Focal Points Blog

North Korean Gulag Story Gains Traction — and Opposition — in Social Media

Where did the down-votes that inundated Reddit’s North Korean gulag post come from?

“Dead bodies storage — because rats eat the eyeballs first, most corpses don’t have eyes.”
– Caption to drawing, translated from the original Korean

So begins a gruesome visual accounting of the methods of torture, control and execution practiced in North Korea’s extensive labor camp system, thought to hold between 150,000 and 200,000 inmates (out of a total population of approximately 24.3 million) arrested for “political crimes” against the communist government.

A former guard from one of these camps reportedly drew these images after defecting to South Korea, now home to some 23,000 defectors/refugees, according to The Wall Street Journal. A larger collection of the drawings can be seen at, a popular South Korean Internet forum. They were posted there in April, around the same time a report on the enduring scale of the North Korean labor camps came out from the US-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (CHRNK). The report made use of satellite surveillance to pinpoint what are believed to be the five main camps in the system.

This past month, though, these images made the jump to English-language social media through the efforts of South Korean redditor Ryan Yang, who translated two sets of the images on imgur and posted links to them and the original Korean-language images on reddit. “I just wanted to spread awareness to a topic barely anyone knew about,” he said when asked why he chose to translate and publicize these images. He told reddit users that he hopes “[i]f the issue gets big enough, human rights groups, foreign governments may be able to pressure North Korea.”

He was also surprised that only now were the drawings getting such attention in the US media (Gawker, Business Insider, The Huffington Post and Digital Journal have since picked up the reddit post), since they have been going around universities and NGOs in his country for almost a year now, as part of an awareness campaign by North Korean human rights groups. They have been heavily discussed on South Korea’s own social media sites. Ryan, in fact, learned of the drawings from an exhibition at his university in Seoul.

“I’m quite pleased that many people are taking interest in this subject,” Ryan Yang told me in an email interview this week. “I honestly didn’t expect this much attention and the amount of enthusiasm people are having over this.”

And like the haunting sketches of Soviet gulag chronicled in Danzig Baldaev’s sadomasochist cartoons or Joe Sacco’s “Safe Area Goražde,” a graphic novel of the Bosnian War, the images are a form of protest that most viscerally captures the horrors of the system.

The images chronicle beatings, prisoners being forced to stone their fellow inmates, maulings by guard dogs, abject poverty – a man searches for corn kernels in horse dung, boots are crafted from old tires – and in particular, forced abortions on female inmates. The guards, like their predecessors in Soviet service, also find themselves at the capricious mercy of their superiors at times, superiors who may find themselves among the “political criminals” in the course of a power struggle. For all North Koreans, even the most loyal apparatchiks, life in the country is capricious under the watchful eyes of informers and shifting cliques within the ruling Kim family’s inner circle. To be accused of political crimes is a life sentence that encompasses not just the accused, but their family members as well.

In less than two weeks, the album generated over 19 million views on imgur. The post itself has around 2,800 points right now, plus a few hundred comments, on reddit, a substantial number, to be sure but it’s actually lower than one would expect. While nearly 20,000 votes have been cast on it at the subreddit r/pics, around 8,500 of them are downvotes.

Where are they coming from? (“I’m quite surprised,” Ryan stated.) Obviously, those down-votes do not hail from Internet users within North Korea, since Internet access is so heavily restricted. Only a few North Koreans – top Communist Party officials, namely – do have regular Internet access inside (or rather, outside) the country. For all intents and purposes, North Korea still has an intranet consisting almost entirely of state media reports and sanitized foreign “reports.” Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick noted in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” which features interviews with North Korean refugees who’d fled the country following the disastrous famine of the 1990s, that the government puts on that intranet heavily encyclopedias entries for university students to use.

News on the official Korean Central News Agency of DPRK mainly consists of banal listings off of friendship delegations and veiled threats against the South Korean “government,” a word which is always placed in quotes on these sites to denote Seoul’s illegitimacy in Pyongyang’s eyes. North Korea does have country Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts labeled Uriminzokkiri-Uriminzok (“our people”), but these are devoted to reposting Korean-language editorials extolling the virtues of the country and denouncing “US imperialism” and the “warmongers” of the “puppet south.” It may seem laughable to outsiders, but even such cookie-cutter, propagandistic reports are still seriously scrutinized by South Korean authorities fearful of the North’s intentions.

These camps are, following the collapse of the gulag system in the Soviet Union that was their inspiration, one of the few such camp system left today. A similarly extensive system, the “laogai,” is still maintained in the neighboring People’s Republic of China.

Ironically, it is through the Chinese economy that more and more North Koreans have become aware of the outside world. “Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans saw firsthand the economic progress in China when they went back and forth across the border in the 1990s [during the famine],” notes John Feffer, and even the “Hermit Kingdom” now has a cellphone network.

But “information has its limits,” Mr. Feffer concludes. Ryan Yang explained to redditors that this cellphone network is so heavily monitored that people have reportedly been jailed over their conversations. The fog of paranoia and state control has been stirred about, but not dissipated. North Korea’s ruling class “won’t change their allegiances simply because of what they hear on foreign radio broadcasts or what they see on black-market DVDs,” Mr. Feffer argues. “They will collectively break from the status quo only if their core interests are threatened” in the way that Eastern Europe’s communist regimes collapsed twenty years ago. Even approved outside connections can land North Koreans in prison.

Although it is unlikely the translated images will be seen by many in North Korea – unless the North’s samizdat (“self-publishing”) purveyors are successful in moving these images around the country – it is clear that the social media explosion they’ve generated abroad is not something that Pyongyang’s @Uriminzok Twitter can spam away. But Twitter is hardly a priority for the regime, and in the absence of a coherent policy towards the North, silence is the regime’s greatest asset.

Indeed, revealing drawings of camp conditions have been featured in US media before. Over the course of the past few years, several US media outlets reviewed “Escape from Camp 14,” a 2007-Korean language memoir by the defector Shin Dong-hyuk translated into English. Shin had the supreme misfortune to be born of an inmate mother in Camp 14, located in the mountains 45 miles north of Pyongyang. Shin’s mother was “bought” by a lathe operator in the camp workshops, which is how she was able to avoid a forced abortion.

Shin’s account of his life in the camps – 24 years, from his birth until his successful escape in 2005 – took a surprising turn this year after his admission that he had actually been responsible for sending two prisoners to their deaths by reporting their escape plans to the guards. Shin, who was 14 at the time, confessed that he had done this to gain extra rations (but despite the camp hierarchy that sometimes rewards snitches, his “reward” turned out to be several weeks of brutal torture sessions).

Shin later admitted that two prisoners caught and executed on his testimony were his own mother and brother. At the time, “Shin thought she deserved to die,” his translator, Blaine Harden, wrote. But such betrayals are, as shown in Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a graphic novel recounting the life of his father Vladek, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor, not exceptional in such camp systems. “Maus,” in fact, opens with Vladek saying to Art “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, then you could see what it is, friends!”

Shin’s father is either still living in the camps, or may be dead. Defectors’ families are often executed or jailed, making every decision to leave behind a relative a life sentence or death warrant for that person, even if they knew nothing of the escape.

Netanyahu Has Little to Fear From Kadima’s Desertion

Give Netanyahu a cubic centimeter of wiggle room, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima.

Shaul Mofaz, leader of Kadima.

On Tuesday evening, Shaul Mofaz, leader of the Israeli political party Kadima, convened his fellow parliamentarians and offered them his rationale for leaving the 94-seat Knesset majority they’d made possible in May when they joined PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition. In doing so, he has largely sealed Kadima’s fate as a political force in Israel.

According to The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov, Mofaz asserted in his defense that “there are red lines I can’t cross” and that “there’s a difference between compromising and just paying lip service.”

Mofaz’s red lines are the military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Palestinians. He supports a much more expansive draft program than Netanyahu. Netanyahu prefers a much more gradual course and maintaining a greater percentage of exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men. July 31 is the deadline Israel’s High Court set for a reform of the Tal Law, which since 2002 has governed the current exemptions policy. If no compromise is reached, the IDF could begin drafting 18-year-olds in these demographic groups without having the civilian government set quotas for exemptions, and non-military alternative “national service” options that would primarily granted to Israeli Arabs). Only around 1/5 of ultra-Orthodox draft-eligible males currently serve in the IDF.

The main question to ask now is not what the compromise will look like, but “when’s the next election?” Whenever it is, it will not be a good one for Kadima.

Kadima’s eleventh-hour deal with Likud back in May postponed emergency elections originally set for September 4. Polls showed that Kadima was likely to lose close to 2/3 of its Knesset seats in the September 4 contest, while Likud would gain seats. Mofaz, in seeking to avert that disaster, broke an earlier promise to never join in a coalition with Netanyahu. Kadima, not Likud, was negotiating from a position of weakness then.

It would constitute a Herculean feat for Kadima to now dispel the scorn the Israeli right is heaping on it. The “left’s” enthusiasm for Mofaz is not exactly a tangible quantity. The scorn felt in the country towards his party is rather aptly exemplified by an Israel Hayom political cartoon portraying Mofaz as a weather vane. Mofaz plainly failed to deliver — he says he’s quitting because there is no compromise on the draft and some of his party’s backbenchers are yelling that he gave up too easily on it.

Kadima’s withdrawal over the Tal Law is the most visible — and risible — issue that it’s stepping out on now. Ironically, on Monday, former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz stepped out on Kadima because it didn’t go as far he wanted it to on the law — Halutz wants universal conscription for all, starting at age 1, and Kadima was willing to accept a compromise for gradual enlistment over the next 4 years — which again makes one wonder as to what Kadima’s fate will be in the next election.

Mofaz’s defection was apparently triggered by Netanyahu’s dissolution of a committee that would have presented a compromise package on the draft. The Times of Israel reports:

Earlier Tuesday, Netanyahu had adopted a proposal put forward by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud), which called for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs to join the army or perform national service, such as serving in police or fire units, by ages 23 to 26. The motion also included incentives for those who enlist at a younger age.

Mofaz blasted the proposal as “disproportionate and contrary to the High Court ruling,” which stated that the burden of serving should be shared by all citizens. He also said it did not meet the principle of equality laid out by the Plesner Committee.

A full-scale draft is the preference of many members of Kadima, and it is preference of the secular-nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu as well, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, is Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s national-secular members of Knesset (KMs) have little patience for exemptions to the Palestinian Israelis or the ultra-Orthodox, or arguments from those on the Israeli left castigating the whole exercise as political theater. Kadima, at odds with the national-religious establishment on much else, found a natural ally in Yisrael Beiteinu this time since they do not support special privileges for the ultra-Orthodox or Israeli Arabs. Lieberman’s party is Likud’s main ally right now, and he opposes further Tal Law extensions in favor of a full-scale national draft — though his bill to effect this was recently voted down.

That said, it is Likud that has the most to gain from the coming deadline dance over the Tal Law, primarily because its opponents are so politically weak.

This is important to note because the law is one of the most controversial provisions of Israeli life, and one that it is easy to rally support for or against in Israeli domestic politics without having to have an uncomfortable discussion about the Occupation. As Karl Vick notes, “it leaves him [Netanyahu] weaker and more vulnerable to the passions of the factions who remain — nationalists on one hand, and religious parties on the other”.

And this is all true, but only to a certain extent. Netanyahu has to prefer the 19 votes of the national-religious bloc to Kadima’s seats because those are the people he broke bread with in 2009, and there is also the matter of the settler bloc in his own party. The dissent of this bloc’s leader, Moshe Felgin, over the Tal Law handling is much less threatening to Netanyahu than Lieberman’s is.

Kadima is setting out to make the universal draft the issue for the next election — though if that’s your only issue, why vote for the flip-flopping Kadima when you can vote for Yisrael Beiteinu, which actually has weight because of their staying in the government? Netanyahu might indeed be worried over what will happen before July 31, since he has relied so much on, perhaps sometimes without even quite realizing it, the domestic breathing room provided by his fractious partners to undertake his foreign policy program. This breathing room has helped him avoid a serious political confrontation in the Knesset over his Iran policy (this is less so with respect to the Occupation since few on any side of the political spectrum question its sustainability).

Without that breathing room, Netanyahu really does run risks going into the next elections because an issue as divisive as the Tal Law has the potential to explode Israeli society.

But it is a slim risk for Netanyahu, who is predicted to easily win the premier-ship again in 2013. His response to the current dust-up will likely compare to how he dealt with a “settlement crisis” just as his grand coalition formed. +972′s Noam Sheizaf had theorized that Likud’s incentive to get the coalition formed was to head off a serious confrontation over the legality of multiple apartments in the Beit El settlement’s Ulpana neighborhood: “By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis,” though Sheizaf also noted that the settlers were politically weak.

But that weakness, Sheizaf concluded, was belied by the “political theater” that the bigger players put on. A compromise on Ulpana, was, in fact, accomplished: the apartments were physically relocated and then the government promised to undertake massively expanded construction, as it so often does when an evacuation occurs. An incident that could have prompted a wider debate of the Occupation was headed off by last-minute compromises. Gone was any talk about the peace process that some hoped Mofaz would re-introduce.

By any measure, Netanyahu won the debate — such as it was — over Ulpana, and he did so not by using Kadima’s Knesset votes. They simply sat in his tent as his partisans worked out a solution with the furthest-right whose expansionism he sympathizes with. How that episode played out is indicative of Netanyahu’s strength as a politician. Give him a cubic centimeter of wiggle room in committee, and he will carve out a square mile of new apartments beyond the Green Line because there is really no strong, organized constituency behind Kadima to match Likud’s appeal.

Even as Lieberman thunders on about the universal draft, the Foreign Minister is surely mindful that had those September 4 elections been held, Likud, not his party, stood to gain the most. And for what it’s worth given Mofaz’s recent performance, Lieberman did announce he would not leave the coalition. It is much easier for Lieberman and Netanyahu to stay together than it is for either man to go over to the smaller national-religious parties like Shas or seek accommodation with the Labor Party.

Harkov also reported that 3 members of Kadima formally voted to remain in the coalition, and that seven more might prefer to jump ship. Not all that many, but bear in mind that Kadima was expected to hold onto only 10, perhaps 12 seats in the September 4 election, out of the 28 it held in May when it entered the coalition.

Netanyahu may indeed be scared of the ultra-Orthodox, but he’s not afraid of Kadima. A few defections on, and who at all will be afraid of Shaul Mofaz in the next general election?

Condi Rice Rumor Reveals Divisions in Romney Camp and on the Right

Condoleezza Rice gets mixed reviews from Republicans these days.

Condoleezza Rice gets mixed reviews from Republicans these days.

Well, we now have some idea of what it was about Condoleezza Rice’s appearance at the exclusive Romney fundraiser in Utah that got the Presidential candidate’s supporters’ juices going and thus attracted the major media’s attention. Turns out somebody recorded her remarks and judging by the poor audio quality of the version on the Internet it was probably done surreptitiously.

On July 13, posted a 13-minute audio clip of the speech.

Up until now the reports on what Rice said at the confab have come from what are called surrogates. It is quite clear that their testimonies were stage managed and designed to create a media stir. According to Buzzfeed, one person said he “was surprised by the red meat rhetoric employed by Rice, who has largely eschewed the political arena in recent years, devoting her time instead to an academic career at Stanford. “She’s either very worried about a socialist threat to America, or she wants to be Vice President,” the surrogate said.

Of course, Rice has consistently said she not interested in being a candidate but as soon as a Drudge Report—citing other unnamed surrogates—suggested she was “near the top” on Romney’s list of potential running mates, the speculation took wings. It could have been a real trial balloon. The Republicans have a problem; opinion polls indicate no enthusiasm for any of the other names that have been thrown into the hat. It has been suggested that the whole hullabaloo was concocted to divert public attention from the unfolding story about the former Massachusetts governor’s days as head of Bain Capital. That could be, but the remarks Rice made in Utah are also a window into the foreign policy views that turn rich Republicans on these days.

With Romney standing at her side while she spoke, Rice told the suits that the Obama presidency has been a failure, and in a period of “dangerous, chaotic times,” has led to an international crisis. She accused the current administration of displaying weakness on the world stage, engaging in class warfare, and employing failed economic policies at home.

According to Buzzfeed the comments that got her the first standing ovation were about the domestic situation. “It is a narrative that is being pushed by our current president, that ‘I’m doing poorly because you’re doing well,’” she said. “That has never been the American narrative. Ours has never been a narrative of aggrievement, and ours has never been a narrative of entitlement.”

Later, Rice declared, “It is time for all of us, in any way we can, to mobilize, get our act together, and storm Washington D.C.” That got the audience on their feet again.

The theme of Rice’s remarks on foreign policy centered on attacking the President’s unwillingness to more forcefully assert U.S. power, his refusal to ascribe to “American exceptionalism” the way she says Romney has, and her charge that Obama has allowed U.S. policy to be “governed by the lowest common denominator collective will of the so-called international community of the United Nations.”

“What we’re feeling most is not just that tumult, we’ve been through tumult before,” Rice said. “What we’re feeling is the absence of American leadership.”

“When our friends aren’t certain that they can count on us — and they aren’t so certain now — and when our foes don’t fear us or respect us, this is what you get: tumultuous, dangerous chaotic times,”

Rice was part of the group of foreign policy hawks known of as “The Vulcans” that advised George W. Bush during his campaign and went on to form a core group in his Administration, herself as National Security Adviser, and later Secretary of State.

Condoleezza Rice will not be the next vice-president of the U.S. She won’t be the party’s nominee. (But, she could be positioning herself – or is being positioned – for a place in a possible Romney administration.) While the idea of her on the ticket drew some favorable comment from some members of the Republican establishment, including rightwing hawk William Kristol of the Weekly Standard, the suggestion elicited howls from much of the right. Most of it has centered on her position on reproductive rights and immigration where she and Romney are not on the same page. Some of it relates to her association with the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, something the Romney campaign tries to avoid discussing.

Meanwhile, the idea of Rice on the ticket drew some flak from another quarter – supporters of the policies of the Israeli government. Morton Klein, the national president of the Zionist Organization of America and a frequent critic of the Obama administration, sounded a similar note. He was quoted by the Jewish Telegraph Agency this week as saying. “It understandably would be concerning to us if he’s picking somebody who shows herself to be hostile to Israel and to U.S.-Israel relations.” Klein, who often criticized Rice when she was secretary of state, continued, “She pressed Israel to make one-sided concessions while not making sure the Palestinians fulfilled their obligations.”

“Choosing Condoleezza Rice would inject tremendous excitement into the campaign and remove all suspense from the outcome,” conservative columnist George Will said on ABC‘s “This Week” last Sunday. “You would have such an uproarious convention in Tampa. You’d have perhaps a third party. You’d have a challenge to her on the floor. You’d have walkouts of delegations, and he’d lose 40 states.”

On his very rightwing RedState blog Erick Erickson called the notion of Rice on the ticket “silly,” adding, “I don’t know who is hitting the crack rock tonight in the rumor mill, but bull shiitake mushrooms.”

On some of the further out rightwing Internet outlets the language used to reject a Rice candidacy have been – how do you put this? –well, outright racist.

On the other hand, even as it became clear she would not be selected vice-presidential candidate, the Boston Herald endorsed her, reporting that she had been a “superstar” at the Utah moneybags gathering. Noting Rice’s comment about the alleged absence of U.S world leadership, it said editorially, “That is at the heart of what has gone seriously wrong with American foreign policy and rarely has it been articulated so boldly and succinctly.”

The editors of The Independent in Britain took the Rice rumor seriously, editorializing on the subject July 15, and warning that, “She also has political baggage, both as the adviser who told Bush Sr. not to back Ukrainian independence, and as National Security Adviser in the run-up to the Iraq war. Raising such ghosts may do the Republican cause more harm than good.” The newspaper concludes, “Condi is an interesting suggestion; but she is absolutely the wrong choice. Unless, of course, one is a Democrat.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

A State’s WMD Are Just as Likely to Threaten It as Protect It

In March at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles Blair wrote:

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is thought to be massive. One of only eight nations that is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention … Syria has a chemical arsenal that includes several hundred tons of blistering agents along with likely large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons.

On July 13 the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. officials were alarmed by reports that Syria has begun moving some of its chemical weapons out of storage facilities. Then, the BBC reports, Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s defecting ambassador to Iraq, said that, if cornered President Bashar al-Assad “will not hesitate to use chemical weapons.” Worse, “There is information, unconfirmed information of course, that chemical weapons have been used partially in the city of Homs.”

On the other hand, at the Atlantic, Sara Sorcher thinks that, in fact, “Assad’s strong hold on power has so far, from a chemical-weapons standpoint, staved off a potential disaster without an easy fix.” Her concern is reflected in the subtitle to the piece:

What happens to Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile — one of the largest in the world — if the deeply divided and untrained rebels overthrow his regime?

Blair aired the same concern in March.

While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents … are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being “hijacked” by jihadists. Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil-war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.

Furthermore, Sorcher writes, “the latest development underscores what some worry is a fundamental lack of preparation in Washington for what might happen next.” She quotes Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Monterey Institute of International Studies’ James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, who

… argues the U.S. should encourage the sites’ trained custodians–who may be contemplating defection–to remain in place. “You want to advise them that if they stick to their mission of protecting these sites … that they will be treated in a special category that will get some protection,” Spector said, calling on Washington to advise the Syrian opposition to get this message out. However, Syria’s opposition is still disorganized, and the West retains a lingering distrust of opposition groups with possible extremist ties.

If not for the fear that Assad might use WMD, the case could be made to prop him up if only to keep WMD out of the hands of insurgents who range from unpredictable to outright malevolent. The situation parallels that of another state somewhat. With its enmity for India, the West fears that Pakistan might not be able to restrain itself from launching nuclear weapons at India. Still that’s preferable to the West’s greater fear: that Islamic militants will seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

A state acquires weapons, especially WMD, not just for national security, but to ensure the survivability of the ruling regime or prevailing mode of government (such as democracy or communism). But, it may fail to anticipate conditions that can result in WMD being seized — or just plain lost in the shuffle, as when the Soviet Union dissolved — and used against it.

‘Twas ever thus with weapons. It’s just that, with WMD, the danger is exponentially amplified.

President Obama’s Strangely Pragmatic Doctrine

America's first line of defense against shari'ah -- Monica Crowley.

America’s first line of defense against shari’ah — Monica Crowley.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

It can be really depressing studying foreign policy and international conflicts. It’s mostly bad news. Especially when, in addition to the death, destruction, terrorism and war reporting on mainstream media, you must also study the conspiracy sites. Blogs like The Ugly Truth, which I found off a link on a great foreign policy roundup of blogs. I signed up for the newsletter and the next day received 10 emails of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. propaganda (not necessarily all untrue). Though there are some worthwhile alternative media perspectives among the posts, 10 highly subjective posts in a day is a bombardment. And gratuitous: Commenting on the link to a story about how U.S. sanctions are compromising the safety of Iranian airlines, The Ugly Truth editors noted

ed note–which means that if (when) there is some crash of an Iranian airliner, resulting in the deaths of many innocent civilians, more likely than not it will be due to the American (Israeli) sanctions put in place.

Just in case we didn’t see what this post had to do with Israel. Thanks for making your bias so blatant, The Ugly Truth. Another Ugly bias example is the tying of Israel to the Syrian opposition. From what I’ve read, Israel is at worst ambivalent about the somewhat one-sided Syrian Civil War. And I read a lot of different sources. For instance with Syria, Aljazeera English’s website is predictably anti-Assad, Russia Today is mildly anti-U.S. so they support Russia’s position even while they criticize the Kremlin and report on protests. The Economist is capitalist, imperialist and interventionist and The New York Times is, well, getting better.

They no longer just trumpet that “Massacre in Syria blamed on Assad, says everyone”, and try to use vague terms when they don’t know something (like “bloody clash”) instead of just repeating what the Syrian opposition claims (like “civilian massacre”). The Times got a bit of a beatdown, and rightly so, for its reporting on Iran’s nuclear program because it kept substituting “weapon” with what should have been “capability.” As in, it’s been proven Iranians want a “weapon” as opposed to just the capability to build one. Foreign correspondent David Sanger wrote the most egregious substitutions.

And this brings me to the good news. David Sanger’s new book about the Obama foreign policy, Conceal and Confront, came out recently. Guess who was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review this week. The Times writer was getting his book reviewed in the Times about what he wrote about for the Times. This must be a totally objective review, right? No, of course not. But to tell the truth, I didn’t care. I was just so happy that Sanger’s book was not a hatchet job of the President’s record. There are plenty of complaints to level at Obama from both the left—legit concerns like drone strike legality—and the right—mostly bullshit, like Obama’s no friend of Israel—but, like Sanger, I believe that President Obama, aside from the Af/Pak surge, has a strangely decent, pragmatic and limited so-called doctrine.

First of all, to address the Israel criticism, the main reason there was tension between Washington and Jerusalem, was Obama wanted to avoid dragging us into war with Iran. We definitely don’t want to go to war with Iran, because if there were any case at all for it, Mitt Romney would be howling. Republicans don’t want to go into Syria; even John McCain has shut up about it. Hell, we told Turkey not to go to war with Syria.

No politician in the U.S. can sell any more American war. Republicans have shut up about the lack of soldiers left in Iraq, even while Iraq gets closer to teetering on the edge. With soldiers in Afghanistan being blown up or murdered by their allies almost weekly, Obama’s strategically ridiculous decision to surge with 30,000 troops and announce a short-ass withdrawal date at the same time has worked to his political advantage pre-election. Accelerating the withdrawal was cynical yet shrewd.

The other Republican criticism, correct if not utterly hypocritical, has Obama running an imperial presidency. Notice how no one in Congress actually bitched about Obama’s decision to help NATO topple Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, just how he didn’t check with Capitol Hill first. Big deal, every president gets this “overreach” criticism at some point.

Obama is certainly impenetrable to the charge of softie, ordering countless more drone strikes than W. and virtually assassinating quantities of al-Qaeda and Taliban officers. He refused to apologize for a chopper strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, even though Pakistan is a client-ally we need. He ordered the Afghanistan surge and the killing of Osama bin Laden. He hit Iran with the toughest sanctions yet and unleashed a cyberwar on their nuclear program (detailed in Sanger’s book).

Hell, we are sending warships to the Persian Gulf right now. Our defense department’s pivot toward East Asia strategy has led to the an arms race with China, the budding superpower. And this all in one term.

Where Obama’s foreign policy sought restraint was in the Arab Awakening. Well-played! The left attacks him for not acting in some inspirational role with the Egyptian masses and the right attacks for betraying Hosni Mubarak, whom they claim was an ally. He was just a client and a really greedy dictator who started killing his own people when they rallied. That’s why we “betrayed” him, Monica Crowley! Crowley is a racist fear-monger who preaches that Obama would rather see America destroyed than win a second term and that Sharia law is quietly strangling America.

State and Defense had to walk a tightrope through the Mideast revolts, often following a healthy dose of rhetoric with, well, nothing. It was the safest, sanest thing to do in such a complex situation. And of course, Hillary Clinton is meeting with new Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, as well as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The rightist critique again fails because Egypt’s Islamists—a veritable Third Reich for Republicans and Fox News—are still off-set by the military, whom the U.S. supported to help keep things status quo. Clinton is asking the SCAF to give power to the President Morsi in public. Both cynical and shrewd again.

As a realist who understands how low our country can sink (from Rumsfeld/Cheney’s Iraq and Iran-Contra to Pinochet), I have such confidence in current foreign policy best practices with regard to this epoch of unstable nations, religious extremism and runaway deficits that should Mitt Romney become president, I bet little will change.

As the Times review of Sanger’s book reads: “But in truth [Obama] has positioned himself nicely within a political sweetspot, one where Americans are loathe to see their country relinquish its premier global position but wary of unnecessary wars undertaken on wispy rationales.”

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, was launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

India’s Gambit in the Central Asian Abyss

Central AsiaThe importance of Central Asia tends to be under-estimated by most Western observers, particularly in the major print media and on TV. It was only the Western business world that understood the region’s significance promptly after the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Central Asian Republics (CARs) claimed their independence from Moscow. Since then, the region has increasingly dazzled players from near and far, once they’ve grasped its worth as a crucial source of energy — both oil and gas as well as hydroelectric power, and as a strategic asset — political and economic.

Among these we may count India. While establishing diplomatic contacts with the CARs in the 1990s, India was rather slow to pursue expanded relations more energetically — whether in the economic, political or military spheres. Several factors may account for this:

  1. In the early 1990s, India had just embarked on a policy of economic reforms, and it was in no position to exploit trade and investment opportunities with these new republics, especially inasmuch as they themselves lacked the wherewithal to cast their economic nets abroad;
  2. Until the last few years, India had concentrated its economic and diplomatic resources on its “Look East” policy which focused on the development of wide-ranging relations with Southeast and East Asia;
  3. Transportation facilities which could allow trade and other exchanges were sharply restricted by formidable political and geographical barriers — the latter being largely the Himalayan Mountain Range. But it was the partition of India in 1947 and ensuing hostilities with Pakistan that immeasurably complicated access to Central Asia. The loss of Northern Kashmir to Pakistan, following initial hostilities between the two new states, and principally the creation of Pakistan itself, added considerable distance — physical and political — between India and Central Asia.

Over the last two to three years, India has been unrelenting in its efforts to correct this oversight — especially as economic growth has facilitated these endeavors. Starting in 2009, high-level visits by top Indian and CAR leaders to each other’s respective capitals culminated in India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy. Inaugurated in June 2012 at the first India-Central Asia Dialogue in Kyrgyzstan, the policy was fleshed out by India’s Foreign Minister, S.M. Krishna, during his visit to Tajikistan on July 2-3, 2012. This served to add weight to India’s commitment to “engagement with Central Asian Countries, both individually and collectively” for the purpose of securing “core national interests” — political, cultural, strategic and economic.

Tajikstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamrokhon Zarifi meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Malayah Krishna.

Tajikstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Hamrokhon Zarifi meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Malayah Krishna.

Attaining those objectives would clearly be difficult, if not impossible, given the very tangible physical and political barrier to Central Asia epitomized by Pakistan. There was one way out of this dilemma: reliance on a peaceful and stable Afghanistan as a bridge to Central Asia. But that, in turn, could be assured only if Afghanistan could function as it had in antiquity, when it was the central location of a highway system linking East and West. The famed Silk Road had enabled the transport of goods and people over nearly 7,000 miles, from the Han Chinese, through ancient Bactria — now part of Afghanistan, to the vast Roman Empire. This ancient system of transport was also viewed as a symbol of “collective security and global peace” throughout these huge expanses. No less today than it was in olden times, commerce remains an anchor of peace and stability. Hence, the New Silk Route initiative, introduced at the United Nations in September 2011 by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, envisaged the creation of modern highway and railroad networks as well as energy pipelines. Washington saw this as part of the transition program following the reduction of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan through 2014, when the nation’s security would be turned over to the Afghan government.

In the post-2014 milieu, India is on the same page as the U.S., as evidenced by India’s investment of $2 billion to build up Afghanistan’s infrastructure, and the hosting of an investment summit on Afghanistan aimed at improving its economy and military security. This is also attested to by Foreign Minister Krishna’s visit to Tajikistan (a neighbor of Afghanistan) when both agreed that the region’s stability depended on a stable Afghanistan. Words were reinforced by strategic ties between the two countries, such as a Joint Working Group on Counter-Terrorism, and cooperation in strategic and security programs, including the free military training of Tajik cadets and officers in Indian training institutes, as well as joint research and consultation on Afghanistan — all within the framework of India’s ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy.

The key word here is “connect”: connectivity between India and Central Asia — both physical and electronic — is extremely poor. This has restricted trade and other economic exchanges, as well as diplomatic and political ties. Hence, India has been negotiating on initiating direct flights to each Central Asian country. One of the more creative initiatives on India’s part has been a plan to link the 5 CARs to each other and to India electronically, along the lines of the Pan-African e-network developed by India for the African Union nations. It is a plan that has been gifted to Central Asia.

For India, the most valuable resource available in the region is energy — whether oil, gas or hydroelectric power. Tajikistan is only one Central Asian state with which economic cooperation can benefit energy-hungry India: it is the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the Commonwealth of Independent States, after Russia. Yet it has exploited only 3-5% of its potential. India is a latecomer (after Russia, Iran and China) in providing investment in this sector.

However, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are much richer sources of energy. One of the more promising (though still incomplete) projects is the natural gas pipeline (TAPI) which would bring gas from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally to India. A hugely rich oil and gas resource is the Caspian Sea, and the fortunate littoral states which can claim ownership of their offshore energy fields include Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, as well as the Caucasus state of Azerbaijan on the west, and finally Russia on the northwest and Iran on the south. While not a littoral state, Uzbekistan deserves mention as Central Asia’s largest natural gas producer.

Without doubt, Indian companies (whether state-owned or private) are deeply interested in oil and gas exploration in Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea region and in Uzbekistan, as well as a hydropower project in Tajikistan. But they are also interested in Afghanistan’s iron ore resources and in the development of copper and gold deposits in the country.

It should come as no surprise, of course, that Indian players have encountered and will continue to face sharp competition from the Russians and Chinese who have a head-start in the region, as do Western energy players who saw the wealth of opportunities open up there right after 1991.

This brief introduction to Central Asia and India’s interest in the strategic, political and economic opportunities offered by the region’s resources and its strategic location provides only a minimal glance at this important but inadequately understood arena of geopolitics. In such a brief narrative, one can only hint at the complexity and rich diversity of the region’s resources and the manifold opportunities provided not only to the regional players but even more, to external players — both in the neighborhood and beyond.

Mary C. Carras, professor emerita, Rutgers University, is an analyst of Indo-American relations. Her writings include a political biography of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a study of Indian political factions.

The Impotence of International Law

Cross-posted from Progressive Avenues.

Whenever a lawyer or historian describes how a particular action “violates international law” many people stop listening or reading further. It is a bit alienating to hear the words “this action constitutes a violation of international law” time and time again – and especially at the end of a debate when a speaker has no other arguments available. The statement is inevitably followed by: “…and it is a war crime and it denies people their human rights.” A plethora of international law violations are perpetrated by every major power in the world each day, and thus, the empty invocation of international law does nothing but reinforce our own sense of impotence and helplessness in the face of international lawlessness.

The United States, alone, and on a daily basis violates every principle of international law ever envisioned: unprovoked wars of aggression; unmanned drone attacks; tortures and renditions; assassinations of our alleged “enemies”; sales of nuclear weapons; destabilization of unfriendly governments; creating the largest prison population in the world – the list is virtually endless.

Obviously one would wish that there existed a body of international law that could put an end to these abuses, but such laws exist in theory, not in practice. Each time a legal scholar points out the particular treaties being ignored by the superpowers (and everyone else) the only appropriate response is “so what!” or “they always say that.” If there is no enforcement mechanism to prevent the violations, and no military force with the power to intervene on behalf of those victimized by the violations, what possible good does it do to invoke principles of “truth and justice” that border on fantasy?

The assumption is that by invoking human rights principles, legal scholars hope to reinforce the importance of and need for such a body of law. Yet, in reality, the invocation means nothing at the present time, and goes nowhere. In the real world, it would be nice to focus on suggestions that are enforceable, and have some potential to prevent the atrocities taking place around the globe. Scholars who invoke international law principles would do well to add to their analysis, some form of action or conduct at the present time that might prevent such violations from happening. Alternatively, praying for rain sounds as effective and rational as citing international legal principles to a lawless president, and his ruthless military.

Marti Hiken, former Associate Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and former chair of the National Lawyers Guild Military Law Task Force, is the director of Progressive Avenues. Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law.

What’s Worse Than PTSD?

Blake Lively as O in

Blake Lively as O in

Last week we wrote about “moral injury,” as defined by Nan Levinson at Tom Dispatch in her June 28 piece Mad, Bad, Sad: What’s Really Happened to America’s Soldiers.

[It's] the result of taking part in or witnessing something of consequence that you find wrong, something which violates your deeply held beliefs about yourself and your role in the world. … While the symptoms and causes may overlap with PTSD, moral injury arises from what you did or failed to do, rather than from what was done to you.

I’m currently reading the crime novel Savages (Simon & Schuster, 2101) by Don Winslow, on which the recent film of the same name is based. Drug dealer Chon is a former Navy SEAL who served in Iraq, where he also later worked for contractors. O (short for Olivia) is his girlfriend. Winslow writes:

O has diagnosed Chon with PTLOSD.

Post-Traumatic Lack Of Stress Disorder. He says he has no nightmares, nerves, flashbacks, hallucinations, or guilt.

“I wasn’t stressed,” Chon insisted, “and there was no trauma.”

In other words, like many soldiers, especially special operations, he wasn’t troubled by what he saw or, as Levinson writes “did or failed to do.”

What’s worse than PTSD or moral injury? Sometimes, unfortunately, lack of PTSD or moral injury.

The New York Times Drones on About the Morality of Drones

American citizen Abdulraham al-Awlaki, son of Anwar.

American citizen Abdulraham al-Awlaki, son of Anwar.

“…it may be a surprise to find some moral philosophers, political scientists, and weapons specialists believe unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.”
—Scott Shane, national security reporter for the New York Times, The Moral Defense For Drones, 7/15/12

First, one should never be surprised to find that the NY Times can ferret out experts to say virtually anything. Didn’t they dig up those who told us all that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons? Second, whenever the newspaper uses the words “some,” that’s generally a tipoff the dice are loaded, in this case with a former Air Force officer (who teaches philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School), a former CIA deputy chief of counterintelligence, and political scientist Avery Plaw, author of Targeting Terrorists: A License To Kill?

Shane has a problem, which he solves by a nimble bit of legerdemain: he starts off by raising the issue of law, sovereignty, radicalizing impact, and proliferation dangers (in three brief sentences), then quickly shifts to the contention that “most critics” have “focused on evidence that they [drones] are unintentionally killing innocent civilians.”

He doesn’t present any evidence that most criticism has focused on the collateral damage issue, but this allows him to move to the article’s centerpiece: “the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.”

Actually, critics have focused on a wide number of issues concerning drones. Is using drones in a country with which we are not at war, and one that opposes their use, a violation of international law? Is targeting an individual a form of extrajudicial capital punishment? Is killing American citizens a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of a trial by a jury of one’s peers? Is the use of armed drones by the White House bypassing the constitutional role of Congress to declare war? Does the role of the CIA in directing killer drones violate the prescriptions of the Geneva Convention against civilians engaging in armed conflicts?

But for argument’s sake, let’s focus on the point about civilian casualties. According to Shane, the professor of philosophy has found that “drones do a better job at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.” Shane adds that the drone operators “can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.”

Nice touch about the kid, but according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalists, in Pakistan alone, as of February of this year, some 175 children, among between 482 to 835 civilians, have been reported killed by drones. Other estimates of civilian deaths are much higher.

But, points out the Times, the kill ratio suffered by civilians when Pakistan took back the Swat Valley from its local Taliban, and when Israel goes after Hamas, are much higher. And then, quoting the CIA guy: “Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare it with what we are doing today.” In short, civilians should be thankful they are not subjected to the brutality of the Pakistani and Israeli armies, or firebombed into oblivion?

Shane manages to avoid mentioning Part IV of the additions to the Geneva Conventions (1977) on the protection of civilian populations, “Against the Effects of Hostilities.” Articles 49 and 50 are particularly relevant. Essentially they boil down to the stipulation that only “military objectives” can be targeted.

The Time’s security expert also fails to mention the policy of “signature strikes,” which means anyone carrying weapons, or hanging out in a house used by “militants,” is fair game. “Signature strikes” are an explicit violation of Article 50: “The presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.”

Of course, none of us know what criteria are used to identify someone as a “militant” or a “terrorist,” because the Obama administration refuses to release the legal findings that define those categories. In Yemen, many of the targeted “terrorists” are not Al Qaeda members, but southern separatists who have been fighting to re-establish the Republic of South Yemen. In any case, people are being killed and we have no idea how they ended up sentenced to death.

For instance, it is apparently a capital offense to try to rescue people following a drone strike, or to go to the funeral for those killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 50 rescuers have been killed, and more than 20 mourners. Many of these small villages have strong kinship ties, and helping out or mourning the dead is a powerful cultural tradition. Acting as a kinsman to someone the White House defines as an “enemy” may end up being fatal.

In some ways the civilian deaths are a straw man, not because they are not important, but because “critics” have focused on a wide number of issues brought up by the drones. Among them is the apparent dismantling of Congress’s constitutional role in declaring war. When some members of Congress raised this issue with respect to the Libyan War, and whether it fell under the rubric of the Wars Power Act, the Obama administration argued that it did not, because the Libya operation did not “involve the use of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof.”

But as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute points out, the Libyan operation certainly involved “something we used to think of as war: blowing up stuff, lots of it.” The U.S. air war was the key to overthrowing Qaddafi. U.S. planes and drones carried out attacks and directed strikes by allied aircraft. The Americans also resupplied allied aircraft with bombs and missiles, and provided in-air refueling.

Given the enormous expansion of drones, the definition of war as limited to acts likely to lead to “casualties” opens up a Pandora’s box. The U.S. currently has more than 7,000 drones, many of them, like the Predator and the Reaper, armed. The U.S. Defense Department plans to spend about $31 billion on “remotely piloted aircraft” by 2015, and the U.S. Air Force is training more remote operators than pilots for its fighters and bombers.

Fleets of armed drones could be released to fight wars all over the world, with casualties limited to mechanical failures or the occasional drone that wandered too close to an anti-aircraft system. Under the White House’s definition, what those drones did, and whom they did it to, is none of Congress’s business.

What in the Constitution gives the power of life and death over U.S. citizens to the President of the United States? The militant American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was no admirer of the U.S., but there is no public finding that he ever did anything illegal. Nevertheless, a drone-fired Hellfire missile killed him last October. And a few weeks later, another drone killed his Denver-born 16-year old son, Abdulraham al-Awlaki, who was out looking for his father. Ibrahim-al-Banna was the target of that strike, but as one U.S. official told Time, the son was in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” That particular statement is an explicit violation of Article 50 of the Conventions.

“The question is, is killing always justified?” asks University of Texas at El Paso political scientist Armin Krisnan. “There is not public accountability for that.”

The Yemen strike has sparked outrage in that country, as have other drone strikes. “This is why AQAP [Al Qadea in the Arabian Peninsula] is much stronger in Yemen today that it was a few years ago,” says Ibrahim Mothana, co-founder of Yemen’s Watan Party.

There are lots of critics raising lots of difficult to answer questions, and they focus on much more than civilian casualties (although that is a worthy topic of consideration). The “moral” case for drones is not limited to the parameters set by the New York Times. In any case, the issue is not the morality of drones; they have none. Nor do they have politics or philosophy. They are simply soulless killing machines. The morality at play is with those who define the targets and push the buttons that incinerate people we do not know half a world away.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

The Real Metric for Syria Is Russia’s Realpolitik

 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

We in the West really really want the tide to be turning against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Especially, it seems, The Economist, who headlined this piece in November 2011 “The tide turns against Bashar Assad” and this one about nine months later “The tide begins to turn.” But they’re not the only media outlet or organization that never misses a chance to suggest the imminent downfall of the villainous Assad.

Most recently, the defection of a former top member of the military and one-time buddy of Bashar, Manaf Tlass, has caused a stir. The “Good Sign” subhead, referring to the high-level defection in this BBC piece was at least put in quotes, but still calls out the optimism expressed by the Friends of Syria in Paris.

Mr Laurent Fabius [French foreign minister] described it as a “hard blow for the regime” that showed Mr Assad’s entourage was beginning to realise the regime was unsustainable.

Further analysis in the piece from Mohamed Yehia of BBC Arabia

This would also be damaging and embarrassing for the Damascus government, as it would be explained as an indication that cracks are appearing at the top of the ruling establishment and could encourage other Sunni defections.

Finally, near the end, this little tidbit is acknowledged

Brigadier General Tlass has been under a form of home arrest since May 2011 because he opposed the security solution that the regime has been implementing, sources say.

So if ex-General Tlass hasn’t been an active part of the military for over a year, how is this a huge damaging blow? Basically, as the Syrian government spokesman claimed, Tlass had escaped. It’s only a “hard blow” in minds around the world that want to see it as such, not a practical “hard blow” for the regime. It’s bad PR but changes no calculations for Damascus and only shows the brutal efficiency with which even trusted dissenters were corralled and rendered impotent.

Granted this could encourage other Sunni defections, but one could imagine that those who haven’t defected after a year won’t be inspired by one high-ranker who is cushioned by a wealthy family in Europe. Usually toward the end of these stories it’s revealed that there have been no mid-to-upper level Alawite defections. Alawites comprise the vast majority of military command and government officials.

No doubt the latest rash of defections is not good for Assad and doesn’t bolster the regime’s image. Yet I don’t think Assad has cared about the Western world’s perception of his government for a while now.

A much more accurate bellwether about the turning of tides in Syria—the glowing neon sign of imminent regime change—will be when Russia decides to change its view of the Syrian situation. This will reflect the moment when Assad starts thinking about making a plea, and is willing to negotiate. But according to reports on a meeting between top Syrian National Council members and Russia, this is not yet the case

Russia refuses to shift its controversial position on the crisis in Syria, the exiled opposition Syria National Council (SNC) said after talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov…. Underlining the gulf between the SNC and Moscow, Lavrov said Russia wanted to understand in the talks if there were “prospects” of the opposition groups uniting and joining a platform for dialogue with the Syrian government.

In my opinion, Russia is the only outside participant looking for a real solution to the massive blood-letting in Syria. This is because no one else seems to consider the Syrian opposition as part of the solution. True the opposition is dispersed and the SNC cannot speak for factions of the Free Syrian Army or others on the ground, which is the insurgency’s greatest weakness.

But do the West, the Arabs in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Turks, the U.N. and the Friends of Syria expect Bashar al-Assad to knock off all the killing because Kofi Annan says so, while the rebels keep ambushing security checkpoints and taking over Syrian towns? If the opposition is not ready to negotiate under terms that include Assad still in power—and they may never be—then outside negotiations are pointless. The international community and the SNC can try to pressure Russia to pressure the Syrian regime, but it’s clear that Russia is backing negotiations between the regime and the opposition for as long as Assad feels he can stay in (now relative) power.

The missing player in the various peace-plan scenarios in Turkey—the country with the most leverage over the opposition and the one that can most readily protect them. I’ve written more here about how Turkey must be at the forefront of any peace talks and is the only nation or organization (aside from the opposition itself) in the position to achieve a working ceasefire.

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, was launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

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