Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Champion For The Displaced In Israel


“I don’t see emigration as something that can be happy, only a tragedy. But if I stay here, I have to fight against things being done in my name.”- Michael Sfard

UP two steaming, dingy flights in an aging Bauhaus building here, Michael Sfard imagines that his is one of the few law firms with no parking spaces. The young lawyers and interns who toil inside dressed in T-shirts and shorts always walk or bike to work, and visitors are rare.

“Our clients either aren’t allowed to come or they’re behind bars,” Mr. Sfard explained.

Mr. Sfard’s clients are mostly Palestinians who live in the West Bank and need permits to come into Israel. Suing the state generally does not ease the path to getting such a permit, which is often a big problem.

One recent afternoon, Mr. Sfard was dealing with just that reality: The mother and cousin of a protester killed by Israeli soldiers were denied a permit, although they were the key witnesses in a Supreme Court hearing scheduled the next day demanding an investigation. The government considers relatives of those killed by Israeli forces high security risks for seeking revenge.

“I have many cases where I’m alone there without my clients,” he sighed.

At 40, Mr. Sfard, the son of Polish dissidents who came to Israel in the late 1960s, has emerged as the left’s leading lawyer in Israel. He has brought scores of human rights and land-use cases challenging Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories it acquired in 1967, and represented hundreds of soldiers refusing to serve.

He sees his work as a mission to save the prospect of a two-state solution and preserve Israeli democracy. But he has at times unwittingly undermined his own agenda, when his microvictories in court prompt the right-leaning government to produce political macrovictories for his adversaries — leading to the legalization and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

This summer, for example, 30 homes in an outpost known as Ulpana were evacuated after a Sfard petition claimed they were on private Palestinian land; Israel pledged to build 800 settler homes in exchange.

This week, Mr. Sfard’s chief adversary, the settler movement, bestowed on him honorary citizenship in “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names for the West Bank, with a mock certificate noting that he “may have come to curse and cause damage” but had ended up “raising the morale and gladdening the hearts of those who love the Land.”

Most of his work is financed by Israel’s premier left-wing nonprofit organizations, which in turn are financed in part by European governments.

“He sees the courts as the way to force the changes that he perceives as necessary for Israel,” said Gerald Steinberg, who runs NGO Monitor, a right-leaning group that examines organizations like those that support Mr. Sfard. “But he doesn’t convince the Israeli public. In any democratic process, you can’t use just the legal system to impose an ideology.”

Mr. Sfard makes no apologies for his dual role as legal advocate and political activist. His representation of conscientious objectors came after he served 21 days in a military jail in 1998 for refusing to do reserve duty in the disputed city of Hebron. His office shelves are lined with the works and likenesses of Mohandas K. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His parents met during the student uprisings at the University of Warsaw in 1968.

Mr. Sfard’s maternal grandfather, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, was kicked out of the university and labeled a traitor for supporting the students. His father, Leon, spent three months in a Polish prison, and avoided trial only by leaving the country.

THIS legacy is ever-present for the younger Mr. Sfard: in his firm’s conference room hangs a large photograph he took of four Soviet-era Polish police cars that were on display in Warsaw when he went there on a trip to explore his roots two years ago. The police cars were much like the ones in which his father was taken from his home in the middle of the night.

“It reminds me time and again what am I doing, and what are the dangers of being a dissident,” Mr. Sfard said. “For him, I should be a bit more thankful that this is a democracy and I have freedom of speech and I can do what I do. For me, this is the starting point, not something that I have to appreciate every day.”

Once in Israel, his father became a high-tech consultant, his mother an education professor. They raised Michael and his younger sister in a Jerusalem neighborhood filled with journalists, who debated the issues of the day in their salon. In high school, he rallied for movie theaters to be open on the Sabbath, and for peace with the Palestinians.

He served in the army as a combat medic, mostly in Lebanon, and chose law because “I don’t have what it takes to be a politician.” A side passion is literature — especially Polish poetry — and he co-wrote “The Last Spy,” a 2007 biography of Marcus Klingberg, a Polish-Israeli client of the first lawyer he worked with, who was convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union.

Mr. Sfard and his high school sweetheart have 7-year-old and 15-month-old sons, whom they adopted for social-consciousness reasons. He spent a year studying in London, a self-imposed exile from the land with which he has a love-hate relationship, but could not stay away.

“This is my place: this culture is my culture, this language is my language,” he explained. “I don’t see emigration as something that can be happy, only a tragedy. But if I stay here, I have to fight against things being done in my name.”

Since it opened in 2004, Mr. Sfard’s firm has grown from a solo practice in one and a half rooms to a combined three apartments — his wife, a fashion designer turned social worker, did the interiors — with eight employees and two subletters.

HIS signature is on many of the major cases decided in recent years by the Supreme Court: successes include the rerouting of the separation barrier around the village of Bilin, the 2005 demolition of nine settler homes in Amona, the impending move of the outpost called Migron and the recent evacuations in Ulpana.

These and others have made him an enemy of the right: last year, a settler from Kiryat Arba was indicted in connection with an Internet posting that called for his assassination and included his address. But Mr. Sfard’s court statements and legal wisdom are respected by judges and adversaries. And clients praise him for adopting their causes as his own.

“He didn’t treat me as a customer,” said Bassam Aramin, the father of a 10-year-old girl killed in a 2007 protest, whose petition forced an investigation, though not an indictment. “He treats this like his own daughter.”

David Zonshein, founder of the advocacy group Courage to Refuse, recalled Mr. Sfard’s taking him aside during the push in one case for a full military trial, which risked a long jail sentence, to say: “Don’t do it for other people. Other people will not take the consequences.”

His office walls are at once a chronicle of the movement and his personal history. There is a framed 1958 map of Israel he found at the Jaffa flea market, “the only map you can find today where there are no settlements and the Palestinian villages are all marked,” he said. There is also a framed search warrant for his files in a case concerning interviews with dissident soldiers.

In back, a small room is filled with a rainbow of three-ring binders, files of the roughly 500 cases the firm has fought over its eight years. They are, often, not legal genius, more a matter of spending the money and time to find, say, Palestinians with landownership claims. But even the victories are often bittersweet. In Bilin, the separation barrier took over half the village’s land; a fight lasting years returned about a quarter of the land.

“The process is no less important than the result,” he said. “I am addicted. It’s not a question of whether it’s depressing or not, but whether I can live without it.”

-This story was first published in The New York Times on 28/07/2012


Bashar al-Assad may be gearing up to create an Alawite statelet along Syria's coastal mountains. And he has the means to do it.


How long will President Bashar al-Assad remain in Damascus? His regime appears to be reeling: A bombing last week claimed the lives of his brother-in-law and three other senior figures of his regime, military defections continue, and rebel forces have arrived in the country's largest cities. The prevalent view in Washington and many other foreign capitals is that the question is not if Assad will lose the capital, but when.

Assad has no intention of abandoning Damascus without a fight. Since last week's bombing, the Syrian Army's Fourth Division -- led by Assad's brother Maher -- has launched an intense campaign to retake control of the capital's neighborhoods from the rebels. To secure Damascus, the regime has redeployed troops from the Golan and eastern Syria. Control of the capital is critical to Assad for maintaining the pretense that he is not merely an Alawite warlord, but the embodiment of the state.

The Syrian despot, however, is fighting a losing battle. As heavy fighting rages on in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the regime is losing control over the Syrian interior and the Kurdish northeast. The predominantly Sunni areas of Syria are falling from Assad's grasp, and there is no realistic way for him to reassert his authority there.

But Assad has one card left to play: The Syrian regime has been setting the stage for a retreat to Syria's coastal mountains, the traditional homeland of the Assads' Alawite sect, for months now. It is now clear that this is where the Syrian conflict is headed. Sooner or later, Assad will abandon Damascus.

The Syrian regime's recent decline in fortunes has seemingly accelerated this process. With the sectarian fault line clearly drawn, reports are emerging of internal population migration as Alawites begin moving back to the ancestral mountains -- echoing the dynamics seen during the Lebanese civil war. Shortly after the assassination of the top Syrian security officials, opposition activists and Western diplomats reported that Assad had relocated to the coastal city of Latakia. This claim has since been contested, but Assad's whereabouts remain uncertain.

Despite the fact that the Syrian regime is a family enterprise, Assad has sought to present himself throughout the conflict as the sole legitimate interlocutor with the outside world. Regrettably, the international community has played along with this conceit. All diplomatic initiatives to solve the Syrian crisis have stipulated dialogue with Assad and refrained from calling on him to hand over power.

However, it has long been apparent that Assad's bid to control the entirety of Syrian territory was hitting against demographic and geographic realities. Contrary to all early assertions regarding his military, Assad's forces are little more than a sectarian militia. This limited manpower has, from the beginning, meant that Assad would not be able to re-impose his authority on the predominantly Sunni interior and periphery.

This sectarian geography has determined the regime’s behavior. As he dug in for a long war, Assad has had to consolidate the Alawites behind him and fortify his position in the Alawite coastal mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, in the region roughly between Jisr al-Shoughour in the north, near the Turkish border, and Tal Kalakh in the south, near Lebanon.

Assad has moved to secure all natural access points leading to this Alawite redoubt. In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Lebanese precedent, he also began to clear hostile Sunni pockets within the enclave and to create a buffer zone in the plain that separates the coastal mountains from the interior. This was the calculus behind the string of mass killings in villages like al-Houla, Taldou, al-Haffeh, and Tremseh -- all Sunni population centers either inside or on the eastern frontier of the Alawite enclave in the central plain.

The common denominator to all these places is their relevance to Syria's strategic and sectarian geography. The areas near Homs and al-Haffeh, for instance, are historical access routes into the coastal mountains. In addition, villages like Taldou and Tremseh mark the eastern faultline where outlying Alawite villages are sprinkled uncomfortably near Sunni ones. They also lie strategically on the north-south axis linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the rebellious governorates of Homs and Hama to Idlib.

Damascus, however, lies well outside this prospective enclave. In the capital, the regime does not possess a demographic reservoir of loyal Alawite communities with which to balance the power relationship with its rivals. The Syrian regime has responded to this problem by ringing Damascus with military bases stocked with loyal Alawite troops to control the main communication routes out of the city. As a result, French political geographer Fabrice Balanche has written, the capital has become an "encircled city." Moreover, as recent news reports have noted, the influx of mostly Sunni refugees into Damascus from other rebellious districts has further complicated the demographic equation in the capital.

It is therefore not only conceivable, but also rather likely, that these geographic and demographic factors will at some point lead Assad to abandon Damascus and fortify himself in his Alawite stronghold. As occurred in Lebanon, this could lead to a prolonged static war, where the support of external patrons -- namely Iran and Russia -- becomes increasingly critical to Assad.

Some will argue that an Alawite enclave is unviable in the long-term, but Assad has an insurance policy to protect his retreat. As the Assad regime just reminded the world, it possesses a large stockpile of chemical weapons. While most observers are worried about Assad passing these weapons along to third-party actors like Hezbollah, he is more likely to hold on tightly to them. These weapons are his last remaining and most formidable deterrent against his Sunni foes, and precious leverage to guarantee the quiescence of the outside world.

With this insurance policy, Assad could hang on as a warlord presiding over an Iranian and Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean. The past several weeks have dealt Assad a serious blow, but this is not yet the end of the Syrian conflict. It is rather the beginning of a new phase, the endgame of which is not in Damascus, but further west.

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 27/07/2012
- Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

By Ceding Northeastern Syria To The Kurds, Assad Puts Turkey In A Bind

Ankara has been a key backer of Syria's rebellion, but the prospect of an Iraq-style autonomous Kurdish zone has Erdogan threatening to intervene.


Turkpix / Associated Press
In this Tuesday, July 24, 2012 photo, a Syrian boy sits atop a damaged military tank at the border town of Azaz, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Aleppo, Syria. Turkey sealed its border with Syria to trucks on Wednesday, July 25, 2012 cutting off a vital supply line to the embattled nation as fighting stretched into its fifth day in the commercial capital of Aleppo.

The retreat of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from parts of northeastern Syria along the Turkish border might have been welcomed by Turkey, a key supporter of the Syrian rebellion, except for one thing: The region is predominantly Kurdish, and Ankara fears the resulting power vacuum will be a major boon to its number one enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) whose three-decade separatist insurgency has seen some 40,000 people killed.

Until recently, Syria’s Kurds had been divided. A coalition of roughly a dozen Kurdish parties had tentatively backed the popular uprising against Assad, while the PKK’s Syrian ally, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), appeared to align itself with the Syrian regime, intimidating opposition activists and quashing popular protests. Others sat on the sidelines, wary of closing ranks with a Sunni Arab-dominated opposition that turned a deaf ear to Kurdish demands for new rights in a post-Assad Syria. Two weeks ago – perhaps sensing that the regime’s fall was imminent – the rival Syrian Kurdish political currents put aside their differences, under the coaching of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. In Irbil, capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, they signed a unity agreement that has allowed them to take control of several northeastern towns, Assad’s forces mostly retreating without a fight.

The news sparked a Turkish media and political clamor about the imminent rise of a “PKK Republic” or a “Western Kurdistan” on Turkey’s southern flank. Commentators fear that the rise of a second  Kurdish statelet, following the emergence of the one in neighboring Iraq in 2003, would embolden Turkey’s own 12-15 million Kurds to pursue their own dream of autonomy. Worse still, it could potentially provide the PKK — branded as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S., and the EU — with sanctuaries from which to launch cross-border attacks.

Picking up where the media left off, Turkey’s fiery leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, banged the war drums. Though he and his government proclaim the Kurds a “brother nation,” Erdogan told a TV interviewer on Wednesday, a Kurdish state in northern Syria would likely become a “terrorist entity”. If need be, he warned, Turkey would not hesitate to hit the PKK inside Syria, as it has done repeatedly in northern Iraq. “If a formation that’s going to be a problem emerges, if there is a terror operation, an irritant, then intervening would be our most natural right.”

It would not be easy. In northern Iraq — where the PKK has come under pressure from a Barzani government that seeks to improve ties with Ankara — the rebels remain ensconced in remote mountain  hideouts, making it easier for Turkish forces to target them with relative impunity. In Syria, the PKK-aligned PYD is an urban-based outfit. To bring the fight to them, Turkish troops would have to operate in large population centers, many of them within a stone’s throw of the common border.

Syrian Kurds are quick to counter Turkish alarmism. Ankara is overstating the PKK’s influence in Syria, Abdulhalim, a Kurdish activist in Syria, told TIME via Skype. Even if it is the strongest and best armed of the Kurdish factions in Syria, the PYD is in no position to overwhelm its local rivals. “People will not allow the PYD to control the area,” Abdulhalim insists. “All people here, Arabs, Christians, and other ethnicities, will be in control.” The radicals would also have to contend with Barzani, whose government has provided training to Kurdish defectors from Assad’s army.
But, Abdulhalim warns, nothing would unite the Kurds of Syria more than resistance to a Turkish incursion. “We are strongly refusing Erdogan talking about any invasion of Syria to protect Turkey from the PYD,” he says.

When the sabre-rattling dies down, writes Oral Calislar, a commentator for Radikal, a Turkish newspaper, Ankara will do the same with a Kurdish quasi-state in Syria as it did with the one in Iraq – learn to live with it. “We used to say we’d never tolerate an autonomous Kurdistan on our border,” Calislar writes. “It was one of our ‘red lines.’ And now we’re buddy-buddy with Barzani.”

For the time being, the most that Turkey can do to contain the fallout from Syria is to make amends with its own Kurds, says Hugh Pope, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. If Erdogan wants to ensure Turkey’s security, he adds, his government will have to do so by addressing the Turkish Kurds’ main grievances – adequate political representation, mother tongue education, some degree of devolution, and a partial amnesty for PKK members.

The situation across the border might be “alarming” for Turkey, says Pope, “but only because Turkey has not solved its own Kurdish problem.”

-This commentary was published in Time on 27/07/2012

Russia’s Opposition Challenges Putin On Syria

By Vladimir Kara-Murza

A recent piece in the New Republic, titled “In Russia, Even Putin’s Critics Are OK With His Syria Policy,” raised an important question of whether Moscow’s obstructionist stance with regard to sanctions on Assad is truly a Russian policy, or just that of Vladimir Putin’s undemocratic regime. The title of the article suggests the former—although no actual representatives of the Russian opposition are quoted.

There are indeed some among Putin opponents for whom he is not aggressive or anti-Western enough. On the first day of the 2008 Georgia war, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov urged the Kremlin to launch “immediate” strikes against the country, while the leader of the nationalist Another Russia party, former émigré writer Eduard Limonov, called on the government to “annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Russia, because we need southern territories.” The same usual suspects are raising their voices on Syria. In a recent blog post, Limonov affirmed that “the principal aim of the [US] human rights war in Syria is an almost unconscious desire for world domination, for the suppression of the last dissenting states that are still not controlled by Western civilization.”

It would be wise, however, to listen to the other voices in Russia’s opposition: those who espouse a democratic future for the country, and who have been leading the recent anti-regime protests. Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia, called the Kremlin’s vetoes on UN sanctions against Assad a “disaster” and “against Russia’s interest,” and suggested that Putin is protecting the Syrian dictator because he believes that if Assad falls, he himself will be next. Another Republican Party co-chairman, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, described the Kremlin’s position on Syria as “not responsible,” stressing that Putin is “defend[ing] the criminal Syrian regime that systematically used weapons against peaceful citizens.” Grigory Yavlinsky, the founder of the liberal Yabloko party, called the situation in Syria “a terrible tragedy,” expressing his regret that Moscow “has not found common ground with the international community.”

Aggressive and obstructionist foreign policy is often a function of an internally repressive regime. It is not surprising that those in Russia who share the political values of the community of democracies are also more aligned with them on the world stage.

-This commentary was published first in World Affairs on 26/07/2012

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hamas Rising

As the Palestinian Authority struggles to make payroll, the militant group is making friends and influencing leaders around the Arab world.


Countries across the Middle East are opening their coffers to support the Palestinian cause -- but the funds are increasingly being diverted in a direction that portends renewed conflict with Israel.

The U.S.-supported Palestinian Authority (PA), on the one hand, is rapidly heading for the poor house. Even after a promised $100 million injection of funds from the Saudis (which has not yet been delivered), the PA will still be suffering its worst cash crunch in years. It has an estimated budget shortfall of $1 billion for 2012 and has already stopped making payroll to its government employees. Yet regional leaders seem nonplussed about their longtime client's budget woes; their pledges of support continue to go unfulfilled.

Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, Hamas -- the Islamist faction that violently wrested control of the area from the PA in 2007 -- is riding high on the beneficence of its new allies. After a rocky period during which Iran's largesse to Hamas dried up, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's ongoing slaughter in Syria forced the group's external leaders to flee from their headquarters in Damascus, the group has regained its footing.

Hamas has two of the Middle East's emerging Sunni powerhouses to thank for its change of fortunes.
Qatar, despite an uneasy alliance with Washington that hinges on hosting a key U.S. airbase and now a new missile-defense station, has quietly become one of the Palestinian Islamist party's most generous new benefactors. In February, Hamas officials announced they had signed a $250 million deal with the Qatari government for reconstruction projects in Hamas-controlled Gaza. Doha is also providing funds for sports and housing projects in the Gaza Strip, according to other media reports.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Qatari support is Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' external operations. As Assad's crackdown on Syria's predominantly Sunni opposition grew ever bloodier, Asharq al-Awsat reported in February that Meshal would leave Hamas headquarters in Damascus permanently and carry out his work from Qatar. Indeed, Qatar appears to be the new global headquarters of the Hamas politburo: A June 2012 Congressional Research Service report confirmed Meshal's relocation to Doha, noting that the Gulf emirate is the place where he "conducts his regular engagement with regional figures."

The Qataris also appear to be helping Hamas reintegrate into the Sunni fold. That's a tall order, considering that Hamas had long been on the Iranian dole -- the party is best known as an ally of the mullahs that has unleashed rocket attacks and suicide bombings across Israel, killing hundreds. But while the Iranian weapons pipeline still appears to be robust, known Iranian economic assistance has dwindled to small building projects -- and Qatar is exploiting this window of opportunity. In late January, for example, Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani accompanied a Hamas delegation to Jordan, the first time the group had made an official visit to Amman since Jordan's King Abdullah expelled it in 1999.

Turkey's Islamist government has also embraced Hamas, both economically and diplomatically. In December, the International Middle East Media Center, run out of the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, cited Turkish sources claiming that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had "instructed the Ministry of Finance to allocate $300 million to be sent to Hamas' government in Gaza." Hamas denied this, but Reuters and the Israeli newspaper of record, Haaretz, published subsequent reports, citing different sources, confirming this financial relationship.

It is in Ankara's interest to keep direct assistance shrouded in secrecy -- after all, it has a reputation to uphold among its NATO allies, who designated Hamas for its terrorist activity. But other Turkish assistance to Gaza is easier to document. In January, for instance, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported that the country would "help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip repair mosques," while its competitor, Zaman, quoted Turkish officials confirming that the country is "engaged in projects to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza," including the construction of a $40 million hospital.

Turkey, like Qatar, has also been an advocate of Hamas in the diplomatic arena for several years now. The ill-fated Turkish-led flotilla of 2010, after all, was designed to draw attention to the Israeli siege of Gaza and received government sponsorship. And Erdogan famously told an American television audience last year, "I don't see Hamas as a terror organization. Hamas is a political party."

Erdogan is not alone in his sentiments. The political tide across the Middle East is also highly favorable to Hamas. Most obviously, the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy in Egypt's presidential elections has energized Hamas. Following the Brotherhood's victory, Haniyeh expressed confidence that "the revolution led by Morsy will not take any part in blocking Gaza" -- a reference to the blockade enforced by fallen dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The Palestinian Islamist group also enjoyed a red-carpet welcome in Tunisia, where the Islamist al-Nahda party has taken the reins of power. This was a particularly galling development for the rival West Bank government, given that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian nationalist organization that Yasser Arafat founded and Abbas now heads, had previously used Tunis as its headquarters in exile.

With Islamist movements gaining strength across the region, Hamas's political rival has simply lost its mojo. The Palestinian Authority, created 18 years ago to midwife a two-state solution with Israel that has yet to materialize, is sorely lacking in popular appeal. It doesn't help that the PA earned a reputation for being corrupt and ossified -- two qualities that brought several Arab autocracies to their ends.

The PA's Western allies, meanwhile, are becoming less willing to underwrite its activities. Despite a denial issued by the PLO to Foreign Policy, Saudi, Palestinian, and Israeli sources have reported that the White House is indeed threatening to cut aid if Abbas attempts to pursue recognition of Palestinian statehood again at the United Nations this year.

Hamas, unlike the PA, has never needed Western handouts. Since its inception in 1987, the group has operated entirely on regional cash. And despite its recent fallout with Iran and Syria, its platform of resistance to Israel enjoys wide appeal in the new Sunni regional order.

Washington once had the clout to deter countries like Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt from backing a designated terrorist group. But after the great regional tectonic shifts of the past two years, U.S. consternation has become a secondary consideration for these new governments.

True, Hamas's new donors could moderate its politics. This is certainly the line that Turkey and Qatar will take. But more likely, the increased cash flow to Hamas will herald a new wave of rejectionism and -- given Hamas's track record -- possibly a new wave of violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 25/07/2012
-Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine

Taint Of Baathist Ideology Has Poisoned Syria For Too Long

By Hassan Hassan

In 2003, on my way from Damascus to my hometown in eastern Syria, near the Iraq border, my driver offered to drop me off at a border point where Syrian fighters were taken to join the Iraqi insurgency. I couldn't believe that Syria's secular, Baathist regime was allowing fighters to cross the border to engage in the Iraqi "jihad" against the US-led invasion.

My driver insisted this was the case, and thus the offer to show me the border crossing. He said there was a fleet of drivers who made a living by picking up young men in the Syrian city of Al Bukamal and taking them to the city of Al Qaim, which lies directly across the border with Iraq. It was unclear, my driver said, who handled these young aspiring fighters after that point.

I remained sceptical until I reached home. There, I learnt that two of my distant relatives had already left for Iraq to join the insurgency.

"The government is encouraging it," my driver told me, with excitement, during that ride in 2003. In Syria, at least before the uprising broke out last year, taxi drivers were widely believed to work for the regime's intelligence services.

He proved to be correct. At the time, young men from across Syria were travelling east across the border. Those who crossed using public transport, mainly from Al Bukamal, were usually sent back. Others who travelled with experienced smugglers later said that they had made it all the way to Fallujah.

The issue of the Syrian regime's involvement in terrorist activities in Iraq after 2003 has been raised again by Nawaf Al Fares, the former Syrian ambassador to Baghdad who recently defected. In the past two weeks, Mr Al Fares has said Damascus encouraged young men to join Al Qaeda in Iraq. Given the situation now in Syria, the issue merits another look.

After the invasion of Iraq, the Damascus University campus was flooded with whispers suggesting that Baghdad might soon fall, and that many Syrians would go to fight the Americans. The rumours went viral. No one knew who planted the idea, but it quickly spread among the students. In retrospect, it showed the power of the regime to render youth enthusiasm into an ingredient of terrorism.

The Baath party was founded in Syria in 1947 on a pan-Arabist platform with the stated goals of unity, freedom and socialism. "Freedom" in this sense, it is important to note, meant freedom from colonialism, not personal liberty. But the definition lost its meaning as the regimes in Syria, starting in 1963, and Iraq, 1968 to 2003, solidified into strongarm dictatorships.

The poison of the modern-day Baathist regime is not only its willingness to torture and kill its own population. It is far more insidious. There is an ideology that breeds violence and extremism, a tendency that has not been sufficiently examined. In examining Middle East militancy and terrorism, academics have focused on religious extremism and often overlooked other ideologies.

There was a striking commonality among many young Syrians who went to join the insurgency in Iraq. Accounts from men who went to fight, or from their friends and families, often told that they were not particularly religious. That was true for my two relatives (incidentally, both had been involved in petty crime). Yet they had gone to fight - one of them later claimed he had taken part in the so-called "airport battle" in Baghdad, in which it was widely believed that Saddam Hussein had led the fight against the Americans in the early days of the war.

Neither of my relatives has joined the armed resistance in the current uprising against the Syrian regime, although FSA-affiliated groups operate in their town. Another man from Deraa who had fought in Iraq, and was recently killed during anti-regime protests, had - tellingly - chosen to protest peacefully and also had declined to join the Free Syrian Army. His cousin, who had accompanied him to Iraq, has to date also limited himself to peaceful protests. Other former fighters in Iraq have joined the armed resistance, but many have not.

Obviously, not all of the men who joined the insurgency in Iraq were religious extremists. If they were, they would presumably be fighting the secular regime in Damascus. Many of those who have chosen to pick up arms against the Syrian regime did so because they or their families have directly suffered at the hands of the regime.

In 2006, I saw another example of the pervasive influence of the ideology's incitement to violence. Crowds of Syrians burnt the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus in 2006 after the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. One of the mob leaders related the event to me later - but I knew this man. He was a "lifestyle liberal", in the sense that he was not a practising Muslim, drank alcohol and had sex outside of marriage. He spoke in the language of the regime, almost certainly acting on his own but inspired by the Baathist ideology. (The Syrian regime was later accused of orchestrating the embassy arsons in Damascus and Beirut.)

There are many religious extremists who choose not to fight; others who choose to fight are not religious. The Baathist ideology has exploited sentiments - cultural, economic, social and sometimes religious - to incite violence for political gain. As a radical ideology that requires complete social, political and cultural transformation, there is an inevitable propensity for violence.

Despite the Baathist regime's brutality in Syria, some intellectuals still argue that these acts of violence are anomalies. Is it chance that the Baathist rulers - Saddam Hussain, Hafez Al Assad and his son - all shelled cities, terrorised, tortured and killed their people? This ideology needs to be understood if its legacy is to be rejected. It is not enough for the regime to fall.

-This commentary was first published in The National on 26/07/2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Qaddafi's Spawn

What The Dictator's Demise Unleashed In The Middle East

The Libyan leader's ouster dispersed masses of guns and refugees across the region. Already, Algeria has seen attacks by AQIM militants armed with Libyan weapons, Mali has been rocked by a coup led by armed nomads returning from Libya, Niger is struggling to cope with waves of refugees from Libya and Mali, and Tunisia's economy has been shattered by the loss of its most important trading partner.

By Yahia H. Zoubir

The military campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime has been hailed a success. In March, Permanent U.S. Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis wrote in Foreign Affairs that, faced with the humanitarian disaster in Libya, NATO "succeeded in protecting those civilians and, ultimately, in providing the time and space necessary for local forces to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi." But all the celebration has covered up a worrying trend. The unrest surrounding Qaddafi's last months is now reverberating throughout North Africa and the Sahel -- a phenomenon that might be called Qaddafi's spawn.

First, there are the weapons: The neighborhood, especially Algeria, Mauritania, and Niger, was always uneasy about Libya's civil war. Many feared that it would pry the lid off Tripoli's sizeable weapons cache and lead to the dispersal of arms across the region. It turns out that they were right to be worried. Then, there is the money: Locating Libya's financial assets after the war has been another complicated matter. Members of Qaddafi's inner circle who know where the money is stashed are missing or unidentifiable. Basically, billions of dollars might wind up in the hands of individuals who could use the cash to sponsor terrorism or otherwise destabilize Libya. And finally, there are the refugees: Tens of thousands of Africans, no longer welcome in Libya, returned home this year. Besides the fact that many of them are ripe for jihadi infiltration, they will further strain the region's weak economies. Already, food security is becoming a major issue and famine looms.

The weapons bonanza, disappearing money, and wave of refugees have played out differently across the country. In Libya, militias, which amassed vast quantities of weapons during the war, are refusing to relinquish them to the interim government. Some groups, including the one that conquered Tripoli, are comprised of jihadists. Meanwhile, other groups -- tribes and private citizens -- are building their own arsenals against a background of resurgent tribalism and regionalism. The Misratans and the Zintanis, for example, have established domination over resource-rich areas. Some in Cyrenaica, which boasts most of the country's oil reserves, are threatening to secede from Libya. Meanwhile, the Toubou tribe is fighting the Zwei in Kufra and Sebha, near the borders with Niger and Chad; the Toubou have also threatened to secede. The Amazigh tribe is taking on the Arabs in the west, near the Tunisian border. And Libyan Tuaregs are locked in battle with Zintans in Ghat, near the Algerian border. Any of these conflicts could spill over soon.

Additionally, whether Libya will ever be able to recover the estimated $150 billion that the Qaddafi government hoarded or deposited in the West ($37 billion alone is thought to be in the United States), the Middle East, and Africa is doubtful. For example, with the mysterious death of Shukri Ghanem, a close ally of Saif al-Islam Qaddafi who served as prime minister and later as head of the national oil company, finding and unfreezing those assets becomes uncertain.

For its part, the U.S. Treasury promised in October 2011 to return to Libya the $37 billion that Qaddafi and his loyalists stashed in the United States, although a few congressional leaders suggested that some of it be used as payment for the NATO operations that toppled Qaddafi. Without that money, Libya's fragile economy could shatter. The International Monetary Fund is already reporting that Libya's deficit is unsustainable in the long run: "The present value of financial assets and future oil extraction indicates that from 2012, public spending will exceed the sustainable, long-term level by over 10 percent of GDP." If Qaddafi's gold is not recovered, Libya's outlook will look even worse.

Turning to Algeria, since the fall of Tripoli in August 2011, Libyan man-portable air-defense systems (or, Manpads), rocket-propelled grenades, SAM-7 missiles, and other sophisticated weaponry have made their way into the hands of al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), which is based on the Algerian border in northern Mali. In February 2012, Algerian authorities unearthed 15 Libyan Manpads and 28 SAM-7s in the southern city of In Amenas. Suspicions fell on three groups: weapons traffickers, AQIM, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a new jihadist group that has launched numerous attacks against Algerian military targets and kidnapped European aid workers in Sahrawi refugee camps in southwestern Algeria. In September 2011, terrorists launched rocket attacks against military helicopters parked in the airfield of Jijel, in eastern Algeria. So far, no one has claimed responsibility, and it is unclear whether the weapons came from Libya, but the incident might be part of a broader AQIM campaign to destabilize the country and the region.

Qaddafi's fall also shook the (until recently) fairly steady democracy in Mali. When it became apparent last year that the Libyan rebels were winning the war against Qaddafi loyalists, armed nomadic Tuareg detachments that had served alongside Qaddafi's troops began leaving Libya for homes in Mali and Niger. Niger disarmed the returning Tuaregs, but Mali failed to do so. As a result, by October 2011, 3,000 heavily armed men with 600 all-terrain vehicles had amassed in Mali's northern Azawad region. In November, they founded the separatist National Liberation Movement for the Azawad (MNLA). And on January 17, 2012, the MNLA began its conquest of Azawad.

Mali's ill-equipped, poorly trained government soldiers were no match for the battle-hardened Tuareg. A mutiny within the armed forces, and the subsequent military coup on March 22, weakened Mali further. The MNLA quickly seized three major cities in northern Mali -- Gao, Kidal, and historic Timbuktu -- and then proclaimed the independence of the Azawad on April 6. (It reversed that decision in July 2012, demanding autonomy instead.) Of course, the MNLA is not the only militarized group in town: The Ansar al-Din, a Tuareg jihadist faction led by the Salafi Iyad Ag Ghaly, Mali's former consul in Saudi Arabia, is intent on imposing sharia in several northern cities, including Timbuktu, which he conquered with the assistance of AQIM and newly acquired weapons from Libya. His troops defeated the MNLA in June, and Ansar al-Din and the jihadists established control over MNLA-held territories.

For its part, Niger is particularly worried that it will face a repeat of what happened in Mali. Its own Taureg population is large and restive. Now, it has been joined by thousands fleeing Libya. What is more, the country has had to cope with refugees fleeing Mali as well. By May of this year, 284,000 Malians had fled northern Mali: 56,664 found refuge in Burkina Faso, 61,000 in Mauritania, 39,388 in Niger, and about 15,000 in Algeria. The new refugees are a heavy burden on countries that can barely sustain their own populations, which are suffering from drought and hunger.

Qaddafi's fall has had particularly troubling repercussions on post-revolutionary Tunisia. Before the war in Libya, Tunisia and Libya had the highest volume of trade between any two North African countries, and the total was growing at an average of nine percent every year between 2000 and 2009. For its part, Libya absorbed 6.9 percent of Tunisia's exports, making it Tunisia's second-biggest export market after the European Union.

With the uprising in Libya, all that stopped. In the first quarter of 2011, Tunisia's exports to Libya dropped by 34 percent and imports fell by an amazing 95 percent; according to the African Development Bank, the downturns were direct consequences of the civil war in Libya. In addition, more than half of the 100,000 Tunisian workers who had been in Libya returned home. The remittances they sent to their families, an estimated 125 million Tunisian dinars ($76 million) before the war, virtually disappeared. Meanwhile, Tunisia's unemployment skyrocketed from 15 percent in 2010 to 18.9 percent by the end of 2011, undoubtedly thanks in part to the returning expatriates. Libyans, who had previously come to Tunisia in droves, stayed at home. After an annual average of 1.5 million tourists, Tunisia saw only 815,000 Libyan guests in the year ending May 2012 -- all bad news for an economy that depends on visitors. (Tourism makes up 11 percent of GDP and 14 percent of employment.)

Insecurity on Libya's borders has generated at least one positive outcome. It prompted the Maghreb states to resuscitate the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA), which was first created to establish a political and economic alliance in 1989 but went dormant in 1994. Despite lingering suspicions between Algeria and Morocco and Algeria and Libya, all three and Tunisia and Mauritania have expressed the need for cooperation on security and economic matters. In November 2011, Morocco's King Mohammed VI called for a "new Maghreb" that would be an "engine for Arab unity" capable of ensuring the "stability and security in the Sahel-Sahara region." Algeria's foreign minister, Mourad Medelci, stressed in January 2012 that "the changes we witnessed in the Arab countries, in the Maghreb, cannot but encourage us to move faster in the construction of the Arab Maghreb Union." Libya's transitional government and Tunisia signed a land border agreement on April 8 this year against organized crime, terrorism, and trafficking. And rapprochement between Algeria and Morocco in recent months might put the UMA back on track.

The major challenge for the region will be preserving the territorial integrity of every country and the safeguarding of its borders. The major challenge for Libya and Mali, meanwhile, is avoiding partition, as happened in Sudan -- or worse, "Somalization," where the state cannot control the various militias that impose their own laws on their respective territories. Regional and international actors will also have to address the socioeconomic and political grievances of their populations and undermine the appeal of extremist forces now holding sophisticated weapons. Compelling studies have demonstrated that nonviolent uprisings, such as the one in Tunisia, are more likely to succeed in making a transition to a democratic polity than violent ones. It is therefore doubtful that NATO's celebrated "successful operation" will bring prosperity to the new Libya and stability to the region. 

-This commentary was first published in Foreign Affairs on 24/07/2012

Warning: Turbulence Ahead

Mitt Romney has a point: Barack Obama is no Israel-lover. And if the president wins a second term, expect a major clash with Benjamin Netanyahu.


President Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

"Everybody knows that relations with Israel have never been worse."
So thundered the venerable John McCain, foreign policy preacher and iconoclast par excellence, in a sermon from the mountaintop on one of last Sunday's talk shows. The Arizona senator was commenting on President Barack Obama's claim last week in Palm Beach, one he has oft repeated on the campaign trail, that U.S.-Israeli ties are stronger than ever.

Put aside the senator's characteristic bluntness, and the fact we're in the middle of campaign silly season. Is McCain right? And if he is, what's going on?

Having watched and worked on the U.S.-Israeli relationship for a good many years, I've struggled to gain some perspective on the matter. And the present moment has plenty of competition from the dramatic lows of years past: Dwight Eisenhower's threat to sanction Israel after its 1956 invasion of Sinai, Richard Nixon's threat to do the same if Israel didn't attend the Geneva conference in 1973, the flap between Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the president's 1982 Middle East peace initiative (Begin to U.S. Ambassador Sam Lewis when informed of the speech, "Sam, this is the saddest day in my life since  I became prime minister."), and George H.W. Bush's war with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over settlements and Secretary of State Jim Baker's denial of loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 as a result.

But these previous lows notwithstanding, McCain is on to something. Crises and tensions have come and gone, but rarely -- if ever -- has there seemed to be such a permanent pall over the relationship. Its dismal state is even more perplexing when one considers that the body of the relationship -- security assistance and intelligence cooperation -- seems sound.

It's the head that's in trouble. Almost four years into their partnership, the two most important players -- Bibi and Barack -- still seem out of whack with one another both personally and on some key policy issues.

What's happening here? I've got a pretty simple diagnosis: Netanyahu's policies and suspicions about American intentions have combined with Obama's seemingly emotionless view of Israel to spell trouble. The absence of a common enterprise makes matters worse.

The Iranian challenge might still provide a grand reunion between the two parties. But if history is any guide, serious clashes between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents are not resolved by reconciliation but by the departure of one or the other. That may mean we're in for an extended period of turbulence: I'm betting that in this case, both Bibi and Barack may be around for the long haul.
Bibi's Suspicions

This is hardly first time the U.S.-Israeli relationship has suffered from the clash between a right-wing prime minister and an American president. But unlike past occasions, when the right-wing prime minister was confident and secure -- Begin, Shamir, Ariel Sharon -- this time Israel has a leader who feels both insecure and surrounded.

The Likud's previous leaders were genuine and authoritative right-wingers. It's not that they trusted the Americans, though Begin did invest heavily in Washington. They trusted their own instincts and had the power and will to make decisions. Moshe Arens, Shamir's foreign minister, told the prime minister before his visit to Washington in 1989 that the Americans would cut his balls off. No doubt Shamir believed him. But the prime minister was still strong enough to cooperate with the Americans when they asked him in 1991 not to retaliate for Iraqi SCUD attacks, or when Baker pressed him to go to the Madrid peace conference.

Netanyahu is different. He's constantly looking over his shoulder, worried about his coalition and the loyalty of the right. And Bibi trusts no one: He's an ambivalent leader pulled by party, tribe, and family on one hand, and by the need to be loved and successful on the other. His policies, particularly on settlements and peacemaking, seem half-hearted and tentative. One day, he institutes a 10-month settlement freeze; the next day, he orders a building spree. One day, he endorses the principle of a Palestinian state; the next, he opposes the kinds of decisions required to make it a reality. He formed a national unity government to deal with the military conscription debate, then saw it collapse after he wasn't able to reach a compromise on the issue. No wonder the Israeli right, left, center, to say nothing of the Americans, don't really trust him.

Obama's Convictions

If Bibi seems weak, Obama has left no doubt that he has strong views when it comes to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And he hasn't changed his views of Israel or Netanyahu, even if his first failed run at the peace process and the impending presidential election have caused him to back off.

I've watched a few presidents come and go on this issue, and Obama really is different. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn't in love with the idea of Israel. As a result, he has a harder time making allowances for Israeli behavior he doesn't like. Obama relates to the Jewish state not on a values continuum but through a national security and interest filter.
It's true that the president doesn't emote on many policy issues, with the possible exception of health care. But on Israel, he just doesn't buy the "tiny state living on the knife's edge with the dark past" argument -- or at least it doesn't come through in emotionally resonant terms. As the Washington Post's Scott Wilson reported, Obama doesn't believe the "no daylight" argument -- that is, to get Israel to move, you need to make the Israelis feel that America will stand by it no matter what. Quite the opposite: Obama appears to believe that Israel needs to understand that if it doesn't move, the United States will be hard pressed to continue to give it complete support.

In this respect, when it comes to Israel, Obama is more like Jimmy Carter minus the biblical interest or attachment, or like Bush 41 minus a strategy. My sense is that, if he could get away with it, the president would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well.

No Common Project

Right-wing Israeli leaders have found ways to cooperate quite closely with American presidents in the past. But this time around, it's not so easy.

There are just no good answers to the region's problems. The peace process is stuck, and Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon seems impervious to sanctions or diplomacy. The Arab world is going through changes that will introduce even more uncertainty into Israeli calculations and make risk-taking on the peace process less likely. And as the president might say, let's be clear: Netanyahu is not going to offer the Palestinians a deal on Jerusalem, borders, or refugees that they will accept. Indeed, on the issue of a peace settlement, Obama's views are much closer to the Palestinians than to Israel.

The Iranian nuclear issue could still push the two countries closer together, even though they differ on the urgency of the threat and how to deal with it. If Israel should strike and the Iranians hit back, America will be most likely drawn in and engaged on Israel's side. Alternatively, if the United States attacks, we could see another Gulf War scenario, where the Americans plead with the Israelis to stay out even if provoked.

There's almost no scenario involving a military strike against Iran -- even if the Israelis struck without American approval -- that wouldn't create a need for intimate cooperation. However it plays out, Israel and the United States could easily find themselves in the same boat, and Obama and Netanyahu would be forced to work together closely as a result.

Short of that, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is in for a turbulent period. There will be no transformative moment here for the two main players. If Obama had a wish regarding Israel, it would be that anyone -- Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert -- replace Bibi. And when Bibi blows out the candles on his next birthday, he'll be wishing that Mitt Romney defeats Obama in November.

It's fascinating to consider that in the two most recent cases where American presidents clashed with Israeli prime ministers -- Carter and Bush 41-- both were defeated. Shamir also lost to Rabin in 1992, after clashing with Bush the elder. History could repeat itself in the case of both Obama and Netanyahu -- but what will be more intriguing and entertaining, however, is what happens if they both survive to go another round. Buckle your seat belts. It may be a wild ride.

-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 25/07/2012
-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

A Dispatch From ‘Free’ Syria: How To Run A Liberated Town

Like many other rebel towns, Saraqeb is learning to govern itself while retaining as much of the bureaucracy of the regime it wants to overthrow


Syrian boys hold a large revolutionary flag during a demonstration at Saraqeb town in Idlib, north Syria, June 15, 2012.
Syrian boys hold a large revolutionary flag during a demonstration at Saraqeb town in Idlib, north Syria, June 15, 2012.

Saraqeb is still at the mercy of the tanks of President Bashar Assad, just as it has been for about a year. The military invaded during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in 2011. It re-entered on March 24 for a couple of days. It also shelled Saraqeb on July 19, in response to an attack by local elements of the rebel Free Syria Army on a checkpoint on the outskirts of the town. Some 25 people were killed in several hours of shelling on that night. It is Ramadan once again and the tanks every now and then lob a shell in the direction of town to remind Saraqeb that Assad’s forces are still around.

But a different flag flies in Saraqeb: the three starred one belonging to the rebels. And the local government works. The Baladiye, or local council, in this Sunni town of some 40,000 in northwestern Idlib province is still functioning. Its 90 or so civil servants still show up for work and still draw their salaries. Most of the people of Saraqeb say their town is free, liberated of Assad’s regime. But they have consciously retained some elements of the old order.

Around the corner from the nondescript Baladiye building, other government offices like the records of births, deaths and marriages, and the agricultural office (which dispenses subsidized fertilizer and other staples crucial for the livelihood of this agricultural region) are untouched. Not so the nearby headquarters of the ruling Baath Party. “We burnt it because it didn’t serve a purpose,” says Mohammad, 21, an economics student turned activist and Free Syrian Army fighter. “But we didn’t burn the trees outside it.”

The 17-month Syrian crisis is now in its endgame, that much is clear. In the past few weeks, the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups have brought the fight to the regime’s two main strongholds; the capital Damascus and the country’s commercial hub of Aleppo in the north. What remains unclear is what and who will fill the vacuum the moment four decades of Assad family rule come to an end. Members of both the political and military Syrian opposition have repeatedly said that they want the fall of the Syrian Baathist regime, but not the Syrian state. In other words, to maintain functioning institutions – including the military – but remove senior regime officials from them.

Syrians know what a complete collapse would be like. Post-Saddam Iraq, next door, is a clear example of what not to do. The clumsy, heavy-handed U.S-inspired and sanctioned Debaathification – which tarred every member of Iraq’s ruling Baath party as an enemy of the fragile new state – helped foment an armed insurgency that found ready recruits among the millions of angry unemployed soldiers and state workers, as well as other disenfranchised groups.

The rebel fighters in Syria have a more limited goal, it seems. “The state is still present here in its offices and, at a distance, in its tanks,” says Fayez, 40, a lawyer in Saraqeb. “We want to remove the tanks.” The form of a post-Assad Syria will obviously depend on how Assad is  removed. The longer it takes, the uglier it is likely to become and the more difficult it will be to reconstruct a new system from the ruins. “We know that even if the regime falls, the harder battle will be forming a new country,” says Moutaz, 30, a local teacher and a former member of the town’s Local Coordination Committee, or LCCs. “We will sacrifice a lot more to create a new country than we will to bring down the regime.”

Moutaz is a former member of Saraqeb’s Local Coordination Committee. The LCCs have emerged as a grassroots social services system and are likely to play a pivotal role in any post-Assad period. Decades of one-party Baathist rule meant Syria did not have any real semblance of a civil society, yet these local groups quickly and efficiently emerged to fill that space. Initially formed to meet, plan and organize anti-regime demonstrations in their local communities and disseminate that information to the media, the LCCs have increasingly taken on a larger role, with varied success — and with diminishing amounts of money.

In Saraqeb, the committee’s nine members are each tasked with a different role – there’s a media liaison, finance officer, military liaison, political officer, revolutionary courts representative, services coordinator, medical services, donations officer, and demonstrations coordinator. They are rotating, elected posts of three months’ duration. “There is no leader in the group,” said “al-Sayed,” one of the nine representatives who requested anonymity. “We want to get rid of this idea.”

Eradicating ego and family politics, as well as corruption, is not going to be easy. The LCC in the nearby town of Binnish some 15 kilometers away for example, has long been held up by activists in exile as a successful example of an administrative system replacing that of the state’s. But the committee has been bedeviled by a dispute between two of the town’s largest families, the Sayeds and the Sayed Alis, over a laundry list of issues.

Saraqeb’s LCC has its own troubles, mainly financial. The committee has suspended its activity because of a 1.2 million Syrian pound ($18,700) bill accrued by the organization’s two free medical clinics. False receipts – a lot of them – are suspected of being issued by some and the matter is under investigation.

The LCC in Saraqeb relies on donations, mainly from Syrians in the diaspora, but the money doesn’t arrive regularly. “This month we might get 10 million (syp),” a former LCC representative said, “other months perhaps 1 million.” The Syrian National Council, the overarching political umbrella organization comprised mainly of exiles, gave Saraqeb’s LCC 40,000 euros ($48,400), a one-off payment after the Syrian army invasion last Ramadan. Committee members, past and present, say they haven’t seen a cent since. Some 113 properties have been burnt in the various army incursions.

Many of the homes remain blackened and derelict, some of the stores in the town’s main souq are closed, their bullet-riddled shutters blown-out and distorted by the force of explosions in the street. Abel-Ilah, the local house painter, says he is still trying to repair and paint over much of the damage. Home owners often can’t pay him, he says, or end up paying him a tenth of his regular rate. But he does the work anyway out of a sense of civic responsibility.

Al-Sayed, of the LCC, says civic responsibility must extend to paying the LCCs. For months now, residents have stopped paying state utility bills, including electricity, power and water.  (the services continue, although electricity outages are becoming more frequent). “We need to tell the people that whatever they paid the regime, in terms of water, electricity, they should give to the [LCC], so we can work with it. We don’t want to ask this of people who are struggling, but this is our reality,” Al-Sayed says.

Many townsfolk, like Iyad, a 36-year old barber and father of two, expect to receive assistance from the LCC, not provide it with funds. His barbershop was burnt in late March, when the army rolled into town. TIME caught up with him in a small town on the Syrian-Turkish border, just before he crossed into Turkey. He was livid with Saraqeb’s LCC, and lashed out at a member who had also sought refuge in the small safe house. “It was my livelihood,” Iyad said of his store. “I am forgotten. Nobody asked me what I need, how I am feeding my family, forget about fixing my store!”

“There are other, more critical cases than yours,” the LCC member said. ”Who is more important than me and my family? Thieves were given money, people with connections to you! I was told by the [LCC], you have land, go and sell it! I fought in this revolution, and this is how I am treated? Why? Because there is corruption in the LCC.” The LCC member did not respond.

Back in Saraqeb, the townsfolk were working on restructuring their committee. Instead of nine members, a plan was put forward for 45, and 15 sub-committees. Most of the major families in the town would have members in the new group. The key sticking point was how to ensure that the various armed groups in the town  would come under civil control. Multiply this by the number of towns in so-called free Syria and you can get an idea of the trouble that may lie ahead.

-This report was published first in TIME on 24/07/2012

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Prince And The Revolution

Saudi Arabia is bringing back its most talented operator to manage the Arab Spring. But can Bandar stem the rot in Riyadh?


Prince Bandar Bin Sultan

On July 19, on the eve of the Saudi weekend and the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi government orchestrated its equivalent of Washington's Friday afternoon news dump: Prince Bandar bin Sultan, son of the late crown prince and defense minister, Sultan, was appointed the new intelligence chief.

The kingdom may want minimal coverage and analysis of Bandar's appointment, but it is bound to be disappointed. Bandar used to be one of Saudi Arabia's flashiest diplomats, a longtime ambassador to the United States renowned for manipulating people and policy in the kingdom's favor, and sometimes also in favor of the U.S. government. At the very least, his appointment is a reflection of King Abdullah's concerns about developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, and the limited talent pool in the House of Saud to meet the challenges. Frankly, it suggests panic in Riyadh.

Where does one start? Bandar certainly used to be a firm pair of hands, but recently that grasp has been shakier. Although Bandar endeared himself to successive U.S. administrations for being able to get things done -- as well as the sumptuous parties he hosted at his official residence in Virginia overlooking the Potomac -- the prevailing story about him recently has been about his mental state. William Sampson, a (friendly) biographer, noted that Bandar's "first period of full-blown depression" came in the mid-1990s. Another biographer, David Ottaway, described Bandar as a "more than occasional drinker," and most conversations about him seemed to revolve around, only partly mischievously, whether he had finished detoxification or not.

In October 2010, the Saudi Press Agency announced that Bandar had returned to the kingdom "from abroad," to be met at the airport by a bevy of princes. This development prompted me to write a Foreign Policy article making the case that "Bandar is back."

To my slight embarrassment, Bandar then disappeared from sight. But I wasn't wholly surprised about last week's announcement because Bandar has recently reemerged. In June, when his uncle Crown Prince Nayef died, the Saudi Press Agency published a photo of Bandar, saying he offered his condolences. A week ago, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Jeddah, Bandar was also listed as attending his audience with King Abdullah.

Although the kingdom's main obsession is Iran, its immediate pre-occupation is Syria. On that issue, Bandar may indeed be the man for the moment. Over the years, he has acquired a reputation for discreet diplomacy and intrigue in both Syria and Lebanon. According to a source close to the ruling family, King Abdullah regards Bandar, who bad-mouthed the then crown prince during his tenure as ambassador to the United States, with caution. At one point, Abdullah went so far as to take Bandar to the side and tell him: "I know you do not represent me in Washington."

But Abdullah still recognizes Bandar's talents. Although Abdullah is often depicted as a Syriaphile, the monarch changed his attitude, especially after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad castigated his fellow Arab leaders as "half-men" for their failure to support Hezbollah.

Another more recent example of Saudi willingness to play in Syrian politics was the welcome that Bashar's uncle, Rifaat, received in Riyadh when coming to pay his respects last month after Nayef's death. Rifaat has lived in Paris since 1984, having tried and failed to stage a coup after President Hafez al-Assad, his brother and Bashar's father, fell ill. Rifaat is related to King Abdullah by marriage -- one of Rifaat's wives was a sister of one of Abdullah's wives, the mother of deputy foreign minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah. The closeness between Rifaat and Abdullah is more than just kinship: They worked together in the early 1980s when Rifaat was leading the Defense Companies, Syria's praetorian guard, and Abdullah was commander of the Saudi Arabian national guard.

However the kingdom may be adjusting its Syria policy, there is no denying that the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), the Saudi CIA, is badly in need of a shakeup. Its recent record is, to say the least, mixed: Shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom's chief interlocutor with the then Taliban regime in Afghanistan, "was relieved of the post at his [own] request." In Ghost Wars, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the CIA and Osama bin Laden, Steve Coll wrote: "Turki's vast personal riches . . . bothered some of his rivals in the royal family. They felt the Saudi intelligence department had become a financial black hole. . . . Turki's rivals clamored for accountability at the [General Intelligence Department]."

Both Muqrin and Nawaf, the men who served as Saudi intelligence chiefs between Turki and Bandar, lacked flair. Muqrin, who has now been shunted into an undefined advisory role, trained as a fighter pilot, like Bandar. But his primary credential for the job was that he was loyal to King Abdullah. His other qualification was that, like the king, he was not a Sudairi -- the largest group of seven full brothers who have dominated Saudi royal politics for decades and still do, despite the passing of three of them. Nawaf, who took over from Turki, was even more of an Abdullah yes-man. The fiction that he was leading Saudi foreign intelligence was unsustainable after he suffered a stroke during the 2002 Beirut Arab summit. He is still alive, but confined to a wheelchair.

Even if Bandar has regained some of his previous form, the troubles of the Middle East, from a Saudi perspective, are surely more than can be handled by one man. In Syria, Riyadh wants Bashar out but does not want the contagion to spread to Jordan. To Riyadh's fury, it also finds itself competing for influence in Syria with tiny Qatar, which appears to be just as generous with money and weapons but much far more nimble in responding to events on the ground. Meanwhile, Iran looms over the horizon, gaining in nuclear potential while also, from the kingdom's perspective, fanning the flames of Shiite Muslim discontent in Bahrain and even at home, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Recent clashes between Saudi Shiites and security forces following the arrest of firebrand Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr (literally: Tiger, the Tiger), resulted in the deaths of several protesters and the injury of dozens more.

Bandar's appointment suggests another weakness in Riyadh: King Abdullah, it appears, cannot identify or perhaps trust any other talent within the House of Saud for such a role. Bandar was born on the wrong side of the blanket -- his mother was a Sudanese concubine -- so has no claim as a future king. But what of the senior princes, who should be showing a flair for leadership at this critical juncture? Crown Prince Salman, the defense minister, and Prince Ahmed, the new interior minister, do not appear to inspire confidence.

The next generation, of which Bandar is a member, includes deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan and national guard commander Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, as well as Eastern Province governor Prince Muhammed bin Fahd and assistant interior minister Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. With Saudi Arabia's most senior princes dying off, it's time for this generation to step into a leadership role if the kingdom hopes to avoid a messy succession crisis in the near future -- or at least that is probably what these men, spring chickens in Saudi royal terms but already in their fifties and sixties, think.

But for some reason, King Abdullah has chosen Bandar for a role that, without too much hyperbole, might be described as saving the kingdom. It's an interesting choice.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 24/07/2012
-Simon Henderson, the Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is author of After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia

Hezbollah's Swedish Roots

By Judy Bachrach

In Thailand, Atris Hussein, a Swedish man of Lebanese descent, was charged with possessing explosive materials made out of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate: six tons of the stuff, in fact.

That was in early July.

In Cyprus, another Swedish man of Lebanese descent was arrested on the coast of Limassol after Cypriot authorities learned that the suspect, a member of Hezbollah as he eventually admitted, was planning an attack on Israeli tourists vacationing there. He possessed flight records of El Al passenger lists, so it came as no surprise when he conceded he had been planning to blow up a plane or, at the very least, a tour bus.

That was also in early July.

In Thailand once again, Hezbollah member Hussein Idris, another Swedish citizen, was placed under arrest. His intention: to blow up a group of Israelis with a car bomb.

That was in January of this year.

In Sweden, an ebullient Mona Sahlin, leader of the country’s Social Democratic Party, took part in a rally where the waving of Hezbollah flags and the burning of an Israeli one, were the predominant highlights. That was three years ago, after a former Social Democrat leader, Goran Persson, found himself widely criticized because of the general feeling he was too pro-Israel for comfort, a charge no Swedish voter could reasonably level against Sahlin.

And then last week in Bulgaria—well, you know perfectly well what happened to some 40 Israeli tourists last week in Bulgaria. And once again, the plot was concocted by a Swedish citizen whose actual name appears to be a subject of some controversy. The Bulgarian media seem to feel the suicide bomber was in fact Mehdi Ghezali, a 33-year-old former resident of Guantánamo whose eventual release in 2004 was due to a fair amount of impassioned Swedish lobbying. The lobbyist-in-chief? None other than the Swedish prime minister … Goran Persson (yes, the very politician whose views were deemed too pro-Israel by his Hezbollah-flag-waving colleagues).

Once liberated, Ghezali was arrested first in Portugal (where he robbed a bank of 600,000 euros), and then again in Pakistan. He was not there as a tourist. He had been on his way to Waziristan, an al-Qaeda Eden. Last week, he may have found another.

Bulgarian police, on the other hand, claim that the suicide bomber wasn’t Ghezali; it was, authorities say, some other longhaired Swedish person bent on mass murder. But as I see it, that is not the issue.
The issue is: what is Sweden? What kind of nation harbors what the Wall Street Journal calls “one of Europe’s most active Hezbollah chapters”? What kind of country believes Hezbollah flags should be waved during mainstream political demonstrations? What kind of message is Sweden sending the rest of us?

And finally, and not least—what kind of future does Sweden imagine will await it when Hezbollah, all its adherents and all its bombs and all its bombers, come home to roost?

-This commentary was first published in World Affairs Journal on 24/07/2012

Syria’s Rag-Tag Rebel Army’s Sophisticated Campaigns

The Free Syrian Army's top brass is based in Turkey—though some soldiers say ground troops are in charge. Despite the friction, the rebels are waging an increasingly successful campaign.

By Mike Giglio

Syrian Rebel Hunting For Snipers
Syrian rebels hunt for snipers in Selehattin, near Aleppo, on July 23. The rebels "liberated" several districts of the northern city on Monday, according to a Free Syrian Army spokesman. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

Behind the concrete walls at Apaydin, a refugee camp near Turkey’s southern border with Syria, lives the top brass of Syria’s armed rebellion. The camp is home to the military council officially leading the Free Syrian Army’s fight against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, along with more than 2,000 Syrian military defectors and their family members. Turkish authorities keep Apaydin under tight control. The FSA leaders can’t leave or receive visitors without permission from their hosts.

Yesterday afternoon, in a house a few miles down the road, Khaled Issa, a former Air Force officer who now commands two companies of FSA soldiers, sat in a living room buzzing with fans. Like many rebels who use Turkey to rest and recover or restock supplies, Issa can come and go with ease, and he planned to rejoin the fight in a matter of days. On the front lines, he said, he felt little connection with the military leaders holed up in the Apaydin camp—“they just give us support in the media,” he said, and advocate with foreign governments. Instead, the insurgency was being directed by the commanders on the ground, who tend to coordinate informally with one another instead of looking to instructions from a chain of command. “The real work is being done inside Syria,” he said.

The Syrian uprising has been roughshod and loosely organized from the start, a fact that has played heavily in discussions over supporting the rebels in the West. Amid so much apparent confusion, though, the FSA has managed to pull together a series of concerted, coherent, and strategically important efforts over the last two weeks. Longstanding concerns over command and control, these recent successes suggest, may be obscuring the fact that FSA is running an increasingly effective campaign on the ground—even if it remains hard to tell who’s directing the efforts behind the scenes. “We’re still talking about a rag-tag army, but they’ve been able to strike a severe blow against the regime,” says Shadi Hamid, who heads the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center.

The FSA has gained new stature of late with a series of daring and sophisticated campaigns. It's captured border crossings into Iraq and Turkey and launched offensives inside Syria’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. The capstone was a bombing in Damascus last week that killed four members of Assad’s inner circle, including his brother-in-law and the Syrian defense minister. Riad al-Assad, the FSA’s top commander, told the Associated Press by phone from Apaydin that the attack marked “the beginning of the end of the regime.”

The U.S. government, meanwhile, is facing calls to step up to the plate in Syria as diplomatic efforts continue to fail. The Obama administration is reportedly planning intensively for the Assad government’s collapse—and also moving to boost its assistance to the FSA in the form of non-combat training and supplies, and possibly intelligence, according to The New York Times. “It looks like we’re moving to an end-game,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert with the University of Oklahoma. “There is intense pressure on the United States to do something.”

Despite the FSA’s recent gains, in Antakya, the Turkish city near Apaydin that is serving as a hub for the Syrian opposition, the sense remains of a disjointed military effort lacking a cohesive command chain of command—a difficult prospect for foreign governments looking to channel support. “The FSA in Turkey is not well-connected to what’s actually going on inside Syria,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who met with opposition leaders in Antakya recently. “Turkey keeps them on a very tight leash.”

The rag-tag feel is evident in Antakya, where people like Samer Aouf, a young activist from Aleppo, buzz about the city in informal FSA support roles. Aouf jolted around through the streets yesterday in a gray Hyundai van—whose Turkish bumper sticker, "Allahin Dediği Olu," or “God’s will,” he couldn’t understand—picking up cash to fund supply runs into Syria and shuttling activists to and from a planned hospital for Syrians now filling the area. A columnist with the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman wrote recently that in one border town near Antakya, “an outsider may think that Turkey and Syria have merged.”

Despite the haphazard feel to the effort, and the talk of commanders shut away in their camp, the open supply lines and safe haven have helped make Turkey an effective operating base—which may be helping along the improvements on the ground. “It’s a paradox,” Pollock says. “At Apaydin they’re almost more like prisoners than they are a military camp, but Turkey is tolerating, and to some extent supporting, FSA fighters on the ground. And the FSA on the inside has increased its activities, sophistication, and capability and has reached deeply in Damascus.”

Last night a group of refugees and FSA soldiers waited to break their Ramadan fasts in an Antakya apartment. On his laptop, one soldier proudly showed a YouTube video of troops from his squad firing missiles they made themselves. Another, Mohsin al-Seif, displayed a captured Syrian tank on his pink Nokia cellphone. Seif, too, makes frequent trips from Syria to Turkey and back, shuttling needed supplies. “When I’m not with my battalion, I support them from here,” he said.

-This report was published first in The Daily Beast on 24/07/2012
- Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek

Monday, July 23, 2012

Syrian Opposition Leaders: We Need U.S. Weapons

Two rebel commanders tell The Daily Beast they could oust Assad within a month—if the U.S. supplies them with some heavy-duty weapons. Why American officials are wary of pulling the trigger.

By Eli Lake

Syria Weapons
Two rebel commanders tell Eli Lake they could oust Assad within a month—if the U.S. supplies them with some heavy-duty weapons. (LO, AFP / Getty Images)

Two Syrian rebel commanders interviewed by The Daily Beast say they need advanced weapons to take out President Bashar al-Assad’s regime within the month and transition to a stable government. Khaled Habous, the head of the Damascus military council of the Free Syrian Army, said, “Before the end of this holy month of Ramadan it will be over.” Ramadan ends on Aug. 19.

But Habous also said that depends on whether his forces get high-tech weapons from the United States to finish the job. He cited Stinger missiles, the shoulder-fired rockets the Central Intelligence Agency supplied Afghan holy warriors in the 1980s, “that can neutralize the helicopters and tanks of Assad’s regime.” According to Habous, “This is all in the hands of the Americans. They have the say and we will hold them responsible for more victims."

Another rebel commander, Ahmed Nema, who heads the military council for the Free Syrian Army in Daraa, said on Sunday, “The regime is falling no matter what. I expect in four weeks the regime will go down, but because we lack advanced equipment it could go longer.”

The interviews with Habous and Nema were arranged by the Syrian Support Group, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby that has pressed the Obama administration to arm elements of the FSA. Though it’s perhaps not surprising that two commanders would press the U.S. for weapons support, especially as the rebels appear to be closer to toppling Assad, the Obama administration has so far refused to send any heavy weapons to Syria's rebels and instead has opted to support the opposition diplomatically and with nonlethal aid like communications gear.

In the past, White House and State Department officials have said they are reluctant to send weapons to the rebel fighters because the weapons could end up in the hands of extremist groups or even terrorist organizations. In an interview Friday, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said 25 percent of the opposition has "extremist ties." He would not elaborate on the source of that information.

Portable Stinger missiles would be especially easy to sell on the black market and could end up in the hands of America’s foes, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan membership group in Washington. Similar weapons sold to Libya in the Cold War known as SA-7 missiles went missing in 2011 during that country’s revolution.

“Certain weapons like Stinger missiles are extremely hard to control once they are transferred,” he said. “It could lead to very widespread unintended consequences during and after the conflict if those weapons fall into the hands of groups they were not intended for. There is a long history that shows that these very portable, essentially heavy weapons should not be transferred except under very limited and controlled circumstances.”

When asked about these concerns, Habous said, “We guarantee we will be responsible for receiving these kinds of weapons and distributing them and controlling them and putting them only in the hands of professionals who will use them properly.”

Heavy fighting continued Sunday throughout Syria. The BBC reported that government forces on Sunday drove rebel forces from a district close to the center of Damascus and was working to drive rebel fighters from the neighborhoods of Mezzeh and Barzeh.

Habous, a former commander in Syria’s southern command, has been trying to unify the approximately 8,000 rebel militia members fighting in and around Damascus. Louay Sakka, the head of the Syria Support Group, said Habous commands between 1,000 to 1,500 fighters.

Habous said his fighters have been unable to hold neighborhoods in Damascus the way rebels in other parts of the country have. But he also said he has seen hundreds of defections from the Syrian military since the bombing Wednesday that killed three top officials in the regime: Defense Minister Dawood Rajiha, Deputy Defense Minister and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, and Hasan Turkmani, al-Assad's security adviser. Habous declined to discuss the bombing other than to say it was carried out by a special unit that was not directly connected to the Free Syrian Army.

Nema said his fighters near the Jordanian border have come across Russian intelligence officers providing communications support and repairs on aircraft as well as cargo flights to Syrian government forces.

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment on Sunday. A U.S. official with access to U.S. intelligence on Syria said Russian intelligence officers are providing assistance to the Syrian military on the ground. The Russian navy relies on the Syrian port Tartus for access to the Mediterranean Sea.

The role of the Russians is critical to the survival of Assad’s regime. During the Cold War, Syria was a client of the Soviet Union and its military is supplied to this day by the Russian defense sector. While U.S. and Russian diplomats have publicly clashed at the United Nations since the spring over resolutions authorizing military force in Syria, behind the scenes the White House and the Kremlin have reportedly tried to work together.

Two U.S. officials with top security clearances working on Syria policy say the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, urged Assad in June to step down and cooperate with the plan developed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to negotiate a new government with Syria’s opposition. In June, Lavrov also told Assad Russia would not be able to protect the Syrian president or his family if he deployed chemical weapons, according to two U.S. officials who work closely on Syria.

The CIA has been scrambling in recent weeks to account for Syria’s stocks of chemical and biological weapons. One Western diplomat who works closely with U.S. efforts to secure those weapons told The Daily Beast that the locations of the weapons was known to U.S. and regional intelligence services. The problem, this official said, was whether the CIA or other regional intelligence services for Jordan, Turkey or Israel had the manpower ready to secure those stocks in the event of a quick regime collapse.

-This report was published first in The Daily Beast on 23/07/2012
- Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush’s axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea

If Iran Did It

Only in the warped logic of the Islamic Republic would the Bulgaria attack make sense.


The bombing that killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last week has once against cast a spotlight on Iran and its links to terrorism. Although they have presented no public evidence, Israeli and a U.S. officials have implicated the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and by extension, its patron Iran in the attack (Iran has denied any involvement). Outside of any clear link, we are left to wonder: How solid is the evidence, really? And why would Iran risk retaliation by killing Israeli tourists in Bulgaria? But Iran's connection to several foreign operations over the last year only makes the speculation more plausible.

It's been a busy 12 months for the Islamic Republic. Together, the foiled assassination plot against a Saudi diplomat in the United States, bombing attempts in Georgia, India, and Thailand, as well as the arrests of Iranians in Kenya, Azerbaijan, and a possible Hezbollah operative in Cyprus, suggest that Iran's once relatively cautious approach to covert activity may be giving way to a more hot-blooded, aggressive strategy driven by Iran's hawkish military leaders. Some of these recent foreign operations have reportedly targeted Israeli diplomatic officials. But an attack on innocent civilians on European soil -- which would garner little for Iran politically, put it at risk for further retaliation and conflict, further stain its tarnished reputation, and increase its international isolation -- would seem to severely conflict with Iran's overall defensive-minded strategic interests.

Because of their secretive nature, covert operations tend not to reveal too much about the individuals or powers behind them. Iran has benefited from such anonymity in the past, and has generally added another layer of credible deniability by outsourcing violent operations to non-Iranians. In occupied Iraq, for instance, although Iranian intelligence and military units were active, it was difficult to tie Iran to specific violence incidents conducted by Iraqi groups. The Feb. 14 bombings in Bangkok are a vivid exception. The explosion that tore through an apartment rented by an Iranian national, and an Iranian suspect's failed attempt to flee the scene (which culminated in him accidently blowing off his legs after throwing an explosive device at Thai police), led to the arrest of four suspected Iranian operatives, the warrants for two more, and directly linked Iran to a terrorism plot in the process. The Thai bombings came just a day after two attempted bombings against Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India, and gave credence to the perception that Iran was connected to those incidents as well. (Indian authorities later arrested an Indian journalist and issued warrants for three Iranian nationals suspected of involvement in the plot.)

Assuming the bombings in Georgia, India, and Thailand -- and now possibly Bulgaria -- show a shift in Iran's behavior, what precisely is motivating this change? On the surface, it appears that Iran was attempting to target Israeli officials in neutral countries in retaliation for Israel's suspected role in murdering Iranian scientists in Iran. The sloppy nature of these failed attempts, however, and the direct involvement of Iranian nationals in at least one of them, suggests that Iran's decision to retaliate could have been rash if not poorly planned.

Why the rush? Iran's impetus to act and act quickly is likely rooted in the extreme external pressures currently facing the Iranian regime. Robust international sanctions, including those aimed at Iran's petroleum and gas exports, are already exacting a stifling economical toll. Throw in failed nuclear negotiations, unrest and change across the Arab world, and widespread condemnation of the brutal repression of civil unrest in Syria, and you get an Iran increasingly isolated internationally and unpopular in the region. Add to all this Iran's already established fears of a military conflict with the United States and renewed popular unrest at home, and Tehran's leadership rightly understands that the regime is up against its most acute, existential challenge since the Iran-Iraq war.

The fall of the Assad regime in Syria would be a significant strategic setback for Tehran. Not only is Syria Iran's closest ally in the region, it also serves as a vital intermediary between Tehran and Hezbollah. A post-Assad Syria, assuming the largely Sunni opposition takes power in some form, would likely be unsupportive if not hostile to Iran and its interests in the Levant. Iran relies on its ties to Hezbollah to act as a spoiler in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And though Iran's actual influence may be exaggerated, Tehran, through its relationship with Hezbollah, has cast a long shadow, cultivating a perception of importance and gaining certain strategic advantages over Israel and the United States. The loss of Syria would hurt.

The escalating crisis in Syria thus comes at an extremely delicate time for Iran. Not only is it suffering the repeated indignities of internationally backed sanctions, ongoing sabotage against its nuclear program, and the humiliating assassinations of its scientists on its own soil, it is steadily losing influence across the Middle East and seeing its allies increasingly besieged. Despite their often rhetorical enunciations of confidence, Iran's leaders understand one thing clearly: They're at war.

Ironically, the United States' retreat from Iraq has only made Iran more vulnerable. At the height of the U.S. occupation, Iran's ability to initiate violence against U.S. forces afforded Tehran a prophylactic against a U.S. military attack. Iran has never been able to replicate that effort in Afghanistan, and with the drawdown of U.S. forces from the Afghan theater forthcoming, Iran's leverage against the United States will reduce further. This leaves Iran with three main ways to threaten its enemies: 1) rocket and naval attacks against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf; 2) closing the Strait of Hormuz; 3) targeting adversaries via proxies such as Hezbollah. Iran cannot directly attack U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf without risking an open war with the United States. And though Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz for a short period, it would be a kamikaze action that would likewise initiate a military conflict with America.

Enter Hezbollah. Terrorism by proxy affords Iran the only retaliatory option that does not necessarily bring it to or past the brink of war. And it's an area where Iran has plenty of experience, relying on both its successes in Iraq and its handful of well-known previous operations in cultivating the reputation as an effective covert actor outside its borders. All this makes it unsurprising that Iran, in a time of heightened tension, severe pressure, and repeated attacks against its people and interests, might reach for the only serviceable means of retaliation at its disposal.

The question that we are left with is not whether Iran was involved in the Bulgaria attack or not --- that's a question authorities may never be able to publicly answer convincingly -- but rather, how Israel, the United States, and Iran will respond. This long-simmering conflict is now reaching a boiling point. Unless or until either side relents and offers significant compromises to the other, Iran and its adversaries will continue along a trajectory toward war. Every conflict has its trigger, and terrorist attacks like the one that killed five innocent civilians in Burgas on July 19, can only increase the likelihood that one begins.

-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 23/07/2012
-Afshon Ostovar is a senior Middle East analyst at CNA, a non-profit research organization, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University