IPS Blog

The Other Case for Intervention in Syria

Confession: supporting non-intervention in Syria requires considerable restraint on the part of this author. In Problem From Hell, Samantha Power had me at Rafael Lemkin.* To someone with a savior complex (okay, me), it seems like the most virtuous use of military resources: rescuing innocents, deposing tyrants.

Problem is, as we well know, in practice, it seldom works. Also in theory, military intervention is more likely to be successful when mandated by an international body. Unfortunately, it’s as difficult to get anything constructive done in the U.N. Security Council as it is in the U.S. Congress.

In a piece for the New York Times on May 30 titled For the White House, a Wary Wait as Syria Boils, Peter Baker wrote about precedents for U.S. intervention in recent years.

Every week or so, a cabinet or deputy cabinet-level meeting is convened on Syria and, much to the frustration of the participants, each time the choices on the table are more or less the same: more diplomacy, more sanctions. … Unlike in Libya, there is no defined rebel army holding territory that would be helped by airstrikes. Syria has a better trained, better equipped military, including Russian anti-aircraft defenses. And there is no United Nations or Arab League support for international force.

Meanwhile, James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, not only said that “the difference was that Bosnia was in the heart of Europe and a test of NATO’s credibility after the cold war.” But, that “the Bosnians set up their own breakaway government so there was a clear entity to assist, unlike the inchoate Syrian opposition.”

In effect, he’s saying the opposition is too powerless to be helped. In other words, the more help it needs, the less likely it is to receive any.

Meanwhile at Focal Points and the United to End Genocide blog, Daniel P. Sullivan calls for intervention — the other kind, that is.

It’s time for an intervention. The brutal massacre of over 100 people, mostly women and children, in Houla, Syria last week shook the world’s conscience. Despite more than a year of atrocities, the murder of civilians in Houla has spurred the largest global outcry to date and rare unified condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. It also brought increased calls for military intervention with U.S. General Martin Dempsey warning that he had contingency plans ready and that atrocities like those in Houla made military intervention, although a last resort, all the more likely.

But the massacre in Houla should also raise the specter of another kind of intervention. The international community should have a diplomatic “intervention” with Syria’s strongest remaining ally, Russia. In the chorus of condemnation that resounded after the massacre, Russia’s voice stood out for its glaring ambiguity. Even as it joined others in condemning what happened in Houla, Russia provided Syria with political cover and quashed any hope for meaningful action.

Kind of like an intervention by members of an Al-Anon-like group for nations that enable tyrannies. Syria’s civil structure aside, a pressing, but overlooked, pretext for military intervention does exist. At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles P. Blair explained in March.

Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world. Moreover, Syria may also possess an offensive biological weapons capability that Libya did not.

While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents, unlike many of their Libyan counterparts, are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being “hijacked” by jihadists. Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil-war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.

In other words, Syrians and the world are faced with two possibilities, both equally disturbing: either the current regime uses WMD to suppress the rebellion or those aiding it (ostensibly) seizes them and uses them against the state and, by extension, the Syrian people. Of course, foreign intervention might, in itself, prompt the regime to activate its WMD.

Meanwhile, by all rights, concerns about a nuclear program Iran might have been developing a decade ago and its current uranium enrichment should pale in comparison.

*The man who coined the term “genocide” and got the United Nations to pass a convention, however limited, against it.

Counterterrorism Calculus in Yemen Shortchanging Political Solutions

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator, Jr. seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day. -- Paul Mutter

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator, Jr. seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day. — Paul Mutter

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The Washington Post, stating what ought to be obvious about the US “secret war” in Yemen, In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda:

Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.

But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Presumably, the CIA would disagree that this sort of approach is undermining US counterterrorism efforts — even though it is said that it deeply disturbs the White House when “errors” like this occur:

On December 17 [2009], the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.

Or rather, we believe it deeply disturbs the White House, since as the Daily Kos diarist Jesselyn Radack notes, the White House “can neither confirm nor deny” the air war in Yemen and invokes a black ops non-disclosure rule to keep the books closed.

But the US is not “involved in some domestic conflict,” of course. Why? Because President Obama himself said so:

“We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.”

This distinction is patently absurd — and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted, awfully like what JFK talked up in cabinet meetings about Vietnam. What is going in Yemen is first and foremost a domestic conflict, and by taking a side in that conflict — alongside the Saudi-backed government in Sana’a, against AQAP and the Ansar al-Shariah — we have involved ourselves in a domestic conflict — perhaps even deeper than the CIA will admit. I would be inclined to just dismiss this statement as a “he kept us out of war” promise in campaign mode, if it weren’t for the fact that so many reports out of Yemen — including leaked State Department cables — illustrate that the US really is so fixated on al Qaeda it seems to disregard any suggestions that its air war is destabilizing the country, and that all the “collateral damage” is helping anti-government Islamists in southern Yemen make greater inroads towards Sana’a, and more willing to cut deals with al Qaeda cells “in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government.” Some of those likely involved in the US war effort seem to understand this, but the present policy does not seem to reflect their qualifiers on the composition of the anti-government forces. These qualifiers are not unlike the distinction between the Taliban and the original al Qaeda organization — i.e., that the Taliban emerged independently in the 1990s from al Qaeda and Mullah Omar ran his own war effort while maintaining a special relationship with bin Laden’s lieutenants and, in particular, the “55th Arab Brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance, which, while linked to al Qaeda, was a distinct entity.

Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen notes that AQAP, formerly the refuge of several dozen hardline Saudi clerics and thugs, has greatly expanded to take in hundreds of members from neighboring Somalia, and more importantly, many Yemenis as well. The now Yemeni-heavy AQAP would therefore have several units composed of foreign fighters and sympathetic Yemenis — in effect, “international brigades”1— serving among (loosely) aligned anti-government tribal militias in Yemen like the Ansar al-Shariah. But even so, AQAP is not the same as Ansar al-Shariah, a view seemingly accepted even by members of the Beltway’s inner circle of counterterrorism:

“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” [National Security Council spokesman Tommy] Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”

The danger in this reading, therefore, is that the US’ actions, by generating sympathy for AQAP, will blur the line between mainly tribal actors (especially Ansar al-Shariah) and AQAP by popularizing the latter among Yemeni Islamists — which could help AQAP build up its networks and resources to the point where it actually does succeed in one of its plots against US targets… or, against “softer” Saudi ones. And then the chips would be down for whichever administration is sitting in the White House at the time.

But the main American diplomatic concern — one shared by the Yemeni military, whose air force does not have the capacity to carry out “signature strikes” — is apparently that the US not be too closely associated with the drone strikes. The secondary concern, that there are underlying ethnic and economic tensions in Yemen which require addressing to keep the country from turning into another Afghanistan, is simply secondary. In part, this is because the central Yemeni government, despite its dependence on US largesse, really has no desire to help US observers go around the country to better report back to Washington on the civil strife. All the practical issues — and there are many — of doing so aside, the central government really has no real desire to enable this because such a survey of the country would probably make it very clear just how divided society is and how many tribes are so resentful towards the government in Sana’a (the US’s limited historical interest in Yemen certainly helps keep things in the dark). Given the choice of adding more drones to the aerial armada or recruiting civil society monitors, the White House is, from its past record, certainly going to choose the tech over the people because identifying the larger problems does not immediately produce deliverables — i.e., the AQAP body count. That fixation, Johnsen believes, is helping to blur distinctions between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah.

The head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC), one of the key behind-the-scenes players in all this (only those “in the loop” know his name) — embodies these discrepancies quite well, it seems: “We’re killing these sons of bitches2 faster than they can grow them,” he reportedly said in 2011 regarding the “signature strikes” program implemented in Pakistan and now practiced in Yemen (and possibly Somalia too) under the designation “terrorist-attack-disruption strikes” (TADS). And yet the “sons of bitches” quote comes from a man who has also reportedly conceded to his close associates that “this is not a war you’re going to be able to kill your way out of.”

Unfortunately, it appears to be precisely what the US is trying to do in Yemen.

Note: We’ll follow this post with a detailed breakdown of the forthcoming PBS Frontline documentary on Yemen from one of our contributors.

1To be clear, my analogy is based on seeing a similarity in an order of battle — foreign fighters in units fighting alongside a homeland “liberation” movement — not that the “original” al Qaeda is somehow running the show with AQAP, or Ansar al-Shariah.

2It’s not clear if he meant actual militants, or any male capable of bearing arms in the target zone, since the White House’s casualty assessments rely on the assumption that all males capable of bearing arms in the target zone are “militants” unless proven otherwise.

Focus on Food: Week of June 4-10, 2012

This week’s OtherWords editorial package tackles several challenging food issues. Jim Hightower explains why he’s worried about a new kind of corn in a short column accompanied by Khalil Bendib’s cartoon. Three op-eds address New York City’s proposed soda ban, mad cow disease, and federally funded programs that feed kids in need during the long summer break. And Donald Kaul responds to readers who reject his personal take on a vegan diet. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Behind Super-Sized Sodas, a Deeper Danger / Sam Pizzigati
    If we really want to narrow our waistbands, we have to narrow the income gaps that divide us.
  2. The United Nations is Failing Syria / Frank Jannuzi
    Now is the time for the world’s leaders to show support for human rights in practice, not just words.
  3. Not Only the Cows Are Mad / John Stauber
    Our government must stop relying on an inadequate testing system and outlaw the feeding of cow blood, fat, and protein to cattle.
  4. Summertime Hunger Spike / Marian Wright Edelman
    There simply aren’t enough programs available to serve all the children who need them.
  5. Bitter Broccoli / Donald Kaul
    Life without funny is too great a price to pay for good health.
  6. Mother Nature Doesn’t Quit / Jim Hightower
    So much of Monsanto’s poison was spread in the past decade that weeds naturally developed a resistance to it.
  7. Send in the Drones / William A. Collins
    Running the world is a lot of work.
  8. Killing Fields / Khalil Bendib
Killing Fields, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Killing Fields, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The Crisis in Syria Calls Out for an Intervention — with Russia

Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide Blog.

It’s time for an intervention. The brutal massacre of over 100 people, mostly women and children, in Houla, Syria last week shook the world’s conscience. Despite more than a year of atrocities, the murder of civilians in Houla has spurred the largest global outcry to date and rare unified condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. It also brought increased calls for military intervention with U.S. General Martin Dempsey warning that he had contingency plans ready and that atrocities like those in Houla made military intervention, although a last resort, all the more likely.

But the massacre in Houla should also raise the specter of another kind of intervention. The international community should have a diplomatic “intervention” with Syria’s strongest remaining ally, Russia. In the chorus of condemnation that resounded after the massacre, Russia’s voice stood out for its glaring ambiguity. Even as it joined others in condemning what happened in Houla, Russia provided Syria with political cover and quashed any hope for meaningful action.

Russia remains Syria’s main arms supplier with deliveries continuing as early as last week. It has also blocked all attempts at the United Nations (UN) Security Council to apply consequences like sanctions to Syria. Even after the Houla massacre, Russia questioned the UN monitor’s conclusions that the Assad regime was responsible, criticizing other countries for expelling Syrian diplomats, and making it clear that it would not consider further action.

The Obama administration has begun to pressure Russia, but has not done enough. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who is leading the charge, stated yesterday that if Russia did not join in UN Security Council action that a worst case scenario of regional escalation was likely to unfold. Today, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was pressing her case with Russia and, when asked about military intervention, responded, “every day that goes by makes the argument for it stronger”. Yet, the tough talk is undermined by the reality that the United States itself continues to do business with the very same Russian state-owned arms company that is arming the Syrian regime.

The United States should also work with Syria’s regional neighbors. Last November, the Arab League kicked Syria out. Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have criticized Russia for blocking earlier resolutions, saying that the action was effectively giving Syria “a license to kill”. These countries need to make clear to Russia that supporting Syria is not in its regional interest. They may also be able to provide some incentives to counter Russia’s worries over lost business and influence with the fall of Syria.

Russia is not alone in its support of the Syrian regime. Iran continues to pump money and weapons into Syria and mistakenly admitted last week that it was sending its own troops in. Venezuela delivered a ship full of diesel fuel last week, undermining efforts toward building effective pressure. And China has joined Russia in blocking action in the Security Council. But, Russia has been by far the strongest voice in protecting the Syrian regime from international pressure.

The fact is that Russia continues to arm a regime that has killed more than 12,000 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The discovery yesterday of 13 bodies with their hands bound and gunshot wounds to the head, coupled with reports of the further shelling of Houla demonstrates that atrocities are set to continue. As they do, military options may very well become necessary as a last resort. However, first there should be an intervention with Russia.

An opportunity to engage Russia emerges tomorrow when Russian President Vladamir Putin begins a trip to France and Germany. It should be made clear to Russia that, if it truly wants to avoid any military intervention, now is the time to pull out all the diplomatic and economic stops. Russia must stop arming the Assad regime and be clear in its condemnation of the brutality occurring in places like Houla.

Condemnation without consequence is hollow. The current trajectory of atrocities and escalating regional sectarian war is in no one’s interest, not even Russia’s.

Daniel P. Sullivan is the Director of Policy and Government Relations for United to End Genocide.

Just How Many Cyberattacks Will Iran Take Sitting Down?

At the New York Times, Thomas Erdbrink reported on the latest cyberattack on Iran via a virus known Flame. “Iran’s Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Centre,” he writes, “fears that it’s potentially more harmful than the 2010 Stuxnet virus. … In contrast … the newly identified virus is designed not to do damage but to secretly collect information from a wide variety of sources.”

At Asia Times Online, Pierre Klochendler elaborates:

“Flame can easily be described as one of the most complex threats ever discovered. Big and incredibly sophisticated, it redefines the notion of cyber-war and cyber-espionage,” Alexander Gostev posted on the Securelist blog of Kaspersky Labs, the company that uncovered the worm. Gostev is head of the firm’s Global Research and Analysis Team.

Meanwhile, reports Erdbrink, an Iranian cyber defense official said, “‘Its encryption has a special pattern which you only see coming from Israel,’ … While Israel never comments officially on such matters, its involvement was hinted at by a top official there.”

It’s curious that Iran hasn’t obviously retaliated to the cyberattacks, killings of nuclear scientists, and sabotage of imported nuclear components, much of which seems to have been perpetrated by Israel. Klochendler reports on one possible reason.

“Iran’s brush with Duqu and disastrous encounter with Stuxnet prove that the Islamic Republic is, indeed, lacking in the field of cyber-security,” [Assaf Turner, chief executive officer of the Israeli-based Maya Security company] asserted on the Israeli news site YNet.

But, at NPR, Tom Gjelten reports.

“[The Iranians] have all the resources and the capabilities necessary to be a major player in terms of cyberwarfare,” says Jeffrey Carr, an expert on cyberconflict who has consulted for the U.S. Department of Defense.

Furthermore, writes Gjelten:

Sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.S. and its allies are so severe as to constitute a form of economic warfare. … Under the circumstances, could the Iranians be tempted to consider a cyberattack on the U.S.?

“There is a great deal of worry in terms of what they may be able to do if they’re pushed to the brink,” says cybersecurity researcher Dmitri Alperovitch. “If they believe the regime is threatened, if they believe they’re about to be attacked, [they may consider] how can they employ cyberweapons, either to deter that attack or to retaliate in a way they can’t do militarily.”

How long can Iran be expected to sit back and take it? It’s ironic that it’s suffering the sanctions and attack at a time when it not only seems to have halted terrorist operations on foreign soil — but has no nuclear-weapons program.

Nuclear Tuna and NPR’s Trivialization

Yesterday, National Public Radio (NPR) ran a story asserting that cesium-137 from the Fukushima nuclear accident found in Bluefish tuna on the west coast of the U.S. is harmless.

It is not advisable to eat Bluefin Tuna. Photo by tokyofoodcast.

It is not advisable to eat Bluefin Tuna. Photo by tokyofoodcast.

It’s not harmless. The Fukushima nuclear accident released about as much cesium-137 as a thermonuclear weapon with the explosive force of 11 million tons of TNT. In the spring of 1954, after the United States exploded nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, the Japanese government had to confiscate about 4 million pounds of contaminated fish.

Radiation from Fukushima spread far and wide. Like American hydrogen bomb testing, the Fukushima nuclear accident deposited cesium-137 over 600,000 square-miles of the Pacific, as well as the Northern Hemisphere and Europe. With a half-life of 30 years, cesium-137 is taken up in the meat of the tuna as if it were potassium, indicating that the metabolism holds on to it.

According to a previously secret 1955 memo from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission regarding concerns of the British government over contaminated tuna, “dissipation of radioactive fall-out in ocean waters is not a gradual spreading out of the activity from the region with the highest concentration to uncontaminated regions, but that in all probability the process results in scattered pockets and streams of higher radioactive materials in the Pacific. We can speculate that tuna which now show radioactivity from ingested materials have been living, in or have passed through, such pockets; or have been feeding on plant and animal life which has been exposed in those areas.”

In 2001, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry noted that “…concentrations of cesium within muscle tissue are somewhat higher than the whole-body average. Cesium has been shown to cross the placental barrier of animals...”

There are several reasons why it’s not advisable to eat Bluefin tuna:

  • Cesium-137 adds to the contaminant risk of harm to humans eating the Bluefin tuna, especially pregnant women and infants, who are the most vulnerable, and will for some time to come.
  • Bluefin tuna is an endangered species because of over-fishing and contamination.
  • Bluefin tuna accumulate other contaminants such as mercury from sources such as coal-fired power plants.

If NPR had been around in the 1950’s, would it also have trivialized the impacts of open-air hydrogen bomb testing?

Syria’s Atamans

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Atamanschina” is a Russian word that translates to “time of the atamans.” It refers to the period of the Russian Civil War when anti-Bolshevik Cossack bands — led by their “atamans” — dominated large swaths of Siberia with Japanese backing. These bands’ “anti—Bolshevik” campaigns were characterized mainly by pogroms against local populations and systematic extortion of refugees.

While Syria’s opposition — in larger part due to international (in)action — faces these pitfalls at present, it is Damascus’s forces that bear the greatest resemblance to these long-dead atamans. Despite the under-strength, under-armed and sometimes brutal actions of the anti-Assad armed opposition, the Assad regime already has its own Cossack hosts, in the form of its shabiha paramilitaries, and its most trusted atamans are the Syrian President’s relatives.

The dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh notes that this relationship is termed “al-salbata” in Syrian Arabic, and “is a uniquely Syrian term for the way in which state authority is exercised in Assad’s Syria: It is an amalgamation of salab (looting or plundering), labat (the act of knocking someone down) and tasallut (the unfettered exercise of power).” Alongside it is the phrase “al-taballi … roughly equivalent to ‘informing,’” which “means falsely accusing a person of doing something for which they will pay a heavy price.” Such statements often mean a one-way trip to the torture chambers run by a counter-intelligence-obsessed regime. The Syrian national security establishment is led by minority officers, and have long been dependent on brute force and extortion to maintain order. Their strongest supporters are those who’ve most benefitted from official largesse — from institutionalized discrimination and extraction, that is — and they must hope that those who haven’t benefitted remain cowed and distrustful of an armed opposition with Islamist and (other) foreign influences. It is, increasingly, a losing bet.

So far, it has worked within Syria. The Syrian Army, despite its setbacks and fear of defeat, continues to hold or contest the main population centers. Defections are reportedly limited, and the regime’s forces are (usually) better-armed and possess numerical superiority over their opponents. And the Ba’athist repressive machine still operates on a national scale. The fact that Syria has not collapsed entirely, according to Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is because overall, the opposition’s “efforts are what have kept society together, despite a growing and worrying pattern of confessional, criminal and revenge-inspired violence” — that is, most activists’ refusal to play ataman themselves along the lines Yassin al-Haj Saleh has documented.

And most importantly, no single unified force exists domestically to organize resistance to Assad. Some of the severely divided opposition groups that exist, inside or outside of Syria, armed and not, have so far failed to secure support for direct foreign military intervention as occurred in Libya last year despite their lobbying for it.

Unlike Assad, who aside from Iranian largesse (and Russo-Chinese diplomacy) depends mainly on foreign inaction to stay in power, the armed opposition grows desperate for direct foreign assistance from NATO and the GCC. In the West, for some observers it is only a matter of time until the Iranian elephant in the CENTCOM situation room is cited to massively increase assistance to anti-regime militias, with all parties seeking out their favored agents of influence. Tokyo threw money, advisors and arms at its favored Siberian proxies — so too will the US and Saudi Arabia.

A political solution cannot occur without a military one, but a military solution alone — one that does nothing to address the constant disruptions of ordinary life, at the very least — does not guarantee stability or security, even in the short term.

While armed Sunni companies kitted out with the latest MILAN anti-tank missiles and liaising with officers from, hypothetically, SOCOM or the Saudi National Guard, may be able to fight better against Assad, the temptation for such groups to increasingly rely on their foreign support to supplant the state’s forces as the powers-that-be will be great. People could be effectively trading one national dictatorship for local ones when such armed bands roll into town.

However, for many Syrians this is a purely academic consideration. Support for the armed opposition, or direct intervention from, say, the Turkish Army, would be more than acceptable. It could mean an end to the shelling, torture and sniping carried out by Assad’s forces in their towns. It could mean the possibility of averting another Houla massacre — the recent murder of almost 100 Syrian civilians, reportedly by Alawite shabiha, in villages near Homs — that are regularly occurring throughout the country. Worrying over the SNC and Muslim Brotherhood’s bickering, Kurdish separatism and the machinations of Iraqi opportunists in Al Anbar, comes far behind the urgency of not being shot at while crossing the street, or finding ways to get local life return to some semblance of normalcy: food deliveries, electricity access, restoration of sanitation services.

But if NATO and the GCC members really did desire to give Syrians the space in which to advance their own self-determination, their civilian leaders would have prioritized far sooner offering international aid to the Syrian populace where and when they can. Factionalism within the Syrian political opposition is exacerbated by wartime exigencies — opposition councils in Syrian cities must manage much with very little while groping towards a cohesive national resistance. With clearer non-military logistical and diplomatic support, presented as fait accomplis to Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Yang Jiechi — Assad’s two greatest international assets right now — as the last stop before providing military support to anti-regime militias, the “Friends of Syria” would had a stronger hand to push the Assad regime’s supporters to choose among desertion, defection or defiance. Now, the US is trying to push a “Yemeni” outcome as the UN Supervision Mission looks even more irrelevant. It could be possible to avert “ten years” of festering civil war by pushing that choice. By making it so that it is not only a choice between a President Bashar al Assad or a General Mustafa al-Sheikh. But as the Dubai School of Government’s Fadi Salem noted, “‘The world’ does not exist. Individual powers have conflicting interests on Syria. The humanitarian lens doesn’t apply.”

The Independent’s Musa Okwonga likewise noted this weekend, despite “widespread knowledge of atrocities,” “vested interests keep the slaughter going.” That is the primary risk of escalating Syria’s proxy battles along existing ethno-sectarian fault lines. And should foreign support dry up and the anti-regime militias lose support among Syrians, then initiative may return to the Assads. When you eliminate all the alternatives, you are left with only one victorious force. In Russia, that was the Bolsheviks. And it was the Bolsheviks who, in the years after the victory over the atamans, unleashed industrial-scale pogroms and extortions that far dwarfed the puppet atamans’ own depredations. That is the price of arming the opposition — and then casting them aside once they’ve served the purpose their armorers had in mind: foils to Tehran, Salafist agents of influence, “humanitarian” success story — all of which fall well short of the stated goal of effecting a political transition in Syria. The final stretch of the 20th century has seen so many stillborn policies birthed from such interventions in Bosnia, in Afghanistan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Iraq, in Somalia. Conflicts left to fester when attention moved on, or when the world grew tired of dashed expectations for “peace.” Syria would not be an exception, so once again, it is necessary for commentators to ask proponents of these policies where the “responsibility to protect” begins and ends. As Jillian C. York has noted, many of those in the Syrian Army are hardly serving there by choice or out of any sense of loyalty to the regime — any political solution must bear this in mind.

While foreign military intervention remains an extremely destabilizing choice, yet more and more Syrians may be willing to accept it, to accept anything that ends with Assad’s departure from Syria, one way or another. As a result, there are fewer and fewer avenues leading away from an incipient “Atamanischina,” actions that avert “Lebanonization”. But looking down what avenues are left, how much of a price can Syrians be expected to pay waiting for the “right” policy to appear on the horizon, and how long can all this go on as those “vested interests” move to arm their favored parties in order to secure “influence” in the country?

Quebec’s Student Revolt Goes Viral

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Quick: name the Canadian Prime Minister.

If you got it, congratulations. Otherwise, don’t worry. Those of you who drew a blank, or who took an uncomfortably long time to come up with an answer, are within a safe majority in the United States.

It is a testament to American insularity that people in the United States feel no obligation to pay any attention to the country that shares thousands of miles of our northern border. About a decade ago, one of the more popular comedy bits on Canadian television was a segment called “Talking to Americans,” in which the host convinced ordinary people stateside to do things like congratulate Canada on completing its first 800 miles of paved road or to sign a petition protesting the government’s reinstatement of the “Toronto polar bear slaughter.” (It wasn’t just yokels off the street, either; prominent individuals also got punked. Then–presidential candidate George W. Bush, for one, famously showed that he was not in on the joke when asked what he thought of an endorsement by Canadian Prime Minister “Jean Poutine.”)

Given this long-standing neglect of Canada, maybe it’s no shock that it took some 100 days of massive, concerted protest before the student strike in Québec finally started getting traction in the U.S. media. Maybe the surprise is that it broke through at all—and that the strike may yet provide a resonant example for young people in this country suffering an epidemic of student debt.

It’s always interesting to watch a social movement become a mass media phenomenon, as the Québec student strikes have started to become in the last week. It is rarely remembered that Occupy Wall Street was a virtual non-story through its first week, even in most of the alternative press. Many of the stories that did run sentenced that movement to irrelevance. It was only around day nine or ten of the occupation in New York City, after some startling video of police abuse started circulating online, that journalists decided that this was something they should be paying attention to. The movement snowballed from there.

I think we are now witnessing the same sense of escalating momentum with regard to the Québec students. The details of the protests against rising tuition fees and mounting student debt, which began in February, have long been available. Yet, as of late April, one of the few stories on the subject in the United States accurately dubbed the protests “The Biggest Student Uprising You’ve Never Heard Of.”

The lack of attention wasn’t due to a lack of numbers. Hundreds of thousands in Québec had rallied on March 22. That’s more than either the Tea Party or Occupy ever turned out for their protests—and the Québécois were drawing from a much smaller population.

Nor was the neglect a product of insufficient confrontation. As the Chronicle of Higher Education had reported:

The strike has been supported by near-daily protest actions ranging from family-oriented rallies to building occupations and bridge blockades, and, more recently, by a campaign of political and economic disruption directed against government ministries, crown corporations, and private industry. Although generally peaceful, these actions have met with increasingly brutal acts of police violence: Student protesters are routinely beaten, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed by riot police, and one, Francis Grenier, lost an eye after being hit by a flashbang grenade at close range. Meanwhile, college and university administrators have deployed a spate of court injunctions and other legal measures in an unsuccessful attempt to break the strike, and Québec’s premier, Jean Charest, remains intransigent in spite of growing calls for his government to negotiate with student leaders.

In part, the protesters didn’t need the U.S. press. Students at French-speaking universities in Québec have a stronger history of activism than their Anglophone counterparts, and French-language media gave the story serious coverage in its early months. But that’s no excuse for the English-speaking media’s slow response.

What finally seemed to do the trick was an act of government overreach: the passage of an anti-protest bill called Law 78. As Salon’s Natasha Lennard reported:

In a move indicative of a leadership grasping for control, the provincial government passed Law 78 in mid-May. Attempting to end the strikes and force the reopening of the universities, the law in no uncertain terms makes protest illegal. Groups planning demonstrations with more than 50 expected participants, according to Law 78, must inform the police in writing at least eight hours in advance of the protest with details of time, location, size and duration. More perturbing still, expressing support for demonstrations and strikes deemed unpermitted under Law 78 renders one guilty of that offense and liable to face the same steep fines.

Last week, coinciding with the 100th day of the student strike, massive crowds took to the streets in defiance of Law 78. Organizers hailed the demonstrations of Tuesday, May 22, when as many as 500,000 people marched wearing red squares (the symbol of the protest), as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Daily protests have continued, and total arrests from the strike now exceed 2,500.

In the wake of the strike’s hundredth day, I was pleased to see stories about the Québec students start popping up like spring tulips, with viral videos like this one sprouting widely through Facebook feeds.

Welcoming the newfound attention, one well-put “Open Letter to the Mainstream English Media” had this to say to reporters joining the fray:

Thank you; you are a little late to the party, and you are still missing the mark a lot of the time, but in the past few days, you have published some not entirely terrible articles and op-eds about what’s happening in Québec right now. Welcome to our movement.

Some of you have even started mentioning that when people are rounded up and arrested each night, they aren’t all criminals or rioters. Some of you have admitted that perhaps limiting our freedom of speech and assembly is going a little bit too far. Some of you are no longer publishing lies about the popular support that you seemed to think our government had. Not all of you, mind you, but some of you are waking up.

That said, here is what I have not seen you publish yet: stories about joy; about togetherness; about collaboration; about solidarity. You write about our anger, and yes, we are angry. We are angry at our government, at our police and at you. But none of you are succeeding in conveying what it feels like when you walk down the streets of Montreal right now, which is, for me at least, an overwhelming sense of joy and togetherness.

The author is right to call out the smug op-eds that have appeared. There are plenty to choose from. Social movements in Québec have long helped keep the cost of tuition low, and this is now being used against the students. Since they pay less than students in other Canadian provinces, the argument goes, young people in Québec must be insufferable whiners if they object to rising fees. This is the same logic with which all unionized U.S. workers with decent health care and pensions are told they should have to give up these benefits upon entering a contract fight, since so much of the workforce doesn’t get them. It is the local incarnation of neoliberalism’s famous race to the bottom.

Kudos to students in Ontario, who pay some of the highest tuition in Canada, for refusing to buy in. Instead of begrudging neighboring Québecers their lower fees, they’re ready to demand some for themselves. And given that the strike seems only to be gaining momentum, they might not be the only ones outside Québec to join in protest against crippling student debt.

Better late than never. I’m putting on my red square.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

Drone Strikes Magically Transform Dead Civilians Into Assassinated Militants

Though with decreased frequency, drone attacks continue in Pakistan The latest, reports the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, were in Waziristan, on May 28:

CIA drones returned to the attack in North Waziristan for the fourth time in six days, with a strike on the village of Khassokhel. … Up to seven people were killed in the bombing of a house. … A second missile attack destroyed a vehicle in datta Khel. … Up to four alleged militants died in the second strike of the day.

We all know that drone attacks create enemies and drive civilians into the arms of militants. But, with even more dark irony, civilians killed in drone strikes are liable to become militants posthumously, when they weren’t in life, due to fuzzy accounting.

Drones, with their promise of precision, are seductive to policy makers. As an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane and a new book by Daniel Klaidman excerpted at Newsweek make clearer than ever before, President Obama succumbed to their siren call and he has fallen for it. Becker and Shane write:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. … He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.

But, never fear:

A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.

And not just President Obama, but his counterterrorism advisor.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

Gag reflex successfully suppressed, we’ll move on to Klaidman, who writes:

The president is not a robotic killing machine.

Thanks for clearing that up. In practice, though the definition of a terrorist was stretched. Becker and Shane again.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. [But the] C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

What’s more, they write:

In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants. [Men] loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

As often happens, the protection of those who need it most — innocents in proximity to the enemy — is tossed by the wayside in the rush to kill the enemy.

Top Democrats Push Obama on Capital Controls

At a point in the election season when politicians of the same party tend to sweep their differences under the rug, two senior Democrats have sent a strong letter to the Obama administration on a subject unknown to most American voters.

Barney Frank and Sander Levin had strong words on capital controls for the Obama administration.

Barney Frank and Sander Levin had strong words on capital controls for the Obama administration.

This is the issue of capital controls — various measures governments use to control volatile flows of money across their borders. Iceland, for example, used them to prevent massive capital flight in the midst of their meltdown. Other countries have used them to prevent speculative bubbles. In fact, governments that used capital controls during the 2008 crisis were among the least hard-hit, according to International Monetary Fund research.

However, despite their proven effectiveness in many cases, these policy tools are prohibited by U.S. trade and investment policies. Particularly in the wake of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, it’s an embarrassingly outmoded position that only serves the narrow short-term interests of global financiers and corporations.

Thankfully, two top Democrats are not willing to just overlook the problem. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Representatives Barney Frank and Sander Levin stated they could not support U.S. trade agreements unless the administration produces a “binding interpretation” of U.S. policy clarifying that governments would not be subject to investor lawsuits if they use this policy tool to manage financial volatility.

Frank is the ranking Member of the Financial Services Committee, while Levin is the leading Democrat on trade policy as the ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee. They are part of a growing chorus calling for trade reforms to allow greater flexibility on capital controls. In fact, in their letter to Geithner, they cited a statement signed by more than 250 economists calling for such changes in U.S. policy.

The Frank-Levin letter comes at a key moment. In April, the Obama administration released a new model U.S. bilateral investment treaty. Despite strong calls for reform from public interest representatives on an official advisory body, the new model maintains the old language prohibiting capital controls, with no exceptions for times of financial crisis. Governments that violate such rules face the prospect of being sued by foreign investors in international tribunals.

The administration intends to use this new model as the template for bilateral investment treaties with China, India, and several other countries. It’s also a strong indication of what they’re seeking in ongoing negotiations over a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement involving at least eight other governments.

By stepping up pressure from Congress, Frank and Levin may help alter the outcome of these negotiations. By showing that the views of U.S. officials are not monolithic, they may embolden negotiators from other countries who are seeking a more reasonable approach. Two of the governments involved in the Trans-Pacific talks, Singapore and Chile, sought exemptions for the use of capital controls to prevent crises when they negotiated bilateral trade agreements with the United States about a decade ago. At that time, the Bush administration refused to concede, beyond putting some modest limits on how much investors could demand in compensation for certain types of controls.

Today, we have the opportunity to apply lessons from a financial crisis caused by poorly controlled financial activities. And it’s never been clearer that financial stability at home and abroad is essential for U.S. economic health. When our trading partners fall into financial crisis, we lose export markets and jobs. When hot money makes it impossible to control currency values, it hurts long-term investors and exporters and importers from the United States.

It’s in all of our interest to support a fresh, flexible approach to capital controls.

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