The Nut Job Media Circus

By Michael J. Totten

Rage Boy.jpg

The now-infamous Rage Boy

If there is any more absurd a group of “activists” in the world than Rage Boy and his Islamist pals throwing tantrums over Salman Rushdie’s novels and knighthood, Korans allegedly flushed down the can, and pencil drawings in Danish and other newspapers, I don’t know about them. I have deliberately avoided writing or even posting about such people because they really ought to be starved of media oxygen.

Christopher Hitchens is absolutely correct when he writes the following:

I have actually seen some of these demonstrations, most recently in Islamabad, and all I would do if I were a news editor is ask my camera team to take several steps back from the shot. We could then see a few dozen gesticulating men (very few women for some reason), their mustaches writhing as they scatter lighter fluid on a book or a flag or a hastily made effigy. Around them, a two-deep encirclement of camera crews. When the lights are turned off, the little gang disperses. And you may have noticed that the camera is always steady and in close-up on the flames, which it wouldn’t be if there was a big, surging mob involved.

My Israeli friend Lisa Goldman is a great journalist for lots of reasons, and one of them is because she writes about what it’s really like in the West Bank and Gaza and steps back from the camera, so to speak.

On Friday afternoon in Manar Square, for example, I ran into Ohad Hemo, an acquaintance who covers Palestinian affairs for Israel’s Channel 1 news. By then there was finally some media-worthy action. A few dozen Fatah-aligned fighters had shown up in the square, most traveling on the back of pick up trucks. They wore combat-style uniforms, although some wore street shoes instead of army boots. Their faces were covered in ski masks and they brandished weapons in what the Times called a “a show of force by Fatah.” That sounds very dramatic, of course, but the reality was not very impressive: again, I felt as though I were watching a parody of machismo that seemed a bit silly, if not comic.


Other than stare into the camera and pose, the fighters didn’t do anything at all. It was all pure theatre: I listened and watched as the various foreign television reporters positioned themselves in front of the masked gunmen and spoke seriously to the cameras about the rising tension in Ramallah, trying their best to make it sound as if they were in the middle of a war zone. But if their cameramen had panned out for a wider shot they would have shown crowds of mostly young men hanging around, eating snacks, buying cold drinks from vendors, and taking photos with their mobile phones. There was no sense of fear or menace at all. I even saw one photojournalist, who works for an American newspaper, giggling a bit as she aimed her camera at a masked fighter who was posing as if he were having his portrait painted, his eyes stonily focused on the horizon.

Hardly any reporters ever bother to write paragraphs like these, preferring instead to wallow in the sensational because they need a “story.”

I can think of no better evidence of journalism malpractice than the fact that the popularity, strength, and sheer malevolence of the region’s bad actors are both exaggerated and downplayed by the same media organizations.

There is no shortage of lunatics in the Middle East who blow up civilians with car bombs, kidnap journalists, hurl political opponents off skyscrapers, shoot rockets at foreign cities, and do everything in their power to exterminate racial and religious minorities. These people are very often portrayed as less extreme and dangerous than they really are.

Meanwhile, average Middle Eastern people are indirectly shown to be more extreme than they really are by the gross and apparently deliberate magnification of stunts by the most extreme elements of their societies. Almost every photo I’ve ever seen taken in the West Bank shows a nut job with a hood over his face and a rocket launcher or gun in his hand. But I didn’t see a single person who looked anything like that when I went to the West Bank myself.

There’s a flip side to this story.

I was downtown Beirut when Hezbollah first occupied it with their sit-in and rally last December, and I took the following photos of Martyr’s Square.

Razor Wire Martyrs Square 3.JPG

Razor Wire Martyrs Square 2.jpg

Razor Wire Martyrs Square.JPG

Martyr’s Square is by far the largest open area in the city. It’s where Lebanon’s famous March 14 rally against Syrian occupation took place. Hezbollah claims they filled Martyr’s Square and the rest of downtown with demonstrators. They claim their rally was much larger than the anti-Syrian rally on March 14 the year before.

It’s a lie, as those pictures show. The Lebanese Army barricaded the entire area and forced Hezbollah into much smaller parking lots for their rally and photo ops.

The previous year Lebanon’s Syrian-installed President Emile Lahoud remarked that the March 14 rally against his patrons was tiny. March 14 responded by saying Zoom Out so the world could see how many people actually showed up to protest downtown.

Here’s the zoomed out picture.

March 14 2005 Beirut.jpg

That crowd was genuinely enormous. That’s Martyr’s Square, the area Hezbollah wasn’t allowed to even set foot in. Almost a third of the country’s population showed up that day.

When you zoom out the cameras on Hezbollah, Rage Boy, and the masked men of Fatah, they look pathetic and small by comparison. Zoom out on the liberals of Lebanon and you’ll see an ocean of people.

According to an old saying, cameras don’t lie. But sometimes they do. They conceal as well as reveal.

Reality is largely irrelevant in my profession, I’m sorry to say.

UPDATE: Reader Ned Jacobson points out that the cover for Stephanie Gutmann’s The Other War is another example of what we’re talking about here.

The Other War.jpg

I swear to you I have never done — and will never do — what those journalism school graduates shown on that cover did.

UPDATE: Apparently the cover of that book is photoshopped.

(Big sigh)

I don’t photoshop my pictures, either, to make any kind of point whatsoever.

UPDATE: The author says the picture is not photoshopped. See the comments where she weighs in.

Terrorists Kill UNIFIL Soldiers

by Michael J. Totten

Terrorists in Lebanon killed five U.N. soldiers from Spain and wounded four more in the southern city of Khiam with a roadside bomb.

As long as the Syrian regime faces no punishment for its actions, this is only going to escalate. This is not a maybe.

A Warning from Gaza

By Michael J. Totten

Efraim Halevy writes about Hamas in the New Republic.

The handwriting was on the wall; everybody knew that there would be a showdown between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip; everybody knew that Hamas was the overriding force in that territory. In the Middle East where the “Mu’ahmara,” the conspiracy, has been the leitmotif behind every catastrophe, the man in the street knew that the Americans and Israelis had been conspiring with Fatah, that Hamas had been conspiring with the Syrians and Iranians, and that the Saudis were toiling to get things on track and to move the entire region in the direction of moderation. But now, a week after the events that culminated in the takeover of the Strip by Hamas, people are just now overcoming their surprise.

Let’s see: the Americans are siding with a weak government compromised and undermined by militarily superior terrorists, the Syrians and Iranians are backing the terrorists, and the Saudis are trying to broker some kind of moderate compromise. Sound familiar? It should.

Here is Michael Young in Beirut’s Daily Star:

In recent days, some have suggested that Hizbullah intends to do in Lebanon, or part of Lebanon, what Hamas did in Gaza. The reality may be worse, if more subtle. A statement on Sunday by Hizbullah’s Nabil Qaouk could be read as notification that the party might defend what he termed “Lebanon’s unity” by force – shorthand for a military coup. Qaouk’s warning that foreign observers should not deploy on the Lebanese-Syrian border, his describing such a project as “Israeli,” his presumption that he had the right to impose a new “red line” on the state, all suggest a new mood in Hizbullah, one that is dangerous.

Hizbullah’s attitude is only convincingly explained in the framework of Iran and Syria implementing a project to reclaim Lebanon, but more importantly perhaps to eliminate international, particularly Western, involvement in the Levant. After having won in Gaza, Tehran and Damascus are now pushing forward in South Lebanon. Their joint objective, regardless of their different priorities on other matters, appears to be to remove the Siniora government, undermine United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, and create a situation where the international community would have to accept a Syrian return to Lebanon, which would, by extension, scuttle the Hariri tribunal.

How would such a project be carried out? Here’s one interpretation. The priority is to emasculate the Siniora government, whether by taking control of its decisions or through the creation by Syria of a parallel government. In this context, the opposition’s calls for a national unity government don’t favor unity at all. Opposition parties will only enter a Cabinet they can control and bring down. We know that because they rejected the 19-10-1 formula proposed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which would have given them the means to block decisions they didn’t like. But the opposition’s insistence on a 19-11 division is valid only for torpedoing a government through the resignation of its 11 ministers. The aim is apparent: to bring to office a president sympathetic to Syria.

If its conditions for a unity government continue to be rejected by the majority, the opposition might create a parallel government or engineer a situation allowing President Emile Lahoud to remain in Baabda. There are surely problems in a second government, not least of which that Sunni representation is bound to be anemic. This could create a troubling sense that a Sunni-dominated Siniora government is facing off against a Shiite-dominated pro-Syrian government, which could backfire regionally against Hizbullah and Iran. There is also the fact that Michel Aoun’s bloc might begin cracking if the general enters such a government.

What would the purpose of this second government be, beyond wreaking havoc in the country and putting pressure on Siniora’s government? Simply, to neutralize the effectiveness of the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL in the South, by making their interlocutor in the state unclear. Many have overlooked that the Nahr al-Bared fighting might have been a stage in a process to render the army less effectual in South Lebanon. Several units have been pulled out of the South in the past six months – first to prevent sectarian clashes in Beirut after the opposition built its tent city in the Downtown area last December; then to engage in fighting in the North. This has given Hizbullah much more room to maneuver in the border area, while also opening space up for groups operated from Syria. Even if Hizbullah did not fire the rockets against Kiryat Shmona on Sunday – probably the work of pro-Syrian Palestinians – it almost certainly was aware of the attack, and did not oppose it.

Arab governments are finally taking notice that the Islamist radicals they have been tolerating, appeasing — and sometimes even nurturing — are clear and present dangers to them. Their winking and subtle support for Israel during last summer’s war with Hezbollah may have been explainable by the Sunni-Shia conflict, but their sudden fear and loathing of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, cannot be.

I’m skeptical, to say the least, of the West’s sudden swooning for Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. This corrupt band of gangsters and killers destroyed Palestine before it was born, and they haven’t improved an iota since Arafat died. They are just about the most unconvincing allies and saviors imaginable.

But who knows, maybe they’ll turn it around. Not likely, but it’s barely possible. If the Hamas takeover of Gaza really does spook Arab governments, as it should, there is a chance — albeit a small one — that Fatah, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the rest of the so-called “moderates” will finally figure out that Islamists threaten everyone in the Middle East, not just the Israelis, and that the Israelis, in fact, don’t threaten anyone but the Islamists and, tragically, the civilians who are unlucky enough to live in their neighborhoods.

Apparently none of the Arab governments, except the one in Syria, ever expected or even wanted Hamas to dominate Palestine or even defeat Israel. (Hamas could not do the latter without first doing the former.)

Arab regimes have been playing appeasement games of their own to keep the radicals busy fuming at somebody else.

You could even argue that the Syrian regime has been appeasing Islamists, that support from Damascus is really just a life-insurance policy so the Islamists don’t gun for the Baath Party as they did before Hafez Assad flattened large parts of the Sunni city of Hama. Bashar Assad’s regime is overwhelmingly Alawite. They belong to an extremely deviant and heretical branch of Twelver Shiism that is no longer really even Islamic. The Alawites probably figure that have no choice but to ride the Islamist tiger so they won’t be eaten. Assad also, quite cleverly I must say, whips up Islamists to deter the U.S. and Israel from terminating his regime. No one wants to see the Hamasification of Syria after the departure of the Assads.

I don’t expect most Arab governments to wise up and follow the lead of Jordan’s King Abdullah and forge an actual alliance with Israel any time soon. Some, none more than Syria’s, have gone too far to turn back.

But if Lebanon falls, and if Iran gets nuclear weapons, and if maniacs wearing ski masks take over Iraq after the U.S. withdraws, most of them will eventually figure out who their real enemies are. What’s happening to Abbas, Seniora, and Maliki can happen to any and all of them, even Assad.

The fact that Arab governments threaten to build nuclear arsenals to counter Iran’s, but not Israel’s, all by itself tells you who and what they’re really afraid of. Blowback isn’t just for Americans anymore.

All occupation, 12 percent of the time

By Noah Pollak

At the end of a “news story”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/22/world/middleeast/22mideast.html in today’s NY Times about the efforts of Egypt, Jordan, and Israel to shore up the Abbas presidency, Steven Erlanger cites the results of a just-released poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research:

The poll, taken between June 14 and 20, indicated a further loss of confidence in Palestinian leadership and anger with the infighting. The poll of 1,270 adults, done in face-to-face interviews in both the West Bank and Gaza, has a margin of sampling error of three percentage points.

Palestinian satisfaction with Mr. Abbas dropped to 36 percent from 48 percent in March. Some 75 percent of those surveyed want early presidential and parliamentary elections. About 58 percent support the new emergency government, while 38 percent oppose it. In Gaza, opposition is at 47 percent.

The polls show little change from March in support for each of the groups. In new legislative elections, among those polled, Fatah would get 43 percent of the vote, unchanged from March; Hamas would get 33 percent.

Most Palestinians polled — 59 percent — said they saw Fatah and Hamas as equally responsible for the infighting, and 71 percent said that both sides were losers. About 70 percent believe that the chances for an independent Palestinian state are low or nonexistent.

And 56 percent said that infighting and the lack of law and order were the greatest threats to Palestinians, followed by poverty (21 percent), the Israeli occupation (12 percent) and international sanctions and boycotts (10 percent).

Polling data like these is particularly useful and interesting when it comes to the views of Palestinians, whose western spokesmen are legion. It has always struck me that there is a profound disconnect between what Palestinians themselves believe and what their western champions claim they believe — which makes me wonder about the extent to which their champions actually care about them, or rather are fixated on promoting a Palestinian narrative that suits their own purposes.

Commentary, both good and awful

By Noah Pollak

“Robert Satloff”:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC10.php?CID=11 is the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and yesterday he gave a talk about Hamas and Gaza. It has been “posted on the Institute’s website”:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=2623, and it is sweeping, nuanced, and sober. It would be pointless to try and excerpt it here, so, as they say, read the whole thing — satisfaction guaranteed.

There are a few other pieces worth checking out as well, by “Fouad Ajami”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/opinion/19ajami.html, “Dennis Ross”:http://docs.google.com/View?docid=ah6sxjndq9qq_328ghfvsp, and a truly “jaw-dropping op-ed”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/18/AR2007061801365_pf.html in the Washington Post by Robert Malley and Aaron David Miller. They argue the following:

As the United States and others seek to empower [Abbas], they should push for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire in Gaza and the West Bank, which will require dealing — indirectly at least — with elements of Hamas. They should resist the temptation to isolate Gaza and should tend to its population’s needs. And should a national unity government be established, this time they should welcome the outcome and take steps to shore it up. Only then will efforts to broker credible political negotiations between Abbas and his Israeli counterpart on a two-state solution have a chance to succeed.

This is a train wreck comprised of international relations jargon, wishful thinking, and reality-denial. Their prescription, with all the pretentious diction chipped away, is: 1) make diplomatic overtures to Hamas, 2) push for an Israel-Hamas cease-fire, regardless of Hamas’ flawless track record of immediately breaking every such agreement, 3) deliver aid to Gaza such that its residents will scarcely have an occasion to question their new Islamist despotism and Hamas will be freed from the need to engage in any kind of pothole-fixing governance, and then, 4) endorse a “national unity” government inclusive of Hamas and “take steps to shore it up” (however many op-ed columns it takes, one presumes).

But we’ve already seen this movie. The Saudis tried the national-unity gambit a couple of months ago, and quite predictably the Hamas leadership showed up in Mecca for the photo op and then quickly set about destroying Fatah back in Gaza. If anyone hasn’t gotten the memo, Hamas is working with Iran these days, not with the Saudis, the Americans, or the Israelis — and Malley and Miller’s big idea is to do a repeat of that sideshow, with the U.S. standing in for the Saudis. Finally, with the national unity government “shored up,” 5) the Israelis would at last have a partner with whom to negotiate a two-state solution.

But Messrs. Malley and Miller, in this dreamscape, what about the half of the unity government named Hamas? You know, the organization whose purpose is to wage jihad and destroy Israel (and Fatah)? What acts of sorcery will be required to induce Hamas’ hard-core jihadists to not just faithfully join a unity government, but then to renounce the very purpose of their existence and consent to a two-state peace with Israel? And how do Malley and Miller think that Hamas’ paymasters and strategic mentors in Tehran and Damascus are going to react to the idea of peace with Israel?

How is all of this supposed to work, you know, in reality?

These ideas have no chance of being either adopted or of working (other than on newsprint), but it’s worth looking at the common premise of the authors’ proposals: It is the idea that the United States and Israel should do nothing to make Hamas and its constituents pay, in any way, for their behavior. There should be no pushback whatsoever; and not only should America and Israel not push back, they should actually reward Hamas by begging for cease-fires and offering aid money, diplomatic overtures, and unity-government proposals.

One thing I’d like to know from the authors of this op-ed is the following: At what point do you stop trying to placate a group like Hamas? I wonder if the authors themselves even know.

A Short Break

By Michael J. Totten

I’m going to get an overdose of reality as soon as I start my Baghdad/Fallujah/Ramadi circuit, so for now I’m taking a two-day break from reality at a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere.

(Yes, Oregon has free wi-fi even up here. Amazing.)

I’ll be back shortly. Even sooner if I can’t resist the temptation to blog…

Fatahland & Hamastan — a roundup

By Noah Pollak

Herewith a completely disorganized roundup of reporting and commentary about the past few days’ events in Gaza.

Charles Levinson “reports from inside Gaza”:http://conflictblotter.com/2007/06/15/hamastan-day-one on life in the new Hamastan. He went to observe the vigorous looting of Mohammad Dahlan’s seaside villa. “The boy digging up the tree paused and turned to us. ‘He lives like a king, and we have nothing to eat,’ he said, before returning to his work.”

The Jerusalem Post’s Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh — he has been required reading throughout the conflict — has an “interesting analysis”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1181813034863&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull of the recent history of Hamas-Fatah relations, in pursuit of an answer to his question: “Why did the Gaza Strip fall so easily and quickly into the hands of Hamas?”

Matthew Levitt “predicts”:http://counterterrorismblog.org/2007/06/palestines_party_of_god.php that “Hamas will look north to Lebanon’s Hezbollah (Party of God) for a working model of a militant Islamist group that balances its political, charitable, and violent activities.” He directs readers to a “section”:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/html/pdf/levittbook-conclusions.pdf of his “excellent 2006 book”:http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC04.php?CID=265 on Hamas. This is a shrewd comparison, and one that Martin Kramer made in a “different context”:http://www.geocities.com/martinkramerorg/2005_10_24.htm two years ago:

[Hamas and Hezbollah] have a strong sense of entitlement, and a record of rejecting offers of political inclusion that do not privilege them. The cost of bringing these movements in is high — they place heavy demands on the system, because they insist on retaining their mini-state privileges.

The most significant of those privileges is stockpiles of weapons. Both Lebanon and the Palestinians have been through dark chapters of warlordism, which they are trying to put behind them. Hezbollah and Hamas are the main obstacles to the turning of this page.

They say they will never give up their guns. They insist on stockpiling a vast array of weaponry, most of which cannot threaten Israel, but all of which undermines the fragile authority of the Lebanese state and the Palestinian Authority. In Beirut, Hezbollah still mounts paramilitary displays, and in Gaza and the West Bank, no demonstration is complete without the public display of weaponry. Yesterday, 10,000 Hamas militia militants paraded through Gaza with assault rifles, rockets, and anti-tank missiles. This is not like the gun culture of America, which is focused on the individual’s right to bear arms. This is militia competition, so familiar from other failed states where warlords compete by shows of armed strength.

And speaking of Martin, don’t miss his “commentary on Rashid Khalidi”:http://sandbox.blog-city.com/rashid_khalidi_gaza_blamethrower.htm, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia University, who yesterday on National Public Radio declared that the Hamas takeover “is a direct, logical, inevitable result of American, Israeli, and European policy…They almost willed this result.” Kramer thunders back:

At bottom, Khalidi is no different from the general run of blame-throwing Palestinian hacks. One of the (many) reasons Palestinians have marched themselves down so many dead ends is the abject failure of their intellectuals, who’ve been so busy speaking “truth to power” that they’ve forgotten to speak it to their own people. Khalidi is no exception, and as someone who’s fed Palestinian mythology for decades, he’s just as thoroughly implicated in the mess as any masked gunman.

The Wall Street Journal’s “editorial”:http://www.opinionjournal.com/weekend/hottopic/?id=110010219 takes a dash through the past forty years’ history of Palestinian terrorism and the West’s multifaceted capitulation to it, and concludes:

The deeper lesson here is that a society that has spent the last decade celebrating suicide bombing would inevitably become a victim of its own nihilistic impulses. This is not the result of Mr. Bush’s call for democratic responsibility; it is the bitter fruit of the decades of dictatorship and terrorism as statecraft that Yasser Arafat instilled among Palestinians.

Shmuel Rosner provides an “excellent analysis”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/871264.html in Ha’aretz, aptly titled “An Overpowering Reality,” about the differing political and strategic concerns in the American and Israeli camps.

What will they discuss? The Hamas victory bolsters Israel’s unstated policy of dividing the Palestinian Authority into two states – Gaza and the West Bank. Israel cannot say this out loud in front of the Americans, who are committed to a single Palestinian state, so Olmert will have to speak in code. He will suggest that Bush strengthen international support for the peace process. This would involve deploying an international force in Gaza, implementing an engineering solution to block arms smuggling in Rafah, pressuring the Egyptians to do more against the smugglers, and encouraging the Saudis to stop being embarrassed by the collapse of the Palestinian unity agreement cooked up in Mecca.

“Writing in the Jerusalem Post”:http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1181570256870, Harris Schoenberg, the president of UN Reform Advocates, asks whether it is time for UN peacekeepers in Gaza. After recounting a shameful history of failure, corruption, and collaboration, he replies: “it is [not] clear why Israel would consider agreeing to a peacekeeping operation in Gaza, given the peacekeepers’ record of malfeasance and cooperation with Israel’s enemies.”

No Middle East crisis is complete without awful media coverage, and so Melanie Phillips is “outraged”:http://www.melaniephillips.com/diary/?p=1554 at how the BBC has been grotesquely twisting its reporting on Gaza in order to blame the crisis on Israel. Allow me to take this opportunity to concur and add that Great Britain “has become”:http://azure.org.il/magazine/magazine.asp?id=260 the most anti-Israel country in Europe, and the BBC has been merrily pushing the nation down this nihilistic road for quite some time with its daily injections of what can legitimately be called propaganda. The BBC has successfully turned itself into a revolting cesspool of bigotry against Israel and tendentious excuse-making for Islamic terrorists; it is a national embarrassment of a high order. Phillips links to a counterbalancing “piece by Con Coughlin”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml;jsessionid=3YN1R0U0TPQRHQFIQMFSFGGAVCBQ0IV0?xml=/opinion/2007/06/15/do1502.xml in the Telegraph.

And finally, on a happier note, just a few miles north of Gaza, Google “opened its first office”:http://ouriel.typepad.com/myblog/2007/06/had_a_great_tim.html in Tel Aviv, to join its two other R&D centers in Israel. “Palestine” and Israel are heading in separate directions, and fast.

Iran’s Victory

By Noah Pollak

“The era of justice and Islamic rule has arrived.”

-Islam Shahawan, Hamas spokesman

Gaza has fallen to Hamas, but not just to Hamas: the group is the newest member of Iran’s growing portfolio of allies, clients, and proxies, and thus its victory was also a triumph for Iran’s policy of manifest destiny in the Middle East. This should not be surprising, as Hamas has never been shy about explaining where its loyalties lie. In 2005 while visiting Tehran, “Khaled Meshaal said”:http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=17093, “Just as Islamic Iran defends the rights of the Palestinians, we defend the rights of Islamic Iran….We are part of a united front against the enemies of Islam.” In 2006, Sa’id Siyam, the Hamas interior minister, “told Al-Jazeera”:http://fromoccupiedpalestine.org/node/1691 that

Iran is an Islamic state, which is being targeted by the USA and Israel. Syria is an Arab state that is targeted. Hezbollah is also targeted and so is Hamas. Therefore, we can call this the axis of resistance and defiance. What unites them is the fact that they are all targeted. Therefore, we have the right to establish ties with states that open their doors for us.

Fair enough. The collaboration between Iran, Syria, and Hamas, and the millions of dollars that Iran has “poured into Gaza”:http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/2A62C583-E1C7-454E-B0B3-16DB56E3C4FD.htm, have indeed paid dividends. America and its allies in the Middle East are being surrounded: There are now two Iranian clients, Hamas and Hezbollah, on Israel’s borders; Syria and Iran bracket Iraq and provide money, training, leadership, and manpower to the insurgents fighting there; and Lebanon is once again being subjected to Syrian bombings, assassinations, and terrorism in an attempt to wrest the country from its westward-looking citizens.

Does the “international community” recognize these realities? Not so much. While masked Hamas gunmen were sport-killing people in Gaza hospitals, the European Commission declared, “We call on President Abbas, the legitimate president of all Palestinians, to do his utmost to resolve the situation through dialogue and to work towards national unity and reconciliation.” In a rock-paper-scissors match between a Kalashnikov and dialogue, who wins? Indeed, is there a problem in the world that the European Commission thinks can’t be resolved by dialogue?

While Hamas was executing members of Fatah by throwing them off the roofs of tall buildings, Jan Egeland, special adviser to the UN Secretary General, said, “This is the product of failed Palestinian policies, failed Israeli policies, failed international policy.” That’s right: the rise of Hamas is because of some vague policy problems. Maybe a UN committee could investigate them?

Margaret Beckett, the UK foreign secretary, said “Once again, extremists carrying guns have prevented progress against the wishes of the majority who seek a peaceful two-state solution.” No, Margaret, the majority of Gazans do not seek a peaceful two-state solution, and we know they don’t because of how they voted: “Turnout”:http://www.elections.ps/template.aspx?id=288 in the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power was 82.66 percent, and a “majority”:http://www.elections.ps/pdf/Lists_voters_per_districts_EN2.pdf of those voters cast their ballots for Hamas’ Change and Reform party. Public opinion polls have confirmed the fact that a majority of Gazans are against the existence of Israel. People like Beckett are the great Rousseauians of the modern age, convinced despite all evidence to the contrary that peace and goodwill fill hearts in Gaza.

Martin Jaegar, the German foreign ministry spokesman, said “We are extremely concerned about the humanitarian consequences and call on all sides to make the supply of aid to the Palestinian population in Gaza possible.” Catch the logic at work here: A group of people votes a terrorist organization into power; the terrorist organization fulfills its campaign promises and sets out waging war on everyone in sight, both Palestinian and Israeli; the warfare causes economic and political crisis; and the Germans, whose lavish foreign aid has for decades helped enable rule over the Palestinian territories by sinister and corrupt thugs, now propose to supply the very terrorists who caused the crisis in the first place…with more aid, to placate the citizens of Gaza and thereby stabilize Hamas’ rule. Simply amazing. Such aid would reinforce a lesson that has long been taught to the Palestinians: the West will reward your embrace of terrorism with more aid; we will never make it contingent on political or cultural moderation; no matter how large a majority votes for Hamas, we will never turn off the spigots of cash irrigating your extremist culture.

There isn’t much good news in all of this for Israel, the U.S., and Lebanon. The only advantage that will come from Gaza — and this is not a minor advantage — is that Hamas will finally have the opportunity to throw itself, along with the people who brought it to power, as fanatically as it wishes into the abyss. There are no more controls now: no Arafat, no occupation, no Fatah. There is only Hamas’ fevered ambition, which has long since discarded any pretense of concern with the social service work that was the source of so much hopeful excuse-making among Hamas’ western apologists. Israel should do everything it can to help Hamas down the rabbit hole, and that includes permanently shutting off the water and electricity it supplies to Gaza. Can it possibly be true that Israel has an obligation to continue providing utilities to Hamastan? Should Israel send its nuclear scientists on a pro bono mission to Iran, too? Shutting off the power and water it supplies to Gaza would be more than an act of spite for Israel: it would be an important imposition of the idea that actions have consequences, and that Israel will cease being an enabler of Palestinian radicalism.

I am hardly qualified to make national security recommendations, but it seems clear that Israel must revive one of the tactics that decisively helped win the second intifada. It is time to resume assassinating terrorists. And by terrorists, I mean every member of Hamas. There should be no distinction made between “regular” members of Hamas and those from the “military wing” — a dichotomy that has always been a self-serving fiction. The people who comprise Hamas are dedicated to the annihilation of Israel and the slaughter of every Jew who lives there; the IDF should reciprocally dedicate itself to the annihilation of every member of Hamas, and it should start with its leadership, so that the surviving subordinates can make informed decisions about their career prospects.

Iran has won several victories in the past few years. It is time for the push-back to begin.

Feels Like 1967 Again

By Michael J. Totten

Former Deputy Chief of IDF Intelligence Yaacov Amidror talks to Ynet News about what may happen now that Hamas won the Palestinian war and is ruler of Gaza:

We are moving toward a situation in which Gaza will be a formal terror state. In the short term, Israel will face an organized system of guerilla warfare similar to what is going on in Lebanon. This system will grow stronger and stronger with each passing day. In the long term this entity will have long-range missiles and other capabilities, which will affect not only Sderot, but Kiryat Gat and Ashdod as well. Eventually these missiles will reach Haifa.

I don’t know if this is right. Politics, and the wars which pass for politics in the Middle East, is all but impossible to predict. There are too many factions, too many alliance reversals, and too many totally random wild card variables.

Who thought Lebanon would have a five-week shooting war with Fatah Al Islam in the camps? Who saw the Cedar Revolution coming before it exploded? I didn’t predict Israel’s recent invasion of Lebanon (although I should have), nor did I see the “Anbar Awakening” on Iraq’s horizon. All bets will be off if the Iranian people overthrow the Islamic Republic.

But it does look like missile war is replacing terrorist war, at least for the Israelis. (It’s business as usual in Lebanon. As my friend Sean LaFreniere put it over drinks a few hours ago, Beirut is the Beirut of the Middle East again.)

I don’t know how long it has been since a suicide bomber exploded in Israel. It has been a while. Missiles and rockets keep crashing into cities, though, and Israel hasn’t a clue what to do. The rocket makers and launchers are no doubt emboldened by Israel’s flop of a war last year in Lebanon.

So what will Israel do if missiles from Gaza reach Haifa? And if missiles from Lebanon reach Sderot?

The Middle East feels different to me now than it did a few years ago. Something big is going to happen, but I don’t know what and I don’t know when.

Another Assassination in Lebanon

By Michael J. Totten

Lebanese Member of Parliament and Chairman of Parliament’s Defense Committee Walid Eido was assassinated in West Beirut’s Manara district, along with his son and four other people. This was just down the hill from my old apartment.

Charles Malik emails from Beirut:

This one was too close. I was 50m away. Human flesh landed in our cafe next to Luna Park. We felt the heat of the flames, and the smoke surrounded us.

The Army, Amn a Dakhle, and Amn al Aam were incredible. They were there immediately, secured the scene, and got the cars out of the parking lot.

I was initially horrified that they targeted children’s play areas: Luna Park, the Nejmeh Club, and the surrounding beaches. Then I found out that they targeted Eido because they knew that his son swims at one of the beaches near there every day.

I’m still shaking.

Lebanon needs another tribunal, or something a little more muscular, if they don’t want a regime-change in Beirut by process of one-by-one elimination. Eido (of course) belonged to the anti-Syrian March 14 bloc.

UPDATE: Tony Badran published perhaps his 100th in a series of stories about yet another diplomat who went to Damascus to “engage” Syria and came home disappointed. If Tony’s blog were required reading this wouldn’t keep happening.

Those who “engage” tyrants for a living need to pay more attention. The Syrian regime has had the same modus operandi almost as long as I have been alive. It’s time to catch up.

UPDATE: Abu Kais asks “Is someone going to declare war on the Assad regime?”

Lebanon is certainly entitled to do so (although doing it alone would be suicidal). Syria has been at war with Lebanon for 30 years, and with Israel for even longer. Syria is also at war with the United States and Iraq. It’s amazing what third-rate fly-blown dictatorships get away with these days.

UPDATE: This is as good a time as any for everyone from Nancy Pelosi and James Baker to George W. Bush and Ehud Olmert to re-read Barry Rubin’s The Truth About Syria.

PKK Signs Ceasefire with Turkey

By Michael J. Totten

The Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in Eastern Turkey just declared a unilateral ceasefire after the Turkish military shelled them in their mountain redoubt in Northern Iraq.

I was working on an article about this conflict, which I hoped to finish by midnight last night, but every word I wrote is now irrelevant.

It’s good news, though, obviously, even if I did spin my wheels for a couple of hours. I have my doubts that the PKK will abide by the ceasefire, but at least Iraqi Kurdistan seems to be spared a new war for now, and the bombs in Turkey might actually stop. We’ll see how long this lasts.

Hopefully I won’t have to finish that article. I will if I have to, if what I wrote becomes relevant again.

Post-script: Thank you all so much for donating money for travel expenses to Iraq. I intend to send individual thank-you emails, but I want to say thanks in public as well.

Back to Iraq Soon

By Michael J. Totten

As soon as the Iraqi Embassy issues my journalist visa, which is supposed to be any day now, I’ll be heading back to Iraq — this time to Baghdad and Anbar Province with the United States military.

I had plans to visit Iraq twice already with the military. They were planning to take me and a handful of other bloggers on a free trip from Washington. But bureaucracy and logistics issues created six months of delays and it isn’t worth waiting in travel limbo any longer. This is perhaps for the best. Instead I’ll go solo as a media embed and skip the dog and pony show.

The only problem with this is that it’s expensive — and dangerous. I need body armor, a helmet, and war zone insurance that costs 100 dollars per day.

So I need to ask for your help. There hasn’t been as much original material on the blog lately because I’ve needed to sell my skills and time to others to make ends meet. But I’m going to Baghdad, to the war, and I am going to blog it.

It’s impossible for me to make trips like these and publish the material for free on this Web site without substantial reader donations. I am not independently wealthy and I don’t have a trust fund or inheritance to pay for all this. My expenses are ongoing and donations need to be ongoing, too.

If you have been reading my dispatches for free all this time, please consider helping me out so I don’t have to get a regular job and deal with media gatekeepers. If you have donated in the past, please consider donating again so I can keep doing this.

The more money I can raise from my readers, the more time I can devote to this Web site because I won’t need to sell my time to somebody else.

Because my expenses are ongoing, I am pleased to announce that there is now an easier way than using Pay Pal to help. Joshua Zader has developed a new system called Blog Patron. It allows you to make recurring monthly donations to bloggers (like me) whom you wish to support. The system couldn’t be any easier to use. If enough of you sign up it will give me the financial stability I need to make this blog a full time instead of part time job.

Please click the button below and enroll.

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If you prefer use Pay Pal, that is still an option.

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

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Many thanks in advance.

A Flawed Narrative

by Michael J. Totten

This story requires no comment:

In the Gaza Strip’s Jab aliya refugee camp, Aref Suleiman was raised on Palestinian struggle against the Jewish state. Today he lies in an Israeli hospital bed, his body riddled with Palestinian bullets, his wounds tended daily by Israeli nurses.

For the 22-year-old Mr Suleiman, who was shot five times point blank by Hamas militants last month during a renewed bout of Palestinian infighting, this is not the Arab-Israeli conflict he learnt about as a child growing up in Gaza’s desperate, rubbish-strewn alleys.

“Palestinians shoot me and Jews treat me,” he laughs bitterly. “It was supposed to be different.”

No Invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan

By Michael J. Totten

I’ve been away from the blog for two days because my friend Judith Weiss came to visit from New York for two days and I took on a road trip around Oregon to show her some scenery. Just as we were leaving the city, Debka reported that 50,000 Turkish soldiers invaded Iraqi Kurdistan.

We found no news on the radio, as if nothing had happened. We had no access to the Internet or international newspapers. I was unable to write about it or even find out what was going on.

It was probably for the best. Sometimes it’s better to wait a day or two before responding to headlines.

My sources in Iraqi Kurdistan told me there has been no Turkish invasion. The Turkish government, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the United States government all agree that there has been no Turkish invasion.

Why Debka hasn’t yet been completely discredited as an inadvertent spoof “news” site from an alternate universe is beyond me.

Here’s what’s actually happening: The Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (or PKK) from Eastern Turkey has dug into a remote mountainous area just inside Iraq which they use as a staging ground to launch terrorist and guerilla attacks inside Turkey. The Turkish military is shelling the area from their side of the border and may have chased PKK elements across the border in hot pursuit before returning to Turkey immediately.

The KRG says their Peshmerga aren’t able to flush the PKK out of their positions in the mountains because the area is too remote and rugged for a ground force to penetrate. This is the same location where the Peshmerga successfully hid from Saddam Hussein for decades when they waged their own guerilla war against the Baghdad regime.

It’s possible that the Peshmerga are insufficiently motivated to challenge the PKK — which is not officially supported in any way by the KRG — and that Turkey’s military build-up on the border is an attempt to pressure them to do what needs to be done.

I don’t know what KRG officials secretly believe in their hearts about the PKK. None have ever expressed even the vaguest sympathy to me for the PKK even off the record. At the same time, though, there is no love lost between Iraqi Kurds and the Turks. In any case, the Kurds of Iraq never used PKK-style tactics against Arab Iraqi civilians even when they faced genocide from Saddam’s regime. So I am not going to accuse the Kurdistan Regional Government of secretly supporting the PKK. I can’t prove that the KRG doesn’t support them, and I’m not trying to prove it. But I haven’t seen any evidence that the KRG does, and there is some evidence that they do not.

Free advice for the United States government: Help the Kurds of Iraq eject the PKK from the mountains before Turkey does to Iraqi Kurdistan what Israel did to Lebanon. The Turkish government sees this problem through the lens of last year’s war in July, and we don’t need to see that movie again.

The Truth About Syria

By Michael J. Totten

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Barry Rubin about his new book The Truth About Syria. The timing of the book’s publication, as well as this interview, could hardly be better.

The Truth About Syria.jpg

MJT: Your new book is called The Truth About Syria. For those who haven’t yet read your book, tell us, what’s the truth about Syria? Give us the short version.

Rubin: To begin with, to understand Syria—like other regional forces—one must first examine the nature of the regime and its real interests. The way to do this is not to cite the latest interview or op-eds by Syrian leaders or propagandists in the Western media or what one of them told some naïve Western “useful idiot” who traveled to Damascus but rather to look at what the Syrian rulers say among themselves, what they do, how they structure the regime and perceive of their interests.

Syria is not a radical regime because it has been mistreated by the West or Israel but because the regime needs radicalism to survive. It is a minority dictatorship of a small non-Muslim minority and it offers neither freedoms nor material benefit. It needs demagoguery, the scapegoats of America and Israel, massive loot taken from Lebanon, an Iraq which is either destabilized or a satellite, and so on.

Take the simple issue of the Golan Heights. It is commonplace to say that Syria wants back the Golan Heights. But one need merely ask the simple question: what happens if Syria gets it back? If Syria’s regime made peace with Israel it has no excuse for having a big military, a dictatorship, and a terrible economy. The day after the deal the Syrian people will start demanding change. The regime knows that.

Or economic reform. Again, many in the West take it for granted that the regime wants to take steps to improve the economy. But it would prefer to keep a tight hold on the economy rather than open it up and face enriched Sunni Muslim Arabs who hate the regime both due to their class status and their religious community.

The list goes on. Yet few of these points figure into the debate over Syria where statements like “engagement,” “a common interest in Iraq,” “getting Syria away from Iran,” “the benefits of peace with Israel,” and the reasonableness of Bashar al-Asad get repeated like mantras.

While the Syrian regime poses as being desirous of peace and engagement with the West, in fact its institutions, ideology, propaganda, and activities go in the exact opposite direction. To survive, the minority-dominated, dictatorial, and economically incompetent government needs radicalism, control over Lebanon, regional instability, anti-Americanism, and using Israel as a scapegoat.

Syria is sponsoring a terror war against Iraqi civilians and American forces in Iraq; it is subverting Lebanon, not even stopping at killing the most popular political leaders there; playing the leading role in being the patron of radical Palestinian forces against Israel; promoting anti-Americanism; formulating the new “resistance” strategy which combines radical Arab nationalism and Islamism; being Iran’s main Arab ally; and even being the main Arab state sponsor of revolutionary Islamism.

MJT: The Assad regime, first under Hafez Assad and now under his son Bashar, has been using these tactics for literally decades. The Lebanese are the only people who seem to understand this in full. Why do you suppose the American and Israeli governments are having such a hard time? Is Assad smarter and craftier? Or do you suppose the US and Israel are a bit soft on Syria for public relations’ reasons, having no doubt about its hostility?

Rubin: I think it depends on who you are looking at specifically. Those with little experience of Syria—naïve journalists and politicians rather new to the issue, especially in the United States—simply don’t understand what is happening. What is most disturbing are the statements of former secretaries of state James Baker and Colin Powell, who have been stung by Syria but now seem to forget all the bad interactions and talk as if they had great success in managing Damascus. To hear both of them talk, they persuaded the Syrian regime to close terrorist offices during their tenure but those offices have always remained open. The next U.S. president might try to engage Syria and spend a year or so finding out that it doesn’t work.

Others are acting more from a sense of what I call public relations’ considerations. The Bush administration has made a lot of real mistakes, has also been unfairly criticized, and is under tremendous pressure. So now it wants to show how reasonable it is in giving diplomacy a chance. Perhaps they can succeed in getting Syria to ease up the pressure on Iraq stemming from its sponsorship of the insurgency. Of course, if the Syrians do so they will be acting to get unilateral concessions and to push the United States out faster in order to suit their own interests.

At the same time, though, it should be pointed out that the U.S. policy remains mostly tough, especially in terms of advancing the tribunal to investigate the Hariri killing. Generally speaking, the sanctions and the effort to isolate Syria remain in force.

But many academic experts, journalists, government officials, and intellectuals are being fooled by Syria’s propaganda. One can read several such articles or statements every day. And, of course, this has a feedback in Damascus, persuading the regime that the pressure against it will collapse, that it is in effect winning and does not need to change its policy. When I asked a very serious, non-American and non-partisan, student of Syria what he thought that country’s strategy is, he replied, “Waiting for the Democrats.”

Israel’s policy considerations are even more complex. The basic analysis is that Syria wants to negotiate, to take the heat off on other fronts, but not to reach an agreement. So there is a possibility that engaging Syria will achieve some goals even if it does not bring serious progress toward peace. These include a reduced possibility of Syria or Hizballah starting a war. In addition, Israel would be shown to be pursuing peace. And the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is desperate for some sign of success as it is holding on with its fingernails, could claim an achievement.

MJT: Do you think the Syrians are behind the war of the camps raging in Lebanon now, or does this conflict match the timing of the UN tribunal coincidentally?

Rubin: I definitely think the Syrians are behind it. Let’s look at the facts:

Step 1: Syria wants to sponsor violence and terrorism in Lebanon to bring that country back under its control and intimidate the Lebanese from supporting an international tribunal to investigate and punish those responsible for murdering Lebanon’s most popular politician, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 bystanders on February 14, 2005. Since all the evidence points at Syria’s leaders as the murderers, killing the investigation is their highest priority. The timing of this uprising came at the very moment that the UN Security Council was voting to hold the tribunal

Step 2: Organize and order a shadowy group of terrorists, called Fatah al-Islam, to disrupt Lebanon.

Step 3: And this is the scheme’s most clever part, blame the terrorism on your victim, Lebanon’s own government, and your enemy, the United States. Get some gullible or ideologically inclined journalists to talk to Syrian officials, be fed this line, and then spread it throughout the world.

So how do we know that the uprising in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon, which killed well over 100 people and led the Lebanese army to shell the camp, was a Syrian operation?

Well, first, the group itself Fatah al-Islam, is merely part of an older group, Fatah al-Intifada which has been a Syrian front group for almost 25 years. That is a rather strong hint of whose these people are and from where their pay and arms come. But there is much more.

The leader of this group is a man by the name of Colonel Abu Khaled al-Amleh. And he lives and operates out of Damascus, Syria. The Syrians do not let terrorist groups function in the country unless the regime likes them and finds them useful. That is also a major piece of evidence. But we are just getting started.

The field commander of the group is a man named Shaker al-Absi. He has been working as a Syrian agent since 1983. In 2003, Absi joined the insurgency in Iraq against the Western forces there. Of course, Syria is the insurgency’s main sponsor. Hundreds of fighters cross the Syria-Iraq border, reportedly there is a special government bus that takes them to a good jumping-off point. This record reinforces the idea that Absi is working for Syria.

In Iraq, Absi worked with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida—Usama bin Ladin’s group—there. There is no inconsistency here. After all, when Syria helps the insurgency, most of the forces they assist are led by al-Qaida. While al-Qaida is by no means controlled by Syria, the radical duo has some common interests.

Mr. Absi was involved in the murder of a U.S. diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Jordan on October 28, 2003. Naturally, the Jordanians wanted Syria to extradite him so he could be questioned and punished. Syria refused, clearly because its regime would not benefit from having Absi tell what he knew, especially about Syria’s own role in his activities. In 2004, Jordan sentenced Absi to death in absentia.

So instead of turning him over to Jordan, the Syrian authorities announced that they were going to punish Absi themselves. Accordingly, they claimed Absi was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his violent actions in their own country. Three years is a joke. Those terrorists who attack the Syrian regime are given a death sentence or very long sentences, though often they happen to die conveniently in a manner that used to be described as “trying to escape.”

And of course there is no evidence that Absi was ever in prison and certainly not for three years since only two years later he is back in business as a terrorist. For all we know during this period in between he was living very nicely and engaged in training himself and others.

On being “released,” in November 2005, Absi comes back to Syria and goes to Lebanon. Again, if the Syrian government thought he would do anything against their interests there he would not have been allowed to go so easily and conveniently. Immediately, Absi “split” his old group and began Fatah al-Islam. The ideology of the group, merging Arab nationalism and Islamism, is very much in line with Syria’s current political doctrine.

Within Lebanon today, independent and pro-government newspapers have run detailed articles about Absi, his Syrian credentials, and the motives of Damascus for bashing Lebanon. Since Hariri’s murder three years ago, there have been 15 major terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at assassinating critics of Syrian attempts to dominate Lebanon. There is a pattern here.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials have been briefing some Western journalists, who know no Arabic and have no serious background in studying the Middle East. They tell these people that Fatah al-Islam is a front for Lebanon’s government and even the United States. There is no evidence that this is true. What is telling is that the articles published use precisely the same phrases employed by Syrian officials about 48 hours earlier.

The situation in Lebanon is complicated. But the majority of Lebanese want their country to be independent. They suffered under 20 years of Syrian occupation which looted the country and repressed its people systematically. The moderate, democratic leadership needs and deserves Western support against a terrorist offensive directed by the neighboring dictatorship. It would be a pity to be fooled, by such transparent schemes as the Fatah al-Islam affair, into supporting the oppressors.

MJT: It looks like Fatah Al Islam is also connected with Al Qaida in some ways and, if not, that they are similar enough in ideology and method that it may not make any difference if they are formally aligned or not. What long or even medium term effects do you think this will have on Syria’s Lebanese allies? Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement can’t be happy about this and I doubt Hezbollah is either.

Rubin: An important point is that having links with both al-Qaida and Syria is by no means impossible. We know that there is a clear link between them. In my view, though, Fatah al-Islam is in reality a Syrian client with links to al-Qaida rather than the other way around.

You are right. Hizballah is not happy with this but remember the Syrians need to strengthen their links to Lebanese Sunni, which are very weak at present, and this does not impinge directly on Hizballah’s turf. Moreover, this is a small group and it is likely to prove of relatively temporary importance. I don’t think other Syrian allies will desert because of this.

Mr. Aoun seems to have cast his lot with the Syrians due to his ambition to be president and he has swallowed so much already I don’t think this is going to bother him. If anything will make him break with Syria it would be knowing that most of his past supporters have deserted him in disgust.

MJT: Assad is terrified of the UN tribunal. On the one hand it makes sense: a Chapter 7 resolution that abrogates Syrian sovereignty theoretically threatens his regime. Yet there is no appetite for any military action against Syria in either the US or Israel. If Assad refuses to cooperate with the tribunal and the UN, which he has promised to do, no one is likely to do anything to him. Rogue states defy the UN all the time without suffering consequences. Is he paranoid and over-reacting, or am I missing something here?

Rubin: What you say is partly true but does not seem to be the way they think in Damascus. Moreover, having your regime and some of its highest leaders—not to mention possibly even Bashar’s relatives—indicted for murder is a pretty serious matter, isn’t it? Syria could become a real pariah, and note that the Europeans seem to be on board for this so far. It would be a major humiliation. And they might well think that the United States would use this as a “pretext” for some very tough actions. They also cannot forget about France’s hostility toward them. And in such a hostile posture, they could forget about their ambitions toward Lebanon. He is right to be worried though the regime could find some consolation in the points you raise.

MJT: What do you suggest the US and France do at this point? The tribunal is important, but clearly not enough by itself. Syrian terrorism in Lebanon is only escalating — and severely at that — and it will take years before the tribunal renders its verdict. Syria may have Iraqified Lebanon by then and no one will care anymore about a single assassination from years ago. I don’t see anything short of at least threatening Assad with force as being effective, but I would love to be wrong. I don’t have any appetite for war with Syria either, and a post-Assad Syria really does look like a nightmare.

Rubin: It certainly is a tough situation, isn’t it? I believe that the West must give the strongest possible support to the Lebanese government, including diplomatic, material and if appropriate military aid supplies. I think it is extremely important that both the Lebanese government and Syria understand that the West backs Lebanon’s sovereignty and will put in sanctions and isolation in response to Syria’s subversion there. Obviously, these are very delicate and complex matters. But unless you have the basic confidence on the part of Lebanon’s government and fear or whatever you want to call it on the part of Syria’s nothing can be accomplished.

Obviously, military action by the West or United States against Syria is out of the question but Damascus must know that its behavior will cost it dearly. And that means no unilateral concessions, no negotiations’ process unless there is a change in Syria’s behavior regarding Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism.

If Syria were to again order or inspire an attack on Israel, direct military retaliation would be a definite possibility. One might well argue that this is what should have happened in the summer of 2006 though this is a debate which should be carried out fully.

But I call the approach I favour tough diplomacy and it is the true form of Realism in international affairs. It is also called deterrence. There are lots of options between war and appeasement. This requires patience and steadfastness.

Yet it is surprising—and it would be amusing if it were not so tragic—that many cannot see any option other than engagement—which the regime views as a surrender and thus a reason to be more aggressive—and armed attack. This problem is part of the current intellectual poverty when discussing international affairs.

It would be nice if the Assad regime were to collapse and be replaced by a more moderate regime. We know, however, that first the regime is not about to collapse and second a replacement might well be Islamist or, at best, another Ba’thist regime with a simple change in the names of its leaders.

But this difficult situation must be the starting point of any discussion of policy toward Syria. What is worst is what often happens: the regime gets away with everything it does, teaching it contempt for a West which can be either frightened or fooled so easily.

MJT: Some foreign policy hands hope they can “flip” Syria from its alliance with Iran. Do you think this is possible in the long term if not in the short term?

Rubin: This is absurd and I discuss it at length in my new book, The Truth About Syria. Briefly, Iran supplies Syria with a strategic ally and protector, a lot of money, an Islamist and Islamic cover, and much more. The two countries may not have identical interests but they are close: making Iraq into a member of their alliance; dominating Lebanon; driving out U.S. and Western influence; destroying Israel; backing Hizballah and Hamas; and so on. What can the West possibly offer Syria to replace that? High-tech military weapons? Lebanon and Iraq as satellites? To discuss the issues is to show how ridiculous the idea of splitting the alliance is in practice.

MJT: Anything else to add?

Rubin: Lots! That’s what happens when you write a book on a subject. There are lots of surrealistic elements to this story. In a sense, Syria’s strategy—and those who fall for it—has a lot of humor. The basic line is: Do what we want or we will kill you. Yet at the same time they hold out the bait of great progress if only their demands are met. They play the West at times like a master fisherman reeling in his victim. Yet at other times the regime is incredibly inept and mafia-like. It is such a fascinating story.

How does a basically atheistic regime run by non-Muslims reinvent itself as Islamist? How does a government which has failed so badly for almost forty years maintain support through demagoguery and a structure copied from the USSR? And then there are the amazing parallels to the “Godfather” films. No fictional writer would dare make up the story of the Assads and their regime.

The Truth About Syria, By Barry Rubin, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007

Click here for more information.

Barry Rubin is the director of the Global Research for International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Hertzliya, Israel. He is the author of 16 books, including The Truth About Syria, and is the editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs.

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