Les anglonautes

About | Search | Vocapedia | Learning | Podcasts | Videos | History | Arts | Science | Translate

 Previous Home Up Next


History > 2012 > USA > International (IV)



Tom Toles

by Tom Toles


June 10, 2012















As Syrian War Drags On,

Jihadists Take Bigger Role


July 29, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government grinds on with no resolution in sight, Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.

The past few months have witnessed the emergence of larger, more organized and better armed Syrian militant organizations pushing an agenda based on jihad, the concept that they have a divine mandate to fight. Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.

Idlib Province, the northern Syrian region where resistance fighters control the most territory, is the prime example. In one case there, after jihadists fighting under the black banner of the Prophet Muhammad staged significant attacks against Syrian government targets, the commander of one local rebel military council recently invited them to join. “They are everywhere in Idlib,” said a lean and sunburned commander with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo. “They are becoming stronger, so we didn’t want any hostility or tension in our area.”

Tension came anyway. The groups demanded to raise the prophet’s banner — solid black with “There is no god but God” written in flowing white Arabic calligraphy — during the weekly Friday demonstration. Saraqib prides itself in its newly democratic ways, electing a new town council roughly every two months, and residents put it to a vote — the answer was no. The jihadi fighters raised the flag anyway, until a formal compromise allowed for a 20-minute display.

In one sense, the changes on the ground have actually brought closer to reality the Syrian government’s early, and easily dismissible, claim that the opposition was being driven by foreign-financed jihadists.

A central reason cited by the Obama administration for limiting support to the resistance to things like communications equipment is that it did not want arms flowing to Islamic radicals. But the flip side is that Salafist groups, or Muslim puritans, now receive most foreign financing.

“A lot of the jihadi discourse has to do with funding,” noted Peter Harling, the Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, adding that it was troubling all the same. “You have secular people and very moderate Islamists who join Salafi groups because they have the weapons and the money. There tends to be more Salafi guys in the way the groups portray themselves than in the groups on the ground.”

But jihad has become a distinctive rallying cry. The commander of the newly unified brigades of the Free Syrian Army fighting in Aleppo was shown in a YouTube video on Sunday exhorting men joining the rebellion there by telling them: “Those whose intentions are not for God, they had better stay home, whereas if your intention is for God, then you go for jihad and you gain an afterlife and heaven.”

What began as a largely peaceful, secular protest movement in March 2011 first took on a more religious tone late last summer as it shifted into an armed conflict waged by more conservative, more rural Sunni Muslims whose faith already formed an integral focus of their daily lives.

But greater attention has been focused on a Qaeda involvement in the uprising since mid-July, when fighters professing allegiance to the terrorist organization appeared during the opposition takeover of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. In one video, five fighters declared their intention to create an Islamic state. (Mainline Qaeda ideology calls for a Pan-Islamic caliphate.)

Still, there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The Saraqib commander estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey. The foreigners included Libyans, Algerians and one Spaniard, he said, adding that he much preferred them over homegrown jihadists. They were both less aggressive and less cagey than the locals, said the commander, interviewed in Turkey and via Skype and declining to be further identified.

An activist helping to organize the Syrian military councils said there were roughly 50,000 fighters in total, and far fewer than 1,000 were foreigners, who often have trouble gaining local support. “If there were 10,000, you would know, and less than 1,000 is nothing,” said the activist, Rami, declining for safety reasons to use more than one name.

Not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either. One Libyan-Irish fighter, Mahdi al-Harati, who helped lead the battle for Tripoli, Libya, organized a group of volunteers for Syria, noted Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Syrian Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “He is not a jihadi; he sees himself as a Libyan revolutionary there to help the Syrian revolution,” Mr. Pierret said.

Fighters, activists and analysts say that jihadi groups are emerging now for several reasons. They generally stand apart from the Free Syrian Army, the loose national coalition of local militias made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Significantly, most of the money flowing to the Syrian opposition is coming from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.

Further, as the sectarian flavor of the uprising deepened, pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against the ruling minority, the Alawites, it attracted fighters lured by a larger Muslim cause. Alawites, the president’s sect, dominate Syria, but many orthodox Muslims view them as a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Understanding the military players in the Syrian opposition has become remarkably more difficult in recent months through the proliferation of brigades, battalions and fronts, many bearing religious names. Plus they change all the time, and some have all but disappeared.

But there is a marked trend in videos not displaying the revolutionary banner — Syria’s independence flag with a green, white and black stripe and three red stars. “The issue of the flag really is key,” Mr. Pierret said, “They are on their way to a more Salafi, jihadi agenda and a rejection of the national framework.”

One recent such video, highlighting the storming of a police station hear Aleppo, featured a pistol, the Koran and a song about fighting. “The Koran in our hands, we defy our enemy, we sacrifice with our blood for religion” were some of the lyrics.

The commander in Saraqib said that when he invited jihadists into his military council, they rejected several proposed names for the expanded group that included references to Syria. “They consider the entire world the Muslim homeland, so they refused any national, Syrian name,” he said.

The attitude prompts grumbling from fighters used to the gentler Islam long prevalent in Syria. Adel, a media activist from Idlib interviewed in Antakya, Turkey, in June, complained that “the Islamic current has broken into the heart of this revolution.” When a Muslim Brotherhood member joined his group in Idlib, he said, inside of a week the man demanded that the slogans that they shouted all included, “There is no god but God.”

“Now there are more religious chants than secular ones,” Adel groused.

Behind the surface tussling over symbols lies a fight for power and influence. Those attacking the government in the name of religion want more say, while those who preceded them want to limit their role. As in Iraq, the longer the fight, the more extremists will likely emerge.

For now, both fighters and analysts said not all the jihadist symbols could be taken at face value. The scarcity of weapons and ammunition in the unbalanced fight with the government inspires much more tension than ideology.

Some Syrians who seek a more secular revolution blame the lack of Western support for driving the rebellion into the arms of the extremists, either by not supplying arms or by not forcing a solution. “The radicalism is the result of a loss of hope,” said Imad Hosary, a former member of the nonviolent, local coordination committees inside Syria who fled to Paris. “The jihadists are those that say heaven awaits us because that is all they have left; the international community is responsible for not finding a solution.”

The most prominent emerging homegrown groups include Ahrar al-Sham and Sukur al-Sham, which field various chapters in Idlib and elsewhere. Jibhat al-Nusra, an organization that has claimed several suicide bombings, is considered weak on the ground, the experts said.

Ahrar al-Sham in particular enjoys the support of Sheik Adnan al-Arour, a Sunni Muslim media star in exile, who blasts Shiites and Alawites on his television show and on what appears to be his authentic Twitter account. “We buy weapons from the donations and savings of the Wahhabi children,” said one recent Twitter posting, referring to the Islamic sect prominent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, “and not from the Americans like the Shiites of Iraq did.”

He has also lashed out against Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the militant Shiite organization that backs President Assad. “I ask Hassan Nasrallah how many wounded Syrians has he healed? Because I know how many he and his party killed.”

Members of the main homegrown groups denied harboring extremist tendencies, like declaring other groups or individuals apostates. Abu al-Khatab, in his late 20s, said he was a former fighter for Al Qaeda in Iraq before he joined Ahrar al-Sham. “I agree with Al Qaeda on certain things and disagree on others,” he said. “Suicide bombings should only be against the security forces, not civilians, for example.”

Abu Zein, a spokesman for Sukur al-Sham, said the organization included Syrians plus other Arabs, French and Belgians. “The Qaeda ideology existed previously, but it was suppressed by the regime,” he said in a Skype interview.

“But after the uprising they found very fertile ground, plus the funders to support their existence,” he added. “The ideology was present, but the personnel were absent. Now we have both.”

Rami, the activist, thinks the jihadi tendencies mark both the length of the fight and the fact that society in many areas has become male-dominated and unstable, with the elderly, women and children having fled. Syrian Islam, he said, tends not to sympathize with extremism. A broad fatwa issued via Ahrar al-Sham against all Alawites was so widely condemned by other fighters that it was later diluted to focus on government figures.

Rami described one local leader in Binnish, a town near Saraqib, questioning the religion of Ahrar al-Sham members who he thought were kidnapping too many local Shiites.

“He told them, ‘Damn your religion — who is this God of yours you are bringing? I have been a Muslim for 40 years, and this is a God we don’t know,’ ” Rami said.


Dalal Mawad contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 30, 2012

An earlier version of this article misstated

the name of a Syria analyst

with the International Red Cross.

He is Peter Harling, not Harding.

    As Syrian War Drags On, Jihadists Take Bigger Role, NYT, 29.7.2012,






Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay


July 25, 2012
The New York Times


Maale Shomron, West Bank

WHATEVER word you use to describe Israel’s 1967 acquisition of Judea and Samaria — commonly referred to as the West Bank in these pages — will not change the historical facts. Arabs called for Israel’s annihilation in 1967, and Israel legitimately seized the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria in self-defense. Israel’s moral claim to these territories, and the right of Israelis to call them home today, is therefore unassailable. Giving up this land in the name of a hallowed two-state solution would mean rewarding those who’ve historically sought to destroy Israel, a manifestly immoral outcome.

Of course, just because a policy is morally justified doesn’t mean it’s wise. However, our four-decade-long settlement endeavor is both. The insertion of an independent Palestinian state between Israel and Jordan would be a recipe for disaster.

The influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere would convert the new state into a hotbed of extremism. And any peace agreement would collapse the moment Hamas inevitably took power by ballot or by gun. Israel would then be forced to recapture the area, only to find a much larger Arab population living there.

Moreover, the Palestinians have repeatedly refused to implement a negotiated two-state solution. The American government and its European allies should abandon this failed formula once and for all and accept that the Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria are not going anywhere.

On the contrary, we aim to expand the existing Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, and create new ones. This is not — as it is often portrayed — a theological adventure but is rather a combination of inalienable rights and realpolitik.

Even now, and despite the severe constraints imposed by international pressure, more than 350,000 Israelis live in Judea and Samaria. With an annual growth rate of 5 percent, we can expect to reach 400,000 by 2014 — and that excludes the almost 200,000 Israelis living in Jerusalem’s newer neighborhoods. Taking Jerusalem into account, about 1 in every 10 Israeli Jews resides beyond the 1967 border. Approximately 160,000 Jews live in communities outside the settlement blocs that proponents of the two-state solution believe could be easily incorporated into Israel. But uprooting them would be exponentially more difficult than the evacuation of the Gaza Strip’s 8,000 settlers in 2005.

The attempts by members of the Israeli left to induce Israelis to abandon their homes in Judea and Samaria by offering them monetary compensation are pathetic. This checkbook policy has failed in the past, as it will in the future. In the areas targeted for evacuation most of us are ideologically motivated and do not live here for economic reasons. Property prices in the area are steep and settlers who want to relocate could sell their property on the free market. But they do not.

Our presence in all of Judea and Samaria — not just in the so-called settlement blocs — is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile, and neglecting this fact in diplomatic talks will not change the reality on the ground; it only makes the negotiations more likely to fail.

Given the irreversibility of the huge Israeli civilian presence in Judea and Samaria and continuing Palestinian rejectionism, Western governments must reassess their approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They should acknowledge that no final-status solution is imminent. And consequently, instead of lamenting that the status quo is not sustainable, the international community should work together with the parties to improve it where possible and make it more viable.

Today, security — the ultimate precondition for everything — prevails. Neither Jews nor Palestinians are threatened by en masse eviction; the economies are thriving; a new Palestinian city, Rawabi, is being built north of Ramallah; Jewish communities are growing; checkpoints are being removed; and tourists of all nationalities are again visiting Bethlehem and Shiloh.

While the status quo is not anyone’s ideal, it is immeasurably better than any other feasible alternative. And there is room for improvement. Checkpoints are a necessity only if terror exists; otherwise, there should be full freedom of movement. And the fact that the great-grandchildren of the original Palestinian refugees still live in squalid camps after 64 years is a disgrace that should be corrected by improving their living conditions.

Yossi Beilin, a left-wing former Israeli minister, wrote a telling article a few months ago. A veteran American diplomat touring the area had told Mr. Beilin he’d left frightened because he found everyone — Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — content with the current situation. Mr. Beilin finds this widespread satisfaction disturbing, too.

I think it is wonderful news. If the international community relinquished its vain attempts to attain the unattainable two-state solution, and replaced them with intense efforts to improve and maintain the current reality on the ground, it would be even better. The settlements of Judea and Samaria are not the problem — they are part of the solution.


Dani Dayan is the chairman of the Yesha Council of Jewish Communities

in Judea and Samaria.

    Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay, NYT, 25.7.2012,





Jordan Worries Turmoil Will Follow

as Syria’s Refugees Flood In


July 25, 2012
The New York Times


AMMAN, Jordan — Fearing the fallout and the spread of the uprising in Syria, Jordanian officials have recently moved more forcefully to restrain opponents of the Syrian government who have fled to Jordan, activists here say.

A Syrian opposition leader from Dara’a said that intelligence agents tried to dissuade him from returning after a recent trip outside the country. Jordanian airline officials demanded he buy a ticket to go on to Damascus before he boarded the plane. In another case, an artist once imprisoned in Syria said that since arriving in Jordan in March, he had been interrogated four times by intelligence agents who warned that he would be sent back to Syria if he engaged in conspicuous activism against the Syrian government.

The episodes reflected Jordan’s perennially anxious state, battered by cycles of crises in the region, fearful of stronger neighbors and dependent on others for financial and military support. In recent weeks, Jordanian officials and commentators have made dire predictions that refugees could overwhelm the country as the war worsens, strangling Jordan’s fragile economy and straining its resources.

But officials are especially concerned that the uprising could unsettle the country’s already turbulent politics. Small but persistent demonstrations over the past year have focused on government corruption, and have resulted in increasingly bold expressions of anger directed at the country’s monarch, King Abdullah II.

The king has tried to manage the call for change with a limited reform program that his critics say hardly diminishes his grip on power. The Syrian conflict could worsen one of Jordan’s deep domestic schisms, between citizens of Palestinian descent and so-called East Bank Jordanians.

The government seems set on not letting more Palestinians enter.

Jordanian officials strongly deny that they turn back Palestinian refugees. In a report this month, an Interior Ministry official told Human Rights Watch that Jordan had not “sent any Palestinians back, period.” Near the border, though, refugees said they had seen it happen.

A Kurdish woman from Damascus said that when she and her family reached the border a few days ago, they met a Palestinian man and his two children going the other way. The father said Jordanian officers patrolling the frontier had told him he could not enter.

Violence has already crossed the border. Residents near the frontier with Syria said they had seen at least one clash between Syrian Army troops and Jordanian border patrol officers who were trying to help refugees cross. On Monday, Jordanian police officers fired tear gas to break up a fight between Syrian refugees and local residents outside a refugee camp near the border.

The confluence of fears has led the country’s leaders to watch their words. King Abdullah, who previously called for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to step down, was more circumspect in an interview last week, mentioning worries that Qaeda-linked fighters had joined the opposition. “If Bashar leaving the scene and exiting Syria brings a stop to violence and creates a political transition, that’s the lesser of evils,” he said on CNN. “But have we gotten past that stage? That’s a question I can’t answer.”

The Jordanian government has won praise for accepting 140,000 refugees. Many Syrians who have fled said that Jordanian officers rescued them on the border, in some cases as the Syrian Army pursued them.

The Kurdish woman said she left after her house collapsed under government shelling, killing her mother. Though she had no identity papers, the Jordanian authorities let her and her family enter; now they are searching for a Jordanian sponsor so they can leave the camp.

But Palestinians who have made it to Jordan cannot leave their camp, not even if they have family living elsewhere in Jordan.

Signs of Jordan’s uneasy relationship with the exiles are evident. In the border town of Ramtha, filled with Syrian refugees, there is no sign of the flags that opponents of Mr. Assad keep as the ever-present totem of their dissent. There are only portraits of King Abdullah and his eldest son, which hang everywhere.

The government seems just as troubled by the Syrian activists. Last week there were reports that one of them, Omar al-Hariri, was deported to Syria after landing here in Amman from Cairo.

Opposition figures in Amman said they were not sure what had happened to Mr. Hariri, saying it was possible he had voluntarily returned to Syria. A government spokesman, Sameeh al-Maitah, did not respond directly to a question about the details of the case, but said in an e-mail that “there are some cases where concerned authorities see that they should prevent the entry of certain people into Jordan.”

Wessam Salama, another activist who has lived in Jordan for several years, said he had been able to provide charitable services to Syrian refugees, with little harassment from the state.

The government seemed most concerned with anyone trying to provide weapons to the Syrian rebels, he said. “Anything with guns, anything that creates chaos, they will have no hesitation in delivering us to Bashar,” he said.

Recently, though the Jordanian authorities deported his sister-in-law after she returned from a trip to the Persian Gulf, reflecting a pattern that Mr. Salama said was increasingly common: Syrians who try to come to Jordan legally, through the airport or a border crossing, seem to face more difficulties than those who sneak across.

Nizar al-Hrakiy, an opposition activist from Dara’a, said he had received threats from people he believed represented the Syrian government since he arrived in Jordan, causing him to twice change where he was staying. At the same time, he had to contend with warnings from the Jordanian authorities. “They put pressure. They do not want us to talk to the media, or to work on any military issue,” he said.

“They are focusing on their security,” he said, adding: “They don’t want the contagion of the revolution.”

    Jordan Worries Turmoil Will Follow as Syria’s Refugees Flood In, NYT, 25.7.2012,






Showdown Looms in Aleppo as Syrian Army Closes In


July 25, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — A tense Aleppo braced for the gathering storm on Wednesday as both the Syrian government and the insurgents sped reinforcements to the city, Syria’s commercial capital, to battle over half a dozen neighborhoods where the rebel fighters attempted to assert control.

Sporadic skirmishes erupted throughout the day, with the rebels claiming to have attacked and burned down several police stations in those quarters. Government helicopters circled, residents said, peppering the embattled neighborhoods with machine-gun fire and an occasional rocket while ground troops periodically lobbed mortar shells.

There were no serious engagements reported. But all signs indicated one was looming. After withdrawing all visible security forces, for a day, Syrian Army troops brought in on trucks or buses suddenly deployed around the 13th-century citadel.

Thousands more were en route, according to rebel fighters and activists.

“People know there is going to be chaos, fighting, shelling, so people are frightened,” said one activist reached via Skype. “They have stocked up on canned goods and are not venturing out.”

There was no public transportation, and hospitals were appealing for blood donations, he said.

“We fear the government’s retaliation,” said Ahmad, a resident of the southeastern Salaheddiin neighborhood, where so many insurgents poured in from the countryside that they sometimes ended up fighting one another for control of individual streets, residents said.

People streamed out of the neighborhoods where the rebel soldiers claimed control, figuring they would be pounded by government forces, following the same pattern in one Syrian city after another during the course of the 17-month-old uprising. But some men stayed behind to protect their property from looters.

Residents in the outlying districts said refugees from the inner city had taken over schools and parks to live in. Many of them were fleeing for a second time, having come to Aleppo from central cities like Homs and Hama where the government began attacking months ago. In Aleppo, the neighborhoods where the rebels established toeholds were mostly poor and on the eastern side of the city.

Tanks and troops normally deployed in nearby Idlib Province began to lumber eastward toward Aleppo, fighters and activists said.

One column of an estimated 23 armored vehicles carrying soldiers and ammunition out of Jebel az-Zawiya, a rebel stronghold in southern Idlib, was attacked by local fighters, a local activist in Turkey said. Roughly a third of the vehicles were destroyed but the rest moved on toward Aleppo, he said.

Some rebels reached via Skype said they, too, were headed toward Aleppo, anticipating a major showdown.

The fighters in Idlib said they were preparing to exploit the sudden absence of government forces to leverage their area into more of an independent zone than they had been able to achieve in the past.

Nidal Qarra Mohammed, a member of the revolutionary council in Idlib Province, said the commanders of all the various militant factions intended to meet in a town near the Turkish border to declare their joint effort to make Idlib a safe zone free of government control. Mr. Mohammed said that some fighters had left Idlib for Aleppo after seeing Syrian Army soldiers pull up stakes and head there. Beyond Aleppo, clashes were reported in several major cities, including Damascus, and in Rastan, an insurgent enclave near Homs.

At a news conference in Damascus, Hervé Ladsous, the head of United Nations peacekeeping operations globally, said that half the 300 monitors first deployed in May had been sent home as the monitoring mission had now changed to a political one trying to start negotiations between the two sides. Its mandate expires in 27 days.

At the United Nations, Saudi and Qatari diplomats said they intended to introduce a resolution calling for a political transition in Syria in the 193-member General Assembly for a vote possibly as early as next week. The diplomats told reporters they were undertaking the action because of the Security Council’s failure to pass a Syria resolution last week after vetoes by Russia and China, which have consistently opposed any outside moves to subvert the Syrian government’s authority. Although the General Assembly does not have the enforcement power of the Security Council, approval of such a resolution would further isolate Syria and embarrass President Bashar al-Assad’s dwindling roster of friends.

The new fighting in Syria came as Turkey sealed its border to trade with Syria, a further sign of enmity between the neighbors whose leaders were once close friends. Turkey’s decision did not affect its policy on accepting Syrian refugees, thousands of whom have fled the mayhem for sanctuary across the border since the conflict started in March 2011.

Also on Wednesday, another Syrian ambassador to a Middle Eastern country announced his defection, the third to do so in the past two weeks. The resignation by Abdel Latif al-Dabbagh, the Syrian envoy to the United Arab Emirates, was not totally unexpected. He is married to Lamia al-Hariri, the Syrian ambassador to Cyprus, who defected a day earlier, said Mohamed Sarmini, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile. Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, announced his defection on July 11.


Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut,

and Rick Gladstone from New York.

    Showdown Looms in Aleppo as Syrian Army Closes In, NYT, 25.7.2012,






Ramadan Arrives Amid High Heat

and Political Transition in Arab World


July 21, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — This year’s Ramadan holy month may prove to be the toughest in decades — and not just because it falls when the heat is at its highest and the days are particularly long.

Traditionally, Ramadan, which began Friday in most of the Arab world, is a time for introspection, for charity toward the poor, for an increased focus on religion. It is a time when Muslims strive to avoid not only drinking, smoking, eating and having sex during daylight hours, but also gossiping and swearing — and even fighting with one another. The holy month is a time for solemn reflection during the day, and festive meals with family and friends at night.

“Ramadan is a wonderful month, praise God,” said Hatem Shawky, 42, a cabdriver working in Tahrir Square. He did have one complaint, though: “It is hot.”

This is the second Ramadan to fall during the Arab Spring, and in Syria especially, violence showed no sign of taking the holy month off, as government forces clawed back ground from rebels in the capital, Damascus, and thousands of Iraqi exiles decided their own country was safer, fleeing there over the past two days. Elsewhere in the region, Ramadan will be marked by the uncertainties of countries caught in the throes of change. Egypt has a new president with an Islamist background, Mohamed Morsi, who was inaugurated on June 30 but has begun Ramadan with his own authority uncertain, and his cabinet still not chosen.

Libya successfully elected a non-Islamist Parliament less than two weeks ago, but has yet to get its bickering militias under central authority. Tunisia just dismissed its central bank’s governor, a sacrifice to the harsh reality that the unemployed youth who helped propel the Arab Spring’s first uprising still remain just as likely to be unemployed.

Roundups of dissidents continued in Bahrain. Even in Dubai, where relatively timid activists have asked for more rights to free speech, United Arab Emirates authorities have responded with the arrests of 14 people since Monday on murky charges of antigovernment activity. Ramadan begins on Saturday in Iran, Iraq and many Shiite Muslim areas, unlike Friday for much of the Sunni world. (The two sects have different manners of calculating the first sighting of the new crescent moon that begins the month of fasting.)

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, dominated by Alawite sect, which is closely related to that of the Shiites, has declared Saturday the start of Ramadan, but many of those battling Mr. Assad in the streets come from the Sunni majority. Whatever day they begin fasting, the fighting seems likely to continue. Just after midnight Friday in Damascus, a man known as a Musaharati, charged with waking up his neighborhood to alert people to eat before sunrise, was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The daylight fast, in effect from the first light of dawn until after sunset, is particularly long this year. In Cairo on Friday, for instance, people who got up for a predawn breakfast needed to finish eating by 3:27 a.m., and then could not eat or drink again until after 6:56 p.m., 15 and a half hours later.

Each year, Ramadan, based on lunar months, shifts 10 or 11 days, so for the next three years the fasting day will be even longer than this year — but not nearly so hot, with daytime highs now peaking over 120 degrees in many parts of the Arab world. The last time Ramadan began at the height of summer heat was 33 years ago, in 1979. The word “Ramadan” derives from the Arabic for “extreme heat,” fitting for this year, though the observance is just as likely to occur in winter.

In the United Arab Emirates, manual laborers have been given religious exemption to take water when temperatures exceed 122 degrees, but only just enough to keep them at work.

Ramadan heat is even more of an issue in Baghdad, where daytime temperatures exceed 120 — but electricity required to run air-conditioners is at best available 12 to 14 hours a day.

Fasting will be particularly tough on some of the 3,000 Muslim athletes attending this year’s London Olympics; for the first time since the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the two and a half weeks of the Games fall during Ramadan. With London far to the north of traditionally Islamic areas, its daytime fast is a marathon — 18 and a half hours (from 2:39 a.m. to 9:06 p.m. on Friday).

Some athletes have announced they will observe the fast. Others will opt to break the fast and pay what some authorities say is the prescribed religious penance: feeding 60 poor people. While fighting is abjured during Ramadan, Islam recognizes that it happens all too often, and taking part in war is one of the exemptions allowed to fasting Muslims, along with exemptions for the ill, breast-feeding and menstruating women, and travelers.

In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees had arrived after fleeing Syria, according to a refugee worker, Mukhtar Mohamed Hamzeh. “We hope this month of Ramadan will be the month of the victory of the revolution,” he said.

In Cairo, the streets were preternaturally quiet. “Everyone is in their houses now,” said Mahmoud Hammam, 35, a street vendor. “But they are in their houses sitting atop a volcano of rage. One thing goes wrong, and they will all come down to the square.”

In many countries, workday activity — both commercial and especially government — noticeably slows this month. This apparently prompted Egypt’s new president, in a speech on the beginning of Ramadan, to call on people to “set an example for the world in production, stability, security and support for the poor.”

Mr. Morsi also announced that he was using his presidential pardon powers to free 572 civilians held as prisoners by the military as a result of participating in protests, although activists have complained that thousands more are still languishing in military custody.

“Releasing them with a pardon means we still accept the legitimacy of their sentences,” said Mona Seif, of the No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign group. “He definitely could do a lot more, but he is trying to find a way of dealing with this whole issue without coming into confrontation with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”

The new president joined Egypt’s grand mufti and attended Friday Prayer in his hometown, Zagazig, in the Nile Delta area. The sermon was delivered, though, by Abdel Fadeel El Kousy, the minister of Islamic affairs, a holdover from the previous government. “We drown in seas of politics,” he said. “We need to go back to morals and principles.” He did, however, acknowledge that Egypt was at a “crossroads” and needed to “define the path it takes.”

No doubt Ramadan will be a time of such reflections in many countries in the region. There is often a gap, however, between pious intention and practical outcome. Many people actually gain weight during the monthlong fast, gorging at night, or even sleeping through the day — hardly the intention of the observance. And many people continue the fights they had started before the rise of the crescent moon.


Reporting was contributed by Liam Stack and Mai Ayyad from Cairo;

Hwaida Saad and Dalal Mawad from Beirut, Lebanon;

and Duraid Adnan from Baghdad.

    Ramadan Arrives Amid High Heat and Political Transition in Arab World, NYT, 21.7.2012,






Syrians Fleeing Capital Leave Bodies and Bombs Behind


July 20, 2012
The New York Times


MASNAA, Lebanon — After five days of fierce street battles pitting government forces against rebel fighters in the central Damascus neighborhood of Midan, one Syrian family that managed to escape into Lebanon described what was left behind: a hellish landscape of burning buildings and vehicles and streets barricaded with rubble, all punctuated by explosions erupting at random.

“Sometimes you feel that the bombs are very close, other times that they are far away,” said Sarah, 19, crammed into the back seat of a white sedan with her mother and two sisters at this Lebanese border crossing, where the United Nations said about 18,000 Syrians fleeing the fighting crossed in the past 48 hours. “You don’t know what is happening. People are so scared that they all departed; there is no one left in our building.”

The Syrian military struck back hard in Midan and elsewhere across Damascus on Friday. The fighting created scenes of mayhem unimaginable in the capital even last week, and prompted a wide exodus as the military tried to retake the upper hand from an opposition emboldened after a bomb attack on Wednesday killed four top security officials.

In Syria, the raging battle seemed to be as much about public image as it was about the realities on the ground. The state remained determined to project an image that all was well, even while thousands fled. “Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the Midan area of the terrorist mercenaries and restored security,” state television reported, using its usual label for the rebel forces. The gruesome pictures showed corpses lying in blood, some in the streets with flies buzzing around them.

The retreating rebels claimed they were pulling back to spare civilians the full wrath of the army. “We are not ‘armed gangs or terrorist groups,’ ” said Abu Rami, 25, one of the rebel fighters abandoning Midan. “We are a popular armed force, and ordinary people support us. If we were not hosted by the people, we could not fight in these districts.”

With the sounds of exploding shells booming across the city at all hours and clouds of smoke billowing out of various neighborhoods, residents of Damascus either cowered at home or fled. Live broadcasts on state television meant to show that downtown Damascus was under control mostly showed its thoroughfares deserted.

“For people living in Damascus, seeing families flee the violence is very, very emotional,” said Sigurd F. Mikkelson, a journalist for the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation as he crossed the border to Lebanon in a taxi with Syrians who were leaving. “They are afraid of the state falling apart,” he said.

Most of the Syrians crossing into Lebanon were scared and confused. They talked about power cuts in the richest neighborhoods and gasoline stations with no gas. They talked about civilians in Damascus suddenly trapped by the fighting for the first time in the 17 months since the conflict broke out.

“You feel the government is losing control, slowly but surely, every day a little more,” said one 30-year-old construction engineer, declining to give his name because he might go back. “After the assassinations, the people who were saying the system will survive started talking about its collapse.”

If the government manages to reassert control in Damascus in the coming days, then maybe the country will not disintegrate, he said, but he was not optimistic, especially as the hatred deepened between Alawites and Sunnis.

“I think a civil war is coming; you can see it and feel it,” he said, with Alawites talking about their fears of surviving while Sunnis burn with the desire for revenge.

“Eighty percent of the problem is sectarian and maybe 20 percent is about corruption,” said Mohamed al-Jazaeri, a young engineer, explaining his wish for a slow, measured political reform process that is nowhere in sight. “They are going to destroy the country, and they won’t be able to bring it back for another 20 years.”

Many Syrians were headed to stay with relatives, some to apartments they already owned and a few to hotels. But many without means staggered to the nearest village, Majd al-Anjar, where the local mosque set up a charity center where volunteers said that they had just distributed several hundred thin foam mattresses and food kits.

The mayor, Anwar Hamzeh, said Thursday night that he was stunned to see Syrian families parked by the side of the road, uneasy about where to go next. “They were afraid if they ended up in a Shiite village they would be killed,” he said. Hezbollah, the main Shiite party in Lebanon, supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, and many of those fleeing are Sunni Muslims.

So Majd al-Anjar opened its homes and one of its seven schools to the Syrians. Many more will come, they are sure. “There are seven million people in Damascus; where will they all go?” said Omar Abdel-Rahman, responsible at the charity center for distributing aid.

For everyone reaching Lebanon, there were hundreds more fleeing the capital into the Syrian countryside as the mood in Damascus shifted markedly — not least because the government warned residents that it would shell rebellious neighborhoods.

Many of those arriving were well-to-do young families, the parents saying all they wanted was to get their children out of harm’s way while they were sure they still could. Some were obviously coming for the long haul, cars stacked with extra suitcases and children’s bicycles and kitchen utensils like a colander.

Many regretted the decision to leave even as they relaxed a bit in getting out. “I would rather die in Damascus; you are a stranger anywhere you go except your own country,” said Ghada, a 41-year-old housewife fleeing with her husband and two children. She, like others, did not want her last name used for fear of being identified.

Some maintained they were just headed to Beirut to relax, and they would take stock in a week or so. Most said they were not political, just worried, although there was an occasional whispered political opinion like, “We want freedom.”

On the other end of the scale, a young man riding in the passenger seat of a glistening, charcoal Porsche Panamera with special government license plates rolled down his window and denied anything was amiss in Damascus.

“There is nothing,” he said before the car roared off.

Friday was also the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that combines fasting and celebration and family reunions. But for Syrians, the holiday spirit was distinctly lacking.

“We don’t really feel like it’s Ramadan because of this war,” Mr. Jazaeri said. “It is going to the worst Ramadan in Syrian history, or at least the worst since the Ottomans invaded.”

That was in the early 16th century, but this is even blacker, he said, because “then they were fighting foreign invaders; this time they are fighting each other.”

    Syrians Fleeing Capital Leave Bodies and Bombs Behind, NYT, 20.7.2012,






U.N. Extends Syria Mission as Violence Rises to New Heights


July 20, 2012
The New York Times


With violence reaching new heights in Syria, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a 30-day extension of the monitor mission there on Friday, throwing what amounted to a thin lifeline to Kofi Annan, the special envoy in the Syrian conflict, to save his paralyzed peace plan from total irrelevance.

The 15-to-0 vote came only a few hours before the 300-member mission’s authorization was to expire. A failure to act would have forced the monitors into a hasty withdrawal from Syria, just as deadly mayhem, rebel advances and refugee flows from the 17-month-old uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be accelerating.

Although the work of the monitors has been suspended for more than a month because of the violence and the disregard for Mr. Annan’s plan by both Mr. Assad’s government and his armed opponents, diplomats feared that scrapping the effort entirely would have sent a message of failure at precisely the wrong moment.

“We believe it is the right thing to do, to give a final chance for the mission to fulfill its function,” Britain’s United Nations ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, told reporters after offering the resolution that was approved.

The Council extended the mission “for a final period of 30 days,” essentially allowing for an orderly departure. But the resolution left open the possibility of a further renewal if two conditions were met: a halt to the Syrian military’s use of heavy weapons, as promised in Mr. Annan’s plan, and a reduction in violence to a level that would allow the unarmed monitors to resume their work. The basic purpose of the monitor mission is to oversee the carrying out of Mr. Annan’s plan.

Sir Mark and other ambassadors declined to speculate on what appeared to be a rapidly changing picture on the ground in Syria, where activist groups said more than 300 people died in clashes on Thursday and at least 140 on Friday and the United Nations refugee agency reported an enormous surge of people fleeing the country.

Refugee officials in Geneva reported a conspicuous increase in cars departing Damascus, the capital, which had been relatively insulated from the insurgency against Mr. Assad until this week, when rebels of the Free Syrian Army took the fight to neighborhoods in earshot of the presidential palace.

Then, in the most potent strike on the government since the uprising began, a bomb attack killed three of Mr. Assad’s top security officials on Wednesday at one of the government’s most secure locations in the capital. A fourth victim, Lt. Gen. Hisham Ikhtiar, the head of National Security, one of the government’s intelligence agencies, died of his wounds on Friday, Syria’s state television announced.

The public funeral for the first three victims, including Asef Shawkat, President Assad’s brother-in-law and a long-feared security chief, was held Friday in a military ceremony on Qassioun Mountain, overlooking Damascus, state television said. The two top figures officiating were Farouk al-Sharaa, a vice president largely kept out of view since he was singled out by outside powers last year as a possible transitional leader, and Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, who was named minister of defense on Wednesday, immediately after his predecessor died in the bombing.

Mr. Assad and his brother, Maher, the commander of the country’s most elite military forces, did not attend.

The Security Council’s unanimity on extending the monitor mission contrasted with the acrimonious discord in the Council chambers the day before, when Russia and China vetoed a Western-backed British resolution that would have threatened Mr. Assad’s government with economic sanctions under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter if he did not comply with the peace plan.

Russia and China have consistently opposed invoking Chapter 7, which can also authorize military intervention to enforce the Council’s will, as an unwarranted intrusion into Syria’s domestic affairs. Western diplomats expressed outrage at the veto and accused Russia and China of protecting Mr. Assad despite his government’s record of brutality.

The Russians and Chinese countered that acts of brutality have been committed by both sides. Russia’s United Nations ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin, further accused Western nations of concealing what he called their true motive: deposing Mr. Assad in order to deprive Iran of its only remaining Middle East ally.

The Council’s unanimity on Friday barely masked Western anger from the veto 24 hours earlier. Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador, said the Council’s decision to extend the mission for 30 days “was not the resolution the United States had hoped to adopt in the first instance.”

Rather than emphasizing the monitoring mission’s extension as a final opportunity for Mr. Annan’s plan, Ms. Rice described it as a way to allow the monitors “to withdraw safely.” Her description did not sit well with Mr. Churkin.

“I was somewhat surprised to hear Ambassador Rice’s description,” he told reporters later. “This is not about withdrawal.”

But there was no sign that the antagonists in Syria were interested in accepting Mr. Annan’s plan. Iraq was reported to have thrown up blast walls to seal its main border crossing with Syria, Abu Kamal, after rebel forces took control of all four crossings into Iraq and one into Turkey a day earlier.

The government’s accounts of fighting Friday focused on what state television called the valiant rescue of the Midan neighborhood in Damascus from rebel control after days of combat. “Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the Midan area of the terrorist mercenaries and restored security,” state television reported, using the government’s standard label for the rebel forces. It broadcast pictures of bodies of rebels lying in blood, flies buzzing around them.

“We are not ‘armed gangs or terrorist groups,’ ” said Abu Rami, 25, one of the rebel fighters abandoning Midan. “We are a popular armed force and ordinary people support us. If we were not hosted by the people, we could not fight in these districts.”

In the western Damascus neighborhood of Mezze, opposition activists reported helicopters firing heavy machine guns and tanks shelling buildings. In the northern suburb of Qaboun, Syrian soldiers and shabiha, pro-Assad militiamen, joined in teams to chase Free Syrian Army groups.

“The soldiers are moving around in tanks and armored vehicles — they cannot walk because they fear the Free Syrian Army,” said Abu Bassam, a 60-year-old resident who accused the government forces of looting after most residents had fled. The electricity had been cut off since Tuesday, he said, and the area bombed repeatedly from helicopters.

“The F.S.A. controls the land, and the regime’s helicopters own the sky,” he said.


Reporting was contributed by Neil MacFarquhar and Dalal Mawad from Masnaa, Lebanon; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; Alan Cowell from Paris; Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva; Duraid Adnan from Baghdad; and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.

    U.N. Extends Syria Mission as Violence Rises to New Heights, NYT, 20.7.2012,






As Chaos Grows in Syria, Worries Grow on the Sidelines


July 19, 2012
The New York Times


TEHRAN — Gone is the talk here that last year’s Arab Spring was a gift from God.

Now some in Iran are even starting to worry about how much might be at stake if President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, long a client state of Iran’s, collapses — which after a fifth day on Thursday of heavy street fighting in Damascus no longer sounds inconceivable.

The fall of the Assad government would remove Shiite Iran’s last and most valued foothold in the Arab world, and its opening to the Mediterranean. It would give Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states their long-sought goal of countering Iranian influence in the region, finally splitting the alliance between Tehran and Damascus that has lasted for decades. And it would further erode Iran’s role as a patron of the Middle East’s revolutionaries, a goal that moderate Arabs and the United States have long sought.

Already the militant Palestinian group Hamas, long dependent on Syria and Iran, has thrown its support behind the Syrians in the streets seeking Mr. Assad’s overthrow.

Worse might follow, from Tehran’s point of view. Iran and Syria’s last revolutionary ally, the Hezbollah party that dominates Lebanon, would lose one of its main sources of weapons and financial support. And Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance might be torn apart, raising the threat of another civil war there.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah quickly responded to the government’s worst day so far to make its strongest declaration that it would not abandon Mr. Assad.

In a televised address on Wednesday night, the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, offered eloquent condolences for the deaths of the three high-ranking Syrian officials killed earlier in the day. “These martyr leaders were comrades in arms in the conflict with the Israeli enemy, and we are confident that the Arab Syrian Army, which overcame the unbearable, will be able to persist and crush the hopes of the enemies,” he said.

He credited Mr. Assad and his government with the victory that Hezbollah claimed against Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon and with saving Gaza during the 2009 Israeli incursion. “The most valuable weapons we had in our possession were from Syria,” he said. “The missiles we used in the second Lebanon war were made in Syria. And it’s not only in Lebanon but in Gaza as well. Where did these missiles come from? The Saudi regime? The Egyptian regime? These missiles are from Syria.”

It was a stunning testament, said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “For Hezbollah, it is a point of no return now,” he said. With the speech, “Hezbollah made it very clear that there is an umbilical cord between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, and this umbilical cord is existential. They are, as he said, comrades in arms.”

Iran, too, has been staunch in its support of Syria, whose ruling Alawite minority belong to a branch of Shiite Islam, the predominant faith in Iran. Tehran continues to provide Mr. Assad with economic and public support, and it might be sending military assistance as well.

But some voices inside Iran are worried about the awkward position imposed on anyone who supports Mr. Assad against what seems like an increasingly popular and widespread uprising.

“We are supporting some uprisings and ignoring others,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a Middle East analyst based in Tehran. “Arab people do not believe us anymore. We come across as antagonists, following our political agenda.”

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was once a model for the region, but the Arab world’s revolutionaries now look to Egypt, he said, with its experiment in democratizing an Islamic society. “Instead of gaining influence, we are witnessing the emergence of new powerful countries that in the future could pose a challenge to us,” Mr. Shamsolvaezin said.

A year ago, Hossein Alaei, a former admiral in the Revolutionary Guards, predicted on the Web site Irandiplomacy that “ideally” Mr. Assad would survive. “But this ideal might not be fulfilled,” Mr. Alaei wrote. “We should think of other ways to protect our national security.”

Iran’s unrelenting support for Syria has cost it other friends in the region, as the Arab Spring gives aspiring young rebels a model other than the revolution of Iran’s elderly ayatollahs. Most Arabs are Sunnis rather than Shiites. Beginning in February, the leadership of Hamas, which had long enjoyed a friendly exile in Damascus and military support from Iran, began moving to Qatar and other havens and publicly expressed support for Syria’s revolutionaries. With Iran hampered and hurt financially by Western sanctions, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have proven to be more helpful and better-financed allies.

The Nasrallah speech tried to make it seem “as if nothing had happened since then, as if the Arab Spring did not happen,” said Sami Nader, an analyst and a professor of international relations at St. Joseph University in Beirut.

“This is the most important transformation in the history of the Arab world,” Mr. Nader said, “and it is proving that Islam and democracy are compatible.”

The speech was in effect an acknowledgment of how completely Hezbollah depends on the Assad government’s survival. “He is telling them he is not going to leave Assad alone,” said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for An-Nahar in Beirut, “that by protecting Assad he will be protecting his party, himself and his community, and also the interests of Syria and Iran.”

Mr. Naoum said he worried about what would happen in Lebanon if the Syrian government collapsed, or descended further into sectarian conflict. Many sectarian fault lines in Syria — Alawites and Christians versus Sunnis, for instance — are mirrored in Lebanon, which has large Christian, Alawite and Sunni minorities of its own. Already, there have been conflicts between Alawites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon. Hezbollah has refrained from any action that would threaten strife, but that may change, Mr. Naoum suggested.

“If it feels threatened by chaos in Syria, or even Assad’s regime collapses, it will have to take action inside Lebanon, at least to paralyze those who are working with the rebels, especially in the north,” he said.

“It is a lose-lose situation for Hezbollah,” he said. “Either they stay on what most Arabs would say is the wrong side of history, or they abandon an ally that links them with the rest of the Shiite world and find themselves isolated.”

An Assad victory would change that thinking, of course, and Mr. Nasrallah professed confidence. “We are confident that the Syrian Army, which has had to cope with the intolerable, has the ability, determination and resolve to endure and foil the enemies’ hopes,” he said.

That, too, is the prevailing official view in Tehran, which has its own example of successfully repressing popular dissent, after the 2009 elections. “Have no doubt, Assad’s regime will survive,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, an Iranian foreign policy expert and a politician whose views are close to the Iranian government’s.

Mr. Shamsolvaezin was not so sure. “We were popular some years ago, but our ethical decisions have made a crisis for us,” he said. “We hoped all in the region would turn away from the U.S. Now, we should be careful they do not turn their backs on us.”


Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran, and Rod Nordland from Cairo.

Mai Ayyad contributed reporting from Cairo.

    As Chaos Grows in Syria, Worries Grow on the Sidelines, NYT, 19.7.2012,






Border Posts Fall Into the Hands of Syrian Rebels


July 19, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Rebel fighters in Syria, building on the momentum gained by their brazen assassination of three top security officials a day earlier, seized all four border crossings with Iraq and one into Turkey on Thursday, while also claiming for the first time to have captured a pocket of Damascus after intense street fighting.

The government fought back hard, with no indication that its far superior military machine had lost its edge against an opposition still working predominately with small-caliber weapons. Helicopters blasted the northern Damascus suburb of Qaboun with rockets, while the armed forces warned residents of a wide area of the southern part of the capital to evacuate ahead of an assault. Thousands of people fled to neighboring Lebanon.

“They threatened them and gave them 24 hours to leave their homes or they will be shelled,” said Ali Salem, an activist reached via Skype. Even residents in the western Damascus neighborhoods of Mezze and Kafr Souseh, who were not warned, fled in droves as shells thudded into their neighborhood from military positions on the Qassioun mountain above Damascus.

But the government tried to project an aura of calm, even as it unleashed its forces in a manner similar to the devastating assaults on restive cities like Homs, where neighborhoods were effectively flattened and all the residents driven out.

President Bashar al-Assad appeared for the first time since the bombing attack Wednesday that killed three senior security officials. The Syrian leader showed up on state television to swear in the new defense minister to replace the one assassinated in a bomb attack.

The ceremony for Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij — the broadcast showed the two men interacting without any sound — seemed to take place in Damascus in one of the presidential palace’s reception rooms, its wall décor a series of distinctive antique doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl that used to grace homes in old Damascus.

Wire service reports said that Mr. Assad had fled to Latakia, the coastal city where he has a home, just one of the many rumors swirling around the capital in the wake of the stunning assassinations. One opposition activist said that only the women and children of the Assad family had flown to the coast — not unusual for a hot July weekend.

More intense fighting loomed, as the United Nations Security Council deadlocked as expected over a resolution seeking to punish Syria with economic sanctions for not putting a cease-fire into effect. Russia and China vetoed a resolution focused on the Syria crisis for a third time in an acrimonious meeting.

A last-ditch compromise was expected to give a 30-day extension for the 300 observers who suspended their work on June 16 because of the heavy violence. The departing officer in charge of the United Nations observers, Gen. Robert Mood, said at a news conference in Damascus that the monitors were “irrelevant” without the will for peace on both sides.

Little such will was in evidence. If there was an image for the day, it came from the border crossing, where rebels raised their flag. One video posted online showed rebel fighters defacing pictures of Mr. Assad and his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad, as they overran one border crossing after another. At the Bab al-Hawa entrance from Turkey, a fighter wielding a large stick smashed a huge hole in the president’s portrait over the border crossing.

In Baghdad, Iraqi government officials confirmed the seizures of the four crossings and said the frontier was shut and additional Iraqi troops sent there as a precaution.

One top Iraqi government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, said the border crossings, in Anbar and Nineveh Provinces, were closed and that Iraqi border forces had witnessed the executions of several Syrian Army soldiers at the hands of the Free Syrian Army rebels.

Iraq’s acting minister of the interior, Adnan al-Assadi, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that Iraqi forces had witnessed the executions of 22 Syrian soldiers. Mr. Assadi could not immediately be reached to confirm that account.

Many Iraqis who were trying to flee the violence in Syria were now unable to return to Iraq, a top government official said.

In a statement on state television on Thursday evening, the Iraqi government said it would send airplanes to Damascus to bring Iraqis, many of whom fled the war in Iraq and remain in Syria, back home. Earlier Thursday, officials and news reports said, more than 1,000 Iraqis crossed into Iraq.

There was a similar flight toward Lebanon, except it was mostly Syrians. The Lebanese minister of social affairs announced that 4,500 cars had crossed into the country at the border crossing on the highway from Damascus, and local officials estimated that more than 20,000 people entered.

Since the uprising started in March 2011, Damascus has existed in a kind of bubble largely cut off from the violence that has run through much of the country. But that bubble has been burst after five days of intense street fighting, accented by the assassination of the three officials. They included Asef Shawkat, who was the president’s brother-in-law and one of the most feared man in Damascus for his long tenure as the head of various security agencies.

The streets of Damascus remained fairly deserted. Residents said they could hear the sound of helicopters, gunfire and shelling almost continuously. One man who tried to walk to a nearby house in the upscale neighborhood of Malki, near the president’s residence, was ordered home by the men running one of the many checkpoints that had sprung up.

The Syrian military said Thursday that the bombing had left it more determined to “clear the homeland of the armed terrorist groups” — the term it uses for the insurgents seeking Mr. Assad’s ouster. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights based in Britain said a group of rebel fighters claimed to have routed government soldiers in a section of Midan, taking over a piece of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. The claim, like most of the reports of fighting and of the toll, could not be independently confirmed.

The clashes left in their wake one of the highest one-day death tolls since the uprising began, with 155 civilians and 93 government soldiers killed throughout Syria, including nearly 60 civilians in and around Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The intensified fighting prompted foreign governments to pay even closer attention to Syria’s chemical weapons.

In Washington, a senior American official who is tracking Syria closely said Thursday that American intelligence reports had concluded that Syrian forces were moving some parts of their chemical weapons arsenal to safeguard it from falling into rebel hands, not to use it. “They’re moving it to defend it in some of the most contested areas,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified intelligence reports.

The official said that the upsurge in fighting did not presage an imminent fall of the government, predicting that Mr. Assad could likely hold out for at least six months. “This is an episodic erosion in his power, but he’ll recover,” he said.


Neil MacFarquhar reported from Beirut, and Tim Arango from Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by Dalal Mawad and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Yasir Ghazi from Baghdad, Alan Cowell from London, Rick Gladstone from New York, Eric Schmitt from Washington, and an employee of The New York Times from Anbar Province, Iraq.

    Border Posts Fall Into the Hands of Syrian Rebels, NYT, 19.7.2012,






Israel Is Forced to Rethink Its Regional Strategies


July 19, 2012
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — Standing on the Golan Heights, close enough to the Syrian border to hear what he called “the dull boom of shells” fired on the other side, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, observed on Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power was slipping away.

“The disintegration is not abstract; it is real,” Mr. Barak said after a tour and debriefing with the local commander. “It is getting closer.”

The devolution in Syria, while welcome, presents a series of intensifying problems for Israel, its neighbor to the south. Israel’s leaders are growing concerned about Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons falling into the hands of rogue groups equally opposed to Israel; about the prospect of throngs of refugees appearing at the border; and about the Golan itself “turning into a lawless area where terror elements might also operate,” as Mr. Barak put it. There is concern that the collapse of the Syrian government could lead to a civil war in Lebanon.

Beyond that, the escalation in Syria, with the killing of several members of Mr. Assad’s inner circle, coming hours before a suicide attack on an Israeli tour bus in Bulgaria, only underscored how the Arab uprisings over the past 18 months have upended Israel’s strategic assessments about a neighborhood that it has traditionally viewed as hostile but stable.

No longer preoccupied with the Palestinians, Israel has now been confronted with a series of complex calculations. Should it strike Syria’s chemical weapons storehouses, as it did a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, or would that strengthen Mr. Assad’s hand by uniting the Arabs? Should it act alone against the Iranian nuclear program it sees as an existential threat, or let the United States plow ahead with diplomacy and sanctions? Should it act more aggressively against the military group Hezbollah in Lebanon? How should it navigate the shifting landscape in Egypt, where the new president hails from the Muslim Brotherhood?

“What you have in Syria is that the Middle East is coming apart; a new form of chaos is replacing what has existed,” said Dore Gold, a longtime diplomat who now runs the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “The fundamentals you’re working with in the region are changing; you can’t just go back to the old discussions you might have had.

“Chaos is never an opportunity,” Mr. Gold added.

At the moment, the issue that looms largest may well be Syria’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. Over 40 years, Syria has amassed a stockpile, United States officials contend, of mustard gas, sarin and cyanide. In recent days, American and Israeli intelligence officials have said that Mr. Assad has been moving some of these weapons out of storage, apparently to keep them from falling into the hands of the rebels.

That has elevated concerns here that the weapons could fall into the hands of Israel’s enemies, including Islamist radicals who have taken up arms in the fight against Mr. Assad, or Hezbollah, which is increasingly worried over the potential fall of its patron.

“Israel will not sit idle,” said Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad intelligence agency. “If we will have information that chemical agents or biological agents are about to fall into the hands of the Hezbollah, we will not spare any effort to stop it.”

But Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said that while the prospect of chemical weapons in the hands of terrorist groups is frightening, the threat may not be as dire as it seems. In order for the weapons to be used, Mr. Brom said, two substances must be combined in a certain way, and they must be deployed via aircraft.

“In many cases, the weapons are not really usable,” Mr. Brom said. “You need knowledge, you need systems, to use it.”

Mr. Assad’s Syria has remained a steadfast enemy of Israel. The two countries have no formal relations and are technically at war. Mr. Assad has been a provocateur whose support for Iran and Hezbollah is seen by Jerusalem as pernicious. But he is, as many said in interviews on Thursday, well known, part of the old Middle East that began to unravel last year with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. With Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Israel has had to contend with rising lawlessness in Sinai and concerns over the fate of the two nations’ peace treaty.

There is no telling what the ramifications would be if Mr. Assad fell.

“Bashar kept the border quiet, and now it can be like in the case of Sinai, with chaos and terror,” said Eyal Zisser, chairman of the Middle East and African history department at Tel Aviv University. “Most Israelis do not care about the grievances and the aspirations of their neighbors, democracy, justice, prosperity. They care about their own security. That’s the way of the average Israeli, and as a result, his government.”

The Golan, a strategic plateau of about 450 square miles, is home to about 39,000 Israelis, and Mr. Barak warned on Thursday that the longer fighting continued in Syria, “the risk grows that the bloody residue left over between the sides” could turn it “into a lawless area where terrorists might operate.”

Still, several leading government officials and analysts here said Israel hardly seemed on a war footing, using the same words to describe its posture: “watching from the outside.” While the threat of a chaotic Syria — or, for that matter, a nuclear Iran or a desperate Hezbollah with dangerous weaponry — may seem most acute here, they said, Israel continues to count on international intervention.

“It’s not only an Israeli issue: if Qaeda or radical members will take control of nonconventional weapons, it might appear anywhere on the globe,” said Ilan Mizrahi, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, and deputy chief of Mossad. “I do not think that we have to be the whip of God.”

The Bulgaria bombing only complicates the Syria question. “The Iranians would love to see Israel retaliate against Hezbollah in a limited way,” said Yoram Schweitzer, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “It can create belligerent acts that could help Syria. The Iranians are very keen on helping Assad as his situation is getting worse and worse.”


Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.

    Israel Is Forced to Rethink Its Regional Strategies, NYT, 19.7.2012,






U.N. Monitors Find Vast Devastation in Syrian Village


June 14, 2012
The New York Times


United Nations monitors in Syria reported fiery devastation, the smell of death, vacated homes, looted stores and vestiges of heavy weapons on Thursday during a visit to what had been a Sunni-populated village besieged for days by Syrian forces and pro-government militiamen who said they had cleansed it of rebel fighters.

In a preliminary report on their visit to the village, Al Heffa in northwestern Syria, a spokeswoman for the monitors said it appeared to be deserted, except for “pockets in the town where fighting is still ongoing.” Antigovernment activists said Wednesday that Al Heffa’s residents had fled in the face of relentless attacks by the Syrian military.

The siege of Al Heffa became a focal point of the Syrian conflict this week because of fears expressed by United Nations and Western officials that its residents were vulnerable to a massacre. Those fears were elevated after mass killings in other Sunni-populated locales in the past few weeks, suggesting that the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which began 16 months ago as a peaceful political protest, has become a sectarian civil war pitting his minority Alawite sect against the majority Sunni populace and other groups.

Anti-Assad activists also reported the extensive use of Russian-made helicopter gunships in the siege of Al Heffa and attacks in the nearby port of Latakia, a relatively new tactic in Mr. Assad’s campaign to crush the uprising and a possible reflection of rebel success in damaging his army’s fleet of Russian tanks. The helicopters also subjected Russia, Mr. Assad’s principal backer, to renewed Western criticism as an abettor of his repression. Russia has insisted that it takes no side in the conflict.

The monitors, who are unarmed, were blocked on Tuesday from visiting Al Heffa by angry civilians, apparently from nearby villages populated by Alawites. The Syrian Foreign Ministry announced 24 hours later that the monitors were welcome to visit Al Heffa, which the ministry said had been rescued from armed terrorist groups — the government term for opponents of Mr. Assad’s governing Baath Party.

“The town appeared deserted,” Sausan Ghosheh, the spokeswoman for the United Nations monitor mission in Syria, wrote in the preliminary report. “Most government institutions, including the post office, were set on fire from inside. Archives were burnt, stores were looted and set on fire, residential homes appeared rummaged and the doors were open.”

Ms. Ghosheh wrote that the local Baath Party headquarters had been shelled and “appeared to be the site of heavy fighting.”

“Remnants of heavy weapons and a range of caliber arms were found in the town,” she wrote. “Cars, both civilian and security, were also set on fire and damaged.”

She also wrote that a “strong stench of dead bodies was in the air,” but there was no information on the number of casualties.

In Moscow on Thursday, Syria’s ambassador to Russia, Riad Haddad, said at a news conference that Russia was supplying his government only with antiaircraft weapons, not attack helicopters. He was echoing statements made this week by top Russian officials in response to American accusations that Russia had risked deepening the Syrian conflict through its military support of Mr. Assad.

Mr. Haddad also rejected descriptions of the conflict as a civil war, made this week by United Nations and French officials.

“I tell them the civil war exists only in their heads,” he said. “Armed terrorist groups, which receive regional and global support, want to show that there is a civil war in Syria. They are doing this to create a pretext for international interference.”

Diplomacy aimed at halting the Syrian conflict has faltered despite the rising levels of violence. Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, whose peace plan placing the monitors in Syria is widely considered near failure, has sought to convene a meeting of influential countries to press all sides in the conflict to honor a cease-fire.

Reuters, quoting unidentified diplomats, reported that such a meeting might be held on June 30 in Geneva, but there was no confirmation. The United States has said publicly that it opposes Mr. Annan’s inclusion of Iran if there is a meeting.

In the central Syrian town of Rastan, north of Homs, where rebels have defied persistent military efforts to rout them, an activist reached through Skype said the situation had deteriorated in three consecutive days of bombing from land and air. The activist, who identified himself as Morhaf al-Zoaby, said the Syrian forces were using tanks, helicopters, cluster bombs and rockets emitting an unidentified gray-black gas, killing at least four people. It was impossible to verify his account.

While Syrian defectors and other opponents of Mr. Assad have said before that he has used gas and other chemical weapons in the conflict, those assertions have never been corroborated independently.

But outside rights investigators have compiled evidence that Mr. Assad’s forces and pro-government militias have engaged in reprisal killings, torture, arbitrary detention and the destruction of homes. In a new report, Donatella Rovera, an investigator for Amnesty International who spent weeks in northern Syria, described what she called “systematic violations, including crimes against humanity and war crimes, being perpetrated as part of state policy to exact revenge against communities suspected of supporting the opposition and to intimidate people into submission.”

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activist groups in Syria, reported what it said was a knife massacre of dozens of people in the Damascus suburb of Homouriya and uploaded to YouTube a graphic video of what it said were victims. Like many other claims in the Syrian conflict made via the Internet, the images could not be authenticated.


Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow,

and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.

    U.N. Monitors Find Vast Devastation in Syrian Village, NYT, 14.6.2012,






Syria Crisis and Putin’s Return Chill U.S. Ties With Russia


June 13, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Sitting beside President Obama this spring, the president of Russia gushed that “these were perhaps the best three years of relations between Russia and the United States over the last decade.” Two and a half months later, those halcyon days of friendship look like a distant memory.

Gone is Dmitri A. Medvedev, the optimistic president who collaborated with Mr. Obama and celebrated their partnership in March. In his place is Vladimir V. Putin, the grim former K.G.B. colonel whose return to the Kremlin has ushered in a frostier relationship freighted by an impasse over Syria and complicated by fractious domestic politics in both countries.

The back-and-forth this week over Russian support for Syria’s government as it tries to crush an uprising underscored the limits of Mr. Obama’s ability to “reset” ties with Moscow. He signed an arms control treaty with Mr. Medvedev, expanded supply lines to Afghanistan through Russian territory, secured Moscow’s support for sanctions on Iran and helped bring Russia into the World Trade Organization. But officials in both capitals noted this week that the two countries still operated on fundamentally different sets of values and interests.

The souring relations come as Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin are preparing to meet for the first time as presidents next week on the sidelines of a summit meeting in Mexico. With Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, saying Wednesday that Mr. Obama’s Russia policy “has clearly failed,” and Mr. Putin stoking anti-American sentiment in response to street protests in Moscow, the Mexico meeting may be a test of whether the reset has run its course.

“We were already at a place with the Russians where we were about to move to a new phase,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. “A lot of this is can we continue to build on the initial steps we’ve taken with the Russians even as we’ve had differences emerge, most notably on Syria.”

Others see the situation more pessimistically. “There is a crisis in the Russian-American relationship,” said Aleksei K. Pushkov, the hawkish head of Russia’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee. “It is a crisis when the sides have to balance their interests but they cannot do so because their interests diverge. It is developing into some kind of long-term mistrust.”

Signs of that divergence seem increasingly pronounced lately, despite private reassurances from Mr. Putin that he wants to deepen ties. Michael A. McFaul, a former Russia adviser to Mr. Obama, has been subjected to an unusual campaign of public harassment since arriving in Moscow as ambassador. A Russian general threatened pre-emptive strikes against American missile defense sites in Poland in the event of a crisis. Mr. Putin has cracked down on demonstrations while blaming Americans for them, and he skipped the Group of 8 summit meeting hosted by Mr. Obama last month.

“The reset failed to change the underlying suspicion and distrust of America shared by a majority of Russians as well as Putin himself,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “America is seen as a threat, an agent seeking to undermine Russia, to weaken it, to do harm to it. Russia always has to be on the alert, on the defensive.”

Adding to the tension have been moves in Congress to block visas and freeze assets of Russians implicated in human rights abuses. The bipartisan legislation, named for Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer whose corruption investigation led to his death in prison, passed a House committee last week and will be taken up by a Senate panel next week.

“I see this as part of an effort to make clear the expected international conduct as it relates to human rights,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat sponsoring the legislation. “This is what friends do. We point out when you need to do better.”

The Obama administration, seeking to avoid a rupture, opposes the bill on the grounds that the State Department has already banned visas for Russians implicated in Mr. Magnitsky’s death.

Instead, the administration is highlighting legislation introduced on Tuesday to repeal decades-old trade restrictions on Russia known as Jackson-Vanik.

On Tuesday, hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Russia of supplying attack helicopters to Syria, she sent an under secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, to a Russia Day reception at the Russian Embassy in Washington, where she pointed to the proposed Jackson-Vanik repeal and talked about “mutual respect,” with no explicit mention of Syria.

The complication for Mr. Obama is that lawmakers like Mr. Cardin and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, want to link the Jackson-Vanik repeal to the Magnitsky legislation, angering Russian officials, who were shocked to learn that the White House apparently cannot block it. Mr. Putin was already upset at even the administration’s mild criticism of his domestic crackdown; Mr. Pushkov said the Kremlin viewed that to “not be very loyal.”

Mr. Obama is focusing on enlisting Russia’s help on issues like stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons. The next round of talks between Iran and international powers opens in Moscow next week, and the administration hopes that Russia’s role as host will prompt it to use its influence with Tehran to extract more concessions.

One of the biggest successes of the reset, however, has also made the United States more dependent on Russia. With Pakistan cutting off supply lines to Afghanistan, the so-called northern distribution network through Russia is the primary reinforcement route for America’s war on the Taliban.

“We need more from them than they need from us at the moment,” said Angela E. Stent, director of Russian studies at Georgetown University. The Russians are less invested than Mr. Obama in the notion of a reset. “They look at that as an American course correction. But it’s not their policy, it’s an American policy,” Ms. Stent said.

Publicly, the administration rejects any connection between Syria and the Afghan supply route. But, privately, officials worry that Russia will try to use the leverage provided by the supply route.

So far, Russian officials have reassured their American counterparts that they will not. If anything, Moscow worries that the United States is pulling out of Afghanistan too soon, fearing a security collapse near Russia’s southern flank.

For Mr. Obama, who considers improved ties with Russia one of his signature accomplishments, the question is whether the current friction is temporary or is a sign that the reset has accomplished what it can.

The coming meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, could prove uncomfortable for Mr. Obama. The first time the two men met, in July 2009, when Mr. Putin was prime minister, Mr. Putin delivered an hourlong harangue about the United States.

“The president’s going to be yearning for the days of meetings with Dima,” said David J. Kramer, an official in the George W. Bush administration, using Mr. Medvedev’s nickname. “It probably won’t be a pretty meeting. And it shouldn’t be a pretty meeting.”


Ellen Barry contributed reporting from Moscow, and Thom Shanker from Washington.

    Syria Crisis and Putin’s Return Chill U.S. Ties With Russia, NYT, 13.6.2012,






Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics


June 9, 2012
The New York Times



I HAD just finished a panel discussion on Turkey and the Arab Spring at a regional conference here, and, as I was leaving, a young Egyptian woman approached me. “Mr. Friedman, could I ask you a question? Who should I vote for?”

I thought: “Why is she asking me about Obama and Romney?” No, no, she explained. It was her Egyptian election next week that she was asking about. Should she vote for Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, or Ahmed Shafiq, a retired general who served as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and was running as a secular law-and-order candidate? My heart went out to her. As Egyptian democracy activists say: It’s like having to choose between two diseases. How sad that 18 months after a democratic revolution, Egyptians have been left with a choice between a candidate anchored in 1952, when Egypt’s military seized power, and a candidate anchored in 622, when the Prophet Muhammad gave birth to Islam.

What happened to the “Facebook Revolution”?

Actually, Facebook is having a bad week — in the stock market and the ideas market. As a liberal Egyptian friend observed, “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate.” No doubt Facebook helped a certain educated class of Egyptians to spread the word about the Tahrir Revolution. Ditto Twitter. But, at the end of the day, politics always comes down to two very old things: leadership and the ability to get stuff done. And when it came to those, both the Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood, two old “brick and mortar” movements, were much more adept than the Facebook generation of secular progressives and moderate Islamists — whose candidates together won more votes than Morsi and Shafik combined in the first round of voting but failed to make the runoff because they divided their votes among competing candidates who would not align.

To be sure, Facebook, Twitter and blogging are truly revolutionary tools of communication and expression that have brought so many new and compelling voices to light. At their best, they’re changing the nature of political communication and news. But, at their worst, they can become addictive substitutes for real action. How often have you heard lately: “Oh, I tweeted about that.” Or “I posted that on my Facebook page.” Really? In most cases, that’s about as impactful as firing a mortar into the Milky Way galaxy. Unless you get out of Facebook and into someone’s face, you really have not acted. And, as Syria’s vicious regime is also reminding us: “bang-bang” beats “tweet-tweet” every day of the week.

Commenting on Egypt’s incredibly brave Facebook generation rebels, the political scientist Frank Fukuyama recently wrote: “They could organize protests and demonstrations, and act with often reckless courage to challenge the old regime. But they could not go on to rally around a single candidate, and then engage in the slow, dull, grinding work of organizing a political party that could contest an election, district by district. ... Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.”

Let’s be fair. The Tahrir youths were up against two well-entrenched patronage networks. They had little time to build grass-roots networks in a country as big as Egypt. That said, though, they could learn about leadership and the importance of getting things done by studying Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party, known as A.K.P. It has been ruling here since 2002, winning three consecutive elections.

What even the A.K.P.’s biggest critics will acknowledge is that it has transformed Turkey in a decade into an economic powerhouse with a growth rate second only to China. And it did so by unlocking its people’s energy — with good economic management and reformed universal health care, by removing obstacles and creating incentives for business and foreign investment, and by building new airports, rail lines, roads, tunnels, bridges, wireless networks and sewers all across the country. A Turkish journalist who detests the A.K.P. confessed to me that she wished the party had won her municipal elections, because she knew it would have improved the neighborhood.

But here’s the problem: The A.K.P.’s impressively effective prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has not only been effective at building bridges but also in eliminating any independent judiciary in Turkey and in intimidating the Turkish press so that there are no more checks and balances here. With the economic decline of the European Union, the aborting of Turkey’s efforts to become an E.U. member and the need for America to have Turkey as an ally in managing Iraq, Iran and Syria, there are also no external checks on the A.K.P.’s rising authoritarianism. (Erdogan announced out of the blue last week that he intended to pass a law severely restricting abortions.)

So many conversations I had with Turks here ended with me being told: “Just don’t quote me. He can be very vindictive.” It’s like China.

This isn’t good. If Erdogan’s “Sultanization” of Turkey continues unchecked, it will soil his truly significant record and surely end up damaging Turkish democracy. It will also be bad for the region because whoever wins the election in Egypt, when looking for a model to follow, will see the E.U. in shambles, the Obama team giving Erdogan a free pass and Turkey thriving under a system that says: Give your people growth and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.

    Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics, NYT, 9.6.2012,






Assad’s Response to Syria Unrest

Leaves His Own Sect Divided


June 9, 2012
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — After Jaber Abboud, a baker from Baniyas, Syria, first lashed out publicly at President Bashar al-Assad for failing to promote real change, his neighbors ignored it.

But Mr. Abboud and most of his community are Alawites, the same religious sect as the president. When the popular uprising broke out, many believed that if the Assad family fell, they were doomed. They closed ranks and turned on Mr. Abboud, boycotting his pastry shop and ultimately forcing him to leave town.

“The neighborhood is split — half are dejected and subservient, the rest are beasts,” he said in a telephone interview from nearby Latakia. “It is depressing to go there, it’s like a town full of ghosts, divided, security everywhere.”

As the Syrian conflict escalates to new levels of sectarian strife, Mr. Assad is leaning ever more heavily on his religious base for support. The Alawite core of the elite security forces is still with him, as are many Syrians from minority groups.

But interviews with a dozen Alawites indicated a complex split even within their ranks. Some Alawites are frustrated that security forces have not yet managed to crush the opposition, while others say that Mr. Assad is risking the future of the Alawites by pushing them to the brink of civil war with Sunni Muslims.

Mr. Assad’s ruling Baath Party professes a secular, pan-Arab socialism, but Sunnis, who make up about 74 percent of the population, have long bridled at what they see as sectarian rule by the Alawites, who are nominally Shiite Muslims and make up only 13 percent of the population.

People like Mr. Abboud say they feel stranded in a no man’s land. Blackballed by their own Alawite community, they find that the Islamists who dominate parts of the armed opposition regard them with murderous suspicion. A few with opposition credentials have been killed.

On the other extreme are Alawites who criticize Mr. Assad as being too soft, saying that his father and predecessor as president, Hafez al-Assad, would have quashed the threat by now.

With Alawite youths dying by the hundreds to defend the government, voices are raised at funerals and elsewhere asking questions like, “Why is the government not doing enough to protect us?” according to the Alawites interviewed.

There were also anti-Assad chants in Alawite neighborhoods like Zahra in Homs, like: “Bashar became a Sunni!” (Mr. Assad’s wife, Asma al-Akhras, comes from a prominent family of Sunni Muslims from Homs.)

Alawite-Sunni tensions reached a new peak after a spate of mass killings, particularly the May 25 Houla massacre of 108 Sunni Muslims, including 49 children. Survivors from Houla and people living near the slaughter last Wednesday in the farming hamlet of Qubeir said the attackers came from Alawite villages. The United Nations said suspicions in Houla were focused on pro-government militiamen known in Arabic as shabiha. Alawites dominate their ranks.

“For the first time, we began to hear directly from our Sunni neighbors that we should leave Damascus and return to our villages,” said Abu Ali, 50, a real estate agent. He said that once the school year ended he expected a flood of such departures out of fear of revenge attacks.

Fear of reprisals has prompted dire warnings from some Alawites that their future is on the line. Afaq Ahmad, a defector from the air force intelligence branch, posted a 10-minute plea on YouTube saying that Alawites have to stop committing collective suicide. He has gained prominence partly because Alawite defectors are rare.

“Does the family of Bashar al-Assad deserve to be the leaders of the Alawites?” Mr. Ahmad asked. “In the face of crimes like this, we cannot stay silent. We should stick to our religious and humanitarian principles because otherwise, history will show no mercy.”

Officials in the Assad government often say that its secular ideology has preserved the harmony among what it calls the “glorious mosaic” of Syria’s many overlapping religions, ethnic groups and tribes. But its critics call that a front for Alawite domination, reversing centuries of fierce discrimination that is reflected in Syrian geography. Scorned as nonbelievers during about 400 years of Ottoman rule and forced to pay a special tax, the Alawites sequestered themselves in impoverished mountain redoubts overlooking the Mediterranean.

The secretive Alawite sect was born in the ninth century and braids together religious teachings from different faiths. They are not considered particularly zealous. Unlike more orthodox Muslims, they believe in reincarnation, for example, and do not consider the Ramadan fast or the pilgrimage to Mecca mandatory. They worship at home or at the tombs of saints, and they lack a clerical hierarchy.

France, as the colonial power, created a separate coastal Alawite state that lasted from 1920 to 1936.

With independence, Alawites were drawn to the military and the secularist Baath Party. The coup that brought Hafez al-Assad to power in 1970 cemented their control, shocking the traditional Sunni ruling class. He stocked the secret police and the military with Alawites, creating such a fear of them that Syrians talking about the sect in public called them “Germans.”

The late president formed the elite units, now controlled by his son Maher, that are the main military force of repression. The government showed no forbearance toward its Alawite critics — they were considered traitors, often jailed for twice as long as Sunni Muslims for their role in clandestine political organizations. Now, even watching satellite channels critical of the Syrian government, like Al Jazeera, is considered treachery in Alawite communities.

The intolerance of dissent means there is no uniquely Alawite opposition movement. (There is a Facebook page, Alawites in the Syrian Revolution, and the campaign to resurrect nonviolent protests involves many young, urban Alawites.)

The first Alawite joined the executive committee of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile, only in April. Many others had been deterred by both the Sunni Muslim dominance of the group and concern for family members back home.

In Baniyas, along Syria’s roughly 100 miles of Mediterranean coast, the fate of Mr. Abboud, the baker, at the hands of the community helps to explain the reluctance.

Mr. Abboud, 57, a former soccer coach, said he had been arrested three times and badly beaten. Two of his three children received death threats, neighbors tried repeatedly to set fire to his house and friends he had known since childhood avoided him. Even his three sisters shunned him.

Until the uprising, the worst Sunni-Alawite vendetta came during the skirmishing between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government about 30 years ago. In the most notorious attack, Muslim extremists singled out Alawite military cadets in Aleppo for execution, letting others go free. The Alawites have never forgotten.

In Damascus in the 1980s, new Alawite communities were formed to ring the capital, which the city’s natives sometimes derisively call “settlements.” Salam, 28, a businessman, who grew up in one such area, said that early in the uprising, the government distributed automatic rifles there. “They told us, ‘The Sunnis are going to kill you,’ ” Salam said in an interview over Skype. “They scared us. Of course some people in our community are narrow-minded; they believed them and, unfortunately, many people accepted the weapons.”

Alawite opposition sympathizers in smaller towns tend to stay silent because they are so few. “The people will kill them,” said Wajdy Mustafa, a longtime Alawite activist now living in exile in California. Yet they fear seeking haven among the Sunnis, too, lest they be killed for their sect, he said.

There is much talk that if the government collapses, the Alawites might withdraw back into the mountains. Others speculate that mass killings by Alawite militias are aimed at consolidating control in parts of the country that they could defend in a prolonged conflict with the Sunnis.

Amid the siege mentality, however, come occasional glimmers of a different mind-set.

Reem, 28, with long, curly black hair, helps organize anti-Assad rallies in Damascus. At the start of the uprising she could not show her face in her village above Tartus, she said. Eventually she went, prompting catcalls from pro-Assad neighbors.

But on her most recent visit a month ago, no one cursed her activism, said Reem, who gave only one name to avoid recriminations. “They have begun to understand the real face of the Syrian crisis, that it is a popular revolution against a dictatorship, not against an Alawite regime,” she said, describing the shock registered by young people in the village when she described how young Alawites, Sunnis and Druze stand together in antigovernment protests in Damascus.

“They are amazed to hear that an Alawite woman without a veil and in tight jeans can demonstrate hand in hand with a Sunni woman covered in black,” she said.


Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut,

and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.

    Assad’s Response to Syria Unrest Leaves His Own Sect Divided, NYT, 9.6.2012,






Deadly Shelling Strikes Southwest Syrian City, Activists Say


June 9, 2012
The New York Times


Activists reported new violence in southwest Syria on Saturday, saying shelling by troops and clashes between soldiers and rebel fighters in the city of Dara’a had claimed 17 lives, including women and children.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in London, said the victims from the violence early on Saturday included 10 women, a 10-year-old girl and two teenage boys. Telephone services, including mobile phone networks, had been cut off, the organization said.

Dara’a, located near the border with Jordan, is where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March last year.

Saturday’s reports of violence came a day after United Nations monitors in Syria collected evidence of a mass atrocity in the desolate hamlet of Qubeir. The monitoring team’s journey to Qubeir presented the outside world with the first visual proof from a neutral official source that a horrific crime had occurred there.

No corpses were found, and the team’s officials said many of the facts behind the killings, which occurred Wednesday, had yet to be determined. But it seemed clear that the perpetrators had hastily sought to conceal what had happened, reinforcing suspicions that the government, by thwarting the monitors’ efforts to reach the site on Thursday, had bought time for a cover-up.

Activist groups have accused Mr. Assad of orchestrating the killings in a campaign to terrorize opponents in the uprising against him, which has grown more violent and sectarian despite numerous diplomatic entreaties and the presence of United Nations monitors since April.

Mr. Assad’s government, dominated by his minority Alawite sect, has denied responsibility for the killings in Qubeir, where the residents were part of the Sunni majority, and he has called the accusation a propagandist lie. But it remains unclear why the monitors were not permitted to visit the site much sooner.

“Some homes were damaged by rockets from B.M.P.’s, grenades and a range of caliber weapons,” a spokeswoman for the monitors, Sausan Ghosheh, said in an e-mailed description of the visit, using the abbreviation for a Russian-made armored personnel carrier used by the Syrian military. “Inside some of the houses, the walls and floors were splatted with blood. Fire was still burning outside houses, and there was a strong stench of burnt flesh in the air.”

Amid the uproar over the Qubeir killings, the fourth massacre in Syria in two weeks, multiple clashes flared in other Syrian locales on Friday, including Damascus neighborhoods close to the center of the capital.

International efforts to find a way out of the Syrian crisis intensified in Washington, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, an outspoken opponent of President Assad, met privately with Kofi Annan, the special envoy of the United Nations and Arab League. Mr. Annan, whose peace plan that placed the monitors in Syria is widely considered a failure, has insisted the plan can work if the big powers put more pressure on Mr. Assad.

Antigovernment activists who first reported the Qubeir killings on Wednesday night, which they blamed on government troops and plainclothes militiamen known as shabiha, said that as many as 78 people, half of them women and children, were slaughtered in the hamlet, a clutch of low-lying farmhouses with a population of 130 amid cornfields about 20 miles from the city of Hama.

But Ms. Ghosheh, the spokeswoman, who accompanied the monitors, said the number and names of the victims had not been confirmed, the community was empty, and “thus the observers were not able to talk to anyone who witnessed Wednesday’s horrific tragedy.”

She said it would take time to sort out conflicting information from residents of neighboring villages. “We need to go back, cross-reference what we have heard and check the names they say were killed, check the names they say are missing,” she said.

The monitoring team’s Qubeir video shows smoke outside homes, a large hole from an artillery shell, interior wreckage and bullet scarring, a bloodstained mattress, a congealed pool of blood and an unidentified man from a neighboring village holding a sheet with the remains of human flesh. Another unidentified man is seen pointing to a framed portrait, then breaking down in tears.

A third man is seen saying in Arabic: “Young children, infants, my brother, his wife and seven children, the eldest only sixth grade, all dead. I will show you the blood. They burned his house.”

A few foreign journalists who were permitted to travel with the monitoring team also reported evidence of multiple killings and signs of attempts to hide the bloodshed. A BBC correspondent, Paul Danahar, said that neighboring villagers who approached the monitors blamed the shabiha for the killings, and that they said the militiamen trucked the bodies away. Another villager said sticks had been used to kill children.

“This has basically been a scorched-earth policy by whoever this was; they’ve killed the people, they’ve killed the livestock, they’ve left nothing in the village alive,” Mr. Danahar said in an audio recording posted on the BBC News Web site. He called it “an appalling scene.”

In one house, he said in his reporting, he saw “pieces of people’s brains on the floor.”

“There is a tablecloth covered in blood and flesh,” he continued, “and in the corner, the blood has been pushed into a pile by someone trying to clean it up and, frankly, giving up because there’s simply too much of it.”

The official Syrian account of what happened in Qubeir was starkly different. A report on the Syrian Arab News Agency Web site quoted witnesses as saying that terrorist groups, the government’s euphemism for the opposition, had attacked Qubeir with rocket launchers and machine guns, nine people had been killed, and the military and law enforcement authorities had been called in to protect the hamlet.

The report criticized unidentified “bloody satellite channels which are counterfeiting the truth to serve their interests,” an apparent reference to CNN, Al Jazeera and others carrying opposition accounts of the killings.

The Friday mayhem elsewhere in Syria included clashes between troops and activists in at least one restive district of Damascus, where explosions could be heard. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British group with a network of informants in Syria, reported clashes in at least three Damascus neighborhoods, while in Homs, a center of antigovernment sentiment, the group reported “the most violent shelling” it had seen since the anti-Assad uprising began.

Some experts on Syria have described the Qubeir killings as part of a new stage in the conflict that has crossed dangerously into sectarian hatreds, fomented by Mr. Assad’s government, a situation for which efforts like Mr. Annan’s peace plan are too late.

“We’ve reached the point of no return,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar and a former United Nations official. “Diplomacy has not kept up with the reality on the ground.”

Mohamed A. Alsiadi, a Syrian émigré who is the coordinator of the Arabic Language and Cultural Studies Program at Fordham University in New York, said that he had never had much faith in Mr. Annan’s peace plan, and that the Qubeir killings proved his skepticism. “Assad is very smart,” Mr. Alsiadi said. “He knows when to put pressure, ease pressure. They’re playing games with us.”

Mr. Annan, who spoke briefly with reporters in Washington before meeting with Mrs. Clinton, has fended off criticism that his plan cannot work and that the Syrian president has never intended to honor it.

“Some say the plan may be dead,” he said. “Is the problem the plan or the problem is implementation? If it’s implementation, how do we get action on that? And if it’s the plan, what other options do we have?”


Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell in London;

Neil MacFarquhar in Antakya, Turkey; Artin Afkhami in New York;

and Helene Cooper in Washington.

    Deadly Shelling Strikes Southwest Syrian City, Activists Say, NYT, 9.6.2012,






Amid Reports of New Massacre, Nations Press Syria


June 6, 2012
The New York Times


Syrian opposition activists reported a mass killing of villagers by pro-government militiamen and security forces on Wednesday — if verified, the fourth massacre in less than two weeks — threatening to inject a new surge of angry momentum into the growing international effort to isolate President Bashar al-Assad and remove him from power.

The accounts of the mass killing, in the village of Qubeir in central Hama Province, could not be independently corroborated, and United Nations monitors in Syria could not immediately gain access to the site. The accounts said that as many as 78 civilians were killed, half of them women and children, including 35 members of one family. Some were burned and stabbed.

The killings were reported as representatives of more than 55 countries pressing for Mr. Assad’s resignation threatened to sharply expand their financial pressure on his government at a meeting in Washington sponsored by the United States Treasury, and as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Turkey, an outspoken critic of Syria, for further talks on how to quickly reach a solution to the Syria crisis that would depose Mr. Assad.

A senior Western official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Mrs. Clinton was sending Fred Hof, a special Middle East envoy from the State Department, to Moscow on Thursday to assess whether Russia and the United States could achieve a common vision on a post-Assad political transition in Syria. Russia, which has been Mr. Assad’s most powerful foreign backer, has repeatedly opposed outside intervention in the Syrian conflict but has recently suggested it is not opposed to new leadership in Syria, its most important ally in the Middle East.

If the Qubeir massacre accounts are confirmed, they are likely to place enormous new pressure on Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy to Syria from the United Nations and the Arab League, whose nearly-two-month-old peace plan has not only failed to halt the bloodshed in the 16-month-old Syrian uprising but, in the view of some critics, has strengthened Mr. Assad’s resolve.

Mr. Annan was en route to the United Nations to brief the Security Council and the General Assembly on Thursday, and Western diplomats said he was expected to bring some new proposals.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British group with a network of contacts in Syria that was among those reporting the Qubeir killings, called for an urgent investigation by the 300 United Nations cease-fire monitors who have been deployed in Syria under Mr. Annan’s plan.

“They should not wait to tomorrow to investigate this new massacre,” the group said in a statement. “They should not give the excuse that their mission is only to observe the cease-fire, because many massacres have been committed during their presence in Syria.”

Members of the United Nations monitoring staff were able to gather some evidence in the aftermath of a May 25 massacre in Houla — a string of villages in western Syria, in which 108 people were killed, nearly half of them children — that pointed to complicity by pro-Assad militia members and soldiers. The Houla massacre focused new attention on the Syrian uprising and the danger that it could expand into a sectarian civil war that spills into neighboring countries. Two other episodes of mass killings of striking workers were reported in the days after the Houla massacre.

In Washington, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who hosted the so-called Friends of the Syrian People International Working Group on Sanctions, said in opening remarks that intensifying financial sanctions on Mr. Assad’s government would work if aggressively enforced.

“Strong sanctions make clear to the Syrian business community and other supporters of the regime that their future is bleak so long as the Assad regime remains in power,” he said. “And strong sanctions can help hasten the day the Assad regime relinquishes power.”

Mr. Geithner said he hoped that “all responsible countries will soon join in taking appropriate economic actions against the Syrian regime.” But his remarks did not rule out the possibility that military action could also be invoked because sanctions could include, “if necessary, Chapter 7 action in the U.N. Security Council. Absent meaningful compliance by the regime with the Annan plan, that is the direction in which we are soon headed.”

A Chapter 7 resolution could authorize further financial sanctions and the severance of diplomatic relations with Syria. Should that prove insufficient, though, it could authorize the use of military force.

The Syrian president, who has described the increasingly bloody political uprising against him as the work of foreign-backed terrorists, has shown no indication that he is prepared to relinquish power, in part because of backing from Russia and China, which have so far objected to any resolution that could lead to foreign military intervention in Syria.

But Mr. Assad did reorganize his government on Wednesday, appointing the agriculture minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, as prime minister and ordering him to form a new administration, according to the official SANA news agency.

What impact, if any, the changes might have in the Syrian conflict were unclear, although Mr. Assad’s critics quickly denounced them as cosmetic moves meant to create the impression of political reform.

The president of the General Assembly, Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser of Qatar, said it was possible that the 193-nation body would pass a new resolution to put further pressure on the Syrian government after hearing from Mr. Annan and others, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the president of the Arab League, Nabil el-Araby, on Thursday.

“We are talking about stopping the violence and implementing Mr. Annan’s six-point plan, which the Syrian government agreed on,” he said. “We don’t see any positive action. Violence is still going on and that is not acceptable.”


Rick Gladstone reported from New York, and Annie Lowrey from Washington.

Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon;

Alan Cowell from London; Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul;

and J. David Goodman from New York.

    Amid Reports of New Massacre, Nations Press Syria, NYT, 6.6.2012,






New Turmoil in Egypt Greets Mixed Verdict for Mubarak


June 2, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced former President Hosni Mubarak to life in prison as an accomplice in the killing of unarmed demonstrators during the protests that ended his nearly 30-year rule.

But a conviction that once promised to deliver a triumph for the rule of law in Egypt and the Arab world — the first Arab strongman jailed by his own citizens — instead brought tens of thousands of Egyptians back into the streets. They denounced the verdict as a sham because the court also acquitted many officials more directly responsible for the police who killed the demonstrators, and a broad range of lawyers and political leaders said Mr. Mubarak’s conviction was doomed to reversal on appeal.

Presiding over a three-judge panel, Judge Ahmed Rafaat said that prosecutors had presented no evidence that either Mr. Mubarak or his top aides had directly ordered the killing of protesters. Instead, the judge found that Mr. Mubarak, 84, was an “accessory to murder” because he failed to stop the killing, a rationale that lawyers said would not meet the usual requirements for a murder conviction under Egyptian or international law.

The judges also sentenced Mr. Mubarak’s feared former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, to the same penalty for the same reason. But they dismissed corruption charges against Mr. Mubarak and his deeply unpopular sons, Alaa and Gamal, on technical grounds.

By nightfall, demonstrators filled Tahrir Square in a protest that matched the size and ideological diversity of the early days of the revolt, with Islamists and liberals once again protesting side by side. Protesters poured into the streets of Alexandria, Suez and other cities to rail against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice.

“It is all an act. It is a show,” said Alaa Hamam, 38, a Cairo University employee joining a protest in Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising. “It is a provocation.”

For many Egyptians, the court’s handling of the case was the latest disappointment in a 16-month-old transition that has yielded some major accomplishments, but has not yet delivered the ratification of a constitution, the election of a president or the hand-over of power by interim military rulers.

Against an opaque backdrop of military rule, in which the generals, prosecutors and judges were all appointed by Mr. Mubarak, the degree of judicial independence is impossible to know. Demonstrators slammed the decision as a ruse designed to placate them without holding anyone accountable for the violence or corruption of the old government.

The ruling immediately became a political battleground in Egypt’s first competitive presidential race, expected to be decided this month by a runoff between the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister. Most analysts called the decision a blow to Mr. Shafik because of his close ties to Mr. Mubarak, but any further protests could increase public receptiveness to Mr. Shafik’s law-and-order message.

Mr. Mubarak’s conviction and court appearance — on a hospital gurney in the metal cage that holds criminal defendants in Egypt — offered the kind of vivid example of the humiliation of their once-invincible ruler that thrilled Egyptians with a feeling of liberation.

Mr. Mubarak, in dark glasses and a light-colored track suit, showed no reaction to the verdict.

Both sons stood in front of their father to try to shield him from the cameras. Alaa Mubarak appeared to recite verses from the Koran as the verdict was read. And after the ruling, both sons had tears in their eyes. They remain in jail while they face charges in an unrelated stock-manipulation case announced last week.

During the trial, Mr. Mubarak was housed in a military hospital, where he enjoyed visits from his family and a daily swim, according to news reports. After the verdict, a helicopter flew him to a Cairo prison.

State news media reported that after complaining of a “medical crisis,” Mr. Mubarak was treated in the helicopter on the ground, then refused to leave it and enter the prison for two and a half hours, complaining that he needed the support of his family.

The court session had opened with unusual promptness at 10 a.m. Judge Rafaat pronounced that “defendant Mohamed Hosni Mubarak be sentenced to a life term for the allegations ascribed to him, being an accessory to murder” in the killing of more than 240 demonstrators during the last six days of January 2011.

He called Mr. Mubarak’s tenure “30 years of intense darkness — black, black, black, the blackness of a chilly winter night.” And he said officials had “committed the gravest sins, tyranny and corruption without accountability or oversight as their consciences died, their feelings became numb and their hearts in their chests turned blind.”

“The peaceful sons of the homeland came out of every deep ravine with all the pain they experienced from injustice, heartbreak, humiliation and oppression,” he added. “Bearing the burden of their suffering on their shoulders, they moved peacefully toward Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, demanding only justice, freedom and democracy.”

But if Judge Rafaat hoped the people would cheer the verdict, he was soon disappointed as scuffles and chaos broke out in the courtroom. “The people want to cleanse the judiciary,” chanted an angry crowd of lawyers for the victims and other supporters.

The ruling appeared for the first time to bring together a broad spectrum of both liberal and Islamist political leaders in united opposition to Mr. Shafik. By Saturday afternoon, protesters were tearing down Mr. Shafik’s billboards and burning his campaign posters. “Shafik, you disgrace, the revolution continues,” protesters chanted.

Early Sunday morning, protesters in the town of Fayoum invaded a Shafik campaign office, Reuters reported.

As Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, Mr. Shafik presided over the cabinet when the police failed to protect unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square from a deadly assault by a mob of Mubarak supporters known as the “battle of the camels.”

In a statement, Mr. Shafik said the next president should “comprehend the historic lesson” of the decision. “This means that nobody in Egypt is still above punishment or accountability,” he added.

The other lesson, he said, was that the police must respect human rights, which he said that in its new form most of the “security apparatus already wants to do.”

His opponent, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, pledged that if elected, he would assemble a team of top prosecutors to determine who was responsible for the killings and press new charges against Mr. Mubarak and his aides. Around 9 p.m., Brotherhood members formed two long rows so Mr. Morsi could safely walk into the Tahrir Square crowd, and then cheering supporters carried him on their shoulders.

“The verdict means that the head of the regime and the minister of interior are the only ones who have fallen, but the rest of the entire regime remains,” the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, said in a statement.” It added, “The Egyptian people have to sense the great danger that threatens their revolution and their hopes, and wastes the blood of the martyrs and the sacrifices of their children.”

Ayman Nour, a liberal candidate who had opposed both Mr. Shafik and Mr. Morsi, announced that “after this flimsy verdict” he was endorsing Mr. Morsi.

In the parking lot outside the makeshift courthouse in a police academy, some initially celebrated the verdict. “I am so happy — this is the greatest happiness I have ever felt,” said Rada Mohamed Mabrouk, a 60-year-old retiree. “The martyrs are all of our children.”

But the elation soon gave way. “They are all innocent? Gamal and Alaa are innocent?” asked Hanan Mohamed el-Rifai, 28, of Alexandria. She said that during protests, the police killed her younger brother, Kareem, 15, with a bullet to the heart. “We will turn the world upside down,” she said.

Other demonstrators brandished nooses to symbolize the sentence they sought.

The credibility of the Mubarak trial was in many ways compromised from the start.

It took place under the rule of the generals who seized power at Mr. Mubarak’s ouster rather than under a permanent constitution guaranteeing judicial independence. Instead of a sweeping examination of the corruption and political repression of the Mubarak government, the prosecutors rushed the case toward trial last spring in an apparent attempt to soothe protesters.

Prosecutors charged Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Adly with directing the police to shoot unarmed protesters during just the first six days of the uprising. Although Health Ministry officials said that about 840 civilians were killed during the protests and thousands of others injured, prosecutors narrowed the case to only about 250 deaths that took place in public squares and under other circumstances in which it is hard for the police to argue self-defense.

The prosecutors also charged Mr. Mubarak and his two sons with just one instance of profiting from their positions. The prosecutors charged that Mr. Mubarak and his sons had received steep discounts on several luxurious vacation homes near the Red Sea from a crony, Hussein Salem. Mr. Mubarak later allowed companies controlled by Mr. Salem to make profitable deals to resell Egyptian natural gas to Israel and buy public land on the Red Sea for development.

The judge dismissed the corruption charges against Mr. Mubarak and his sons on the grounds that a statute of limitations had expired since the three Mubaraks were said to have received the vacation homes. Prosecutors had evidently hoped to date the crime from the subsequent favors Mr. Mubarak did for Mr. Salem. It was unclear why the judge had not raised the statute of limitations issue earlier.

Lawyers said the final legal verdict on Mr. Mubarak would await not only lengthy appeals but most likely further trials as well.

“The trial is far from over,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said from outside the courthouse. “We will be in this for years.”


Kareem Fahim, Mayy El Sheikh and Liam Stack contributed reporting.

    New Turmoil in Egypt Greets Mixed Verdict for Mubarak, NYT, 2.6.2012,






U.S.-Pakistan Freeze Chokes Fallback Route in Afghanistan


June 2, 2012
The New York Times


SALANG PASS, Afghanistan — Nowhere is the impact of Pakistan’s ban on NATO truck traffic more visible than here at the top of the Hindu Kush, on one of the only alternative overland routes for supply convoys to reach Kabul and the rest of the country.

For 20 miles north and south of the old Soviet-built tunnel at Salang Pass, thousands of trucks are idled beside the road, waiting for a turn to get through its perilous, one-and-a-half-mile length.

This is the only passable route for heavy truck traffic bringing NATO supplies in from the Central Asian republics to the north, as they now must come.

There are other roads, but they are often single-lane dirt tracks through even higher mountain passes, or they are frequently subject to ambushes by insurgents and bandits. So a tunnel built to handle 1,000 vehicles a day, and until the Pakistani boycott against NATO in November handling 2,000, now tries — and often fails — to let 10,000 vehicles through, alternating northbound and southbound truck traffic every other day.

“It’s only a matter of time until there’s a catastrophe,” said Lt. Gen. Mohammad Rajab, the head of maintenance for the Salang Pass. “One hundred percent certain, there will be a disaster, and when there is, it’s not a disaster for Afghanistan alone, but for the whole international community that uses this road.” He said 90 percent of the traffic now was trailer and tanker trucks carrying NATO supplies.

The tunnel near the top of this 12,000-foot pass is so narrow — no more than 20 feet across at the base, and less toward the top — that the heavily laden trucks often jam as they try to pass one another, lodging in tightly against the sloping, rough-hewn walls. The trucks have to be winched apart and dragged out by heavy equipment.

Other trucks get stuck when their drivers deliberately underestimate their overhead clearance — the tunnel is 16 feet high, but only in the very center.

“It’s a nightmare,” one tank truck driver said.

The tunnel lighting does not work, nor do closed-circuit television cameras installed to warn of problems. The tunnel’s roof leaks water, rendering the savagely potholed road surface a mixture of mud, chopped-up asphalt and broken concrete. Ventilator fans in most of the tunnel are out of order, leading to such high levels of carbon monoxide that officials are talking about a system to pump emergency oxygen in, General Rajab said.

The roadway, with only patches of paving, has ruts so deep that trucks sometimes just tip over on their sides, as happened last week with a tanker truck carrying fuel for NATO. It flipped over just south of the main tunnel, cracking the tank and spawning a small stream flowing down the steep switchbacks, which enterprising Afghans quickly diverted into makeshift canals and impoundments so they could carry out the dangerous work of filling containers from the flow.

That was the second day in a row that a truck tipped over near the top of the pass, blocking all daytime traffic for most of those two days. In between, the road opened at night, but then a NATO military convoy came along, forcing all civilian truck traffic to cease for 12 hours, General Rajab said.

With the increased traffic and the deterioration of the roads it has caused, a journey that used to take a day, from Kabul to Hairatan, a fuel and freight depot town on the northern border with Uzbekistan, now requires 8 to 10 days for trucks, according to interviews with many drivers. For cars it takes two days.

“Yesterday I slept over there,” said Sayid Ali, a tractor-trailer driver who was hauling cement, pointing at the next switchback down, less than a mile away. “Tonight I’ll probably sleep here.” He had so far spent five days just in a 25-mile-long climb to the tunnel, and was still two miles away, stuck by the fuel spill.

A tanker driver named Mohammadullah, hauling fuel for a NATO contractor, was eight days out of Kabul and still climbing. He said the drivers often ran out of food and were forced to pay exorbitant prices to vendors who drove up with supplies. He expected the round trip would take him most of a month.

“I’d rather be driving to Kandahar,” he said. Trucks need to have armed guards because of insurgents on that route, he said, “but I’d rather do that than all this waiting.”

The much-shorter Pakistani routes, from seaports like Karachi on better roads, were closed to protest the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in an American airstrike. But Pakistan has expressed willingness to reopen the frontier: for a fee of thousands of dollars per truck, compared with $250 previously. “We’re not about to get gouged in the price,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The Salang Pass tunnel, built in 1964 by the Soviets and never completely finished (it lacks amenities like interior surfacing of the walls and an escape tunnel), has a tragic history. Nine hundred Russians and Afghans reportedly died of asphyxiation in the tunnel in 1982 when a military convoy was trapped inside by an accident or an explosion.

Two years ago, huge avalanches at the southern mouth of the tunnel killed at least 64 people, buried alive in cars and buses.

General Rajab says he worries that the tunnel could even collapse — no thorough overhaul has ever been done, he said, because the route is too vital to close long enough for major repairs.

“It’s crazy to use this road; there are just too many problems,” he said. “They should open an alternative or we will never solve this.”

A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, said the military had no comment. “We do not discuss the particular road routes that we use for movements of logistics,” he said.

The only remotely viable alternative route, General Rajab said, is over the Shibar Pass, farther west. It involves a three-day detour, which could be an improvement over Salang these days. However, the military would have to work at improving security on that route, he said — when he recently detoured trucks that way, they were looted before reaching the pass.

    U.S.-Pakistan Freeze Chokes Fallback Route in Afghanistan, NYT, 2.6.2012,






Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?


June 2, 2012
The New York Times



IT took years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for the nation to develop a common national understanding of when and how to use a weapon of such magnitude. Not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago this October, did a consensus emerge that the weapon was too terrible ever to employ again, save as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort.

Over the past decade, on a far smaller scale, the country’s military and intelligence leadership have gone through a parallel debate about how to use the Predator drone. Because it is precisely targeted, often on an individual, it is used almost every week.

And now we know that President Obama, for the past three years, has been going through a similar process about how America should use another innovative weapon — one whose destructive powers are only beginning to be understood. In a secret program called “Olympic Games,” which dates from the last years of the George W. Bush administration, the United States has mounted repeated attacks with the most sophisticated cyberweapons ever developed. Like drones, these weapons cross national boundaries at will; in the case of Olympic Games they invaded the computer controllers that run Iran’s nuclear centrifuges, spinning them wildly out of control.

How effective they have been is open to debate; the United States and its close partner in the attacks, Israel, used the weapons as an alternative to a potentially far more deadly, but perhaps less effective, bombing attack from the air. But precisely because the United States refuses to talk about its new cyberarsenal, there has never been a real debate in the United States about when and how to use cyberweapons.

President Obama raised many of the issues in the closed sanctum of the Situation Room, participants in the conversation say, pressing aides to make sure that the attacks were narrowly focused so that they did not take out Iranian hospitals or power plants and were directed only at the country’s nuclear infrastructure. “He was enormously focused on avoiding collateral damage,” one official said, comparing the arguments over using cyberwar to the debates about when to use drones.

Does the United States want to legitimize the use of cyberweapons as a covert tool? Or is it something we want to hold in reserve for extreme cases? Will we reach the point — as we did with chemical weapons, and the rest of the world did with land mines — that we want treaties to ban their use? Or is that exactly the wrong analogy, in a world in which young hackers, maybe working on their own or maybe hired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Russian mob, can launch attacks themselves?

These are all fascinating questions that the Obama administration resolutely refuses to discuss in public. “They approached the Iran issue very, very pragmatically,” one official involved in the discussions over Olympic Games told me. No one, he said, “wanted to engage, at least not yet, in the much deeper, broader debate about the criteria for when we use these kinds of weapons and what message it sends to the rest of the world.”

Cyberweapons, of course, have neither the precision of a drone nor the immediate, horrifying destructive power of the Bomb. Most of the time, cyberwar seems cool and bloodless, computers attacking computers. Often that is the case.

The Chinese are believed to attack America’s computer systems daily, but mostly to scoop up corporate and Pentagon secrets. (Mr. Obama, one aide said, got a quick lesson in the scope of the problem when an attack on his 2008 campaign’s computers was traced back to China, a foretaste of what happened to Google the following year.) The United States often does the same: the Iranians reported last week that they had been hit by another cyberattack, called “Flame,” that appeared to harvest data from selected laptop computers, presumably those of Iranian leaders and scientists. Its origins are unclear.

But the cutting edge of cyberwar is in the invasion of computer systems to manipulate the machinery that keeps the country going — exactly what the United States was doing to those Iranian centrifuges as it ran Olympic Games. “Somebody has crossed the Rubicon,” Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the former director of the C.I.A., said in describing the success of the cyberattacks on Iran. General Hayden was careful not to say what role the United States played, but he added: “We’ve got a legion on the other side of the river now. I don’t want to pretend it’s the same effect, but in one sense at least, it’s August 1945,” the month that the world first saw the capabilities of a new weapon, dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That was deliberate overstatement, of course: the United States crashed a few hundred centrifuges at Natanz, it did not vaporize the place. But his point that we are entering a new era in cyberattacks is one the administration itself is trying to make as it ramps up American defenses. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta — a key player in the Iran attacks — warned last year that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems.”

IN March the White House invited all the members of the Senate to a classified simulation on Capitol Hill demonstrating what might happen if a dedicated hacker — or an enemy state — decided to turn off the lights in New York City. In the simulation, a worker for the power company clicked on what he thought was an e-mail from a friend; that “spear phishing” attack started a cascade of calamities in which the cyberinvader made his way into the computer systems that run New York’s electric grid. The city was plunged into darkness; no one could find the problem, much less fix it. Chaos, and deaths, followed.

The administration ran the demonstration — which was far more watered-down than the Pentagon’s own cyberwar games — to press Congress to pass a bill that would allow a degree of federal control over protecting the computer networks that run America’s most vulnerable infrastructure. The real lesson of the simulation was never discussed: cyberoffense has outpaced the search for a deterrent, something roughly equivalent to the cold-war-era concept of mutually assured destruction. There was something simple to that concept: If you take out New York, I take out Moscow.

But there is nothing so simple about cyberattacks. Usually it is unclear where they come from. That makes deterrence extraordinarily difficult. Moreover, a good deterrence “has to be credible,” said Joseph S. Nye, the Harvard strategist who has written the deepest analysis yet of what lessons from the atomic age apply to cyberwar. “If an attack from China gets inside the American government’s computer systems, we’re not likely to turn off the lights in Beijing.” Professor Nye calls for creating “a high cost” for an attacker, perhaps by naming and shaming.

Deterrence may also depend on how America chooses to use its cyberweapons in the future. Will it be more like the Predator, a tool the president has embraced? That would send a clear warning that the United States was ready and willing to act. But as President Obama warned his own aides during the secret debates over Olympic Games, it also invites retaliatory strikes, with cyberweapons that are already proliferating. In fact, one country recently announced that it was creating a new elite “Cybercorps” as part of its military. The announcement came from Tehran.


The chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. This article is adapted from his new book, “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.”

    Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?, NYT, 2.6.2012,






Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran


June 1, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.

Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks — begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games — even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet. Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name: Stuxnet.

At a tense meeting in the White House Situation Room within days of the worm’s “escape,” Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, Leon E. Panetta, considered whether America’s most ambitious attempt to slow the progress of Iran’s nuclear efforts had been fatally compromised.

“Should we shut this thing down?” Mr. Obama asked, according to members of the president’s national security team who were in the room.

Told it was unclear how much the Iranians knew about the code, and offered evidence that it was still causing havoc, Mr. Obama decided that the cyberattacks should proceed. In the following weeks, the Natanz plant was hit by a newer version of the computer worm, and then another after that. The last of that series of attacks, a few weeks after Stuxnet was detected around the world, temporarily took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges Iran had spinning at the time to purify uranium.

This account of the American and Israeli effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program is based on interviews over the past 18 months with current and former American, European and Israeli officials involved in the program, as well as a range of outside experts. None would allow their names to be used because the effort remains highly classified, and parts of it continue to this day.

These officials gave differing assessments of how successful the sabotage program was in slowing Iran’s progress toward developing the ability to build nuclear weapons. Internal Obama administration estimates say the effort was set back by 18 months to two years, but some experts inside and outside the government are more skeptical, noting that Iran’s enrichment levels have steadily recovered, giving the country enough fuel today for five or more weapons, with additional enrichment.

Whether Iran is still trying to design and build a weapon is in dispute. The most recent United States intelligence estimate concludes that Iran suspended major parts of its weaponization effort after 2003, though there is evidence that some remnants of it continue.

Iran initially denied that its enrichment facilities had been hit by Stuxnet, then said it had found the worm and contained it. Last year, the nation announced that it had begun its own military cyberunit, and Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Jalali, the head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization, said that the Iranian military was prepared “to fight our enemies” in “cyberspace and Internet warfare.” But there has been scant evidence that it has begun to strike back.

The United States government only recently acknowledged developing cyberweapons, and it has never admitted using them. There have been reports of one-time attacks against personal computers used by members of Al Qaeda, and of contemplated attacks against the computers that run air defense systems, including during the NATO-led air attack on Libya last year. But Olympic Games was of an entirely different type and sophistication.

It appears to be the first time the United States has repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure, achieving, with computer code, what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives. The code itself is 50 times as big as the typical computer worm, Carey Nachenberg, a vice president of Symantec, one of the many groups that have dissected the code, said at a symposium at Stanford University in April. Those forensic investigations into the inner workings of the code, while picking apart how it worked, came to no conclusions about who was responsible.

A similar process is now under way to figure out the origins of another cyberweapon called Flame that was recently discovered to have attacked the computers of Iranian officials, sweeping up information from those machines. But the computer code appears to be at least five years old, and American officials say that it was not part of Olympic Games. They have declined to say whether the United States was responsible for the Flame attack.

Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons — even under the most careful and limited circumstances — could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.

“We discussed the irony, more than once,” one of his aides said. Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a “grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.” Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.

If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work. Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.

A Bush Initiative

The impetus for Olympic Games dates from 2006, when President George W. Bush saw few good options in dealing with Iran. At the time, America’s European allies were divided about the cost that imposing sanctions on Iran would have on their own economies. Having falsely accused Saddam Hussein of reconstituting his nuclear program in Iraq, Mr. Bush had little credibility in publicly discussing another nation’s nuclear ambitions. The Iranians seemed to sense his vulnerability, and, frustrated by negotiations, they resumed enriching uranium at an underground site at Natanz, one whose existence had been exposed just three years before.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took reporters on a tour of the plant and described grand ambitions to install upward of 50,000 centrifuges. For a country with only one nuclear power reactor — whose fuel comes from Russia — to say that it needed fuel for its civilian nuclear program seemed dubious to Bush administration officials. They feared that the fuel could be used in another way besides providing power: to create a stockpile that could later be enriched to bomb-grade material if the Iranians made a political decision to do so.

Hawks in the Bush administration like Vice President Dick Cheney urged Mr. Bush to consider a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities before they could produce fuel suitable for a weapon. Several times, the administration reviewed military options and concluded that they would only further inflame a region already at war, and would have uncertain results.

For years the C.I.A. had introduced faulty parts and designs into Iran’s systems — even tinkering with imported power supplies so that they would blow up — but the sabotage had had relatively little effect. General James E. Cartwright, who had established a small cyberoperation inside the United States Strategic Command, which is responsible for many of America’s nuclear forces, joined intelligence officials in presenting a radical new idea to Mr. Bush and his national security team. It involved a far more sophisticated cyberweapon than the United States had designed before.

The goal was to gain access to the Natanz plant’s industrial computer controls. That required leaping the electronic moat that cut the Natanz plant off from the Internet — called the air gap, because it physically separates the facility from the outside world. The computer code would invade the specialized computers that command the centrifuges.

The first stage in the effort was to develop a bit of computer code called a beacon that could be inserted into the computers, which were made by the German company Siemens and an Iranian manufacturer, to map their operations. The idea was to draw the equivalent of an electrical blueprint of the Natanz plant, to understand how the computers control the giant silvery centrifuges that spin at tremendous speeds. The connections were complex, and unless every circuit was understood, efforts to seize control of the centrifuges could fail.

Eventually the beacon would have to “phone home” — literally send a message back to the headquarters of the National Security Agency that would describe the structure and daily rhythms of the enrichment plant. Expectations for the plan were low; one participant said the goal was simply to “throw a little sand in the gears” and buy some time. Mr. Bush was skeptical, but lacking other options, he authorized the effort.

Breakthrough, Aided by Israel

It took months for the beacons to do their work and report home, complete with maps of the electronic directories of the controllers and what amounted to blueprints of how they were connected to the centrifuges deep underground.

Then the N.S.A. and a secret Israeli unit respected by American intelligence officials for its cyberskills set to work developing the enormously complex computer worm that would become the attacker from within.

The unusually tight collaboration with Israel was driven by two imperatives. Israel’s Unit 8200, a part of its military, had technical expertise that rivaled the N.S.A.’s, and the Israelis had deep intelligence about operations at Natanz that would be vital to making the cyberattack a success. But American officials had another interest, to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out their own pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. To do that, the Israelis would have to be convinced that the new line of attack was working. The only way to convince them, several officials said in interviews, was to have them deeply involved in every aspect of the program.

Soon the two countries had developed a complex worm that the Americans called “the bug.” But the bug needed to be tested. So, under enormous secrecy, the United States began building replicas of Iran’s P-1 centrifuges, an aging, unreliable design that Iran purchased from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear chief who had begun selling fuel-making technology on the black market. Fortunately for the United States, it already owned some P-1s, thanks to the Libyan dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

When Colonel Qaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, he turned over the centrifuges he had bought from the Pakistani nuclear ring, and they were placed in storage at a weapons laboratory in Tennessee. The military and intelligence officials overseeing Olympic Games borrowed some for what they termed “destructive testing,” essentially building a virtual replica of Natanz, but spreading the test over several of the Energy Department’s national laboratories to keep even the most trusted nuclear workers from figuring out what was afoot.

Those first small-scale tests were surprisingly successful: the bug invaded the computers, lurking for days or weeks, before sending instructions to speed them up or slow them down so suddenly that their delicate parts, spinning at supersonic speeds, self-destructed. After several false starts, it worked. One day, toward the end of Mr. Bush’s term, the rubble of a centrifuge was spread out on the conference table in the Situation Room, proof of the potential power of a cyberweapon. The worm was declared ready to test against the real target: Iran’s underground enrichment plant.

“Previous cyberattacks had effects limited to other computers,” Michael V. Hayden, the former chief of the C.I.A., said, declining to describe what he knew of these attacks when he was in office. “This is the first attack of a major nature in which a cyberattack was used to effect physical destruction,” rather than just slow another computer, or hack into it to steal data.

“Somebody crossed the Rubicon,” he said.

Getting the worm into Natanz, however, was no easy trick. The United States and Israel would have to rely on engineers, maintenance workers and others — both spies and unwitting accomplices — with physical access to the plant. “That was our holy grail,” one of the architects of the plan said. “It turns out there is always an idiot around who doesn’t think much about the thumb drive in their hand.”

In fact, thumb drives turned out to be critical in spreading the first variants of the computer worm; later, more sophisticated methods were developed to deliver the malicious code.

The first attacks were small, and when the centrifuges began spinning out of control in 2008, the Iranians were mystified about the cause, according to intercepts that the United States later picked up. “The thinking was that the Iranians would blame bad parts, or bad engineering, or just incompetence,” one of the architects of the early attack said.

The Iranians were confused partly because no two attacks were exactly alike. Moreover, the code would lurk inside the plant for weeks, recording normal operations; when it attacked, it sent signals to the Natanz control room indicating that everything downstairs was operating normally. “This may have been the most brilliant part of the code,” one American official said.

Later, word circulated through the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, that the Iranians had grown so distrustful of their own instruments that they had assigned people to sit in the plant and radio back what they saw.

“The intent was that the failures should make them feel they were stupid, which is what happened,” the participant in the attacks said. When a few centrifuges failed, the Iranians would close down whole “stands” that linked 164 machines, looking for signs of sabotage in all of them. “They overreacted,” one official said. “We soon discovered they fired people.”

Imagery recovered by nuclear inspectors from cameras at Natanz — which the nuclear agency uses to keep track of what happens between visits — showed the results. There was some evidence of wreckage, but it was clear that the Iranians had also carted away centrifuges that had previously appeared to be working well.

But by the time Mr. Bush left office, no wholesale destruction had been accomplished. Meeting with Mr. Obama in the White House days before his inauguration, Mr. Bush urged him to preserve two classified programs, Olympic Games and the drone program in Pakistan. Mr. Obama took Mr. Bush’s advice.

The Stuxnet Surprise

Mr. Obama came to office with an interest in cyberissues, but he had discussed them during the campaign mostly in terms of threats to personal privacy and the risks to infrastructure like the electrical grid and the air traffic control system. He commissioned a major study on how to improve America’s defenses and announced it with great fanfare in the East Room.

What he did not say then was that he was also learning the arts of cyberwar. The architects of Olympic Games would meet him in the Situation Room, often with what they called the “horse blanket,” a giant foldout schematic diagram of Iran’s nuclear production facilities. Mr. Obama authorized the attacks to continue, and every few weeks — certainly after a major attack — he would get updates and authorize the next step. Sometimes it was a strike riskier and bolder than what had been tried previously.

“From his first days in office, he was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian program — the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision,” a senior administration official said. “And it’s safe to say that whatever other activity might have been under way was no exception to that rule.”

But the good luck did not last. In the summer of 2010, shortly after a new variant of the worm had been sent into Natanz, it became clear that the worm, which was never supposed to leave the Natanz machines, had broken free, like a zoo animal that found the keys to the cage. It fell to Mr. Panetta and two other crucial players in Olympic Games — General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A. — to break the news to Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.

An error in the code, they said, had led it to spread to an engineer’s computer when it was hooked up to the centrifuges. When the engineer left Natanz and connected the computer to the Internet, the American- and Israeli-made bug failed to recognize that its environment had changed. It began replicating itself all around the world. Suddenly, the code was exposed, though its intent would not be clear, at least to ordinary computer users.

“We think there was a modification done by the Israelis,” one of the briefers told the president, “and we don’t know if we were part of that activity.”

Mr. Obama, according to officials in the room, asked a series of questions, fearful that the code could do damage outside the plant. The answers came back in hedged terms. Mr. Biden fumed. “It’s got to be the Israelis,” he said. “They went too far.”

In fact, both the Israelis and the Americans had been aiming for a particular part of the centrifuge plant, a critical area whose loss, they had concluded, would set the Iranians back considerably. It is unclear who introduced the programming error.

The question facing Mr. Obama was whether the rest of Olympic Games was in jeopardy, now that a variant of the bug was replicating itself “in the wild,” where computer security experts can dissect it and figure out its purpose.

“I don’t think we have enough information,” Mr. Obama told the group that day, according to the officials. But in the meantime, he ordered that the cyberattacks continue. They were his best hope of disrupting the Iranian nuclear program unless economic sanctions began to bite harder and reduced Iran’s oil revenues.

Within a week, another version of the bug brought down just under 1,000 centrifuges. Olympic Games was still on.

A Weapon’s Uncertain Future

American cyberattacks are not limited to Iran, but the focus of attention, as one administration official put it, “has been overwhelmingly on one country.” There is no reason to believe that will remain the case for long. Some officials question why the same techniques have not been used more aggressively against North Korea. Others see chances to disrupt Chinese military plans, forces in Syria on the way to suppress the uprising there, and Qaeda operations around the world. “We’ve considered a lot more attacks than we have gone ahead with,” one former intelligence official said.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly told his aides that there are risks to using — and particularly to overusing — the weapon. In fact, no country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.

This article is adapted from “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars

and Surprising Use of American Power,” to be published by Crown on Tuesday.

    Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran, NYT, 1.6.2012,




home Up