Focal Points Blog

Syria: Assad’s Empty Gestures, Empty Threats

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Syrian President Assad insists that the apparent chemical-weapon attacks that have left upwards of 1,000 people dead in his country were committed by “terrorists,” as he calls the opposition. That’s his story and Russia and Syria are sticking to it.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that they were carried out “likely with high-level approval from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, according to American and European security sources.”

But, as Assad himself points out in an interview with Izvestia reported on by the New York Times:

… government troops would have risked killing their own forces if they had used chemical weapons. “This contradicts elementary logic,” news reports quoted him as saying. It is “not us but our enemies who are using chemical weapons,” he said, referring to antigovernment rebels as “the terrorists.”

Bearing in mind that just because he invokes logic doesn’t necessarily mean Assad actually isn’t capable of acting irrationally. But remember the area subjected to clouds of poison gas was the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, also his home. Though I’m unfamiliar with drift patterns of poison gas, putting Damascus, himself, and his famly in possible harm’s way would make him obstinate to the nth degree, not to mention self-destructive, on top of irrational. We’re talking about Hitler territory.
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Foreign Policy Thin-Sliced (8/23/13)

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Egypt: A Peaceful State Rule by a Junta

“We have this thing about us, that the Egyptian Army is untouchable,” [a woman named] Israa said.

“So many want Egypt ruled with an iron grip,” she said. [But] “This is not us. … It’s not Egypt at all. We are not happy with death and blood.”

Working-Class Cairo Neighborhood Tries to Make Sense of a Brutal Day, Kareem Fahim, the New York Times
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If True, Does Assad Really Think WMD Use Is Okay With Russia?

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Calls for intervention are rearing their ugly head again in light of charges that the Syrian military mounted a poison gas attack outside Damascus. (Syria’s capital and home to President Assad: gives new meaning to “fouling your nest,” aka “s****ing the bed.”) While the Syrian opposition and Western states are urging Syria to permit UN inspectors to examine the site, France is calling on states to respond “with force” if WMD use is verified.

We’ll spare you another round of the pros and cons of intervention. Meanwhile, the Security Council is meeting today and, in the unlikely event that Assad has finally gone too far for Russia, what options are available if Russia cooperates? Outside all-out RP2, I’ve heard that what’s being considered are sanctions on individual members of Iran’s government (raise your hand if you’re surprised that hasn’t yet been enacted) and a referral to the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
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It Must Be Summer: Pakistan Shells India

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The latest round of border tensions along the Line of Control (LOC) separating India and Pakistan began with the ambush of 5 Indian soldiers earlier this month, which has now expanded to heavy exchange fire along the LOC and heightened tensions. Now the real question that is debated vigorously in the Indian media is why can’t and why has not India developed an adequate military response to the border ceasefire violations or pursued other military options. In some ways, this question is a red herring because India has indeed responded by returning fire along the border and sought to maintain the prevailing status quo on the border.

Motivations behind the Pakistani army’s decision to start shelling along the LOC in violation of 2003 ceasefire agreement are not entirely self-evident. Many theories are being floated in the Indian media to explain Pakistan’s violation of LOC. But one explanation stands out. Pakistani army began shelling in order to facilitate the cross-border intrusion of the dreaded jihadi groups such as Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Lashkar-eJhangvi (LeJ). Pakistani border forces have regularly have relied upon the strategy of lobbing mortar shells and small arms fire to facilitate infiltration of terror groups into Kashmir; this is an annual summer activity.
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Massive Retaliation by the Loser of a Nuclear War Takes Payback to Absurd Heights

ICBM

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Like a mirage, whenever it seems within reach nuclear disarmament recedes further into the distance. But, at least nuclear hawks no longer feel comfortable speaking on the record about nuclear “warfighting.” In fact, to keep the money flowing into the industry, they base one illusion – that nuclear weapons make us safer – on another: acting as if not only won’t they be used offensively, but defensively. In other words, the only function of “our nuclear deterrent” (as they invariably refer to the U.S. nuclear-weapons program) is to stand around and look threatening.

But it was only a few decades ago that commentators spoke more frankly of using them. Even though it was on the heels of the Nuclear Freeze movement, in the autumn 1987 issue of the Midwest Quarterly, Washington attorney James P. Scanlan addressed a national security concern slash ethical dilemma in an article titled Facing the Paradox of Deterrence (which I stumbled across while browsing JStor).

We must intend to retaliate in order to deter the Soviet Union from attacking us with nuclear weapons; but after the Soviet Union has unleashed a massive nuclear attack, there will no longer be any purpose in retaliating, at least no purpose sufficient to justify the substantial retaliation we must threaten in order to deter.
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Tunisia: Washington’s Grip Tightens

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda party. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted from Open Democracy.

Part One

Two years ago it was a Tunisian uprising that triggered the events in Egypt which brought down Hosni Mubarek. Now it is the Egyptian mass movement – which in conjunction with that country’s military that is fanning the flames of opposition in Tunisia. Is Tunisia on the verge of imploding along ‘Egyptian-like’ lines?

There are parallels between the two situations of the two countries – most particularly, the pervasive collapse of confidence in the recently elected governments. Just as the Muslim Brotherhood failed to address the socio-economic crisis that swept it to power just a short year ago, so too, Ennahda – Tunisia’s version of the Brotherhood, for all practical purposes, has been singularly ineffective in addressing Tunisia’s woes.
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Foreign Policy Thin-Sliced (8/16/13)

Syria. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Syria. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Syrian Rebel-Force Futility

“If a regular Syrian comes and asks me what we have given him, I don’t know what to say,” Ahmed said.

Momentum Shifts in Syria, Bolstering Assad’s Position, Ben Hubbard, the New York Times
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Bulgaria’s Ataka Party: An Unlikely Blend of Left and Right

Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka. Photo by John Feffer.

Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka. Photo by John Feffer.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Three items in Volen Siderov’s office reflect his current image. The religious icons on the wall speak to his embrace of traditional Bulgarian values and to the agreement his party concluded with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 2006. The antique sword hanging nearby stands in for his militancy. And the heavy boxing bag is part of his personal commitment to physical fitness as well as a willingness to engage in physical altercations.

Volen Siderov is the leader of Ataka, perhaps the most controversial political party in Bulgaria. Ataka – or Attack – came to prominence in 2005, when it placed fourth in the parliamentary elections. Siderov himself came in second in the presidential race the following year. The party’s platform mixes a left-wing critique of globalization with a frankly nationalist approach to minority policy. He wants to replace Bulgaria’s flat tax with a progressive tax, but he believes that all ethnic Turks are just Bulgarians forced to convert to Islam in centuries past. He is deeply suspicious of neo-liberalism, but he also blames Roma for crime and corruption and doesn’t acknowledge attacks on the Roma community.
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No More Illusions in Egypt

egypt-unrest-crackdown-muslim-brotherhood

(Globovision / Flickr)

With the bloody attack on protest camps in Cairo, the announcement of a one-month state of emergency across the country, and the authority given to the army to “assist” the police in maintaining law and order, there can no longer be any question that Egypt is once again under the thumb of military authoritarianism. The democratic spring of Tahrir Square has been defeated, but the question “for how long” remains open. Egypt has undergone two huge changes since the overthrow of the US-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, and both will play determinative roles in the current escalating crisis.

First, while there is substantial evidence that Mubarak-era loyalists are playing a major role in the anti-Morsi opposition and especially in the interim government that the military established, U.S. support for and influence on the new power center in Cairo remain uncertain. U.S. economic support for the Egyptian military remains unchanged, but that $1.3bn in military aid is now dwarfed by multi-billion grants from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and beyond; following Obama’s partial embrace of Islamist-flavored governments in Egypt as well as elsewhere in the region, Washington simply doesn’t have the same influence it once did.

Secondly, and most important, the Egyptian people have risen up to claim their rights as citizens, and have seen their power to change their country. However naive the democratic anti-Morsi protesters may have been about the possibility of overthrowing an elected leader simply by coming into the streets, as if the military would not ultimately play the decisive role, many of those millions of protesters are not likely to accept permanent military dictatorship unchallenged. Egypt today remains horrifically divided, with today’s bloodbath certain to make things worse. The Muslim Brotherhood, under attack by the generals, will almost certainly retrench some of its forces to operate underground, but its current appeal as defenders of Egyptian democracy and its “coalition for legitimacy” may simultaneously broaden their engagement. The memory of the unity of January 2011, and the power that unity created, is not likely to fade quickly.

Croatia’s Unpopulist Party Wanted No Part of EU

Daniel Srb, leader of the Croatian Party of Rights.

Daniel Srb, leader of the Croatian Party of Rights.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

The Party of Rights in Croatia traces its lineage back to Ante Starcevic, who is sometimes referred to as the father of Croatia. In 1861, when his country was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Starcevic co-founded the Party of Rights as a vehicle for creating an independent Croatia. The long “springtime of nations” was still in effect, and many independence movements at the time aimed to break out of an empire that was called “the prisonhouse of nations.”

But independence didn’t come with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Instead, Croatia joined together with other southern Slav nations to create Yugoslavia. Only with the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 did an opportunity for a sort of independence arise. Under Ante Pavelic, this “independent” puppet state of the Nazis ruled for four brutal years. Like Slovakia, independence for Croatia had a most unfortunate link in the mid-20th century with fascism, persecution, and war crimes.
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