Focal Points Blog

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.

The Magnitsky Act: Fueling Tension with Russia

Mourning the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

Mourning the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

On June 29th, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. The bill had already passed the House. The Act, which was introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. James McGovern, will impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russian human rights offenders. Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, threatened to ban U.S. officials from visiting Russia if the act became law.

The bill is named for Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009. Magnitsky was a middle-aged attorney and accountant who worked for the largest Western private equity fund in Russia, representing the foreign investor Bill Browder. Browder had invested in Russian stocks since the late 1990s, “the era of the great thefts of state assets masquerading as privatizations.” But by 2005, Browder had learned of widespread corruption, denounced it, and become an activist against it. Browder was soon exiled from Russia, so he sold his holdings to get himself to the West and made a $230-million tax payment to the Russian treasury. Magnitsky discovered that Russian tax officials had subsequently conspired to embezzle the payment. When he made these allegations publicly, Magnitsky was imprisoned and beaten. His death was widely condemned.

The Magnitsky Act will deny entry to the 60 or so officials that Bowder says were responsible for Magnitsky’s persecution. The bill aims to reduce such corruption and its spread across international borders.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meanwhile working to improve U.S. trade relations with Russia, promoting the repeal of the outdated 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a Cold War-era provision restricting trade relations with Soviet states deemed to have violated human rights. But on June 29th, Clinton met in St. Petersburg with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who warned Clinton that passing the Magnitsky Act would result in damage to U.S.-Russian relations. President Obama had a similarly chilly meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Mexico.

For its part, the Obama administration has lobbied against the bill because it already tracks and denies visas to the Russians involved in Magnitsky’s death. The administration also pressured the Senate to include a provision for a secret annex in its version of the bill, which would render the bill useless because the names of human rights violators would not be made public. The New Yorker adds that the United States needs Russia’s support for progress on Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear program, and U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan.

But widespread approval in Washington may make the administration’s attempts to bury the bill futile. Major proponents include Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Roger Wicker, John Thune, and John Kerry, alongside Freedom House President David Kramer. If the bill does not become law soon, proponents say the United States will be unable to employ it for Russia’s upcoming WTO accession.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that the Magnitsky bill should not be linked to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment because the Russians “will not see the Magnitsky bill as an expression of outrage over how the Russian legal system was shabbily and corruptly manipulated to kill one of its fellow citizens. They will instead see the bill as reflecting what they believe to be a deep-seated anti-Russia sentiment on the Hill.” On the other hand, Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, writes that “Putin’s Kremlin has used the West – eager for engagement and a policy ‘reset’ with Russia – to legitimize its authoritarian rule and to provide opportunities for its venal cronies’ integration into Western society.” She says this has discredited liberal democracy in Russia.

Pifer and Shevtsova are both correct. One the one hand, the bill would enable the United States to uphold its commitments to international human rights and the spread of democracy. On the other hand, as Pifer says, the United States cannot afford to lose Russia as a trading partner. Additionally, the two countries are currently dealing with several issues that could exacerbate one another, including missile defense, the future of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, and U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan.

The Magnitsky Act will, unfortunately, fuel these already tense situations and throw Obama’s “reset” policies off course. As Putin said in July, “The replacement of the Jackson-Vanik amendment by an anti-Russian law and a course towards creating a missile defense system cannot but upset the existing strategic parity and be a source of concern for us.”

Attacking Syria Is a No-Win Situation for Turkey

With military intervention against Assad unlikely and a protracted civil war ensuing, Turkey is in a quandary due to its rapidly deteriorating relationship with Damascus. A war of words was to be expected, with Turkey lumped into the group of nations “legally, ethically, and politically responsible for the crimes committed by the terrorist groups” according to Syria’s information minister.1 Turkish officials claim Syria is now supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists, whom the Turks have been battling in the Southeast and Iraq.2 But there are more pressing matters: Not only are refugees multiplying, but as of April, cross-border skirmishes have started to flare up—and these are poised to escalate. The Turkish army has mobilized at the border and scrambled warplanes, after Syrian anti-aircraft guns downed a Turkish F4 that briefly strayed into it neighbor’s airspace.

This posturing, without any diplomatic front, may lead to Prime Minister Erdogan’s most extreme option, full-on war. Though his citizenry is less than thrilled about this prospect.3 In fact, Turkey’s foreign ministry has already had to deny reports that it is gearing up for an attack on Syria aimed at regime change.4 As noted above, there are several reasons military escalation is a bad idea. First and foremost, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has rejected it, implying that Turkey would be on its own.5 Without U.S./NATO support, there is no guarantee of victory against Syrian forces bolstered by Iranian and Russian weapons and advisors as well as terrorist proxies. Should Turkey conspire with anti-Assad nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to remove the dictator covertly, the result would invite a similarly destabilizing mess, if not a Syrian declaration of war.

On the purely hypothetical other hand, if Erdogan were to make a friendly deal with Damascus and expel the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, he risks alienation and anger from the U.N., NATO and all of his Sunni neighbors. The rather unthinkable move would be a reputation-damaging betrayal striking at the heart of Turkish pride and integrity. And Syrian refugees would be led into a slaughterhouse.

The Turkish government has no choice but to protect its border and therefore enable Syria’s foes—and its growing list of defectors. However, if Ankara decided to change tactics and open up a diplomatic line to Damascus, this could be used as a bargaining chip. And indeed, it is in Turkey’s best interest to act as negotiator between the hostile parties and move to the forefront of the peace-plan effort—as it has done between Syria and Israel and the U.S. and Iran.xi With far more leverage than the United Nations, in the form of both threats and assistance, the Turks needs to be open to talks with Tehran, Moscow and most of all Bashar al-Assad himself. Prime Minister Erdogan should be sitting where Kofi Annan has sat and must work to bury the hatchet. The brutal dictator, despite his crimes against humanity, is not going anywhere. (While high-level defections continue, as with Brigadier General Manaf Tlass in July, they are all Sunni officers and mostly those who were already under house arrest.) Without foreign intervention, this civil war has the potential to play out for years.

Though the opposition will be virulently against this course, Turkey, as their host and defender, has considerable leverage over them as well—and no other nation or group has it. Turkish soldiers must be at the border, ready to protect the Syrian opposition and refugees, but they must take care never to provoke Syria’s armed forces. Foreign Minister Davutoglu should be at every meeting between Clinton and Lavrov and Annan and Assad. That the ever-convening international community has not worked to press this initiative shows a lack of will to end the bloodshed as well as a delusional dream that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite accomplices will step down. The goal is a ceasefire, effectively saving thousands of civilian lives, and only one country has the ghost of a chance at working toward a real one.

Turkey has been acknowledged as a Muslim beacon of prosperity and liberalism in the Middle East and has indeed made admirable choices, often at once pragmatic and idealistic, during the Arab Awakening. But it has watched, waited and reacted long enough. The fledgling democracy must take the opportunity to assert itself as the major regional player and pursue an aggressive role as peacemaker—which will gain it the respect of the West without alienating it from the greater Middle East or Russia. Turkish expertise and tradition in balancing secular and Muslim government should be exported to Libya, where thousands of Turks reside and where business cooperation may help to stabilize the fractured nation. It should be offered to an Egypt grappling with an identity swinging between a military junta and religious populists. In Syria, the Turks are the best suited to build the bridge connecting the regime in Damascus and the scattered opposition. That bridge, as flimsy as it may be, is desperately needed to stop the daily massacres and the growing sectarian tragedy that is already set to poison future generations. It goes without saying that Turkey itself should lead by example, clean up its own backyard with respect to the Kurdish question, Armenia and Greece, and shed its antiquated and artificial attempts to gird it nationalist pride by suppressing non-Turks. To be seen as fervent in trying to solve these issues at home and taking the reins of the region’s conflicts would bestow Turkey with true national pride and international prestige.

1“Turkey Allows Limited Access to Syrian Refugee Camp.” Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey. June 19, 2011.

2“Turkey and the Arab Spring: Embracing ‘People’s Power’.” Gallia Lindenstrauss. European Institute of the Mediterranean. March 2012.

3“The Tide Begins to Turn.” The Economist. July 7, 2012.

4“Report: Turkey Tells West It Might Launch Offensive Against Syria.” Today’s Zaman. Turkey. June 27, 2011.

5“U.S. Tells Turkey to Back Off Syria.” NOW Lebanon. Tony Badran. March 22, 2012.

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

Why Did Russian Officials Withhold News of Flooding From Krymsk?

Yesterday, the New York Times published another one of those stories that raises a huge question, which it then fails to address. Most of the 170 deaths by flooding in the Black Sea coastal area occurred in the town of Krymsk when water ran down hills and into town in torrents. Ellen Barry reports (sort of) that:

… it came as a shock, and then as the focus of anger, when officials acknowledged that they had been aware of a threat to Krymsk at 10 the previous night, but had not taken measures to rouse its sleeping residents.

A resident asked:

“If they knew at 11, why didn’t they warn us? What are we, hunks of meat? Are we not people?”

Was it the usual — fear of starting a panic, being held responsible for incurring the expense of an evacuation when it might turn out one wasn’t needed? One explanation:

The Emergencies Ministry said it sent warnings out by text message, but some local residents said they never received the alerts. Ministry head Vladimir Puchkov [said] “A system to warn the residents was set up. … But, unfortunately, not everyone was warned early enough.”

What makes the New York Times story even more lacking was that two days earlier, July 9, Masha Gessen reported in a blog post in the Times itself (don’t you people talk to each other?) that:

… a young woman named Yulia Andropova on her page on, a Russian social network [apparently] writing from Krymsk … described how the town may have been deliberately flooded to spare the bigger city of Novorossiysk.

“Everyone is keeping quiet about this now, but last night my father was working and he says that they called an emergency meeting in the middle of the night to decide whether to open the floodgates of the Neberdzhaevskoye Reservoir,” Andropova wrote .…“And what do you think? Of course they decided to open the floodgates! They sacrificed Krymsk and still didn’t manage to prevent the flooding of Novorossiysk. Good job. But at least they should have warned people the water was coming!

Gessen added that:

But late Saturday night, two expert bloggers posted detailed analyses of the region’s topography, both concluding that Krymsk was probably flooded after heavy rain over nearby mountains turned normally tame rivers into monstrous roaring streams.

One blogger, by the name of Eugeny Shultz, concluded that the reservoir had probably overflowed on its own. No one had opened any floodgates; in fact, there are no floodgates at this particular reservoir.

In any event, returning to Barry’s story:

The flood in this city of 57,000 in southern Russia is the first disaster to hit the country since Vladimir V. Putin returned to the presidency, amid uncertain public support for his government. Its aftermath has riveted national attention as a measure of the state’s effectiveness, including visits from celebrities and volunteer efforts backed by pro-government and opposition political parties.

Mr. Putin has been damaged in the past by appearing indifferent to disasters — most acutely in 2000, when he failed to immediately return from a vacation to handle the sinking of a nuclear-powered submarine, the Kursk. Russia declined initial rescue offers from other countries, and all 118 sailors trapped onboard died.

Gesen again:

The post was reposted hundreds, possibly thousands of times on different social networks. Prominent bloggers and journalists quoted it to show the Putin regime’s utter disregard for human life — as if further proof were needed.

The question begs to be asked: will this be Vladimir Putin’s Katrina?

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