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History > 2012 > USA > International (IX)



Islamists’ Harsh Justice

Is on the Rise in North Mali


December 27, 2012

The New York Times



BAMAKO, Mali — Moctar Touré was strapped to a chair, blindfolded, his right hand bound tight to the armrest with a rubber tube. A doctor came and administered a shot. Then Mr. Touré’s own brother wielded a knife, the kind used to slaughter sheep, and methodically carried out the sentence.

“I myself cut off my brother’s hand,” said Aliou Touré, a police chief in the Islamist-held north of this divided nation. “We had no choice but to practice the justice of God.”

Such amputations are designed to shock — residents are often summoned to watch — and even as the world makes plans to recapture northern Mali by force, the Islamists who control it show no qualms about carrying them out.

After the United Nations Security Council authorized a military campaign to retake the region last week, Islamists in Gao, Mr. Touré’s town, cut the hands off two more people accused of being thieves the very next day, a leading local official said, describing it as a brazen response to the United Nations resolution. Then the Islamists, undeterred by the international threats against them, warned reporters that eight others “will soon share the same fate.”

This harsh application of Shariah law, with people accused of being thieves sometimes having their feet amputated as well, has occurred at least 14 times since the Islamist takeover last spring, not including the recent vow of more to come, according to Human Rights Watch and independent observers.

But those are just the known cases, and dozens of other residents have been publicly flogged with camel-hair whips or tree branches for offenses like smoking, or even for playing music on the radio. Several were whipped in Gao on Monday for smoking in public, an official said, while others said that anything other than Koranic verses were proscribed as cellphone ringtones. A jaunty tune is punishable by flogging.

At least one case of the most severe punishment — stoning to death — was carried out in the town of Aguelhok in July against a couple accused of having children out of wedlock.

Trials are often rudimentary. A dozen or so jihadi judges sitting in a circle on floor mats pronounce judgment, according to former Malian officials in the north. Hearings, judgment and sentence are usually carried out rapidly, on the same day.

“They do it among themselves, in closed session,” said Abdou Sidibé, a parliamentary deputy from Gao, now in exile here in the capital, Bamako. “These people who have come among us have imposed their justice,” he said. “It comes from nowhere.”

The jihadists are even attempting to sell the former criminal courts building in Gao, Mr. Sidibé said, because they no longer have any use for it. In Timbuktu, justice is dispensed from a room in a former hotel.

Many of the amputation victims have now drifted down to Bamako, in the south, which despite suffering from its own political volatility has become a haven for tens of thousands fleeing harsh conditions in the north, including the forced recruitment of child soldiers by the Islamists.

Moctar Touré, 25, and Souleymane Traoré, 25, both spoke haltingly and stared into the distance, remembering life before the moments that turned their worlds upside down and made them, as they felt, useless. They gently cradled the rounded stumps that now serve as arms, wondering what would come next.

The two young men had been truck drivers before Gao was overrun last spring. Both were accused of stealing guns; both said they merely acted out of patriotic feeling for the now-divided Malian state, with the intention of helping it regain the north.

In September, Mr. Traoré said, he was summoned from his jail cell after three months of a brutal prison term in which he was often fed nothing. Acquaintances had denounced him to the Islamist police; he was stealing the extremists’ weapons at night, he said, and burying them in the sand by the Niger River.

As ten other prisoners watched, he was ordered to sit in a chair, and his arms were tightly bound to it. With a razor, one of his jailers traced a circle on his forearm. “It pains me to even think about it,” he said, looking down, cradling his head in his remaining hand.

Mr. Touré’s brother, Aliou, the police chief, sawed off his hand. It took three minutes. Mr. Traoré said he passed out.

“I said nothing. I let them do it,” he said.

Moctar Touré had his hand amputated several weeks later. He said it took 30 minutes, though he fainted in the process, awakening in the hospital bed where the Islamists had placed him afterward.

Mr. Touré said his brother had insisted that the sentence be carried out.

“They asked my own brother three times if that was the sentence,” Mr. Touré said. “He’s the commissioner of police in Gao, and he wants to die a martyr,” Mr. Touré said quietly. “He joined up with the Islamists when they came to Gao.”

Aliou Touré, reached by telephone in the Sahara, said the decision was a simple one.

“He stole nine times,” he said of his brother. “He’s my own brother. God told us to do it. God created my brother. God created me. You must read the Koran to see that what I say is true. This is in the Koran. That’s why we do it.”

Moctar Touré had a different story. The Islamists had pressed him into joining their militia, he said, but the training was brutal and Mr. Touré quit. One day they saw him carrying some guns, and they accused him of wanting to subvert the new order. He was jailed.

Sweat streamed down Mr. Touré’s forehead as he recalled the terrible memories, sitting on a bench at a busy bus station here, 600 miles from Gao.

The Islamists had called out five prisoners that morning; four were to be witnesses. They took them all to an unused customs post at the edge of Gao, and Mr. Touré was ordered to wash himself. The Islamists told him what his sentence was to be.

“I was helpless,” he said. “I was completely tied up.”

Now, Mr. Touré spends his days hanging out at the bus station near a cousin’s house. Mr. Traoré hopes to learn a new trade, given that “I can’t be a driver anymore,” he said.

Mr. Touré, for his part, is in despair. “I have no idea what I am going to do,” he said. “I’m completely lost. Night and day, I ask myself, ‘What is going to happen?’ Nobody has helped me.”

The people in Gao have protested the amputations several times, according to Human Rights Watch, even halting them once by throwing stones at the Islamic police and blocking the entrance to the main square.

“To come to Gao and inflict these sentences they call Islamic, I say it is illegal,” said Abderrahmane Oumarou, a communal councilor there, reached by telephone after last week’s amputations.

As for the Islamists’ justice, “I don’t give credit to their accusations,” Mr. Oumarou said. “You can’t replace Malian justice.”

Mr. Oumarou said the Islamists had been busy lately writing “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” in Arabic on the former Malian administrative buildings in Gao.

“Their accusations are false,” he said. “They said weapons were stolen. But these are lies.”

    Islamists’ Harsh Justice Is on the Rise in North Mali, NYT, 27.12.2012,






High-Ranking Syrian General Defects

in New Blow to Assad


December 26, 2012
The New York Times


Syria’s embattled leadership suffered a new setback on Wednesday with the publicly broadcast defection of its military police chief, the highest-ranking officer to abandon President Bashar al-Assad since the uprising against him began nearly two years ago.

The defector, Maj. Gen. Abdul Azia Jassem al-Shallal, announced his move in a video broadcast by Al Arabiya, saying that he had taken the step because of what he called the Syrian military’s deviation from “its fundamental mission to protect the nation and transformation into gangs of killing and destruction.”

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab broadcaster heavily critical of the Syrian government, said General Shallal had made the video on Tuesday somewhere on the Turkish-Syrian border, implying that he was now inside Turkey, where other Syrian military defectors have sought refuge in the conflict. Many have regrouped there to join the Free Syrian Army, the main insurgent force fighting Mr. Assad.

Reading from a prepared statement while sitting at a desk, dressed in a camouflage uniform with red epaulets, the general did not specify in his message when he had decided to defect but said that he had been “waiting for the right circumstances to do so.” He also said “there are other high-ranking officers who want to defect, but the situation is not suitable for them to declare defection.”

General Shallal’s statement came as Syrian insurgents were claiming new territorial gains against Mr. Assad in the northern and central parts of the country and as a special envoy from the United Nations and the Arab League was visiting Damascus as part of an effort to reach a political settlement that would halt the conflict, the most violent of the Arab Spring revolutions that began in the winter of 2010-2011. More than 40,000 people have been killed since protests against Mr. Assad began in March 2011.

There has been speculation that the special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, presented Mr. Assad with proposals for relinquishing his authority and possibly leaving the country. But Mr. Assad, whose Alawite minority has ruled Syria for more than four decades, has consistently said he will not leave the country, even as his control over it seems to be slipping further away.

Dozens of lower-ranking Syrian military officers and hundreds of soldiers have fled Syria over the past two years, but General Shallal, the head of the military police division of the Syrian Army, is the highest-ranking military defector so far. He outranked Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass, a boyhood friend of Mr. Assad’s, who fled last July. General Tlass is now believed to be living in France.

Among civilians who have abandoned Mr. Assad, the highest-ranking defector so far has been the prime minister, Riyad Farid Hijab, who fled to Jordan on Aug. 6. In the past few weeks, unconfirmed reports also have abounded about the possible defection of Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, a smooth-talking English speaker who had numerous foreign contacts and who disappeared from public view in early December. The Lebanese television channel Al Manar, which is sympathetic to Mr. Assad, said Mr. Makdissi had been fired.

The Guardian reported this week that Mr. Makdissi had fled to the United States and was cooperating with American intelligence. Officials in Washington have not responded to requests for comment on that report.

In Lebanon, Syria’s interior minister, Mohammed al-Shaar, who had been recovering at a Beirut hospital from wounds said to have been received in a Dec. 12 suicide bombing attack outside his offices in Damascus, was on his way back to the Syrian capital on Wednesday. The Associated Press quoted Beirut airport officials as saying the minister flew home on a private jet.

    High-Ranking Syrian General Defects in New Blow to Assad, NYT, 26.12.2012,






Kerry Named for the Role of a Lifetime


December 21, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — With a patrician bearing, nearly three decades of service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a highly decorated combat career in the Vietnam War, even a father who was a diplomat, John Kerry is the very picture of a secretary of state.

“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” President Obama said on Friday at the White House, as he nominated Mr. Kerry to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first step in filling out a national security team for his second term.

Mr. Obama praised Mr. Kerry, 69, a Massachusetts Democrat, for having been immersed in “every major foreign-policy debate for nearly 30 years.”

But though Mr. Kerry would bring even deeper experience to the job than Mrs. Clinton did, his appointment is likely to further centralize policy decisions in the White House, where for the past four years the president and a small circle of advisers have kept a tight grip on issues like Iran’s nuclear program, China, Pakistan, and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan.

“There’s every reason to believe that we’re going to have a very White House-centric foreign policy,” said David J. Rothkopf, the chief executive of the Foreign Policy Group. “Kerry is going to have to show his loyalty and willingness to work within the Obama system.”

In contrast to Mrs. Clinton, whom Mr. Obama named to his cabinet after they competed against each other in the 2008 presidential primaries, Mr. Kerry has been a loyal supporter of the Obama administration, guiding an arms-reduction treaty with Russia to ratification in the Senate and playing diplomatic troubleshooter for the White House in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan.

He has also figured at critical moments in Mr. Obama’s career. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention that nominated him for president, Mr. Kerry gave the keynote speaking slot to Mr. Obama, then a little-known Illinois state senator, catapulting him to national prominence. In early 2008, Mr. Kerry endorsed him over Mrs. Clinton, and this fall he played the role of Mitt Romney in mock debates — sessions that by some accounts put the president’s teeth on edge.

“Nothing brings two people closer together than weeks of debate prep,” said Mr. Obama on Friday, looking at a grinning Mr. Kerry. “John, I’m looking forward to working with you instead of debating you.”

However lavish Mr. Obama’s praise, his instinctive choice for secretary of state was Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, who withdrew her name from consideration after Republicans threatened to block her nomination because of statements she made after the lethal attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Mr. Obama, his aides said, likes Ms. Rice’s blunt style and is in sync with her view of foreign policy, which places a premium on aggressively defending human rights.

As a result, Ms. Rice, who is staying in her post, remains a candidate for a major foreign-policy post in the second term, according to administration officials. Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, is expected to stay on for a year or so, but Ms. Rice could be named to his job.

If she were to move into the White House, analysts said, that would pose a test for Mr. Kerry, given her access to Mr. Obama and their shared views on many foreign policy issues.

“The easiest model to see developing is one in which Kerry is on the road a lot, interfacing with foreign leaders, but the decision-making is done at the White House,” said Elliott Abrams, who held foreign-policy posts in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama expressed confidence that Mr. Kerry would be confirmed by his Senate colleagues, a prediction that seemed safe, given that at a recent news conference, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, one of Ms. Rice’s fiercest critics, jokingly referred to Mr. Kerry as “Mr. Secretary.”

Mrs. Clinton has not announced her resignation, but she has made it clear she would not stay beyond a single term. Because she is recovering from a concussion, she did not appear at the midday announcement. Mr. Obama said that he spoke to her on Friday morning, and reported that she was “in good spirits.”

In a statement, Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Kerry was a leader of the “highest caliber,” who had advocated on behalf of diplomacy and development in Congress.

Mr. Kerry is working with her to adopt the recommendations of a recent report that harshly criticized the State Department for lapses in security in Benghazi, she said. The Benghazi attack, analysts said, underscored the management challenge for a longtime senator like Mr. Kerry in taking over a sprawling worldwide bureaucracy. Former aides to Mr. Kerry point out that he did oversee a huge, if temporary, campaign operation in 2004, which, though criticized for tactical missteps, was not viewed as poorly managed.

Although Mr. Kerry is not a global celebrity like Mrs. Clinton, his background as a presidential nominee and his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee have made him well known abroad, accustomed to meeting monarchs and presidents.

In October 2009, he was viewed as instrumental in persuading President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to accept the need for a runoff election. Mr. Kerry spent 20 hours over five days with Mr. Karzai, telling him over dinner and in long walks in the garden of the presidential palace in Kabul of his own frustrations at the ballot box in 2004.

“I told him, ‘Sometimes there are tough things,’ ” Mr. Kerry said in an interview at the time.

Before Syria exploded in violence, Mr. Kerry met several times with its president, Bashar al-Assad, hoping to draw him into a more constructive role in the Middle East. His failed effort at engagement may elicit some tough questions from Mr. McCain and other Senate hawks.

As a senator, Mr. Kerry compiled a strong record on climate change, and environmental groups issued enthusiastic responses to his nomination. But Mr. Obama, pressed at a recent news conference, said climate change would take a back seat to the economy, at least for now.

For Mr. Kerry, exerting influence internally is likely to be the greatest challenge of the job he has long coveted. Friends and former aides predicted he would carve out a role, just as Mrs. Clinton did.

“John was someone who from an early age dreamed of being president,” said Jim Gomes, a former chief of staff to Mr. Kerry. “As someone who grew up in a Foreign Service family, who testified before Senate Foreign Relations after coming home from Vietnam and who wanted to serve on Foreign Relations, this is a pretty terrific Plan B.”

    Kerry Named for the Role of a Lifetime, NYT, 21.12.2012,






Syria Unleashes Cluster Bombs on Town, Punishing Civilians


December 20, 2012
The New York Times


MAREA, Syria — The plane came in from the southeast late in the afternoon, releasing its weapons in a single pass. Within seconds, scores of finned bomblets struck and exploded on the homes and narrow streets of this small Syrian town.

After the screams and the desperate gathering of the victims, the staff at the local Freedom Hospital counted 4 dead and 23 wounded. All were civilians, doctors and residents said.

Many forms of violence and hardship have befallen Syria’s people as the country’s civil war has escalated this year. But the Syrian government’s attack here on Dec. 12 pointed to one of the war’s irrefutable patterns: the deliberate targeting of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s military, in this case with a weapon that is impossible to use precisely.

Syrians on both sides in this fight have suffered from the bloodshed and sectarian furies given dark license by the war. The victims of the cluster bomb attacks describe the tactic as collective punishment, a mass reprisal against populations that are with the rebels.

The munitions in question — Soviet-era PTAB-2.5Ms — were designed decades ago by Communist engineers to destroy battlefield formations of Western armored vehicles and tanks. They are ejected in dense bunches from free-falling dispensers dropped from aircraft. The bomblets then scatter and descend nose-down to land and explode almost at once over a wide area, often hundreds of yards across.

Marea stands along an agricultural plain, surrounded for miles by empty fields. Even at night, or in bad weather, it cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is — the densely packed collection of small businesses, offices and homes that together form a town.

Two journalists from The New York Times were traveling toward Marea as the attack occurred and arrived not long after the exploding bomblets had rippled across its neighborhoods.

Blood pooled on the street, including beside a water-collection point at an intersection where Nabhan al-Haji, 18, was killed.

Another victim, Ahmad Najjar Asmail, had been riding a motorcycle when a submunition landed beside him. He was decapitated. Ramy Naser, 15, was also fatally wounded.

The hospital was crowded with patients. Many more were en route to hospitals in Turkey.

The use of cluster munitions is banned by much of the world, although Syria, like the United States, is not party to that international convention. In the detached parlance of military planners, they are also sometimes referred to as area weapons — ordnance with effects that cover a sprawling amount of ground.

In the attack on Marea, at least three dispensers, each containing 42 bomblets slightly smaller than a one-liter bottle and packed with a high-explosive shaped charge, were dropped squarely onto neighborhoods and homes.

Two funerals began as the sun set, the latest in a town that rose early against Syria’s government, and has been one of the seats of defiance.

One homeowner, Ali Farouh, showed the place where a PTAB-2.5M struck an exterior wall on his patio. His young son held up bits of shrapnel.

“Bashar is a horse,” Mr. Farouh said, almost spitting with disgust as he said the president’s name. “He is a donkey.”

An examination of the area by daylight found the signature signs of an air-delivered cluster munitions attack, including unexploded PTAB-2.5M submunitions, the tail sections and fins of three dispensers and three main dispenser bodies.

One resident also displayed the nearly intact remains of an ATK-EB mechanical time fuse associated with the same dispensers. Fragments of the submunitions’ fins were in abundance. An interior spacer and dispenser nose plate were also found.

Throughout the town, many of the narrow, telltale craters made by shaped charges could be seen. Some cut deep holes through asphalt into the dirt below, almost like a drill.

It was not immediately clear why Marea was attacked, although many residents ascribed motives that mix collective punishment with revenge.

The town is the home of Abdulkader al-Saleh, a prominent rebel field commander in the Aleppo region. Mr. Saleh, charismatic and lean, is locally known with near reverence as Haji Marea, and is celebrated by his townspeople for his mix of battlefield savvy, courage and luck. This month, just days before the cluster attack on his hometown, he was named a leader in the reorganized Free Syrian Army, as many rebels call themselves.

Residents said Marea’s recent history, and its indelible connection to the commander it produced, has earned it a high place on Mr. Assad’s list of targets.

“The regime especially hates us,” said Yasser al-Haji, an activist who lost a cousin in the attack.

No one disputes that Marea has repeatedly been attacked by some of the Assad government’s most frightening weapons. On Thursday, residents reported being hit by cruise missiles, perhaps Scuds, which they said landed just north of the town with tremendous, earth-heaving explosions.

In the case of the cluster munitions attack, one of the submunitions did strike a building being used by the rebels — a school where some of Haji Marea’s fighters are based. It blasted a small hole in the concrete roof and sprayed bits of concrete and shrapnel into the room below, which was empty.

Several fighters, who were meeting in the next room as the jet screamed overhead — and the sole bomblet, out of more than 100, hit their building — chuckled at their near miss. But they were enraged by the attack.

They spoke of the government’s escalation of weapons throughout the year — from mortars, tanks and artillery to helicopter gunships, then to fixed-wing attack jets. Since summer, Mr. Assad’s military has used cluster munitions repeatedly, and recently began using incendiary cluster munitions, too. This month, Syrian activists and officials in Washington said the government had ratcheted up the pressure with one of the last unused weapons left in its stock — cruise missiles, with conventional warheads. Analysts who have watched the gradual escalations said the Assad government has followed a “boil-the-frog-slowly” strategy.

With the incremental escalations, they say, Mr. Assad has prevented the West from finding cause to enter the war, as NATO did against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya after he rolled out almost all of his military’s full might at the war’s outset.

One fighter, who gave his name as Mustafa, said that Mr. Assad had little left that he had not used. The fighter said he expected no restraint.

“In the coming days, he’ll use the chemicals and he’ll destroy everything,” he said. “And will burn the people, and kill all the people — children, women, old men, the elders.”

Mr. Assad, Mustafa said, “just needs to kill.”

    Syria Unleashes Cluster Bombs on Town, Punishing Civilians, NYT, 20.12.2012,






China Calls for ‘No Delay’ on Gun Controls in U.S.


December 15, 2012
11:31 pm
The New York Times


HONG KONG - The state news agency in China, the official voice of the government, has called for the United States to quickly adopt stricter gun controls in the aftermath of the shooting rampage in Connecticut that left 28 people dead, including 20 schoolchildren.

According to the state medical examiner who was overseeing autopsies of the children, all of them had been hit multiple times. At least one child had been shot 11 times.

All of the children were in the first grade.

"Their blood and tears demand no delay for U.S. gun control," said the news agency, Xinhua, which listed a series of shootings this year in the United States.

"However, this time, the public feels somewhat tired and helpless," the commentary said. "The past six months have seen enough shooting rampages in the United States."

China suffered its own school tragedy on Friday - a man stabbed 22 children at a village elementary school in Henan Province. An 85-year-old woman also was stabbed.

There were no fatalities, although Xinhua reported that some of the children had had their fingers and ears cut off. The attacker, a 36-year-old man, was reportedly in custody. There was no immediate explanation for his possible motives.

On Sunday, the Web site China Smack compiled a range of comments on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like service in China. One said: "They should issue a bulletproof vest to every American elementary school student as their school uniform."

Another comment related to President Obama fighting back tears while addressing the nation on Friday:

In the face of Henan children suffering harm, did our country's leaders shed a tear!? Why is it that when this kind of incident happens, they always pretend to be deaf and mute!? I'm not saying that our leaders have to be like Obama shedding tears, but can we at least be like others in facing the incident? Instead of the mainstream media not even covering it, hiding it, attempting to avoid it every time the country has a "special incident."

China experienced a spate of attacks on schoolchildren in 2010, with almost 20 deaths and more than 50 injuries. In the fourth of the assaults, a crazed man beat five toddlers with a hammer, then set himself on fire while holding two youngsters.

In another of those attacks in 2010, Zheng Minsheng, 42, stabbed and killed eight primary school students in Fujian Province. Five weeks later, after a quick trial, he was executed.

My colleague Michael Wines reported at the time: "Some news reports stated that Mr. Zheng had mental problems, but most state media said no such evidence existed. Mental illness remains a closeted topic in modern China, and neither medication nor modern psychiatric treatment is widely used."

"Most of the attackers have been mentally disturbed men involved in personal disputes or unable to adjust to the rapid pace of social change in China," The Associated Press reported Saturday, adding that the rampages pointed to "grave weaknesses in the antiquated Chinese medical system's ability to diagnose and treat psychiatric illness."

Private ownership of guns - whether pistols, rifles or shotguns - is almost unheard of in China. Handgun permits are sometimes (but rarely) given to people living in remote areas for protection against wild animals.

The Chinese school assaults were carried out with knives, kitchen cleavers or hammers, the usual weapons of choice in mass attacks in China. As a precaution before the recent Communist Party Congress in Beijing, the sale of knives was banned in the central area of the capital.

Dr. Ding Xueliang, a sociologist at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong, speaking about the Chinese tragedy on Friday, told CNN that "the huge difference between this case and the U.S. is not the suspect, nor the situation, but the simple fact he did not have an effective weapon.

"In terms of the U.S., there's much easier availability of killing instruments - rifles, machine guns, explosives - than in nearly every other developed country."

In a blog on the Web site of The New Yorker, the magazine's China correspondent, Evan Osnos, wrote:

It takes a lot to make China's government - beset, as it is, by corruption and opacity and the paralyzing effects of special interests - look good, by comparison, in the eyes of its people these days. But we've done it.

When Chinese viewers looked at the two attacks side by side, more than a few of them concluded, as one did that, "from the look of it, there's no difference between a 'developed' country and a 'developing' country. And there's no such thing as human rights. People are the most violent creatures on earth, and China, with its ban on guns, is doing pretty well!"

Japan, too, has a near-total ban on private gun ownership, and the infrequent mass attacks there - which included a tragic rampage at a primary school in 2001- typically have involved knives.

"Almost no one in Japan owns a gun," said Max Fisher, writing in The Atlantic in July. "Most kinds are illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying and maintaining the few that are allowed. Even the country's infamous, mafia-like Yakuza tend to forgo guns; the few exceptions tend to become big national news stories."

In 2006, Japan had two gun-related homicides. "And when that number jumped to 22 in 2007," Mr. Fisher said, "it became a national scandal."

"East Asia, despite its universally restrictive domestic gun policies, hosts some of the world's largest firearm exporters and emerging industry giants: China, South Korea and Japan," according to GunPolicy.org, a comprehensive global database maintained by the Sydney School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

In recent weeks, Chinese police officials in Jiangsu Province seized more than 6,000 illegal guns from two underground workshops and warehouses; a retired prison guard in Hong Kong was jailed for 18 months for keeping an arsenal of guns, silencers, grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his public-housing apartment; and 17 suspected gun smugglers went on trial in Shanghai as part of a joint investigation with U.S. law enforcement officials.

In the Shanghai case, more than 100 semiautomatic handguns, rifles, shotguns and gun parts were express-mailed to China from the United States. One of the masterminds on the American end was Staff Sgt. Joseph Debose, 30, a soldier with a Special Forces National Guard unit in North Carolina. He pleaded guilty to federal charges in September.

"The defendant traded the honor of his position in the National Guard for the money he received for smuggling arms to China," said Loretta E. Lynch, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "In blatant disregard for everything he was sworn to uphold, the defendant placed numerous firearms into a black market pipeline from the United States to China."

What's your view? Would the United States do well to emulate China and Japan, with their comprehensive bans on guns? Or is America a special case because of its Constitutional protections of gun ownership? And apropos of the Fujian attack described above, would you support similarly speedy trials and the death penalty for mass murderers of children?

    China Calls for ‘No Delay’ on Gun Controls in U.S., NYT, 15.12.2012,






Egypt: The Next India or the Next Pakistan?


December 15, 2012
The New York Times


I WANT to discuss Egypt today, but first a small news item that you may have missed.

Three weeks ago, the prime minister of India appointed Syed Asif Ibrahim as the new director of India’s Intelligence Bureau, its domestic intelligence-gathering agency. Ibrahim is a Muslim. India is a predominantly Hindu country, but it is also the world’s third-largest Muslim nation. India’s greatest security threat today comes from violent Muslim extremists. For India to appoint a Muslim to be the chief of the country’s intelligence service is a big, big deal. But it’s also part of an evolution of empowering minorities. India’s prime minister and its army chief of staff today are both Sikhs, and India’s foreign minister and chief justice of the Supreme Court are both Muslims. It would be like Egypt appointing a Coptic Christian to be its army chief of staff.

“Preposterous,” you say.

Well, yes, that’s true today. But if it is still true in a decade or two, then we’ll know that democracy in Egypt failed. We will know that Egypt went the route of Pakistan and not India. That is, rather than becoming a democratic country where its citizens could realize their full potential, instead it became a Muslim country where the military and the Muslim Brotherhood fed off each other so both could remain in power indefinitely and “the people” were again spectators. Whether Egypt turns out more like Pakistan or India will impact the future of democracy in the whole Arab world.

Sure, India still has its governance problems and its Muslims still face discrimination. Nevertheless, “democracy matters,” argues Tufail Ahmad, the Indian Muslim who directs the South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, because “it is democracy in India that has, over six decades, gradually broken down primordial barriers — such as caste, tribe and religion — and in doing so opened the way for all different sectors of Indian society to rise through their own merits, which is exactly what Ibrahim did.”

And it is six decades of tyranny in Egypt that has left it a deeply divided country, where large segments do not know or trust one another, and where conspiracy theories abound. All of Egypt today needs to go on a weekend retreat with a facilitator and reflect on one question: How did India, another former British colony, get to be the way it is (Hindu culture aside)?

The first answer is time. India has had decades of operating democracy, and, before independence, struggling for democracy. Egypt has had less than two years. Egypt’s political terrain was frozen and monopolized for decades — the same decades that political leaders from Mahatma Gandhi to Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh “were building an exceptionally diverse, cacophonous, but impressively flexible and accommodating system,” notes the Stanford University democracy expert Larry Diamond, the author of “The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.”

Also, the dominant political party in India when it overthrew its colonial overlord “was probably the most multiethnic, inclusive and democratically minded political party to fight for independence in any 20th-century colony — the Indian National Congress,” said Diamond. While the dominant party when Egypt overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s tyranny, the Muslim Brotherhood, “was a religiously exclusivist party with deeply authoritarian roots that had only recently been evolving toward something more open and pluralistic.”

Moreover, adds Diamond, compare the philosophies and political heirs of Mahatma Gandhi and Sayyid Qutb, the guiding light of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Nehru was not a saint, but he sought to preserve a spirit of tolerance and consensus, and to respect the rules,” notes Diamond. He also prized education. By contrast, added Diamond, “the hard-line Muslim Brotherhood leaders, who have been in the driver’s seat since Egypt started moving toward elections, have driven away the moderates from within their party, seized emergency powers, beaten their rivals in the streets, and now are seeking to ram a constitution that lacks consensus down the throats of a large segment of Egyptian society that feels excluded and aggrieved.”

Then there is the military. Unlike in Pakistan, India’s postindependence leaders separated the military from politics. Unfortunately, in Egypt after the 1952 coup, Gamel Abdel Nasser brought the military into politics and all of his successors, right up to Mubarak, kept it there and were sustained by both the military and its intelligence services. Once Mubarak fell, and the new Brotherhood leaders pushed the army back to its barracks, Egypt’s generals clearly felt that they had to cut a deal to protect the huge web of economic interests they had built. “Their deep complicity in the old order led them to be compromised by the new order,” said Diamond. “Now they are not able to act as a restraining influence.”

Yes, democracy matters. But the ruling Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is so much more than just winning an election. It is nurturing a culture of inclusion, and of peaceful dialogue, where respect for leaders is earned by surprising opponents with compromises rather than dictates. The Noble Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen has long argued that it was India’s civilizational history of dialogue and argumentation that disposed it well to the formal institutions of democracy. More than anything, Egypt now needs to develop that kind of culture of dialogue, of peaceful and respectful arguing — it was totally suppressed under Mubarak — rather than rock-throwing, boycotting, conspiracy-mongering and waiting for America to denounce one side or the other, which has characterized too much of the postrevolutionary political scene. Elections without that culture are like a computer without software. It just doesn’t work.

    Egypt: The Next India or the Next Pakistan?, NYT, 15.12.2012,






Tibet Is Burning


December 12, 2012
The New York Times



AROUND noon on Feb. 19, an 18-year-old named Nangdrol set himself on fire near the Zamthang Monastery in the northeast Tibetan town of Barma. In a note left behind, he wrote, “I am going to set myself on fire for the benefit of all Tibetans.” Referring to China’s ethnic Han majority as “devils,” he added, “It is impossible to live under their evil law, impossible to bear this torture that leaves no scars.”

Over the last three years, close to 100 Tibetan monks and laypeople have set themselves on fire; 30 people did so between Nov. 4 and Dec. 3. The Chinese government is seeking to halt this wave of self-immolations by detaining Tibetans it accuses of being instigators. Meanwhile, the scarless torture continues.

I first visited China’s far west 21 years ago with college friends. Back then it at least looked peaceful, but now, sad news arrives daily. When I returned in October, a young monk invited me to visit his monastery. Passing a checkpoint where a red banner read, “Stability Maintenance Calls for Fast Response to Emergencies,” he told me how he hated the sight of armed soldiers.

Because a road was closed for construction, I had to wait until evening to hitch a ride to Barma, where Nangdrol had lived, about 30 miles away. I was the third passenger in the car; the other two were young Tibetans.

“Are you Buddhist followers?” I asked them. One of them showed me a pendant portrait of the Dalai Lama that he pulled out from his chest. “He is our true Holiness,” he said.

“Have you heard about the self-immolations? Like, burning oneself?” I asked tentatively, finally broaching the topic. They knew about it.

“Pardon me, but do you hate the Hans?” I asked them because Nangdrol had used the term “Han devils” in his suicide note. They’d heard about Nangdrol. When I told them I was there to visit Nangdrol’s parents to express my sadness, they told me more.

They said they’d been to the site, as hundreds of Tibetans had. People had set up white tents at the intersection where he died. “He is our hero,” one said.

It was dark when we arrived in Barma. At a lamppost, one of my fellow passengers asked a man for directions but was waved off. At a crossroads, he asked two men on motorcycles and an argument broke out. A monk came to the window to examine me.

“Sorry,” my fellow passenger said, “they scolded me for taking you here.” A minivan approached. Two men jumped out of it and upbraided him indignantly. Fear and hostility shrouded the place like night.

“We are Tibetans,” he said all of a sudden as we left Barma in silence to spend the night in a nearby town. “We are Buddhists, but we can’t go to Lhasa without a permit.” Years ago, you could see many Tibetans on their pilgrimage to Lhasa, but not anymore.

The next day, I returned to Barma. I asked a young monk, on his way to fetch water, about Nangdrol. He took me to a hall where a middle-aged monk sat cross-legged in a corner. Since I didn’t have Nangdrol’s photo with me, he said he couldn’t help me.

A teenage monk asked several of his peers but got no answers. Passers-by shook their heads. At a construction site, no one had heard about him either. In the town’s elementary school I asked an armed soldier guarding the gate. I’d read that Nangdrol was a student. The soldier suggested that I check out the nearby compound where a Chinese flag flew, but people told me the town had no secondary school.

The road back from Barma was open only from noon to 1 p.m. I had to leave. Along a creek, a row of poplars basked in the golden sun, and a group of young monks in crimson robes were holding a class. Reluctantly, I climbed into a cab. I had been to many places over the years but never felt so lost.

I stopped the driver a mile or so down the road when we passed by a village on a slope. After my repeated pleadings, the roadside shop owner gave me directions to Nangdrol’s home. Up on the slope, an old couple pointed to the house.

It was a small mud-plastered house enclosed in mud-brick walls, and five tall sutra streamers flew on one side of the property. The iron gate was locked.

A middle-aged woman with a boy, passing by, said she had known Nangdrol. His parents now live on a faraway cattle farm, she said. The day of his death, she told me, he wore new clothes, and he was freshly bathed, with a fresh haircut. He asked people whether he was handsome.

I didn’t know how else to express my sorrow. I asked the woman to give 500 yuan (about $80) to Nangdrol’s parents, letting them know that a Han Chinese man had come to pay his respects.

I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom. We are victims ourselves, living in estrangement, infighting, hatred and destruction. We share this land. It’s our shared home, our shared responsibility, our shared dream — and it will be our shared deliverance.


Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer and human rights advocate, is a founder of Gongmeng,

the Open Constitution Initiative.

This essay was translated from the Chinese by Yaxue Cao.

    Tibet Is Burning, NYT, 12.12.2012,






Syria Uses Scud Missiles in New Effort to Push Back Rebels


December 12, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have resorted to firing ballistic missiles at rebel fighters inside Syria, Obama administration officials said Wednesday, escalating a nearly two-year-old civil war as the government struggles to slow the momentum of a gaining insurgency.

Administration officials said that over the last week, Assad forces for the first time had fired at least six Soviet-designed Scud missiles in the latest bid to push back rebels who have consistently chipped away at the government’s military superiority.

In a conflict that has already killed more than 40,000 Syrians, the government has been forced to augment its reliance on troops with artillery, then air power and now missiles as the rebels have taken over military bases and closed in on the capital, Damascus. The escalation has not changed Washington’s decision to avoid military intervention in Syria — as long as chemical weapons are not used — but it did prompt a rebuke.

“As the regime becomes more and more desperate, we see it resorting to increased lethality and more vicious weapons moving forward, and we have in recent days seen missiles deployed,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman.

President Obama has said that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” implying that it might lead to an American military response.

Mr. Assad’s decision to fire Scuds — not known for their precision — inside his own country appears directly related to the rebel ability to take command of military bases and seize antiaircraft weapons. The Scuds have been fired since Monday from the An Nasiriyah Air Base, north of Damascus, according to American officials familiar with the classified intelligence reports about the attacks. The target was the Sheikh Suleiman base north of Aleppo, which rebel forces had occupied.

The development may also represent a calculation by the Syrian leadership that it can resort to such lethal weapons without the fear of international intervention, partly because Washington had set its tolerance threshold at the use of chemical weapons. Mr. Obama has never suggested that the United States would take action to stop attacks against Syrian rebels and civilians with conventional weapons, no matter how severe.

“This may be another example of the unintended consequence of the red line the administration has drawn with regard to chemical weapons,” said Joseph Holliday, a former Army intelligence officer and a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a nongovernmental research group. “Assad views every weapon short of chemicals as fair game.”

The disclosure about the Scuds came as representatives of more than 100 nations gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, for a conference intended to give a political lift to the Syrian opposition, which is formally known as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. And it came amid an increase in violence in Syria, including reports of a new massacre of about 100 Alawites, Mr. Assad’s sect, and a large bombing in the capital.

Mr. Obama, in an interview on Tuesday with ABC News, formally recognized the coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

William Burns, the deputy secretary of state who led the American team to the Morocco gathering, said Wednesday that he had invited opposition leaders to Washington, including Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, the coalition leader.

Mr. Khatib, however, took issue with a decision by the Obama administration to classify Al Nusra Front — one of several armed groups fighting Mr. Assad — as a foreign terrorist organization.

“The logic under which we consider one of the parts that fights against the Assad regime as a terrorist organization is a logic one must reconsider,” Mr. Khatib said. “We can differ with parties that adopt political ideas and visions different from ours. But we ensure that the goal of all rebels is the fall of the regime.”

Obama administration officials have said that the Nusra Front is an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group that has sought to foment sectarian violence there and topple the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

“All of us have seen what Al Qaeda in Iraq tried to do to threaten the social fabric of Iraq,” Mr. Burns said at a news conference. “And that’s not a future that the vast majority of Syrians want to see, and it’s certainly not a future that the international community supports.”

Mr. Burns spoke after a declaration recognizing the new coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people was adopted at the Morocco gathering. It also called on Mr. Assad to “stand aside” to permit a “sustainable political transition.”

In Damascus on Wednesday, a car bomb and two other explosives went off outside the Interior Ministry headquarters — known as the House of Justice — in Kafar Souseh, on the southern outskirts, Syrian state news media reported. Two Lebanese television channels that favor the Syrian government reported that there had been casualties. One channel, Mayadin, reported that the interior minister, Mohammad al-Shaar, had been wounded, but other accounts said he had escaped unharmed.

An activist in Damascus, Abu Qays, said Syrian security forces had sealed off Shami Hospital, a central Damascus facility used by Syria’s elite, in a possible indication of high-profile casualties in the blasts.

But it was the Scud attacks that caught the attention of American intelligence experts. Scuds are capable of carrying chemical weapons, though American officials emphasized that conventional warheads, not poison gas, had been used in the recent strikes.

NATO recently approved the deployment of American, Dutch and Germany Patriot antimissile batteries to Turkey, a neighbor of Syria that has become one of Mr. Assad’s most ardent rivals, to protect against a possible Syrian missile attack. The Patriot batteries have not yet arrived in Turkey, and it may take weeks for them to get there.

An American official said that the Syrian brigade that controls and operates the Scuds was an all-Alawite team. “There’s tremendous sensitivity about that weapon system, so Assad keeps it in the hands of his most trusted agents,” he said.

It is not clear whether all of the Scuds struck the base they were aimed at or what casualties they might have caused. But there was military logic to the move, experts said.

“The Assad regime has consistently escalated its use of force whenever the rebels’ strength has presented a significant challenge to the regime,” Mr. Holliday said.

“In January 2012, the regime started to use artillery because the rebels learned how to defend against regime ground forces,” he added. “The regime started using its air power in June because the rebels had gained control of the countryside. Now that the rebels have begun to defeat Assad’s air force and overrun his bases, it shouldn’t be surprising that the regime is responding with Scuds.”

Reporting was contributed by Mark Landler from Washington;

Aida Alami from Marrakesh, Morocco; Alan Cowell from London;

Anne Barnard, Hwaida Saad and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon;

and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

    Syria Uses Scud Missiles in New Effort to Push Back Rebels, NYT, 12.12.2012,






American Tariffs, Bangladeshi Deaths


December 11, 2012
The New York Times


Berkeley, Calif.

THE fire that killed 112 workers at a garment factory in the suburbs of Bangladesh’s capital last month was a stark reminder of the human costs of producing and consuming cheap clothes.

While American officials have condemned poor safety conditions at the factory and have urged the Bangladeshi government to raise wages and improve working conditions, the United States can do much more: It should bring down high tariffs on imports from Bangladesh and other Asian countries, which put pressure on contractors there to scrimp on labor standards in order to stay competitive.

The United States imported more than $4 billion worth of apparel and textiles from Bangladesh last year. So it has an interest in giving the country’s garment industry some financial room with which to improve conditions for the three million employees, most of them female, who work in the industry.

Monitoring systems have, in many cases, achieved progress at the higher levels of the industry: the contractors that deal directly with American retailers. But oversight is lax, and conditions particularly dire, in factories run by subcontractors, like the Tazreen Fashions factory, the site of the deadly blaze on Nov. 24.

A bill introduced in Congress in 2009 by Representative Jim McDermott, Democrat of Washington, could have improved the situation by including Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka on the list of developing countries, like Mexico, that receive duty-free access to the American market as a result of free-trade agreements. But the bill never even made it to committee, and Bangladesh still faces a cost squeeze that is ultimately felt most acutely on those lowest on the production chain, especially the lowest-paying subcontractors, among whom corruption is endemic. It takes its greatest toll on workers.

The distortions created by the current trade policy are striking. In the United States federal fiscal year that ended in September 2011, Bangladesh exported $5.10 billion in goods to the United States, of which less than 10 percent were eligible for exemption from import duties. On the rest, Bangladesh had to pay at least 15.3 percent in tariffs. The tariffs were equivalent to imposing a $4.61 tax on every person in Bangladesh, a country with a per-capita annual income of $770.

This year, according to news accounts, Bangladesh will have paid more than $600 million annually in American tariffs, even as the United States Agency for International Development said it was committed to $200 million in development aid to Bangladesh. Of course, no free trade legislation is controversy-free. One argument against reducing restrictions on Bangladeshi imports is that it might hurt even poorer countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, that enjoy duty-free access under a 2000 law, the African Growth and Opportunity Act. But studies have shown that extending duty-free access to South Asian goods would have negligible costs, yield huge benefits for Bangladesh’s economy and have minimal negative impact on African exports.

Bangladesh’s government and industries have a moral duty to prevent catastrophes like the November fire from ever occurring again. They need to insist that factory operators meet safety standards, that inspections are conducted honestly and that recommendations are enforced.

But leveling the playing field of international trade could advance all of these goals. International brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, H&M, Target and Walmart demand low prices and fast turnaround. In that context, high tariffs work against the goals of fair-labor standards and factory safety.

In the fire’s aftermath, it’s tempting to focus only on local corruption and lax labor standards. But there have been positive changes in recent years; labor groups, businesses, nongovernmental organizations and even some international buyers have formed coalitions to improve safety at many factories. In a survey I conducted of garment workers at established factories, 62 percent said labor conditions had improved.

But for improvements in workers’ well-being to have lasting effect, tariffs on exports to the United States, the world’s largest consumer market, must be eased.


Sanchita B. Saxena is a political scientist and associate director

of the Center for South Asia Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

    American Tariffs, Bangladeshi Deaths, NYT, 11.12.2012,






North Koreans Launch Rocket in Defiant Act


December 11, 2012
The New York Times


SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Wednesday morning that appeared to reach as far as the Philippines, an apparent success for the country’s young and untested new leader, Kim Jong-un, and a step toward the nation’s goal of mastering the technology needed to build an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or Norad, said it had detected the launching and tracked the missile — a Galaxy-3 rocket, called the Unha-3 by the North — as its first stage appeared to fall into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the Philippine Sea.

“Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” Norad said. “At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”

But the timing of the launching appeared to take American officials by surprise. Just an hour or two before blastoff from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri on North Korea’s western coast, near China, American officials at a holiday reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Washington said they thought the North Koreans had run into technical problems that could take them weeks to resolve.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the rocket succeeded in the ostensible goal of putting an earth-observation satellite named Kwangmyongsong-3, or Shining Star-3, into orbit, and celebrations by members of the North Korean media were reported.

Although the launching was driven in part by domestic considerations, analysts said it carried far-reaching foreign relations implications, coming as leaders in Washington and Beijing — as well as those soon to be chosen in Tokyo and Seoul — try to form a new way of coping with North Korea after two decades of largely fruitless attempts to end its nuclear and missile ambitions.

For President Obama, the launching deepened the complexity of dealing with the new North Korean government, after four years in which promises of engagement, then threats of deeper sanctions, have done nothing to modify the country’s behavior. A statement from the White House by Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman, called the launch a “a highly provocative act that threatens regional security, directly violates United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, contravenes North Korea’s international obligations, and undermines the global nonproliferation regime.”

The launching also appeared to dash the hopes of some analysts that Mr. Kim might soften North Korea’s confrontational stance. It showed him instead as intent on bolstering his father’s main legacy of nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs to justify his own hereditary rule.

For Mr. Kim, barely a year in office, the launching was important in three respects. Its apparent success, after a test of the same rocket failed spectacularly seconds after takeoff in April, demonstrated what one American intelligence official called “a more professional operation” to diagnose and solve rocket-design problems similar to those the United States encountered in the 1960s. He built credibility with the powerful North Korean military, whose ranks he purged in recent months, replacing some top leaders with his own loyalists.

He also advertised that the country, despite its backwardness and isolation, could master a missile technology that it has previously marketed to Iran, Pakistan and others. Some American officials, who have privately warned of increased missile cooperation between Iran and North Korea over the past year, have argued that the North Korean test would benefit Iran as much as North Korea.

The North has a long way to go before it can threaten neighboring countries, and perhaps one day the West Coast of the United States, with a nuclear-armed missile. It has yet to develop a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop its missile, experts say, and it has not tested a re-entry vehicle that can withstand the heat of the atmosphere. Nor is it clear that the country knows how to aim a missile with much accuracy.

“What’s important here is the symbolism, especially if the test seems reasonably successful,” said Victor D. Cha, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s not as if the U.S. can describe them anymore as a bunch of crazies who could never get anywhere with their technology. And it ends the argument that Kim Jong-un might be a young, progressive reformer who is determined to take the country in a new direction.”

The missile capabilities of a country as opaque as North Korea are notoriously hard to assess. United States and South Korean officials have said that all of the North’s four multiple-stage rockets previously launched have exploded in midair or failed in their stated goal of thrusting a satellite into orbit. Nonetheless, during a visit to China early in 2011, Robert M. Gates, then Mr. Obama’s defense secretary, said that North Korea was within five years of being able to strike the continental United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The range of Wednesday’s test would fall far short of that goal, but suggests that the North has learned much about how to launch multistage rockets.

North Korea insisted it was exercising its right to peaceful activity in space. But this is the third time the North has provoked the Obama administration — and, to some degree, its patron the Chinese — in four years.

The country’s nuclear test in 2009 was intended to show that it had the capability to set off a nuclear explosion, though there is no evidence yet that its arsenal of a half-dozen to a dozen nuclear weapons could be deliverable outside North Korea. Then, in 2010, it showed a visiting Stanford scientist a uranium-enrichment plant that American intelligence services had missed.

The message was that the North now had a second pathway to building a bomb; all its weapons so far have been made from reprocessed plutonium from nuclear plants. At the time that the North revealed the plant, the Obama administration said it would consult with allies about an appropriate response, but the North suffered few consequences. It may be betting that the rocket launching draws a similar response.

Imposing sanctions on the North would be difficult. It has long been one of the most sanctioned countries on earth. While a further crackdown on offshore banking is possible, the North Koreans have no oil of their own to shut off. China could send a message by halting some deliveries to the North.

Wednesday’s unusual wintertime rocket launching came five days before the one-year anniversary of the death of Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, on Dec. 17, which his son is trying to mark with a fanfare aimed at showcasing his dynasty’s achievement in empowering the small and impoverished nation. Some experts believe another nuclear test blast cannot be far off.

The defiance Mr. Kim showed with his latest launch alarmed the region, which is going through sensitive changes of leadership. It came four days before the Dec. 16 lower-house election in Japan, where right-wing leaders have been gaining political leverage, thanks partly to North Korean threats. The provocation also presented an early test for candidates for the Dec. 19 presidential election in South Korea, all of whom have called for dialogue with the North.

“Regardless what the international community says about it, this successful launching boosts Kim Jong-un’s posture by turning him into a fox in a hen house in Northeast Asia,” said Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation. “It paints South Korea, Japan and the United States into a corner because it shows that the North’s technology is advancing.”

The launching is also expected to move Japan further toward the right as tensions over the country’s territorial disputes with neighboring countries remain high, Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Kim needed to redeem his April humiliation not only among his country’s enemies, who he feared would not take him as a worthy foe, but also among his people, who have grown disenchanted with his government’s inability to resolve the prolonged economic crisis, South Korean officials and analysts said.

Since he took power, Mr. Kim has tried to cement his authority with what analysts described as halfhearted economic reforms among some farms and factories, highlighting the perceived threats from the country’s external enemies, and, most recently, raising the specter of a reign of terror through talk of “squashing rebellious elements” at home. A series of top generals have recently been fired or demoted.

In a statement in October, North Korea’s National Defense Commission said that when “midranking policy makers from the United States, National Security Council and C.I.A. recently met with us in official and unofficial settings,” they tried to assure the North that Washington had no “hostile” intent. “But the reality clearly showed that the messages we received from the United States were lies,” it said, citing the United States’ agreement to let South Korea nearly triple the reach of its ballistic missiles, putting all of the North within its range.

The Washington-Seoul missile deal was to help South Korea better deter North Korea’s expanding missile capabilities. But North Korea called the deal a hostile move and said it now felt freer to test “long-range missiles for military purposes.”


Choe Sang-hun reported from Seoul, and David E. Sanger from Washington.

    North Koreans Launch Rocket in Defiant Act, NYT, 11.12.2012,






Can God Save Egypt?


December 11, 2012
The New York Times



When you fly along the Mediterranean today, what do you see below? To the north, you look down at a European supranational state system — the European Union — that is cracking up. And to the south, you look down at an Arab nation state system that is cracking up. It’s an unnerving combination, and it’s all the more reason for the U.S. to get its economic house in order and be a rock of global stability, because, I fear, the situation on the Arab side of the Mediterranean is about to get worse. Egypt, the anchor of the whole Arab world, is embarked on a dangerous descent toward prolonged civil strife, unless a modus vivendi can be found between President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and his growing opposition. If Syria and Egypt both unravel at once, this whole region will be destabilized. That’s why a billboard on the road to the Pyramids said it all: “God save Egypt.”

Having watched a young, veiled, Egyptian female reporter tear into a Muslim Brotherhood official the other day over the group’s recent autocratic and abusive behavior, I can assure you that the fight here is not between more religious and less religious Egyptians. What has brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians back into the streets, many of them first-time protesters, is the fear that autocracy is returning to Egypt under the guise of Islam. The real fight here is about freedom, not religion.

The decisions by President Morsi to unilaterally issue a constitutional decree that shielded him from judicial oversight (he has since rescinded most of it after huge protests) and then to rush the completion of a new, highly imperfect, Constitution and demand that it be voted on in a national referendum on Saturday, without sufficient public debate, have rekindled fears that Egyptians have replaced one autocracy, led by Hosni Mubarak, with another, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi and the other Muslim Brotherhood leaders were late comers to the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution that ended six decades of military rule here. And because they were focused only on exploiting it for their own ends, they have grossly underestimated the deep, mostly youth-led yearning for the freedom to realize their full potential that erupted in Tahrir — and it has not gone away.

Whenever anyone asked me what I saw in Tahrir Square during that original revolution, I told them I saw a tiger that had been living in a 5-by-8 cage for 60 years get released. And there are three things I can tell you about the tiger: 1) Tiger is never going back in that cage; 2) Do not try to ride tiger for your own narrow purposes or party because this tiger only serves Egypt as a whole; 3) Tiger only eats beef. He has been fed every dog food lie in the Arabic language for 60 years, so don’t try doing it again.

First, the Egyptian Army underestimated the tiger, and tried to get it back in the cage. Now the Muslim Brothers are. Ahmed Hassan, 26, is one of the original Tahrir rebels. He comes from the poor Shubra el-Kheima neighborhood, where his mother sold vegetables. I think he spoke for many of his generation when he told me the other day: “We all had faith that Morsi would be the one who would fulfill our dreams and take Egypt where we wanted it to go. The problem [now] is that not only has he abandoned our dream, he has gone against it. ... They took our dream and implanted their own. I am a Muslim, but I think with my own mind. But [the Muslim Brothers] follow orders from their Supreme Guide. ... Half of me is heartbroken, and half of me is happy today. The part that is heartbroken is because I am aware that we are entering a stage that could be a real blood bath. And the part that is happy is because people who were completely apathetic before have now woken up and joined us.”

What’s wrong with Morsi’s new draft constitution? On the surface, it is not some Taliban document. While the writing was dominated by Islamists, professional jurists had their input. Unfortunately, argues Mona Zulficar, a lawyer and an expert on the constitution, while it enshrines most basic rights, it also says they must be balanced by vague religious, social and moral values, some of which will be defined by clerical authorities. This language opens loopholes, she said, that could enable conservative judges to restrict “women’s rights, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion and the press and the rights of the child,” particularly young girls. Or, as Dan Brumberg, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, put it, the draft constitution could end up guaranteeing “freedom of speech, but not freedom after speech.”

The wild street demonstrations here — for and against the constitution — tell me one thing: If it is just jammed through by Morsi, Egypt will be building its new democracy on a deep fault line. It will never be stable. Egypt is thousands of years old. It can take six more months to get its new constitution right.

God is not going to save Egypt. It will be saved only if the opposition here respects that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election fairly — and resists its excesses not with boycotts (or dreams of a coup) but with better ideas that win the public to the opposition’s side. And it will be saved only if Morsi respects that elections are not winner-take-all, especially in a society that is still defining its new identity, and stops grabbing authority and starts earning it. Otherwise, it will be all fall down.

    Can God Save Egypt?, NYT, 11.12.2012,






U.S. Will Grant Recognition to Syrian Rebels, Obama Says


December 11, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama said Tuesday that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative, in an attempt to intensify the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to give up his nearly two-year bloody struggle to stay in power.

Mr. Obama’s announcement, in an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC News on the eve of a meeting in Morocco of the Syrian opposition leaders and their supporters, was widely expected.

But it marks a new phase of American engagement in a bitter conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, threatened to destabilize the broader Middle East and defied all outside attempts to end it. The United States had for much of the civil war largely sat on the sidelines, only recently moving more energetically as it appeared the opposition fighters were beginning to gain momentum — and radical Islamists were playing a growing role.

Experts and many Syrians, including rebels, say the move may well be too little, too late. They note that it is not at all clear if this group will be able to coalesce into a viable leadership, if it has any influence over the fighters waging war with the government or if it can roll back widespread anger at the United States.

“The recognition is designed as a political shot in the arm for the opposition,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow and Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But it’s happening in the context of resentment among the Syrian opposition, especially armed elements, of the White House’s lack of assistance during the Syrian people’s hour of need. This is especially true among armed groups.”

The announcement puts Washington’s political imprimatur on a once-disparate band of opposition groups, which have begun to coalesce under pressure from the United States and its allies, to develop what American officials say is a credible transitional plan to govern Syria if Mr. Assad is forced out.

Moreover, it draws an even sharper line between those elements of the opposition that the United States champions and those it rejects. The Obama administration coupled its recognition with the designation hours earlier of a militant Syrian rebel group, the Nusra Front, as a foreign terrorist organization, affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“Not everybody who is participating on the ground in fighting Assad are people that we are comfortable with,” Mr. Obama said in an interview on the ABC program “20/20.” “There are some who I think have adopted an extremist agenda, an anti-U.S. agenda.”

But Mr. Obama praised the opposition, known formally as the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, for what he said was its inclusiveness, its openness to various ethnic and religious groups, and its ties to local councils involved in the fighting against Mr. Assad’s security forces.

“At this point we have a well-organized-enough coalition — opposition coalition that is representative — that we can recognize them as the legitimate representative of Syrian people,” he said.

The United States is not the first to make this step. Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council have also recognized the Syrian opposition group. But experts note that the support has done nothing to change the military equation inside Syria, where Mr. Assad has stubbornly clung to power despite gains by rebel fighters. Mr. Assad continues to rely on air power and artillery to pummel rebel positions even as fighting has spread into his stronghold of Damascus.

Mr. Obama notably did not commit himself to providing arms to the rebels or to supporting them militarily with airstrikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone, a stance that has led to a rise of anti-American sentiment among many of the rebels.

That is the kind of half-step that has led to mounting frustration in Syria, peaking this week with the blacklisting of the Nusra Front. Far from isolating the group, interviews with Syrian rebels and activists show, it has for now appeared to do the opposite. It has united a broad spectrum of the opposition — from Islamist fighters to liberal and nonviolent activists who fervently oppose them — in anger and exasperation with the United States.

The United States has played an active role behind the scenes in shaping the opposition, insisting that it be broadened and made more inclusive. But until Mr. Obama’s announcement, the United States had held off on formally recognizing the opposition, asserting that it wanted to use the lure of recognition to encourage the rebel leaders to flesh out their political structure and fill important posts.

In recent weeks, the coalition has been developing a series of committees on humanitarian assistance, education, health, judicial matters and security issues. It has not, however, been able so far to agree on a prime minister or a cabinet even after extensive negotiations.

And the coalition is still unlikely to be viewed as a legitimate representative by the many Syrians still supporting the government or by many fighters who have little connection to the exile opposition.

While last week coalition members suggested that choosing a prime minister was important for persuading the United States to offer recognition, American officials said the White House had decided that the opposition had made sufficient progress for now. The American hope is that the opposition, in conjunction with local councils that are being formed in Syria, can help govern areas that have been wrested from Mr. Assad’s control, provide public services like law enforcement and utilities and perhaps even channel humanitarian assistance. Alluding to this role, Mr. Obama said that the opposition would “have some responsibilities to carry out.”

But Mr. Obama’s move does not go so far as to confer on the opposition the legal authority of a state. It does not, for example, recognize the opposition’s right to have access to Syrian government funds, take over the Syrian Embassy in Washington or enter into binding diplomatic commitments.

It is also unclear to what extent the move might influence the situation inside Syria, where the pace of the fighting has intensified. A senior American official who is attending the meeting in Morocco said Tuesday that none of the rebel military commanders from the Free Syrian Army would be attending the meeting on Wednesday.

“There are people here who definitely coordinate with armed groups, with the Free Syrian Army,” he said. “That is not to say they are giving instructions to it; they do not,” he said. “It is not to say that they are telling it what to do or what to say in the international field; they are not. In a sense, the Free Syrian Army is a separate organization.”

The widespread dissatisfaction among rebel groups — and the broader population — raises the possibility that now, just as the United States is stepping up efforts to steer the outcome in Syria, it may already be too late.

More than 100 antigovernment organizations and fighting battalions have called online for demonstrations on Friday under the slogan, “No to American intervention — we are all Jabhet al-Nusra,” a reference to the Nusra Front’s Arabic name.

“Anti-American sentiment is growing, because the Americans are messing up in bigger ways lately,” said Nabil al-Amir, an official spokesman for the rebel military council for Damascus and its suburbs, one of the committees that the United States and its allies are trying to coax into a unified rebel command. With every step to correct earlier mistakes, he said, “they make a bigger mess.”

Liberals activists blame American inaction for giving jihadists a leading role in the conflict. Rival rebel groups have declared solidarity with the Nusra Front, and Islamists have congratulated it on its new distinction. And seemingly everyone accuses the United States of hypocrisy for not slapping the terrorist label on Mr. Assad, whose forces have killed far more civilians than any rebel group.

The United States on Tuesday issued a more complete justification for blacklisting the Nusra Front, saying that the group has killed Syrian civilians in more than 40 suicide bombings.

And it announced a new wrinkle: It is also blacklisting pro-government militias accused of killing civilians as part of “the Assad regime’s campaign of terror and violence.”

The militias, a Treasury Department statement said, would include what it called the shabiha and Jaish al-Sha’bi, or the People’s Army, which it said was created with the help of Mr. Assad’s allies Iran and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and modeled on Iran’s Basij militia.

The Treasury Department singled out a shabiha leader, Ayman Jaber, as well as two other shabiha members, including Mahir al-Asad, who was accused along with Mr. Jaber of planning an attack on the United States Embassy in 2011. Apart from these designations, it may be hard to define who exactly is blacklisted under the heading of “shabiha,” which is not the name of an organization but a catchall term for pro-government gangs.


Mark Landler and Michael R. Gordon reported from Washington,

and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon.

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut.

    U.S. Will Grant Recognition to Syrian Rebels, Obama Says, NYT, 11.12.2012,






Al Qaeda in Syria


December 10, 2012
The New York Times


The presence of rebel fighters in Syria that were trained and supported by Al Qaeda poses a serious problem for the United States and Western allies. The Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has become one of the most effective forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

The fear is that the group could hijack the revolution and emerge as the dominant force in Syria after Mr. Assad is ousted from power. Obama administration officials have been increasingly frank about this threat, along with the possibility that sectarian conflicts among the country’s Sunni, Alawite, Christian and other groups may well rage on after Assad.

There are no easy answers, and no one believes that Washington, or any external power, can dictate the outcome. But President Obama still needs to provide a clearer picture of how he plans to use American influence in dealing with the jihadi threat and the endgame in Syria.

Mr. Obama has blacklisted the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, which would make it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with it. It makes sense to isolate the group and try to dry up its resources, but the designation by itself isn’t sufficient. American officials have to make a case directly to the countries or actors that are believed to be most responsible, either directly or as a conduit, for the weapons and other assistance to the Nusra Front: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. However much they may want to see Mr. Assad fall, they play a deadly game in empowering any affiliate of Al Qaeda, which though weakened, is dedicated to global jihad and the violent overthrow of Sunni monarchies.

The problem is that many Syrian rebel groups work closely with the Nusra Front precisely because its skilled fighters have been so effective at storming fortified Syrian positions and leading other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields.

Some say the terrorist designation could backfire by pitting the United States against the rebel forces. Others have argued that one way to marginalize the jihadi groups is for the United States to arm the moderate and secular rebel groups or even establish a no-fly zone that would forcibly ground the Syrian Air Force.

But the situation in Syria is extremely complicated, and President Obama’s caution in resisting military intervention is the right approach. As we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, even after committing tens of thousands of troops, America’s ability to affect the course and outcome of armed conflict is decidedly limited.

Against the backdrop of war, the United Nations, the United States and some European officials are still promoting a negotiated deal to limit the bloodshed. Even if the warring sides were willing to abandon the fight, any deal would require Russian support, but talks between American and Russian officials over the weekend gave no sign that Moscow is prepared to abandon Mr. Assad.

    Al Qaeda in Syria, NYT, 10.12.2012,






Morsi’s Opponents Describe Abuse by President’s Allies


December 10, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi captured, detained and beat dozens of his political opponents last week, holding them for hours with their hands bound on the pavement outside the presidential palace while pressuring them to confess that they had accepted money to use violence in protests against him.

“It was torment for us,” said Yehia Negm, 42, a former diplomat with a badly bruised face and rope marks on his wrists. He said he was among a group of about 50, including four minors, who were held on the pavement overnight. In front of cameras, “they accused me of being a traitor, or conspiring against the country, of being paid to carry weapons and set fires,” he said in an interview. “I thought I would die.”

The abuses, during a night of street fighting between Islamists and their opponents, have become clear through an accumulation of video and victim testimonies that are now hurting the credibility of Mr. Morsi and his allies as they push forward to this weekend’s referendum on an Islamist-backed draft constitution.

To critics of Islamists, the episode on Wednesday recalled the tactics of the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, who often saw a conspiracy of “hidden hands” behind his domestic opposition and deployed plainclothes thugs acting outside the law to punish those who challenged him. The difference is that the current enforcers are driven by the self-righteousness of their religious ideology, rather than money.

It is impossible to know how much Mr. Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, knew about the Islamists’ vigilante justice. But human rights advocates say the detentions raised troubling questions about statements made by the president during his nationally televised address on Thursday. In it, Mr. Morsi appears to have cited confessions obtained by his Islamist supporters, the advocates said, when he promised that confessions under interrogation would show that protesters outside his palace acknowledged ties to his political opposition and had taken money to commit violence.

Khaled el-Qazzaz, a spokesman for Mr. Morsi, said Monday that he had ordered an investigation into the reported abuses and asked the prosecutor to bring charges against any involved. He said that Mr. Morsi was referring only to confessions obtained by the police, not by his supporters.

But human rights lawyers involved in the cases of the roughly 130 people who ended up in police custody Wednesday night, all or most of them delivered by the Islamists, say the police obtained no confessions. “His statement was completely bogus,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher on policing at Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights, whose lawyers were on hand about an hour after the speech when prosecutors released all the detainees without charges. “There were no confessions; they were all just simply beaten up,” he said. “There was no case at all, and they were released the next day.”

Officials of the Muslim Brotherhood said the group opposed such vigilante justice and did not organize the detentions. And in at least one case one victim said a senior figure of the group rescued her from captivity. But the officials also acknowledged that some of their senior leadership was on the scene at the time. They said some of their members took part in the detentions, along with more hard-line Islamists.

Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official, defended the group’s decision to call on its members and other Islamist supporters of the president to defend the palace from a potential attack by the protesters. He said Mr. Morsi could not rely on the police force left over from Mr. Mubarak’s government. By keeping the protesters from trying to storm the palace walls, Mr. Haddad contended, the Brotherhood and the president’s supporters had prevented a bloodier conflict with the armed presidential guard. “We will protect the sovereignty of the state at any cost.”

Both sides that night were violent, and the use of force by the Brotherhood’s opponents appears to have been deadlier, though that is hard to corroborate given the fog of the moment. Brotherhood leaders have named eight members of their organization who died that night. Mr. Haddad said one friend who was next to him was shot in the neck and died in the street. Although one journalist is in a coma from wounds received during the battle, human rights advocates say they do not yet know of any deaths on the opposition side.

But some contend that the Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, provoked the violence by summoning supporters and other Islamists to defend the palace from a planned protest.

“God willing, members of the Freedom and Justice Party will be on the front line,” Essam el-Erian of the party, affiliated with the Brotherhood, wrote in an Internet message to supporters.

Later, when the battle began, he declared on the Brotherhood’s television network, “This is the opportunity to arrest them and reveal the third party which is behind the shooting of live ammunition, and the killing of protesters.”

After nightfall, thousands of Islamists and their secular opponents battled over several blocks with volleys of rocks and gasoline bombs punctuated by occasional shotgun blasts. The riot police were on hand throughout, but did little to intervene.

Mr. Haddad, who was behind the Islamist lines, said the detentions began after Brotherhood leaders ordered their members to build and push forward a makeshift barrier to clear a space in front of the palace. “They realized that there were thugs on our side with knives and actual shotguns, shooting sideways,” he said, describing attackers who came from the opposition.

“These were some of the guys who got the massive beatings. When one of them was caught, everyone around them, who had been fighting for hours, would just start bashing them,” he said, asserting that Brotherhood leaders had tried to intervene.

A few captives were women. Ola Shahba, a well-known activist with a socialist party, was captured by a group of the president’s supporters when she tried to retreat from a collapsing battle line. Her captors began beating her, she said. Then they removed her hood and helmet and realized she was a woman, and she was groped as well.

“I didn’t imagine I could be harassed by a group affiliated with political Islam,” she said in an interview with the talk show host Yousry Fouda, one eye black and blue, and her neck ringed with bruises. “What embassy do you meet in and receive money from?” her attackers demanded to know, she said.

She was held in an empty police booth by a group of Brotherhood members and more hard-line Islamists, she said, and Ahmed Sobei, a more senior Brotherhood official, tried to persuade them to release her, both said.

“At that point we couldn’t get people out,” Mr. Sobei said in an interview. “They were a mix, from here and there. If they were just Muslim Brotherhood, we would’ve gotten her out since the first moment. I would’ve been able to get her out right away.”

“Did they beat people up? Yes, they did, but there were thugs there as well,” he said. “Thugs infiltrated both sides. It was impossible to tell who’s on which side.”

Ramy Sabry, a friend captured with Ms. Shahba, said he was held in a gatehouse by the presidential palace with a crowd that grew to nearly 50, according to an interview with Human Rights Watch for a report in progress.

“There were several members of the Brotherhood” among his captors, he said. “I knew they were Brotherhood because I heard them saying that they had spoken to Brotherhood leaders on the phone.”

Mina Philip, an engineer whose shirt was stripped off when he was beaten, said his captors called him “an infidel, a secular, a paid thug.”

“They kept asking, ‘Who paid you?’ ” he said.


Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

    Morsi’s Opponents Describe Abuse by President’s Allies, NYT, 10.12.2012,






Inventing Democracy


December 9, 2012
The New York Times



This is a great vantage point for watching the Arab world struggle to tailor itself a set of new democracies. It is nearly a generation since South Africa assembled its warring peoples and wrote what is certainly the most progressive constitution in Africa, perhaps on the planet. It prescribes all the safeguards of a democratic, humane and inclusive society. Its experience should be a shining model for the aspiring democracies at the other end of the continent as they fabricate basic laws and institutions.

I wish I could say the lessons from here are easy. But it is becoming clearer by the day that a glorious constitution carries you only so far if its values have not taken root in the culture.

So South Africa has an exquisite balance of powers on paper — but is, in effect, a one-party state, riddled with corruption. It has a serious independent judiciary — but is now contemplating loopholes to let tribal courts practice South Africa’s version of Shariah. This country was years ahead of the United States in recognizing the rights of homosexuals, including same-sex marriage — yet there is no openly gay leader in the ruling African National Congress, and lesbians have been targets of punitive rape and murder. It has a vibrant, diverse press — and a president who keeps trying to muzzle it.

As a witness to its birth, I would not say the thrill of South Africa’s democracy is altogether gone. South Africans are resilient, blessed with tourist-alluring beauty and abundant natural wealth; there is a growing black middle class and a robust civil society. And 18 years is still young. But I imagine that some days the news — if it penetrates the fog that I’m told enshrouds the 94-year-old Nelson Mandela — must break his heart.

In the course of a reporting trip for a forthcoming article, I’ve been asking some of the authors and guardians of South African democracy what advice they would offer to an Egypt, a Libya, a Tunisia and other places that are struggling to emerge from various forms of oppressive rule. Here’s how I’d sum up the best suggestions.

Take your time, talk to everyone and don’t be too proud to borrow.

For South Africa, there were five exhausting years — from the first talks, through statements of principle and interim versions — before its democratic Constitution went into force. The negotiating included 19 parties, factions and tribes, a huge public comment effort and copious study of the experiences of countries around the globe.

“We were shameless,” said Nicholas Haysom, a legal adviser to President Mandela in the ’90s who now works for the United Nations. “We looked at everyone. We took jurisprudence from Canada. We took power-sharing from Germany. We took constitutional principles from Namibia. The true exercise of sovereignty is in how one adapts these institutions to your own country, not in confining one’s imagination to one’s own limited constitutional traditions and experiences.”

Not everyone has that kind of patience. Egypt’s constitution-writing assembly, stampeded by President Morsi’s Islamist majority, has spawned a mess of boycotts, street clashes and confusion where consensus and legitimacy are desperately needed. (Iraq, stampeded by President George W. Bush’s desire to demonstrate the flowering of freedom, had a similar farce when it rushed its version of democracy.)

Peace before justice.

South Africa set out to heal the deep wounds of a ferociously cruel regime by creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Those who tortured and killed for any cause could, by fully disclosing their offenses, win an amnesty. The result was not invariably full truth or full reconciliation, but by and large it worked. Alex Boraine, who ran the commission under the flag of its revered chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has spent the ensuing years traveling to other countries that want to copy the South African model.

Often, his advice is: not so fast. In some cultures the urge for vengeance is too strong to be curtailed by confession. Efforts to emulate South Africa, he said, have been pretty successful in Peru and Mauritius, but failed in Guatemala and Liberia. He expects that much of the Middle East is too raw for a truth commission. But he advises new democracies that there are other ways to slow the cycle of revenge, build confidence and secure a stable foundation for a new order. For example, should Syria’s opposition succeed, Boraine said, there will be a clamor to take President Bashar al-Assad before an international criminal court. “Another view would be: give him safe passage to Moscow. It’s not fair. it’s not just. But you’ve got to start somewhere, to stop the killing.”

Activist judges are not so bad.

South Africa’s Constitution is in several respects more liberal than South African public opinion. Because the drafters included admirers of Western liberal democracies, and because they emerged from a regime that treated its citizens as essentially chattel, the Constitution is expansive in bestowing rights. It prohibits discrimination based not only on race and gender, but also on “sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.” The Constitutional Court has been similarly expansive in its interpretation of this language. The court outlawed capital punishment in 1995 and ruled in 2005 that gays and lesbians are entitled to marry. Neither of those outcomes would likely survive a popular referendum, even today. (South Africa, white and black, is socially conservative.) If proposed laws expanding government secrecy and empowering tribal justice pass the legislature, the high court will be the last line of defense. In America we disparage “activist judges,” but the willingness of South African courts to be assertive on matters of rights seems to have won the judiciary tremendous respect and moved this fledgling society toward greater tolerance. President Morsi, take note.

... Up to a point.

The relatively high esteem accorded the courts and the increasingly widespread disdain for the other branches of government have made South Africa’s courts the destination for disputes that have no business there: should Johannesburg install electronic tollgates on a stretch of highway? How many days should the Parliament be allowed to wait before voting on a no-confidence motion?

“People use these lawsuits as a substitute for political engagement,” said Steven Friedman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy here. Politicians will never become good at their jobs if courts take their place.

Make citizens.

The curse of many transitional states is that they have no cohesive sense of nationhood, no common sense of purpose or responsibility. Instead of Iraqis or Syrians or Afghans or Egyptians, you have Sunnis and Shiites and Copts, Alawites and Kurds, Pashtuns and Tajiks. A generation past liberation, South Africa has had inspiring moments of unity, but it still has not fully coalesced. A new survey finds that fewer than 1 in 10 adults — and even fewer young people — identify themselves as “South Africans first,” over language, race or ethnic group. The country’s many peoples are equal under the law, but in some ways as “apart” as under apartheid.

Mamphela Ramphele, a wise and nonpartisan anti-apartheid activist and academic, attributes this in part to the sense of impotence that infected South Africans — and not just blacks — under the bleak tyranny of apartheid. And it is partly due, she says, to the cynicism generated by pervasive corruption under the African National Congress government. She has launched a new movement aimed at awakening a sense of citizenship, including through some institutional reforms, such as having most members of Parliament accountable to specific districts rather than answerable only to the ruling party. Freedom, she would advise the founders of new democracies, has to be won over and over.

“South Africans liberated themselves,” she told me, “and now they must do it again.”


Bill Keller, an Op-Ed columnist,

was The Times’s Johannesburg bureau chief, 1992-95.

    Inventing Democracy, NYT, 9.12.2012,






The Full Israeli Experience


December 8, 2012
The New York Times


Tel Aviv

THESE were the main regional news headlines in The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday: “Home Front Command simulates missile strike during drill.” Egypt’s President “Morsi opts for safety as police battle protestors.” In Syria, “Fight spills over into Lebanon.” “Darkness at noon for fearful Damascus residents.” “Tunisian Islamists, leftists clash after jobs protests.” “NATO warns Syria not to use chemical weapons.” And my personal favorite: “ ‘Come back and bring a lot of people with you’ — Tourism Ministry offers tour operators the full Israeli experience.”

Ah, yes, “the full Israeli experience.”

The full Israeli experience today is a living political science experiment. How does a country deal with failed or failing state authority on four of its borders — Gaza, South Lebanon, Syria and the Sinai Desert of Egypt — each of which is now crawling with nonstate actors nested among civilians and armed with rockets. How should Israel and its friends think about this “Israeli experience” and connect it with the ever-present question of Israeli-Palestinian peace?

For starters, if you want to run for office in Israel, or be taken seriously here as either a journalist or a diplomat, there is an unspoken question in the mind of virtually every Israeli that you need to answer correctly: “Do you understand what neighborhood I’m living in?” If Israelis smell that you don’t, their ears will close to you. It is one reason the Europeans in general, and the European left in particular, have so little influence here.

The central political divide in Israel today is over the follow-up to this core question: If you appreciate that Israel lives in a neighborhood where there is no mercy for the weak, how should we expect Israel to act?

There are two major schools of thought here. One, led by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, comprises the “Ideological Hawks,” who, to the question, “Do you know what neighborhood I am living in?” tell Israelis and the world, “It is so much worse than you think!” Bibi goes out of his way to highlight every possible threat to Israel and essentially makes the case that nothing Israel does has ever or can ever alter the immutable Arab hatred of the Jewish state or the Hobbesian character of the neighborhood. Netanyahu is not without supporting evidence. Israel withdraws from both South Lebanon and Gaza and still gets hit with rockets. But this group is called the “ideological” hawks because most of them also advocate Israel’s retaining permanent control of the West Bank and Jerusalem for religious-nationalist reasons. So it’s impossible to know where their strategic logic for holding territory stops and their religious-nationalist dreams start — and that muddies their case with the world.

The other major school of thought here, call it the “Yitzhak Rabin school,” was best described by the writer Leon Wieseltier as the “bastards for peace.”

Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister and war hero, started exactly where Bibi did: This is a dangerous neighborhood, and a Jewish state is not welcome here. But Rabin didn’t stop there. He also believed that Israel was very powerful and, therefore, should judiciously use its strength to try to avoid becoming a garrison state, fated to rule over several million Palestinians forever. Israel’s “bastards for peace” believe that it’s incumbent on every Israeli leader to test, test and test again — using every ounce of Israeli creativity — to see if Israel can find a Palestinian partner for a secure peace so that it is not forever fighting an inside war and an outside war. At best, the Palestinians might surprise them. At worst, Israel would have the moral high ground in a permanent struggle.

Today, alas, not only is the Israeli peace camp dead, but the most effective Israeli “bastard for peace,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is retiring. As I sat with Barak in his office the other day, he shared with me his parting advice to Israel’s next and sure-to-be-far-right government.

Huge political forces, with deep roots, are now playing out around Israel, particularly the rise of political Islam, said Barak. “We have to learn to accept it and see both sides of it and try to make it better. I am worried about our tendency to adopt a fatalistic, pessimistic perception of history. Because, once you adopt it, you are relieved from the responsibility to see the better aspects and seize the opportunities” when they arise.

If Israel just assumes that it’s only a matter of time before the moderate Palestinian leaders in the West Bank fall and Hamas takes over, “why try anything?” added Barak. “And, therefore, you lose sight of the opportunities and the will to seize opportunities. ... I know that you can’t say when leaders raise this kind of pessimism that it is all just invented. It is not all invented, and you would be stupid if you did not look [at it] with open eyes. But it is a major risk that you will not notice that you become enslaved by this pessimism in a way that will paralyze you from understanding that you can shape it. The world is full of risks, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a responsibility to do something about it — within your limits and the limits of realism — and avoid self-fulfilling prophecies that are extremely dangerous here.”

    The Full Israeli Experience, NYT, 8.12.2012,






Backing Off Added Powers, Egypt’s Leader Presses Vote


December 8, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — Struggling to quell violent protests that have threatened to derail a referendum on an Islamist-backed draft constitution, President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt moved Saturday to appease his opponents with a package of concessions hours after state news media reported that he was moving toward imposing a form of martial law to secure the streets and allow the vote.

Mr. Morsi did not budge on a critical demand of the opposition: that he postpone the referendum set for next Saturday to allow a thorough overhaul of the proposed charter, which liberal groups say has inadequate protection of individual rights and provisions that could someday give Muslim religious authorities new influence.

But in a midnight news conference, his prime minister said Mr. Morsi was offering concessions that he had appeared to dismiss out of hand a few days before. The president rescinded most of his sweeping Nov. 22 decree that temporarily elevated his decisions above judicial review and drew tens of thousands of protesters into the streets calling for his downfall. He also offered a convoluted arrangement for the factions to negotiate constitutional amendments this week that would be added to the charter after the vote.

Taken together, the announcements, rolled out over a confusing day, appeared to indicate the president’s determination to do whatever it takes to get to the referendum, which his Islamist supporters say will lay the foundation of a new democracy and a return to stability.

Amid growing concerns among his advisers that the Interior Ministry might be unable to secure either the polls or the institutions of government in the face of renewed violent protests, the state media reported early Saturday that he would soon order the armed forces to keep order and authorize its solders to arrest civilians.

In recent days, mobs have attacked more than two dozen Muslim Brotherhood offices and ransacked the group’s headquarters, and more than seven people have died in street fighting between Islamists and their opponents.

As of early Sunday, Mr. Morsi had not yet formally issued an order calling out the military, raising the possibility that the announcement was intended as a warning to tell his opponents their protests would not derail the vote.

The moves on Saturday offered little hope of fully resolving the standoff, in part because opposition leaders had ruled out — even before his concessions were announced — any rushed attempt at a compromise just days before the referendum.

“No mind would accept dialogue at gunpoint,” said Mohamed Abu El Ghar, an opposition leader, alluding to previously floated ideas about last-minute talks for constitutional amendments.

Nor did Mr. Morsi’s Islamist allies expect his proposals to succeed. Many said they had concluded that much of the secular opposition was primarily interested in obstructing the transition to democracy at all costs, to try to block the Islamists from winning elections. Instead, some of the president’s supporters privately relished the bind they believed Mr. Morsi had built for the opposition by giving in to some demands, forcing their secular opponents to admit they are afraid to take their case to the ballot box.

For now, the military appears to back Mr. Morsi. Soon after the state newspaper Al Ahram suggested the president would impose martial law, a military spokesman read a statement over state television that echoed Mr. Morsi’s own speeches.

The military “realizes its national responsibility for maintaining the supreme interests of the nation and securing and protecting the vital targets, public institutions and the interests of the innocent citizens,” the spokesman said, warning of “divisions that threaten the State of Egypt.”

“Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and the citizens,” he added. “Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow.”

If Mr. Morsi goes through with the plan, it would represent a historic role reversal. For six decades, Egypt’s military-backed authoritarian presidents used martial law to hold on to power and to jail Islamists like Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would also come just four months after he managed to pry power out of the hands of the country’s top generals, who had seized control when Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year and then held on to it for three months after Mr. Morsi’s election.

The announcement of impending martial law marked the steepest escalation yet in the political battle between Egypt’s new Islamist leaders and their secular opponents over the draft constitution.

Mr. Morsi said he issued the Nov. 22 decree that set off the crisis to prevent the Mubarak-era courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly and upending the transition to democracy. The terms of his concession were ill-defined; the new decree Mr. Morsi issued Saturday night said he retained the limited authority to issue “constitutional declarations” protecting the draft charter that judges could not overturn. Although the plan for martial law outlined in Al Ahram would not fully suspend civil law, it would nonetheless have the effect of suspending legal rights by empowering soldiers under the control of the defense minister to try civilians in military courts.

Calling in the army could overcome the danger of protests or violence that might disrupt the referendum and the parliamentary election to follow. But resorting to the military to secure the vote could also undermine Mr. Morsi’s hopes that a strong showing for the constitution would be seen as a sign of national consensus that could help end the political crisis.

Brotherhood officials cheered the military’s statements, noting they closely resembled the president’s own speeches about a “national dialogue” and moving forward toward democracy.

But Moataz Abdel-Fattah, a former adviser to Egypt’s transitional prime minister who is close to Defense Minister Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, said that the military also sought to make clear it was not joining either camp.

“The military is saying, ‘Do not let things get so bad that we have to intervene,’ ” Mr. Abdel-Fattah said. “In the short term it is good for President Morsi, but in the long run they are also saying, ‘We belong to the people, and not Mr. Morsi or his opponents.’ ”

After taking office, Mr. Morsi spent months courting the generals, sometimes earning the derision of liberal activists for his public flattery of their role. And the constitution his supporters eventually drew up included protections of the military’s autonomy and privileges within the Egyptian government, despite the protests of the same activists.

Those provisions suggested an understanding between the military and Mr. Morsi that may now allow him to call on the generals’ help.

Under the president’s planned martial law order, Al Ahram said, the military would return to its barracks after parliamentary elections, which are expected to take place two months after the referendum if the constitution is approved.

If the military does secure the polls, that would appear to undermine the opposition’s argument that the latest unrest had all but ruled out this week’s referendum.

“Under the present circumstance, how can you conduct a referendum or an election when chaos is reigning and you have protests everywhere?” Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak and now an opposition leader, asked in an interview Saturday.

    Backing Off Added Powers, Egypt’s Leader Presses Vote, NYT, 8.12.2012,






Syria Rebels Tied to Al Qaeda Play Key Role in War


December 8, 2012
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — The lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces, posing a stark challenge to the United States and other countries that want to support the rebels but not Islamic extremists.

Money flows to the group, the Nusra Front, from like-minded donors abroad. Its fighters, a small minority of the rebels, have the boldness and skill to storm fortified positions and lead other battalions to capture military bases and oil fields. As their successes mount, they gather more weapons and attract more fighters.

The group is a direct offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi officials and former Iraqi insurgents say, which has contributed veteran fighters and weapons.

“This is just a simple way of returning the favor to our Syrian brothers that fought with us on the lands of Iraq,” said a veteran of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who said he helped lead the Nusra Front’s efforts in Syria.

The United States, sensing that time may be running out for Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hopes to isolate the group to prevent it from inheriting Syria or fighting on after Mr. Assad’s fall to pursue its goal of an Islamic state.

As the United States pushes the Syrian opposition to organize a viable alternative government, it plans to blacklist the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization, making it illegal for Americans to have financial dealings with the group and most likely prompting similar sanctions from Europe. The hope is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to increasing Western support for the rebellion: the fear that money and arms could flow to a jihadi group that could further destabilize Syria and harm Western interests.

When rebel commanders met Friday in Turkey to form a unified command structure at the behest of the United States and its allies, jihadi groups were not invited.

The Nusra Front’s ally, Al Qaeda in Iraq, is the Sunni insurgent group that killed numerous American troops in Iraq and sowed widespread sectarian strife with suicide bombings against Shiites and other religious and ideological opponents. The Iraqi group played an active role in founding the Nusra Front and provides it with money, expertise and fighters, said Maj. Faisal al-Issawi, an Iraqi security official who tracks jihadi activities in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

But blacklisting the Nusra Front could backfire. It would pit the United States against some of the best fighters in the insurgency that it aims to support. While some Syrian rebels fear the group’s growing power, others work closely with it and admire it — or, at least, its military achievements — and are loath to end their cooperation.

Leaders of the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit rebel umbrella group that the United States seeks to bolster, expressed exasperation that the United States, which has refused to provide weapons throughout the conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people, is now opposing a group they see as a vital ally.

The Nusra Front “defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn’t do anything,” said Mosaab Abu Qatada, a rebel spokesman. “They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and the crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists."

He added, “America just wants a pretext to intervene in Syrian affairs after the revolution.”

The United States has been reluctant to supply weapons to rebels that could end up in the hands of anti-Western jihadis, as did weapons that Qatar supplied to Libyan rebels with American approval. Critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy counter that its failure to support the rebels helped create the opening that Islamic militants have seized in Syria.

The Nusra Front’s appeals to Syrian fighters seem to be working.

At a recent meeting in Damascus, Abu Hussein al-Afghani, a veteran of insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, addressed frustrated young rebels. They lacked money, weapons and training, so they listened attentively.

He told them he was a leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, now working with a Qaeda branch in Syria, and by joining him, they could make their mark. One fighter recalled his resonant question: “Who is hearing your voice today?”

On Friday, demonstrators in several Syrian cities raised banners with slogans like, “No to American intervention, for we are all Jebhat al-Nusra,” referring to the group’s full name, Ansar al-Jebhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham, or Supporters of the Front for Victory of the People of Syria. One rebel battalion, the Ahrar, or Free Men, asked on its Facebook page why the United States did not blacklist Mr. Assad’s “terrorist” militias.

Another jihadist faction, the Sahaba Army in the Levant, even congratulated the group on the “great honor” of being deemed terrorists by the United States.

Even antigovernment activists who are wary of the group — some deride it as “the Taliban” — said the blacklisting would be ineffective and worsen strife within the uprising. To isolate the group, they say, the United States should support mainstream rebel military councils and Syrian civil society, like the committees that have sprung up to run rebel-held villages.

The Nusra Front is far from the only fighting group that embraces a strict interpretation of Islam. Many battalions have adopted religious slogans, dress and practices, in what some rebels and activists call a pragmatic shift to curry favor with Islamist donors in Persian Gulf countries. One activist said he had a fighter friend with a fondness for Johnnie Walker Black who is now sporting a beard to fit in.

Not all religiously driven rebel groups embrace the Qaeda vision of global jihad, the International Crisis Group said in a recent report. Some have criticized the Nusra Front as serving the interests of the Assad government, which seeks to paint its opposition as terrorists and foreigners.

The Nusra Front is the only Syrian rebel group explicitly endorsed by Al Qaeda in online forums, the report said.

The group gained prominence with suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo in early 2012 that targeted government buildings but caused heavy civilian casualties. It was the first Syrian insurgent organization to claim responsibility for suicide and car bomb attacks that killed civilians.

Many of its members — Syrians, Iraqis and a few from other countries —fought in Iraq, where the Syrian government helped funnel jihadis to battle the American occupation.

In Iraq’s Diyala Province, a former member of Al Qaeda in Iraq said that a leader and many members of the group were fighting in Syria under the Nusra Front’s banner. An Iraqi security official there said they travel through Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey to Syria.

“They are well trained mentally and militarily,” Major Issawi, the official in Anbar, said. “They are so excited about the fighting in Syria. They see Syria as a dream coming true.”

Syrian fighters also have Iraq experience. Abu Hussein, a commander of the Tawhid and Jihad brigade, which is not slated for American blacklisting and has taken a leading role in many battles, said he fought with Al Qaeda in Iraq for six years.

“I decided to return to Syria because our people need me,” he said, adding that his group was attracting secular young men because it could provide ammunition, training and medical care that non-jihadist groups could not.

A 35-year-old Syrian musician who gave his name as Hakam said he decided to join an Islamist fighting group because he saw how well it planned and fought and “how determined and professional they are.”

He said that he had rarely prayed and had been a drummer in a casino — he apologized for mentioning the word, which had become distasteful to him — but that now he was pious and newly disciplined. He said that the group’s goal was an Islamic state in Syria ruled by strict Sunni Muslims, and that it would fight any secular government.

“Our mission won’t end after the fall of the regime,” he said.

Some Syrians have complained of Nusra fighters trying to impose religious strictures on others. But Brian Fishman, a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, said that the Nusra Front appeared to have learned from the mistakes of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which alienated Iraqis with its sectarian attacks and grisly beheading videos.

The Nusra Front appears to be refraining from attacking other Syrian groups, with the exception of clashes with Kurds in the north, where some rebels believe a major Kurdish militia sides with the government.

Thamir al-Sadi, an Iraqi from Diyala who joined the regular Free Syrian Army, said that would change, predicting infighting after Mr. Assad’s fall.

“After the fall of Bashar there will be so many battles between these groups,” he said. “All the groups will unite against al-Nusra. They are like a snake that is spreading its poison.”

Tim Arango reported from Baghdad, and Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon. Reporting was contributed by Hania Mourtada from Beirut; Duraid Adnan and Yasir Ghazi from Baghdad; employees of The New York Times from Mosul, Iraq, and the provinces of Anbar and Diyala; and Michael R. Gordon from Dublin.

    Syria Rebels Tied to Al Qaeda Play Key Role in War, NYT, 8.12.2012,






U.S. Shifting Its Warning on Syria’s Chemical Arms


December 6, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” he said at an Aug. 20 news conference. He added: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences.

It is a veiled threat that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta repeated Thursday: “The president of the United States has made very clear that there will be consequences, there will be consequences if the Assad regime makes a terrible mistake by using these chemical weapons on their own people.”

The White House says the president has not changed his position at all — it is all in the definition of the word “moving.”

Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said Thursday that “ ‘moving around’ means proliferation,” as in allowing extremist groups like Hezbollah, which has training camps near the weapons sites, to obtain the material.

Such shifts are nothing new in global standoffs; the Israelis have moved their lines more than a half-dozen times in recent years when talking about how close they would allow Iran to get toward the capacity to build a nuclear weapon before taking action.

But for Mr. Obama, the change in wording reflects the difficult politics and logistics of acting pre-emptively against Mr. Assad. No American president has talked more about the need to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, and to lock down existing stockpiles. And no president has insisted more publicly that this is a time for the United States to exit wars in the Middle East, not enter new ones.

“We’re kind of boxed in,” an administration official said this week as intelligence agencies in the United States and its allies were trying to figure out the worrisome activity at one or two of the three dozen sites where Syria’s chemical weapons are stockpiled. “There’s an issue of presidential credibility here,” the official said. “But our options are quite limited.”

The chief limitation, American and Israeli officials say, is that chemical weapons sites cannot be safely bombed. “That could create the exact situation we are trying to avoid,” said one senior American military official, who like several others interviewed would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

Making things worse, many of the storage sites are near the border with Jordan, raising the possibility that any plume of chemicals created by an attack could drift over the territory of an American ally. Putting troops on the ground has never been a serious option, American officials say.

But the Israelis clearly take the concept of pre-emptive strikes seriously. They conducted one against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and another, against a North Korean-built reactor in the Syrian desert, in September 2007.

“I don’t think we’d act again unless we thought Hezbollah might get their hands on these weapons,” said one senior Israeli official. “But we’ve proven that we are willing to do it, and probably more willing than the Americans.”

When Mr. Obama warned against moving chemical weapons, administration officials said he did not mean shifting the weapons from one site to another, which has happened several times, but preparing them for use.

But in recent days, that is exactly what intelligence agencies fear has happened. American officials have detected that Syrian troops have mixed small amounts of precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, at one or two storage sites — though there is no indication that Mr. Assad, whose troops are under fierce assault from rebel forces, is ready to order the use of his arsenal.

Mr. Panetta said Thursday that the administration was “very concerned, very concerned” that as the opposition fighters close in on Damascus, the Syrian capital, the Assad government might actually use a chemical weapon. Over the past four decades, Syria has amassed one of the largest undeclared stockpiles of chemicals in the world, including huge supplies of mustard gas, sarin nerve agent and cyanide, according to unclassified reports by the C.I.A.

    U.S. Shifting Its Warning on Syria’s Chemical Arms, NYT, 6.12.2012,






Egypt’s Agony


December 6, 2012
The New York Times


The revolution in Egypt is in danger of being lost in a spasm of violence, power grabs and bad judgments. The top aides to President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt were in Washington this week to promote their country as a new democratic model for the Arab world. But it was Mr. Morsi’s dictatorial edict placing himself above the law last month that ignited this crisis.

By Thursday, street fighting between Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters and their secular opponents left at least six dead and 450 wounded, tanks blocked Cairo’s streets and the special presidential guard took up positions around his palace. Nine officials have resigned from the Morsi administration in protest over the bloodshed and his handling of the turmoil.

On Thursday night, Mr. Morsi further deepened the crisis by accusing some protesters for the opposition of siding with remnants of the old Mubarak regime. He again refused to rescind the decree giving him near absolute powers and insisted on going forward with a referendum on Dec. 15 on a disputed draft constitution over the objections of the secular opposition and the Coptic Christian Church.

There is little doubt that some sectors of the opposition, which has been divided and feckless, want to restore the old autocratic order. Those elements have been quick to exploit tensions with violence and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mr. Morsi once helped lead and whose Freedom and Justice Party dominates the government. But other members of the opposition want to build a pluralistic society where freedoms and the voice of all the people are respected.

The draft constitution would fulfill some central demands of the revolution by ending the all-powerful presidency, strengthening Parliament and banning torture and detention without trial. Demands by ultraconservative Salafis for puritanical moral codes were rejected.

But it would give Egypt’s generals much of the power and privilege they had during the Mubarak era. According to Human Rights Watch, constitutional articles that give the state power to protect “the true nature of the Egyptian family” and “ethics and morals and public order” could be interpreted to limit fundamental rights. The charter is weak on women’s rights, omitting any reference to banning discrimination based on sex but permitting the state a role in balancing “a woman’s obligations toward the family and public work” — an area where it should have no right to interfere.

While one article protects freedom of expression, others ban insulting prophets and “the individual person” and may make it hard to reform laws that have allowed the prosecution of government critics, the human rights group said. Another article limits the right to practice religion to Muslims, Christians and Jews, thus discriminating against Shiites, Bahias and others.

There were also very troubling problems with the process of its creation. Secular and Coptic Christian members walked out of the assembly that wrote the constitution, charging that the group was stacked with Islamists. After that, the assembly quickly approved the constitution and Mr. Morsi sped up the referendum date by several months. He said he had to assert far-reaching powers and pre-empt a Mubarak-appointed court from dissolving the assembly and thwarting the democratic transition.

Many Egyptians are deeply skeptical of the Muslim Brotherhood and its vision for the country. Mr. Morsi should have worked much harder to bring opposition figures into his government, ensure the Constitutional Assembly was fully representative and that there was broad consensus for the constitution before the referendum was set.

At this point, the only way forward for dialogue is if Mr. Morsi delays the referendum and rescinds his decree. Neither he nor his opponents can afford to let this dangerous and self-defeating confrontation continue.

    Egypt’s Agony, NYT, 6.12.2012,






Morsi Defends Wide Authority as Turmoil Rises in Egypt


December 6, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — Egypt descended deeper into political turmoil on Thursday as the embattled president, Mohamed Morsi, blamed an outbreak of violence on a “fifth column” and vowed to proceed with a referendum on an Islamist-backed constitution that has prompted deadly street battles between his supporters and their opponents.

As the tanks and armored vehicles of the elite presidential guard ringed the palace, Mr. Morsi gave a nationally televised address offering only a hint of compromise, while standing firmly by his plan for a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum. His opponents quickly rejected, even mocked, his speech and called for new protests on Friday.

Many said the speech had echoes of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, who always saw “hidden hands” behind public unrest. Mr. Morsi said that corrupt beneficiaries of Mr. Mubarak’s autocracy had been “hiring thugs and giving out firearms, and the time has come for them to be punished and penalized by the law.” He added, “It is my duty to defend the homeland.”

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, spoke a day after the growing antagonism between his supporters and the secular opposition had spilled out into the worst outbreak of violence between political factions here since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup six decades ago. By the time the fighting ended, six people were dead and hundreds were wounded.

The violence also led to resignations that rocked the government, as advisers, party members and the head of the commission overseeing the planned vote on a new constitution stepped down, citing the bloodshed.

Mr. Morsi also received a phone call from President Obama, who expressed his “deep concern” about the deaths and injuries overnight, the White House said in a statement.

“The president emphasized that all political leaders in Egypt should make clear to their supporters that violence is unacceptable,” the statement said, chastising both Mr. Morsi and the opposition leaders for failing to urge their supporters to pull back during the fight.

Prospects of a political solution also seemed a casualty, as both sides effectively refused to back down on core demands.

The opposition leadership refused to negotiate until Mr. Morsi withdrew a decree that put his judgments beyond judicial review until the referendum — which he refused to do. And it demanded that the referendum be canceled, which he also refused.

The hostilities have threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum with concerns about political coercion. The feasibility of holding the vote also appears uncertain amid attacks on Brotherhood offices around the country and open street fighting in the shadow of the presidential palace.

Though Mr. Morsi spoke of opening a door for dialogue and compromise, leaders of the political opposition and the thousands of protesters surrounding his palace dismissed his conspiratorial saber rattling as an echo of Mr. Mubarak. And his tone, after a night many here view as a national tragedy, seemed only to widen the gulf between his Islamist supporters and their secular opponents over his efforts to push through the referendum on an Islamist-backed charter approved over the objections of other factions and the Coptic Christian church.

Outside the palace, demonstrators huddled around car radios to listen to Mr. Morsi’s words and mocked his attempts to blame outside infiltrators for the violence, which began when thousands of his Islamist supporters rousted an opposition sit-in.

“So we are the ones who attacked him, the ones who attacked the sit-in?” one protester asked sarcastically. “So we are the ones with the swords and weapons and money?” asked another.

Some left for the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, where a mob had broken in, looted offices, and made a bonfire out of the belongings of the group’s spiritual leader — until riot police officers chased them away with tear gas.

“I never thought I would say this, but even Mubarak was more savvy when he spoke in a time of crisis,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

The director of state broadcasting resigned Thursday, as did Rafik Habib, a Christian who was the vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the party’s favorite example of its commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Their departures followed an announcement Wednesday by Zaghoul el-Balshi, the new general secretary of the commission overseeing the planned constitutional referendum, that he was quitting. “I will not participate in a referendum that spills Egyptian blood,” Mr. Balshi said.

Mr. Morsi’s speech, previously set for 6 p.m. here and delayed for several hours, was his first attempt to address both the night of deadly violence and the underlying crisis set off by his Nov. 22 decree putting his own edicts above the review of any court until the ratification of a new constitution. He had said he needed those powers to protect the constitutional assembly and planned referendum. He has also said he wanted to head off interference by a counterrevolutionary conspiracy of corrupt businessmen and foreign enemies, cynical opposition leaders willing to derail democracy rather than let Islamists win elections, and the Mubarak-appointed judges who had already dissolved an earlier assembly and the democratically elected Parliament.

Each side of the political battle is now convinced that it faces an imminent coup. Secular groups believe Mr. Morsi is forcing through a constitution that will ultimately allow Islamist groups and religious leaders to wield new power. And the demands to stop the referendum have convinced Islamists that their secular opponents seek to abort the new democracy.

Advisers to Mr. Morsi say he has sought for days to find a way to reach out to his critics and resolve the building tension. In his speech, he offered to withdraw an article of his recent decree whose Orwellian language giving him ill-defined powers to protect the revolution had unnerved his opponents. He invited opposition and youth leaders to join him for a meeting at his palace at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday to try to hammer out some compromise, suggesting certain elements of the draft charter might be revised. And he declared that even if the constitution failed he would relinquish his emergency powers at the referendum on Dec. 15.

But opposition leaders dismissed his offers as all but meaningless. Their main objection to Mr. Morsi’s decree is the more essential article removing the judicial check on his power. They said that his proposed dialogue would take place on the first day of overseas voting on the new constitution, giving the meeting little chance of changing the text or the schedule. And the text of the draft constitution, if approved as expected, would already end his emergency powers.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat now acting as coordinator of the secular opposition, said Mr. Morsi’s refusal to postpone the referendum until there was consensus on a new constitution had “closed the door to any dialogue.” He argued that the Morsi government’s failure to stop the previous night’s bloodshed had “made the authority lose its legitimacy.”

Nadine Sherif of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said in a statement: “President Morsi had a choice to either bring the country together or tear it apart. Today it seems clear that he has made his decision and civil war seems looming.”

In its own statement on the night’s clashes, the Muslim Brotherhood said its members had demonstrated peacefully but had come under attack by “crowds of thugs, armed with all kinds of firearms, knives, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, rocks, as well as a sniper in the area.”

The group named five of its own members who it said had been killed in the fighting. The health ministry put the total death toll at six, suggesting that according to the Brotherhood’s calculations it sustained far more casualties than its opponents.

“The zenith of the conspiracy was the attempt to storm the presidential palace and occupy it, bringing down the system and its legitimacy,” the group said, an attack thwarted only by the sacrifice of the five Brotherhood members “who gave their lives and their blood to protect the revolution and the popular will.”

Two employees of The New York Times contributed reporting.

    Morsi Defends Wide Authority as Turmoil Rises in Egypt, NYT, 6.12.2012,






Blood Is Shed

as Egyptian President’s Backers and Rivals Battle in Cairo


December 5, 2012
The New York Times


CAIRO — Angry mobs of Islamists battled secular protesters with fists, rocks and firebombs in the streets around the presidential palace for hours Wednesday night in the first major outbreak of violence between political factions here since the revolt against then-President Hosni Mubarak began nearly two years ago.

Three senior advisers to Mr. Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, resigned during the clashes, blaming him for the bloodshed, and his prime minister implored both sides to pull back in order to make room for “dialogue.”

The scale of the clashes, in an affluent neighborhood just outside Mr. Morsi’s office in the presidential palace, raised the first doubts about Mr. Morsi’s attempt to hold a referendum on Dec. 15 to approve a draft constitution approved by his Islamist allies over the objections of his secular opposition and the Coptic Christian Church.

Periodic gunshots could be heard at the front lines of the fight, and secular protesters displayed birdshot wounds and pellets. But it could not be determined whether the riot police or Islamists or the opposition had fired the guns.

Many in both camps brandished makeshift clubs, and on the secular side a few carried knives. By 3:30 a.m. Thursday, at least four people had died, according to the Ministry of Health, and more than 350 were injured in the fighting. Each side claimed that one of its own had been killed, spurring the fighting.

Thousands joined the battle on each side. The riot police initially tried to fight off or break up the crowds with tear gas, but by about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, the security forces had all but withdrawn. They continued to try to separate the two sides across one boulevard but stayed out of the battle that raged on all around.

In a city square on the Islamist side of the battle lines, a loudspeaker on the top of a moving car blared out exhortations that the fight was about more than politics or Mr. Morsi.

“This is not a fight for an individual, this is not a fight for President Morsi,” the speaker declared. “We are fighting for God’s law, against the secularists and liberals.”

Protesters reportedly set fire to Muslim Brotherhood political offices in the cities of Suez and Ismailia.

Even after two years of periodic battles between protesters and police, Egyptians said they were shocked and alarmed by the spectacle of fellow citizens drawing blood over matters of ideology or political power.

“It is Egyptian fighting Egyptian,” said Mohamed Abu Shukka, 23, who was blocked from entering his apartment building and shaking his head.

Distrust and animosity between Islamists and their secular opponents have mired the outcome of Egypt’s promised transition to democracy in debates about the legitimacy of the new government and its new leaders’ commitment to the rule of law.

The clashes followed two weeks of sporadic violence around the country since Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, seized temporary powers beyond the review of any court, removing the last check on his authority until ratification of the new constitution.

Mr. Morsi has said he needed the expanded powers to block a conspiracy by corrupt businessmen, Mubarak-appointed judges and opposition leaders to thwart Egypt’s transition to a constitutional democracy. Some opponents, Mr. Morsi’s advisers say, would sacrifice democracy to stop the Islamists from winning elections.

Mr. Morsi’s secular critics have accused Mr. Morsi and the Islamists of seeking to establish a new dictatorship, in part by ramming through a rushed constitution that they charge could ultimately give new power over society to Muslim scholars and Islamists groups. And each side’s actions have confirmed the other’s fears.

As Wednesday’s clashes began, Vice President Mahmoud Mekke offered a compromise that seemed to go nowhere. Mr. Mekke proposed that both sides agree in advance on a package of amendments to the text of the draft constitution to build more support for it before the Dec. 15 vote.

“All the political forces objecting to some articles in the constitution are welcome to provide suggestions or concepts about the articles,” he said, suggesting that through “calm dialogue” both sides could agree on revisions that would be approved by the future Parliament after ratification.

The vice president, however, did not suggest any means to overcome the lack of trust in the Islamist leaders among the secular opposition, or how to persuade liberals to back down from their vow not to negotiate until Mr. Morsi relinquishes the temporary expansion of his powers and cancels the referendum.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former United Nations diplomat, was chosen Wednesday as coordinator for the newly unified secular opposition. He urged Mr. Morsi and his allies to “see what is happening in the Egyptian street, the division, the polarization. This is something that leads us to violence and worse.”

“The ball is in his court,” Mr. Mr. ElBaradei said at a news conference in which he threatened a general strike or other action to try to stop the referendum. “Bullying will not yield any results for this country.”

“The people of Egypt will be gathering everywhere,” he added. “We will not finish this battle for our freedom and dignity until we are victorious.”

Mr. Morsi did not respond to the clashes. His party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, said it held Mr. ElBaradei and other secular leaders responsible for any violence.

The Brotherhood issued its own statement defending the need for Mr. Morsi’s actions to fight off “treacherous plots” against Egypt’s nascent democracy.

“We are confident that the Egyptian people who made this great revolution that impressed the whole world will not abandon democracy or their revolution,” the group said, “and must support the president they chose freely for the first time in history.”

The Islamists also struck the first blow on Wednesday, in retaliation for a secular demonstration the previous night. Tens of thousands of secular protesters had marched on the presidential palace Tuesday night, and perhaps 100 had set up tents to begin a sit-in just outside the palace walls. Though mostly peaceful, there were isolated episodes of violence, including the looting of a guard house, and protesters had written graffiti insulting Mr. Morsi on the palace walls.

In response, a new Islamist coalition, including the Muslim Brotherhood and several ultraconservative groups, issued a statement denouncing the protesters’ “disgusting practices,” and accusing them of “violence or sabotage.” The groups warned that “the alert masses of the Egyptian people are capable of defending legitimacy and defending the gains of their glorious revolution.” They called their own demonstration for Wednesday afternoon outside of the palace.

When thousands of Islamists began arriving at the tent camp around 4 p.m., a tense standoff quickly turned into a rout as they chased the secular protesters, tearing down their tents and beating those who resisted, according to witnesses and videos. “They came from all sides and they punished us,” said Mohamed Ismail, 28, a coffee shop clerk who was among the protesters. “I got slapped on the face and the back of my head.”

Mohamed Ali, 34, a carpenter and one of the Islamists who uprooted the tents, claimed they had found alcohol, marijuana and treats like apples and other fruit inside. He said they had come to defend democracy and Mr. Morsi’s authority. “He should be supported by anyone who supports democracy,” Mr. Ali said.

A few hours later, large groups of secular protesters began to arrive, and Mr. Ali said they had pelted the Islamists with rocks and empty water bottles. “We acted in self-defense,” he said.

It was uncertain how many of the Islamists belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and how many to other, more hard-line groups, or to no group at all.


Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.

    Blood Is Shed as Egyptian President’s Backers and Rivals Battle in Cairo, NYT, 5.12.2012,






U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands


December 5, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants, according to United States officials and foreign diplomats.

No evidence has emerged linking the weapons provided by the Qataris during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to the attack that killed four Americans at the United States diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

But in the months before, the Obama administration clearly was worried about the consequences of its hidden hand in helping arm Libyan militants, concerns that have not previously been reported. The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government.

The experience in Libya has taken on new urgency as the administration considers whether to play a direct role in arming rebels in Syria, where weapons are flowing in from Qatar and other countries.

The Obama administration did not initially raise objections when Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria, even if it did not offer encouragement, according to current and former administration officials. But they said the United States has growing concerns that, just as in Libya, the Qataris are equipping some of the wrong militants.

The United States, which had only small numbers of C.I.A. officers in Libya during the tumult of the rebellion, provided little oversight of the arms shipments. Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011, the White House began receiving reports that they were going to Islamic militant groups. They were “more antidemocratic, more hard-line, closer to an extreme version of Islam” than the main rebel alliance in Libya, said a former Defense Department official.

The Qatari assistance to fighters viewed as hostile by the United States demonstrates the Obama administration’s continuing struggles in dealing with the Arab Spring uprisings, as it tries to support popular protest movements while avoiding American military entanglements. Relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations, but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests.

“To do this right, you have to have on-the-ground intelligence and you have to have experience,” said Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser who is now dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, part of Johns Hopkins University. “If you rely on a country that doesn’t have those things, you are really flying blind. When you have an intermediary, you are going to lose control.”

He said that Qatar would not have gone through with the arms shipments if the United States had resisted them, but other current and former administration officials said Washington had little leverage at times over Qatari officials. “They march to their own drummer,” said a former senior State Department official. The White House and State Department declined to comment.

During the frantic early months of the Libyan rebellion, various players motivated by politics or profit — including an American arms dealer who proposed weapons transfers in an e-mail exchange with a United States emissary later killed in Benghazi — sought to aid those trying to oust Colonel Qaddafi.

But after the White House decided to encourage Qatar — and on a smaller scale, the United Arab Emirates — to ship arms to the Libyans, President Obama complained in April 2011 to the emir of Qatar that his country was not coordinating its actions in Libya with the United States, the American officials said. “The president made the point to the emir that we needed transparency about what Qatar was doing in Libya,” said a former senior administration official who had been briefed on the matter.

About that same time, Mahmoud Jibril, then the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government, expressed frustration to administration officials that the United States was allowing Qatar to arm extremist groups opposed to the new leadership, according to several American officials. They, like nearly a dozen current and former White House, diplomatic, intelligence, military and foreign officials, would speak only on the condition of anonymity for this article.

The administration has never determined where all of the weapons, paid for by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, went inside Libya, officials said. Qatar is believed to have shipped by air and sea small arms, including machine guns, automatic rifles, and ammunition, for which it has demanded reimbursement from Libya’s new government. Some of the arms since have been moved from Libya to militants with ties to Al Qaeda in Mali, where radical jihadi factions have imposed Shariah law in the northern part of the country, the former Defense Department official said. Others have gone to Syria, according to several American and foreign officials and arms traders.

Although NATO provided air support that proved critical for the Libyan rebels, the Obama administration wanted to avoid getting immersed in a ground war, which officials feared could lead the United States into another quagmire in the Middle East.

As a result, the White House largely relied on Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two small Persian Gulf states and frequent allies of the United States. Qatar, a tiny nation whose natural gas reserves have made it enormously wealthy, for years has tried to expand its influence in the Arab world. Since 2011, with dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa coming under siege, Qatar has given arms and money to various opposition and militant groups, chiefly Sunni Islamists, in hopes of cementing alliances with the new governments. Officials from Qatar and the emirates would not comment.

After discussions among members of the National Security Council, the Obama administration backed the arms shipments from both countries, according to two former administration officials briefed on the talks.

American officials say that the United Arab Emirates first approached the Obama administration during the early months of the Libyan uprising, asking for permission to ship American-built weapons that the United States had supplied for the emirates’ use. The administration rejected that request, but instead urged the emirates to ship weapons to Libya that could not be traced to the United States.

“The U.A.E. was asking for clearance to send U.S. weapons,” said one former official. “We told them it’s O.K. to ship other weapons.”

For its part, Qatar supplied weapons made outside the United States, including French- and Russian-designed arms, according to people familiar with the shipments.

But the American support for the arms shipments from Qatar and the emirates could not be completely hidden. NATO air and sea forces around Libya had to be alerted not to interdict the cargo planes and freighters transporting the arms into Libya from Qatar and the emirates, American officials said.

Concerns in Washington soon rose about the groups Qatar was supporting, officials said. A debate over what to do about the weapons shipments dominated at least one meeting of the so-called Deputies Committee, the interagency panel consisting of the second-highest ranking officials in major agencies involved in national security. “There was a lot of concern that the Qatar weapons were going to Islamist groups,” one official recalled.

The Qataris provided weapons, money and training to various rebel groups in Libya. One militia that received aid was controlled by Adel Hakim Belhaj, then leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, who was held by the C.I.A. in 2004 and is now considered a moderate politician in Libya. It is unclear which other militants received the aid.

“Nobody knew exactly who they were,” said the former defense official. The Qataris, the official added, are “supposedly good allies, but the Islamists they support are not in our interest.”

No evidence has surfaced that any weapons went to Ansar al-Shariah, an extremist group blamed for the Benghazi attack.

The case of Marc Turi, the American arms merchant who had sought to provide weapons to Libya, demonstrates other challenges the United States faced in dealing with Libya. A dealer who lives in both Arizona and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Mr. Turi sells small arms to buyers in the Middle East and Africa, relying primarily on suppliers of Russian-designed weapons in Eastern Europe.

In March 2011, just as the Libyan civil war was intensifying, Mr. Turi realized that Libya could be a lucrative new market, and applied to the State Department for a license to provide weapons to the rebels there, according to e-mails and other documents he has provided. (American citizens are required to obtain United States approval for any international arms sales.)

He also e-mailed J. Christopher Stevens, then the special representative to the Libyan rebel alliance. The diplomat said he would “share” Mr. Turi’s proposal with colleagues in Washington, according to e-mails provided by Mr. Turi. Mr. Stevens, who became the United States ambassador to Libya, was one of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11.

Mr. Turi’s application for a license was rejected in late March 2011. Undeterred, he applied again, this time stating only that he planned to ship arms worth more than $200 million to Qatar. In May 2011, his application was approved. Mr. Turi, in an interview, said that his intent was to get weapons to Qatar and that what “the U.S. government and Qatar allowed from there was between them.”

Two months later, though, his home near Phoenix was raided by agents from the Department of Homeland Security. Administration officials say he remains under investigation in connection with his arms dealings. The Justice Department would not comment.

Mr. Turi said he believed that United States officials had shut down his proposed arms pipeline because he was getting in the way of the Obama administration’s dealings with Qatar. The Qataris, he complained, imposed no controls on who got the weapons. “They just handed them out like candy,” he said.


David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Cairo.

    U.S.-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands, NYT, 5.12.2012,






Flow of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to U.S. Dismay


December 1, 2012
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The American effort to stem the flow of Iranian arms to Syria has faltered because of Iraq’s reluctance to inspect aircraft carrying the weapons through its airspace, American officials say.

The shipments have persisted at a critical time for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who has come under increasing military pressure from rebel fighters. The air corridor over Iraq has emerged as a main supply route for weapons, including rockets, antitank missiles, rocket-propelled grenade and mortars.

Iran has an enormous stake in Syria, which is its staunchest Arab ally and has also provided a channel for Iran’s support to the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.

To the disappointment of the Obama administration, American efforts to persuade the Iraqis to randomly inspect the flights have been largely unsuccessful.

Adding to American concerns, Western intelligence officials say they are picking up new signs of activity at sites in Syria that are used to store chemical weapons. The officials are uncertain whether Syrian forces might be preparing to use the weapons in a last-ditch effort to save the government, or simply sending a warning to the West about the implications of providing more help to the Syrian rebels.

“It’s in some ways similar to what they’ve done before,” a senior American official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “But they’re doing some things that suggest they intend to use the weapons. It’s not just moving stuff around. These are different kind of activities.”

The official said, however, that the Syrians had not carried out the most blatant steps toward using the chemical weapons, such as preparing them to be fired by artillery batteries or loaded in bombs to be dropped from warplanes.

Regarding the arms shipments, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secured a commitment from Iraq’s foreign minister in September that Iraq would inspect flights from Iran to Syria. But the Iraqis have inspected only two, most recently on Oct. 27. No weapons were found, but one of the two planes that landed in Iraq for inspection was on its way back to Iran after delivering its cargo in Syria.

Adding to the United States’ frustrations, Iran appears to have been tipped off by Iraqi officials as to when inspections would be conducted, American officials say, citing classified reports by American intelligence analysts.

Iran’s continued efforts to aid the Syrian government were described in interviews with a dozen American administration, military and Congressional officials, most of whom requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

“The abuse of Iraqi airspace by Iran continues to be a concern,” an American official said. “We urge Iraq to be diligent and consistent in fulfilling its international obligations and commitments, either by continuing to require flights over Iraqi territory en route to Syria from Iran to land for inspection or by denying overflight requests for Iranian aircraft going to Syria.”

Iraqi officials insist that they oppose the ferrying of arms through Iraq’s airspace. They also cite claims by Iran that it is merely delivering humanitarian aid, and they call the American charges unfounded.

“We wouldn’t be able to convince them, even if we searched all the airplanes, because they have prejudged the situation,” Ali al-Musawi, the spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq, said of the American concerns. “Our policy is that we will not allow the transfer of arms to Syria.”

Mr. Musawi acknowledged that one of the planes was not inspected until it was returning from Damascus, but said it was a simple error, not a deliberate effort to help the Iranians. “Mistakes sometimes occur,” he said.

But one former Iraqi official, who asked not to be identified because he feared retaliation by the Iraqi government, said that some officials in Baghdad had been doing the bare minimum to placate the United States and were in fact sympathetic to the Iranian efforts in Syria.

The Iranian flights present challenges for the Obama administration, which has been reluctant to provide arms to the Syrian rebels or to establish a no-fly zone over Syria for fear of becoming entangled in the conflict. They also illustrate the limits of the administration’s influence with the Maliki government and point to divergent foreign-policy calculations in Washington and in Baghdad.

While Iraq’s actions clearly benefit Iran, a Shiite country with close ties to many Iraqi officials, Mr. Maliki may have his own reasons to tolerate the flights.

Mr. Maliki, American officials say, is worried that if Mr. Assad falls from power it may embolden Sunni and Kurdish forces in the region, including in Iraq, which could present challenges to his Shiite-dominated government.

Iran’s support for Syria is vital to the Assad government, American officials said. In addition to flying arms and ammunition to Syria, Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force is sending trainers and advisers, sometimes disguised as religious pilgrims, tourists and businessmen, the officials say.

Iran’s flights of arms to Syria drew the concern of American officials soon after the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq last December. Iraq lacks an air force and is unable to enforce control of its own airspace, and Iran took advantage by ferrying arms to Syria.

Under American pressure, Iraqi officials persuaded the Iranians to hold off on the flights as Iraq prepared to host the Arab summit in Baghdad in March. Soon after the meeting, President Obama, in an April 3 call to Mr. Maliki, underscored that the flights should not continue.

But after a bombing in Damascus in July that killed ranking members of Mr. Assad’s government, the Iranian flights resumed. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. raised American concerns over the flights in an Aug. 17 phone call with Mr. Maliki. So did Denis McDonough, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, who met with Mr. Maliki in Baghdad in October.

When Mr. McDonough raised concerns over the inspection of the plane that was on its way back to Iran, Mr. Maliki responded that he was not aware that the inspection had been carried out that way, according to one account of the meeting by an American official. A spokeswoman for the National Security Council declined to comment.

There is evidence of collusion between Iranian and Iraqi officials on the inspections, according to American intelligence assessments. In one instance, according to an American intelligence report, Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, ordered that a flight to Syria carry only humanitarian goods. An Iraqi inspection occurred soon after, when the plane was asked to land in Iraq on Oct. 27.

Much of the American intelligence community’s concerns about possible collusion has focused on Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation, who is believed to be close to the Iranians and was among the Iraqi traveling party when Mr. Maliki visited Washington last year. Mr. Amiri said: “This is untrue. We are an independent country and our stance is clear. We will search whichever plane we want, whenever we want. We will not take orders.”

Nasir Bender, the head of civil aviation in Iraq, said there was no indication that Iraqi officials had tipped off the Iranians. “We have orders to search any plane that we feel is suspicious, but the ones we have searched were only carrying medical supplies and clothing,” he said, adding that the Iraqis had inspected only two Iranian flights because of the cost of fuel. “We can’t search every plane because there are so many heading to Syria,” he said. “It would be a big waste of money. Each plane we take down we must refill with fuel.”

In one instance in late October, however, an Iranian flight ignored an Iraqi request that it land, according to American intelligence assessments, presumably because the Iranians did not want its cargo to be inspected.

Iraq’s attitude toward the Iranian flights has drawn the concern of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible secretary of state in Mr. Obama’s second term.

“If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact,” Mr. Kerry said in September, “that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response.”

The activity at the Syrian chemical weapons sites, described by American, European and Israeli officials, poses an additional challenge for the West. The senior American official confirmed on Saturday that in the past two or three days, United States and allied intelligence have detected that the Syrian military was carrying out some kind of activities with some of its chemical stockpiles.

Since the crisis began in Syria, the United States and its allies have stepped up electronic eavesdropping and other surveillance activities of the sites.


Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington,

and Tim Arango from Baghdad. David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.

    Flow of Arms to Syria Through Iraq Persists, to U.S. Dismay, NYT, 1.12.2012,




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