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
Israel's Mossad intelligence agency carried out the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent months, which has led to "the virtual decimation of the Islamic republic's elite physicists," according to Germany's Der Spiegel. The latest victim -- 35-year-old physicist Darioush Rezaei -- was shot in the throat in front of his daughter's kindergarten in Tehran on July 23. The attackers fled on motorcycle. Iran said Rezaei was a student, not a nuclear weapons expert, but the Associated Press reported last week that international sources confirmed he was indeed involved with the country's nuclear weapons program, working specifically on a key component for detonating a nuclear bomb -- high-voltage switches.
According to Der Spiegel, Rezaei is the third scientist to die in the past year and a half (and the fourth to be targeted). The others were:
- In January 2010, the nuclear physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi died when a remotely detonated bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded next to his car. Western experts considered Mohammadi to be one of Iran's top nuclear scientists.
- On Nov. 29, 2010, unknown perpetrators committed two attacks which involved motorcyclists attaching explosive devices to their victims' cars while driving. Majid Shahriari, a professor of nuclear physics who specialized in neutron transport, which is relevant for making bombs, was killed when his car exploded. His wife was seriously injured in the attack.
- Fereidoun Abbasi was targeted in a simultaneous attack. Abbasi, an expert in nuclear isotope separation, noticed the suspicious motorcyclist, however, and he and his wife jumped out of the car. They were both injured in the explosion. After Abbasi recovered, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed him as one of Iran's vice presidents as well as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
Iran's reaction to the deaths has been somewhat confused, say analysts. Perhaps due to embarrassment, some leaders have downplayed the accusations of outside countries being involved in past deaths. But after Rezaei's murder, Iran squarely blamed Israel, the United States, and their allies. The United States has denied any involvement. Israel has been somewhat coyer, according to Der Spiegel.
‘Israel is not responding,' Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier this week when asked if his country had been involved in the latest slaying of an Iranian nuclear scientist. It didn't exactly sound like a denial, and the smile on his face suggested Israel isn't too bothered by suspicions that it is responsible...
Der Spiegel based its report on "sources in Israeli intelligence," who told the German magazine that the deaths are part of a campaign to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. In the past, analysts have speculated that the Stuxnet computer virus, which harmed computer systems that were part of Iran's nuclear program, was developed and deployed by Israel (and possibly the United States). The virus reportedly shut down the country's main nuclear reactor at Bushehr last year, before Iran was able to get the damage under control.
The world's newest state -- South Sudan -- and Israel today established full diplomatic relations and will soon exchange ambassadors. The move was not a surprise. South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar said two weeks ago that his country would have "relations with all the Arab and Muslim countries and even with Israel." And a delegation of Israeli officials recently visited the African nation's capital, Juba, to hold talks with officials there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially recognized the new country a week before the U.N. voted to make it the 193rd state to be admitted to the world body, earlier this month. "We wish it success," Netanyahu said at the time. "It is a peace-seeking country and we would be happy to cooperate with it in order to ensure its development and prosperity."
Israel, which has no relations with northern Sudan, has promised South Sudan economic help -- something it is in need of.
The Jewish state sees Africa as important diplomatic territory and has been offering economic aid and lucrative business deals in recent years -- including arms and agriculture -- in an attempt to counter Iran's growing clout on the continent. The effort is partially about votes in the U.N. -- Africa has 54 now. Iran has been trying to extend its outreach to African states like Senegal and Nigeria in an effort to counter its growing isolation in the West.
"This isn't likely to take the form of an auction-like bidding contest, but increased financial diplomacy by both the suitors, including targeted investments and aid projects designed to curry favor," Eurasia Group's Philippe de Pontet told Reuters last year.
Israel has another reason for wanting to establish ties with the new country. In recent years it has been flooded with thousands of refugees from Sudan -- people fleeing strife in both Darfur and South Sudan. They sneak into Israel through Egypt and have stirred debate about whether the country should be more or less welcoming. Already, since the announcement of new ties, the country's interior minister, Eli Yishai, has called on Israel to begin negotiations with South Sudan to return the refugees.
(In the image above, Sudanese refugees living in Tel Aviv celebrate independence on July 10.)
Yemen's defense ministry today claimed its forces killed a senior al Qaeda leader, Ayedh al Shabwani, in southern Yemen on Tuesday. In a statement on its website, the ministry said the man was killed during intense fighting in the largely lawless southern part of the country. Al Shabwani was on Yemen's most wanted list and has evaded previous attempts on his life -- including an air strike in January, 2010 on a location where he was thought to be hiding.
The government has been battling al Qaeda militants in the south without much to show for it, so far. In the past two days, 10 soldiers were killed. 90,000 people are thought to have fled the fighting. (Yemeni officials say the United States is providing logistical support and also carrying out strikes from the air and sea.) For the past several months, al Qaeda has been taking full advantage of the power vacuum playing out in the country -- especially since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to leave for Saudi Arabia to recuperate from injuries suffered in an attack on his palace in June. Since then, there have been questions about who is actually calling the shots.
Given the flood of bad news, an announcement that a major al Qaeda figure is dead would surely be seen as a major achievement for the government. There's only one problem -- there are serious doubts being raised about whether al Shabwani was really killed. After all, this wouldn't be the first time the Yemen government has claimed they got him. Some opposition groups and analysts have said the announcement was just an attempt by the government to show it had the upper hand in the fighting -- when in reality it didn't. They say the timing of the announcement -- so soon after the air raid -- was suspicious.
"The government is looking for victories right now even if they are lies," a Yemeni al Qaeda analyst, Said Obeid, told Reuters.
Some Yemeni officials conceded there was reason to be skeptical. "They have a right to some doubts because there has been a lack of precision in some past information given, but our media announces the news as we receive it from the area," one official told Reuters.
How desperate is Muammar Qaddafi to raise cash? According to a new report, the Libyan leader is trying to unload the country's fleet of 22 shipping vessels as economic sanctions and continued fighting take a toll on the regime.
According to the report from Petroleum Economist, which covers the energy industry, two companies based in Hong Kong and Singapore are in talks to buy the ships from the General National Maritime Transport -- a company under the control of Qaddafi's son, Hannibal. A source close to the discussions said the younger Qaddafi is "desperate to have access to money."
Can you blame him? The United States and other countries have frozen his father's assets ($30 billion alone in the United States; and another $5.1 in Canada, Australia, and Britain). And there is evidence that Qaddafi's regime is running low on fuel. Late last month, one of his largest oil pipelines was cut off by rebels -- slashing his reserves by somewhere between a third and a half. The government has reportedly sunk to smuggling fuel into the country from Algeria and Tunisia to bypass sanctions. In Tripoli there are long lines to fill up tanks at gas stations, and more people are using bicycles to get around.
A U.S. intelligence official told the Daily Beast this week: "[Qaddafi's] not going to run out of fuel tomorrow, but over the next month or two he'll have to make tough decisions about how to continue."
Sanctions have taken a toll as well, with Qaddafi finding it difficult to do business around the world -- even Turkey seized control of Libyan assets earlier this month.
Without cash or fuel, Qaddafi's grip on power is showing signs of slipping -- U.S. officials say there are indications of growing discord among his troops. At the same as he is looking for cash, he may also be eyeing the exit door -- quietly negotiating with several countries on a deal that could see him step down from power, but avoid prosecution.
Off shore, and generally off the radar, a fight is heating up between Israel and Lebanon over who controls a valuable piece of the Mediterranean that is known to have two major gas fields possibly worth billions of dollars. As always, when it comes to border issues between these two nations, the rhetoric has become heated -- and there's the fear that this could signal the next big clash between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah's deputy secretary general Sheikh Naim Qassem minced no words, saying today the group "will remain vigilant in order to regain its full rights, whatever it takes."
Israel's rhetoric has been equally heated. Last year, Deputy Prime Minister Uzi Landau said Israel "would not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect...international maritime law."
Qassem's comments today were in response to Israel, which on Sunday issued a map that it plans on submitting to the United Nations. Lebanon says, though, that the Israeli map encroaches on their territory by more than 1,500 square kilometers. Last year, Lebanon submitted a map of their own to the world body -- hoping for mediation.
Israeli officials say Hezbollah, boosted by its new political clout, is trying to pick a fight with Israel as a pretext for continuing their conflict.
But Hezbollah says that Israel is trying to snatch valuable territory and that it won't be "frightened by" Israeli threats.
A resolution is tricky. There is a lot of money at stake for the two resource-poor countries -- maybe up to $90 billion worth of gas. Hezbollah's position is not dissimilar from the previous Western-backed government led by Saad Hariri, which also accused Israel of taking part of its offshore territory.
So, who actually controls what? The only internationally recognized border between Lebanon and Israel -- the blue line -- was drawn up in 2000 by the United Nations, following the Israeli withdraw from southern Lebanon.
But trying to extend that into the sea isn't so simple. Israel says it drew a straight line out from shore to demarcate the sea border. But Lebanon says the angle Israel used gives it more territory than it should have, since it's drawn too far north. The territory extends to water controlled by Cyprus (both Israel and Lebanon have separate agreements with that country).
International law says countries that share sea borders have to reach bilateral agreements on how to demarcate them. But that's not so easy, given Israel and Lebanon are still technically in a state of war.
Israel would seem to have an advantage, legally -- since it has already staked its claim and is exploring the fields, experts say.
That's why Lebanon is asking the United Nations to step in. Though, as with everything when it comes to that world body, the process is sure to take a long time, if it's ever resolved. In the meantime, there will be more heated rhetoric. This weekend, Israel's Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, compared the sea dispute to Shebaa Farms, the tiny area that Lebanon and Israel both claim and have led to flare-ups in the past. Given what's at stake in terms of mineral wealth, and the history of the border -- whether it stays at just heated rhetoric, or escalates to something more significant, is a question that has to be considered.
The new secretary of defense -- on the job for just 11 days -- expressed frustration with Iraqi leaders, who have yet to tell the United States what their position is about keeping American troops there past the expiration of the current Status of Forces Agreement. All U.S. troops are supposed to leave by the end of this year, under the terms of the 2008 deal. Washington has indicated it would be willing to negotiate a continued troop presence there, but Iraq must first ask it to do so.
"I'd like things to move a lot faster here, frankly, in terms of the decision-making process. I'd like them to make a decision, you know: Do they want us to stay? Don't they want us to stay? ... But damn it, make a decision," he told a gathering of troops, according to NPR.
Panetta was in Iraq today after spending two days in Afghanistan, where he met with Hamid Karzai -- his first trip to both countries as the new Pentagon chief.
The longer Iraq takes to make up its mind, however, the more costly it will be for the United States to reverse course.
Meanwhile, the United States believes that Iran is behind an increasing number of attacks against American troops in Iraq -- part of a campaign to convince it not to stay on in the country. June was the deadliest month in over two years for American troops there -- with 15 soldiers killed.
"This is really crunch time with the clock what it is and Ramadan approaching," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "The U.S. wants a sense of whether the Iraqi political system will give approval. For the U.S. side of things, Iraq is in the rearview mirror."
Katulis told Foreign Policy the administration doesn't want to give the impression it is dictating to the Iraqis what it needs.
"There's a sense in the Obama administration that we want to help the Iraqis complete the mission of helping train the security forces," he said. "But it's all about balancing that with the sensitivities of Iraqi leaders" -- many of whom do not want U.S. troops to stay and are actively fighting to claim the mantle of the leader who forced them out.
Katulis said that quietly, behind closed doors, a range of Iraqi leaders tell U.S. officials they want troops to stick around -- given Iraq still lacks key security infrastructures like an air force or border control -- but it's hard for them to say that publicly.
Slip of the tongue?
Meanwhile, Panetta's trip made headlines for another reason -- the new defense secretary made two separate slips in comments to the press.
France is urging the Libyan opposition to sit down and negotiate with Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country's defense minister said yesterday in Paris. Gérard Longuet said it was time to "get round the table" and "speak to each other."
He added, "The position of the [Transitional National Council] TNC is very far from other positions."
You might recall France was the first country to recognize the TNC. And it pushed its NATO allies into initiating the military campaign against Qaddafi. It even fired the first shots against Qaddafi's regime. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the world had to prevent Qaddafi's "murderous madness" against civilians.
"This is a huge transformation," said Melissa Bell of France 24. "From the beginning it was always a question of Qaddafi leaving."
France sparked angry responses from Russian and African leaders when it parachuted weapons to Libyan rebels. Last week, Longuet said France would no longer arm the opposition.
So, what changed? Why is France shifting away from its gung-ho anti-Qaddafi position from earlier this spring?
For starters, the war has dragged on far longer than most people anticipated it would, and France seems to be growing impatient.
There is also frustration with the rebels, who have shown little desire to enter negotiations to end the conflict.
According to the Daily Telegraph, a senior Western diplomat said France was "sending a message" to the rebels that the clock is ticking to bring the conflict to an end. NATO's mandate in Libya is due to expire at the end of September.
"There is general recognition among Western diplomats that the structure of the state existing in the western part of the country should not be completely disregarded in the event of a quick collapse of the Qaddafi regime," the source added.
Observers have noted the campaign is not going as well as it could. George Robertson, the former British defense secretary and former NATO secretary-general told Foreign Policy that European countries lack the military capacity to bring the operation to a close.
"In Libya, the Americans did what I always suggested they might do -- which is to say, 'It's your fight; please take the lead. You're big enough; you're brave enough; you're strong enough. You do it,'" Robertson said.
As in Washington, the Libya war is taking a political toll on the administration in Paris.
Crowds have chanted it at rallies throughout the country these past few weeks, and thousands more have listened to it and shared it online. "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" (It's time to leave, Bashar), seems to be the standout song of the Syrian uprising so far. With simple, catchy, sometimes profane lyrics, the song tells the Syrian leader to "screw" himself. "Freedom is near."
The story of the song's author -- Ibrahim Kashoush -- took a sad turn with news that he may have been killed in a protest last Friday in Hama. Reporting out of Syria is hard to verify these days, but one Lebanese news site said his body was reportedly dumped in a nearby river Wednesday morning.
"The song has rallied people," said U.S.-based Syrian activist Ammar Abdulhamid. "It hit a nerve because it's clearly and simply designed to tell Assad to leave. It's very straightforward. And it uses some profane language."
Abdulhamid said there have been other protest songs before this one, but "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" stands out as the best.
Listen for yourself.
Kashoush was a little-known local singer in Hama before the revolution, according to Abdulhamid.
"When he did this song, he became sort of a hero," he said.
Abdulhamid -- who believes the songwriter is in fact dead based on conversations with sources in Hama -- said his murder adds a layer of poignancy.
For example, there's this haunting lyric near the end: "To die but not be humiliated."
Hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from around the world are planning to fly into Tel Aviv's airport in hopes of traveling to the West Bank. Over 700 people have already scheduled flights and as many as 1,200 are expected to arrive at Ben-Gurion between Thursday and Friday. Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel's Public Security Minister, responded to the planned ‘aerial flotilla', saying:
"These hooligans who try to break our laws will not be allowed into the country and will be returned immediately to their home countries."
Five activists have already been arrested upon arrival. While airport security is on high alert, activists like Nicolas Sheshni say there is no plan to riot or cause disruption:
"We have no intention of staging a political protest inside Israeli territory. We only want to tour Palestine and show solidarity with the Palestinian people."
Sheshni and 300 other French activists hope to plant olive trees in Ramallah and tour the ancient city of Bethlehem. Travelers usually conceal their intent to travel to the West Bank for fear of facing immediate deportation. But in the next several days, many activists will declare Palestine as their final destination, protesting their lack of ability to visit Palestinian friends and family. Dozens of Israeli security forces are now stationed at Ben-Gurion. Friday flights from Europe will be directed to a separate terminal and passengers will undergo thorough immigration procedures.
Netanyahu defended Israel's plan to deport the activists:
"Every country has the right to prevent the entry of provocateurs and trouble-makers into its territory. That is how all countries behave and that is how Israel will act. We must prevent the disruption of normal life for Israeli citizens."
Maritime efforts of pro-Palestinian activists have been paralyzed in Greek ports, but who knows what the skies will hold in the coming days.
llee_wu via Flickr Creative Commons
Muammar al-Qaddafi likes to play chess, and it may be that he sees a checkmate nearing. According to a respected Russian newspaper today, Moscow officials say the Libyan leader is "sending out signals that he is prepared to relinquish power in exchange for security guarantees." The logic, as summed up by Reuters, is that Qaddafi sees decreasing supplies of money and fuel, and increasing military pressure from NATO and the rebel army.
Of course, no one really knows what is going on inside the Libyan leader's head; his government spokesman categorically denied the report. Many analysts are skeptical. Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya scholar at Dartmouth College who was recently appointed as an advisor to the United Nations mission for Libya, told Foreign Policy that back channel talks between Qaddafi's government and Russia haven't gone anywhere.
"The bottom line is he doesn't want to go," he said.
Western diplomatic sources told Reuters that it is in Qaddafi's interests to "send out conflicting signals about possible deals, in the hope that it will sow confusion among the rebels and the fragile Western alliance trying to push him out."
But according to David Mack, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. diplomat in Libya when Qaddafi first came to power, that analysis doesn't hold up. Qaddafi, he says, is depending on his supporters thinking they don't have any other way out other than backing him until the end. Making the world think his exit is actually an option harms that narrative.
"It's our strategy to try to convince people around Qaddafi that there are better options," Mack said.
One thing is clear -- as NATO bombs continue to target Qaddafi and his backers, and as the rebel army and Qaddafi's forces battle each other in the east and west of the country, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering.
Russia, the United Kingdom, and Turkey are all in back channel talks with his government, according to Vandewalle. The United States is participating in defacto talks through the United Kingdom. And South African President Jacob Zuma has been pushing a diplomatic solution since the fighting started. He's met with Qaddafi several times and yesterday said NATO countries should assist in persuading the Transitional National Council (TNC) "to remove some of the preconditions that are making it hard or impossible to start with the negotiations process" -- such as the insistence on prosecuting Qaddafi.
On Sunday, there were signals that the TNC was softening its position. In an interview with Reuters, opposition leader Mustapha Abdul-Jalil said the TNC had offered Qaddafi the option of resigning but staying in Libya. (The next day he backtracked a bit, saying that it was just a scenario that was discussed internally but that there was no "current or future possibility for Qaddafi to remain in Libya").
Yesterday, the Libyan government said it held talks with the TNC on several occasions in Italy, Norway, and Egypt about finding a peaceful solution (an Italian government spokesman called the reports untrue).
"The one thing that is going on is there's an enormous amount of back channels," said Vandewalle.
Vandewalle is skeptical Qaddafi is really looking for a negotiated exit.
Obama tries to shore up Jewish support, while poll shows he doesn't have much to worry about
A new gallup poll released today shows that despite recent remarks by President Obama that the 1967 borders should be the starting point in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians -- a position that angered pro-Israel hawks -- most American Jews still approve of the president. His approval rating among American Jews in June averaged 60 percent, down from 68 percent in May (a change that corresponds with declining numbers among other groups, reflecting the president's inflated rating in May, post-bin Laden raid, Gallup said). Thirty-two percent of American Jews disapproved of the president's job in June.
By comparison, Gallup found that his approval rating among all groups in June averaged 46 percent.
The Washington Post reported last week that Obama's team will "go on the offensive against critics of his stance on Israel," with the help of Jewish supporters, including community leader Alan Solow, former Congressmen Mel Levin and Robert Wexler, and business executive Penny Pritzker.
Obama's supporters say the plan is in effect an acknowledgment that conservative attacks on Obama's Israel stance have made defections among Jewish voters and donors a possibility they must take seriously. Obama's advisers see a need to push back even harder on the attacks than they did in 2008, in part because Obama now has a record on the issue to defend - a record that even Obama's supporters concede has not been adequately explained.
Obama won close to 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Politico reported last week that some Jewish Democratic Party donors were worried that Obama's stance on Israel could cost him support in 2012 in the Jewish community.
In its analysis, Gallup challenged the Politico article, saying its conclusions may apply to "certain politically active members of the Jewish-American community," but are "not reflective of the views of Jewish Americans more generally."
Romney heading to London this week to raise money, may meet with PM Cameron
Even by Iranian political standards, the last few days have been dramatic. A dozen people close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cabinet have reportedly been arrested since last week on "financial charges." Then on Wednesday, the embattled president came out swinging more directly and forcefully than he has done before -- warning his enemies to back off.
"I consider defending the cabinet as my duty," he told reporters. "The cabinet is a red line and if they want to touch the cabinet, then defending it is my duty.... From our point of view these moves and pressures are political...to put pressure on the government."
Ahmadinejad is in fact getting pressure from seemingly all corners, including the judiciary, the parliament, and most troubling for sure, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei -- the very man who so publicly placed his eggs in the Ahmadinejad basket two years ago.
The pressure is so bad that the summer of 2011 may make Ahmadinejad wistful for the halcyon days of 2009, when all he had to worry about were a few hundred thousand reformists marching in Tehran, demanding his removal.
Below is a guide to Ahmadinejad's many headaches.
The Supreme Leader
Ahmadinejad is Khamanei's golden boy no longer. The Supreme Leader sent a major signal to the president back in April when a dispute over the sacking of the intelligence minister played out in public. Ahmadinejad forced the minister to resign. Khamanei objected and insisted that he stay on. Ahmadinejad responded by staging a mini-boycott, refusing to come to work for 11 days.
All hell broke loose, said Abbas Milani, an Iran scholar at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
"Khamanei unleashed all his forces, so to speak," he said. "There was a ferocious attack on Ahmadinejad in parliament." Talk of impeachment intensified, Milani said. Eventually Ahmadinejad came back to work, chastened.
His enemies took notice -- sensing he no longer enjoyed the unwavering support of the Supreme Leader.
There have even been public indications of a thaw between Khamanei and two other prominent but controversial figures in Iranian society -- former presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyyed Ahmad Khatami.
Just yesterday, a site close to the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader did something it hasn't in the past two years since the disputed election -- it referred to Rafsanjani using his honorific, Ayatollah, according to Milani.
Recently, Khatami spoke about the need for forgiveness on all sides in the 2009 presidential dispute, saying both sides have committed mistakes but that they should put it behind them.
The man being left out of this new warmth? Ahmadinejad.
"Khamanei feels isolated," Milani said. If he decided to get rid of Ahmadinejad and bring Rafsanjani back into the fold, he'd get a new boost of clerical support from the men aligned with Rafsanjani.
The Parliament and Judiciary
The price tag for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since the 9/11 attacks is somewhere between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion, according to a new report released today. The staggering figure is nearly four times higher than the U.S. government estimate. Just last week, President Barack Obama pegged the cost over the last decade at $1 trillion.
The new estimated cost provided by a research project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, is also much higher than most previous attempts to quantify the operations.
A March 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated the war funding at $1.4 trillion through 2012 and the Congressional Budget Office pegged the cost from 2001 through 2021 at an estimated $1.8 trillion, according to Reuters.
A 2008 report by economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, however, put the estimated combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars between $5 and $7 trillion. They included interest on debt, future borrowing to pay off debt, the cost of a continued military presence, and health care and counseling for veterans.
Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology at Brown and one of the project's directors, told Foreign Policy her group also took into account future costs, such as obligated expenses for injured soldiers in the decades to come.
According to a White House spokesperson, the number disparity between the trillion-dollar figure the president used this month and the Brown report comes down to methodology -- and what you choose to include. The administration is counting only the "direct costs of war," the spokesperson said, which includes just the money appropriated for the budgets of the Pentagon, State Department, and intelligence community. Officially, the White House says the "total amount appropriated for war-related activities" is $1.3 trillion, which could rise to $1.4 trillion in 2012.
Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said it's fair to include more than just the cost of current operations when coming up with the "total cost" of the war -- including things such as veteran care.
"There are people who are being injured today who will need health care for a long time after the conflict ends," she said. "That's not part of the current cost, but it's certainly directly related."
Bensahel, who has not read the entire report, said other expenses mentioned in the press were less fair -- including factoring in lost opportunity costs.
"I don't think that's an appropriate cost to include because every expenditure of money includes some trade-offs," she said.
According to the report, the United States has already spent between $2.3 and $2.6 trillion on Iraq and Afghanistan. The project also looked at the cost of war in terms of human casualties. The number of total deaths it calculates (225,000) is "a very conservative estimate," said Lutz.
"Seeing the death toll, how many of the allied uniform folks have died and seeing the civilian numbers was the biggest shock for me," she said.
31,741 uniformed allied soldiers and contractors -- from U.S., Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani security forces, as well as contractors -- have been killed. And the report claims that at least 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Journalists and humanitarian workers accounted for between 434 and 521 deaths.
The goal of the project was to give the public "a fuller sense of what's at stake," Lutz said. "I think it's the case that we've had an atrophying of public information sources [looking into these questions]. Journalism is in a challenged state and there's a real heavy spin machine out there. Whatever one's political project, it's accompanied by a heavy dose of misinformation. We really feel it's important for foreign policy and domestic policy decision-making to know this information."
Scenes of protest and war from Bahrain to Libya have become more than familiar over the past six months. Still, these satellite images published today by Stratfor, a risk analysis and geopolitics website and publisher, are striking.
The image above shows Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 11, the day Hosni Mubarak gave up the Egyptian presidency. An estimated 300,000 protesters crammed into downtown Cairo.
Below, more aerial shots from the Middle East's uprisings.
June has been the deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Iraq since May, 2009 -- with 11 deaths, including two soldiers killed Sunday in northern Iraq. The American combat mission officially ended in August 2010, and the 45,000 U.S. forces that are still there -- ostensibly in an advisory and training capacity -- are supposed to stick to their bases and not take part in combat missions without the Iraqi government's permission. So, what's behind the jump in deaths?
Beyond the fact that the security situation is still tenuous, U.S. soldiers are likely being targeted more now because there is talk that Iraqi and American officials will try to keep additional troops in the country past the December deadline to pull all U.S. forces out, according to Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi diplomat to the United Nations who now teaches law at Indiana University. A coalition of militant groups and outside actors is strongly opposed to that and are using violence to send a message to Washington.
"That's the primary driver," said Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who tracks Iraqi security issues closely. "The Iranians and Sadrists are taking it very seriously."
The Sadrists are a sectarian militia affiliated with hard-line cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who adamantly opposes the U.S. presence.
In 2008, the United States and Iraq agreed that all American forces would leave the country by the end of this year. The U.S. is open to keeping troops beyond that date, but only if Iraq asks, according to the Associated Press.
And it's not clear yet that the Iraqis will. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under significant pressure from political allies, including Sadr, whose backing last year allowed him to win a second term as prime minister.
According to the New York Times, Sadr has said that unless the United States fully withdraws its troops by the end of the year, he will reactivate his Mahdi Army, which was responsible for much of the violence against U.S. troops earlier in the war but was formally disbanded in 2008.
Iran also opposes an extension, said Istrabadi. He said various groups that don't necessarily completely agree with each other are working together. "It's a situation where the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Knights said that when talk of an agreement heated up beginning in the spring, attacks on U.S. soldiers and personnel also increased -- including attacks on U.S. bases, with more sophisticated weaponry and an increased quality in the attacks, which Knights said indicates Iranian backing.
"They raised their game, so to speak," Knights said. "They brought in more experienced operators and are supporting Shiite militants in southern Iraq. The result has been better lethality."
The message, Knights said, is "Don't stay. Reconsider.""They think the U.S. is casualty-adverse."
Today's news that Muammar al-Qaddafi was indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges he ordered attacks against civilians in the early days of the Libya uprising was greeted by celebratory gunfire in the rebel-controlled east, but it might be a bit early to celebrate.
ICC indictments are notoriously difficult to follow through on, given that the court relies on individual states to make the arrest -- and many states have not ratified the treaty establishing the court and do not recognize its jurisdiction -- including Libya. Ask Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted in 2009 for war crimes committed during the conflict in Darfur. Since then, he's traveled to Kenya, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Iran, and was supposed to visit China this week, though his plane was mysteriously diverted.
Likewise, it's doubtful that Qaddafi will face the wrath of the international justice system -- as long as he clings to power, says Max Fisher at the Atlantic.
"In practice, an ICC arrest warrant can be little more than a lifelong ban against traveling to certain countries," wrote Fisher.
In fact, argues Simon Tisdall in the Guardian, the warrant could make the international community's goal of removing him quickly even harder to attain. Qaddafi is more likely to feel he has nothing left to lose and must stay and fight until the bitter end -- that's bad news for the United States and its allies since it means Qaddafi is less likely to accept a negotiated solution. Though still possible, it's certainly a more difficult prospect today since it means there are fewer countries that would be willing to take him in -- not to mention his son Saif al-Islam, who was also named in the indictment.
As usual, there is a large dose of unreality and wishful thinking about all this. The ICC's action could easily backfire, as have other aspects of Libyan policy. The court's personal targeting of Gaddafi will revive questions about the wisdom of the Anglo-French-US approach (distinct from that of NATO) of making his removal from power the key measure of success in Libya. It will also fuel claims that the ICC is only interested in pursuing African leaders, as in Sudan and Kenya, and that the US in particular (which is not a party to the ICC) is guilty of double standards.
The Christian Science Monitor's Howard LaFranchi reported that "some US officials have acknowledged privately that an indictment of Qaddafi would very likely complicate the diplomatic environment and render more remote a solution that includes Qaddafi departing for another country."
Publicly, the United States has given the thumbs up to today's news. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States "believes that the decision to refer the case to the ICC was the right decision; that the ICC has spoken now about the need for justice and accountability. With regard to whether this hurts or helps, it doesn't change the fact that Gaddafi's got to take the message that it's time to go."
Human Rights Watch issued a similar statement.
"Muammar Gaddafi already made clear he intended to stay until the bitter end before the ICC process was set in motion, and his son's February vow to ‘live and die in Libya' speaks for itself,'" said the group's international justice director, Richard Dicker, in a statement today. "It beggars belief that a dictator who has gripped power for over 40 years would be frozen in place by this arrest warrant."
Ultimately, the indictment could wind up being "another bargaining chip in any negotiations over ending Libya's civil war," wrote Fisher. It would mean having to find him a home where he will be free from the threat of arrest -- say Venezuela or South Africa.
"That's a good thing," Fisher said. "As fighting worsens and civil society degrades, anything that makes peace more likely is essential -- but it's not quite international justice in the legal sense of the term."
There are mixed reports about the health of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh -- recovering in Saudi Arabia from an attack on his palace earlier this month -- and whether he's planning on returning home to his embattled country anytime soon.
Reuters quotes a Western diplomat saying, "We believe he was seriously injured.... He is not coming [home] in the coming days, he is not coming [home] anytime soon."
Last week, an aide to Saleh gave CNN a different take, saying the president would return soon, possibly even last Friday. Obviously, that didn't happen, but aides have told other news organizations that his health is improving and "he is receiving guests, giving instructions on day to day affairs in Yemen, including a power cut and fuel shortages."
Saleh is still signing official documents -- he sent a cable yesterday congratulating Djibouti on its national day -- and hasn't officially appointed his deputy as acting president. There have been no public reports of negotiations on a transition, and Saleh's party officials talk about punishing his attackers rather than ending his rule.
Bloomberg News spoke to advisors who have visited the president at the hospital in Saudi Arabia. They said he suffered burns to his face and underwent plastic surgery last week to repair the damage. He's lost weight and his voice is weak, but he is alert and is in physical therapy. He could return to Sanaa by early July, one Yemeni official said.
Ahmed al-Soufi, another Saleh advisor, told al-Arabiya that the president would make a media appearance within the next two days, his first time since the attack.
So is Saleh truly on the mend and planning his return to Yemen?
Don't count on it, says Bernard Haykel, a Yemen expert at Princeton University.
"Clearly he is in very bad shape or you would have heard him speak by now," Haykel said. "But he has a vested interest in showing he's still active."
And the close advisors that keep promising a Saleh return any day now?
"He has a group of people who depend on him for their own survival," Haykel said. "They have a vested interest as well in maintaining the fiction that everything is fine and he'll come back. I don't think we should take at face value what that machine is saying. They are making calculations about their own survival."
Newt to Obama: ‘Tide of war' isn't receding
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacked President Barack Obama's assertion in his June 22 speech announcing the troop drawdown in Afghanistan that the "tide of war is receding." He said the country is facing a "tsunami of violence building offshore," according to Politico.
"I want to challenge the president to withdraw the phrase because it totally misleads the American people, and presents a delusional version of the world," he said at a Maryland Republican Party dinner in Baltimore.
Gingrich said the White House should have taken stronger action against Pakistan after it reportedly arrested CIA informants who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden.
"We should have taken extraordinary actions against Pakistanis -- within 24 hours," Gingrich told the crowd. "We should have said if you don't release those people you can assume we have no relationship and we'll chat with you from India."
He also accused the president of "sleepwalking" through the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Romney to fundraise in London
One of Mitt Romney's favorite knocks on Obama is that he is too European. In the words of the GOP frontrunner, the president takes "his inspiration not from the small towns and villages of New Hampshire but from the capitals of Europe." So, it might strike some people as a little surprising that Romney is planning to travel to London next month -- which, after all, is one of those "capitals of Europe" -- to attend a fund-raiser, according to the Boston Globe. Very few presidential candidates have held fundraisers on foreign soil. Rudy Giuliani was the first in 2007 -- also in London -- and Obama held one in the London home of Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elizabeth, in 2008.
According to the Globe, suggested contributions for the July 6 party at Dartmouth House -- "a building not far from Hyde Park that has marble fireplaces, Louis XIV walnut paneling, and a painted ceiling by Pierre Victor Galland" -- is $2,500 a person.
Santorum and Beck discuss Israel
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was on Glenn Beck's Fox News show yesterday, and the pair discussed more than just kissing "on the mouth" -- though they did discuss that too.
Israel -- and specifically efforts to delegitimize Israel -- came up. Santorum said the United States should not force Israel to take part in negotiations since the "Palestinian Authority [and] others in the Middle East refuse to accept Israel's right to be there."
"Do you think America has enough courage to turn the tide on Israel," Beck asked the presidential candidate."
"If we had a strong leader who had the respect of the world," Santorum said. "We see now...a president backing away, who is an internationalist, someone who sees his role as almost transcending the presidency...and sees his role as to work with the international community to their ends. Not to the ends of the national security interest of our country. Not to the end of supporting allies who are strategic for us. But to the ends of some greater goal."
Whenever the two get together, the Middle East seems to come up. In April, they agreed that there is a coalition of "Sunni, Shia, socialists, and Islamists and jihadists working together [to form] a caliphate," Santorum said. Beck said the caliphate "begins with Turkey, Egypt and Iran."
In what has become a weekly ritual, protesters squared off against security forces in cities throughout Syria today, demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad. The BBC is reporting that demonstrators were fired on with tear gas and bullets after Friday prayers. At least 15 people were killed, according to Al Jazeera, including several worshipers who came under fire while leaving a mosque.
Below are several videos from today -- warning some of the footage is extremely graphic.
This video shows a large crowd reportedly in Damascus today:
The pre-Baath party Syrian flag at a protest today:
You can hear what sounds like gunfire in this video:
Very graphic video of a protester reportedly killed in Kisweh today:
Yemeni prisons have been criticized as overcrowded and undermonitored radicalization factories where the government sometimes stuffs people it doesn't know what to do with -- at times without trial. And every few years, a spectacular mass escape makes headlines. The latest breakout came today in the southern city of al-Mukalla. Somewhere between 40 and 60 prisoners -- who reportedly had ties to al Qaeda -- attacked the guards and seized their arms from inside, while armed gunmen attacked from outside, according to news accounts. Al Jazeera reported that among the prisoners were convicted terrorists and men being held in protective custody pending trial.
Some of the escapees might have been militants who had returned from Iraq, according to Gregory D. Johnsen, an analyst at Princeton University and a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen.
"The fact that they have experience fighting in Iraq makes them particularly dangerous," Johnsen said. "Plus, they've been in a Yemeni prison for quite some time. People go into prison and come out much more radical. Many of the suicide bombers we've seen in Yemen in recent years have come out of prison."
"It goes to show the situation is deteriorating in the country," said Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program. "The U.S. has been concerned about the prison system in Yemen for a lot of reasons. They don't know who is there and how long they are being held for. The Yemeni prison system is not very transparent at all."
In fact the only time the outside world tends to get a glimpse of it is when militants are able to break out, which happens alarmingly frequently. Here are three of the biggest breaks in the past few years.
June 2010: Aden
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took credit for a jailbreak at the country's intelligence headquarters in the southern city of Aden. At least 11 people were killed during the raid that freed about 10 people.
The details were the most shocking: The armed gunmen were dressed in military uniforms and were able to storm the headquarters during the morning flag salute. The gun battle lasted for at least an hour.
Boucek and Johnsen said the names of the escapees weren't ever released. But the raid was an embarrassment for the government and showed AQAP's ability and daringness.
February 2006: Sanaa
In perhaps the most consequential moment in the evolution of AQAP into the potent force it is today -- Johnsen calls it the "genesis moment" for the group -- 23 prisoners escaped through a tunnel and into a nearby mosque. There were suggestions that they had help from the inside.
"Al Qaeda had been basically defeated before that," Johnsen said. "They didn't have the infrastructure in the country before. This was when the organization got its start."
In particular, two men who got out that day became integral leaders of the group -- Nasir al-Wihayshi and Qasim al-Raymi. Wihayshi, who once served as Osama bin Laden's secretary, merged the al Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, creating what many U.S. officials believe is the biggest terrorist threat in the world today.
April 2003: Aden
This escape happened from the same building as the 2010 incident -- the intelligence headquarters in Aden. Abdul Rauf Nassib, an al Qaeda leader in Yemen, reportedly helped 10 militants -- who were suspected of taking part in the USS Cole attack -- escape.
One of the prisoners was Jamal al Badawi, who might be the most escapee person in Yemen. He was later recaptured, sentenced to death for his involvement in the Cole attack, and then escaped again in the 2006 breakout. In 2007, he turned himself in and was set free again by Yemeni authorities after pledging loyalty to the president and vowing not to carry out other attacks.
As the international community watches the Syrian crackdown in horror, Syrian security forces employ even more deadly means of intimidation and interrogation. Over ten thousand Syrian refugees are believed to be seeking refuge in Turkish refugee camps and border towns such as Jisr al-Shughur have become epicenters of mass graves, torture and now, rape.
Four teenage sisters from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Sumeriya are now among the growing number of rape victims in Syria. Though reportedly recovering in a Turkish hospital, the women could face a lifetime of shame in a country where honor killings have been reported to restore a family's honor.
When news spread of the sisters' plight, a group of men from a nearby town vowed to marry the women, defying tradition and more importantly, defying the string of mass rapes used by pro-government forces in desperate attempt to squelch the revolution. Horrifying stories are now emerging: soldiers kicking down the doors of sleeping women; young girls being forced to serve as sex slaves for the military. Musab Jani, a young man who supports the mission to marry victims of rape, stated that:
"Dignity and reputation are the most important things for Syrians. And women are a big part of this and the regime knows it. So for this reason, they do this to us as the opposition."
Rape has long been used as a weapon of war, decisively used to destroy the morale of a country and its people. But it seems there is a wave of hope on the horizon, led by activists like Mohammad Merhi, a makeshift refugee camp pharmacist, hopes that he too will marry one of the four sisters, even though he has never met them.
"I know that these girls suffered. They were taken against their will. I don't care what they look like, the point is to stand by them, and I do with all of my heart."
MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images
The first of several likely trials for former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kicked off today in a Tunis criminal court. He's charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and drug trafficking (police allegedly found about 4.5 pounds of cannabis when they searched his palace). Ben Ali, the first leader to fall during the Arab Spring, fled with his family to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. He has not returned to Tunisia and is being tried in absentia on charges that could net him up to 20 years in prison. What have we learned today so far?
1. There's still plenty of anger, six months after the revolution.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse and disrupted the proceeding on several occasions, chanting, "How long will he be allowed to flee?" They want Ben Ali extradited from Saudi Arabia. And the AFP reports that one protester inside the courtroom was escorted out after an outburst. Tunisia's press has welcomed the trial. The Tunis-Hebdo newspaper said, "For the first time in our long history, a president-come bloody and predatory dictator will be judged."
2. The Tunisian press has blossomed since Ben Ali's ouster.
See the previous bit of writing. Needless to say, the press was kept on a much tighter leash under Ben Ali's reign. But now, the Interior Ministry is encouraging reporters to pursue factual journalism. And, according to the Africa Review magazine, more than 70 media companies have applied for licenses in the capital Tunis since the revolution.
3. The rules you help create can sometimes come back to bite you.
Ben Ali was being defended by a team of public defenders and not his French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne. Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, Al Jazeera reports. His Tunisian legal team asked the judge for a postponement of the trial. They said they needed more time to prepare a defense.
4. We're learning more about how "The Family" really worked.
The Wall Street Journal examined the court papers filed against Ben Ali and interviewed a number of investigators working on the case. It found that the levels of corruption were far greater than thought. "Administrators who are freezing assets of more than 100 Ben Ali family members say they are uncovering an economic network so vast that untangling it too quickly could disrupt Tunisia further," according to the paper. "Instead of closing down businesses owned by Mr. Ben Ali's relatives, for example, authorities are in most cases allowing them to operate under court-appointed managers."
Meanwhile, the judge today detailed what investigators found when they searched the presidential palace and private residence. In addition to the illegal drugs, there was also 43 million Tunisian dinars ($31 million) in cash, as well as jewelry, arms, and archeological artifacts -- all obtained illegally, according to the judge.
5. Ben Ali thinks he's still president.
In a statement released today, Ben Ali gave his first account of the events that led him to flee. He said he only flew to Saudi Arabia after being persuaded by presidential security that his life and the lives of his family members were in danger, based on information about an assassination attempt supposedly passed along by "friendly" foreign intelligence services. His plan, he said, was to fly his wife and children to safety but then return immediately. The plane, however, returned to Tunisia without him, contrary to his orders, he said. "He did not leave his post as president of the republic and hasn't fled Tunisia as he was falsely accused of doing," the statement said.
This is beginning to follow a pattern. A day after he was arrested in Spain, one of Hosni Mubarak's top aides was taken to a hospital over the weekend, complaining of heart problems, Reuters reports. Hussein Salem had fled Egypt in the waning days of Mubarak's rule, in early February. He was wanted on charges of money laundering, fraud, bribery, and corruption. He's accused of misusing public funds by selling gas to Israel below market value.
Astute readers might recall that this is not the first time an Egyptian official stayed out of jail, claiming heart trouble. Hosni Mubarak was rushed to a hospital after reportedly suffering a heart attack while being questioned by prosecutors back in April.
A month later, his wife Suzanne suffered a "suspected heart attack" after Egyptian authorities ordered her detained and accused her of stealing public money during her husband's tenure. A doctor said she passed out after hearing the news. She was later released, without serving jail time.
If something could be poignant in its banality, the protests today in Saudi Arabia by women defying the authorities and daring to drive would fit the category. Though their act of mass civil disobedience may be small in scale, the women have gotten worldwide attention thanks in part to YouTube, where videos of the defiance were posted. Watching women drive shouldn't be as compelling as it is, but the recordings are quite powerful.
Below are a couple of the posted videos:
And here's an argument for why perhaps the wrong gender is being banned from the road:
It's Friday, and once again there were major protests throughout Syria. Reuters reported at least 16 people were killed, including a teenage boy. Protests have become a weekly occurrence, and the numbers being reported are startling. Al Jazeera cites an eyewitness claiming 150,000 people came out in Hama, the country's fourth largest city and the site of a massacre in 1982 that left at least 10,000 dead. If Al Jazeera's number is accurate, that would mean almost a quarter of the city's population was out in the streets.
The Syrian regime's response today has also been dramatic. Tanks and armored personnel carriers swept into two key towns in the north-- places that sit on the road linking Damascus and Aleppo. The government called it a "limited military operation" to restore order.
Here's video of the large crowds in Hama:
And video of protesters setting fire to the Russian and Iranian flags:
A couple of key things to watch:
Turkey and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been a steady ally of Assad's government. But the relationship has cooled and might be heading for a breaking point, as thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood into Turkey. Last week, Erdogan called Syria's crackdown "savagery."
"Syria had two friends. One was Erdogan and the other is the Iranians," Henri Barkey, a Turkey scholar at Lehigh University told Passport. "They have lost Erdogan. Erdogan tried to convince Bashar from the beginning to reform, lift the state of emergency, release political prisoners, but Bashar didn't listen to him."
Barkey said the Turks feel slighted. They threw the Syrian regime a lifeline at a time when it was being pressured by the Europeans and the Americans, and Erdogan expected to have more of a say with Assad now.
So what does this all mean?
According to Barkey, if the United States plays its cards right, there's an opportunity to let the Turks take the lead in dealing with Syria and possibly even do what Washington probably won't be able to-- persuade the Russians to back a U.N. Security Council Resolution against Syria that actually has teeth. That's far from certain, but Erdogan, who prides himself on being at the forefront of history, might soon be ready to take up that charge.
The end of Rami Makhlouf?
The Syrian business tycoon and cousin of Assad publicly "resigned" on state TV late Thursday from his various business ventures, including as head of the country's main cell phone company. The fact that the regime is willing to toss out someone seen as especially close to Assad is an indication it understands it needs to do more than it's been doing, said Rob Malley a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group. The move can be seen as a gesture to the population, which overwhelmingly wanted Makhlouf gone.
Makhlouf's image was tarnished within Syria after an interview with the New York Times last month in which he said the government would fight to the end to survive and that "if there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel."
The Jolie Factor
Hollywood do-gooder Angelina Jolie met with Syrian refugees in Turkey today. Though there are fewer than 10,000 of them so far, Jolie could help their plight become a cause célèbre and push governments to take stronger action against the Syrian regime. Look for an increase in press coverage of the refugee crisis in the wake of her visit. Though the scale is much lower than other refugee crises around the world, sympathy for the Syrians fighting inside the country and those fleeing from the conflict will likely grow. A crisis needs a compelling narrative to get attention. And a crisis needs the world's attention to move the needle of world powers.
All in all, it's been a bad day for Bashar Assad.
Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's new chief, might lack the charisma and presence of his predecessor, but that hasn't stopped him from communicating prolifically over the years, rallying followers to attack Western interests, condemning France's banning of the hijab, and praising recent protests in the Arab world. Below are some of his major statements over the years.
Forming al Qaeda (Feb. 1998)
In a faxed statement to a pan-Arab newspaper based in London, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of their new group, al Qaeda, intent on waging war against the United States and its allies -- and for the first time called for the killing of American civilians. The founding document for the new group (a coalition of Islamist organizations, including Zawahiri's Islamic Jihad) said: "To kill the Americans and their allies--civilian and military--is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in nay country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Asqua Mosque and the holy mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim."
Telling Iran to shut up with their 9/11 conspiracies (April 2008)
In an audio interview, Zawahiri lashed out at Iran and Hezbollah for propagating the conspiracy theory that Israel -- not al Qaeda -- was really behind the Sept. 11 attacks. He accused Iran and its proxy of trying to discredit al Qaeda by diminishing its signature success. Shiite Iran has long been one of Zawahiri's biggest targets, rhetorically at least. In response to a question about the theory that Israel was really behind the attacks, Zawahiri said, "The purpose of this lie is clear-- [to suggest] that there are no heroes among the Sunnis who can hurt America as no one else did in history. Iranian media snapped up this lie and repeated it ... Iran's aim here is also clear--to cover up its involvement with America in invading the homes of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq."
Sparking a debate about female jihadists (April 2008)
In that same interview, Zawahiri set off an emotional debate in jihadi circles with his insistence that al Qaeda does not allow women to fight and that a woman's role is limited to caring for the home and children of male fighters. His comment angered some female al Qaeda sympathizers.
"How many times have I wished I were a man," wrote one woman in a jihadi chat room, according to the Associated Press. " When Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri said there are no women in al Qaeda, he saddened and hurt me ... I felt that my heart was about to explode in my chest. I am powerless."
Zawahiri's comment showed he was a bit out of touch with reality in the Middle East. At the time, women were asserting a stronger role in fighting American and other forces. In Iraq alone, there had been at least 20 female suicide bombers since the start of the American war there.
Zawahiri's first wife was killed by an American airstrike in Kandahar in 2001, which might account for some of his views on the topic.
Congratulations, Mr. President (Nov. 2008)
Newly elected Barack Obama got a special shout out from the al Qaeda No. 2, who called him a "house negro." "It is true about you and people like you...what Malcom X said about the house negroes," he said in audio message posted online, lumping Obama in with Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Zawahiri also taunted Obama about increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. "Beware that the [stray] dogs of Afghanistan have savored the taste of your soldiers' flesh, so do send them in thousands."
Voicing support (sort of) for the Arab Spring (April 2011)
Al Qaeda's standing as the vanguard force against the corrupt regimes of the Middle East was undoubtedly diminished by the Arab Spring this year. And Zawahiri's often rambling, unfocused statements on the protests didn't help. In April, he lashed out at both the NATO troops bombing Qaddafi's infrastructure and Qaddafi himself. "I want to say to our Muslim brothers in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Muslim countries, that if the Americans and the NATO forces enter Libya, then their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia and Algeria and the rest of the Muslim countries should rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Qaddafi and the rest of the NATO."
According to Juan Zarate, former deputy national security advisor for combating terrorism under President George W. Bush, his statements on the Arab Spring make clear that under Zawahiri's leadership, al Qaeda's goal will still be targeting the "far enemy."
Bin Laden's eulogy (June 2011)
Zawahiri paid tribute to bin Laden in a YouTube video. He praised him as a "hero of the first battle line," and a "man who said no to America." He also warned of a major new attack against the United States.
Some analysts found it curious that he made no reference as to who would take the reins of al Qaeda. Zarate speculated that the delay in his naming was partly due to real questions within the organization about whether he was the right man for the job. As analyst Leah Farrall pointed out, there are several second generation al Qaeda figures who have more charisma and appeal than Zawahiri.
A confrontation is brewing between the executive and legislative branches over the legality of America's continued military role enforcing the no fly zone over Libya. On Tuesday, June 14, House Speaker John Boehner warned the president he had until Sunday to seek authorization from Congress for the operation, or else he'd be in violation of the War Powers Resolution-the controversial 1973 law that requires presidents to get congressional approval for any military conflict lasting longer than 60 days. The bombing campaign in Libya is now up to day 89.
The White House said it would provide a legal defense to Congress later today for why it isn't in violation of the War Powers law.
"We are in the final stages of preparing extensive information for the House and Senate that will address a whole host of issues about our ongoing efforts in Libya," national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the same day as Boehner's warning to Obama, the House voted 248-163 to cut off funding for the U.S. mission in Libya, which is costing at least $40 million a month. The amendment to a military appropriations bill was introduced by Brad Sherman (D-CA) as a reaction to what he said was the President's violation of the War Powers Act. It still has to be approved by the Senate. Foreign Policy spoke to Sherman about his decision to pursue the drastic step of defunding the war.
Foreign Policy: You've used some strong language with regard to the White House-accusing the president of deliberately violating the law by not seeking congressional approval for Libya. And saying he's "embraced the idea of an imperial presidency."
Brad Sherman: Look, there has been a move over the last three or four decades toward an imperial presidency. Many historians and constitutional scholars have commented on that. And, I don't think that's what the founders had in mind. They were students of ancient Rome. They knew that Rome rose as a republic and that it declined under an imperial executive. And this isn't about the current president. This is about the last three or four decades.
FP: But this particular vote is about the current president.
BS: Well, this is the president now. No president has said they would follow the war powers law, even though it's the law of the land. Even though it's an extremely generous allocation of authority to the president. For a president not to adhere to the War Powers Act is a president-and, there are many-who takes a truly extreme view of executive power.
FP: Lee Hamilton and James Baker argued that this has more to do with political turf battles than foreign policy...
BS: This is not a foreign policy dispute. This is a domestic constitutional dispute. And if I agreed with absolutely everything a president was doing in foreign policy, I would still not support the violation of law. How you do it is a domestic issue and that's far more important than foreign policy. People have got to understand that America cannot play the role that it wants to play in foreign policy if it ignores its own constitution. And no matter how important they think foreign policy is, constitutional policy is more important.
FP: On Libya specifically, what about the argument that NATO is running the show...that the U.S. handed off responsibility to them?
BS: There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says you can violate the law as long as NATO blesses it. There is nothing in the American Constitution that says you can violate the law as long as you're consistent with a resolution of the Arab League. And there is nothing in the Constitution that says you can violate the U.S. law as long as your acting consistent with the UN Security Council resolution.
FP: But there is some dispute about the War Powers Act, isn't there? The Supreme Court has never decisively come down one way or the other on who has the ultimate power when it comes to declaring war.
BS: There are certain constitutional issues where the Supreme Court doesn't want to weigh in. That doesn't mean the Constitution is void.
FP: I know you said it's a constitutional issue, but are you concerned that this could be seen as undercutting the president overseas?
BS: There are those in the executive branch under this and former and future administrations who believe America can go forward only if we shred the Constitution in favor of an imperial presidency. They are advocates for an imperial presidency. They are not advocates for the Constitution and they are not advocates for the rule of law.
The State Department believes in democracy and the rule of law in every country, except the United States. It is official policy of the State Department that no president should ever actually admit that the War Powers Act is binding or is the law. Look at how extreme a position it is. Whether or not we are under attack, whether or not there is an emergency situation, whether or not an ally is attacked, a president may send American forces in any quantity he or she thinks necessary for any duration, for any purpose. I mean is there any constraint that the State Department is willing to acknowledge?
FP: Isn't it in the U.S. interest to see that Muammar Qaddafi step down?
BS: Yes. The second most important thing is that we bring democracy and the rule of law to Libya. The first most important thing is that we have democracy and the rule of law in the United States.
Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions that reached a unity agreement last month, began negotiating in Cairo this morning over who would lead the new government. According to press reports and sources close to the sides, negotiators reached a consensus on a new leader, to replace current Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is seen as close to Fatah. But negotiators are keeping the name under wraps until next Tuesday, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal are expected to officially mark the agreement.
"We have agreed that the talks will be finalized next Tuesday, on June 21, with the participation of Abbas and Khaled Mashal," a Fatah representative said in Cairo earlier today.
The choice could have major near-term repercussions for Palestinian statehood. The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians if the candidate is seen as too close to Hamas.
Perhaps wary that he might be soon losing American support, Abbas is in Saudi Arabia today, trying to get more money from the kingdom's leaders, according to a Washington-based source.
Finding a choice to fill the leadership role seemed less than certain just this past weekend. On Sunday, Hamas firmly rejected Fatah's nomination of Fayyad, who is credited with helping to build up institutions and commerce in the West Bank (and was a representative favored by the United States). Hamas opposed him because, as prime minister of the Fatah-led government, he is blamed for supporting the arrests of Hamas leaders and activists in the West Bank.
"For us, Fayyad is unacceptable because his name is connected with a black phase in the history of the Palestinian people," a Hamas official, Taher al-Nounou, told the New York Times.
Analysts say they are keeping the name under wraps so that both sides can minimize any campaign against the nominee. The negotiations have included only a very small circle of people close to Abbas and Mashal. And there are some in both camps who will likely disagree with the choice.
One Middle East analyst speculated, "At some level, both sides probably felt it was better not to reach an agreement for a while and keep things going as they are."
The two sides agreed earlier this year to establish a government of unaffiliated ministers, mainly made up of technocrats, and to prepare for elections within a year.
Mark Perry, an independent Mideast analyst, said the candidate would probably have to be someone from the West Bank, since it would be difficult to negotiate with a prime minister who is based in Gaza, since traveling to the capital Ramallah is not possible. But the candidate would likely have some affiliation with Hamas.
"Hamas is actually the stronger party at the table" in these negotiations, Perry said. "They won the election in 2006. It will be hard for Abu Mazen [Abbas] to argue their role should be diminished."
It's been a tough couple of weeks for al Qaeda. Since the successful Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the terror network has suffered additional losses that analysts say are taking a heavy toll on the group.
Ilyas Kashmiri, al Qaeda's operational leader in Pakistan, was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike earlier this month (though al Qaeda hasn't confirmed his death, reports of which have been incorrect before). And last week, an al Qaeda leader in East Africa -- Fazul Abdullah Mohammed -- was killed by Somali forces in Mogadishu. Mohammed was the most wanted man in Africa.
Analysts and U.S. officials say the deaths have created a power vacuum.
"The organization is in a great deal of turmoil," a U.S. counterterrorism official told Foreign Policy. "It's trying to sort itself out with what's going on."
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, said Kashmiri and Mohammed were key operational figures, not easily replaced due to their long pedigrees of planning and executing attacks.
"They are especially important because they would have been looked on to plan and implement any acts of retribution [for bin Laden's death] from al Qaeda," he said. "Their killings knock them seriously off balance."
Of course, al Qaeda is well-known for its ability to replenish its ranks. Analysts like Hoffman and Evan Kohlmann, who has consulted with the U.S. government, see a few key names potentially emerging to fill the void.
1. Saif al-Adel
Born in Egypt in 1960 or 1963, according to the FBI. Currently believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal region.
Al-Adel was reportedly named the interim chief of Al Qaeda after bin Laden's death. After the 9/11 attacks, he fled to Iran, where he was eventually put under house arrest. In 2008, Iran swapped him for a diplomat taken captive by al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Signature attacks: Has played a hand in many al Qaeda attacks, allegedly dispatching Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, to meet Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; and aiding the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa.
Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images
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