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The Man Who Punched Christopher Hitchens

Adonis Nasr, the Lebanese facsist who attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut in 2009, has been killed fighting for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Nasr was an intelligence officer in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, an imperialist gang of Assad enthusiasts who brazenly sport a spinning swastika on their flag and wish to conquer Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Cyprus and forcibly attach them all to Damascus.

Here’s my account of what happened when Hitchens and I violently encountered Nasr and his goon squad in Beirut.

A Syrian-sponsored militia once attacked me and Christopher Hitchens on the streets of Beirut.

Yes, that Christopher Hitchens. The famous polemical journalist who went after Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and even God himself with hammer and tongs. Many considered him the greatest living writer in the English language before esophageal cancer killed him in 2011.

He and I were traveling together in Lebanon with our mutual British friend Jonathan Foreman. The three of us set out from our hotel, the Bristol. Christopher needed a new pair of shoes. Jona­than needed a shirt. I needed a coffee. And I led the way as the three of us strolled down to Hamra Street, where we could buy just about anything.

Christopher hadn’t been to Beirut since the civil war ended in 1990 and Jonathan had never visited. I used to live there, though, between the Beirut Spring in 2005 and the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

My old West Beirut neighborhood of Hamra wasn’t the same anymore. It looked the same on the surface, but it had been violated. Hezbollah invaded the previous May, in 2008, with its two sidekick militias, Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. The city’s most cosmopolitan and international district felt much like my house once did after a burglar had broken in. What happened to Hamra, though, was much worse than a mere breaking and entering. Hezbollah and its militant allies shot the place up and killed people.

On our way down to the main shopping street I told Christopher and Jonathan how the Syrian Social Nationalist Party had a serious presence there now. During the invasion in May, its members had placed their spinning swastika flags up on Hamra Street itself. Those flags stayed there for months. No one dared touch them until Prime Min­ister Fouad Siniora ordered city employees to take them down.

It was a warning of sorts—or at least it would have been heeded as such by most people. I didn’t go looking for trouble, Jonathan was as mild-mannered a writer as any I knew, but Christopher was brave and combative, and just hearing about what had happened riled him up.

When we rounded a corner onto Hamra Street, an SSNP sign was the first thing we saw.

“Well, there’s that swastika now,” Christopher said.

The militia’s flags had been taken down, but a commemora­tive marker was still there. It was made of metal and plastic and had the semipermanence of an official No Parking sign. SSNP member Khaled Alwan shot two Israeli soldiers with a pistol in 1982 after they settled their bill at the now-defunct Wimpy cafe on that corner, and that sign marked the spot.

Some SSNP members claimed the emblem on their flag wasn’t a swastika, but a hurricane or a cyclone. Many said they couldn’t be National Socialists, as were the Nazis, because they identified instead as Social Nationalists, whatever that meant.

Most observers did not find this credible. The SSNP, according to the Atlantic in a civil war-era analysis, “is a party whose leaders, men approaching their seventies, send pregnant teenagers on suicide missions in booby-trapped cars. And it is a party whose members, mostly Christians from churchgoing families, dream of resuming the war of the ancient Canaanites against Joshua and the Children of Israel. They greet their leaders with a Hitlerian salute; sing their Arabic anthem, ‘Greetings to You, Syria,’ to the strains of ‘Deutsch­land, Deutschland über alles’; and throng to the symbol of the red hurricane, a swastika in circular motion.”

They wished to resurrect ancient pre-Islamic and pre-Arabic Syria and annex Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Israel, and parts of Turkey and Egypt to Damascus. Their vision clashed with Hezbollah’s, but the two militias had the exact same list of enemies and they were both Syrian proxies, so they worked together.

Many Lebanese believed members of the SSNP were the ones who carried out many, if not most, of the car-bomb assassinations in Lebanon on behalf of the Syrians since 2005. In December of 2006 some of their members were arrested by the Lebanese army for storing a huge amount of explosives, timers, and detonators amid a large cache of weapons. Then-party leader Ali Qanso responded, saying, “We are a resistance force, and we use different methods of resisting, among which is using explosives.”

Christopher wanted to pull down their marker, but couldn’t. He stuck to his principles, though, and before I could stop him, he scribbled “No, no, Fuck the SSNP” in the bottom-right corner with a black felt-tipped pen.

I blinked several times. Was he really insulting the Syrian Social Nationalist Party while they might be watching? Neither Christo­pher nor Jonathan seemed to sense what was coming, but my own danger signals went haywire.

An angry young man shot across Hamra Street as though he’d been fired out of a cannon. “Hey!” he yelled as he pointed with one hand and speed-dialed for backup on his phone with the other.

“We need to get out of here now,” I said.

But the young man latched onto Christopher’s arm and wouldn’t let go. “Come with me!” he said and jabbed a finger toward Chris­topher’s face. These were the only words I heard him say in English.

Christopher tried to shake off his assailant, but couldn’t.

“I’m not going anywhere with you,” he said.

We needed to get out of there fast. Standing around and trying to reason with him would serve his needs, not ours. His job was to hold us in place until the muscle crew showed up in force.

“Let go of him!” I said and shoved him, but he clamped onto Christopher like a steel trap.

I stepped into the street and flagged down a taxi.

“Get in the car!” I said.

Christopher, sensing rescue, managed to shake the man off and got into the back seat of the taxi. Jonathan and I piled in after him. But the angry young man ran around to the other side of the car and got in the front seat.

I shoved him with both hands. He wasn’t particularly heavy, but I didn’t have enough leverage from the back to throw him out. The driver could have tried to push the man out, but he didn’t. I sensed he was afraid.

So my companions and I got out of the car on the left side. The SSNP man bolted from the front seat on the right side. Then I jumped back in the car and locked the doors on that side.

“He’ll just unlock it,” Jonathan said.

He was right. I hadn’t noticed that the windows were rolled down on the passenger side. The young man reached in, laughed, and calmly unlocked the front passenger door.

I stepped back into the street, and the young man latched once again onto Christopher. No one could have stopped Jonathan and me had we fled, but we couldn’t leave Christopher to face an impending attack by himself. The lone SSNP man only needed to hold one of us still while waiting for his squad.

A police officer casually ambled toward us as though he had no idea what was happening.

“Help,” Christopher said to the cop. “I’m being attacked!”

Our assailant identified himself to the policeman. The officer gasped and took three steps back as though he did not want any trouble. He could have unholstered his weapon and stopped the attack on the spot, but even Lebanon’s armed men of the law feared the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

A Lebanese man in his thirties ran up to me and offered to help.

“What’s happening?!” he said breathlessly as he trembled in shock and alarm.

I don’t remember what I told him, and it hardly matters. There wasn’t much he could do, and I did not see him again.

“Let go of him!” I said to the SSNP spotter and tried once more to throw him off Christopher.

“Hit him if you have to,” I said to Christopher. “We’re out of time, and we have to get out of here.”

“Back to the hotel,” Christopher said.

“No!” I said. “We can’t let them know where we’re staying.”

Christopher would not or could not strike his assailant, so I sized the man up from a distance of six or so feet. I could punch him hard in the face, and he couldn’t stop me. I could break his knee with a solid kick to his leg, and he couldn’t stop me. He needed all his strength just to hold onto Christopher, while I had total freedom of movement and was hopped up on adrenaline. We hadn’t seen a weapon yet, so I was pretty sure he didn’t have one. I was a far greater threat to him at that moment than he was to us by himself.

Christopher, Jonathan, and I easily could have joined forces and left him bleeding and harmless in the street. I imagine, looking back now, that he was afraid. But I knew the backup he’d called would arrive any second. And his backup might be armed. We were about to face the wrath of a militia whose members could do whatever they wanted in the streets with impunity. Escalating seemed like the worst possible thing I could do. The time to attack the young man was right at the start, and that moment had passed. This was Beirut, where the law of the jungle can rule with the flip of a switch, and we needed to move.

I saw another taxi parked on the corner waiting for passengers, and I flung open the door.

“Get in, get in,” I said, “and lock all the doors!”

Traffic was light. If the driver would step on the gas with us inside, we could get out of there. Christopher managed to fling the man off him again. It looked hopeful there for a second. But seven furious men showed up all at once and faced us in the street. They stepped in front of the taxi and cut off our escape.

None wore masks. That was an encouraging sign. I didn’t see any weapons. But they were well built, and their body language sig­naled imminent violence. We were in serious trouble, and I ran into the Costa Coffee chain across the street and yelled at the waiter to call the police.

“Go away!” he said and lightly pushed me in the shoulder to make his point. “You need to leave now!”

This was no way to treat a visitor, especially not in the Arab world, where guests are accorded protection, but getting in the way of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party could get a man killed, or at least beaten severely. Just a few months before, the SSNP attacked a journalist on that very street and sent him bleeding and broken to the hospital in front of gaping witnesses. A Lebanese col­league told me he was brutally assaulted merely for filming the crew taking down the SSNP flags as the prime minister had ordered. “He didn’t do anything to them,” she said. “He just filmed their flag.”

Christopher was encircled by four or five of them. They were geared up to smash him, and I reached for his hand to pull him away. One of the toughs clawed at my arm and left me with a bleeding scratch and a bruise. I expected a punch in the face, but I wasn’t the target.

Christopher was the target. He was the one who had defaced their sign. One of the guys smacked him hard in the face. Another delivered a roundhouse kick to his legs. A third punched him and knocked him into the street between two parked cars. Then they gathered around and kicked him while he was down. They kicked him hard in the head, in the ribs, and in the legs.

Jonathan and I had about two and a half seconds to figure out what we should do when one of the SSNP members punched him in the side of the head and then kicked him.

Christopher was on the ground, and Jonathan and I couldn’t fend off seven militiamen by ourselves. I was reasonably sure, at least, that they weren’t going to kill us. They didn’t have weapons or masks. They just wanted to beat us, and we lost the fight before it even began. I could have called for backup myself, but I didn’t think of it—a mistake I will not make again in that country.

Then the universe all of a sudden righted itself.

Christopher managed to pull himself up as a taxi approached in the street. I stepped in front of the car and forced the driver to stop. “Get in!” I yelled. Christopher got in the car. Jonathan got in the car. I got in the car. We slammed down the locks on the doors with our fists. The street was empty of traffic. The way in front of the taxi was clear. The scene for our escape was set.

“Go!” I said to the driver.

“Where?” the driver said.

“Just drive!” I said.

One of the SSNP guys landed a final blow on the side of Chris­topher’s face through the open window, but the driver sped away and we were free.

I don’t remember what we said in the car. I was barely scathed in the punch-up, and Jonathan seemed to be fine. Christopher was still in one piece, though he was clearly in pain. Our afternoon had gone sideways, but it could have been a great deal worse than it was.

“Let’s not go back to our hotel yet,” I said. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes with my palms. “In case we’re being followed.”

“Where do you want to go?” our driver said.

“Let’s just drive for a while,” Jonathan said.

So our driver took us down to the Corniche that follows the curve of the Mediterranean. He never did ask what happened. Or, if he did, I don’t remember him asking. I kept turning around and checking behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“Maybe we should go to the Phoenicia,” Jonathan said.

The Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel was one of the priciest in the city. Management installed a serious security regime at the door. This was the place where diplomats and senators stayed when they were in town. I doubted the guards would allow thugs from any organization into their lobby.

“He deserves a huge tip,” Jonathan said as our driver dropped us off.

“Yes,” I said. “He certainly does.”

The three of us relaxed near the Phoenicia’s front door for a few minutes. We would need to change cars but first had to ensure we hadn’t been followed.

“You’re bleeding,” Jonathan said and lightly touched Christo­pher’s elbow.

Christopher seemed unfazed by the sight of blood on his shirt.

“We need to get you cleaned up,” Jonathan said.

“I’m fine, I think,” Christopher said.

He seemed to be in pretty good spirits, all things considered.

“The SSNP,” I said, “is the last party you want to mess with in Lebanon. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you properly. This is partly my fault.”

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “But I would have done it anyway. One must take a stand. One simply must.”

Even after being forced out during the Beirut Spring of 2005, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus still wielded some of its occupation instruments inside Lebanon. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party was one of those instruments, and it counted the regime as its friend and ally. The geographic “nationalism” of the SSNP differed from the racialist pan-Arab Nationalism of the Syrian Baath Party, but it conveniently meshed with al-Assad’s imperial for­eign policy in the Middle East. It logically followed, then, that the SSNP was also allied with Hezbollah.

The SSNP was first and foremost a Syrian proxy, and Hezbollah was first and foremost an Iranian proxy, but during the previous May when various militias invaded Beirut, the SSNP established itself simultaneously as a de facto Hezbollah proxy.

I still shudder to think what might have happened to Christo­pher, Jonathan, and me if we were Lebanese instead of British and American.

“If you were Lebanese,” said a longtime Beiruti friend, “you might have disappeared.”

The next morning I awoke to find more than a dozen e-mails in my inbox from friends, family, and acquaintances, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in a long time, asking me if I was okay.

None of us had written about the incident yet, so I wondered what on earth must have happened while I was asleep. Did another war just break out? Did another car bomb go off? I hadn’t heard any explosions or gunshots.

As it turned out, the incident on Hamra Street with the SSNP made the news on at least four continents, and possibly six.

Great, I thought. Now I’m the story. Christopher was the nearest thing the journalism world had to a celebrity, so pretty much every­thing he did was news.

Every single reporter without exception got the details wrong. In one version, we got in a bar fight. In another, we were attacked by foppish shoe shoppers. In almost every version, Christopher was drunk or had been drinking. Not one of the reporters who wrote up the story bothered to ask any of us who were actually there what had happened. Some even claimed they had “confirmed” this or that detail, but all they were doing was publishing rumors. It made me think, not for the first time, that first-person narrative journalism, whatever its faults, was far more reliable than the alternative.

Some of my politically connected Lebanese pals were furious when they heard what happened. One friend, whom I’ll just call Faisal so he won’t get into trouble, said it was time to retaliate.

“They attacked guests in our country,” he said as his blood pres­sure rose, “and they can’t get away with it.”

I appreciated that my friends were looking out for me, but I felt distinctly uneasy about where he was going with this. A retaliation could easily end badly and might even escalate. Still, I couldn’t dis­suade him, and he called his bosses and asked for a posse.

Party leaders turned him down, which disappointed him but relieved me. And it occurred to me later that what Faisal had in mind was likely much more serious than tit-for-tat payback.

“What, exactly, did Faisal mean by retaliate?” I asked a mutual Lebanese friend.

“He wanted to shoot them, of course,” she said.

He wanted to shoot them!

I later sat down with Christopher over coffee in the hotel lobby and asked him to reflect on the recent unpleasantness.

“When I told you that I should have warned you,” I said, “that I take partial responsibility, you said. . .”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” he said. “Thank you, though, for giving me a protective arm. I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone. I haven’t seen that particular symbol since I saw the Syrianization of Lebanon in the 1970s. And actually, the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite believe it.”

“You saw it when you were here before?” I said.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “But it was more toward the Green Line. I did not expect to see it so flagrantly on Hamra. Anyway, call me old-fashioned if you will, but my line is that swastika posters are to be defaced or torn down. I mean, what other choice do you have? I’d like to think I’d have done that if I had known it was being guarded by people who are swastika fanciers. I have done that in my time. I have had fights with people who think that way. But I was surprised first by how violent and immediate their response was, and second by how passive and supine was the response of the police.”

The men of the SSNP had to use force to maintain a hold in West Beirut. Many of its members were Orthodox Christians, as was its founder Antun Saadeh, while most West Beirutis were Sunni Muslims. They would hardly be any less welcome in Tel Aviv. If its enforcers didn’t jump Christopher in the street, their commemorative sign would not have lasted.

“But I was impressed,” Christopher said, “with the response of the cafe girls.”

“What was their response?” I said. “I missed that.”

“Well,” he said, “when I was thrown to the ground and bleeding from my fingers and elbow, they came over and asked what on earth was going on. How can this be happening to a guest, to a stranger? I don’t remember if I was speaking English or French at that time. I said something like ‘merde fasciste,’ which I hope they didn’t misinterpret.”

I did not see the cafe girls. Or, if I did, I don’t remember them. Once the actual violence began, it was over and done with in seconds.

“By then,” Christopher said, “I had become convinced that you were right, that we should get the fuck out of there and not, as I had first thought, get the hotel security between them and us. I thought no, no, let’s not do that. We don’t want them to know where we are. The harassment might not stop. There was a very gaunt look in the eye of the young man, the first one. And there was a very mad, sadistic, deranged look in the eyes of his auxiliaries. I wish I’d had a screwdriver.”

“You know these guys are widely suspected of setting off most or all of the car bombs,” I said.

“They weren’t ready for that then,” he said.

“They weren’t,” I said, “but they’re dangerous.”

“Once you credit them like that,” he said, “you do all their work for them. They should have been worried about us. Let them worry. Let them wonder if we’re carrying a tool or if we have a crew. I’d like to go back, do it properly, deface the thing with red paint so there’s no swastika visible. You can’t have the main street, a shopping and commercial street, in a civilized city patrolled by intimidators who work for a Nazi organization. It is not humanly possible to live like that. One must not do that. There may be more important problems in Lebanon, but if people on Hamra don’t dare criticize the SSNP, well fuck. That’s occupation.”

“It is,” I said, “in a way. They have a state behind them. They aren’t just a street gang; they’re a street gang with a state.”

“Yes,” Christopher said. “They’re the worst. And also a Greek Orthodox repressed homosexual wankers organization, I think.”

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party spokesman denied the attack ever took place. He lied.

Postscript: My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Finland's New Anti-NATO Party and Its Founder

A curious chain of events has unfolded in Finland that makes one wonder about the country’s newly formed anti-NATO political party, its founder, and his discomforting relationships with some shadowy characters.

Paavo Väyrynen is a veteran politician of the first order. Representing Finland's primarily rural Center Party, he has been a candidate for president three times. And, he has also served at one time or other as foreign minister, labor minister, minister for foreign trade and international development, minister of trade, as well as an MP and now an MEP. Earlier this month, as the country begins to debate NATO membership, Väyrynen announced that he’s launching a new party, the Citizens’ Party, which he says will fight to maintain Finland’s military non-allied status. That is, he wants to keep Finland out of NATO.

Why Reintegrating the Donbas Is Suicide for Ukraine

If you’re wondering why the Minsk peace process isn’t leading to peace, look no further than a recent interview with Vladislav Inozemtsev, a highly respected Russian economist and director of the Center for the Study of Postindustrial Society in Moscow. The bottom line—surprise, surprise!—is this: Vladimir  Putin doesn’t want peace. He wants to make Ukraine into a permanent backwater state dependent on the Kremlin.

New Book Release

My seventh book, Dispatches, has just been published.

Here’s the description from the back of the book.

Prize-winning author and award-winning foreign correspondent Michael J. Totten returns with a riveting tour of some of the worst places on earth in the early 21st century.

From crumbling Havana, Cuba—still stubbornly communist decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall—to a comparatively upscale Hanoi, Vietnam, still struggling to free itself from Chinese-style authoritarian rule.

From a nightmarish Libya under the deranged Moammar Qaddafi, to an exhausted, polarized and increasingly fanatical Egypt before the Arab Spring finally ripped the region to pieces.

From the Lebanese border during the devasting war between Israel and Hezbollah, to Iraq in the grips of an insurgency mounted by the murderous precursor to ISIS.

Partly a collection of Totten’s best previously published work, Dispatches includes plenty of new material from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the dysfunctional quarters of Europe. He goes to rough places so you don’t have to, and his dispatches are by turns entertaining, harrowing and occasionally even hilarious despite the dark subject matter. Whether you're an established fan or discovering the author for the first time, this one is not to be missed.

“Totten…practices journalism in the tradition of Orwell: morally imaginative, partisan in the best sense of the word, and delivered in crackling, rapid-fire prose befitting the violent realities it depicts.” Sohrab Ahmari, Commentary

“It is extremely rare to read such an accurate account of anything to which one was oneself a witness.” – Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great

“One of America’s premier foreign correspondents.” – Damien Penny, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Of all the journalists now alive and writing in English, ther are few whose reporting interests me more than Michael Totten’s—in fact, none that I can think of offhand.” – Claire Berlinski, author of Menace in Europe

“Michael J. Totten is one of a rare breed. Moving from front to front, he brings experience and context and the willingness to go where few men dare.” – Michael Yon, author of Moment of Truth in Iraq

You can get the trade paperback edition from Amazon.com for 19.99 or the Kindle edition for only 9.99.

Obama Administration's Secret Overture to North Korea

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that at the turn of the year the Obama administration discussed the initiation of talks with North Korea with the goal of formally ending the Korean War, which was only suspended by a truce, not ended with a treaty, in 1953.

According to the Journal report, the White House dropped the US’s long-standing precondition that the North would have to end its nuclear program before talks could begin. Instead, the administration said that denuclearization would simply be an agenda item in the peace negotiations. The North reportedly rejected Obama’s overture, refusing to permit its nuclear program to even be placed on the agenda. Pyongyang then detonated a nuclear device on January 6, ending the White House’s “diplomatic gambit.”

The paper’s report, if true, indicates the Obama administration was willing to execute another stunning reversal of American policy by essentially accepting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a nuclear state and condoning its violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Refugees Resettling in Latvia

Six out of 4.6 million: a figure so small it’s hardly worth mentioning. But earlier this month, Latvia accepted its first six refugees from the current refugee crisis. Considering that 4.6 million Syrians have fled their country since civil war erupted five years ago, that’s a miniscule figure. Besides, only three of the asylum seekers received by Latvia were Syrians—the others were Eritreans.

Still, their arrival is a breakthrough considering that like its Baltic neighbors, Latvia has virtually no experience receiving or integrating refugees from other parts of the world. Indeed, in agreeing to receive asylum seekers—it will accept a total of 500 within the next two years (possibly up to 800)—Latvia can claim to have acted in accordance with its new status as a full-fledged member of the EU and the Schengen area.

Could a Missile Defense Plan Turn China on North Korea?

On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry urged Washington to start direct talks with North Korea over its most destructive weapons.

“The focus of the nuclear issue on the peninsula is between the United States and North Korea,” said Hong Lei, ministry spokesman, at the daily news briefing. “We urge the United States and North Korea to sit down and have communications and negotiations, to explore ways to resolve each other’s reasonable concerns and finally reach the goal we all want reached.”

Beijing, with the urging of the Bush administration, had sponsored the so-called Six-Party Talks, which began in 2003. The concept was that progress was possible when the US and all regional stakeholders—China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—were present in discussions with North Korea.

The White House thought that giving China a leading role would bring out the best in Beijing, which would then use its considerable leverage to “denuclearize” the Kim regime. North Korea and China are each other’s only formal ally.

Moscow on the Tigris

My latest long-form piece is in the Winter issue of the print edition of World Affairs, and it’s now available online.

Here’s the first part.

America is tired of being America, so Russia is being Russia again.

While an exhausted and burned out United States wishes international migraines like the Syrian civil war would just go away, Russia is energized by the prospect of filling the vacuum and thus once again playing a major role on the world stage. Aggressively intervening on behalf of his ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, and projecting force well beyond even the frontier states in his“near abroad,” Vladimir Putin audaciously aims to change political outcomes in a region that has been out of his country’s sphere of influence for a generation.

The telegram to President Obama has arrived: “The Iranian-Syria-Hezbollah axis—by far the world’s most powerful terrorist nexus and the bane of American servicemen and policymakers for more than three decades—is now officially the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. Details to follow.”

*

Syria became a Russian client state in 1966 when the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a coup d’état, overthrowing the relatively moderate Aflaqites and establishing a far more brutal regime influenced heavily by Marxism-Leninism.

The relationship atrophied, of course, after the Soviet Union collapsed. For a long time, Moscow could barely hold its own country together, and Syria found its international support from the Islamic Republic of Iran and its terrorist army in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

But Russia is back on its feet again, Assad needs some help, and four and a half years into the Syrian civil war, it’s obvious that the United States is largely uninterested in any serious attempt to resolve the conflict one way or another. Russia can do whatever it wants.

So in early September, Moscow began shipping military personnel and tons of matériel, including battle tanks and mobile artillery pieces, on huge Antonov-124 Condor flights into the Bassel al-Assad International Airport outside the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

According to at least one American defense official, as of September 14th—two weeks before the intervention officially began—Russia’s deployment was already the largest since the Soviet days. In late September, Moscow began launching airstrikes against the smorgasbord of Syrian rebels fighting the government in and around the cities of Homs and Hama, well outside territory held by ISIS, supposedly the target of the intervention. And by early October, Russia was launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea and coordinating its attacks with Hezbollah.

Putin offered the prospect of a coalition against terror. But while the US and Russia agreed to a memorandum of understanding to avoid accidentally shooting each other out of the skies over Syria, Washington and Moscow otherwise aren’t cooperating.

“We’re not able at this time to associate ourselves more broadly with Russia’s approach in Syria because it is wrongheaded and strategically shortsighted,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said. “It attempts to fight extremism while not also at the same time working to promote the political transition” away from Assad.

Putin doesn’t care about Assad personally. Assad visited Moscow in late October for a meeting that according to all reports was as frosty as the temperature outside. Putin only cares about the Baath regime, its institutions, and its armed forces. It makes no difference to him which personality sits at the top of that structure. If some military commander were to shove Assad aside and rule like General Sisi in Egypt, Russia wouldn’t even blink.

The US is right to oppose both ISIS and the Assad regime. Syria’s government has sponsored terrorism not only against every single one of its neighbors, but also against the United States in Iraq. But let’s be honest: There will be no nonviolent political transition in Syria. The regime is overwhelmingly dominated by members of the non-Muslim Alawite minority, who will never negotiate with jihadists who want to impale them as infidels, nor with the ragtag “democratic forces” (now largely driven by Kurdish fighters) theoretically backed by the US.

Whatever is left of the moderate Sunni Muslim community would probably go along with a smooth transition of some sort, as long as it’s genuine. It’s what they wanted at the very beginning before the nonviolent protest movement escalated to war. But the regime wouldn’t be negotiating with passive moderates who have fled the country or are hiding under their beds. If there were negotiations, they would have to be with the men who have guns, almost all of whom at this point are battle-hardened extremists.

A proper transition to an inclusive and even quasi-civilized government in Damascus would first require the destruction of both the regime and the extremists, and right now no one is making any attempt to bring that about.

Fighting an insurgency with airstrikes, artillery, and cruise missiles is for losers. The US has been pinpricking ISIS from the skies for more than a year now with little to show for it. The Israelis thought they could beat Hezbollah from the air in 2006 and failed even more spectacularly.

Want to fight an effective counterinsurgency? Call General David Petraeus. He pulled it off smashingly in Iraq, but it required billions upon billions of dollars, tens of thousands of ground troops, substantial support from the local population, and years of determined effort and battlefield casualties.

And his gains evaporated almost instantly after he and his fellow soldiers went home.

Vladimir Putin is not going to call David Petraeus. At least for now, he’s only interested in a low-risk, low-budget intervention. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Moscow Times newspaper, Russia’s Syrian campaign is costing $4 million a day. That’s just $1.5 billion a year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider that the United States spent roughly $1.4 trillion in Iraq—a thousand times as much.

Will Russia be able to pacify an entire country while spending just a fraction of a percent as much as the US spent to pacify Iraq only temporarily? Probably not.

But no matter. Putin has three goals in Syria, and none of them involve permanent pacification.

First and most immediately he wants to prop up Russia’s sole ally in the Arab world.

The second goal is announcing that he wants America’s job as the world’s superpower now that we’re sick of it.

Putin wants America’s job because, why not? Russia is not Belgium, and it is not Canada. It was one of only two superpowers until the Soviet Union imploded under the weight of its own belligerent imbecility, and it has been wallowing in a post-imperial funk—“malaise” in Jimmy Carter’s lexicon—ever since.

It could theoretically regain some of its lost power as the West’s partner, but being one of many is not how Russia rolls. Whenever Washington makes a friendly overture to Moscow, Russians interpret it the way Luke Skywalker heard Darth Vader say, between bouts of heavy mechanical breathing, “Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”

Because he’s instinctively paranoid, as well as filled with ressentiment for what happened to his country after 1989, Putin does not trust the West, not even remotely. He is sure that NATO is coming to get him.

It sounds nuts from our point of view, and it is, but look at it Putin’s way. When he was still a lieutenant colonel in the KGB’s Directorate S, Europe was more or less evenly divided between NATO in the west and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in the east. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and NATO gobbled up just about everything in the old Communist bloc except Serbia, Belarus, and Ukraine.

Imagine how it would look from the West’s point of view if the Warsaw Pact rolled westward in the 1990s and swallowed up everything except Britain, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Would we believe Russia if it said he wasn’t coming to get us?

Nope. And we’d be right not to.

Putin is projecting his own ideas and values onto us. He’s asking himself what he’d do in our place, and doing it.

His third reason for intervening in Syria is because it’s good for him personally. During the Communist era, many Russians took pride in the fact that their nation was powerful even though it was poor. Putin can’t raise Russian living standards to Western levels, but he can revive some of the motherland’s former glory, and he can do it without the slave labor camps. The man is no Joseph Stalin. Secretary of State John Kerry was right to compare Putin to a 19th-century czar born two centuries late. His ratings are far better than those of any Romanov: Shortly before Halloween, less than a month into his Syrian bombing campaign, Putin’s approval ratings in Russia exceeded 90 percent.

*

What is the US take after Russia’s intervention? Shortly after it began, President Obama told 60 Minutes that it was a “sign of weakness.” He bristled when interviewer Steve Kroft insisted Putin was challenging American leadership. “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in,” he said, “in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”

But like it or not, Putin is taking the lead in Syria. He’s the chief power broker. Everything has to go through him.

Sure, he might fail. (He’s plunging headfirst into the Middle East, after all.) And he may well run Russia’s economy into the ground before he’s finished, but since he’s doing the whole thing on the cheap, on a lousy $4 million a day, he probably won’t.

A weak nation couldn’t even consider doing what he’s doing. Only strong nations can project hard power beyond their own borders. Belgium can’t do it. Canada and Mexico can’t do it. None of the Arab states can do it.

Aside from running guns and money to various proxy militias, the Arab states can’t do anything about Syria, even the ones right there on Syria’s borders. Lebanon and Iraq can’t even handle the militias in their own countries let alone in somebody else’s, which is why they’ve spent the last four and a half years wringing their hands on the sidelines of the Syrian catastrophe and asking for American help.

But America isn’t interested, so Russia is “helping” instead. And the Obama administration is responding by carping at itself.

“We’re just so reactive,” one current official complained to Politico anonymously. “There’s just this tendency to wait.” Another one said of the Pentagon: “They’re on their back feet. It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”

Feeling a little defensive, US Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney told a stunned audience of Syrian-Americans that the “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him.”

“He should be on Saturday Night Live,” Republican Senator John McCain told the Daily Beast in response. “I strongly recommend it. I guess if Russia takes all of Syria and Iraq, then that shows they’re really weak. It’s ridiculous. . . just delusional.”

The administration has had trouble with Russia right from the start, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much lampooned “reset” with Moscow, which seemed to treat Putin’s intransigence as a hangover from the Bush administration.

The “reset” obviously failed. Badly. Putin is who he is. George W. Bush didn’t make him that way. The Soviet Union and the KGB made him that way. Any viable “reset” would have to come from the Russian side. The idea that Putin would play well with others if we simply acted nice and smiley was as delusional as calling Assad a reformer.

The problem begins at the top. In January of 2014, Obama told the New Yorker’s David Remnick that he didn’t need a grand new strategy, adding that where Russia was concerned he didn’t “really even need George Kennan right now.”

But with Putin in the Kremlin, Kennan is exactly who the United States needs. As a US diplomat (later ambassador) in Moscow during the Truman administration, Kennan first advocated the policy of “containment,” writing that the Soviet Union should be “contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may have been wrong in 2012 when he said Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe. Given the fact that ISIS didn’t exist at the time, Iran would have fit the bill better. Never mind, though. In hindsight it’s clear that Obama was a little too dismissive when he said, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War has been over for 20 years.”

Yes, the Cold War is over, and yes, Putin is spectacularly unlikely to ever attack the American homeland or any of America’s allies in NATO or elsewhere. But it’s obvious—isn’t it?—that Russia is brazenly expanding its role in the world, and that it’s doing so at America’s expense.

Read the whole thing.

 

No, Iran is Not a Democracy

Vox magazine just published a video on YouTube narrated by Max Fisher that supposedly explains how the next Iranian election could make history.

He starts by saying that Iran is confusing because it has “an unelected Supreme Leader at the top” and a president who is chosen in “far from perfect” elections. “So is Iran a dictatorship, or is it a democracy?” he asks before answering, “as it turns out, it’s both.”

No, it’s not. Max Fisher answered the question correctly before he answered it.

The head of state isn’t elected.

And his description of the elections as “far from perfect” is the kind of condescending euphemism that’s only ever used to describe somebody else’s problems.

Let’s leave aside the blatant vote-stealing in Iran’s 2009 presidential election, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner in districts that opposed him as overwhelmingly as San Francisco opposes Dick Cheney. Nevermind that disgraceful episode.

Elections in Iran are rigged even when they aren’t rigged.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hand-picks everybody who runs for president. Moderates are rejected routinely. Only the less-moderate of the moderates—the ones who won’t give Khamenei excessive heartburn if they win—are allowed to run at all. Liberal and leftist candidates are rejected categorically.

Imagine Dick Cheney as the overlord of America allowing us to choose which one of his friends will be in the co-pilot’s seat. That’s not democracy. That’s not even a fake democracy.

The Iranian system is worse, though. The president isn’t even the co-pilot.

He’s not quite a figurehead. He can tinker with a few things around the edges. But the country is run by the unelected Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is officially designated as a terrorist organization.

Fisher thinks the upcoming election may be a game-changer, though, because the so-called Assembly of Experts is an elected body, it will choose the next Supreme Leader, and the current Supreme Leader acknowledges that he’s likely to die soon. Therefore, if “moderates” win the election, the next Supreme Leader will almost certainly be a moderate.

That would be great. Really, it would. I’d pop a champagne cork. Iran would still be a dictatorship/democracy hybrid in Fisher’s formulation, but at least it would be a less extreme one. It could be like post-Maoist China, perhaps, or post-Soviet Russia. Unfree, but no longer totalitarian. It would be progress. No doubt about it.

But “moderates” in the Iranian regime aren’t moderate by any objective international definition. Everyone who gets to run in the election for the Assembly of Expert will be hand-picked by the Supreme Leader. And every single one of them will be an Islamic theologian. That’s what the Assembly of Experts is. A theocratic institution of Islamic theologians.

None of the “experts” are atheists. None of them are secularists. None of them are agnostic. None of them are liberals under any conceivable definition of the word liberal. Certainly none of them are Christians, Jews or Baha’is. They’re all Islamic theologians or they wouldn’t even be in the Assembly of Experts.

So let’s run another thought experiment here. Let’s say Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson is the dictator-for-life in America. He’s more powerful than the White House. We get to vote for the president even though he isn’t our head of state, but Pat Robertson decides all by himself who’s on the ballot. And he chooses Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Those are our options.

Meanwhile, Marco Rubio is unemployed, Hillary Clinton is under house arrest and Bernie Sanders is languishing in an orange jumpsuit at the Camp X-ray prison in Guantanamo Bay. Liberal activists who complain in the streets vanish into dungeons forever.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson is going to die soon, so he hand-picks hundreds of Evangelical Christians that we get to vote for or against. The winner will choose who replaces him.

Does that sound even remotely like a democracy? Like a system that has authoritarian elements alongside democratic elements?

Not to me, it doesn’t. And I’d bet my bottom dollar that Max Fisher wouldn’t think so either if he had to live in such a distorted version of America. He’d call it fascist, or something similar, and he would be right.

Vox uploaded the video to Facebook as well as to YouTube, and the comments are overwhelmingly hostile. Huge numbers of Iranian grownups are chiming in and schooling the Vox kids. It's fascinating and educational—hopefully for Max Fisher as well as the rest of us. 

Signs of Hope for Judicial Reform in Ukraine

Post-communist Ukraine has long struggled to reform its judicial system and rid itself of pervasive and systematic petty and serious corruption—one of the many poisonous legacies experienced by all post-Soviet states. I recently interviewed Oleksandr Marusiak, an articulate and serious 25-year old from Chernivtsi in western Ukraine, who is part of a new breed of young people being recruited to reform and modernize the country’s police and its policing methods. As he described his on-the-ground experience in the recruiting and training process, I couldn’t help but be hopeful that, despite the continuing problems in Kyiv, some reforms just might be taking hold in the provinces. Here’s why:

MOTYL: How did you apply for and get the job?

The Kremlin and Chechnya: A Cruel Irony

Of all the historical ironies, the one surrounding the Kremlin’s relationship with Chechnya must surely be one of the cruelest. 

When Chechens fell victim to Moscow’s heavy-handed campaign of force to reestablish control over the restive region, it was Russian democrats who protested the loudest against large-scale human rights abuses that accompanied the “counterterrorist operation.” Yegor Gaidar and Grigory Yavlinsky, the leaders of the rival liberal parties in Russia’s parliament, who agreed on little else, stood side by side in their opposition to the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In January 1996, Boris Nemtsov, the newly reelected governor of Nizhny Novgorod, collected 1 million signatures (in a region of 3 million) under a petition against the war in Chechnya and brought them to President Yeltsin’s desk in the Kremlin. “Are these signatures for or against me?” an irritated Yeltsin asked Nemtsov. “That depends on what you do, Mr. President,” the governor replied audaciously. “If you continue the war, they are against you. If you end it, they are for you.

China Communist Party Elder Speaks Out Against Censorship

Censorship has gone too far, contends Zhou Ruijin, 76, in an essay published in China in January and on Phoenix TV’s ifeng.com early this month. “To be frank, some leaders in the party’s propaganda department were managing the press like how they would manage a train schedule, directly intervening in the approach and procedure of news reporting,” he wrote.

Zhou, a leading liberal writer in the 1990s, attacked today’s propaganda chiefs for taking down offending websites and deleting postings, calling these actions contrary to the concept that the Communist Party govern the country according to law. Moreover, he condemned “waves of campaigns, strict clampdowns, and public shaming,” the last a reference to the parading of people making Cultural Revolution-style confessions on television.

“In a phase of social transition, it is normal that there are different views and discussions in the field of ideology, that the public air their own opinions on deepening reforms,” wrote Zhou. “They can only be guided, but not repressed.”

Stalin’s Partisans in Ukraine

Alexander Gogun’s excellent study, Stalin’s Commandos: Ukrainian Partisan Forces on the Eastern Front, sometimes reads like an analysis of Putin’s commandos in the eastern Donbas. In both cases, the official Moscow line was and is that they’re a popular movement generated by discontent from below. In fact, Stalin’s commandos, like Putin’s, were largely creatures of the Kremlin—a point Gogun, a Russian scholar currently based at the Free University in Berlin, makes forcefully, repeatedly, and convincingly.

Hezbollah Devours Lebanon

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared victory last week in Lebanon.

He has made plenty of empty bombastic victory boasts in the past, most notoriously after the Israelis served his own ass to him on a kabob skewer during the 2006 war, but this time, thanks to the now-unchecked rise of Iranian power, Hezbollah really is winning.

“Iran can do anything it wants in Lebanon without any political opposition or challenges,” Hanin Ghaddar writes in NOW Lebanon. “And now Iran can focus to win what it needs in Syria, while everyone is busy making business deals with the ‘new Iran.’ Lebanon, on the other hand, is going to pay a very high price for all these deals and compromises, more so as Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are scoring more gains in Syria.”

Before Osama bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001, Hezbollah killed more Americans than any other terrorist organization in the world. Its killing spree began, not long after the Iranian hostage crisis, in 1983 with the destruction of the US Embassy in Beirut and the Marine barracks near the international airport with suicide truck bombers.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps created Hezbollah from scratch during the chaos of Lebanon’s civil war in 1982, and the so-called Party of God has been the most successful export of the Iranian revolution ever since. Hezbollah is, in effect, the Lebanese branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. It answers to “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei and their flags are almost identical.

Iran spent roughly 100 million dollars a year on Hezbollah before the war in Syria started. Now that the nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran is going into effect, the Iranian government has 100 billion dollars worth of previously frozen assets to play with. That’s a thousand times as much as its baseline Hezbollah budget.

And that 100 billion only includes previously frozen assets the United States returned a little more than a week ago. It doesn’t take into account all the additional wealth the Iranian government will be able to produce now that the sanctions are gone.

Hezbollah is already the most advanced terrorist army in the world. ISIS is larger and holds more territory at the moment, but ISIS doesn’t have a terrifying arsenal of missiles that can turn an entire nation into a kill zone. Hezbollah does. And if the Iranian regime decides to pull out all the stops, there’s no telling how much of a menace Hezbollah could become in the future.

The Syrian and Iranian governments have never stopped backing these guys to the hilt, and Hezbollah is repaying the favor by fighting in Syria on behalf of its beleaguered co-patron Bashar al-Assad, who is supported now not only by Iran but also by Russia.

So Hezbollah is part of an extremely powerful geopolitical bloc while leaders of Lebanon’s anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition have seen every single one of their friends shrug and say, you’re on your own.

Lebanon has been politically deadlocked and without a president for almost two years now, but the anti-Hezbollah coalition can’t hold the line anymore. They’ve completely surrendered. In late January, two of March 14’s most prominent leaders finally threw in the towel and nominated pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah figures to fill the vacancy.

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces—a former Christian militia that was allied with Israel during the 1975-1990 civil war—made amends of sorts with his old nemesis, Michel Aoun, who has been angling for the presidency and backed by Assad and Hezbollah for a little more than a decade.

At the same time, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri whom the Syrians and Hezbollah assassinated with a truck bomb in 2005, nominated Marada movement leader Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency. Franjieh, like his father and grandfather before him, is so close to the House of Assad he may as well be a blood relative. He spent his teenage years in Syria as the protégé of Bassel al-Assad.

“Within March 14,” Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said last week and smiled, “one essential member supports Aoun, while another essential member supports Franjieh. Is this a loss for us, or a gain?”

Hariri and Geagea aren’t throwing their support behind their old foes because they suddenly think Assad, Hezbollah, the Iranian regime and Vladimir Putin are awesome. They don’t have much of a choice. The West doesn’t have their back anymore, so what else are they supposed to do? They can’t possibly take on the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah-Russian axis all by themselves. They tried for a while and got nowhere, and it’s finally over.

The US government saw this coming, of course, even while trying to downplay it, so Congress struck preemptively with the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which will impose sanctions on any foreign banks that do business with Hezbollah.

Iran can do business with Hezbollah without using banks, of course, first and foremost by continuing to transfer an unlimited amount of sophisticated weapons as it has been doing all along anyway. Even if Iran were to use the international banking system, you can bet your bottom dollar that the US will pretend it’s not happening, at least for a while, to prevent the painstakingly negotiated nuclear deal from unraveling.

Lebanon may not be the most crucial country according to narrowly defined American interests, but like Tunisia, it’s one of the few Arab countries that has had a real shot at building something resembling a democratic system during the last couple of years. Lebanon is divided against itself, though, as it always has been, and Syria and Iran are aggressively and even violently backing the anti-Western and anti-democratic side. With no one supporting Lebanon’s pro-Western and pro-democratic side, there was ever only one possible outcome.

The West’s current mood of conflict avoidance is perfectly understandable, and it’s all-too human, but it’s no more effective than conflict avoidance in interpersonal relationships. The problem is not being resolved. It’s left to fester and worsen instead.

Weak states like Qatar have no choice but to engage in perennial conflict avoidance, but since ancient times Foreign Policy 101 has demanded that great powers reward their friends and punish their enemies. Leaders who cleverly attempt to defy gravity will deserve everything they’re going to get.

Where Is China’s Central Bank Chief?

In China and elsewhere, there is increasingly intense speculation as to why Zhou Xiaochuan, the highly acclaimed governor of the People’s Bank of China, has for months been silent about the renminbi, the ailing Chinese currency. His silence and absence is most unusual and apparently prompted IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to chide Beijing at Davos last month for the government’s inadequate communication with financial markets.

Zhou, notably, stayed away from the central bank’s August 13 press conference, held just two days after the shock devaluation of the yuan, as the Chinese currency is informally known. Though he appeared at a G-20 finance meeting in Ankara in early September, he has since vanished. That he skipped Davos, raised eyebrows.

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