military who can protect the chemical sites until the cessation of hostilities and the arrival of international inspectors. Also, a strict warning should be issued to Assad's government against the use or transfer of WMD under any circumstances (if this has not been done already through private channels). In parallel, an announcement by the Obama administration should be made that any use of such weapons during the conflict will be treated as a crime against humanity in addition to any the Syrian government may have already committed). None of these measures are guaranteed to succeed in deterring Assad from escalating, but should be done nevertheless to apply pressure on the Syrian president and influence his and his supporters' cost-benefit calculations.
The goal of securing and controlling WMD in Syria, despite its critical importance, cannot be decoupled from the challenge of overall U.S. policy toward Syria. In other words, the safety and control of Assad's chemical assets neither define nor drive U.S. policy toward Syria. Assad's chemical assets may be extensive and deadly and they pose a threat to Syrians and regional and international security, but that does not make U.S. options for Syria -- be it military intervention or military assistance to the rebels -- any less difficult, costly, or risky. In fact, military intervention, if mishandled or if it spirals out of control, might make the goal of securing and controlling these nasty weapons harder to achieve. The same goes for a strategy that seeks to arm the rebels or establish safe havens and humanitarian corridors across the country's borders. It is no wonder that President Obama and his top military brass are extremely hesitant to use kinetic force or send weapons into Syria. The country is a chemical powder keg ready to explode.
-This article was published in Foreign Policy on 13/03/2012
-Bilal Y. Saab is Visiting Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Chen Kane is Senior Research Associate at CNS, and Leonard Spector is Deputy Director of CNS. CNS's Javier Serrat provided research assistance