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Chasing Demons from the Middle East to the Balkans

The Middle East is always unstable, but it’s more volatile now than it has been in years. Syria’s civil war threatens to spill over its borders into Lebanon. Egyptian voters sent the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi to the presidential palace in Cairo. The Israelis are publicly mulling the option of a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. Tehran is threatening a massive retaliation against American military bases in the Persian Gulf region. The Turkish navy just recovered the bodies of air force pilots shot down over the Mediterranean by the Syrian government, bringing NATO one step closer to military intervention in the Levant.

Now is as good a time as any to hit up Rick Francona again for his take on all this. You’ve probably seen him on NBC News where he once worked as a military analyst. He’s a retired intelligence officer and Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Balkans. He flew aerial reconnaissance missions over Laos and Vietnam, worked as a liaison officer to the Iraqi armed forces directorate of military intelligence during the Iran-Iraq War, flew sorties with the Iraqi air force, tried to foment a revolution and a military coup against the government of Saddam Hussein, and led a special operations team on a manhunt against Serbian war criminals in the Balkans. He is fluent in Arabic and Vietnamese and was inducted into the Defense Language Institute Hall of Fame in 2006.

Before writing his first book, Ally to Adversary, he worked at the American Embassy in Damascus as a military intelligence officer and said he very much enjoyed working against the Assad government. He can never go back, at least not while the Baath regime is running the place, because he’d be arrested at once upon arrival in the airport.

 

Rick Francona in Iraq while instigating a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein

He knows more about what has happened behind the scenes and off-camera in the Middle East than just about anyone I’m in regular contact with. Obviously he can’t reveal any classified information or his sources, but he can use that information to inform his analysis. Journalists do this sort of thing, too. I learn all kinds of things in off-the-record interviews that I can’t tell you about, but that doesn’t stop me from integrating that information into my general understanding of what’s going on.

Francona lives just down the road from me on the Oregon coast, but I met him years ago in Israel along the Gaza border during Operation Cast Lead. His new book, Chasing Demons, is his first-person narrative account of his manhunt for Bosnian Serb war criminals in the Balkans, but I thought I’d first ask him about Syria and Egypt, two countries he knows very well.

 

Rick Francona today

MJT: You lived and worked in Damascus for a while as a military intelligence officer. What did you learn about the Syrian regime that doesn’t come across in media reports?

Rick Francona: I’m pleasantly surprised at the reporting out of Damascus, especially given the fact that is very difficult to get journalists into Syria now. There are quite a few reporters with excellent backgrounds in Lebanon and Syria –people like you who have been on the ground in good times and bad—who understand the deep division in the multicultural makeup of the country. 

A Syrian friend keeps me apprised of the situation from his point of view—he’s an Assad supporter, but is quick to explain why. It's pragmatic for him. He, like many in the country, fears a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood or some other Islamist group. The regime is adept at playing on the fears of the Shia, the Alawites, secular Sunnis, Christians, and Druze. None of these groups want to see an Islamist Syria.

The media has done a credible job in exposing the Baath Party regime in Syria for exactly what it is—a ruthless, authoritarian, corrupt machine that will do absolutely anything to keep itself in power. Look at the atrocities committed by the regime protection units of the military, the intelligence and security services, and Assad’s ghastly out-of-control militia, the Shabiha, the ghosts. It almost exceeds the bounds of the imagination. I spend a lot of time watching Syrian social media. It’s heartbreaking and sickening. It's also a testament to the courage of the Syrian people. They know what this regime is capable of, yet still they resist.

I’m sure you’re going to ask what we should do about it. I’m torn. I want us to do something, but I want us to do it smartly. We can’t stand by and watch this unfold as it is. It's Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan, Libya. At some point, this has to be stopped. This has gone beyond politics, beyond fear of Islamists. It's now a matter of stopping the slaughter.

MJT: You’ve spent a lot of time in Syria. How much popular support do you think the Islamists actually have? Syria isn’t the most liberal Arab country around, but it’s not Egypt, either. 

 

A mosque in Damascus

Rick Francona: Based on what I saw of Syria and what I can glean from the news and social media posts from inside the country, I think there is much less popular support for the Islamists than what is being portrayed. For example, there are scores of military defector videos on YouTube. They all start with a canned Islamic invocation and end with another canned Islamic recitation, followed by several rounds of “Allahu Akbar.” It’s obviously scripted. They are being manipulated by what I would assess as a small Islamist minority. The Turks are supporting it, and the AKP in Turkey is about as Islamist as we have seen in Ankara for a long time.

The Syrians aren't as secular as the Lebanese, but the vast majority of the ones I’ve met over the years were more secular than not. Although they self-identified themselves as Muslims, they were not Islamic.

If the Assad regime falls, I believe the secular nature of the Syrians will prevail.

MJT: Do you think arming the Free Syrian Army would be a good idea or a bad idea?

Rick Francona: I think we are arming the Free Syrian Army, albeit indirectly. We've seen this kabuki dance in the past. We claim we’re providing “nonlethal” aid to a group or movement—you know, things like medical supplies, communications equipment, and so on. It's a game. The money they would have had to spend on the things we’re now providing is going to arms. Money is fungible. Once you start giving assistance to a group, you’re assisting that group pretty much in all aspects. Why not be up front and provide the arms they need?

Your question was if it was a good idea. I guess that depends on what our goal is. If we want to see the removal of the Assad regime, we may have to arm them. I don't hold out much hope for the Kofi Annan plan. His latest proposal to have Russia and Iran help manage a transition of power is interesting, but I don't see Iran helping to remove its closest—maybe only–ally in the region unless they are able to replace him with someone equally inimical to American interests.

As much as I don't like the prospect of a civil war in Syria, I think we need to arm and support the Free Syrian Army.

MJT: A lot of Americans on both the left and the right worry that supporting them will blow back in our faces, that the Islamist element will end up controlling the country and will turn it into a Muslim Brotherhood state. So let me ask you this: even if you think that outcome is unlikely, do you think a Brotherhood-controlled Syria would be better or worse from our point of view than the Syria of Bashar al-Assad?

Rick Francona: That's a tough call. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than an Assad regime surviving this uprising. If he does survive, he will have validated—in his own mind, anyway—the legitimacy of his government.

If I had a choice between the two, the lesser of two evils if you will, I guess I would opt for the Brotherhood-controlled Syria. At least there would be a fair chance that we could break Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Although the Shia Islamic regime in Tehran has in the past worked with Sunni fundamentalist groups—Hamas and Islamic Jihad come to mind—the Brotherhood may not be interested in continued close ties with Iran.

It's probably an antagonist of a different color, but still an antagonist. Not a perfect world.

MJT: Last time you and I discussed Egypt you said that what happens there as a product of the Arab Spring will affect the United States more than what happens anywhere else. Do you still think that’s true now that Assad is on the ropes? And if it is true, what do you suppose it might mean for the United States given the direction post-Mubarak Egypt is heading?

Rick Francona: When all is said and done, Egypt is still the heart of the Arab world. What happens in Egypt resonates across the region, much more so than Syria. Syria is important, especially since Iran uses Syria to support Hezbollah in Lebanon. Syria will be critical to the eventual continuation of the peace process, but what happens in Egypt will have much more impact on the region as a whole. Despite Syria's current notoriety, Egypt is still the primary issue.

Instability in Egypt might spread to the east to Saudi Arabia and Israel. I’m not sure Mohamed Morsi, the new president, will maintain the peace treaty with Israel. The Islamists have threatened to abrogate it, only making the situation in the region that much more tense. A complication none of us need, not Egypt, not Israel, and not the United States.

 

Old Cairo

MJT: How might Egyptian instability spread to Saudi Arabia?

Rick Francona: Egypt is a role model for many of the youth across the Arab world. Egyptian political thought is well-respected throughout the region, including in the Gulf States. You can find fault with the Egyptian republic under Hosni Mubarak, but it was at least nominally a republic. In Saudi Arabia, there are at least two generations of educated and well-traveled young people who have no meaningful input into the governance of the kingdom. Not all Saudis are rich. There is resentment among many of the poor in the society.

These disaffected youth, whom we’d normally cite as ripe for recruitment by the likes of Al Qaeda, want more. They see what their brothers and sisters are accomplishing in the streets of Cairo and it plants a seed. They ask themselves, why can't we do the same here?

Of course, we know the short answer. While the Egyptian military refused to take action against its own citizens, the Saudi security services—which can be ruthless—may not exercise such restraint. The Saudis have been good at ferreting out dissidence, so I am not sure a Cairo-style uprising will succeed. That does not mean they may not try. 

Everyone is watching Cairo.

MJT: What do you suppose is the realistic worst-case scenario for Egypt in the short and medium term?

Rick Francona: Morsi ushers in a wave of Islamic reforms and tries to convert Egypt into an Islamic state. That does not portend well for Israel or for us. If Morsi wins, watch SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and Marshal Mohamed Tantawi. I am not sure they will stand by as Morsi tries to abrogate the treaty with Israel and change Egyptian society.

MJT: You’ve worked with the Egyptian army in the past. Does it seem more ideological to you now? It does to me, but maybe it’s not. Maybe Mubarak just kept the temperature a bit cooler.

 

A mosque in Cairo in the army's Citadel

Rick Francona: It’s hard to say, but given some of the recent statements by officers I thought were fairly secular, I tend to agree with you. I’m not sure how much of that is for public consumption or is an attempt to legitimize themselves in their current positions. Perhaps they were more ideological all along and they adjusted to Mubarak's secular tendencies. Like I said, it’s hard to say. I’m watching the Supreme Council to see what happens after the election.

MJT: You’ve also spend a lot of time working with (rather than against, as in Syria) the Jordanians. Do you think the Arab Spring might spread there? And if so, would that be a good thing or a bad thing?

Rick Francona: The Arab Spring may have already spread there to some extent. King Abdullah is much more politically astute than many have given him credit for. He seems able to see what’s going on and make small and subtle shifts to head off the kinds of confrontations seen in the rest of the Arab world. There’s an undercurrent of opposition, to be sure, but between his attempts to engage the opposition and his really good internal security apparatus, up until now he's been able to keep a lid on it.

Recently there was a large multi-national military exercise in Jordan with thousands of foreign troops there. It didn’t seem to raise any real objections among the people.

Jordan has a special place in my heart. I really don't want to see too much change. I think the king has a pretty good handle on it. Jordan is a close ally, one that we need as the effects of the Arab Spring become more apparent.

MJT: How did an old Middle East hand and Arabic linguist like yourself get chosen to lead a hunting party for Bosnian Serb war criminals?

 

The Turkish Quarter of Sarajevo

Rick Francona: I jokingly tell people that I upset someone in the Defense Intelligence Agency operations hierarchy, but that's probably not really the case. In 1997, General Wesley Clark, the NATO commander, was growing frustrated with the lack of progress on arresting the dozens of mostly ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina indicted for war crimes by an international tribunal.

The local Serb authorities refused to arrest them. For the most part, they were regarded as national heroes. Clark ordered the Americans, Dutch, and British to find eleven of these guys and detain them. The Defense Department portion of the two US teams were to be headed by lieutenant colonels. For whatever reason, the DIA director of operations chose me.

It was a surprise, especially since we were just starting our operations to find Osama bin Laden. To be pulled from a priority Middle East target to go to Bosnia and hunt down five guys came as a surprise. A valid mission, sure, but why for me? I don't speak any of the languages, I’d never been in the Balkans and knew little of the situation. As you said, I was a Middle East guy.  

When the general called me to his office to hand me the mission, he didn't frame it in the form of a question, so off I went.

 

 

MJT: One line in particular in your new book really struck me. You wrote that you asked Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims what they think will happen when the Americans and NATO leave and everyone answered the same way: “We’re going to finally take care of the xxx (fill in the other ethnic group).” Should we stick around in Bosnia for the indefinite future then? And what would you say to Americans who don’t care if Bosnia turns into a bloodbath again?

Rick Francona: Fortunately, we have been able to “EU-ize” the troop presence there. What should have been a European operation from the beginning required American troops because, as we all know, NATO without the United States is a hollow force. Look at the Libyan operation as an example. Without American command and control, intelligence, aerial refueling, precision-guided munitions stockpiles, electronic warfare and airlift, it would have not been doable. Likewise, if there was to be any intervention in Bosnia, it required U.S. forces.

The Europeans understand that there has been no political solution to the issues that caused the problem in Bosnia. All we and NATO have done is issue a big “time out.” The hatred remains.

It would be hard to convince Americans to care about Bosnia. Human suffering aside, at some point, the Bosnians—and by that I mean the Muslims—and the Serbs are going to have to come to terms. Those terms may be another round of violence or some political realignment, but keeping troops between them is all that’s stopping them from killing each other all over again.

 

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

MJT: Of Bosnia’s three ethno-sectarian groups—the Catholic Croats, the Orthodox Serbs, and the Bosniak Muslims—who were the most politically friendly to Americans?

Rick Francona: By the time I got there, the Croats were pretty much irrelevant. Most of them had either moved to Croatia or had assumed a low profile in the Bosniak areas. What little dealing I had with them were non-confrontational.

The Muslims seemed to appreciate why we were there. They regarded the Americans as the ultimate guarantors of their safety. We moved around the Muslim areas with very little concern for our safety. 

That said, the PIFWCs—persons indicted for war crimes—we were sent to track down and detain were all ethnic Serbs and lived deep in the Serb area, the Republika Srpska, or as we called it, “Injun country.” When moving in the Serb areas, almost always in civilian clothes and unmarked Jeep Cherokees—a common vehicle there—we had to be careful. The Serbs, unlike the Muslims, regarded us as being against them. Not only were the people generally reserved and somewhat hostile, the police were usually, let us say, unhelpful and obstructive. Given what we were trying to do it was best to avoid them and not draw attention to ourselves.

My impression was that they were waiting for us to leave so they could start up the ethnic cleansing again.

MJT: How would you compare Bosnian Muslims to Arab Muslims? I was struck by how secular and even atheistic they seemed on the surface when I was there a few years ago. In Sarajevo I saw only two or three women a day wearing headscarves, for instance. But you spent a lot more time there than I did. Do you get the sense that Bosnia is somewhat post-religious the way most other European countries are, or are the Bosnians just less outwardly demonstrative about their religion?

 

Downtown Sarajevo, a nominally Muslim-majority city

Rick Francona: It seemed to me that in Bosnia, “Muslim” is more an identity, an ethnic grouping, than a religion. It’s like being Jewish but not a religious Jew. I got the impression that there was almost no Islamic identity aside from the description. But, as I said, we tended to spend most of our time chasing Serbs.

MJT: Did you learn anything in Bosnia that applies to the Middle East? 

Rick Francona: Perhaps it’s the other way around. When I arrived in Bosnia with no real background in the Balkans other than the briefings on the mission and operation, I felt really unprepared. After I was there a few days, I noticed a lot of similarities in the basic divisions in the population. In Bosnia, the major division of course was between the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslim Bosniaks, sort of like in Lebanon, although without nearly as many factions.

As in the Middle East, I realized that once someone on either side injects religion into the argument, you might as well stop talking. The Serbs were adamant about their “right” to the land. Once someone invokes their deity into the rationale for what they are doing, they become irrational. I just walk away.

We all have to deal with people who are different from us, but these guys in the Balkans took it to an extreme and killed thousands of innocent people.

Postscript: You can buy Rick Francona’s new book Chasing Demons: My Hunt for War Criminals in Bosnia, from Amazon.com.

You can also pitch in toward my travel expense fund so I can head back into the field later this summer. Of course I’d like to get into Syria, but if that proves impossible my most likely destination in the meantime will be Libya.

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