Archives for August 2013

If Obama wants to deter future chemical attacks, then he should focus on deterrence instead of punishment

President Obama announced this afternoon that he has decided to launch an attack on Syria but will not move forward until Congress has had an opportunity to debate the issue and has voted to authorize the attack.

Earlier this week, Politico reported:

As President Barack Obama moves closer to calling for military action against Syria, a powerful ally that could help him win over skeptics is staying quiet.

The Israel lobby, including the high-profile American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups, isn’t pushing for intervention even as evidence emerged this week that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its citizens.

The silence could be a problem for Obama, since the Jewish groups are connected across the political spectrum, wielding influence from the far right to liberal Democrats on issues critical to the Middle East — especially when it comes to the use of military force.

And while Obama has been willing to strike a foreign country without Congress’s approval — as he did in Libya — this time he not only faces a reluctant Congress, but a vocal chorus of Republican and Democratic lawmakers publicly advocating against entanglement.

Since AIPAC and the rest of the lobby have thus far remained silent, will they now start lobbying on behalf of the White House? Possibly, but it seems just as likely that they will not want to be held responsible for pushing Congress to make an unpopular decision.

As for what Congress will do, Obama is taking a gamble, but not as big a gamble as Britain’s prime minister David Cameron took when he got defeated in parliament. Chances are, Congress will bloviate on the issues, tip their hats in the direction of a president who was polite enough to ask their opinions and then, since they don’t really have any, they’ll mostly line up behind him support his decision and sing the praises of the men and women of America’s armed services.

Since Obama has introduced an element that up until now was not part of the debate — that this attack once authorized could come at any time at all — there is another course of action that the White House should consider and that might actually make more sense even to those who remain mesmerized by the supposed utility of America’s military strength: use it as an ongoing deterrent rather than an instrument of punishment. In other words, once Obama has been given the green light from Congress, U.S. battleships can then hold their positions off the coast of Syria indefinitely ready to strike without warning.

If the goal is simply to prevent further use of chemical weapons, the threat of an attack of indeterminate scope is likely to have much more impact on Assad’s calculations than the memory of an attack his forces managed to survive.

Obviously, there are more constructive courses of action that America and its allies should pursue that would not involve either the threat or use of military strikes, but since strikes themselves are the focus of the current debate, then it’s surely preferable to think about using that particular form of power in the most intelligent way possible.

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Opposing military strikes without dishonoring those who died in the Damascus chemical attacks

This may be the one and only time I ever quote Infowars, but at least on this occasion it’s worth pointing out why in the following instance (and no doubt too many others), it’s a boneheaded operation.

During his State Department speech today [Friday], Secretary of State John Kerry grossly misrepresented the facts about the chemical attack at Ghouta near Damascus.

“The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children,” Kerry said. “I’m not asking you to take my word for it. Read for yourself, everyone… the evidence from thousands of sources, evidence that is already publicly available,” he added.

According to the international aid group Doctors Without Borders, however, 355 people were killed, not the wildly exaggerated figure cited by Kerry.

To inflate 355 deaths to 1,429 would certainly be a wild exaggeration. But did Doctors Without Borders report that just 355 people were killed?

No.

This is what they said:

Three hospitals in Syria’s Damascus governorate that are supported by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) have reported to MSF that they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, August 21, 2013. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

That’s 355 people who survived the attack, were taken to one of the three hospitals referred to, and then died.

A lethal dose of sarin can kill someone in one minute. The majority of the children who died in the attack most likely died before they could even crawl out of bed. The 3,600 people who reached a hospital were those who had suffered less exposure. Most of the dead probably didn’t get outside their homes.

When I say Infowars is a boneheaded operation, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. I’m assuming their analysis is stupid and not purposefully deceptive.

And as I’ve said repeatedly over the last week, there are many good reasons to oppose the imminent U.S. military strikes on Syria. But those who minimize the scale of the chemical attack, or based on minimal evidence insist that it must have been launched by the opposition, do two things:

1. They undermine their own credibility.
2. By arguing from what is increasingly exposed as a false position they thereby empower those they are arguing against.

If the Obama administration sounds more credible in its assessment of what happened on August 21, then more Americans will be inclined to accept the administration’s determination of an appropriate response to the attacks.

What the administration has utterly failed to do and has not even attempted, is to explain why anyone should expect or have any confidence that the strikes it has planned will actually have their intended effect — to deter any future chemical attacks.

Since President Obama has already made it clear that neither he, nor the Pentagon, nor most Americans have any appetite to enter a broader military intervention in Syria, the punitive strikes that seem likely to take place in the coming hours, may prompt the Assad regime to plan and carry out yet another chemical attack.

The follow-up attack may be smaller than the one on August 21. It may again occur with conflicting assertions about who is responsible and yet it will almost certainly accomplish its strategic objective: to confront the United States with an impossible choice — to either ignore the attack and thereby demonstrate that the first “punishment” was less than ineffective; or, to get drawn into a cycle of escalation that almost every American wants to avoid.

And just in case anyone thinks that’s a piece of wild conjecture I plucked out of thin air, in fact it comes from the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker.

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Obama’s missiles of impunity

Rami G Khouri writes: It is quite stunning to experience for the sixth time in a decade a global debate about whether Western powers should use their military superiority to attack Arab countries in order to get those Arab countries to conform to “international norms.” After the experiences of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Mali, and the global use of drones to attack suspected Al-Qaeda militants, we are now witnessing heartfelt debates across the world about the wisdom, efficacy and legitimacy of an American-led attack against Syrian targets.It is heartening to see the best aspects of Western democracy in practice, in the British parliament’s rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s request to join the U.S. attack on Syria, and in the skepticism that many American congressmen and women express about the validity of the administration’s case for the attack. Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama’s administration is making the case that it does not need congressional approval for an attack, and seems determined to go ahead with it, with or without Western partners or Congressional support.

So in the coming days we are likely to see a few dozen American missiles smashing into selected Syrian targets, accompanied by passionate arguments for and against this action. Since we have witnessed this scenario several times in the past decade, and are likely to encounter it again in the years ahead (Iran? Sudan? Afghanistan and Pakistan again?), this might be a good moment to step back a bit from the din and haze of battle and focus for a moment on the core issues at hand that matter to all sides.

I see those issues very clearly as two sides of the same coin: What do we do about the criminal use of armaments by a government against its own people, especially when such action breaks prevailing global norms and conventions? And what do we do about the criminal use of armaments by a government against other countries – even ones whose governments kill their own people – in the absence of legitimate international support for such action?

Our prevailing global media- and entertainment-based society does not like to discuss such issues in a symmetrical manner that juxtaposes the criminal actions of the Syrian president against the criminal actions of the American president. Yet we must do so if we wish to reduce the recurring incidents of Western attacks against Arab or other regimes in the global South that kill their own people with impunity.

The cautious Barack Obama has now shifted into a common policy mode for American presidents who are confronted with the need to respond to a complex foreign policy issue somewhere far away and largely alien to them. This is the policy that, in political science terms, should best be called the “kicking ass policy.” It uses the United States’ massive advantages in military technology and force projection to unleash powerful missiles against virtually defenseless targets in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Yemen, and now perhaps Syria. It aims to teach those people over there a lesson they will never forget, and push them to comply with norms of civilized behavior, but it also almost always happens without Washington fully calculating or understanding the consequences of such a policy. [Continue reading…]

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Experts fear U.S. plan to strike Syria overlooks risks

The New York Times reports: Supporters of the president’s proposal contend that a limited punitive strike can be carried out without inflaming an already volatile situation. But a number of diplomats and other experts say it fails to adequately plan for a range of unintended consequences, from a surge in anti-Americanism that could bolster Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to a wider regional conflict that could drag in other countries, including Israel and Turkey.

“Our biggest problem is ignorance; we’re pretty ignorant about Syria,” said Ryan C. Crocker, a former ambassador to Syria and Lebanon, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.

The American strike could hit President Assad’s military without fundamentally changing the dynamic in a stalemated civil war that has already left more than 100,000 people dead. At the same time, few expect that a barrage of cruise missiles would prompt either side to work in earnest for a political settlement. Given that, the skeptics say it may not be worth the risks.

“I don’t see any advantage,” said a Western official who closely observes Syria.

In outlining its tentative plans, the Obama administration has left many questions unanswered. Diplomats familiar with Mr. Assad say there is no way to know how he would respond, and they question what the United States would do if he chose to order a chemical strike or other major retaliation against civilians.

That would leave the United States to choose between a loss of credibility and a more expansive — and unpopular — conflict, they said. “So he continues on in defiance — maybe he even launches another chemical attack to put a stick in our eye — and then what?” Mr. Crocker said. “Because once you start down this road, it’s pretty hard to get off it and maintain political credibility.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. spy agencies mounted 231 offensive cyber-operations in 2011

The Washington Post reports: U.S. intelligence services carried out 231 offensive cyber-operations in 2011, the leading edge of a clandestine campaign that embraces the Internet as a theater of spying, sabotage and war, according to top-secret documents obtained by The Washington Post.

That disclosure, in a classified intelligence budget provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, provides new evidence that the Obama administration’s growing ranks of cyberwarriors infiltrate and disrupt foreign computer networks.

Additionally, under an extensive effort code-named GENIE, U.S. computer specialists break into foreign networks so that they can be put under surreptitious U.S. control. Budget documents say the $652 million project has placed “covert implants,” sophisticated malware transmitted from far away, in computers, routers and firewalls on tens of thousands of machines every year, with plans to expand those numbers into the millions.

The documents provided by Snowden and interviews with former U.S. officials describe a campaign of computer intrusions that is far broader and more aggressive than previously understood. The Obama administration treats all such cyber-operations as clandestine and declines to acknowledge them.

The scope and scale of offensive operations represent an evolution in policy, which in the past sought to preserve an international norm against acts of aggression in cyberspace, in part because U.S. economic and military power depend so heavily on computers. [Continue reading…]

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UK asked New York Times to destroy Edward Snowden documents

Reuters reports: The British government has asked the New York Times to destroy copies of documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden related to the operations of the U.S. spy agency and its British partner, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), people familiar with the matter said.

The British request, made to Times executive editor Jill Abramson by a senior official at the British Embassy in Washington D.C., was greeted by Abramson with silence, according to the sources. British officials indicated they intended to follow up on their request later with the Times, but never did, one of the sources said.

On Friday, in a public statement, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, said his newspaper, which had faced threats of possible legal action from British authorities, on July 20 had destroyed copies of leaked documents which it had received from Snowden.

Rusbridger said that two days later, on July 22, the Guardian informed British authorities that materials related to GCHQ had made their way to the New York Times and the independent investigative journalism group ProPublica.

Rusbridger said in his statement that it then took British authorities “more than three weeks before anyone from the British government contacted the New York Times.

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How Egypt’s military rulers are exploiting the power of conspiracy theories

The Economist reports: Amid the tempest over Syrian chemical weapons, an irony stands out. After two decades of bloody struggle between the West and al-Qaeda’s global jihadist franchise, those bitter adversaries suddenly find themselves fighting on the same side. As Western countries threaten retaliatory strikes against Bashar Assad’s regime for its apparent use of poison gas, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch also promises a “volcano of revenge”.

Just another shake of the pieces in an increasingly baffling Middle East puzzle? No, says the pro-government press in Egypt, where conspiracy theorists have grown ever more strident since the coup in July that toppled Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The apparent surprise-realignment over Syria, they claim, simply tears the veil from a long-standing Zionist-American-Muslim Brotherhood plot, exposing a diabolical plan to divide and weaken Israel’s most powerful Arab neighbours, one by one.

First, of course, say the conspiracy theorists, was Iraq, where the crippling result of America’s 2003 invasion is plain. Now Syria, riven by sects and falling to pieces, awaits air strikes set to deliver the coup de grâce. But the big prize for the wicked West in league with al-Qaeda is, beyond a doubt, Egypt.

Here, the cabal of Israeli, Western and Islamist plotters set out to foment sectarian strife, and to install a Muslim Brotherhood government that would divide the country into two, perhaps four, weakened micro-states. Only the Egyptian army’s timely intervention and the strong hand of the police and intelligence services have saved the ancient nation from a dismal fate. But the plotters have not given up: Egypt remains under threat. [Continue reading…]

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The Egyptians who believe Obama has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood

Max Blumenthal writes: On July 26, a cable news host leaned across his desk, stared into the camera and let his audience in on what he believed was the Obama administration’s deepest, darkest secret. “The issue is not whether Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or not,” he declared. “The issue is that it is a fact that Obama used the help of the Muslim Brotherhood in his administration.”

Reading from notes in a tone of total omniscience, the host began to name names. He cited six figures, all Muslim American activists or intellectuals, accusing them of operating a Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cell inside the White House. They were Mazen Asbahi, Arif Ali Khan, Eboo Patel, Salam Marayati, and Mohamed Elibiary.

“Write these names down,” the host told his audience, “look them up during the break and when I come back let me know if what I say is right or wrong.”

Though he sounded like Glenn Beck or any other Tea Party-style Islamophobe, the host was not American and did not even speak English. He was Yousef El-Hosseini, a popular and famously reactionary personality on the private Egyptian cable network, ONTV. Founded by Egypt’s wealthiest man, Naguib Sawiris, a key financial backer of the forces behind the overthrow of the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, ONTV has emerged as one of the country’s central instruments for spreading pro-military propaganda.

Since Egyptian security forces commanded by strongman Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi began massacring supporters of Morsi, arresting and disappearing activists in droves, and shutting down unsympathetic news outlets, the Obama administration has ratcheted up its criticism, canceling a joint military maneuver with Egypt while stopping just short of suspending aid. Fearing that external pressure could lead to a crisis in internal morale, Egypt’s military regime has cranked up its Mighty Wurlitzer.

During the past two weeks, pro-military networks like OnTV have begun blending footage of Egypt’s glorious security forces waging a “war on terror” with the kind of conspiratorial screeds familiar to far-right members of Congress like Michele Bachmann and Islamophobia hustlers like Pamela Geller. The propaganda blitz has successfully reinforced the view of many average Egyptians that if Obama cannot respect the heroic Sisi’s war on “terror,” it is because he is caught in the invisible tentacles of the Brotherhood – or perhaps he is an undercover Brother himself. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt bans Al-Jazeera, detains journalists, raids outlets

Committee to Protect Journalists: Egyptian security forces continue to detain and harass journalists working for news outlets critical of the military-led government, particularly Al-Jazeera and its affiliates. Journalists also still face physical threats from protesters, as tensions persist between the government and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

“The Egyptian government is widening its censorship campaign against critical media in Egypt to undermine coverage of Muslim Brotherhood protests,” said Sherif Mansour CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “Like their predecessors, authorities apparently fail to grasp that the attempted suppression of dissenting voices only compounds the dissent.”

The Ministry of Investment on Thursday said it would ban Al-Jazeera Mubashir, the network’s Egyptian affiliate, because it lacked the required legal permits, according to news reports. The statement accused the channel of “spreading lies and rumors damaging to Egyptian national security and unity.” Today, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement saying it had confiscated two broadcasting cars and equipment from Al-Jazeera Mubashir.

On Tuesday, Egyptian security forces detained without charge four staff of Al-Jazeera English, including correspondent Wayne Hay, cameraman Adil Bradlow, and producers Russ Finn and Baher Mohammed, the station reported. Al-Jazeera Arabic correspondent Abdullah al-Shami and Al-Jazeera Mubashir cameraman Mohamed Bader had been arrested earlier this month while covering protests and held under charges of “threatening national security” and “possessing weapons,” respectively. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt widens crackdown and meaning of ‘Islamist’

The New York Times reports: Having crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian authorities have begun cracking down on other dissenters, sometimes labeling even liberal activists or labor organizers as dangerous Islamists.

Ten days ago, the police arrested two left-leaning Canadians — one of them a filmmaker specializing in highly un-Islamic movies about sexual politics — and implausibly announced that they were members of the Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group backing the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. In Suez this month, police and military forces breaking up a steelworkers strike charged that its organizers were part of a Brotherhood plot to destabilize Egypt.

On Saturday, the chief prosecutor ordered an investigation into charges of spying against two prominent activists associated with the progressive April 6 group.

When a journalist with a state newspaper spoke publicly about watching a colleague’s wrongful killing by a soldier, prosecutors appeared to fabricate a crime to punish the journalist. And the police arrested five employees of the religious Web site Islam Today for the crime of describing the military takeover as a coup, security officials said.

Police abuses and politicized prosecutions are hardly new in Egypt, and they did not stop under Mr. Morsi. But since the military takeover last month, some rights activists say, the authorities are acting with a sense of impunity exceeding even the period before the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak. [Continue reading…]

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New generation of genetically engineered crops found to drastically increase use of toxic pesticides

Center for Food Safety: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has quietly approved the first of a new generation of GE crops resistant to more toxic herbicides. The first crop to pass the low regulatory bar was a Bayer soybean variety genetically engineered to withstand direct application of the herbicide isoxaflutole (IFT), which according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a “probable human carcinogen.”

Center for Food Safety (CFS) projects at least a four-fold rise (.PDF) in national use of this toxic herbicide thanks to these new GE soybeans, and a host of related human health and environmental harms. Additional scientific detail about this and other new GE crops can be found here.

“Bayer’s new GE soybeans represent the next wave in agricultural biotechnology – crops that dramatically increase famers’ use of and dependence on toxic herbicides,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at Center for Food Safety.

Dubbed FG72, these GE soybeans were developed by Bayer CropScience, the second-largest agrichemicals firm in the world.

EPA has designated IFT as a “probable human carcinogen” based on animal tests in which it triggered liver and thyroid tumors in rats. IFT and its major breakdown product persist in surface waters, and despite its limited use at present is frequently detected in tests. It is also toxic to aquatic organisms, wild plants and important crops (e.g. vegetables.). IFT is so toxic that three states – Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota – rejected the Bayer-EPA label for this herbicide as insufficiently protective of human health, the environment, and neighboring crops. [Continue reading…]

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Cooling Pacific has dampened global warming, research shows

The Guardian reports: Cooling waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean appear to be a major factor in dampening global warming in recent years, scientists said on Wednesday.

Their work is a big step forward in helping to solve the greatest puzzle of current climate change research – why global average surface temperatures, while still on an upward trend, have risen more slowly in the past 10 to fifteen years than previously.

Waters in the eastern tropical regions of the Pacific have been notably cooler in recent years, owing to the effects of one of the world’s biggest ocean circulatory systems, the Pacific decadal oscillation.

Many people are aware of the El Niño and La Niña weather systems, which affect the Pacific and bring hotter and stormier or cooler weather in cycles of just a few years, and can have a strong effect on global weather. But few are aware that both of these systems are just part of the much bigger Pacific decadal oscillation, which brings warmer and cooler weather over decades.

The system is now in a cooling phase, scientists have noted, which could last for years. The last such phase was from the 1940s to the 1970s. [Continue reading…]

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Music: S-Tone Inc. — ‘Copacaban Soul’

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U.S. military officers have deep doubts about impact, wisdom of a U.S. strike on Syria

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration’s plan to launch a military strike against Syria is being received with serious reservations by many in the U.S. military, which is coping with the scars of two lengthy wars and a rapidly contracting budget, according to current and former officers.

Having assumed for months that the United States was unlikely to intervene militarily in Syria, the Defense Department has been thrust onto a war footing that has made many in the armed services uneasy, according to interviews with more than a dozen military officers ranging from captains to a four-star general.

Former and current officers, many with the painful lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan on their minds, said the main reservations concern the potential unintended consequences of launching cruise missiles against Syria.

Some questioned the use of military force as a punitive measure and suggested that the White House lacks a coherent strategy. If the administration is ambivalent about the wisdom of defeating or crippling the Syrian leader, possibly setting the stage for Damascus to fall to fundamentalist rebels, they said, the military objective of strikes on Assad’s military targets is at best ambiguous.

“There’s a broad naivete in the political class about America’s obligations in foreign policy issues, and scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the run-up to the Iraq war, noting that many of his contemporaries are alarmed by the plan.

Marine Lt. Col. Gordon Miller, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, warned this week of “potentially devastating consequences, including a fresh round of chemical weapons attacks and a military response by Israel.”

“If President [Bashar al-Assad] were to absorb the strikes and use chemical weapons again, this would be a significant blow to the United States’ credibility and it would be compelled to escalate the assault on Syria to achieve the original objectives,” Miller wrote in a commentary for the think tank. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s reaction to possible U.S. attack on Syria shows signs of restraint

Tehran Bureau: This week’s statement by the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, that his country’s armed forces are preparing for a strike on Syria appears to have produced a marked shift in the public position taken by the Iranian leadership on Tehran’s primary Middle Eastern ally.

Early this year, Ali Akbar Velayati, the top international affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said of Syria’s embattled president: “Bashar al-Assad is our red line and we will support him to the end.” Three weeks ago, the conservative Alef website featured a letter from Assad that was hand delivered to Khamenei, which read: “With the support of steadfast, visionary and strong allies like Iran we are certain of victory.”

On Wednesday, however, in his first meeting with President Hassan Rouhani’s new cabinet, Khamenei limited himself to expressing Iran’s strong kinship with Syria and characterising a potential western attack as “a certain catastrophe”. Avoiding any pledge of specific support, he raised his palms in prayer, saying: “I hope merciful God protects this region from the menace of America and Zionism and other evils.”

Khamenei’s silence about defending Assad was underscored by a subsequent report from the semi-official Fars news agency on a speech delivered by General Mohammad Ali Jafari, chief of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. In extensive excerpts of his address to a conference of ground force commanders, there was not a single word about Syria.

A year ago, by contrast, Colonel Mohammad Ali Asoodi, the head of the guards’ culture and propaganda office, said: “If America attacks Syria, Iran, along with Syrian allies will go into action.”

The tone of General Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy chief-of-staff of Iran’s armed forces, took a particularly noticeable turn this week.

On Sunday, he had threatened: “The United States is aware of the red zone of the Syrian front and any violation of the Syrian red line will have serious consequences for the White House,” including revenge by multiple nations.

Three days later, however, he said little more than that an internationalised war would be a net loss to Israel. Like Khamenei, the only intervention he invoked was divine. “God willing, the flames of this conflagration will set Zionism’s robe ablaze,” he said.

He refrained from making any threats towards the US, and settled for offering advice: “The Americans should rid themselves of this arrogant self-assuredness and if they have any resources, spend them on saving the American people.” [Continue reading…]

EA WorldView adds: In contrast to days of heated propaganda from Iran, warning that airstrikes on Syria will bring “fire” upon Israel and lead to defeat for the US and its allies, President Rouhani continues to avoid the rhetoric of confrontation while warning against military intervention.

The President’s office said via Twitter that Rouhani had agreed with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that “any use of military force against another country without a UN mandate was a blatant violation of international law” and that the Syrian conflict can “be resolved only through diplomatic means”. The office emphasized the warning that US-led airstrikes “could destabilize entire region, breeding extremism and terrorism” with the hashtag “#prudence”.

Rouhani’s mentor, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, bolstered the line on Thursday by urging “leaders of powerful countries” to resolve the situation with dialogue, rather than military force.

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Chomsky on Syria

Mohammed Attar interviewed Noam Chomsky in July, 2013:

Attar: Your discourse unambiguously states that America and Israel have no desire to see the regime fall and that their actions are determined by the “better the devil you know” principle. How do you explain a counter-discourse, promulgated by analysts and intellectuals, especially among Leftist circles in Europe the US and the Arab world, which is based on the supposition of an American/Israeli/imperialist plot? For some people, the revolution in Syria has been a conspiracy from the outset. For others it was hijacked by the conspiracy.

Chomsky: For a long time, the Arab world and other places beside have played host to stories and illusions about the supernatural power of the United States, which controls everything through complex conspiracies and plots. In this worldview, everything that takes place can be explained in terms of imperialist conspiracies. This is an error. Without a doubt, the United States are still a great power and capable of influencing events, but they are not always able to manipulate them by means of complex conspiracies: this really is beyond their capacities. Of course the Americans do sometimes try to do this, but they fail, too. What happened in Syria is not outside our understanding: it began as a popular and democratic protest movement demanding democratic reforms, but instead of responding to it in a constructive, positive manner, Assad reacted with violent repression. The usual outcome of such a course of action is either a successful crushing of the protests or otherwise, to see them evolve and militarize, and this is what took place in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s brother seen linked to Syria chemical attack

Bloomberg reports: The powerful brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is suspected of authorizing the chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, according to a United Nations official who monitors armed conflicts in the region.

Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and controls the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, an elite unit that the opposition says launched the Aug. 21 attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.

The use of chemical weapons may have been a brash action by Maher al-Assad rather than a strategic decision by the president, according to the UN official, who asked not to be named.

Identifying the chain of command behind the chemical attack would go into calculations about who, what and how to strike in any retaliatory action, the UN official said. If Maher al-Assad is the culprit, for example, a Republican Guard stronghold may be targeted rather than a presidential facility, the official said.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, doubts that such an important action — openly defying U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons — would be done without Bashar al-Assad’s approval. [Continue reading…]

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Whatever Obama does, Assad wins

President Obama says he hasn’t made a decision on whether to launch a military strike on Syria. Having consulted with his national security team and with foreign allies, the one person he might wish he could secretly consult would be the Syrian president himself. After all, since the White House has made it abundantly clear that the widely announced coming attack (assuming it happens) will be limited in scope, it’s effect will largely be determined by Bashar al-Assad. This might be what Bashar would tell Barack:

I’ve looked at your options, and I’m going to be honest here, I feel for you. Not exactly an embarrassment of riches you’ve got to choose from, strategy-wise. I mean, my God, there are just so many variables to consider, so many possible paths to choose, each fraught with incredible peril, and each leading back to the very real, very likely possibility that no matter what you do it’s going to backfire in a big, big way. It’s a good old-fashioned mess, is what this is! And now, you have to make some sort of decision that you can live with.

So, where do I begin? Well, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but let’s start with the fact that my alliance with Russia and China means that nothing you decide to do will have the official support of the UN Security Council. So, right off the bat, I’ve already eliminated the possibility of a legally sound united coalition like in Libya or the First Gulf War. Boom. Gone. Off the table.

Now, let’s say you’re okay with that, and you decide to go ahead with, oh, I don’t know, a bombing campaign. Now, personally, I can see how that might seem like an attractive option for you. No boots on the ground, it sends a clear message, you could cripple some of my government’s infrastructure, and it’s a quick, clean, easy way to punish me and make you look strong in the face of my unimaginable tyranny. But let’s get real here. Any bombing campaign capable of being truly devastating to my regime would also end up killing a ton of innocent civilians, as such things always do, which I imagine is the kind of outcome you people would feel very guilty about. You know, seeing as you are so up in arms to begin with about innocent Syrians dying. Plus, you’d stoke a lot of anti-American hatred and quite possibly create a whole new generation of Syrian-born jihadists ready to punish the United States for its reckless warmongering and yadda yadda yadda.

Okay, what else? Well, you could play small-ball and hope that limited airstrikes to a few of my key military installations will send me the message to refrain from using chemical weapons again, but, c’mon, check me out: I’m ruthless, I’m desperate, and I’m going to do everything I can to stay in power. I’d use chemical weapons again in a heartbeat. You know that. And I know you know that. Hell, I want to help you guys out here, but you gotta be realistic. Trust me, I am incapable of being taught a lesson at this point. Got it? I am too far gone. Way too far gone.

Oh, and I know some of you think a no-fly zone will do the trick, but we both know you can’t stomach the estimated $1 billion a month that would cost, so wave bye-bye to that one, too.

Moving on.

I suppose you could always, you know, not respond with military force at all. But how can you do that? I pumped sarin gas into the lungs of my own people, for God’s sake! You can’t just let me get away with that, can you? I mean, I guess you easily could, and spare yourself all of this headache, but then you would probably lose any of your remaining moral high ground on the world stage and make everything from the Geneva Conventions to America’s reputation as a beacon for freedom and democracy around the world look like a complete sham.

And, hey, as long as we’re just throwing stuff out there, let’s consider a ground invasion for a moment. Now, even if you could reasonably fund a ground invasion, which I’m pretty sure you can’t, what exactly would such an invasion accomplish in the long term? I suppose it’s possible that you could come in and sweep me out the door and that would be the end of it. It’s possible. You know, like, in the sense that seeing a majestic white Bengal tiger in the wild is possible. Or, more likely, you could find yourself entrenched in a full-blown civil war that drags on for 15 years and sets off further turmoil in the rest of the region, leading to even more dead bodies for your country and mine, and even more virulent hatred of America. In fact, boy, maybe this is the one option that should be totally off the table.

Oh, and speaking of me being toppled from power, let’s say, just for fun, that tomorrow I were to somehow be dethroned. Who’s in charge? Half of these rebel groups refuse to work with one another and it’s getting harder to tell which ones are actually just Islamic extremists looking to fill a potential power vacuum. We’ve got Christians, Sunnis, and Shias all poised to fight one another for control should I fall. You want to be the ones sorting through that mess when you’re trying to build a new government? I didn’t think so.

As Marsha Cohen notes, some of the most astute political commentary these days comes in the form of satire, and no, the words above did not actually come from Bashar al-Assad — they came from the Onion.

At the same time, there are quite a few professional political commentators whose work might benefit a bit if they injected a bit of irony into their observations.

A few days ago a blog post at The Nation on “The Moral Obscenities in Syria” solemnly featured the favorite question of all conspiracy theorists: Cui bono? Who benefits?

It’s a reasonable question. But by this point, when it comes to the chemical attacks in Damascus, it’s an easy question to answer: Assad, of course.

Whether Assad planned the attack, authorized it, or even knew about it before it captured the headlines, is by now besides the point.

Whether by accident or by design, this has turned out to be one of the most grizzly master-strokes in the whole conflict.

If 100,000 deaths exposed Western indifference to the plight of Syrians, 1,400 additional deaths are now exposing the impotence of the most powerful nation on earth and the weakness of the man who tries to play the role of the most powerful man on earth. And that’s the problem with both these expressions of American hubris: they only hold up when left untested.

American power might be more sustainable if it had more subtlety and didn’t allow itself to always ultimately be reduced to a display of pyrotechnics. Yes, Americans have great skill in setting off explosions — in the art of shock and awe — but when was the last time one of these performances actually accomplished something useful?

President Obama might feel like he’s rounding out his experience of presidential power if he gives the order for a fusillade of cruise missile strikes on Syria some time in the next few days, but to what end?

Years hence, when Obama feels safe enough to give an honest explanation for why he acted, will it be any better than Bill Clinton’s explanation for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky? “I did something for the worst possible reason — just because I could,” he said. “I think that’s just about the most morally indefensible reason anybody could have for doing anything.”

With a preponderance of the evidence always pointing strongly in the direction of the Assad regime being responsible for the chemical attack, the most pressing question has never been, who did it? but rather, what is an appropriate response?

In 2006, after a Hezbollah ambush resulted in eight Israeli soldiers getting killed and two captured, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched a war in which he said that Hezbollah’s stronghold in Southern Lebanon would be bombed “back into the stone age”. But after a month of devastating air strikes, Hezbollah, far from having been crushed, had demonstrated its capacity to withstand the assault. Once the fighting ended, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was able to declare that Hezbollah had achieved a “divine victory” and his popularity soared across the Arab world among both Shia and Sunnis.

Likewise, an American attack on Assad’s military infrastructure — an attack which will be small in comparison to Israel’s assault on Lebanon — is pretty much guaranteed to leave the Syrian leader stronger. He will have faced and withstood American might and his willingness to use chemical weapons may not even have been diminished.

Even if his use of chemical weapons in the future turns out to be more cautious, the August 21 attack will still serve as a reminder of his force’s capabilities. Just as the Deir Yassin massacre in Palestine in 1948 demonstrated, a relatively small massacre can have a huge effect in terrorizing a population.

Assad has arguably already demonstrated the value of his chemical weapons arsenal even if he never uses it again. And Obama’s message to Assad — his “punishment” for using prohibited weapons — is likely to telegraph to the Syrian people the opposite message: that there is no limit on the number of people the regime slaughters so long as their deaths are bloody — the kinds of deaths the world deems tolerable.

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