With the Libyan rebels now largely in control of Tripoli, and two of Muammar al-Qaddafi's sons in custody after a stunning final assault of the capital, the answer seems clear: absolutely.
Many have criticized U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy of "leading from behind" in Libya, but that strategy now seems utterly vindicated. It was Libyans themselves, with significant help from NATO, Qatar, and the UAE, who liberated their country from Qaddafi's grip -- a fact about which they are fiercely and justly proud. It required little from American taxpayers: As of Thursday, NATO operations had cost the United States around $1.1 billion, according to CFR's Micah Zenko -- a rounding error.
Of course, there will be problems. Not only is Tripoli not yet fully secure, but two regime strongholds -- Sirte and Sabha -- appear to remain in regime hands. Libyan state TV is still, incredibly, on the air. The "brother leader" remains at large, as do his sons Muatassim and Khamis Qaddafi, as well as his intelligence chief and brother-in-law Abdullah al-Senussi. They may try, Saddam-style, to mount an insurgency (though the speed of Qaddafi's collapse in Tripoli suggest they will find few takers).
The National Transitional Council won't have an easy time of governing, either. Not only is it not clear how much loyalty it commands among the fighters, but Libya has effectively no institutions: It was a state run for the benefit of the Qaddafi family and its shrinking circle of friends and allies. There is little history of political pluralism in Libya, and no doubt many grievances and cleavages lurk below the surface. (Reuters journalist Michael Georgy raises some important concerns to this effect here.) There will likely be intense disagreements over how to distribute Libya's oil wealth, how to account for the last 42 years of despotic rule, how to incorporate Islam into the state, and how to disarm and integrate the disparate fighting brigades that overthrew Qaddafi. There will be a temptation to overly centralize power, fueled by oil receipts concentrated in a few hands. Hopefully, any conflicts that arise will be resolved peacefully.
But these problems seem manageable over time, and it is in any case hard to imagine any Libyan government worse than Qaddafi, whose rule was not only deeply repressive and arbitrary at home but also destabilizing abroad. I disagree strongly with those, like CFR's Richard Haass, who would like to see some kind of foreign stabilization force -- not only is it not going to happen, but it's best if Libyans handle their own affairs as much as possible. They will make mistakes, but these will be their own mistakes. It's now their country once again.
And that's the best news about the fall of Qaddafi. It is the only case so far in which Arab revolutionaries themselves will get the chance to overhaul the old order. In Tunisia and Egypt, the old regimes are still very much in power -- at least until new elections are held and new constitutions are written. And even then, gaining full civilian control over the military and the security apparatus will be a years-long struggle. Libya has the chance to wipe the slate clean, and given what a terrible system is being overthrown, that alone seems like reason enough to celebrate.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
The noose around Bashar al-Assad's neck is getting tighter.
With the extraordinary midnight statement Sunday by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, demanding the "stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed" in Syria and withdrawing the Saudi ambassador from Damascus for "consultations," the Syrian president's isolation is nearly complete. The remarks came after a milder Gulf Cooperation Council statement last week that, in hindsight, ought to have been seen as a warning.
Kuwait also withdrew its ambassador Monday, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was on his way to Damascus to deliver "a very sharp message" to Assad, in the words of an anonymous senior Turkish diplomat quoted by Hürriyet Daily News.
“[Turkey and Syria] will sit down and talk for one last time … even though one should not exclude dialogue, even in wartime,” another Foreign Ministry official told the paper. “The talks will show whether the ties will be cut loose or not … If a new [Turkish] policy is to be outlined on Syria – that’s the last meeting.”
Yet for all the drama of leading Middle Eastern powers finally expressing their exasperation with a brutal crackdown that has lasted for nearly 5 months -- and escalated dramatically during the holy month of Ramadan -- none of these countries are yet calling for Assad's ouster, as France and the United States have done. Arab states are still signaling that the Syrian regime has a chance to stay in their good graces by carrying out those two favorite words of disingenuous tyrants everywhere: "dialogue" and "reform."
As Nabil el-Araby -- whose tenure as Arab League chief thus far has been characterized by toadyishness and willful naivete -- put it Monday, "Do not expect drastic measures but step-by-step persuasion to resolve the conflict."
Once you're done laughing at the notion that the League of Arab Dictators has any idea what will satisfy the Syrian people, consider this: Does anyone really still think Assad is capable of solving this thing? Not only is the Syrian regime pushing back against the external criticism, insisting it is responding to "sabotage acts" by armed Islamist gangs, but the crackdown has empowered the very elements of the regime least amenable to a democratic transition. Moreover, as Assad himself noted in his interview with the Wall Street Journal in January, it is fruitless to make changes under pressure:
If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform. This is first. Second, if you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail.
I expect that over the next few days, we might see fewer provocative moves -- like this weekend's bloody assault on the eastern city of Deir az-Zour, which seems to have provoked King Abdullah's ire -- from the Syrian regime. Perhaps Assad and friends will announce a fresh round of "reforms" -- always, of course, with trap doors and escape hatches that render them meaningless. But at this point, Assad seems doomed; after so much bloodshed and anger, any genuine political solution will inevitably lead to his ouster. His wisest course of action now is to find a safe place to spend his retirement (perhaps Vogue will give him a job?).
I imagine a loose coalition of France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States will now be working toward a soft landing for Syria -- looking for high-level defectors who could negotiate with opposition leaders and carry out what political scientists call a "pacted transition." But it's hard to imagine this working either, given that the military and security services are so tightly controlled by the Assad clan and that the opposition is so diffuse and fragmented. There is nothing comparable to the relatively upright Tunisian and Egyptian militaries in Syria, whose army has been shelling cities and towns across the country. And there is nobody for the regime to negotiate with who can guarantee calm on the streets.
The whole Baathist system has to come down, and it probably will. The only questions now are how long it will take, and how much more innocent blood will be shed in the process.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
In the last few days, supporters of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria have been circulating a video that they claim shows regime opponents in Syria dumping the bodies of soldiers into the Orontes River in or near Hama, where the Syrian Army is currently engaged in a brutal punitive campaign against civilians who say they're defending themselves only with rocks and wooden sticks.
Syrian TV has made great hay from the clip, citing it as devastating proof that the protesters are in fact "armed gangs" bent on sowing destruction and chaos and terrorizing law-abiding, patriotic citizens who love their wise leaders.
Here's the video, which is not for the squeamish, as aired on Russian propaganda channel Russia Today. Someone has added English subtitles to this version:
And here's CNN's report on the same clip:
CNN cites a Syrian activist who confirmed the video, but other Syrian activists strongly dispute that it is from Hama. One of them, who goes by the pseudonym Edward E. Dark, summarizes the local coordinating committee's complaints about the video here:
1) The Assi river has been dry for a month and a half now because the dams at Rastan have not been opened to allow water to flow.
2) There is no such bridge in Hama.
3) There is no background noise whatsoever in the video Not even a splash. Nothing.
4) the way this video was distributed by unknown sources and the timing, suggests that it was released by the regime to justify an attack on Hama. This video was most likely taken in Jisr el Shughur, and shows pro-regime militia disposing on civilian bodies.
They go on to say that after four months, the regime can come up with no valid accusations against Hama, so they have resorted to making some up.
Pro-government Syrians reply that there is such a bridge, located at the coordinates 35.151942,36.733099 in Google Earth, just north of town. Here's an image someone uploaded to Panoramio:
It's hard to tell if it's indeed the same bridge, but the fence is similar to the one in the video. It also appears to be about the right height, but what about the sheer cliffs shown in the video?
And even if it is the same bridge, how can we take the regime's story at face value? The Syrian government has very little credibility at this point. It's entirely possible that the bodies shown are those of protesters -- they are in civilian garb, after all -- and it's the security forces dumping them into the water. Another point skeptics of the video make is that phrases heard on the recording like "fuck your religion" are words Islamists would be unlikely to use. They point out that in June, Syrian state television told a similar story, claiming that armed gangs "mutilated some of the bodies [of security forces] and threw some into the river" near Jisr al-Shughour, but never provided any persuasive evidence.
In the end, it's simply impossible to confirm either side of this story without being able to report freely from Syria, something the Syrian government manifestly does not allow. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that a massacre is underway in Hama, with tanks now occupying the city's central square and civilians reportedly fleeing in large numbers. The overwhelming bulk of protests in Syria have been peaceful, precisely because the activists know that taking up arms would give the regime an excuse to slaughter them -- though it's perfectly capable of fabricating one out of whole cloth.
The sight of Hosni Mubarak, lying prostrate on a gurney inside a cage in a makeshift courtroom while his sons Alaa and Gamal stood dutifully by, electrified the Arab world Wednesday, raising the prospect that the ousted Egyptian dictator may soon be held accountable for his crimes.
Yet for all the palpable excitement over Mubarak's trial, as well as that of several other top regime figures like former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, the chaotic scenes in the courtroom -- and the rock fight outside of it -- did not exactly inspire confidence in the Egyptian justice system. In one particularly bizarre moment, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Mubarak's victims claimed that the man in the cage was an imposter, and that the real president of Egypt died in 2004. At other points, Mubarak was caught on camera picking his nose. Dozens of lawyers on both sides crowded the bar and shouted their demands, forcing the judge to shut them up.
The trial, which will resume tomorrow for Adly and for the Mubaraks on Aug. 15, is being held under the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that deposed Mubarak in February at the height of a popular street uprising demanding his ouster. Although the SCAF adamantly denies meddling in the civilian court system, its claims of neutrality are about to be put to the test: Mubarak's lawyer is demanding that Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the defense minister who is now Egypt's de facto ruler, be called to the stand, along with former intelligence cheif Omar Suleiman, who briefly assumed the vice presidency during the 18 days of the revolution.
Interestingly, Mubarak's defense team claims that it was Tantawi who was technically the ruler of the country from Jan. 28 onward, meaning that the infamous Feb. 2 "Battle of the Camels" in Tahrir Square happened on the field marshal's watch. That strategy seems dubious, however, given that this legal status was never communicated at the time -- and it was not until Feb. 11 that Suleiman appeared on state television to announce that Mubarak had "resigned his position as president of the republic." [UPDATE: Al Jazeera's Evan Hill says that the defense is actually arguing that Tantawi was in charge of security, not that he was running the country.]
Still, it will be fascinating to see if Tantawi, Suleiman, and other senior figures like former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq will be dragged into the courtroom drama. The Egyptian regime was, and still very much is, a police state backed by the military. The circle of criminality and repression goes far wider than just a few dozen people. Mubarak isn't being tried for the 30 years of dictatorship, stagnation, and ruin he brought upon his country, but for the actions his subordinates took, allegedly under his orders, during the three weeks that brought him down. But there are no doubt many dark secrets that will come out during this trial, if the SCAF will allow it. Ironically, it might be the Big Man himself who, in trying to save his own neck and that of his sons, brings the rest of the system down with him.
Egyptian State TV
The Treasury Department today named six alleged al Qaeda operatives that it said were members of a network that worked to facilitate the moving of "money, facilitators and operatives from across the Middle East to South Asia" in cooperation with the government of Iran.
The department's press release said that Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, a Syrian living in Iran, was collecting money from Gulf donors and using it to send cash to al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as dispatching "extremist recruits for al Qaeda from the Gulf to Pakistan and Afghanistan via Iran." (If so, he's not doing such a great job, as al Qaeda's branch in Iraq has recently complained of going broke, and U.S. counterterrorism officials claim the group is on the verge of defeat in Pakistan.)
Washington has long accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan, and more recently has blamed the Islamic Republic for a stepped-up campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq. (A few months back, I met with a UAE military official who made the same accusation about Iran supplying weapons and money to anti-coalition fighters in Afghanistan.) It's also been widely reported that senior al Qaeda figures are under some sort of house arrest in Iran, possibly as bargaining chips -- but that Iran may have recently allowed a few of those operatives to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
I was particularly interested in this latest announcement by the Treasury, because it names two individuals in Qatar, where I am temporarily based.
One of those named, Salim Hasan Khalifa Rashid al-Kuwari, was also mentioned in an Amnesty International action alert in March as one of three individuals subject to arbitrary detention whom Sultan al-Khalaifi -- someone the NGO described as a blogger and human rights activist -- was trying to get released. Khalaifi was mysteriously arrested on March 1 by "a number of state security agents,” according to Amnesty, along with three other unnamed Qataris, and seems to have disappeared into a black hole.
At the time, I remember thinking the case was odd, because Khalaifi had only written four blog posts -- and none of them recently. Was he really arrested for his blogging activities? One theory was that Khalaifi was somehow involved in Facebook calls for a revolution to oust Emir Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, as his blog and the "Qatar Revolution" Facebook page contained some similar themes -- that the emir was corrupt and in league with the evil Americans and Israel, that his wife was too prominent, and so on. Khalaifi listed Sayyif Qutb's Milestones, a seminal Islamist tract, as his favorite book, so it seemed clear where his political leanings lay. [UPDATE: According to this Qatari blog, Khalaifi was released in April.]
In any event, I have no idea whether there's a link between today's Treasury announcement and the Khalaifi case, but the mention of Kuwari is certainly intriguing. Is he actually already in custody? If so, did he provide information on Khalil's (alleged) activities in Iran? And what explains Washington's motives for making this announcement today?
Leah Farrell, a leading al Qaeda expert based in Australia, tweeted that she was skeptical of the Treasury designation, and suggested it might be motivated by a U.S. desire to put pressure on Iran.
"Past reports have been poorly sourced and containing serious inaccuracies," she said. "I know about some of these people. They're not new and the reality is far more complex."
"This seems like a means of overcoming a lack of leverage against Iran releasing people."
I have just finished reading through what appears to be the 1,518-page manifesto and handbook of the perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack in Norwegian history.
The manifesto, bylined by someone calling himself Andrew Berwick, is entitled "2083: A European Declaration of Independence" and was posted on Stormfront.org, a white supremacist website, and discovered by American blogger Kevin I. Slaughter. [UPDATE: Norwegian TV has confirmed that the author is indeed the Oslo shooter, according to the New York Times.]
In it, "Berwick" declares himself a "Justiciar Knight Commander," a leading member of a "re-founded" Knights Templar group formed at an April 2002 meeting in London. He claims the founding group has 9 members, whom he does not name, and that three other sympathizers were not able to attend the original meeting.
"Our purpose," the document reads, is to "seize political and military control of Western European countries and implement a cultural conservative political agenda."
In grim, apocalyptic language, it advocates attacks on "traitors" across Europe who are supposedly enabling a Muslim takeover of the continent.
"[W]e should… not exceed (per 2010) aprox. 45 000 dead and 1 million wounded cultural Marxists/multiculturalists in Western Europe," the author writes. "The time for dialogue is over. We gave peace a chance. The time for armed resistance has come."
The manifesto also provides detailed instructions for everything from making a bomb to raising funds to preparing physically and mentally for what the author describes as a coming three-stage "civil war" between patriotic nationalists and "multiculturalists" who are, wittingly or not, destroying European civilization.
Filled with hateful rantings against Muslims -- whom the author claims are on a trajectory to take over Europe and erase its culture patrimony -- the writing bears a great resemblence to online comments attributed to Anders Breivik, 32, the confessed architect of a massacre that has so far claimed nearly 100 lives.
The author also claims to be Norwegian, and says that English is not his native language. And at the bottom of the document are several pictures of Breivick in different outfits, including the frogman costume pictured above.
Most suggestive of all, perhaps, is the detailed diary the author kept of his 82-day attempt to secretly build a fertilizer bomb while hiding out at a farm purchased explicitly for that purpose -- chronicling his attempts to construct a device that would kill as many people as possible.
Here's his entry from June 13, when he had his first successful detonation:
I prepared a test device today and drove off to a very isolated site. The test bomb was composed of a 3g DDNP primary and a 30g PA secondary. If this test would fail, I would abandon operation A and move forward with the non-spectacular operation B.
I lit the fuse, went out of range and waited. It was probably the longest 10 seconds I have ever endured…
BOOM! The detonation was successful!!!:-) I quickly drove away to avoid any potential unwanted attention, from people in the vicinity. I would have to come back a few hours later to investigate the blast hole, to see if both compounds had detonated.
Oddly, despite his evident hatred of Muslims and Arabs, "Berwick" professes admiration for al Qaeda, which he lists as one of only two "successful militant organisations" due to its "superior structural adaptation."
"If Muhammad was alive today," he writes, "Usama Bin Laden would have been his second in command."
Elsewhere, he cites al Qaeda's training manual as a reference, and declares, "Just like Jihadi warriors are the plum tree of the Ummah, we will be the plum tree for Europe and for Christianity."
In another eerie parallel, he also calls for suicidal operations in service of the larger cause: "Let us be perfectly clear; if you are unwilling to martyr yourself for the cause, then the PCCTS, Knights Templar is not for you."
(PCCTS, he explains, stands for "Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solomonici" or, in English, "Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.")
Chillingly, the manifesto ends:
I believe this will be my last entry. It is now Fri July 22nd, 12.51.
Justiciar Knight Commander
Knights Templar Europe
Knights Templar Norway
U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford has posted a note on the embassy's Facebook page, responding to recent demonstrations denouncing his recent trip to the besieged city of Hama:
Outside the Embassy demonstrators complained about U.S. policy towards the Syrian government and my trip to Hama.
As I have said before, we respect the right of all Syrians – and people in all countries - to express their opinions freely and in a climate of mutual respect. We wish the Syrian government would do the same – and stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators. I have not seen the police assault a “mnhebak” demonstration yet. I am glad – I want all Syrians to enjoy the right to demonstrate peacefully. On July 9 a “mnhebak” group threw rocks at our embassy, causing some damage. They resorted to violence, unlike the people in Hama, who have stayed peaceful. Go look at the Ba’ath or police headquarters in Hama – no damage that I saw.
Other protesters threw eggs and tomatoes at our embassy. If they cared about their fellow Syrians the protesters would stop throwing this food at us and donate it to those Syrians who don’t have enough to eat. And how ironic that the Syrian Government lets an anti-U.S. demonstration proceed freely while their security thugs beat down olive branch-carrying peaceful protesters elsewhere.
The people in Hama have been demonstrating peacefully for weeks. Yes, there is a general strike, but what caused it? The government security measures that killed protesters in Hama. In addition, the government began arresting people at night and without any kind of judicial warrant. Assad had promised in his last speech that there would be no more arrests without judicial process. Families in Hama told me of repeated cases where this was not the reality. And I saw no signs of armed gangs anywhere – not at any of the civilian street barricades we passed.
Hama and the Syrian crisis is not about the U.S. at all. This is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving. It is a crisis about dignity, human rights, and the rule of law. We regret the loss of life of all Syrians killed, civilians and security members both, and hope that the Syrian people will be able to find their way out of this crisis soon. Respect for basic human rights is a key element of the solution.
Pointedly, no direct word about today's "national dialogue," which the opposition is boycotting -- though his remark that "this is a crisis the Syrian people are in the process of solving" suggests the United States is still not quite ready to dump Bashar al-Assad.
In related news, Ford and his French counterpart were hauled into the Syrian Foreign Ministry Sunday and criticized for their trip to Hama on Thursday and Friday. Given that the State Department said the visit was authorized by the Syrian regime, it's likely this is all just political theater -- or even cover for an official meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem.
Another explanation might be retaliation for the fact that Syrian ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha was summoned to the State Department this past week for allegedly spying on Syrian-Americans and threatening their family members. The Obama administration is said to be considering restrictions on Moustapha's movements, but will likely not boot him out of the country, as that would be sure to prompt Ford's expulsion from Syria.
UPDATE: A "senior U.S. official" tells AFP that Ford's trip to the Foreign Ministry was a previously scheduled meeting, and accuses the Syrian regime of "organizing" the protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
It's another Friday in the Arab world, and once again Syria is witnessing huge demonstrations.
This time, Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, decided to hoof it up to Hama to scope out the scene for himself. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday that Ford had "spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves."
She added: "So for him to go personally at this time and stand with the people of Hama, I think, expresses in physical terms, not to mention political terms, our view that the people of Hama have a right to express themselves peacefully and that we are concerned about the posture that the security forces have taken." She also said Ford had received a "very warm welcome" in Hama, where he met with at least a dozen residents of the city.
Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who has been outspoken in calling for stronger U.S. action in Syria, cheered the visit. "The powerful visit of Ambassador Ford to #Hama shows the value of his ongoing presence in #Syria and knocked the regime off balance," he tweeted.
Here's what Ford would have seen today:
So far, Ford's move doesn't seem to have deterred protesters from coming out in cities and neighborhoods all across Syria, from Raqqa and Qamishle in the north to Deir az-Zour and Albu Kamal in the south to the Midan and Qaboun areas of the capital. There were even small demonstrations in quiescent Aleppo, according to Syrian activists.
Still, the Syrian regime sees an opening, and has sought to paint Ford's visit as proof positive that the evil Americans are behind the actions of the "sabateurs" who are bent on destroying the country and neutralizing its "resistance" to Israel.
Will it work? Perhaps on some Syrians, but I think we're well past the point where too many folks are buying what the regime is selling. Week after week, the protests keep swelling and spreading to new areas, and it's clear that it's ordinary Syrians who are voicing disapproval of their government, not foreign agents.
And it's not as if Assad and friends haven't been trying all along to push the "foreign conspiracy" line, even as they pretend to engage in dialogue with an opposition whose demands the government has deemed broadly legitimate. As Andrew Exum, a Levant expert at the Center for a New American Security tweeted, "Re: Ford's visit to Hama, what did he have to lose? Does it in any way affect the protests if they are branded in league with the #USA? ... I mean, look, gang: it's not as if Bashar al-Asad and his stooges would go any easier on the protesters if the #USA did not side with them."
UPDATE: And here's a video showing Ford driving through Hama. He's welcomed by protesters wielding... olive branches and roses:
The crowd chants: "The people demand the fall of the regime" and "We kneel only for God."
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