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Kremlin Propaganda at Its ‘Best’

Even seasoned Western Kremlin-watchers sometimes have trouble realizing the full magnitude of manipulation and misinformation that Russia’s state-run television—still the main source of news for tens of millions of voters—feeds the country’s citizens on a daily basis. The lies become especially malicious when it comes to the Russian pro-democracy opposition, which is usually presented to viewers as a “fifth column” of the West working to undermine Russia’s national interests.

Syrians Protest Al-Nusra

Syria's war against Bashar al-Assad is merely stage one.

Anti-regime activists took to the streets of rebel-held Mayadeen in eastern Syria on Wednesday for a third straight day to demand that jihadist Al-Nusra Front fighters leave the town, a watchdog said.

"For the third day in a row, protests erupted in Mayadeen calling on the Al-Nusra Front to leave the town," said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Protests erupted after the Islamist Al-Nusra Front -- blacklisted in December by the United States as a "terrorist" organization -- set up a religious council in the east of Deir Ezzor province, where Mayadeen is situated, to administer affairs in the area.

[...]

"The protests are an important indicator that people in eastern Syria -- where people do not have a culture of religious extremism -- do not welcome the imposition of religious law," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

When Assad falls—and fall he will, at least eventually—the Free Syrian Army will go to war with Jabhat al-Nusra. There is not enough room in that country for al-Nusra and everyone else.

The Shangpu Revolution

On early Sunday, a reported 3,000 police and security troops surrounded the Chinese village of Shangpu. They fired tear gas, severed communications, shut off the electricity, and removed wrecked vehicles. They cleared off roadblocks that residents had erected. Some 30 to 40 villagers were hurt in fierce fighting. “It’s an extremely serious situation,” one resident told AFP. “They injured many people.”

The incident began in February when villagers fought pitched battles with dozens of thugs sent by Li Baoyu to break up a protest against a seizure of 33 hectares of farmland. Li, the Communist Party chief of the village, had arranged for the land to be transferred to Wanfeng Investment, controlled by businessman Wu Guicun. Wu had planned to build factories making electrical cables.

Yanukovych’s Information Bubble

 

One of Ukraine’s best investigative journalists, Serhii Leshchenko, recently revealed a tidbit about President Yanukovych that shocked me. Read the following excerpt from his blog and see if you catch the jaw-dropping, eye-popping, mind-blowing part:

That Yanukovych doesn’t hear journalists is half the problem. He doesn’t hear his citizens. He wakes up in [his palatial estate outside Kyiv], which is surrounded by a six-meter-high fence and guarded, not by the Berkut special forces, but by an Anti-Aircraft Defense unit of Ukraine’s armed forces. He travels in a heavily guarded cortege along the Kyiv-Nova Petrivka highway…. Then he takes cordoned-off streets to get to [the presidential building], where he ends up in the closed bubble of the presidential administration…. His circle of associates is confined to his closest advisors, hunting friends, and his fawning subordinates. Every time Yanukovych goes out he is accompanied by an army of guards… There is no computer in Yanukovych’s office.

For Awlaki, Trial by Drone

Sometimes it helps to be a history major. Here’s a fact most contemporary chroniclers either don’t know or choose not to recall: John Adams, who eventually became the second president of the United States, once let it be known that he, Adams, thought George Washington was so terrific that he should be referred to as “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of Same.” (Washington declined the honorific.) I reflect on that Adams suggestion every time I read about the killing, in late 2011, of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. When you think about it, it’s awfully easy to slip—even after a revolution—from a democrat to an autocrat.

The North is Ready to Blow

BEIRUT – Lebanon always looks and feels like it's ready to erupt into armed conflict, but today it's more ready than usual. The Syrian civil war next door weighs heavily on this place. Sunnis and Alawites are fighting round after round with no end in sight in the city of Tripoli, and now the Northern Bekaa Valley, between Mount Lebanon and the Syrian border, is likewise gearing up to explode.

Lebanese citizens in that region are already killing each other. The only reason their part of the country hasn't yet turned into a war zone is because they're killing each other on the other side of the border, which lies a mere handful of miles from where they reside. They're crossing into Syria to shoot at each other before hunkering down in an unnerving balance of terror when they return home.

The two sides are composed of Sunni and Shia Muslims. “Both communities,” Nicholas Blanford wrote in Beirut's Daily Star, “are rooted in strong tribal traditions, have a general disdain for the authority of the state, are fiercely independent, have a history of militancy, are well armed and, most pertinently, have chosen to actively back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war raging just across the border.”

Lebanon's Sunnis by and large support the Free Syrian Army while most of Lebanon's Shias support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah's second-tier patron after Iran.

Most residents of the Northern Bekaa are Shias, and most of them support Hezbollah. Yet there's a Sunni enclave up there, as well, centered around the town of Arsal in the Anti-Lebanon mountains between the floor of the Bekaa and the Syrian border. Since Arsal is so remote and so near the frontier, it is turning into a hub for the Free Syrian Army. People and weapons are smuggled over the border through there in both directions.

Meanwhile, the town of Hermel—the local Hezbollah hub—is just a few couple of miles away.

The fighting is taking place in the region of Qusayr, immediately north of the border and just south of the Syrian city of Homs. Hezbollah will desperately need control of that area if the Assad regime falls so it can continue receiving weapon shipments by ground from the Iranian government.

A couple of days ago I drove up there to look around. It's the only part of the country I hadn't seen before. I never had a reason to go there. Nothing much used to happen, and besides, it's controlled by Hezbollah and therefore better avoided.

Friends in Beirut warned me not to get out of the car. “You're obviously an outsider,” said one. “If you think Hezbollah's guys in the south [along the Israeli border] are tough, you really don't want to encounter the ones in the north.”

Lots of journalists have been “arrested” by Hezbollah and kicked out of the area, but Nicholas Blanford has lived in Lebanon for decades and is better connected than just about anyone. He managed to speak to a few people up there. A businessman in Hermel told him, “We are very worried about the Salafists coming here and attacking us. We all support Hezbollah here. They are our only guarantee of protection.” A Lebanese Sunni who fights with the rebels and lives a mere walking distance away from Hezbollah territory said, “When we are done there [in Syria] we are going after Hezbollah here. The Free Syrian Army will come and clean Lebanon.”

The Hermel Pyramid, an ancient pre-Roman monument overlooking the Syrian border, is the one place where it's sometimes okay to get out of the car—as long as you first scan the area for black SUVs with tinted windows and without any license plates. Those vehicles belong to Hezbollah. Spotters use the area as an observation post since they can see right into Syria. You can even hear the war raging in Syria if Homs is being bombarded or shelled. It's only a few dozen miles away in a straight shot across an open plain.

Look north and you can see Syria. Look to the left and you see Hermel, Hezbollah's local command and control. To the right is the Sunni enclave around Arsal. You could walk from one community to another in an hour or so. The Lebanese customs gate is just a ten minute drive from the pyramid.

How long can the people who live in this area continue to shoot at each other on only one side of an arbitrary line in the valley?

I hardly saw any Hezbollah flags. The Syrian-Iranian proxy militia is all but invisible. But it's still clear who lives in the area and who they support. Billboards on the side of the road feature Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses and military fatigues. Iran's dead tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini makes several appearances, as do Iran's current rulers Ayatollah Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I saw a couple of Iranian flags, but hardly any Lebanese flags. You could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere in Iran if you didn't know better.

The Lebanese Army mans a few checkpoints in the area, but the checkpoints aren't serious. They are pure security theater. I was waved through with hardly a glance and without even stopping the car. To be sure, I didn't look even remotely like a Free Syrian Army guy or a Hezbollah member in my little rented Renault, but still. A serious army on the razor's edge of a war zone should at least pretend to be interested in who is coming or going, but Lebanon's isn't. The border area is exposed and wide open. Just about anything could come out of the Syrian crucible and into Lebanon without meeting any resistance at all. Just yesterday artillery shells from the Syrian army landed in Lebanon's Akkar region, a few dozen miles to the northwest. The Lebanese Army has done nothing about it and will continue doing nothing about it.

I met with Samy Gemayel, a current member of parliament and the son of former President Amine Gemayel. “It's a miracle a war here hasn't already started,” he said. “I don't understand it. And I don't know how long this can last.”

Neither side is interested in fighting in Lebanon,” said Michael Young, the opinion page editor at Beirut's Daily Star. No doubt that's true—otherwise a war would have started. Or, more accurately, the war would have expanded. But we're only one miscalculation, one tragic misunderstanding, or one hot-headed overreaction away.

The country is on the brink of collapse,” said Hanin Ghaddar, NOW Lebanon's managing editor. “It has been on the brink of collapse my entire life.” Indeed, the country has collapsed repeatedly during her life and mine.

It always rebounds. As someone once put it, Beirut is a city that always seems to be “back.” The reason it's always “back” is because it keeps going down.

Syria has been exporting violence for decades. The regime in Damascus has exported terrorism to every single one of its neighbors. Now it's sucking them in. Iran is involved. Lebanon is involved. The Saudis and the Qataris are involved. Even Iraq is involved. Your guess is as good as mine how much longer Turkey, the U.S., and Israel can stay out.

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The Real Russia

Western policymakers often say “Russia” when they really mean the Kremlin. This is often a convenient substitution—it is certainly more pleasant-sounding and politically appealing when the White House speaks of a “reset with Russia” rather than a “reset with the Putin regime” (which it, in fact, was). “There is a Russia of the Kremlin … and there is a Russia of civil society,” eminent political analyst Lilia Shevtsova reminded earlier this week at a Capitol Hill conference cosponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia, Freedom House, and the Foreign Policy Initiative. “And the West has to formulate finally a dual-track policy towards the Kremlin Russia and towards our Russia.”

Young Women Speak Out on International Women's Day

On International Women’s Day, there’s often a lot of talk about women’s rights, glass ceilings, female politicians, feminist literature, patriarchy, and so on. Less often do you hear from the demographic watching all this perhaps most closely: teen girls.

I know this because I have an eagle-eyed 14-year-old sister. She watches me like a hawk. Who are girls like her around the world watching? What inspires them? How do they see their future? I decided to sound out young women from various countries. Here’s what they said: 

Syria: Bana, 18

Q: What do you want to do with your life?

A: I’d like to do something [I] am potentially good at … something I have the talent for … but in my country, there’s no such thing as embracing and taking care of [one’s] talents or creativity and that’s why I don’t even know what I might actually excel at.

Q: What are the biggest obstacles to achieving that?

Political Prison

He was detained in prison—without a trial—for almost three years, while the prosecution dragged its feet. He was put on suicide watch, a classification that evidently meant the mentally fragile inmate had to stand at attention stark naked every morning, and also go to bed naked every night. He was sleep-deprived—woken up regularly by guards in the event he had a blanket over his head, or was found curled up against the wall. His prescription glasses were removed, returned only in rare instances when he was permitted to watch television.

One hour a day, each day, he was permitted to walk to and from his cell in shackles.

Chinese Missiles Bound for Terrorists Raise Concerns on China

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that in January US and Yemeni forces seized ten sophisticated heat-seeking Chinese-made antiaircraft missiles on an Iranian dhow bound for a Shiite terror group, an Iranian proxy, in northwestern Yemen. These “extremely worrisome” shoulder-fired weapons are highly sought after by terror groups and represent a major threat to military and civilian aircraft alike.

The UN's Human Rights Credibility Gap on Syria

The United Nations seems ceaselessly determined to discredit itself.

What better evidence could you find than its choice last week for rapporteur of the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization?

The committee’s job is to monitor human rights in the world’s 16 “non-self-governing territories” such as the Falklands, Guam, and the Western Sahara. And its choice for reappointment as rapporteur: Syria, that bastion of human rights.

Remember, it was the very same United Nations that days earlier had said more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began two years ago. At least 2 million Syrians are now homeless, in many cases because the army destroyed their homes.

Typhoid and hepatitis are ripping through the country, and for most people health care is not readily available. At least 1 million Syrians have no reliable source of food.

Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, is calling for a war-crimes investigation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because, she said, he is committing “crimes against humanity.” In her view, in fact, Assad should be sent directly to the International Criminal Court.

An Excerpt From My New Novel

 

It is normal to give away a little of one’s life in order not to lose it all.” —Albert Camus

I had been, you know, held in the closet for two months and … abused in all manner of ways. I was very good at doing what I was told.” —Patty Hearst

Chapter One

They took me from my house in the night. Rough hands slapped duct tape over my mouth and I sat up in bed, head swirling with gray shapes and vertigo, wondering if I was dreaming, but before I could yell, before I could reach up and rip off the tape, two hundred pounds of muscle and purpose shoved me back down onto the bed.

My wife was out of town teaching a class in Seattle, and I hadn’t bothered to turn on the alarm system or the motion detector downstairs. I didn’t hear the back door open, nor did our cats alert me that dangerous strangers had entered our home. I kicked with both legs but only flailed against my own sheets and blankets. A mass of hands gripped me, flipped me onto my stomach, and jammed my face into the pillow. I could hardly breathe as steel cuffs slammed around my wrists, the metal digging hard against bone.

For a moment I thought I was being arrested, that police officers had raided the wrong house, that I’d be released soon enough—and with an apology—after they took me down to the station and realized they had the wrong guy.

The moment was fleeting. I will never forget the sound of the voice I heard next: calm, professional, and chillingly void of emotion.

Get the blindfold on him.”

The man who uttered those words, I knew, would gut me as remorselessly as he would crush a beetle under his boot.

Get the blindfold on him.

Quick and certain, with just the slightest touch of impatience.

Get the blindfold on him.

Unaccented American English from a man who couldn’t be over thirty.

Get the blindfold on him.

They tied what felt like a pillowcase over my eyes. It covered everything from my nose to my forehead. No chance I could sneak a peek over the top or under the bottom. Two hands gripped each of my thrashing limbs and hauled me off the bed and down the stairs. I heard what sounded like work boots on hardwood, but their hands on my skin felt soft, not like those of laborers. I managed to fling an arm free and knock a picture frame off the wall, but they restrained me again and dragged me out the back and into the driveway at the side of the house.

A van door slid open. As I struggled to yell through the duct tape, they dumped me onto the van’s grooved metal floor. Two men climbed in with me, each holding one of my arms. The other two hopped in front.

When I heard the ignition turn over, I arched my back and kicked one of the bastards. Either a fist or an elbow—I couldn’t be sure—slammed into my mouth, mashing lips against teeth.

I tasted blood and iron and smelled body odor—theirs—as we hurtled down surface streets, the van’s engine gunning like a getaway car, and merged onto the interstate.

*

My name is Michael Totten, and I work as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. For ten years I feared something like this might happen. It’s a hazard of my profession.

Khaled Sheikh Mohamed kidnapped my colleague Daniel Pearl in Pakistan and beheaded him on camera with a kitchen knife. Murderous drug cartels south of the border have turned Mexico into one of the most dangerous countries on earth to work as a reporter. During the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, Hezbollah kidnapped journalists and chained them to radiators. I’m always taking a risk when I leave the comforts of home to report from the unfortunate parts of the world. I was especially concerned about being snatched off the street during myseven trips to Iraq, but I had no idea I’d ever be yanked out of bed in my hometown in Oregon.

Nobody said anything as we drove. Whoever these guys were, they weren’t talking. I tried to curse them but could only groan into the tape over my mouth. All I could hear was the thrum of the engine and the vibration of the wheels at interstate speed. If I’d been congested and couldn’t breathe through my nose, I would have suffocated.

The van’s floor dug into my back. My wrists ached from the handcuffs, and a muscle in my right shoulder cramped up. I noticed the smell of sweat in the blindfold that covered most of my face and realized it was my own.

After hours had passed, we finally stopped. It felt like four hours, but it must have only been three. Surely my sense of time was distorted. At least I no longer cringed and expected to be punched or elbowed again.

The man in the passenger seat got out and unscrewed the van’s gas cap. I listened carefully. Was anyone else out there? Would a gas-station attendant see or hear me if I kicked and thrashed and made a big enough scene? Did the van even have windows? I imagined it probably didn’t.

But there was no attendant. Nobody asked how much gas or what kind we wanted. I heard the man from the passenger seat swipe a credit card and insert the nozzle into the tank.

We were no longer in Oregon then. Self-service at gas stations is illegal in Oregon. You have to wait for an attendant to fill the tank for you. So at some point in the night, we had crossed into Washington. It had to be Washington. My house in Portland is just a fifteen-minute drive to the state line, but California and Idaho are six hours away. Nevada is eight hours away. Canada is also six hours away, and there was no chance I’d missed an international border crossing.

We left the station and after another hour or so, the van slowed and turned. The tires crunched onto gravel. I braced myself. This was it. Wherever we were going, we had arrived.

The man in the passenger seat climbed out and opened the sliding side door. The scent of pine overwhelmed me at once. We were in a forest, or very near one, and we were on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountains rather than the wet western side, where the forests are fir. I figured we must be somewhere in the vicinity of Yakima or possibly Ellensburg, a college town in the middle of the state.

The duct tape over my mouth was ripped away stingingly.

Will you walk?” It was that voice again. The one that said “Get the blindfold on him.”

I’ll walk,” I said, “if you take off the blindfold.”

Get him in the house,” he said, and I felt myself being hoisted by my shoulders, the tops of my bare toes trailing in gravel. “Go ahead and scream if you want. No one will hear you out here.”

A supernova of hatred exploded inside me. If they looked like they were going to kill me, I’d fight them. And if they kept me in cuffs and held down my legs, I’d bite the bastards’ fingers off with my teeth.

*

They took me inside, dragged me into a basement, and sat my ass down in a straight-backed wooden chair no softer than the van floor. They uncuffed one of my wrists and recuffed it to a table leg. I heard heavy booted footsteps heading up wooden stairs toward the main part of the house.

I sat hunched over in absolute silence with my shoulders nearly up to my ears. I figured they’d left me alone, but when I reached up with my one free hand to take off my blindfold, I saw sitting before me a man of about thirty with blue eyes, dark curls, and light brown skin. With a face like that, he could have been from a number of places around the world. Italy, Chile, and Armenia come to mind now, but I knew at the time he was almost certainly an Arab. He could have been from Pakistan or Iran, but I doubted it.

Behind him stood a hairy bear of a man with black eyes, a long black beard, and short-cropped hair. He was the one who had punched me. I could tell. He had an I like to kick the shit out of people look on his face.

Michael,” the blue-eyed man said. “Believe me, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.”

I stared at him and tried as hard as I could to show no expression. No anger. No fear. Then I sucked my teeth hard enough to make my split lip bleed again, leaned to the side, and spit blood onto the floor.

Sorry about that,” the man said. “But you were flailing about and kicked Mahmoud here in the ribs.”

The larger man stood with his arms folded and drummed his fingers on his biceps at the sound of his name. I turned and wiped the blood off my lips and onto my shoulder.

My name is Ahmed,” the blue-eyed man said.

Ahmed what?” I said. “What’s your last name?” I’ve spent enough time in the Arab world that I can sometimes tell which country people are from by their last names.

Just Ahmed for now,” he said. “We have a job for you.”

I’m not working for you,” I said. “Shoot me if you want, but I’m not going to help you.”

I honestly didn’t know if I meant that or not. They expected me to resist and they weren’t beating me up, so what was I supposed to say? Sure, okay, I’ll do what you want?

I can understand your reluctance,” Ahmed said, “but you will do what we say.”

I looked at him and said nothing.

We aren’t necessarily going to kill you or even hurt you,” he said. "As long as you do what we say. If you cooperate, we’ll see what happens.”

He could tell by the look on my face that I didn’t buy it.

He sighed. “If I told you we’d let you go if you cooperate, would you believe me?”

No,” I said.

Okay then,” he said. “I didn’t think so. So I won’t insult your intelligence.”

What do you want with me, Ahmed?” I started grinding my teeth. I resisted clenching my hands into fists, but I couldn’t help grinding my teeth.

I appreciate that you’re pronouncing my name correctly,” he said. The h in his name is aspirated. It’s pronounced like the h in house.

Of course I know how to say Ahmed,” I said. “I’ve been working in and writing about the Arab world for ten years.”

Yes,” he said and smiled. “I know. That’s why we picked you.”

Why me?” I said.

I just told you,” he said.

No, I mean why me of all the American journalists who cover the Middle East? Why not kidnap Peter Bergen or Tom Friedman? They’re both more famous than I am.”

Because,” he said and stood up. “You have a widely read blog. And you’re going to give us the password.”

I had a blog at the Web site of The Global Weekly, where I published a weekly column, daily takes on the news of the world, and occasional long dispatches from war zones and trouble spots. I could write whatever I wanted. Unlike traditional journalism, my work was published instantly and unedited with the click of a mouse. If Ahmed had my password, he could hijack my column and publish whatever he wanted himself.

Mahmoud unfolded a four-inch Leatherman knife and flicked his thumb across the blade sideways. It took everything I had, but I resisted.

I’m not giving you the password,” I said and swallowed hard. My hands felt clammy, and it was all I could do to keep myself from shaking.

Cut off his eyelids,” Ahmed said.

Mahmoud grunted and stepped forward, the cords standing out in his neck. I spasmed as though I had just been zapped with a cattle prod.

Okayokayokay,” I said and gave up the password.

That wasn’t so difficult, was it?” Ahmed said. “You will do what we say. And it will be easier on everyone here if you immediately do what we say. Don’t ever say no to me again.”

I tried hard not to breathe too heavily, but it was difficult.

You kidnapped me just to get my blog’s password?” I said.

That’s just for backup,” he said. “For insurance, you might say.”

Against what?” I said.

Insubordination,” he said. “If you don’t do what we say, Mahmoud will cut off your eyelids, take a nice pretty picture, and upload the photograph to your blog. Even your wife and mother will get a good hard look at what’s happening to you.”

*

If you want to read the rest, you'll have to purchase a copy. The book will be released in April, so you can buy a trade paperback or electronic version at that time from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, Powell's, Kobo, iTunes, etc.

Winning Hearts and Minds

As I watched the new Chilean film “No,” I kept thinking about how its lessons seem obvious in retrospect, but how illusive common sense often seems in the present. The insight seized upon by director Pablo Larraín is that people are more likely to exert the minimal effort necessary to vote when they have an attractive ideal in mind rather than when they are merely protesting an evil. Of course, this has something to do with voter behavior and the outcome of the last American presidential election. But it also bears a great deal on American foreign policy.

Too often, American pundits and policymakers have expected that a foreign populace will rebel against a regime we cannot but see as evil—the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s mullahs, or Bashar Assad. And some people do choose to resist, to fight the Taliban or Saddam or the mullocracy, or, now, to sacrifice their lives to oust Assad. But others do not, which often makes any US military effort far bloodier and more costly than it otherwise would be.

The movie “No” suggests a better way.

Belmokhtar Killed in Mali

I'm in Beirut and will have some fresh material shortly, but in the meantime Al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar was reportedly whacked in Mali by Chad.

Good for Chad. Chad needed a win. When was the last time Chad had a win?

And the rest of the world had to be rid of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He was the Al Qaeda-linked gangster terrorist behind the recent hostage drama at a gas plant in Algeria that ended with dozens of innocents dead.

Thanks, Chad.

Citizens Derail Oligarch's Mining Development Plans in Ukraine

Here’s more evidence busting the myth of Ukrainian passivity and indifference.

The residents of Kremenchuk, a city of 230,000 southeast of Kyiv on the Dnipro River, and its environs are up in arms over oligarch Kostyantyn Zhevago’s plans to build the Bilaniv Mining and Enrichment Combine (HZK) on the Psol River in Kremenchuk District. According to Zhevago’s plans (pdf), about 12 villages comprising one fifth of the district’s territory would have to go to make room for the combine.

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