The New York Times has another huge story on Obama's "red line" on the Syrian regime's possible use of chemical weapons, filled with juicy details and anonymous quotes from U.S. officials. One of them, referring to Obama's initial red-line comments in August, tells the paper:
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
Ooph. Here's the problem with those remarks, however. After Obama initially laid down his red line -- the key words of which were "a whole bunch" -- various administration officials repeated them, sometimes losing the qualifier entirely. Here, for instance, is Vice President Joe Biden on March 4:
Because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use or the transfer of the those weapons.
And here's Obama 17 days later:
I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.
But by Friday, April 26, the qualifier was back. "A whole bunch" had become "systematic," as my colleague Josh Rogin noted:
Obama said that if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot stand by and permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."
So the nuance -- only the use or transfer of "a whole bunch" of chemical weapons would trigger a U.S. response -- was in Obama's original comments. It disappeared, and then it returned as "systematic."
What's going on here? I suspect that the United States wants to deter Bashar al-Assad from launching a mass-casualty attack using chemical weapons, but isn't prepared to make him pay a real price for smaller-scale incidents. U.S. officials often insist that the president doesn't bluff. But I'm not so sure about that, and it seems Assad is willing to call him on it.
Syrian Facebook pages are reporting a series of massive explosions in Damascus, as are the Syrian regime's media outlets. A video claiming to be of these explosions can be seen here:
Given the size of the blasts, and the news that Israeli jets earlier this week struck a shipment of Iranian missles thought to be headed for Hezbollah, everyone is assuming that Israel is behind these strikes as well. Syrian state TV is claiming that Israel hit a "research center," while opposition Facebook pages are saying that several elite units on Mt. Qassioun, overlooking Damascus, were the targets. (Hezbollah's al-Manar TV station is claiming an Israeli jet was shot down, but that seems unlikely.)
Israeli officials are keeping characteristically mum, but it seems plausible that they would have followed up their previous, successful strike with another one aimed at further degrading the Syrian regime's capabilities. Because it's so difficult, not to mention risky, to destroy chemical-weapons stocks from the air, the next-best thing is to take out Assad's means of delivering them. And Mt. Qassioun is reportedly where many of the Syrian regime's best missiles are kept.
If it was indeed Israel, wow, this is awkward for the Syrian opposition. The regime will seek to exploit the raids to tie the rebels to the Zionist entity, after spending two years painting them as an undifferentiated mass of "terrorist gangs." (Syrian television is already testing out this line, according to Reuters: "The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army.")
But the propaganda can cut both ways. The rebels can point to the Israeli attacks as yet more evidence that Assad's army is for attacking Syrians, not defending the country. It's not clear to me which argument will carry the day.
The strikes also promise to hypercharge the debate over Syria in the United States. Advocates of intervention will ask: If Syrian air defenses are so tough, as U.S. officials have been saying, why was Israel able to breach them so easily? Of course, a no-fly zone is a much more difficult and risky endeavor than a one-off raid, but you can expect that important distinction to get blurred.
There's also a message here for Iran, whose nuclear program Israel has vowed to destroy if the Iranians cross Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's red line. Again, taking out Iran's fortified and far-flung nuclear facilities would be vastly more challenging than hitting a few warehouses in nearby Damascus. And U.S. officials doubt that Israel has the capability to do more than temporarily set back Iran's program. But the intended lesson here for Tehran (and Washington) is clear: Israel will defend itself when threatened, and we mean what we say.
The above image is actually one of the less graphic photos coming out of Syria today, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces stand accused of massacring Sunni families en masse. The more gruesome images and videos speak to a brutal campaign of sectarian cleansing that has managed to shock even veteran Syria watchers.
The deaths occurred in two separate massacres: One in the Ras al-Nabaa neighborhood of Banias today, and another on Thursday in the nearby town of al-Bayda. Thousands of Sunnis reportedly fled Banias in the aftermath of the attack. The death toll is still murky: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed a total of 112 people killed in both attacks, but noted that number could rise. The activist group said a paramilitary group known as the National Defense Forces, which is largely made up of fighters belonging to minorities loyal to Assad, was responsible for the killings.
The geography of Banias and Bayda is important for understanding these attacks. Both are located in the governorate of Tartous, which forms part of the heartland of the Alawite sect, the community to which Assad belongs. Destroying these Sunni enclaves could be a precursor to creating an "Alawite statelet" along the coast if Assad loses Damascus -- or it could simply be a reflection of the fact that the regime sees any sizable Sunni community living near Alawite cities and villages as inherently hostile.
The massacres also occur at a moment when the Assad regime is moving aggressively and brutally to seize back territory lost to the rebels. Last month, the Syrian military killed at least 100 people in a five-day offensive to retake a Damascus suburb. Last week, it regained control of a central neighborhood in the city of Homs. And it is fighting alongside Hezbollah to reclaim the rebel-controlled town of al-Qusayr, on the border with Lebanon.
As the violence gathers pace, the religious and tribal fractures among Syrians, long papered over by a nominally secular Assad regime, are bursting out into the open. "'Alawis are not always comfortable with the subject of tribal affiliations as the Ba'thist state has striven to replace such categories with the modern notion of citizenship," wrote Patrick Seale in the introduction to his biography of Hafez al-Assad. "[B]ut if pressed every village boy could tell you to which tribe his family belongs."
These days, you don't have to press very hard.
In 2011, James Dobbins, Barack Obama's newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, published a 100-page analysis on the importance of a negotiated peace deal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The document makes for an interesting read as Dobbins transitions from an uncensored private citizen to a lead diplomat confronting the rapid drawdown of America's military presence in the region.
In the report, titled "Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer," Dobbins expressed skepticism about Obama's ability to wind down the Afghan war, full stop, in 2014 in the absence of a peace deal.
"If negotiations fail, some level of American military engagement will probably be necessary well beyond the 2014 date by which President Obama has promised to remove all American combat forces," he wrote.
What we know now, that Dobbins (or anyone else) didn't know then, is that negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are going nowhere. On Wednesday, the Taliban assassinated a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, the third Taliban assassination of a senior council member in the last year and a half. The attack also occurred one day after the Taliban killed three British soldiers in an IED attack in Helmand province. Meanwhile, planned negotiations in Qatar are stalling and Pakistani support for peace talks has been waning.
Now, it's no secret that residual U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The question is how many troops will there be, and what will they be doing?
On April 17, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford became the first top military official to offer specifics on these questions. The estimates are for a NATO-led force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014, which does not include troops needed for counterterrorism and guarding U.S. diplomats. But as Bloomberg's Gopal Ratnam notes, "Other U.S. officials have called for a larger U.S. military presence than the range that is under discussion."
Dobbins did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon about whether he still believes a rapid withdrawal is dependent on a peace deal. Regardless, for those who want to familiarize themselves with his views on winding down the war and preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, this report is well worth the read.
On Thursday, China's Ministry of Public Security announced that the police had arrested 63 traders accused of buying rat, fox, and mink meat and then selling the meat as mutton. Apparently, the crime ring had been mixing the meat with gelatin, red dye, and nitrates before selling it in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province. How appetizing.
It has been quite a year for food scandals, what with IKEA's horsemeat meatballs and China's floating dead pigs. To China's credit, the country appears to be tackling the food safety issue head on (state media report that Chinese law enforcement officials have arrested more than 900 people for selling fake or tainted meat in the last three months). But this latest revelation has shocked more than reassured, leaving many in China to wonder whether the "mutton" stewing on their stoves is really made of lamb after all.
But never fear! Foreign Policy reached out to North Carolina-based artist Laura Ginn, who, after organizing a rat-themed five-course dinner in New York last year, has become somewhat of a rat meat connoisseur. With her help, we hereby offer you five ways to know you're eating rat.
1. It smells like rat. Rats secrete an oil onto their skin that gives them their distinct "rodenty" odor. Some compare the smell to that of a warm tortilla, says Ginn, while others compare it to urine. Regardless, it's distinctive. While it's true that the odor lessens after the rat is skinned, and again after the rat is cooked, no amount of cooking can ever completely get rid of the smell.
2. It tastes like rat. The oil rats secrete gives them a distinctive taste as well. Ginn describes it as quite pungent and gamey -- most similar to raccoon or rabbit. Blended with other meats, rat becomes a lot less distinctive, so you'd have to be rather discerning to notice it.
3. It tastes delicious when brushed with a moonshine glaze and barbecued. Of all the ways Ginn has eaten rat, this is her favorite preparation. A close second is smoked rat jerky served on brioche French toast. So, if you happen to be savoring a moonshine-BBQ dish, or think there is something slightly "rodenty" about the gamey and delicious jerky you are consuming, you might want to check the ingredients.
4. It looks like lamb. When it's raw, pinkish/red rat looks very much like lamb. Unfortunately for the Chinese, when ground, rat can look a lot like any generic ground meat. When cooked, rat looks more like rabbit, Ginn thinks, just because of the shape of the cuts.
5. You're in Asia. According to Ginn, rats are most commonly eaten in Asia because of the rice crop. In areas where rats feed off rice paddies rather than garbage, the rodents are considered safer to eat. Of course, it isn't clear whether the rats marketed as mutton in China were healthy, rice-fed rats or sewer-dwelling, garbage-eating, Templeton-esque rats. The New York Times reports that the arrest announcement "did not explain how exactly the traders acquired the rats and other creatures." Rats are also disease carriers, so when Ginn organized her meal she ordered hers from a company that supplies specially raised, grain-fed rodents to zoos.
The suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by roughly 28 percent between 1999 and 2010, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday, up from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people (the suicide rate is much higher for middle-aged men, at 27.3, than for women, at 8.1). The increase, the New York Times noted, is raising concerns that "a generation of baby boomers who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm."
The numbers are troubling, but how do they compare to rates in other parts of the world? Suicide data is notoriously hard to compile because it is believed to be vastly underreported -- and the level of reporting varies from country to country, which makes comparing rates across nations an inexact science. But a look at World Health Organization data indicates that the United States falls more or less in the middle of the pack for both male and female suicides, with 17.7 male deaths (38th-most among 105 countries) and 4.5 female deaths (40th) per 100,000 people (the transnational statistics are drawn from varying years).
Men commit suicide more often than women in nearly every nation listed by the WHO report. The only exceptions are China (14.8 women vs. 13.0 men) and the tiny island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, which reports that no men commit suicide there and that women commit suicide at a rate of only 1.8 per 100,000. That data, though, was is from 1987.
Lithuania, meanwhile, has the highest suicide rate among men, with 61.3 deaths for every 100,000 citizens, followed by Russia (53.9), and one of the largest gender gaps, with the rate for Lithuanian women at 10.3. South Korea has the highest rate for women at 22.1 and more parity between genders, with a rate of 39.9 for men.
In 2008, Reuters took an in-depth look at Lithuania's struggle with suicide, noting that high rates are a particularly painful social issue for the post-Soviet Baltic states despite their economic growth:
Pensioners struggle to survive, healthcare facilities are often poor and cases of tuberculosis, a disease often associated with poverty, are far above the EU average.
Tens of thousands of Latvians and Lithuanians have emigrated to seek higher wages and a better life: others seek a more final way out....
Suicide is particularly prevalent in rural communities where unemployment rose following the dissolution of Soviet era collective farms....
People lack the necessary education and professional skills, or are too old to adapt to new realities, and the state has put too little effort in helping them, experts say. In desperation, many turn to alcohol, fuelling their feelings of hopelessness.
It's a phenomenon that prompted one WikiLeaks cable to dub Lithuania the "suicide capital of Europe."
Toby Canham/Getty Images
On Thursday, I wrote about Google's decision to change "Palestinian Territories" to "Palestine" on the Palestinian edition of its search engine -- a move that at the very least acknowledges the quest for Palestinian statehood. Unsurprisingly, Israel is not happy about the change.
"This change raises questions about the reasons behind this surprising involvement of what is basically a private internet company in international politics -- and on the controversial side," Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Agence France-Presse.
Google, meanwhile, is defending the decision as part of an effort to put the company in line with international standards. "We're changing the name 'Palestinian Territories' to 'Palestine' across our products. We consult a number of sources and authorities when naming countries," Google spokesman Nathan Tyler told the BBC. "In this case, we are following the lead of the U.N., Icann [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers], ISO [International Organisation for Standardisation] and other international organisations."
Google's action comes on the heels of November's overwhelming U.N. vote to grant Palestine non-member observer state status, a move bitterly opposed by the United States and Israel. Following the vote, Palestinian officials asked international companies, including Google, to refer to "Palestine" rather than the "Palestinian Territories." Google's move "is a step in the right direction, a timely step and one that encourages others to join in and give the right definition and name for Palestine instead of Palestinian territories," Sabri Saidam, an advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the BBC.
Given current prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, I suppose the Palestinians will take whatever victories they can get.
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
On Friday, the Boston Police Department announced plans to beef up security during the city's Fourth of July festivities in the wake of new remarks from Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that he and his brother originally scheduled a bombing attack for Independence Day. The reference has renewed interest in the symbolic scheduling of terrorist strikes against the West.
Unfortunately for counterterrorism officials, the history of attacks against Western targets is a scattered mix of dates ranging from obvious national holidays to obscure events with only the most tangential relationship to the United States. Let's review some of the known rationales for the scheduling of terror.
Some dates make sense. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian with concealed plastic explosives in his underwear, attempted to blow up a passenger flight to Detroit on Christmas day, Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemen-based al Qaeda cleric accused of orchestrating the plot, issued a statement to the American people describing the rationale of the strike on "the holiest and most sacred days to you, Christmas Day." Given that between 73 and 76 percent of Americans identify as Christian, the date is logical (if there can be a logic to killing innocent civilians). But other dates have less of a tie-in to the United States.
Despite the widely circulated myth that al Qaeda selected the date 9/11 for its similarity to the emergency call number 9-1-1, the date was important to the terrorist network because of its relationship with Islam. As Lawrence Wright wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Looming Tower, on Sept. 11, 1683, the King of Poland launched the battle that turned back the advance of Muslim armies. "For the next three hundred years, Islam would be overshadowed by the growth of Western Christian societies," Wright explained. Osama bin Laden saw the attack on the World Trade Center as Islam's big comeback. The date has since been used by other terrorists, including the jihadists who struck the U.S. compound in Benghazi, killing U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans last year.
Other dates of terrorist attacks reveal how arbitrary the timing of these strikes can be. For instance, the first bombing of the World Trade Center occurred on Feb. 26, 1993, a date that had no significance to any of the parties involved. The attack was originally plotted for Feb. 23, the day the U.S. ground offensive began in Iraq in 1991. Another reason not to place too much importance on specific dates: Who's to say terrorists will be punctual?
Date doesn't ring a bell? It does to Spaniards, who suffered the 2004 Madrid train bombings attributed to an al Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell. Reports suggest the date was significat because it occurred exactly two and a half years after Sept. 11.
New Year's Eve has repeatedly been an aspirational date for terrorist attacks, according to U.S. officials. In 2000, for example, U.S. authorities apprehended Ahmed Ressam at a border crossing in Washington state for carrying bomb-making equipment and plotting to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year's Eve.
As for the Boston bombing, it's worth noting that while signs indicate Tamerlan Tsarnaev was influenced by radical Islam, a clear explanation for the motive behind the marathon bombings has not been revealed.
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.