That bombshell Associated Press report on Sunday about the months of secret U.S.-Iranian talks that led up to the Geneva agreement has added whole new layers of mystery and intrigue, not to mention venom, to the news of the nuclear agreement itself.
What’s fascinating is how much isn’t being said. The story was first broken not by the AP but by Israeli investigative reporter Raviv Drucker in a Channel 10 TV News report on November 17, seven days before the AP story. According to Drucker, the secret talks began not in March 2013, as most outlets are reporting, but more than a year ago. And the American side was led not by relatively obscure mid-level officials but by President Obama’s close friend and top adviser Valerie Jarrett.
The White House at first flatly dismissed the entire report as “absolutely 100% false.” Then on November 24, hours after the Saturday night Geneva deal signing, it gave its version to the AP, which said it had caught wind of the talks in March but didn’t report them because it couldn’t confirm. The official version, the one now making the rounds, says Kerry was at the center of the process, which was led by his deputy William Burns and vice-presidential national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The talks took place mainly in Muscat, the capital of the Gulf emirate of Oman, and were brokered by Oman’s chief, Sultan Qaboos.
Drucker replied Sunday evening with a report stating that the White House was intensely eager to keep the full story secret because Obama wants to keep the secret channel open for further negotiations. Channel 10’s respected foreign news editor Nadav Eyal, in an in-studio commentary following Drucker’s report, said Obama is aiming for a wide-ranging agreement, involving America, Iran, Russia and “perhaps Saudi Arabia,” that would address regional issues like Syria.
Nearly half the rebels fighting in Syria are jihadists linked to Al Qaeda or hardline Islamists fighting for a strict Islamic state, according to a study that’s about to be published by IHS Jane’s, the respected British defense consultancy.
Advance word of the study appears in Monday’s edition of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The Jane’s study is said to be due out later this week.
The study reportedly claims there are about 100,000 fighters in the Syrian insurgency, divided into about 1,000 independent and often hostile units. About 10,000 belong to “powerful factions” of jihadists linked to Al Qaeda. These groups are fighting for an Islamic state within a larger Middle East caliphate.
Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists whose philosophy is similar to the jihadists, but are focused purely on Syria rather than an international revolution. In addition, according the Telegraph, there are “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.”
The remainder, some 25,000 to 30,000, belong to secular groups with a democratic or nationalist orientation. In other words, between 25% and 30% of the total rebel force consists of groups considered friendly to the West, according to the British study.
According to the Telegraph, the assessment
accords with the view of Western diplomats [who] estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.
It’s hard to know exactly how to respond to Vladimir Putin’s op-ed essay in Thursday’s New York Times. On the one hand, polls show that most Americans agree with his call to avoid American military engagement in Syria. On the other hand, very few of us want to come out and agree with Putin. Apparently we don’t like dictators telling us what to do, even when we think they’re right.
Bloomberg News probably hit the note that would resonate with most people, declaring in an editorial that while much of what Putin wrote was misleading, self-serving or downright false, it advances a plan that could disarm Syria’s poison gas without war. “In other words: Vladimir Putin is that rare writer whose actions matter more—and certainly must be more persuasive—than his words.” Go Vlad.
Some went a bit further, into what most of us might consider uncomfortable territory. Former Reagan White House aide Pat Buchanan told Greta Van Sustern Wednesday evening on Fox News, responding to the Times piece, that “in the last week Vladimir Putin looks like a statesman.”
But Buchanan is someone who knows a thing or two about uncomfortable territory. He’s the guy who once called Congress “Israeli-occupied territory.” He also, it’s generally believed, was the Reagan aide who pushed hardest for the Gipper to visit that Nazi military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985. So hearing that he’s Putin’s most prominent defender in the public square at this point is, somehow, not surprising.
That’s the funny thing. The blogosphere was filled with cheers for Putin from folks you never heard of at outlets like policymic and Daily Kos, but virtually all the mainstream pols and pundits were falling in line behind Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who apparently spoke for all of us when he told CNN that on hearing about Putin’s op-ed during dinner “I almost wanted to vomit.” After all, Menendez said,
I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.
Menendez is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he’ll be in the driver’s seat when Congress takes up President Obama’s war powers request. In a democracy like ours, decisions about our national interest are placed in the secure hands of our own elected representatives, as Obama wisely did when he asked Congress to decide whether to take us into another war in the Middle East. We trust Congress.
That’s why I look to Robert Menendez when I want to know how to judge a foreign dictator’s announcements. The idea that a former spook from the KGB should be taken seriously as a world leader is, well, spooky. A former head of the CIA like our 41st president, George H.W. Bush—now that’s a different story. But the KGB? Perish etc. I always leave my big thinking to guys from Jersey.
And the idea that the New York Times would put itself in the service of the president of Russia so he can reach over the heads of our government and talk directly to the American people, as though he owned the place, must raise the question of which side the Times is on. Freedom of the press is one thing, but that doesn’t mean it should let its opinion pages be the plaything of foreign bullies.
It tells you something about the Times—that “it’s REALLY Pravda-on-the-Hudson,” as John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and former opinion editor and current columnist of Australian-British-American media bully Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, tweeted on Thursday.
Unfortunately, Putin has a sorry track record in this appalling behavior. Usually, though, it’s been more subtle. When he’s tried in the past to manipulate American public opinion, he’s usually written his op-eds in his former capacity as prime minister of Russia rather than president. I guess that’s different. For example:
One of the strangest aspects of the Syria debate is how much energy and passion is going into it, on both sides — for and against American air strikes — and how little light is being shed on the central issue, namely chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in his supposedly game-changing speech August 26, forcefully declared that using chemical weapons is a “moral obscenity,” but he didn’t get beyond noting that they kill women and children, which is true of pretty much all weapons. He didn’t explain why chemical weapons killing 1,429 people is worse than standard munitions killing 100,000.
President Obama’s defenders, like New York Times moral internationalists Roger Cohen and Nick Kristof, defend intervention by citing the moral depravity of the Assad regime. Obama, however, has made it clear that regime change isn’t on the menu. It’s about chemical weapons. But why?
If you search on line for current discussions of the morality of chemical warfare, almost everything you find argues that there’s no difference. “Getting killed by mustard gas is surely awful. But so is getting blown up by a bomb,” writes Paul Waldman at the American Prospect. And Chicago Theological Seminary’s Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, writing in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, adds: “The truth is, war is the moral obscenity. It is war that must be stopped and bombing campaigns do not end war.”
Well, OK. But ending war isn’t on the menu either. Folks have been trying to do that for about 5,774 years and gotten absolutely nowhere. Human society won’t be perfected, but that’s no reason it can’t be improved. (The same goes for American governments. So they (we) have ignored or abetted chemical warfare in the past. Does that mean we should continue with that repugnant practice?)
And no, bombing campaigns don’t end war. But they can put a price on violation of the laws of war.
Over the past century and a half, nations have tried to place limits on the conduct of war, in hopes of making it just a little less horrible. Thus, the laws of war. If you’re curious, here’s Yale Law School’s online archive of the laws of war, going back to the 1856 Declaration of Paris, the first Geneva Convention on battlefield wounded (1864) and right on through to the 1975 chemical and biological weapons ban. The latest, not in the Yale archive, is the Optional (!) Protocol on Child Soldiers adopted by the General Assembly in 2000.
The question remains, why chemical weapons? What makes them worse than conventional weapons? The answer is that chemical weapons make killing unconscionably easy and thorough. Consider: Over the past two years, the Assad regime and its opponents have managed to kill about 100,000 people, including combatants on both sides and innocent bystanders. On August 21, using chemical weapons, the regime was able to kill 1,429 people in a few minutes. And that’s not all.
Israel’s Walla News site offers a fascinating and, I think, crucial insight (in Hebrew) into the turmoil in Egypt and Syria. It’s by Dror Ze’evi, a professor of Turkish and Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He writes that the two conflicts, however similar or related they might appear on the surface, are fundamentally different. One, in Egypt, is essentially political in nature, and is amenable to a political solution. The other, in Syria, reflects the sectarian, communal and to a degree existential divides in that part of the Arab world, and it could go on for a long time. He might have added that the vastly different tolls in bloodshed—a few hundred vs. tens of thousands—reflect that difference in the nature and depth of the two conflicts.
The conflict in Egypt reflects the character of Muslim society in North Africa, from Morocco through Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt, the region known in Arabic as the Maghreb (“the West”). The population there is almost entirely Sunni. Shia has not had a significant presence since the 10th-century Fatimid dynasty. The conflict there is not sectarian, but is over defining the relationship between state and religion in the modern world. It’s not exactly a conflict between religious and secularist—“the true secularists in the region can be assembled in the lobby of a medium-sized hotel”—but a debate among religious Muslims over the role of religion in the state.
Even among the most conservative religious [Muslims], there are many who oppose the aspiration of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad to rule the state. Many groups call for deep social change, and stay away from politics.
By contrast, the conflict in the Mashreq (“the East”) is deeply sectarian and communal in nature. Since the 16th-century ascendancy of the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in the Fertile Crescent and the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty in Iran, the border between those two regions has roughly separated the region into areas of sectarian domination. The separation hasn’t been clear-cut, though. In the Sunni area, which roughly coincides with the Arab region (as opposed to Persian and Iranian),
Boy, President Obama is really taking it on the chin over the latest Al Qaeda threat and the closing of those 19 embassies.
On the right, he’s getting hammered by the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King and even the distinguished Bard College international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead, an Obama supporter, all accusing him of underestimating Al Qaeda’s resilience, foolishly dialing back the war on terror and trying to stop the bad guys by dialogue—all of which have brought us to this sorry juncture.
From the left comes Obama’s own campaign counter-terrorism adviser, La Salle University political scientist Michael Boyle, accusing him in the Guardian of foolishly continuing and even escalating the failed Bush administration policies that have simply made things worse and—brought us to this juncture.
Which is it? Did Obama recklessly take his foot off the gas in the war on terror, or did he recklessly floor it? Leave it to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to point out the essential point, which is that the wheels fell off this clunker a long time ago. It was the war-on-terror strategy that created the current crisis.
The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.
Robinson offers the perfect metaphor to illustrate the practical effect of the war on terror that we’ve been fighting against Al Qaeda for the past decade:
Al-Qaeda turns out to be like a pool of mercury. Hit it with a hammer and you end up with 10 little blobs instead of one big one.
The European Union’s decision to slap the terrorist label on Hezbollah’s military wing, but not on its political wing, has been getting decidedly mixed reviews from Israel and the Jewish community. The American Jewish Committee said it “welcomes” the move as a “significant step forward in recognizing the true nature of Hezbollah,” even though AJC shares the U.S.-Canadian-Dutch view that Hezbollah is actually “a single organization.”
On the other hand, the Anti-Defamation League called it “a positive political statement, but a flawed counter-terrorism strategy,” since it “missed” the “high-value counter-terrorism target” of Hezbollah financing. B’nai Brith Canada went even further, saying the EU move gives “false legitimacy to Hezbollah’s supposedly non-violent wings,” which will “weaken international efforts to combat terror,” strengthen Iran and “cost more innocent lives.”
Yori Yanover wrote in the Jewish Press, citing a Reuters report, that the double-identity idea, “like most of the fun things coming out of the EU, is the brainchild of its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.”
Awkwardly enough, it now appears that differentiating the military and political wings for separate treatment was actually proposed to the EU by Israel’s negotiators. So reports Eli Bardenstein, the usually well-informed diplomatic correspondent of the right-leaning Israeli daily Maariv, in a detailed backgrounder (in Hebrew) on the Israeli campaign to secure the European ban. Launched by then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the year-long campaign was the work of a task force that was led by the Foreign Ministry and included Israel’s National Security Council and main intelligence agencies. The split-identity proposal, Bardenstein writes, was devised as a way to ease France’s fears of losing influence in Lebanon’s byzantine politics, which it feared would strengthen Hezbollah and reinforce Syria’s Assad regime.
The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace published an English-language summary (PDF) of Bardenstein’s analysis. Here are the main points:
Now that the White House has officially acknowledged the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the question is no longer whether we get involved in the Syrian civil war, but how. This represents a victory for the smallish, outspoken group of liberal interventionists who have been arguing for an American military role, while trying to shake off the stigma of their de facto alliance with neoconservatives a decade ago in supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq. President Obama’s nomination last week of Susan Rice as National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations seemed to signal that we’d be moving in this direction, given their records as liberal interventionists, but nobody expected it to happen so fast.
Liberal interventionists have been insisting for months that, as The New York Times’ Bill Keller and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued recently, memories of Iraq shouldn’t deter America from acting in Syria, because they’re not the same thing. The scale of humanitarian disaster in Syria is genuine, immediate and overwhelming. On the contrary, the proper precedents are the shameful tragedies of our delayed intervention in Bosnia, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier maintains, and our abject failure to act in Rwanda, as Princeton University political scientist (and former Obama State Department aide) Anne-Marie Slaughter forcefully insists. Indeed, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes that the lesson for Syria from the Bosnia experience is what went right after we did intervene.
Conservative interventionists like Elliott Abrams and, well, a host of others have been calling for months for action in Syria as a way to weaken Iran and Hezbollah. Hebrew University Middle East scholar [Moshe Maoz], perhaps Israel’s most respected Syria watcher — and an outspoken dove on the Palestinian issue—makes both arguments in a new op-ed essay in Haaretz: that the humanitarian disaster and the growing prospect of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran victory in the civil war should stir Washington and NATO to a firm, Bosnia-style intervention. Israel has everything to gain from such an intervention, he writes, and while it can’t be part of the action, it can and “must use its good ties with the U.S. to persuade it to give strategic military support to the rebels in Syria.” As for fears that a rebel victory would install a jihadist or Al Qaeda-style regime in Damascus, he writes:
Recently published analyses teach the following lessons:
Lesson 1. The Arab uprisings are not necessarily democratic in nature, and liberal readiness to back them — morally or with arms and material aid — is at best foolhardy romanticism. We should stand back and avoid getting involved. Why undermine existing regimes when the replacement might be no better and possibly much worse?
Lesson 2. The Arab uprisings show that ruthless dictators are finished, and proves the wrongheadedness of previous administrations’ willingness to work with them rather than seek their removal. The failure of the Obama administration and the rest of the liberal West to back the brave Syrian rebels shows the liberals’ hypocrisy and unwillingness to stand up to tyranny.
Lesson 3. The uprisings show that the Arab street never cared about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What Arab citizens care about are their own lives and welfare, not the Palestinians. It is misguided and reckless to assume that granting concessions to the Palestinians will improve Arab attitudes toward America or the West. Palestinian rights are just not on the minds of ordinary Arabs.
Lesson 4. The uprisings show that peace agreements are foolish because any regime that signs an agreement with Israel could be gone tomorrow and you can’t expect the replacements to honor the agreements. Successor regimes will be under more pressure from the Arab street to turn against Israel, if only to gain popularity with the public. Not that the Arab public cares about Israel (see 3 above). Agreements with Arab governments are unreliable because Arab governments are unstable. Successor governments will be more vulnerable to popular moods and less able to defy public hostility toward Israel.
Sub-Lesson 4(a). The Palestinian Authority’s refusal to commence negotiations with no preconditions is unreasonable. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is naturally unwilling to resume talks where they broke off during the former government of Ehud Olmert and rejects the terms that Olmert had already put on the table — including a future border based on the 1967 Green Line, the Jordan Valley under Palestinian control and a divided Jerusalem. Netanyahu has a different assessment of Israeli security needs and is not bound by his predecessor’s assessments. The Israeli electorate repudiated the Olmert concessions when it chose Netanyahu as its prime minister in 2009. Elections have consequences (except U.S. elections, which should not affect undertakings by previous presidents — they’re supposed to be sacred).
Note: All of the linked articles making the above arguments are taken directly from the Daily Alert, a comprehensive digest of news and commentary chosen to discredit Palestinian moderation and maximize fears of Israeli vulnerability, prepared daily for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Your charity dollars at work.
Progressive Zionists rightly insist on the right to declare one’s love for Israel and still point out when Israel is in the wrong and the other side has a legitimate case. The trouble is that one neglects to take note from time to time (to time to time to time, actually) when Israel is in the right and the other side is ridiculously, outrageously in the wrong.
Case in point: the incident on the Israeli-Lebanese border earlier this week, when Lebanese Army soldiers shot and killed an Israel lieutenant colonel who was overseeing maintenance work on the border fence that Israel maintains on the Israeli side of of the border. Barry Rubin, the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, trained a sharp eye on Western media coverage of the incident. Two points stand out in relief: first, the inherent vulnerability of the standard he-said/she-said style of objective reporting in the face of systematic mendacity; and second, the tendency in Middle East moments of doubt (which is most moments) to assume that Israel is the bad guy because–well, just because.
Here’s Barry (the embedded links are his):
Today’s Example of Ridiculous Media Bias Against Israel
Along Israel’s border with Lebanon, east of Metulla, some bushes were pushing in on the border fence. The fence is set in slightly from the border precisely so that Israeli soldiers can work on it. The IDF called UNIFIL and informed the UN that this work was going to be done today so that they could tell the Lebanese army that there was no aggression going on but just routine maintenance. Soldiers from UNIFIL came to observe and can be seen standing next to Israeli soldiers in the photos. Photographers were also standing by to film the operation.
But Lebanese soldiers opened fire on the Israelis who were working and in no way acting aggressively. The fact that journalists were standing next to the Lebanese soldiers shows that they knew Israel was going to do this maintenance and were observing. After the Israeli soldiers were ambushed, they returned fire. One Israeli officer was killed, another seriously wounded; three Lebanese soldiers, and a Lebanese (?) journalist were killed.
So how did Reuters and Yahoo report this? By saying that Israeli soldiers had crossed into Lebanon and been fired on, thus implying the Lebanese army was acting in self-defense! Other news agencies merely reported: Israel says the soldiers were inside Israel; Lebanon says they were on Lebanese territory.
The biggest thing that’s missing in most coverage is the background to the incident.