After 12 years, nearly $700 billion, and more than 2,000 dead U.S. soldiers, here's what the United States has to show for its efforts in Afghanistan: a government that's perceived to be as corrupt as North Korea, according to a new report from the anti-corruption group Transparency International. File it away under things U.S. officials would probably rather ignore.
If Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a wolf in sheep's clothing, as Benjamin Netanyahu claims, then this sheep has one savvy media team.
Mere days after Iran inked a landmark nuclear deal with a team of Western negotiators, the producer for Rouhani's electoral campaign ads released a video called "The New Journey" or "Aspirations," depending on the translation. It's a clip with remarkable overtones to the 2008 Obama-inspired viral video, "Yes We Can." Instead of will.i.am and 30 of his celebrity friends singing over an inspirational Obama's speech, the Iranian version performs a similar trick with Rouhani's inaugural remarks. Released to mark the first 100 days of Ruohani's time in office, the video stars Iranian celebrities and even includes a sign-language cameo -- just like its American counterpart.
For the past several weeks, the world's attention has been fixed on a Geneva luxury hotel where Western negotiators and their Iranian counterparts have flitted in and out in search of a deal to end the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear program. But the real action, it turns out, took place 3,000 miles away in the Omani city of Muscat.
Working through the Sultan Qaboos-bin-Said, the ruler of Oman, U.S. diplomats have secretly huddled with a team of Iranian diplomats since 2011 to carry out bilateral talks aimed at securing an agreement to put the brakes on Iran's nuclear ambitions. While negotiations in Geneva appear to have generated all-important consensus among Western powers, the meat of the agreement looks to have been hammered out in Muscat, far from the prying eyes of the international media gathered in the Swiss city.
That subplot -- secret negotiations carried out in a little-known Middle Eastern capital known for the production of exceptionally aromatic frankincense -- has added a level of subterfuge to what is already one of the biggest diplomatic developments in recent memory. That a landmark nuclear deal could be worked out in secret is perhaps not surprising but it does cast the spotlight on the man who shepherded the agreement. Just who is Sultan Qaboos?
MOHAMMED MAHJOUB/AFP/Getty Images
In the war of words over the nuclear deal with Iran, any metaphor is fair game.
Skeptics of the agreement hashed out in Geneva see parallels between this deal and, well, just about every bad, no good, awful, catastrophic moment in international politics since 1914. Meanwhile, its defenders have run out of breathless adjectives with which to describe a deal that just, maybe, might, possibly be similar to President Nixon's opening to China.
In short, the debate over how to interpret the Geneva agreement has descended into a fun house of dueling metaphors. This is your guide to those metaphors -- and the argument -- that will surely dominate the next few months as the world debates whether the Geneva agreement represents a bona fide diplomatic breakthrough.
Get ready to hear a lot about Neville Chamberlain and "peace in our time." Oh, also: Appeasement.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
If the West makes a deal this weekend with Iran -- one of the world's largest oil producers -- the price of crude will almost certainly fall on Monday.
But after that? Don't count on it.
"The assumption that a deal was coming had put some downward pressure on oil," said Daniel Sternoff, Director of Energy Research, at Medley Global Advisors. Sternoff said that some people in the market see a deal as an indication that the Iran sanctions could be lifted, bringing Iranian oil back to the market.
Prices of crude have fluctuated this week with the prospects of success in Geneva, where the United States is negotiating with Iran and five other countries about suspending some of the sanctions on the Iranian economy in exchange for Tehran curbing parts of its nuclear program. The price of crude oil fell in the middle of the week, but recovered to over $95 per barrel by Friday. Though oil sanctions aren't necessarily on the table in Geneva, an interim deal could raise hopes in the market that they'll be lifted in the future, which could in turn send prices lower.
Yet that view could be optimistic, Sternoff said. "Even under an interim deal, it's not like we're going to see a huge rush of Iranian oil back on the market."
At it's peak, Iran produced close to 4 million barrels of oil per day, but sanctions have reduced that close to 2.5 million barrels per day.
Amy Myers Jaffe, who studies fuel markets at the University of California Davis, said any drop in prices if there's a deal this weekend wouldn't necessarily be about "how much extra oil is going to come out from Iran."
Instead, "the real impact is in changing the market psychology and that's just much harder to predict," said Jaffe, who is the Executive Director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California at Davis's business school. Changing that psychology would require not just a deal with the United States, Jaffe added, but improved relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel as well.
"If we start to see a resolution of the way that Iran engages in all these different domains," then that lowers the risk of conflict in Syria, Jaffe said.
Patrick Clawson, Director of Research at the Washington Institute, said a fair amount of this week's movement in oil prices around the Geneva talks is about the reduction of this "risk" premium, which is the extra amount factored into the price of oil based on the risk of conflict in the area.
"The risk of there being a conflict that imperils oil shipments from the Persian Gulf goes down and therefore oil prices go down," Clawson said.
Recently, Iranian officials and foreign oil companies, like Chevron, Total, and Royal Dutch Shell, have been talking. Some have taken that as a sign that Iran is willing to give foreign companies better terms than before, when Iran often required companies to enter into agreements with state-controlled companies. A U.S. official said Iran is losing $5 billion a month because of lost oil sales, according to the AP.
"If there's an accord that will allow foreign companies to come back to Iran, they're much more likely to be interested," Clawson said. Though he adds that oil companies have many more choices for investment these days, including in Africa and the United States.
While a broad deal could signal greater stability in the region and therefore reduce the extra "premium," actually increasing the amount of Iranian oil on the market would likely take more time. There are a lot of practical hurdles to Iran increasing output, even if sanctions are lifted.
Kamran Dadkhah, an associate professor at Northeastern University who has studied the Iranian economy, said Iran's oil industry has been left behind as technology has improved because there's been no real investment in Iran's oil fields in decades. For instance, he said, the lack of investment means Iran's oil wells aren't well maintained.
"If the sanctions are lifted and investment goes to Iran, in the long run, you will have a very, very positive effect," Dadkhah said. But, he added, the big caveat is whether Iran sticks to any deal it makes in Geneva.
The pair of lion cubs born on Monday in Gaza's Bissan Zoo were hailed as a triumph -- a rare optimistic sign in a region that has been devastated by militants within the Strip and a blockade along its borders. But that sudden spring of hope was quashed quickly when zoo officials announced yesterday that the cubs had died.
"It's a huge achievement for them just to be born here in Gaza," zookeeper Mohammed Shabai told reporters when they were born. "Now they must survive." Reports have cited several possible causes of death for the cubs, who were reportedly born healthy. The lioness that birthed them refused to feed them, so zookeepers substituted whole milk and nursed the cubs by hand. The lion that fathered them showed signs of aggression toward the cubs. Zookeepers had to rely on experts in Egypt, reached by phone, for advice on the cubs' care. On Tuesday, an Israeli airstrike targeting rocket-launching militants startled the lioness. At least according to one report, she stepped on the cubs. Zookeepers brought the cubs into a warmed room to protect them from the November chill, but later told reporters that they did not have the facilities to adequately shelter the newborns. Some reports cited an unidentified illness or "pollutants," and zookeepers noted that they were not able to import the vaccines necessary to inoculate the cubs.
Three days after their birth, the cubs succumbed. They did not live long enough to open their eyes. "We were happy we had them, if just for a short time," a zookeeper said.
As with everything in Gaza, the cubs' brief life and abrupt death has been heavily politicized. The pair was born a year after Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense, a week-long convulsion of violence in November 2012 in which Gazan militants and Israeli forces exchanged heavy rocket fire and airstrikes, and were named "Fajr," after an Iranian-made rocket favored by Gazan militants, and "Sijil," the Gazan name for the Nov. 2012 conflict. Hamas seized on the lions as a symbol of Gazan resilience, publicizing their birth on Twitter. Even the process by which they were born is steeped in Gazan embargo politics: The pair of lions that parented the cubs were smuggled into the Strip through underground tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border in 2008; most of the tunnels have since been destroyed.
There are three zoos operating in the Gaza Strip. They have struggled to keep animals alive in Gaza's austere conditions, have been implicated in animal abuse scandals, and resorted to displaying the taxidermied remains of deceased animals.
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In 1926, Vartoohi Galezian -- a 15-year-old refugee from the genocide in Armenia -- arrived at the White House to pay a visit to President Calvin Coolidge. She had come to view the rug she and 1,400 other orphans living in Ghazir -- then part of mandate Syria, now in Lebanon -- had woven as a gift to the United States in thanks for the humanitarian assistance provided to the refugees of the ethnic cleansing of Armenians during World War I. In June 1995, the Ghazir rug, a huge, beautiful work exemplary of the Middle East's legendary weaving traditions, was shown once more to Galezian and her family, but it's now been more than 17 years since the White House has displayed what has come to be known as the Armenian orphan rug. Now it is unclear when the rug will ever be shown again.
That rug, seen in the photo above, is now caught in a tug-of-war with historians and Armenian advocates on one side pulling for the rug to be displayed and the White House on the other, which seems reticent to release the rug for an exhibit. Many suspect the White House of kowtowing to Turkey, which refuses to describe the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide and objects to the display of Armenian artifacts -- and the implicit acknowledgement of Turkey's responsibility in the 20th century's first large-scale ethnic cleansing. But the rug has powerful supporters, who are now pushing a White House loathe to antagonise Turkey to put the rug on display.
As strange as it sounds, the memory of a nearly century-old genocide is now being litigated over the future fate of a rug.
Armenian Cultural Foundation
The United Arab Emirates is a country known for its outrageous tourist attractions, each more ambitious than the last, from massive indoor ski slopes to archipelagoes of entirely man-made islands. Given this history, it might not seem so remarkable that space tourism pioneers are turning to the country for the tourists of the future: according to recent reports in Arabian Business and Arabian Travel News, tickets for what is being called the first commercial space flight, slated to take off at the end of 2014, have gone on sale in Dubai. It marks the first time the company behind the flight has opened ticket sales up to Middle Eastern consumers.
According to Arabian Business, the company, Space Expedition Corp. (SXC), is close to finishing its first reusable spaceship at a desert location outside of Los Angeles. When commercial flights begin, the spaceship will make four trips into space each day, breaking the sound barrier within a minute and entering space within four. SXC's founder and CEO, Michiel Mol, expects that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will approve the spaceship for commercial use by the end of 2014.
The company undoubtedly looked to Dubai consumers because of the city and the broader region's past space exploration-themed tourism projects (and, it probably goes without saying, the wealth that makes it possible). According to U.S.-based Mobilona Space Hotels, the company has received proposals from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha for each city's own space-themed hotel. The hotel, which was first proposed by developers seeking permission to plan in Barcelona, would feature a "zero-gravity spa" and a mock space-training program in which guests would experience a "form of weightlessness" in a vertical wind tunnel. While Barcelona officials scoffed at the idea, Emiratis and Qataris were apparently more receptive. There has also been some chatter about plans to build a $3.3-billion Space City in Qatar with a number of space-related tourist attractions.
As interest in space exploration and space tourism has exploded in the UAE and the broader Gulf region, the recent news of SXC's marketing in Dubai has positioned the country to become what may one day be called a hub of space tourism. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, the "space tourism arm" of his Virgin Group company and one of the most well-known commercial space flight companies, is partly owned by the Abu Dhabi government-controlled Aabar Investments, and part of the deal in which Aabar acquired the 32 percent-stake also included an agreement to build Virgin Galactic spaceport facilities in Abu Dhabi. When Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company launched in 2003 with promises to send customers into space for the first commercial flights, Michiel Mol, who would go on to be the CEO of SXC, was one of the first to buy a $200,000 ticket. But as the years went by, Mol got restless and became CEO of his own start-up with similar aims. "We are David versus Goliath," Mol has said of the competition between SXC and Branson's Virgin Galactic.
And now, SXC, the Dutch start-up that's quickly becoming the dark horse in the race to capitalize on tourism's next frontier, has moved into what should be Virgin Galactic's home territory: the Emirates. Still, though, Virgin Galactic has quite a lead on SXC, with more than 550 customers compared to SXC's 250 and a fully operational spaceport in New Mexico, compared to the two SXC spaceports that are expected to open in 2017.
Both SXC and Virgin Galactic have set 2014 as the target year for taking tourists to space, but even since June, that target has been pushed back from early 2014 to late 2014. But if the companies ever make it to take-off, the pay-off looks promising: in 2012, a space and defense industry consulting company speculated the potential value of the commercial space industry would be $1.6 billion by 2020. If space tourism seemed far-out before, the practical trappings of profit calculations and, now, competition between companies that are no longer the only player in the business, represent an entirely new level of absurd. Welcome to the future -- or, maybe, just another outrageous and gimmicky tourist initiative on the Arabian Peninsula.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Yemen has sentenced eight sailors for smuggling arms to local rebels. The crew of the Jihan sailors received sentences ranging from one to six years in prison; the alleged mastermind of the operation, tried in absentia, received ten. No one in the Jihan's crew is Iranian, but Tehran's presence was certainly felt during the trial -- and is the answer to what the Jihan and its deadly cargo were doing in the Gulf of Aden in the first place.
On Jan. 23, the Yemeni military, working closely with the U.S. Navy, stopped a 130-foot sailboat off the coast of al Ghaydah, a Yemeni city near the Oman border. A search of the ship, according to Yemeni officials, revealed that it was carrying an entire arsenal of Chinese surface-to-air missiles, C4 explosives, rocket propelled grenades, mortar shells, and other military equipment bound for Houthi rebels, a Shia revivalist movement that has waged an intermittent war for autonomy in Yemen's northern Saada province over the past decade. The eight-person crew of the ship, all Yemenis, was arrested for arms smuggling.
Almost immediately, Iran was fingered as being behind the deal. It wouldn't be the first time -- the Yemeni government has accused Iran of supporting the Houthis for years, with little evidence to show for it. But starting in 2012, as other ships smuggling arms were intercepted, including some shipments being directed through Turkey to mask their origin, U.S. officials started finding the Yemeni accusations more credible. These shipments, Yemeni officials said, contained heavy weapons and the materials for making explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a lethal variety of roadside bomb that was commonly used by Iranian-allied Shiite militants against U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The timing, though, was strange. After fighting a half-dozen "Saada wars" under President Ali Abdullah Saleh between 2004 and 2010, the Houthis had been relatively quiet since the start of the country's revolution in early 2011, some even coming to the capital, Sanaa, to participate in sit-in protests against the government.
That lull has come to an end this month with a fresh round of fighting between Houthis and Salafists in the city of Dammaj, which was a flashpoint during the Saada wars. Over several decades, Salafism that has spread from Saudi Arabia, along with the kingdom's large patronage network among the Yemeni tribes, has reshaped Yemen's religious landscape. Dammaj's Dar al-Hadith institute, a center of Salafist study, is emblematic of the growth of Salafism in Yemeni society that the Houthi movement was in many ways a reaction against. Clashes over Dar al-Hadith over the past two weeks, which have killed over 100 people and persisted despite attempts to find a diplomatic solution, has drawn the attention of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which announced its "total solidarity with our Sunni brothers in the centre in Dammaj," adding that the Houthis's "crimes against the Sunni people will not pass without punishment or disciplinary action."
Iran has been a vocal supporter of the Houthis, part and parcel with Tehran's self-appointed role as the defender of the Middle East's Shiite communities -- though the Iranian leadership practices a different variation of Shiism than the Houthis. "Salafis Continue Attacking Houthis in Northern Yemen," begins one recent Iranian report on the fighting in Dammaj, "Al-Qaeda threatens Yemeni Shia community," reads another. But Iran's interest in Yemen goes beyond cheerleading and quietly smuggling weapons to the Houthis based on their shared Shia heritage: It's also a contested sphere of influence in the Saudi-Iranian cold war. Iran has also tried to make inroads with Yemen's democracy activists, as well, regardless of their religion. Supporting the Houthis is "an indirect means to attack the Saudis," Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told FP. When it comes to the different sects of Shiism practiced by Iran and the Houthis, Iran "is ecumenical about these things, especially when the shared foe is the Saudi family."
The Saada conflict is often overlooked amid Yemen's al Qaeda insurgency and Southern separatist movements. But the recent flare-up on Yemen's forgotten battlefield is and the Jihan sentencing are quiet signs that Iranian-Saudi cold war is still heating up where their proxies meet.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
CAIRO - In a town that lies less than eight miles from the center of Damascus, Syrians are starving to death. Some children in Muadamiyah have resorted to eating leaves to survive, while a group of Muslim clerics also issued a fatwa that the consumption of dogs and cats was permissible for the area's residents. Meanwhile, videos showing emaciated children's corpses continue to filter out -- victims of a siege by the Syrian regime that prevents the entry of either food or medical care.
In an article for Foreign Policy on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Syrian security forces' denial of humanitarian aid to places like Muadamiyah, calling on the world to "act quickly and decisively" to pressure the Assad regime to allow assistance to reach civilians. For some of the aid workers on the conflict's front lines, however, the United States and its allies have been all talk and no action.
"Secretary Kerry and others give support in a gray, non-focused way," said Khaled Erkoussi, the head of emergency operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). "It's not enough now to say, ‘we support you, Syrian Red Crescent.' What we want you to say is, ‘You must get your hands off the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, stop shooting at them, let them go to the areas [in need] with the support with the U.N.'"
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers has prompted some pretty outrageous justifications -- and that was before this weekend's demonstrations, in which 60 women got behind the wheel in a rolling protest. One leading Saudi cleric argued that women ran the risk of damaging their ovaries and pelvises when they drove cars, increasing the possibility of giving birth to children with "clinical problems." But perhaps none of these reasons are more ludicrous than the one charging that female drivers would increase car accidents. The Kingdom's actually has one of the planet's worst safety records. Indeed, the biggest argument against the ban could be Saudi drivers' atrociously high road accident death toll, consistently rating among the highest in the world.
According to the most recent World Health Organization figures, Saudi Arabia has the 21st-highest road-related death toll in the world, but that number becomes even more exceptional when you look at the group of countries that are faring worse. The countries with the worst fatalities are overwhelmingly low-income countries, with the South Pacific island of Niue registering the highest number. The fact that a lot of these countries struggle with basic road infrastructure and an inadequate police force to enforce traffic laws makes the number in Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country, even more striking. Saudi Arabia has the highest accident-related death toll among high-income countries.
A 2013 study by the Kingdom's General Directorate of Traffic found that 19 people die per day in traffic-related fatalities in Saudi Arabia, predicting that if current rates continue, by 2030, 4 million people will die annually in a car accident there. The biggest reason for the high rates is simply reckless driving - the report has found in past years that a third of all car accidents in the Kingdom are cause by drivers jumping red lights, and 18 percent were caused by illegal u-turns. In an interview with Arab News in September, the associate vice president and transportation systems director of Middle East Operations at traffic management consultancy Iteris Inc., Glenn N. Havinoviski, said infrastructure wasn't an issue, but "when you see people turning left out of the far right lane and traffic cutting through parking lots and frontage roads, there are clearly some issues with discipline."
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Responding to apparent pent-up demand for tacky bachelorette parties, the 38-year old Turkish entrepreneur Haluk Murat Demirel has opened the country's first halal (permissible in Islam) sex shop online. It's not the first such enterprise in the world -- successful predecessors can be found in such varied locales as Bahrain, the Netherlands, and Atlanta, Ga. -- but the existence of such a market still raises some interesting questions. For instance, what makes a sex shop halal? And what's behind their spread?
According to Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif., the trend is, if anything, reflective of the adaptive qualities of capitalism -- not any trend in the Muslim world, where items like herbal aphrodisiacs have been commonplace but under the radar for centuries.
"Muslim countries have all of these but they don't advertise them," he told Foreign Policy by phone. "It all goes back to the monetization of religion."
ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images
On Saturday, U.S. Navy SEALs captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Libi, in a brazen raid on his home in Tripoli, Libya. Libi was indicted in New York in 2000 for his role in al Qaeda's bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and is believed to have played a role in revitalizing al Qaeda's operations in North Africa in recent years. The SEALs whisked Libi to the USS San Antonio, which was waiting offshore, where he is "currently lawfully detained under the law of war" as an enemy combatant, according to the Pentagon.
"Warsame is the model for this guy," an unnamed official told the New York Times. That would be Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, an al-Shabab military commander seized in Somalia on April 19, 2011. He was then held and interrogated by a special American interrogation team comprised of representatives from the Department of Justice, the intelligence community, and the military aboard the USS Boxer for two months, before being read his Miranda rights and turned over to the FBI. After another week of interrogation, Warsame was indicted on June 30, 2011 and formally arrested on July 3. While only the testimony he gave the FBI was admissible in court, the intelligence he shared with U.S. interrogators before being read his Miranda rights could be used to inform U.S. military strikes or CIA operations against terrorist groups. Warsame later pleaded guilty and elected to cooperate with U.S. officials.
U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sabrina Fine/Released
That the first feature film shot in Saudi Arabia (a country with no commercial theaters) was directed by a woman (in a country where women still famously cannot drive) would have been enough to spark a media firestorm. That the film, Wadjda, which hit U.S. theaters last week, also happens to be good -- "a stunningly assured debut," wrote Slate; "sharply observed, deceptively gentle," wrote the New York Times -- has made it, and its photogenic director, Haifaa al-Mansour, irresistible.
Mansour's story about a young Saudi girl's quest to buy a bike -- so she can race her male friend Abdullah -- explores the lives and roles of women in one of the most conservative, traditional countries in the Middle East. It introduces us to the rhythms of daily household life in Saudi Arabia, a world that few outsiders ever see.
Mansour spoke to Foreign Policy this week about losing access to locations hours before a shoot, why it was so hard to recruit actors for her film, and the curious relationship between Saudi women and their drivers. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
President Vladimir Putin's direct appeal to the American people in the pages of the New York Times is just one part of his government's messaging strategy on Syria. Russia's English-language media outlets are busy blasting out the Kremlin line on the conflict as well.
A few articles have focused on the American reaction to Putin's editorial on Thursday (see, for example, "White House Pokes Russia over Putin's Syria Op-Ed"), but many outlets have drawn attention to other criticisms of President Obama's stance on Syria. RT, the flashy Kremlin-financed news channel, is covering a range of critiques -- from former President Jimmy Carter to Madonna. The Russian media has also tried to gauge the American mood through polling: RT notes that a recent survey by the libertarian magazine Reason found that two-thirds of Americans feel that Obama's handling of foreign policy has been as bad or worse than President George W. Bush's. But that doesn't mean Americans are thrilled with the Russian disarmament plan; the state-owned RIA Novosti pointed to a Pew poll showing that the majority of Americans distrust Russia.
The Russian press is most interested in discrediting the story that the Assad regime used chemical weapons -- an allegation that has been supported by evidence collected by the Obama administration, the French government, the United Nations, and Human Rights Watch, among others. These efforts to present a counternarrative -- in which the rebels gassed themselves and civilians -- range from the credible but circumstantial to the just plain silly. On the more intriguing side, there's the account given by two kidnapped Europeans, who traveled to Syria as supporters of the rebels but wound up being held hostage until last week. They claim to have overheard a conversation with a rebel commander suggesting that the rebels were involved in the attack, but have not discussed details of what they heard. Less compelling is the idle speculation of Ray McGovern -- a former CIA analyst, 9/11 conspiracy theorist, and RT favorite, that the CIA fabricated evidence implicating the Assad regime in the chemical weapons attacks, and the video analysis of a Syrian nun. Across the Russian media, there's consensus on at least one thing: the rebels are "terrorists."
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin made a direct appeal to the American public in an editorial in Thursday morning's New York Times. "The potential strike by the United States against Syria," he writes, "despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.... It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
But Putin seemed notably less concerned about civilian deaths and the second-order effects of military intervention when he took to the same opinion page in 1999 to make the case for intervention -- in Chechnya. In an editorial titled "Why We Must Act," he defended Russian military action, writing that "in the midst of war, even the most carefully planned military operations occasionally cause civilian casualties, and we deeply regret that." Despite international concerns, though, he assured readers that the Russian counterinsurgency operation would not cause widespread harm to civilians. "American officials tell us that ordinary citizens are suffering, that our military tactics may increase that suffering," he wrote then. "The very opposite is true. Our commanders have clear instructions to avoid casualties among the general population. We have nothing to gain by doing otherwise." Because when the Russians stage a military intervention, it's different.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
As of Monday morning, the majority of U.S. legislators still have yet to announce their position on whether they'll vote to authorize the use of military force against Syria. They're running out of time to come to a decision, though; the resolution passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday and a vote by the full Senate is expected this week, with the House likely to follow soon after.
Some members of Congress may just be keeping their opinions to themselves. Congressional offices have reported a sharp uptick in phone calls from constituents, almost all of them critical of a strike against Syria. The incentive to voice opposition to the resolution is stronger at this point -- both because it resonates with popular opinion and because it serves as a counterpoint to the Obama administration's campaign for strikes, which has included congressional hearings featuring Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey; public speeches (U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power spoke last week, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will speak today, and President Obama will deliver a speech tomorrow); private meetings; and appearances on the Sunday talk shows.
As both sides vie to sway the undecideds, here are the key congressional players to watch this week:
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Who the Syrian rebels are depends on whom you ask. Experts on the civil war -- not just politicians like Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- disagree vehemently over whether the rebellion has been subsumed by jihadi elements. No one is entirely sure of how many rebels are fighting within Syria's borders, and few are willing to even venture an estimate. Then there's the convoluted alphabet soup of overlapping rebel groups to sort through.
A brief guide of all the relevant information is useful. So here are the things we know -- or think we know -- about the Syrian rebels.
ALICE Martins/AFP/Getty Images
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution this afternoon to authorize the use of U.S. military force against Syria. The resolution will be voted on by the full Senate next week, but since before this afternoon's committee decision, politicians and commentators have been trying to read the tea leaves on how the vote will go. And unlike on so many other issues, this vote probably will not follow party lines.
Whip counts by the Washington Post, Think Progress, CNN, and others have been shifting over the past day or so. The Post, for instance, moved Sen. John McCain from their "Against military action" column (he'd been placed there for saying earlier in the week that he didn't support the president's plan as proposed) to "For military action" after his SFRC vote this afternoon. Still, all the tallies so far leave about 300 of the House's 435 members unaccounted for, making them only modestly instructive.
The 10-7 committee vote this afternoon, however, may be a preview of next week's vote. Interventionism makes for strange bedfellows: McCain and fellow Republicans Bob Corker and Jeff Flake joined seven Democrats in support of the resolution, while Democrats Tom Udall and Christopher Murphy voted against it along with Republicans Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts voted "present."
The latest -- but still early -- forecasts for the full Senate show signs of a similar split. This was the Post's count as of this afternoon:
The coalition between the interventionist wings of the Republican and Democratic Parties stands in sharp contrast with what occurred in the British Parliament's vote last week. On August 29, the House of Commons split nearly along party lines: The entire Labour Party stuck together, as did much of the governing coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties. But a handful of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted against the motion -- and the efforts of their prime minister -- sinking David Cameron's proposal for a British role in a Syrian intervention, 272-285.
The vote next week will likely involve a greater commingling of political parties than in Britain. But, in keeping with the parliamentary outcome, whether or not President Obama's proposed strikes move forward will probably be decided by a very narrow margin.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
With the Obama administration in an all-out blitz to gain congressional authorization for a strike On Syria, the debate over chemical weapons and a potential U.S. military retaliation has taken an inevitable turn: The conspiracy theories have arrived.
Perhaps President Obama planned the chemical weapons attack to create an excuse to intervene? Or maybe he just framed the Syrians? Or perhaps it was in fact a "false flag" attack carried out at Israel's behest? Or maybe the intelligence has just been wildly distorted? Or maybe the attack was in fact no attack at all but an accidental release of chemical weapons provided to the rebels by Saudi Arabian intelligence officials?
One theory is crazier than the next, but for these modern conspiracy theorists, no conjecture seems out of bounds. Here's your guide to the ugly turn the Syria debate has now taken.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The rifle above belonged to a brutal dictator who gassed to death thousands of his own citizens and had the gall to erect a giant arch modeled after his own fists. Now it can be yours for an estimated $7,500 to $15,000.
The Rock Island Auction Company is auctioning off Saddam Hussein's personal Ruger M77 bolt-action rifle, which has changed hands several times since the days when Hussein allegedly held the gun aloft during rallies (the Illinois-based firearms auction house is also selling a pocket pistol "attributed to Adolf Hitler," if you're in the market). According to an affidavit posted on the company's website, a Sufi militia group found the rifle in the rubble of the presidential palace in Baghdad soon after the beginning of the American invasion in 2003. The group then "turned over" the rifle to the CIA in 2004. When the Baghdad station chief at the time retired from the agency in 2012, the CIA gave him the rifle. He is now putting it up for auction, as he explains in signed documents on Rock Island's site.
Whoever wrote the language hawking the item apparently didn't think this history spoke for itself, choosing instead to describe Hussein rather like a wrestler about to enter the ring. "This brutal dictator needs NO introduction to the American people, as he is one of the most despised and hated Middle East leaders of the 20/21st Century," the description observes. After noting that the rifle "was the one used ceremoniously in numerous worldwide newsreels shown on national TV," the pitch finishes strong, promising an "impeccably well documented historic rifle that once belonged to one of the most known bad guys of recent times, the late Saddam Hussein!"
Saddam Hussein-related artifacts have been circulating around the world for quite some time now. In 2009, the U.S. Army returned to the Iraqi government a chrome-plated AK-47 that was part of a collection of chrome- and gold-plated weaponry that Hussein gave out as gifts. Former president George W. Bush kept in his private study the pistol found when Hussein was captured, and proudly showed it to visitors.
Among the more bizarre items in the genre is a bronze buttock from iconic Saddam statue in Baghdad, recovered when Marines and Iraqis symbolically toppled the monument in 2003. The section, which Iraq later argued was part of its "historical and cultural heritage," was auctioned in Britain in 2011 but failed to sell when bidding stopped at £21,000, short of the six-figure minimum price.
Compared to that asking price, Saddam's bolt-action rifle is a steal.
(h/t: Borzou Daragahi)
Rock Island Auction Company
What does one Nashville soul food restaurateur think about Al Jazeera -- the Qatari-funded TV network, once vilified by George W. Bush as "hateful propaganda" - setting up shop in his hometown? Let's say he's skeptical, but open-minded:
"I don't know a lot about you," he told an Al Jazeera crew, who dropped by his restaurant to get his thoughts. "I'll know more when I see you on TV, and then I can have a better opinion once I get to see you."
Give them some credit for tackling the elephant in the studio head on. In the one-hour preview leading up to the official, much-anticipated launch of Al Jazeera America on Tuesday, the network was upfront about the possibility that the average viewer might find something about the network ... a little unfamiliar, perhaps?
One man, in one of many man-on-the-street interviews featured in the promo, said he'd "heard the name" Al Jazeera -- and knew that it had "something to do" with the Middle East. Another volunteered that it was "not in California," and "not in Texas" but rather somewhere far off and exotic: Iraq or Iran, maybe.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
For most people, the name "Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf" evokes the image of "Stormin' Norman," the U.S. Army general who oversaw Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as commander of the military's Central Command from 1988 through the effort to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1991. The Desert Storm general, though, was the son of Maj. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose varied and colorful career took him from being the founder and commander of the New Jersey State Police (where he led the investigation into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby), to serving as a general in World War II, training Iran's national police, and advising Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1953, he was the CIA's asset in Tehran when the country was convulsed by a coup.
Schwarzkopf's role has been the subject of speculation since the day after Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh's arrest on Aug. 19, 1953. On Aug. 20, the New York Times reported on Schwarzkopf's visit to Tehran and noted an editorial in the Soviet newspaper Pravda accusing Schwarzkopf of delivering the orders for the coup. Now, 60 years later, the CIA has confirmed his role in declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive.
Two journalists have now been confirmed killed in clashes that erupted last night as the Egyptian military began clearing sit-ins by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy. Mick Deane, a 15-year veteran cameraman for Sky News, and Habiba Abd El Aziz, a 26-year-old Emirati journalist for the publication Xpress, were both killed by gunfire.
Other journalists in Cairo have been wounded or detained by the military. Erin Cunningham, Middle East editor for GlobalPost, has compiled a series of their tweets, including:
Authorities knew full well that I'm a journalist while arresting me today. It actually seemed to get me some extra punches.— Mike Giglio (@mike_giglio) August 14, 2013
Cops took my laptop, opened it on the scene. Then punched me in the head until I gave them the password. Laptop, wallet, cell not returned.— Mike Giglio (@mike_giglio) August 14, 2013
Police officer who told me earlier I was "provoking" him by writing in my notebook now says: "if I see u again I will shoot you in the leg"— Abigail Hauslohner (@ahauslohner) August 14, 2013
Reuters photojournalist Asmaa Waguih is being moved to the international medical center after she was shot in the leg— Halim ???? (@HaleemElsharani) August 14, 2013
Press intimidation is hardly new in Egypt -- it was a staple of the Mubarak regime, and it continued during Egypt's military-led transition, under the Morsy government, and now under the military-backed government of President Adly Mansour, which came to power on July 3. But Sherif Mansour, program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists, says it's getting worse.
MOSAAB EL-SHAMY/AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this month, as the United States rushed to shutter embassies in response to a terrorist threat, New Zealand's prime minister made a remarkable but largely overlooked assertion. According to John Key, there are al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-trained individuals at large in his country.
"In New Zealand there are people who've been trained for al-Qaeda camps who operate out of New Zealand, who are in contact with people overseas, who have gone off to Yemen and other countries to train," he told a radio program in New Zealand on Aug. 1. "Some are still offshore and some are in New Zealand."
Key told the radio program that he had signed off on surveillance of al Qaeda-trained individuals in New Zealand, but could not legally arrest them. "It does not necessarily mean that they have broken the law at this point," Key said.
Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Even the spokesman for the Yemeni embassy in Washington, D.C. is having a hard time believing a plot by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that the Yemeni government says it foiled.
Several news agencies -- including the BBC, the New York Times, and Bloomberg, among others -- reported this morning that the Yemeni government claimed it had stopped a large AQAP attack in Yemen's Hadhramaut province. As the BBC reported:
Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi said the plot involved blowing up oil pipelines and taking control of certain cities -- including two ports in the south, one of which accounts for the bulk of Yemen's oil exports and is where a number of foreign workers are employed.
"There were attempts to control key cities in Yemen like Mukala and Bawzeer," said Mr Badi.
"This would be co-ordinated with attacks by al-Qaeda members on the gas facilities in Shebwa city and the blowing up of the gas pipe in Belhaf city."
That didn't sound right to Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for the Yemeni embassy, and he said so on his personal Twitter account:
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
As new details have emerged about the terrorist threat that forced the closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic posts and the evacuation of American and British personnel from Yemen, officials have repeatedly raised alarms about how remarkably specific this particular threat was -- in terms of the size and timing of the planned attack (administration officials are telling reporters that the alert originated with intercepted communications between al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). But specifics about the intended target of the attack have yet to leak.
Still, based on the U.S. response to the threat and AQAP's track record, it wouldn't be surprising if U.S. embassies were discussed. According to the private U.S. counterterrorism intelligence company IntelCenter, AQAP has mentioned the United States in its messages 16 times this year alone -- making America far and away AQAP's favorite target. (In comparison, the second-most threatened country, Yemen, has only been mentioned eight times, followed by France with six mentions.)
In a separate analysis, IntelCenter found that AQAP has publicly discussed attacking embassies seven times since December 2009. Last September, in a statement issued shortly after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, AQAP praised the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and urged others to emulate the attack: "[W]henever a Muslim gets hold of US ambassadors or delegates, he has the best example in the act of the grandsons of Omar Mukhtar in Libya -- who slaughtered the US ambassador -- may Allah reward them. Let the step of expelling embassies and consulates be a milestone to free the Muslim lands from the American domination and arrogance."
Think fast: Is al Qaeda defeated? Is it stronger than ever? Or is it both?
Not sure? You're in good company. Terrorism analysts can't decide either, and the threat of an attack by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has shuttered U.S. and Western embassies across the Middle East and South Asia in recent days, has re-started a debate about the state of the infamous terrorist network. The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that, "While al Qaeda's central leadership may be weakened, the rest of the group has morphed into smaller entities and dispersed, which has made the threat harder to predict and track," while the Telegraph described al Qaeda as "currently experiencing something of a renaissance" after prison breaks in Iraq and Pakistan. The latest threat that has shuttered embassies "is a wake-up call," Rep. Peter King said on ABC's This Week on Sunday. "Al Qaeda is, in many ways, stronger than it was before 9/11 because it's mutated and spread in different directions."
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
A huge fireball rises above the jagged, shelled-out skyline of Homs. The explosion looks almost too large to be real -- and when it began circulating across social media this morning, it drew skepticism -- but now, multiple videos are emerging and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed the blast.
According to Al Jazeera, Syrian rebels were shelling a military weapons depot in the government-controlled Wadi al-Dhahab neighborhood and set off a stockpile of stored munitions. The huge fireball can be seen from multiple angles above and in these next two videos (the first from Al Jazeera). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that the attack killed 40, both soldiers and civilians, and wounded an additional 16 people.
Update: Commissioner Georgieva's comments about cases of polio reappearing in Syria have been refuted by the World Health Organization, which has no confirmed cases of polio in Syria or the Syrian refugee diaspora. FP has learned that the European Commission has followed up with its source for the information in the Lebanese government and now believes detected symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis are being caused by diseases other than polio. The post's headline has been revised to reflect this.
Original Post: The lawless conflict in Syria is rekindling dangers -- from disease to forms of political violence -- that have been dormant for decades, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union's Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response, told FP on Monday. "We have spent, as humanity, decades to eradicate polio," she said in a conversation at FP's office, "only to see it again now because of this negligence to simple, basic rules of war -- even in a war there are rules to be followed."
According to the World Health Organization, polio was eradicated in Syria in 1995. But the disease has returned during the country's civil war. "To get polio, that was eradicated, to return," Georgieva said, "this is not only a danger for the Syrians, and it is criminal for the children of this country, but it is a danger for Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey and Egypt and the rest of the world because the refugees will bring it out. We have already gotten reports that cases of polio are being registered among the refugee population." Other diseases -- including measles, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and leishmaniasis, informally called the "Aleppo boil" -- have also proliferated in the absence of professional medical care.
JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
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