The Syrian charnel house

The above image is actually one of the less graphic photos coming out of Syria today, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces stand accused of massacring Sunni families en masse. The more gruesome images and videos speak to a brutal campaign of sectarian cleansing that has managed to shock even veteran Syria watchers.

The deaths occurred in two separate massacres: One in the Ras al-Nabaa neighborhood of Banias today, and another on Thursday in the nearby town of al-Bayda. Thousands of Sunnis reportedly fled Banias in the aftermath of the attack. The death toll is still murky: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has confirmed a total of 112 people killed in both attacks, but noted that number could rise. The activist group said a paramilitary group known as the National Defense Forces, which is largely made up of fighters belonging to minorities loyal to Assad, was responsible for the killings.

The geography of Banias and Bayda is important for understanding these attacks. Both are located in the governorate of Tartous, which forms part of the heartland of the Alawite sect, the community to which Assad belongs. Destroying these Sunni enclaves could be a precursor to creating an "Alawite statelet" along the coast if Assad loses Damascus -- or it could simply be a reflection of the fact that the regime sees any sizable Sunni community living near Alawite cities and villages as inherently hostile.

The massacres also occur at a moment when the Assad regime is moving aggressively and brutally to seize back territory lost to the rebels. Last month, the Syrian military killed at least 100 people in a five-day offensive to retake a Damascus suburb. Last week, it regained control of a central neighborhood in the city of Homs. And it is fighting alongside Hezbollah to reclaim the rebel-controlled town of al-Qusayr, on the border with Lebanon.

As the violence gathers pace, the religious and tribal fractures among Syrians, long papered over by a nominally secular Assad regime, are bursting out into the open. "'Alawis are not always comfortable with the subject of tribal affiliations as the Ba'thist state has striven to replace such categories with the modern notion of citizenship," wrote Patrick Seale in the introduction to his biography of Hafez al-Assad. "[B]ut if pressed every village boy could tell you to which tribe his family belongs."

These days, you don't have to press very hard.


Obama's new AfPak diplomat: U.S. forces needed in Afghanistan 'well beyond' 2014 if peace talks fail

In 2011, James Dobbins, Barack Obama's newly appointed special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, published a 100-page analysis on the importance of a negotiated peace deal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The document makes for an interesting read as Dobbins transitions from an uncensored private citizen to a lead diplomat confronting the rapid drawdown of America's military presence in the region.

In the report, titled "Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer," Dobbins expressed skepticism about Obama's ability to wind down the Afghan war, full stop, in 2014 in the absence of a peace deal.

"If negotiations fail, some level of American military engagement will probably be necessary well beyond the 2014 date by which President Obama has promised to remove all American combat forces," he wrote.

What we know now, that Dobbins (or anyone else) didn't know then, is that negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are going nowhere. On Wednesday, the Taliban assassinated a member of the Afghan High Peace Council, the third Taliban assassination of a senior council member in the last year and a half. The attack also occurred one day after the Taliban killed three British soldiers in an IED attack in Helmand province. Meanwhile, planned negotiations in Qatar are stalling and Pakistani support for peace talks has been waning.

Now, it's no secret that residual U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The question is how many troops will there be, and what will they be doing?

On April 17, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford became the first top military official to offer specifics on these questions. The estimates are for a NATO-led force of 8,000 to 12,000 troops in Afghanistan post-2014, which does not include troops needed for counterterrorism and guarding U.S. diplomats. But as Bloomberg's Gopal Ratnam notes, "Other U.S. officials have called for a larger U.S. military presence than the range that is under discussion."

Dobbins did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon about whether he still believes a rapid withdrawal is dependent on a peace deal. Regardless, for those who want to familiarize themselves with his views on winding down the war and preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, this report is well worth the read