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History > 2013 > USA > International (II)




The wife of Mohammed Halak

slumps in a chair next to his body as she mourns the death of her husband,

killed during fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and the Syrian Army in Idlib,

north Syria, March 11, 2012.

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Boston Globe > Big Picture > Syria: A collection of images        March 29, 2013















Ill-Considered Advice on Syria


April 29, 2013
The New York Times


To hear Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tell it, the way forward on Syria is clear. The United States should be doing more — directly arming the rebels seeking overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, establishing a no-fly zone. This is not a new line for these two legislators and others in Congress who share their views. But it has gathered force since the Obama administration disclosed last week that it believes Mr. Assad’s forces have used sarin gas against Syrians.

For all their exhortations, what the senators and like-minded critics have not offered is a coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war and how it might yield the kind of influence and good will for this country that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have not.

Mr. Graham and Mr. McCain to the contrary, the administration has not adopted a hands-off approach to Syria. Early on, it collaborated with the Europeans on a political solution, which failed. It is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Syrians ($400 million), and it just doubled its nonlethal aid to the opposition to $250 million. With mixed success, Washington has also worked to organize fractious rebel groups into a more cohesive and effective whole, while delegitimizing Mr. Assad.

Unlike Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, who have also faulted President Obama for withdrawing troops from Iraq and tried to goad him into a more militaristic position on Iran, the president has been trying to disentangle the United States from overseas conflicts and, as a result, has been very cautious about military involvement in Syria.

That may have to change now that Mr. Assad’s forces are accused of using chemical weapons. Mr. Obama backed himself into a corner when he warned the Syrian leader that using chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” and be a “game changer,” suggesting strongly and perhaps unwisely that crossing that line would trigger some kind of American action.

The failure to act now could be misread by Mr. Assad as well as leaders in Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear programs are on America’s radar. But Mr. Obama should only act if he has compelling documentation that the sarin gas was used in an attack by Syrian forces and was not the result of an accident or fertilizer. The Financial Times reported the evidence is based on two separate samples taken from victims of the attacks.

With the civil war in Syria now in its third year and the death toll at more than 70,000, the situation has deteriorated. Mr. Assad remains in power, sectarian divisions have intensified and fleeing refugees are destabilizing neighboring countries. Most worrisome, jihadis linked to Al Qaeda have become the dominant fighting force and, as Ben Hubbard reported in The Times, there are few rebel groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward.

There have never been easy options for the United States in Syria; they have not improved with time. And Russia and Iran, both enablers of Mr. Assad, deserve particular condemnation. Without their support, Mr. Assad would not have lasted this long. Still, the country is important to regional stability. Mr. Obama must soon provide a clearer picture of how he plans to use American influence in dealing with the jihadi threat and the endgame in Syria.

    Ill-Considered Advice on Syria, NYT, 29.4.2013,






Obama Not Rushing to Act

on Signs Syria Used Chemical Arms


April 26, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he would respond “prudently” and “deliberately” to evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons, tamping down any expectations that he would take swift action after an American intelligence assessment that the Syrian government had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale in the nation’s civil war.

Mr. Obama’s remarks, before a meeting here with King Abdullah II of Jordan, laid bare the quandary he now faces. The day after the White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said that the nation’s intelligence agencies had assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the Syrian government had used sarin, the president said he was seeking further proof of culpability for chemical weapons attacks. It is a laborious process that analysts say may never produce a definitive judgment. But Mr. Obama is also trying to preserve his credibility after warning in the past that the use of chemical weapons would be a “game changer” and prompt a forceful American response.

“Knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the Oval Office. “We have to act prudently. We have to make these assessments deliberately.”

“But I meant what I’d said,” the president added. “To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law. And that is going to be a game changer.”

At the same time, the White House cited the Iraq war to justify its wariness of taking action against another Arab country on the basis of incomplete or potentially inaccurate assessments of its weapons of mass destruction. The press secretary, Jay Carney, said the White House would “look at the past for guidance when it comes to the need to be very serious about gathering all the facts, establishing chain of custody, linking evidence of the use of chemical weapons to specific incidents and actions taken by the regime.”

As Mr. Obama and his aides walked a fine line on how to confront the evidence about chemical weapons, they engaged in an intensified round of diplomacy with Arab leaders to bolster support for the Syrian opposition and to try to develop a consensus on how to deal with the escalating strife.

In addition to King Abdullah, Mr. Obama met in recent days with leaders from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the Saudi foreign minister. Next month, he will meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which borders Syria and is among the countries most exposed to the threat of a chemical weapons attack.

“If their policy is premised on not going it alone, even in response to chemical weapons,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, “you’re going to need a lot of people reading from the same song sheet.”

The more pressing problem, Mr. Katulis said, was that the president’s strong warnings to Syria “are running ahead of their policy.” In his remarks, King Abdullah did not address the American suspicions about chemical weapons or Mr. Obama’s warnings, but expressed confidence that the president, working with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries, could “find a mechanism to find a solution.”

A major focus of the meeting, a senior administration official said, was coordinating more robust aid for the Syrian opposition. The United States pledged last weekend to double its nonlethal assistance, and the official said it was working with regional allies to direct it to reliable opposition groups.

On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain echoed Mr. Obama’s cautious assessment of the use of chemical weapons, saying that there was limited but growing evidence that such weapons had been used, probably by government forces.

The British government, like the Obama administration, is concerned about avoiding a repetition of the events that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq when the presence of unconventional weapons, cited as justification for military action, had not been corroborated.

Mr. Cameron said that while definitive information was limited, “there’s growing evidence that we have seen, too, of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime.”

“It is extremely serious; this is a war crime, and we should take it very seriously,” he added.

Still, Mr. Cameron said, the British authorities were trying to avoid “rushing into print” news about the use of chemical weapons. And he repeated that Britain had no appetite to intervene militarily.

“I don’t want to see that, and I don’t think that is likely to happen,” he said. “But I think we can step up the pressure on the regime, work with our partners, work with the opposition in order to bring about the right outcome. But we need to go on gathering this evidence and also to send a very clear warning to the Syrian regime about these appalling actions.”

The United States has called on the United Nations to carry out a thorough investigation of the suspected use of chemical weapons by the government. But the government of President Bashar al-Assad has so far not allowed United Nations inspectors into the country, and backed by its supporter Russia, it is insisting on limits to the scope of the investigation.

“As long as Damascus refuses to let the U.N. investigate all allegations, and as long as Russia provides the regime with political cover at the Security Council, it may be impossible for Washington to meet that standard,” Michael Eisenstadt, director of the military and security studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in a report.

The risk of not responding now, even with less than definitive proof, Mr. Eisenstadt said, is that it could embolden Mr. Assad to use chemical weapons on a wider scale. American officials said the administration had privately warned the Syrian government not to take that step.

On Thursday, the head of the United Nations agency for disarmament sent another letter to Syria demanding “unconditional and unfettered access” for inspectors investigating the use of chemical weapons, said Martin Nesirky, the spokesman for the secretary general.

The top inspector for the team of some 15 members, the Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom, is due in New York on Monday to brief Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, on its work.

“Members of that team have been collating and analyzing the evidence and information that is available to date from outside,” Mr. Nesirky said, adding that there was a concern about the evidence degrading.


Reporting was contributed by Peter Baker from Washington,

Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations, Alan Cowell from London,

and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.

    Obama Not Rushing to Act on Signs Syria Used Chemical Arms, NYT, 26.4.2013,






White House Says

It Believes Syria Has Used Chemical Arms


April 25, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The White House said Thursday that it believes the Syrian government has used chemical weapons in its civil war, an assessment that could test President Obama’s repeated warnings that such an attack could precipitate American intervention in Syria.

The White House, in a letter to Congressional leaders, said the nation’s intelligence agencies assessed “with varying degrees of confidence” that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used the chemical agent sarin on a small scale.

But it said more conclusive evidence was needed before Mr. Obama would take action, referring obliquely to both the Bush administration’s use of faulty intelligence in the march to war in Iraq and the ramifications of any decision to enter another conflict in the Middle East.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agencies actually expressed more certainty about the use of these weapons than the White House indicated in its letter. She said Thursday that they voiced medium to high confidence in their assessment, which officials said was based on the testing of soil samples and blood drawn from people who had been wounded.

American officials said the attacks, which occurred last month in a village near Aleppo and in the outskirts of Damascus, had not been definitively connected to Mr. Assad. The White House said the “chain of custody” of the weapons was not clear, raising questions about whether the attacks were deliberate or accidental.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House said in the letter, which was signed by its legislative director, Miguel E. Rodriguez. “Only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making.”

That meticulously legal language did not disguise a thorny political and foreign policy problem for Mr. Obama: he has long resisted the calls to arm the Syrian rebels and has expressed deep doubts about the wisdom of intervening in an Arab nation so riven with sectarian strife, although he has also issued pointed warnings to Syria.

In a statement last summer, Mr. Obama did not offer a technical definition of his “red line” for taking action, but said it was when “we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.” In Jerusalem last month, he said proof that Syria had used such weapons would be a “game changer” for American involvement.

The Pentagon, administration officials said, has prepared the president a menu of options that include commando raids that would secure chemical weapons stockpiles and strikes on Syrian planes from American ships in the Mediterranean. Last year, the United States secretly sent a 150-member task force to Jordan to help deal with the possibility that Syria would lose control of its stockpiles. Mr. Obama could also provide more robust aid to the rebels, including weapons.

White House officials gave no indication of what Mr. Obama might do, except to say that any American action would be taken in concert with its allies.

While lawmakers from both parties swiftly declared that the president’s red line had been breached, they differed on what he should do about it.

“The political reality is that he put himself in that position that if the ‘red line’ is crossed — he made it very clear — it would change his behavior,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said. The intelligence “is a compelling argument for the president to take the measures that a lot of us have been arguing for all along,” he said.

The timing of the White House disclosure also suggested the pressures it is facing. It came the same day that the British government said that it had “limited but persuasive” evidence of the use of chemical weapons, and two days after an Israeli military intelligence official asserted that Syria had repeatedly used chemical weapons.

In a letter to the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, several weeks ago calling for a United Nations investigation, Britain laid out evidence of the attacks in Aleppo and near Damascus as well as an earlier one in Homs.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, reported that dozens of victims were treated at hospitals for shortness of breath, convulsions and dilation of the pupils, common symptoms of exposure to chemical warfare agents. Doctors reported eye irritation and fatigue after close exposure to the patients.

Citing its links to contacts in the Syrian opposition, Britain said there were reports of 15 deaths in the suburban Damascus attack and up to 10 in Aleppo, where the government and rebels have each accused the other of using chemical weapons.

“Fortunately the deaths have not been high,” Senator Feinstein said, “but there have been deaths.”

The United States has also pushed for a United Nations investigation, but it made clear on Thursday that it has collected enough evidence on its own and with Britain and other countries to make its assessment. An official said the United States was also suspicious about the attack in Homs.

While several officials said the intelligence agencies expressed medium to high confidence about its overall assessment, two intelligence officials noted that there were components of the assessment about which the agencies were less certain. They did not offer details.

Administration officials had begun the week casting doubt on the claims made by the Israeli official, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, about chemical weapons. “Suspicions are one thing; evidence is another,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday on a visit to Egypt.

But by then, a senior administration official said, the intelligence agencies had already become more confident of their assessment, after several weeks of examining the evidence. With Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to brief senators on Syria on Thursday, the White House decided on Wednesday evening to get ahead of that meeting.

The administration’s disclosure came in a response to Mr. McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the committee’s chairman, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who wrote to the White House asking whether Mr. Assad or his supporters had used chemical weapons during the two-year-long war.

“Given the fact that we have been developing additional information within our intelligence community,” a White House official said to reporters, “we felt it was the right and prudent thing to do to respond in an unclassified form to this letter.”

Lawmakers generally welcomed the White House’s disclosure, though some suggested that the administration was still inclined to play down the implications of the assessment.

“It is important that we read the intelligence as it is laid out, not as we would like it to be,” said Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.


Michael R. Gordon contributed reporting from Washington;

Thom Shanker from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates;

and David E. Sanger from Jerusalem.

    White House Says It Believes Syria Has Used Chemical Arms, NYT, 25.4.2013,






More Help for Syrian Rebels


April 22, 2013
The New York Times


There was more horror in Syria over the weekend, where scores of bodies, most of them civilians, were discovered in a Damascus suburb. The victims are believed to have died in a weeklong offensive by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who seems to have no misgivings whatever about a slaughter, including the use of airstrikes and missiles, that has claimed more than 70,000 lives so far during two-and-a-half years of war.

Long after Western governments predicted he would be gone, Mr. Assad is hanging on even as his country unravels, deepening sectarian divisions, expanding the fighting across borders and forcing an estimated one million Syrians to flee to neighboring countries. There are increasing fears about whether the country can hold together, whether the fighting will destabilize its neighbors and whether, when all is said and done, extremist groups with connections to Al Qaeda who have been among the best anti-Assad fighters will emerge on top.

Eager to find ways to speed Mr. Assad’s fall, or at least change his calculations, President Obama is edging, cautiously but appropriately, toward greater support for the rebels. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Washington would double aid to the opposition’s military wing by providing an additional $123 million in “nonlethal” assistance like body armor and night-vision goggles. Some $385 million in humanitarian aid had already been committed.

The president has wisely resisted calls to supply American weapons and to intervene directly. He should continue to do so. Nevertheless, in recent months, the C.I.A. has helped Arab governments and Turkey airlift arms and equipment to the rebels and provided training. The agency also vetted rebel groups to ensure that only moderates receive those supplies.

Such caution makes sense, not least because the administration itself is not unanimous on whether more aid is a good thing. Mr. Kerry sees opportunities in the opposition, while Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned of the risks of deeper involvement with opposition groups whose loyalties to the West, and a moderate course, are suspect.

A weekend meeting in Istanbul of 11 countries committed to aiding the opposition sought to address some of those problems. Mr. Kerry said donor nations agreed to funnel all aid through the rebel military council to prevent it from falling into the hands of extremist groups. The rebels also renewed their promises to embrace minorities who have backed Mr. Assad, build a pluralistic government and forgo postwar reprisals.

Meanwhile, the European Union on Monday eased sanctions to allow European importers to buy oil from the Syrian opposition, which controls some territory with oil deposits. This may have little practical effect given the country’s battered infrastructure, but it could boost the opposition’s credibility and finances. The European Union should think twice about letting its arms embargo expire because that could open the door to Britain and France providing the rebels with lethal aid.

Assisting the rebels is not the whole answer. Mr. Obama and Europe should keep trying to persuade Russia to abandon its unconscionable support for Mr. Assad and to work cooperatively to stabilize the region.

    More Help for Syrian Rebels, NYT, 22.4.2013,






Attack on Christians in Egypt Comes After a Pledge


April 7, 2013
The New York Times


CAIRO — Police officers firing tear gas joined with a rock-throwing crowd fighting a group of Christian mourners Sunday in a battle that escalated into an attack on Egypt’s main Coptic Christian Cathedral that lasted for hours.

It was the third day of an outburst of sectarian violence that is testing the pledges of Egypt’s Islamist president to protect the country’s Christian minority. By nightfall, at least one person had died from the day’s clashes, bringing the weekend’s death toll to six.

Later Sunday, President Mohamed Morsi called the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, to reassure him. “I consider any aggression against the cathedral an aggression against me personally,” Mr. Morsi said, according to state media.

The president ordered an investigation of the violence and instructed security forces “to protect the citizens inside the Cathedral,” state media reported, and he pledged to protect both Muslims and Christians.

The violence began Friday when a sectarian dispute in the town of Khusus outside Cairo escalated into a gunfight that killed four Christians and a Muslim — the first major episode of deadly sectarian violence since Mr. Morsi’s election last year. Hundreds of Christians and sympathetic Muslims gathered at the cathedral Sunday for the four Christians’ funeral, chanting for the removal from power of Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies.

“With our blood and our soul we will sacrifice ourselves for the cross,” the crowd intoned.

Clashes erupted immediately after the service between the emerging mourners and a crowd outside the cathedral. It was unclear who started the violence. But later dozens of riot police with armored vehicles and tear-gas canons appeared to enter the fray on the side of crowds of young Muslim men who were throwing rocks and fire bombs at the mourners.

In what seemed like a siege of the cathedral, tear-gas canisters fell inside the walls of its compound, sending gas into the sanctuary and two nuns running for shelter in a nearby loading dock.

Later, some of the young civilians who had been attacking the cathedral switched to taunts, making lewd gestures involving the sign of the cross. The riot policemen made no attempt to stop them, either from throwing rocks toward the cathedral or insulting the Christians.

“The police are not trying to protect us or do anything to stop the violence,” said Wael Eskandar, a Coptic Christian activist. “On the contrary, they are actively aiding the people in civilian clothes” attacking the Christians, he said.

Dozens rushed to defend the cathedral, and many pulled back their sleeves at the iron entrance gate to display the cross that many Copts tattoo on their wrists.

Groups of young men stood on the cathedral walls and rooftops nearby, throwing fire bombs and the shards of bricks at the riot police. At least two of the young men on the church grounds carried what appeared to be crude pistols. Others prepared crates full of fire bombs.

The Interior Ministry, in a statement on its Web site, said the mourners had started the violence and that the riot police intervened to stop it. “Some mourners vandalized a number of cars, which led to clashes and fights with the people of the area,” the statement said, adding, “Interference to separate the clashing parties is ongoing.”

Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s roughly 85 million citizens, were already anxious about the dominance of elections by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the former secular autocrat.

Not that sectarian animosities were absent under Mr. Mubarak. Copts suffered from discrimination as well as recurring episodes of sectarian violence, and the Mubarak government worsened the problem by denying the existence of domestic sectarianism and pinning blame on either local conflicts or foreign conspiracies.

Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have sometimes appeared to understand that as Islamists they have more to prove to Egypt’s Copts. During elections, Brotherhood candidates have emphasized their commitment to equal citizenship and security for Copts, even sending young Brotherhood members to stand guard outside churches at a Christmas service one year.

When a dispute over a shirt burned at the laundry exploded into a sectarian battle that killed a Christian and damaged several properties last year, Mr. Morsi departed from the Mubarak script, sending a legal adviser to meet with the Christians, instructing the local governor to compensate the victims and asking the prosecutor to investigate without prejudice.

But on Sunday, many Copts blamed Mr. Morsi for the violence. “Who is responsible for the surroundings of the cathedral being unsecured for more than five hours today?” demanded Bishop Bakhomious, a senior Coptic cleric who had been acting pope until the designation of Tawadros II. “If the security services want to know who is behind these events, they will.”

It is unclear how much practical control Mr. Morsi exercises over the police. He has done little to reform the force left over from Mr. Mubarak despite continuing complaints about its abuses. A rash of police strikes has showcased widespread insubordination, and the riot police lack training in effective crowd control. On Sunday, they sometimes appeared to fire tear gas at random into the surrounding neighborhood.

But even before the police joined the fray, human rights advocates said Mr. Morsi and his party had failed to confront the sectarianism driving the violence. Until late Sunday, both Mr. Morsi and his party appeared to fall into the Mubarak pattern, denouncing the violence but without acknowledging the problem of sectarianism. Instead, the Islamists suggested a conspiracy by some unknown party to sow dissent among Egyptians.

Only on Sunday night, after the clashes had subsided, did Mr. Morsi publicly acknowledge the role of sectarian aggression or personally pledge to protect the Copts. “He seems to have begun to realize the scale of this,” said Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

    Attack on Christians in Egypt Comes After a Pledge, NYT, 7.4.2013,






Detecting Shift in Beijing,

U.S. Makes Its Case on North Korea


April 5, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.

In a flurry of exchanges that included a recent phone call from President Obama to Mr. Xi, administration officials said, they have briefed the Chinese in detail about American plans to upgrade missile defenses and other steps to deter the increasingly belligerent threats made by North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.

China, which has been deeply suspicious of the American desire to reassert itself in Asia, has not protested publicly or privately as the United States has deployed ships and warplanes to the Korean Peninsula. That silence, American officials say, attests to both Beijing’s mounting frustration with the North and the recognition that its reflexive support for Pyongyang could strain its ties with Washington.

“The timing of this is important,” Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview. “It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.”

While administration officials cautioned that Mr. Xi has been in office for only a few weeks and that China has a history of frustrating the United States in its dealings with North Korea, Mr. Donilon said he believed that China’s position was “evolving.”

Judging whether China has genuinely changed course on North Korea is tricky: Beijing has appeared to respond to American pressure before, only to backtrack later. China, the North’s only strong ally, has long feared the United States would capitalize on the fall of the North Korean leadership by expanding American military influence on the Korean Peninsula.

Nor has China given clues about its intentions in its public statements, voicing grave concern about the rising tensions while being careful not to elevate Mr. Kim’s stature.

Chinese analysts say there are internal debates within the Communist Party and the military about how to deal with Mr. Kim, and how strongly to enforce the United Nations’ economic sanctions that China signed on to last month.

The White House said it was encouraged by how swiftly China had supported the sanctions, which followed a North Korean nuclear test and a missile launch. But some diplomats and analysts say China has dragged its feet in enforcing them.

In a meeting with two senior American officials who traveled to Beijing two weeks ago to try to persuade China to enforce new banking restrictions on North Korea, Chinese banking leaders showed little sign of compliance, said Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“But I wouldn’t expect them publicize it,” even if they did move ahead, Mr. Noland added.

Many analysts say the sanctions cannot succeed without China’s cooperation, since it has close trade ties with North Korea and has in the past chosen to keep its government afloat by providing fuel and significant aid.

China continues to say economic sanctions will not work. A Chinese diplomat who is involved in policy on North Korea said recently that he thought China would enforce the new United Nations sanctions to a point but would not go as far as the Obama administration wanted.

Even if China does cooperate, it is unclear how far North Korea might bend; North Korea ignored China’s entreaties not to conduct the nuclear test in February that set off the latest conflict with the United States and South Korea.

In the coming weeks, the White House will send a stream of senior officials to China to press its case, starting with Secretary of State John Kerry, who will travel to Beijing next Saturday, on an Asian tour that will also take him to South Korea and Japan.

In the short run, officials said, the administration wants the Chinese to be rigorous in customs inspections to interdict the flow of banned goods to North Korea. More broadly, it wants China to persuade Mr. Kim to cease his provocations and agree to negotiations on giving up his nuclear program.

On Friday, North Korea stoked tensions further by advising Russia, Britain and other countries that they might want to evacuate their embassies in Pyongyang in case of hostilities, according to Russian and British officials. Analysts dismissed the warning as a ploy to frighten the United States and its allies, perhaps to finally force concessions.

In Beijing, officials said Mr. Kerry also wants to reinvigorate the dialogue with China on climate change. And the United States is pushing the Chinese leadership to crack down on the proliferation of cyberattacks on American government and commercial interests originating in China.

Making progress on those issues will be easier if Washington is in sync with Beijing over North Korea. A week after Mr. Kerry’s visit, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend four days in China to try to improve communication between the American and Chinese militaries. Any problem there is especially dangerous now, officials say, given China’s expanded military ambitions and the intensified American activity in the region.

Mr. Donilon plans to visit Beijing in May. Part of the heavy rotation of diplomacy, officials said, is to compensate for the fact that Mr. Obama is not scheduled to meet Mr. Xi until September.

Based on their meetings with Mr. Xi so far, administration officials said they believed he viewed Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang more pragmatically than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, whose reluctance to act against Pyongyang so frustrated Mr. Obama that in 2010 he accused the Chinese of “willful blindness” toward North Korea.

Last month, Mr. Xi spoke by phone with the new president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, telling Ms. Park how much China prized its ties with South Korea and offering China’s assistance in the “reconciliation and cooperation” of the two Koreas. Such sentiments, analysts said, would have been inconceivable from President Hu.

By contrast, there has been little high-level contact between Mr. Kim and Chinese officials, which American officials cited as evidence of growing irritation on the part of the Chinese.

“What we have seen is a subtle change in Chinese thinking,” Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said in a speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Chinese now believe North Korea’s actions are “antithetical” to their national security interests, he said.

That thinking has also surfaced in recent articles by Chinese scholars that have called into question China’s policy. Deng Yuwen, the influential deputy editor of a Communist Party journal, wrote in The Financial Times that “Beijing should give up on Pyongyang and press for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.”

And yet Mr. Deng has since been suspended from his job, which underscores how little China’s attitude has changed.

Some voices are urging China not to be rattled by the crisis. A hawkish major general in the People’s Liberation Army, Luo Yuan, who often writes in the Chinese state-run news media, appeared unperturbed by the actions of Mr. Kim or by the dispatch of American ships and planes in support of South Korea.

When the current American and South Korean joint military exercises end this month, he wrote in a blog post on China’s social media site, Sina Weibo, North Korea will calm down and return to the status quo of “no war, no unification,” which remains in China’s favor.

Jeffrey A. Bader, a former Asia adviser to Mr. Obama, said he believes that any change will be subtle. The Chinese, he said, “will continue to use similar language, and their public demeanor will be similar, but quietly, they will be much more aggressive, much more fed up and much more prepared to treat North Korea differently than in the past.”

Jane Perlez contributed reporting from Beijing, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.

    Detecting Shift in Beijing, U.S. Makes Its Case on North Korea, NYT, 5.4.2013,






Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands,

With C.I.A. Aid


March 24, 2013
The New York Times


With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.

The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.

As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year. And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments — albeit mostly in a consultative role, American officials say — has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.

From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them.

The shipments also highlight the competition for Syria’s future between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, the Shiite theocracy that remains Mr. Assad’s main ally. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Iraq on Sunday to do more to halt Iranian arms shipments through its airspace; he did so even as the most recent military cargo flight from Qatar for the rebels landed at Esenboga early Sunday night.

Syrian opposition figures and some American lawmakers and officials have argued that Russian and Iranian arms shipments to support Mr. Assad’s government have made arming the rebels more necessary.

Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November, after the presidential election in the United States and as the Turkish and Arab governments grew more frustrated by the rebels’ slow progress against Mr. Assad’s well-equipped military. The flights also became more frequent as the humanitarian crisis inside Syria deepened in the winter and cascades of refugees crossed into neighboring countries.

The Turkish government has had oversight over much of the program, down to affixing transponders to trucks ferrying the military goods through Turkey so it might monitor shipments as they move by land into Syria, officials said. The scale of shipments was very large, according to officials familiar with the pipeline and to an arms-trafficking investigator who assembled data on the cargo planes involved.

“A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment,” said Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, who monitors illicit arms transfers.

“The intensity and frequency of these flights,” he added, are “suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.”

Although rebel commanders and the data indicate that Qatar and Saudi Arabia had been shipping military materials via Turkey to the opposition since early and late 2102, respectively, a major hurdle was removed late last fall after the Turkish government agreed to allow the pace of air shipments to accelerate, officials said.

Simultaneously, arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria and for retransfer to Turkey for rebels groups operating from there, several officials said.

These multiple logistics streams throughout the winter formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called “a cataract of weaponry.”

American officials, rebel commanders and a Turkish opposition politician have described the Arab roles as an open secret, but have also said the program is freighted with risk, including the possibility of drawing Turkey or Jordan actively into the war and of provoking military action by Iran.

Still, rebel commanders have criticized the shipments as insufficient, saying the quantities of weapons they receive are too small and the types too light to fight Mr. Assad’s military effectively. They also accused those distributing the weapons of being parsimonious or corrupt.

“The outside countries give us weapons and bullets little by little,” said Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a commander in Soquor al-Sham, an Islamist fighting group in northern Syria.

He made a gesture as if switching on and off a tap. “They open and they close the way to the bullets like water,” he said.

Two other commanders, Hassan Aboud of Soquor al-Sham and Abu Ayman of Ahrar al-Sham, another Islamist group, said that whoever was vetting which groups receive the weapons was doing an inadequate job.

“There are fake Free Syrian Army brigades claiming to be revolutionaries, and when they get the weapons they sell them in trade,” Mr. Aboud said.

The former American official noted that the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions are voluminous.

“People hear the amounts flowing in, and it is huge,” he said. “But they burn through a million rounds of ammo in two weeks.”


A Tentative Start

The airlift to Syrian rebels began slowly. On Jan. 3, 2012, months after the crackdown by the Alawite-led government against antigovernment demonstrators had morphed into a military campaign, a pair of Qatar Emiri Air Force C-130 transport aircraft touched down in Istanbul, according to air traffic data.

They were a vanguard.

Weeks later, the Syrian Army besieged Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Artillery and tanks pounded neighborhoods. Ground forces moved in.

Across the country, the army and loyalist militias were trying to stamp out the rebellion with force — further infuriating Syria’s Sunni Arab majority, which was severely outgunned. The rebels called for international help, and more weapons.

By late midspring the first stream of cargo flights from an Arab state began, according to air traffic data and information from plane spotters.

On a string of nights from April 26 through May 4, a Qatari Air Force C-17 — a huge American-made cargo plane — made six landings in Turkey, at Esenboga Airport. By Aug. 8 the Qataris had made 14 more cargo flights. All came from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, a hub for American military logistics in the Middle East.

Qatar has denied providing any arms to the rebels. A Qatari official, who requested anonymity, said Qatar has shipped in only what he called nonlethal aid. He declined to answer further questions. It is not clear whether Qatar has purchased and supplied the arms alone or is also providing air transportation service for other donors. But American and other Western officials, and rebel commanders, have said Qatar has been an active arms supplier — so much so that the United States became concerned about some of the Islamist groups that Qatar has armed.

The Qatari flights aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib, as their campaign of ambushes, roadside bombs and attacks on isolated outposts began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.

As flights continued into the summer, the rebels also opened an offensive in that city — a battle that soon bogged down.

The former American official said David H. Petraeus, the C.I.A. director until November, had been instrumental in helping to get this aviation network moving and had prodded various countries to work together on it. Mr. Petraeus did not return multiple e-mails asking for comment.

The American government became involved, the former American official said, in part because there was a sense that other states would arm the rebels anyhow. The C.I.A. role in facilitating the shipments, he said, gave the United States a degree of influence over the process, including trying to steer weapons away from Islamist groups and persuading donors to withhold portable antiaircraft missiles that might be used in future terrorist attacks on civilian aircraft.

American officials have confirmed that senior White House officials were regularly briefed on the shipments. “These countries were going to do it one way or another,” the former official said. “They weren’t asking for a ‘Mother, may I?’ from us. But if we could help them in certain ways, they’d appreciate that.”

Through the fall, the Qatari Air Force cargo fleet became even more busy, running flights almost every other day in October. But the rebels were clamoring for even more weapons, continuing to assert that they lacked the firepower to fight a military armed with tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and aircraft.

Many were also complaining, saying they were hearing from arms donors that the Obama administration was limiting their supplies and blocking the distribution of the antiaircraft and anti-armor weapons they most sought. These complaints continue.

“Arming or not arming, lethal or nonlethal — it all depends on what America says,” said Mohammed Abu Ahmed, who leads a band of anti-Assad fighters in Idlib Province.


The Breakout

Soon, other players joined the airlift: In November, three Royal Jordanian Air Force C-130s landed in Esenboga, in a hint at what would become a stepped-up Jordanian and Saudi role.

Within three weeks, two other Jordanian cargo planes began making a round-trip run between Amman, the capital of Jordan, and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, where, officials from several countries said, the aircraft were picking up a large Saudi purchase of infantry arms from a Croatian-controlled stockpile.

The first flight returned to Amman on Dec. 15, according to intercepts of a transponder from one of the aircraft recorded by a plane spotter in Cyprus and air traffic control data from an aviation official in the region.

In all, records show that two Jordanian Ilyushins bearing the logo of the Jordanian International Air Cargo firm but flying under Jordanian military call signs made a combined 36 round-trip flights between Amman and Croatia from December through February. The same two planes made five flights between Amman and Turkey this January.

As the Jordanian flights were under way, the Qatari flights continued and the Royal Saudi Air Force began a busy schedule, too — making at least 30 C-130 flights into Esenboga from mid-February to early March this year, according to flight data provided by a regional air traffic control official.

Several of the Saudi flights were spotted coming and going at Ankara by civilians, who alerted opposition politicians in Turkey.

“The use of Turkish airspace at such a critical time, with the conflict in Syria across our borders, and by foreign planes from countries that are known to be central to the conflict, defines Turkey as a party in the conflict,” said Attilla Kart, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the C.H.P. opposition party, who confirmed details about several Saudi shipments. “The government has the responsibility to respond to these claims.”

Turkish and Saudi Arabian officials declined to discuss the flights or any arms transfers. The Turkish government has not officially approved military aid to Syrian rebels.

Croatia and Jordan both denied any role in moving arms to the Syrian rebels. Jordanian aviation officials went so far as to insist that no cargo flights occurred.

The director of cargo for Jordanian International Air Cargo, Muhammad Jubour, insisted on March 7 that his firm had no knowledge of any flights to or from Croatia.

“This is all lies,” he said. “We never did any such thing.”

A regional air traffic official who has been researching the flights confirmed the flight data, and offered an explanation. “Jordanian International Air Cargo,” the official said, “is a front company for Jordan’s air force.”

After being informed of the air-traffic control and transponder data that showed the plane’s routes, Mr. Jubour, from the cargo company, claimed that his firm did not own any Ilyushin cargo planes.

Asked why his employer’s Web site still displayed images of two Ilyushin-76MFs and text claiming they were part of the company fleet, Mr. Jubour had no immediate reply. That night the company’s Web site was taken down.


Reporting was contributed by Robert F. Worth

from Washington and Istanbul;

Dan Bilefsky from Paris;

and Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey.

    Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With C.I.A. Aid, NYT, 24.3.2013,






After 3 Days of Violence,

City in Myanmar Counts the Dead


March 23, 2013
The New York Times


BANGKOK — Army units restored order on Saturday to a city in central Myanmar devastated by three days of religious rioting and arson attacks.

The state news media revised the death toll upward in a broadcast on Saturday evening, saying that 32 people had died in the violence between Buddhists and Muslims, which destroyed large portions of Muslim neighborhoods in Meiktila.

The deaths, which follow spasms of religious violence in western Myanmar last year, have shaken the country’s fragile shift toward greater democracy after decades of military rule. The rioting has also raised the specter of radical Buddhists’ undermining the multiethnic fabric of the country.

Myanmar news media showed images of lines of army trucks entering Meiktila on Saturday, following an order on Friday by President Thein Sein to impose a state of emergency on the city and surrounding areas.

News services reported Saturday that charred bodies remained uncollected on the streets of Meiktila, a city not far from the northern commercial capital of Mandalay. About 6,000 Muslim residents of Meiktila were displaced in the violence, and many are gathered at a stadium on the outskirts of the city.

Numerous reports from the area said that most of the places damaged were Muslim neighborhoods, but the breakdown of the dead has not been confirmed. State television said the 21 bodies found on Saturday were too badly charred to be identified.

U Win Naing, a reporter for a newspaper in Meiktila, said by telephone that the actual death toll would probably be significantly higher.

“The searches by security forces are slow,” Mr. Win Naing said.

U Tin Maung Than, the secretary general of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, said Saturday in a telephone interview that he had received reports of 32 deaths in one Muslim school, including 28 teenage students, an assertion that could not be independently confirmed.


Wai Moe contributed from Yangon, Myanmar.

    After 3 Days of Violence, City in Myanmar Counts the Dead, NYT, 23.3.2013,






Obama Shows Talent for Arm-Twisting,

and Raises Hopes on Peace Effort


March 23, 2013
The New York Times


AMMAN, Jordan — There is little doubt that President Obama can deliver a memorable speech, as he did in Jerusalem last week about the need for peace. The big surprise on his trip to Israel and Jordan, which ended here on Saturday, is that he can also twist arms.

Mr. Obama’s success in persuading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to apologize to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, healing a rift between the countries, is the kind of person-to-person deal-making that has eluded him with Republicans in Congress.

But Mr. Obama kept prodding Mr. Netanyahu, senior advisers said, raising the importance of a makeup phone call every day he was in Jerusalem. He also worked on Mr. Erdogan, a prickly politician with whom Mr. Obama has cultivated a relationship since entering office.

By the time they agreed to talk, Mr. Obama had fully embraced the role of Middle East mediator, warming up Mr. Erdogan before handing the phone to Mr. Netanyahu, who expressed regret for the deadly actions by Israeli commandos during a 2010 raid on a Turkish ship that was trying to breach a blockade of Gaza.

For Middle East analysts, the question is whether Mr. Obama will bring the same doggedness and personal involvement to pursuing the peace between Israelis and Palestinians that he so fervently extolled in his address to young Israelis on Thursday. His first-term track record on Middle East diplomacy does not offer much of a guide.

“Obama was so effective in lobbying for peace that he has managed to raise expectations sky high that he’s actually going to do something about it,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel. “After all, if he really believes peace is possible, then as president of the United States he surely has to do something about it.”

Negotiating an accord to end one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is very different from talking two antagonistic leaders into getting on the phone with each other. Diplomacy in the Middle East has stymied even presidents who were renowned for their tenacity and ability to bring together adversaries.

Mr. Obama still seems more inclined to subcontract the work to his new secretary of state, John Kerry. Asked about a peace deal at a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, Mr. Obama said: “I can’t guarantee that that’s going to happen. What I can guarantee is we’ll make the effort. What I can guarantee is that Secretary Kerry is going to be spending a good deal of time in discussions with the parties.”

On Saturday, Mr. Kerry wasted no time. While Mr. Obama treated himself to a tour of the ancient city of Petra before flying to Washington, Mr. Kerry was back in Amman, preparing for a meeting with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, before heading to Israel to have dinner with Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Kerry also issued an unusual statement early Saturday in Amman, encouraging Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Erdogan to go through with the terms of the agreement facilitated by Mr. Obama.

Israeli and American officials have long been concerned that Mr. Erdogan would exaggerate the terms of any agreement with Israel, and in his public statements in Turkey on Saturday, he is clearly relishing Mr. Netanyahu’s concession.

The next step in the peace process, a senior administration official said, is to devise measures that both sides could take to restore trust and allow them to enter a negotiation. This could include the release of prisoners or an Israeli agreement to slow down settlement building, even if it does not stop altogether.

In short, it is the tedious, grinding work of diplomacy — a task for which Mr. Kerry, administration officials say, is eminently well suited. Having been immersed in Middle East issues for more than 20 years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry, they said, is approaching his role with zeal and a sense of mission.

If he succeeds in drawing the two sides close to a deal — something his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was not able to do — then Mr. Obama would be likely to get involved.

When he took office, Mr. Obama wanted to claim the mantle of peacemaker himself. But then his demand that Israel halt construction of Jewish settlements backfired, and an attempt to hold face-to-face talks between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas fizzled.

By the time Mr. Obama announced plans to travel to Israel, the peace process had fallen so far off the radar screen that the White House was easily able to lower expectations.

Instead Aaron David Miller, a longtime peace negotiator, called it Mr. Obama’s “Israel trifecta.” The president, he said, “reset his relationship with Netanyahu, recast his image in the U.S. as a pro-Israeli president and reintroduced himself favorably to the Israeli public.”

The reaction to Mr. Obama was so positive that it raises the question of whether he should have gone to Israel earlier. There were plenty of reasons he did not: his first overture was to the Muslim world; he was actively brokering peace talks in 2010; those talks withered in 2011; and by 2012, he was running for re-election.

But Mr. Obama, by taking his case outside Washington and over the head of Mr. Netanyahu, might have been able to change the terms of the debate earlier.

“Can he use this newfound currency to get the Israelis to buy off on the world according to Obama — avoiding war with the mullahs and making peace with the Palestinians?” Mr. Miller asked.

Much will depend on Mr. Kerry’s success, and on whether Mr. Obama can summon the same enthusiasm for getting Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas on the phone as he did with his last feuding couple.

    Obama Shows Talent for Arm-Twisting, and Raises Hopes on Peace Effort, NYT, 23.3.2013,






Analysis: Israeli Settlements at Core of Conflict


March 21, 2013
The New York Times


JERUSALEM (AP) — On his short helicopter ride from Jerusalem to the West Bank, President Barack Obama is flying over sprawling Jewish settlements — a reminder of Israel's ongoing construction on war-won land in defiance of much of the world and a major hurdle to renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Palestinian officials say Mahmoud Abbas' main message to Obama, as the two meet Thursday, is that the Palestinian president can't return to talks on drawing a border between Israel and a future Palestine while Israel unilaterally shapes that line through accelerated settlement expansion.

At the same time, Palestinians doubt Obama is willing to spend the domestic political capital required to pressure Israel to halt construction — something he briefly tried at the beginning of his first term, before backing down when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu resisted.

In a joint news conference with Netanyahu late Wednesday, Obama seemed to confirm Palestinian fears that he won't confront Israel over the settlements.

The U.S. president didn't mention settlements at all when asked about the lack of progress during his first term toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead he suggested a low-key approach, saying he came to hear from Abbas and Netanyahu and that "it is a hard slog to work through all these issues."

But with settlements growing steadily, time for a partition deal may be running out, Israeli settlement monitors and European diplomats have warned.

"We are reaching the tipping point," said settlement watcher and Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer.

"A year from now, if the current trends continue, the two-state solution will not be possible. The map will be so balkanized that it will not be possible to create a credible border between Israel and Palestine," he said.

Palestinians also argue that after two decades of intermittent negotiations, the contours of an agreement have widely been established and that it's time for decisions, not endless rounds of diplomacy. They suspect Netanyahu is seeking open-ended negotiations to give him the diplomatic cover for more settlement-building, while being unwilling to make the needed concessions.

Netanyahu has said he is willing to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state. He reiterated Wednesday, with Obama by his side, that he is ready to return to talks, but also said there should be no "preconditions" — his term for the Palestinians' insistence on a settlement freeze.

The Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 war — but are ready for minor adjustments to accommodate some settlements closest to Israel. The parameters of a deal outlined by then-President Bill Clinton in 2000 envisioned a partition of Jerusalem along ethnic lines and an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.

Since 1967, Israel has built dozens of settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem that are now home to 560,000 Israelis — an increase of 60,000 since Obama became president four years ago, settler officials say.

In Gaza, Israel dismantled nearly two dozen settlements ahead of its pullout in 2005. The Islamic militant Hamas then seized the territory, and Gaza militants have fired hundreds from rockets on Israeli towns, including two on Thursday. Such attacks have given rise to a widespread belief among Israelis that withdrawing from more territory will not bring peace.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has adopted a tougher starting position for negotiations than his predecessors. He refuses to accept the 1967 frontier as a baseline for border talks and says he will not relinquish east Jerusalem, an area Israel expanded into the West Bank and annexed immediately after the 1967 war.

Since that war, Israeli governments have built homes for Jews in east Jerusalem, creating a ring of settlements that increasingly disconnects its Arab-populated core from the rest of the West Bank. Some 200,000 Jews now live in east Jerusalem, almost even with the Palestinian population in the city, which overall has about 800,000 residents.

In recent months, the Netanyahu government has approved construction plans for thousands more settlement apartments on Jerusalem's southern edge that would further isolate Arab neighborhoods in the city from the West Bank, including the nearby biblical city of Bethlehem.

European diplomats warned in an internal report last month that if the current pace of settlement activity on Jerusalem's southern flank continues, "an effective buffer between east Jerusalem and Bethlehem may be in place by the end of 2013, thus making the realization of a viable two-state solution inordinately more difficult, if not impossible."

The Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said in a report earlier this year that the government has "opened the floodgates" of planning approvals and future building in east Jerusalem.

An Israeli official said Israel is mainly building in areas it expects to keep in any future peace deal. "In all the peace plans put on the table in the last 20 years, large settlement blocs remained in Israel under permanent status," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to upstage Netanyahu during Obama's visit. "If you build in an area that in any case is going to be part of Israel, what is the problem for peace?"

The Palestinians say settlements are a major obstacle. Mainly, they cannot envisage a final peace settlement while their state is cut off from Jerusalem and does not include any of the city.

"We will tell President Obama, 'come solve this problem'," Abbas aide Nabil Shaath said of Thursday's meeting.

"We will explain to him our position and we will tell him we hope he can see by himself the situation on the ground ... This (Israeli) government does not want the two-state solution and considers the negotiations to be over how much land they will take from us," Shaath added.

It's not clear if the new Israeli government sworn in on Monday — although its makeup is more centrist — will change course from the outgoing one which was heavily stacked with settlers and their supporters.

The main coalition partner of Netanyahu's rightist Likud Party is the centrist Yesh Atid, which has called for a resumption of negotiations but whose leader, Yair Lapid, says Israel must keep all of Jerusalem.

The third largest party, the Jewish Home, opposes Palestinian statehood and wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank. The head of the Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, told Israel TV's Channel 2 on Wednesday that he didn't think "this very non-central issue of the Palestinian problem" will harm Israel's ties with the U.S.

"I am against a Palestinian state, that is no secret," he added.

Henry Siegman, a leading critic of Israeli policy in the American Jewish community, said he believes Obama is fully aware of the corrosive effect of settlements. Time for a deal is slipping away and Obama cannot make do with four more years of just managing the conflict, he said.

"They (U.S. officials) know that if they do nothing, they are sealing the doom of the two-state solution if it has not already been sealed," said Siegman. "It cannot survive another four years, given the rate of colonization that is taking place."



Laub is the AP chief correspondent in the Palestinian territories.

She has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987.

Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin

and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

    Analysis: Israeli Settlements at Core of Conflict, NYT, 21.3.2013,






For Some Palestinians,

Wariness on Eve of Obama Visit


March 19, 2013
The New York Times


RAMALLAH, West Bank — There are no American flags lining the streets here, no banners bearing the official “Unbreakable Alliance” logo of President Obama’s visit, as there are seven miles away in Jerusalem. Instead, dozens of posters warn the president not to bring his smartphone when he arrives in the West Bank because there is no 3G service, one of an untold number of complaints Palestinians have about their life under Israeli occupation.

On most posters, Mr. Obama’s face has been painted over or torn off.

“It’s a waste of time,” Osama Husein, 38, who owns a new coffee shop downtown, said of Mr. Obama’s planned journey here Thursday afternoon, in the middle of his three-day stay in Jerusalem. “Four or five hours here for no reason. It’s just for show, just to take some pictures with some young kids. I don’t see any benefit.”

Though many here said they had been encouraged by Mr. Obama’s early speeches in Cairo and Istanbul, and by his 2009 demand that Israel freeze construction in the West Bank territories it seized in 1967, they have been disappointed with his distancing himself since from the stalemated peace process. Cafe patrons and activists alike describe Mr. Obama as a tool of Israel, a captive of what they call the “Jewish lobby” in the United States.

The White House statements in recent days that he is coming to listen rather than to offer a new plan for resolving the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems only to have made matters worse.

“He can’t be just an average person coming to listen — he knows the situation,” said Sam Bahour, an Ohio-born Palestinian businessman and consultant. “We’re beyond talk right now. If he comes and says good things and does nothing, it does damage.”

Obama administration officials have said the trip’s main goal is for the president to connect with the Israeli public, chiefly through a speech scheduled for Thursday afternoon to hundreds of university students in Jerusalem. But he will spend several hours before that speech meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority, and touring a youth center financed by the United States. He plans to return to the West Bank Friday morning to see the Church of the Nativity.

A Palestinian legislator, Ziad Abu-Amr, said Mr. Abbas would make clear to Mr. Obama that he would return to the negotiating table under either of two conditions. One is a mutual six-month freeze in which Israel halted building in West Bank settlements and Palestinians refrained from using their new observer-state status in the United Nations to pursue claims in the International Criminal Court or other agencies. The other is a broad agreement on borders, dividing the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea along the pre-1967 lines, with some land swaps to accommodate the largest Israeli settlements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he considers the 1967 borders an unacceptable precondition for negotiations.

The trip could result in risk or opportunity for Mr. Obama.

“If he manages to convince the Israelis to sit and negotiate, then the Palestinians wouldn’t go to any other place — if he fails to deliver the Israelis, Abu Mazen will be forced” to go to the international agencies, Mr. Abu-Amr said, using the Palestinian president’s nickname. “If Obama goes back without any significant visible step that will revive the peace process or give hope to the parties, the visit may be counterproductive.”

Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council, said on Tuesday morning in a briefing to international reporters that he was disappointed that Mr. Obama would not be meeting with relatives of Palestinian prisoners, or visiting Hebron, where he would see Palestinians shut out of the Old City. He denounced the White House for “passivity” when “the process of assassinating the two-state solution is going on in front of our eyes.”

Mr. Barghouti and others said Palestinians would stage demonstrations during Mr. Obama’s visit. On Tuesday afternoon, a group of perhaps 50 protesters — easily outnumbered by journalists foreign and domestic — chanted anti-American slogans and held pictures of Mr. Obama labeled “No Hope” as they tried to march from Manara Square in Ramallah to Mr. Abbas’s office, known as the muqata. One held a sign saying, “We Have a Dream, Too.”

Palestinian security forces standing arm in arm stopped the group from approaching the muqata.

Not far away, at the Al Bireh Youth Foundation, which was expanded in 2010 with $336,000 from the United States Agency for International Development, workers spent Tuesday afternoon erecting a covered entry in preparation for Mr. Obama’s visit. From the road outside, the Israeli settlement of Psagot is easily visible.

Samiha Al-Abid, chairman of the organization’s board, said six or seven teenagers who participate in a computer program would meet with Mr. Obama and “talk to him about how they feel about their future.”

First, a troop of 12 girls will perform a Palestinian folkloric dance called dapka.

“I feel like he understands everyone’s point of view,” said one girl, Sandy Hamayel, 18, who was outside the center on Tuesday waiting to rehearse. “Maybe he can make a difference in the occupation thing.”

Asked what she would tell Mr. Obama if she got the chance, Saada Amra, 14, said, “He should go visit villages in Palestine and see their living conditions.”

But her friend Dana Itayem, 15, who wore an “I ♥ Palestine” T-shirt, said, “I would be too nervous to talk.”


Khaled Abu Aker contributed reporting.

    For Some Palestinians, Wariness on Eve of Obama Visit, NYT, 9.3.2013,






Jordan’s King Finds Fault With Everyone Concerned


March 18, 2013
The New York Times


CAIRO — King Abdullah II of Jordan leads one of the smallest, poorest and most vulnerable Arab nations. But that does not stop him from looking down on many of those around him, including the leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Syria, as well as members of his own royal family, his secret police, his traditional tribal political base, his Islamist opponents and even United States diplomats.

President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt has “no depth,” King Abdullah said in an interview with the American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, to be published this week in The Atlantic magazine. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey is an authoritarian who views democracy as a “bus ride,” as in, “Once I get to my stop, I am getting off,” the king said.

And he said President Bashar al-Assad of Syria is so provincial that at a social dinner he once asked the monarchs of Jordan and Morocco to explain jet lag. “He never heard of jet lag,” King Abdullah said, according to an advance copy of the article.

The king’s conversations with Mr. Goldberg, an influential writer on the Middle East and an acquaintance of more than a decade, offer a rare view of the contradictory mind-set of Washington’s closest ally in the Arab world as he struggles to master the upheaval of the Arab Spring revolts. Seldom has an Arab autocrat spoken so candidly in public.

King Abdullah appears humbled and even fatigued by the many challenges he failed to foresee when he inherited the throne 14 years ago, describing himself before coronation as a “Forrest Gump” in the background of his father’s long reign. In contrast to his father, King Hussein, King Abdullah promises to move Jordan closer to a British-style constitutional monarchy, and thus to stay ahead of the Arab Spring wave.

But he insists that only he can lead the transition to democracy, in part to ensure that democracy will not deliver power to his Islamist opponents.

The era of Arab monarchies is passing, King Abdullah said. “Where are monarchies in 50 years?” he asked. But even his own family, with 11 siblings and half-siblings, does not yet understand the lessons of the Arab Spring for dynasties like theirs, he said, adding that the public will no longer tolerate egregious displays of excess or corruption.

“Members of my family don’t get it,” he said. “Look at some of my brothers. They believe that they’re princes, but my cousins are more princes than my brothers, and their in-laws are like — oh my God!” he continued.

“I’m always having to stop members of my family from putting lights on their guard cars,” he said. “I arrest members of my family and take their cars away from them and cut off their fuel rations and make them stop at traffic lights.”

Even his own sons should be punished if convicted of corruption, he insisted. “Everybody else is expendable in the royal family,” he said. “That is the reality of the Arab Spring that hit me.”

He blamed his own government’s secret police for blocking his efforts at political reform. For example, he charged that the secret police had conspired with conservatives in the political elite to block his attempts to open up more representation in Parliament to Palestinians, who make up more than half of Jordan’s population.

“Institutions I had trusted were just not on board,” he said, naming as an example the mukhabarat, or secret police. He said he had not realized at first how deeply “conservative elements” had become “embedded in certain institutions” like the mukhabarat. “Two steps forward, one step back,” he added.

Stopping the Islamists from winning power was now “our major fight” across the region, he said. He repeatedly mocked the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Arab Islamist movement behind the largest opposition party in the Jordanian Parliament and Mr. Morsi’s governing party in Egypt, calling it “a Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” And he accused American diplomats of naïveté about their intentions.

“When you go to the State Department and talk about this, they’re like, ‘This is just the liberals talking, this is the monarch saying that the Muslim Brotherhood is deep-rooted and sinister,’ ” King Abdullah said. His job, he said, is to dissuade Westerners from the view that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The king was also frankly dismissive of the tribal leaders from the East Bank of the Jordan River who have traditionally formed his family’s base of support. “The old dinosaurs,” he called a group of East Bank tribal leaders, including a former prime minister, before a meeting with them in the town of Karak. “It’s all about, ‘I’ll vote for this guy because I am in his tribe,’ ” the king said of their political program.

Alarmed at the violence in neighboring Syria, King Abdullah said he had offered asylum and protection to the family of President Assad. “They said, ‘Thank you very much, but why don’t you worry about your country more than you worry about us?’ ”

“The monarchy is going to change,” the king vowed. His son will preside over “a Western-style democracy with a constitutional monarchy,” the king said, and not “the position of Bashar today.”

    Jordan’s King Finds Fault With Everyone Concerned, NYT, 18.3.2013,






U.S. Bolstering Missile Defense

to Deter North Korea’s Threats


March 15, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will spend $1 billion to deploy additional ballistic missile interceptors along the Pacific Coast to counter the growing reach of North Korea’s weapons, a decision accelerated by Pyongyang’s recent belligerence and indications that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is resisting China’s efforts to restrain him.

The new deployments, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday, will increase the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska to 44 from 30 by 2017.

The missiles have a mixed record in testing, hitting dummy targets just 50 percent of the time, but officials said Friday’s announcement was intended not merely to present a credible deterrence to the North’s limited intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal. They said it is also meant to show South Korea and Japan that the United States is willing to commit resources to deterring the North and, at the same time, warn Beijing that it must restrain its ally or face an expanding American military focus on Asia.

“There’s been a quickening pace of provocations,” said one senior administration official, describing actions and words from North Korea and its new leader, Mr. Kim. “But the real accelerant was the fact that the North Koreans seemed more unmoored from their Chinese handlers than even we had feared.”

Although American and South Korean intelligence officials doubt the North is close to being able to follow through on a nuclear strike, or that it would even try, given its almost certain destruction, analysts say the country’s aggressive behavior is an important and worrying sign of changing calculations in the North.

In interviews over recent days, Obama administration officials described internal debates at the White House and the Pentagon about how strongly to react to the recent provocations. It is a delicate balance, they said, of defending against real potential threats while avoiding giving the North Koreans what one official called “the satisfaction of seeming to make the rest of the world jumpy.”

In announcing the deployments at a Pentagon news conference, Mr. Hagel cited North Korea’s third test of nuclear weapons technology last month, the successful test of a long-range missile that sent a satellite into space, and the discovery that a new generation of mobile missiles appeared closer to development.

“We will strengthen our homeland defense, maintain our commitments to our allies and partners, and make clear to the world that the United States stands firm against aggression,” Mr. Hagel said.

All 14 of the new interceptors will be placed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska, where 26 interceptors are already deployed. Four others are at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

North Korea has always been an unpredictable, provocative dictatorship. But even by its own standards, the isolated Communist regime’s recent decision to nullify a wartime cease-fire and weeks of increasingly hyperbolic warnings, including of a pre-emptive nuclear strike, appear to have crossed new and dangerous lines.

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also spoke at the Pentagon on Friday and described how the United States was deliberately building a two-tiered system of deterrence against North Korea.

The United States will “put the mechanics in place to deny any potential North Korean objectives to launch a missile to the United States, but also to impose costs upon them if they do,” Admiral Winnefeld said.

In an unusually pointed warning to the new North Korean leader, Admiral Winnefeld added, “We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that — and if he’s not, we’ll be ready.”

The arguments for bolstering the limited missile defense were symbolic of the larger problem.

The antimissile systems are considered less than reliable, and some administration officials were reluctant to pour additional resources into deploying more of the existing technology.

But in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the commander of the United States Strategic Command, made clear they serve a larger purpose. “Deterring North Korea from acting irrationally is our No. 1 priority,” he said. He acknowledged that there were doubts that the 30 existing antimissile systems would be sufficient, and added that an additional site in the United States, on the East Coast, may be needed to deter Iran.

But the new deployment is also intended to send a signal to China, which tried but failed to block the more recent nuclear test, to rein in the North. “We want to make it clear that there’s a price to be paid for letting the North Koreans stay on the current path,” a senior official said Friday.

The North’s new leader, some analysts say, is intensifying the threats because he has failed to get the Obama administration and its South Korean allies to return to an established pattern in which the North provoked and the allies followed with much-needed economic aid in return for Pyongyang’s promises to finally halt its nuclear weapons program.

But a growing number of experts believe North Korea also views its recent advances in missile and nuclear technology as game changers that will allow it to build the nuclear arsenal it desperately wants, both as a deterrent against better-armed enemies and a cudgel to extract more concessions and possibly even international recognition.

“Developing nuclear weapons gives North Korea a chance to turn the tables in one stroke,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on North Korea at the Sejong Institute. “They can get around the weakness of their economy and their outdated conventional weapons.”

The short-term risk, analysts say, is that the North’s chest-thumping will lead to another round of limited conventional military skirmishes with the South that could get out of control and, in the worst case, draw in the United States. With a new leader in South Korea under political pressure to stand up to her country’s longtime enemy, the risks are especially high.

The main newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party, Rodong Sinmun, recently gave the North’s own explanation for its actions. “Let the American imperialists and their followers know!” the paper said. “We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya.”

Some missile-defense experts express deep skepticism about the capability of the ground-based interceptors deployed in California and Alaska.

“It remains unclear whether these ground-based interceptors can work effectively, and they should be subjected to much more rigorous field testing before taxpayer resources are spent on a system that is ineffective,” said Tom Z. Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group here.

James N. Miller, the Pentagon’s under secretary for policy, said the new missiles would have to show success before they would be deployed. “We will continue to stick with our ‘fly before we buy’ approach,” Mr. Miller said, citing a successful test as recently as Jan. 26. George Lewis, an antimissile missile expert at Cornell University, said 15 flight tests of the defensive system have tried to hit targets, and only eight have succeeded.

The Defense Department’s interceptors in California and Alaska are to blunt a long-range missile threat from North Korea. The United States also deploys Patriot Advanced Capability batteries in South Korea for defense of targets there, and the South fields an older model of the Patriot.

Japan is developing its own layered missile-defense system, which includes Aegis warships and Patriot systems as well.

The United States deploys one advanced TPY-2 missile-defense tracking radar in Japan to enhance early warning across the region and toward the West Coast, and it has reached agreement to deploy a second.

And the Navy also recently bolstered its deployment of ballistic missile defense warships in waters off the Korean Peninsula, although the vessels were sent as part of an exercise even before the increase in caustic language from the North. As part of the Foal Eagle military exercise with South Korea, the Navy has four Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the region.

Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Martin Fackler from Seoul, South Korea. Choe Sang-hun contributed reporting from Seoul, and William J. Broad from New York.

    U.S. Bolstering Missile Defense to Deter North Korea’s Threats, NYT, 15.3.2013,






Leader of Vote Count in Kenya

Faces U.S. With Tough Choices


March 7, 2013
The New York Times


NAIROBI, Kenya — He has been charged with heinous crimes, accused of using a vast fortune to bankroll death squads that slaughtered women and children. His running mate also faces charges of crimes against humanity, and as Kenya’s election drew closer, the Obama administration’s top official for Africa issued a thinly veiled warning during a conference call about the vote, saying that Kenyans are, of course, free to pick their own leaders but that “choices have consequences.”

But when the ballot counting began this week, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, surged ahead in the race for president and stayed out front as the margin narrowed early on Friday. Soon, the Obama administration and its allies could face a tough choice, made even more complicated by the appearance of taking sides against a candidate who may very well win.

Does the United States put a premium on its commitment to justice and ending impunity — as it has emphasized across the continent — and distance itself from Mr. Kenyatta should he clinch this election?

Or would that put at risk all the other strategic American interests vested in Kenya, a vital ally in a volatile region and a crucial hub for everything from billion-dollar health programs and American corporations to spying on agents of Al Qaeda?

Even the little things could be tricky. Are the American diplomats who interact with the Kenyan government on a daily basis not supposed to shake Mr. Kenyatta’s hand? What about sharing a dais with him? The British have already publicly stated that they will avoid any contact unless it is essential.

“This is going to pose a very awkward situation,” said Jendayi Frazer, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “Kenyatta knows he needs the United States, and the United States knows it needs Kenya.”

American officials have declined to discuss publicly what a Kenyatta victory would mean, and several reiterated the rather anodyne video message from President Obama in February, in which he said, “The choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people.”

But Johnnie Carson, the top administration official for Africa, was not quite so diplomatic when he repeatedly warned soon after that “choices have consequences,” which critics say backfired by energizing supporters of Mr. Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, driving many to the polls to rally behind them. “When you inject yourself into an election,” Ms. Frazer said, “you never know how it will play.”

Mr. Carson responded, “One comment does not swing a contest.”

If he wins the presidency, Mr. Kenyatta, who was leading with 50 percent of the vote on Friday, would become the second African head of state after Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir to face grave charges at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But that does not mean he will meet the same diplomatic isolation as Mr. Bashir, who is wanted on an arrest warrant and cannot travel to much of the world.

For starters, Mr. Bashir has refused to appear at the court, while Mr. Kenyatta has traveled there to defend himself, so no warrant has been issued. Beyond that, the United States and Sudan were hardly allies when Mr. Bashir was accused of fomenting genocide in Darfur. The relationship was already sour, with Sudan squeezed by sanctions for playing host to Osama bin Laden, among other things.

By contrast, the American-Kenyan partnership has been a particularly symbiotic one, especially recently. American intelligence agents work closely with their Kenyan counterparts, hunting down Qaeda cells in Kenya and Somalia. Kenya receives nearly $1 billion in American aid each year and has agreed to accept captured Somali pirates and hundreds of thousands of refugees, at the request of donors like the United States.

Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, is home to the largest American Embassy in sub-Saharan Africa and a sprawling United Nations campus that runs programs across the world, making it especially difficult for the United States to take its resources somewhere else.

“There is really very little leverage that the U.S. and other countries can exercise,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington.

One former American official with extensive experience in Africa was more blunt. “We need Kenya more than Kenya needs us,” he said.

The United States has to be careful how it handles the Kenyatta issue, analysts say, because Mr. Kenyatta could easily turn to China, which has made important inroads here, building highways and even covertly financing some Kenyan military operations.

Already, the Western concerns about Mr. Kenyatta’s candidacy seem to be provoking a backlash.

On Wednesday, the Kenyatta campaign accused the British high commissioner here of “shadowy, suspicious and rather animated involvement” in Kenya’s election, a claim the British dismissed as “entirely false.”

Some diplomats have also spoken of what they call a “Mugabe factor,” warning that Kenya’s leaders, if put under too much pressure, could become isolated and testy like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Court documents paint a disturbing picture of Mr. Kenyatta. According to prosecutors, as hundreds of his fellow Kikuyus were being slaughtered by rival ethnic groups in the explosion of violence after the last major election in 2007, Mr. Kenyatta organized meetings with a nefarious Nairobi street gang to take revenge.

Mr. Kenyatta, the documents say, “contributed money towards the retaliatory attack” and was “aware of the widespread and systematic nature of the attack.” The outlawed gang, the Mungiki, killed scores of people, including small children burned to death while huddling in their homes.

Mr. Kenyatta has denied the charges and says he will clear his name. Many analysts say the case is rather weak. The trial was supposed to start next month but has been postponed until July.

The case against Mr. Ruto, a charismatic politician with an intensely loyal following, is believed to be stronger. Prosecutors say Mr. Ruto and his inner circle “created a network of perpetrators” and paid them to kill.

There are few figures in the Kenyan political landscape as polarizing as Mr. Kenyatta, 51, a deputy prime minister. Many members of other ethnic groups accuse him and his family of stealing their ancestral land, which became the basis for the Kenyatta family fortune.

But among many Kikuyus, Mr. Kenyatta is seen as a savior. He is a confident speaker, educated at Amherst College and respected in Nairobi’s business circles. During the last election crisis, several supporters said, he paid for buses to ferry Kikuyus out of danger zones and bought sacks of food for families who had been burned out of their homes.

“When we needed it, Uhuru was there,” said David Wanjohi Chege, a trader.

Many Western governments would clearly prefer the second-place candidate, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was trailing with 45 percent of the vote Friday amid complaints from his camp that some results had been “doctored.” The race may be headed for a runoff.

Diplomats in Nairobi said they did not know what their governments would do if Mr. Kenyatta ultimately won — though most expected little or no change in policy unless he was convicted or stopped cooperating with the court. If that happens, some diplomats spoke of targeted sanctions without wanting to be more specific.

“To be honest, there are so many different scenarios, nobody really knows what we’re going to do,” one American official said.

The United States has opted not to participate in the International Criminal Court, though the administration has expressed support for “the I.C.C.’s prosecution of those cases that advance U.S. interests and values.” Many Kenyans see this as hypocritical.

Mr. Kenyatta’s lawyers could probably drag out the trial for years. The only conviction the court has secured, against a Congolese warlord, came six years after he arrived at the court.

Some Kenyans have worried that Mr. Kenyatta, if he wins, may try to pull Kenya out of the court to evade trial. But according to legal scholars, that would not change Kenya’s obligations.

“The I.C.C. was definitely a factor in this election, but not necessarily the factor you would expect,” said Maina Kiai, a prominent Kenyan human rights defender. “It got people out. People were saying, ‘They’re our boys, they’re our sons, we need to protect them.’ ”

    Leader of Vote Count in Kenya Faces U.S. With Tough Choices, NYT, 7.3.2013,






A Leader Cries, ‘I Am Chávez,’

as U.S. Seeks Clues on Policy


March 6, 2013
The New York Times


CARACAS, Venezuela — In the weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s imitations of President Hugo Chávez became ever more apparent.

He has taken on many of Mr. Chávez’s vocal patterns and speech rhythms, and has eagerly repeated the slogan “I am Chávez” to crowds of supporters. He has mimicked the president’s favorite themes — belittling the political opposition and warning of mysterious plots to destabilize the country, even implying that the United States was behind Mr. Chávez’s cancer.

He has also adopted the president’s clothes, walking beside his coffin in an enormous procession on Wednesday wearing a windbreaker with the national colors of yellow, blue and red, as Mr. Chávez often did.

But now that Mr. Chávez is gone, the big question being raised here is whether Mr. Maduro, his chosen successor, will continue to mirror the president and his unconventional governing style — or veer off in his own direction.

“He can’t just stand there and say ‘I am the Mini-Me of Chávez and now you have to follow me,’ ” said Maxwell A. Cameron of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The puzzlement over what sort of leader Mr. Maduro will prove to be extends to Washington, where American policy makers have been feeling out Mr. Maduro for months, years even, to determine whether he might provide an opening for closer ties between the two nations.

American officials say Mr. Chávez, despite his very public denunciations of Washington, worked behind the scenes to keep trade relations between the two countries, especially in the oil sector, strong. They recalled how Mr. Chávez once picked up the phone and dialed an American diplomat to talk policy, an odd move for a leader who more than once barred American ambassadors from Caracas and regularly denounced Washington and its leaders, sometimes using barnyard epithets. “The United States needs to fix this,” Mr. Chávez said during the call, which concerned the ouster of the Honduran president in 2009. “You are the only ones who can.”

Beneath the bluster, American diplomats and analysts said, Mr. Chávez could be a pragmatist, albeit a sometimes bombastic one, and they hope Mr. Maduro will prove to be even more of one.

“I know Nicolás Maduro well,” said William D. Delahunt, a former Massachusetts member of Congress. “I know he’s a pragmatist.”

The United States reached out to Mr. Maduro last November to gauge interest in improving the relationship. He responded positively, and the two nations held three informal meetings in Washington, the last one taking place after it was clear that Mr. Chávez’s condition was severe, American officials said.

The Venezuelans wanted to once again exchange ambassadors, but Washington insisted on smaller steps to build trust, and it seemed that a tentative plan was in place, American officials said. But then the talks stalled this year and have not resumed, leaving American officials wondering about Mr. Maduro’s true intentions toward the United States.

“Maduro is just beginning to govern and create his own identity,” a State Department official said. “I don’t believe we had ever concluded one way or another whether he was a moderating influence. Our effort to reach out and create a more productive relationship was not based on a belief that he would be easier to deal with necessarily.”

Most diplomats and political analysts agree that the start of the post-Chávez landscape looked bleak; Mr. Maduro accused the United States of plotting against the country and expelled two American military attachés. But some observers saw the moves as an overtly calculated — one analyst called it “inelegant” — attempt by Mr. Maduro to unify a traumatized country bracing for Mr. Chávez’s death, appeal to the president’s supporters and propel his own chances of winning an election to succeed him.

“Maduro has to be careful about every step he takes, and every word he utters about the United States,” said one senior American official who is closely watching developments here. “How he is going to handle that pressure is the big unknown. We’re about to find out.”

One past sign of Mr. Maduro’s willingness to listen to critics — which was not one of Mr. Chávez’s strong points — was his attendance at meetings with members of the Venezuelan opposition that were held in the United States after a 2002 coup that briefly removed Mr. Chávez. The sessions were organized by Mr. Delahunt and took place in Hyannis Port, Mass., prompting participants to call themselves “El Grupo de Boston.”

But more recently Mr. Maduro has shown himself as a hard-liner, lashing out at his political enemies and lambasting Henrique Capriles Radonski, the state governor he will probably face in the election, for his recent trip to New York.

Among oil executives and analysts, there was cautious optimism that Mr. Chávez’s death could soften the hostility his government had toward foreign investment in exploration and refining. “It makes sense that Maduro will be more pragmatic to get the country going,” said Jorge R. Piñon, former president of Amoco Oil Latin America. He said he had talked with several oil executives and come away surprised by their optimism.

“Industry executives believe that there is a high probability that a Maduro administration will be a bit more realistic on what is needed to increase the country’s oil production,” Mr. Piñon added, “and change the investment model to attract more foreign investment.”

On the streets, the vast majority of Chávez supporters say they will vote for Mr. Maduro, often for the simple reason that Mr. Chávez told them to before he succumbed to cancer. At the procession on Wednesday, some actually chanted as the coffin passed, “Chávez, I swear it, I will vote for Maduro!”

But there are some Chávez loyalists who say they are unhappy with Mr. Maduro, at times for reasons that illuminate the drawbacks inherent in his political mimicry.

In the eastern city of Cumaná on Wednesday, some ardent Chávez supporters said they found Mr. Maduro’s constant attacks on the political opposition too jarring — a startling assertion, since Mr. Maduro uses virtually identical language to the phrases popularized by Mr. Chávez, repeating the same insults and put-downs, calling his opponents “good-for-nothings” and accusing them of selling out the country to the United States.

But coming from Mr. Maduro, the same words seem to have a different impact.

“I don’t like Maduro because I feel that he does things that incite hatred, which is not a revolutionary feeling,” said Luis Marcano, 67, an unemployed cook in Cumaná.

Mr. Maduro, whose father was involved in left-wing politics, became a political activist as a young man, joining a group called the Socialist League, traveling to Cuba at one point for political training. Back in Caracas, he took a job as a bus driver and then shifted to union activities.

Eventually, he became involved with Mr. Chávez, who staged a failed coup in 1992. Mr. Maduro fought to have Mr. Chávez released from prison and then worked on his first presidential campaign in 1998. He became a legislator and then president of the National Assembly.

He later served six years as Mr. Chávez’s foreign minister before he was named vice president after the president’s re-election in October.

During that long career by Mr. Chávez’s side, Mr. Maduro earned a reputation as an agile survivor of the inner circle, where absolute loyalty was a prerequisite. He was seen by many as a yes-man who kept his position by hewing closely to his boss and taking care not to outshine or contradict him.

“Nicolás Maduro is a soldier that has to obey orders, just like any other,” said Rommel Salazar, 40, a teacher and musician in Cumaná. “I will vote for him because I must obey Chávez’s instructions.”

But he added a warning, saying that if Mr. Maduro does not adhere to the line set by Mr. Chávez, his followers will hold him accountable. “He will have nailed himself to the cross,” Mr. Salazar said.


William Neuman reported from Caracas,

and Ginger Thompson from New York.

Reporting was contributed by Lizette Alvarez from Miami;

María Iguarán from Cumaná, Venezuela; Clifford Krauss from Houston;

and Simon Romero from Caracas.

    A Leader Cries, ‘I Am Chávez,’ as U.S. Seeks Clues on Policy, NYT, 6.3.2012,






Number of Syrian Refugees Hits 1 Million, U.N. Says


March 6, 2013
The New York Times


GENEVA — The relentless exodus of Syrians fleeing two years of increasingly violent conflict pushed the number of refugees in neighboring countries past the million mark on Wednesday, the United Nations Refugee agency said, warning that resources for helping them are stretched dangerously thin.

The total number of Syrians fleeing for safety to surrounding countries is much higher, U.N. officials say, but as the conflict approaches the start of its third year the number who have registered as refugees or are seeking assistance has shot up by around 420,000 this year

Around 10,000 Syrians are still escaping across the country’s borders every day, refugee agency officials report, adding that more than half of the arrivals are children, mostly under the age of 11.

“With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster,” the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement. “The international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched. This tragedy has to be stopped.”

Around 330,000 Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon and close to 320,000 in Jordan, the refugee agency reported, with more than 185,000 in Turkey, 105,000 in Iraq, 43,500 in Egypt and around 8,000 spread across North Africa. Others have fled to Europe, it said.

To illustrate the strain this influx has imposed on Syria’s neighbors, the refugee agency said the population of Lebanon has swelled by 10 percent, Jordan’s energy and water capacity as well as its health and education services are stretched to the limit and Turkey had spent $600 million building 17 camps to house arrivals and more are under construction.

An additional worry for relief agencies is that the funding received from donors has failed to keep pace with the accelerating scale of refugee needs. The United Nations said it has received only around 20 percent of the $1.5 billion it requested in December to cover relief efforts for around four million people in desperate need of aid inside Syria as well as the million who are now outside it during the first half of 2013. The number of refugees has ve accelerated faster than projected in that appeal. A fund raising conference in Kuwait at the end of January brought pledges of assistance amounting to $1.5 billion but no details have emerged of how much of those funds have been provided and U.N. officials say little of it is being channelled through their relief agencies.

    Number of Syrian Refugees Hits 1 Million, U.N. Says, NYT, 6.3.2013,






Chávez Dies,

Leaving a Bitterly Divided Venezuela


March 5, 2013
The New York Times


CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died Tuesday afternoon after a struggle with cancer, the government announced, leaving behind a bitterly divided nation in the grip of a political crisis that grew more acute as he languished for weeks, silent and out of sight, in hospitals in Havana and Caracas.

Close to tears and his voice cracking, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said he and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Mr. Chávez was being treated, sequestered from the public, when “we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.”

In short order, police officers and soldiers were highly visible as people ran through the streets, calling loved ones on cellphones, rushing to get home. Caracas, the capital, which had just received news that the government was throwing out two American military attachés it accused of sowing disorder, quickly became an enormous traffic jam. Stores and shopping malls abruptly closed.

As darkness fell, somber crowds congregated in the main square of Caracas and at the military hospital, with men and women crying openly in sadness and fear about what would come next.

In one neighborhood, Chávez supporters set fire to tents and mattresses used by university students who had chained themselves together in protest several days earlier to demand more information about Mr. Chávez’s condition.

“Are you happy now?” the Chávez supporters shouted as they ran through the streets with sticks. “Chávez is dead! You got what you wanted!”

Mr. Chávez’s departure from a country he dominated for 14 years casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution. It alters the political balance not only in Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but also in Latin America, where Mr. Chávez led a group of nations intent on reducing American influence in the region.

Mr. Chávez, 58, changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded. But his rule also widened society’s divisions, and his death is sure to bring vast uncertainty as the nation tries to find its way without its central figure.

“He’s the best president in history,” said Andrés Mejía, 65, a retiree in Cumaná, an eastern city, crying as he gathered with friends in a plaza. “Look at how emotional I am — I’m crying. I cannot accept the president’s death. But the revolution will continue with Maduro.”

The Constitution says that, since Mr. Chávez was at the start of a term, the nation should “proceed to a new election” within 30 days, and Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said in a television interview that Mr. Maduro would take the helm in the meantime. The election is likely to pit Mr. Maduro, whom Mr. Chávez designated as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young state governor who lost to Mr. Chávez in the presidential election in October.

But in light of Mr. Chávez’s illness, there has been heated debate in recent months over clashing interpretations of the Constitution, and it is impossible to predict how the transition will proceed.

“We, your civilian and military companions, Commander Hugo Chávez, assume your legacy, your challenges, your project, accompanied by and with the support of the people,” Mr. Maduro told the nation.

Only hours earlier, the government seemed to go into a state of heightened alert as Mr. Maduro convened a crisis meeting in Caracas of cabinet ministers, governors loyal to the president and top military commanders.

Taking a page out of Mr. Chávez’s time-tested playbook, Mr. Maduro warned in a lengthy televised speech that the United States was seeking to destabilize the country, and the government expelled the two American military attachés, accusing one of seeking to recruit Venezuelan military personnel to carry out “destabilizing projects.” He called on Venezuelans to unite as he raised the specter of foreign intervention.

During the speech, Mr. Maduro said the government suspected that the president’s enemies had found a way to cause his cancer, a possibility that Mr. Chávez had once raised. Mr. Maduro said scientists should investigate the source of his illness.

Mr. Chávez long accused the United States of trying to undermine or even assassinate him; indeed, the Bush administration gave tacit support for a coup that briefly removed him from power in 2002. He often used Washington as a foil to build support or distract attention from deeply rooted problems at home, like high inflation and soaring crime.

American officials had hoped to improve relations with Venezuela under Mr. Maduro, with informal talks taking place last year. But more recently, the government has appeared to shift into campaign mode, taking sweeping aim at the Venezuelan opposition and playing up the opposition’s real or alleged ties to the United States.

“We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government,” Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said after the expulsion of the American attachés. He added, “Notwithstanding the significant differences between our governments, we continue to believe it important to seek a functional and more productive relationship with Venezuela.”

Mr. Chávez’s cancer was diagnosed in June 2011, but throughout his treatment he and his government kept many details about his illness secret. He had three operations in Cuba between June 2011 and February 2012, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the cancer kept coming back.

Then on Dec. 8, just two months after winning re-election, Mr. Chávez stunned the nation by announcing in a televised address that he needed yet more surgery. That operation, his fourth, took place in Havana on Dec. 11.

In the aftermath, grim-faced aides described the procedure as complex and said Mr. Chávez’s condition was delicate. They eventually notified the country of complications, first bleeding and then a severe lung infection and difficulty breathing.

After previous operations, Mr. Chávez often appeared on television while recuperating in Havana, posted messages on Twitter or was heard on telephone calls made to television programs on a government station. But after his December operation, he was not seen again in public, and his voice fell silent.

Mr. Chávez’s aides eventually announced that a tube had been inserted in his trachea to help his breathing, and that he had difficulty speaking. It was the ultimate paradox for a man who seemed never at a loss for words, often improvising for hours at a time on television, haranguing, singing, lecturing, reciting poetry and orating.

As the weeks dragged on, tensions rose in Venezuela. Officials in Mr. Chávez’s government strove to project an image of business as usual and deflected inevitable questions about a vacuum at the top. At the same time, the country struggled with an out-of-balance economy, troubled by soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.

The opposition, weakened after defeats in the presidential election in October and elections for governor in December, in which its candidates lost in 20 of 23 states, sought to keep pressure on the government.

Then officials suddenly announced on Feb. 18 that Mr. Chávez had returned to Caracas. He arrived unseen on a predawn flight and was installed in a military hospital, where, aides said, he was continuing treatments.

Over nearly a decade and a half, Mr. Chávez made most major decisions and dominated all aspects of political life. He inspired a fierce, sometimes religious devotion among his supporters and an equally fervent animus among his opponents. As many of his followers say, “With Chávez everything, without Chávez nothing.”

But that leaves his revolution in a precarious spot without its charismatic leader.

“In regimes that are so person-based, the moment that the person on which everything hangs is removed, the entire foundation becomes very weak because there was nothing else supporting this other than this figure,” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College.

Mr. Chávez’s death could provide an opportunity for the political opposition, which was never able to defeat him in a head-to-head contest. Mr. Capriles lost to Mr. Chávez by 11 percentage points in October. But he has twice beaten top Chávez lieutenants in running for governor of his state, Miranda, which includes part of Caracas.

And Mr. Maduro is far from having Mr. Chávez’s visceral connection to the masses of Venezuela’s poor. Even so, most analysts believe that Mr. Maduro will have an advantage, and that he will receive a surge of support if the vote occurs soon.

But even if Mr. Maduro prevails, he may have a hard time holding together Mr. Chávez’s movement while fending off resistance from what is likely to be a revived opposition.

Mr. Chávez’s new six-year term began on Jan. 10, with the president incommunicado in Havana. In his absence, the government held a huge rally in the center of Caracas, where thousands of his followers raised their hands to pledge an oath of “absolute loyalty” to their commander and his revolution. Officials promised that Mr. Chávez would have his inauguration later, when he had recovered.

But the hoped-for recovery never came. Now, instead of an inauguration, Mr. Chávez’s followers are left to plan a funeral.

The foreign minister, Mr. Jaua, announced that on Wednesday Mr. Chávez’s body would be taken to the military academy in Caracas and lie in state there.

Mr. Jaua said that the government would hold a ceremony on Friday with visiting heads of state and that officials would announce later where Mr. Chávez would be laid to rest.


Reporting was contributed by María Eugenia Díaz, Girish Gupta

and Meridith Kohut from Caracas;

María Iguarán from Cumaná, Venezuela;

and David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker from Washington.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 5, 2013

In an earlier version of this article,

the given name of a State Department spokesman was incorrect.

He is Patrick Ventrell, not Robert Ventrell.

    Chávez Dies, Leaving a Bitterly Divided Venezuela, NYT, 5.3.2013,






Massacre of Syrian Soldiers in Iraq

Raises Risk of Widening Conflict


March 4, 2013
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — More than 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought temporary safety in Iraq from rebel fighters along the border were killed on Monday in an attack by unidentified gunmen as the Iraqi military was transporting the soldiers back to Syria in a bus convoy, the Iraqi government said.

At least seven Iraqis were also reported killed in the attack, which appeared to be the most serious spillover of violence into Iraq since the Syrian conflict began two years ago.

Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, accused “armed groups from the Iraqi and Syrian side” of coordinating the attack, which he described as an ambush. He said Iraq would deploy more security forces on the border. Middle East experts said such a move raised the risk that the Iraqis could become more directly enmeshed in the Syrian conflict, underscoring how it threatens to destabilize a wider swath of the region.

“We will not allow any terrorist to enter the Iraqi lands,” Mr. Musawi said in a telephone interview. He said the ambush was partly the consequence of “sectarian speeches that encourage people to hate each other.”

The attack threatens to inflame the sectarian tensions that already divide Iraq, where a Sunni minority sympathizes with Syria’s overwhelmingly Sunni opposition.

Mr. Musawi did not specify which armed groups he considered responsible for the attack, but it was clear that he meant Sunni militant extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq. These groups have become increasingly emboldened by popular Sunni resentment against Mr. Maliki, a Shiite who is accused by critics of trying to marginalize Iraq’s Sunni population since the American occupation of Iraq ended in 2011.

The Al Nusra Front, a Sunni insurgent force in Syria that has become known for its audacious attacks on government targets, has links with Al Qaeda in Iraq, and American officials have blacklisted it as a terrorist organization. But many Iraqi Sunnis sympathize with the Syrian insurgents, who are overwhelmingly Sunni and whose clan relations span national boundaries.

“A number of us have been saying that Iraq is the one most affected by the meltdown in Syria,” said Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and curator of the Syria Comment blog, which has chronicled the Syrian conflict.

“In that region, the tribes go right across the Syrian border, and most of the people are related by blood,” he said. “They’re in one common struggle.”

Mr. Maliki has not expressed outright support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Mr. Assad’s allies in the region are the government of Iran, which is majority Shiite, and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that is a powerful political force in Lebanon.

But last week, Mr. Maliki warned that a victory for the Syrian insurgency could create a Sunni extremist haven in Syria and incite sectarian mayhem in his own country as well as in Lebanon and Jordan. All three countries, along with Turkey, are hosts to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunnis.

According to accounts from Mr. Musawi and other Iraqi officials quoted by Western news agencies, the Syrian soldiers who were attacked originally crossed into Nineveh Province, Iraq, over the weekend to escape attacks by insurgents at the Yaarubiyeh border crossing. In returning them, Iraqi soldiers put the Syrians on a bus headed for a different border post, in Anbar Province, partly to avoid the same hostilities the Syrians had fled.

But the bus, part of an Iraqi military convoy, was attacked as it neared the Waleed crossing by gunmen armed with mortars, automatic weapons and improvised bombs, who appeared to have advance knowledge of the convoy route. Agence France-Presse quoted an Iraqi army officer, Lt. Col. Mohammed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, as saying that at least three vehicles were destroyed.

The Syrian state-run news agency SANA made no immediate mention of the ambush, but it quoted Mr. Maliki as saying he supported a peaceful solution of the Syrian conflict and that “vandalism and the use of arms will lead nowhere.”

News of the ambush came as Syrian rebel fighters claimed other gains against the government on Monday, notably the seizure of the contested north-central city of Raqqa after days of heavy clashes. Rebel videos uploaded on the Internet showed activists smashing a statue of President Assad’s father, Hafez, in the central square to punctuate their victory.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group with a network of contacts in Syria, quoted a lawyer in Raqqa as saying that the rebels had captured the provincial governor, Hasan Jalali, and the secretary general of the Raqqa branch of Mr. Assad’s ruling Baath Party, Suleiman al-Suleiman. If confirmed, they would be among the highest-ranking officials detained by insurgents.

It was unclear late Monday whether the insurgents could retain control of Raqqa, a strategic city on the Euphrates River. But if they could, it would be the first provincial capital completely taken over by the armed resistance. For the government, the loss of Raqqa would diminish the prospects that Mr. Assad’s military, now fighting on a number of fronts, could retake large areas of northern and eastern Syria from the rebels.

An activist reached by phone in Raqqa, Abu Muhammad, said, “The only place still under control of the regime, in the entire province of Raqqa, is the military security building.”

Earlier Monday, anti-Assad activists reported heavy fighting in Homs between rebels and government forces backed by tanks and warplanes.

The clashes in Homs, a central Syrian city that had been quiet recently, seemed to shift attention from the northern city of Aleppo, where fighting had swirled for days around the Khan al-Asal police academy. Both sides in the civil war, which has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, acknowledged relatively high death tolls there.

The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper accused opposition fighters on Monday of massacring 115 police officers and wounding 50 at Khan al-Asal. On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 200 government soldiers and rebels had been killed.

In an interview published in The Sunday Times of London, Mr. Assad assailed Britain’s suggestion that it may provide more than just nonlethal aid to his enemies. He also restated his opposition to peace talks with armed insurgents.

“How can we ask Britain to play a role while it is determined to militarize the problem?” Mr. Assad said. “How can we expect them to make the violence less while they want to send military supplies to the terrorists?”

William Hague, Britain’s foreign secretary, said Mr. Assad’s remarks “will go down as one of the most delusional interviews that any national leader has given in modern times.”


Duraid Adnan reported from Baghdad, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon;

Alan Cowell from London;

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

    Massacre of Syrian Soldiers in Iraq Raises Risk of Widening Conflict, NYT, 4.3.2013,






Egypt Needs to Act


March 4, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama’s decision to provide $250 million in aid to Egypt is a vote of confidence in a country that is critical to stability in the region but is also teetering on the edge of economic disaster. It is now up to Egypt’s government — and its opponents — to create the political and economic consensus that can leverage the American money to turn around their failing state.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced the aid in Cairo on Sunday, made clear that the responsibility for finding common ground falls first on President Mohamed Morsi. Mr. Morsi’s job is to persuade the political opposition to join him in a suite of economic reforms that would raise taxes, trim energy subsidies and pave the way for a much larger $4.8 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund. The I.M.F. loan, in turn, would open the door to even more aid and investment from financial institutions and other countries.

Cooperation is also required of the opposition. Egypt desperately needs strong democratic institutions and a more robust economy to right itself and move toward a better future. Instead, the various combatants have settled into a pattern of recurring political and economic crises, betraying the revolution that overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak. The latest setback occurred last week when the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, warned that it would boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for late April because Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government had failed to guarantee that the vote would be free and fair.

Their concerns are legitimate. Instead of working toward an inclusive government, Mr. Morsi and his party have consolidated power, rushed through a flawed, bitterly contested Constitution, failed to reform a corrupt police force, and proposed a new law that will severely limit the right to peaceful assembly and encourage further police abuse. Yet the opposition itself has not offered a coherent alternative that could challenge the Muslim Brotherhood at the ballot box. And boycotting the parliamentary elections seems self-defeating.

After the State Department urged all parties to participate in the elections, some opposition leaders refused to meet Mr. Kerry because they “reject American pressure.” That too seems self-defeating. Frankly, it is hard to know what the opposition really wants from Washington. One moment it warns against interference, the next it faults the Americans for not being tougher on Mr. Morsi.

Mr. Kerry urged all Egyptians to “come together” to meet the country’s challenges, meanwhile assuring them that the United States is “committed not to any party, not to any one person, not to any specific political point of view,” but to democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and tolerance. This struck exactly the right note.

    Egypt Needs to Act, NYT, 4.3.2013,






Blast Kills at Least 45 Pakistanis

in Shiite District of Karachi


March 3, 2013
The New York Times


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A powerful explosion ripped through a crowd of Shiites as they left a mosque in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, on Sunday, killing at least 45 people. It was the latest atrocity in an escalating campaign of countrywide sectarian violence.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the blast, which badly damaged two apartment blocks and spread fire through homes and shops. At least 149 people were wounded, city officials said.

But suspicion fell heaviest on Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni militant group at the forefront of a wave of violence against Shiites that has killed about 200 people so far this year, and which is rapidly emerging as a substantial threat to Pakistan’s internal security.

“This is terrorism at its worst,” said Sardar Mehdi Musa, a leader of the Hazara Shiite minority, which has borne the brunt of recent violence. “It’s a sign that things are only going to get worse.”

Last last month, the authorities in Punjab Province detained the Lashkar leader, Malik Ishaq, but as Sunday’s violence in Karachi suggests, it seems unlikely that his detention will halt sectarian attacks.

In Karachi, rescue workers scrambled to find survivors amid scenes of striking devastation after the bombing in Abbas Town, a majority Shiite neighborhood. Early police reports suggested that the blast had been caused by a car bomb and that a second, smaller explosion might have been caused by the ignition of domestic gas canisters.

Fire spread through homes and shops; many women and children were among the dead, hospital officials said. Fayaz Leghari, the police chief of Sindh Province, said the police had intercepted explosive-laden vehicles in the previous two weeks after receiving warnings of an impending attack. But they did not have specific intelligence about Sunday’s attack, he said.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who was visiting Karachi at the time of the blasts, condemned the attack. Mr. Ashraf said that those who attacked civilians were “serving the interests of antistate and antisocial elements,” according to the state-run news agency, The Associated Press of Pakistan.

It was the latest salvo in an alarming surge in sectarian violence across Pakistan over the past year, from attacks on travelers in the remote northern mountains to bombings in the tribal belt and Karachi, a sprawling and volatile metropolis already reeling from political, ethnic and criminal killings.

The worst attacks have occurred in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province, where two bombings by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants in January and February killed almost 200 Shiites from the ethnic Hazara minority. Mr. Musa, the Hazara leader, said that another member of his community was shot and killed Saturday on a Karachi street.

“It was definitely a targeted killing,” he said. “Why else would they kill a poor Hazara man?”

Shiite protests against the violence have been largely peaceful until now, although experts on Pakistan’s militants fear that may change if the attacks continue. On Sunday night, Shiites in Karachi fired their weapons into the air to protest the killings.

During an all-parties political conference in Islamabad last week, Shiite leaders walked out in protest when Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of a Sunni extremist political party, addressed the session.

Although the army has carried out sweeping military operations against the Pakistani Taliban since 2009, it has avoided a full-frontal confrontation with the country’s sectarian groups. In some parts of the country, the military and conservative political parties have faced accusations of collusion with sectarian groups.

The most attention has been focused on Mr. Ishaq’s group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said last week that it was involved in 80 percent of the militant attacks in Pakistan. That figure may be an exaggeration but, with elections expected to be held by mid-May, few doubt that the sectarian violence could be politically destabilizing.

Analysts say that instability in Karachi, a city that includes a sizable Shiite minority among its population of least 18 million people, could delay the elections. During Pakistan’s last sustained bout of sectarian violence, in the 1990s, the streets of Karachi became a proxy battleground between Sunni militant groups supported by Saudi Arabia and Shiite groups that had assistance from Iran.

The coalition government, led by the Pakistan People’s Party, is expected to step down by March 16, marking the first time a civilian government will have served a full five-year term. But the deteriorating security situation has raised questions about its use of resources.

Local news media reported that a contingent of the Karachi police officers had been deployed to protocol and security duties at the engagement ceremony of Sharmila Faruqui, a provincial minister from the governing party, and Hasham Riaz Sheikh, an aide to President Zardari.

    Blast Kills at Least 45 Pakistanis in Shiite District of Karachi, NYT, 3.3.3013,






A New Cold War, in Cyberspace,

Tests U.S. Ties to China


February 24, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — When the Obama administration circulated to the nation’s Internet providers last week a lengthy confidential list of computer addresses linked to a hacking group that has stolen terabytes of data from American corporations, it left out one crucial fact: that nearly every one of the digital addresses could be traced to the neighborhood in Shanghai that is headquarters to the Chinese military’s cybercommand.

That deliberate omission underscored the heightened sensitivities inside the Obama administration over just how directly to confront China’s untested new leadership over the hacking issue, as the administration escalates demands that China halt the state-sponsored attacks that Beijing insists it is not mounting.

The issue illustrates how different the worsening cyber-cold war between the world’s two largest economies is from the more familiar superpower conflicts of past decades — in some ways less dangerous, in others more complex and pernicious.

Administration officials say they are now more willing than before to call out the Chinese directly — as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. did last week in announcing a new strategy to combat theft of intellectual property. But President Obama avoided mentioning China by name — or Russia or Iran, the other two countries the president worries most about — when he declared in his State of the Union address that “we know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets.” He added: “Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions and our air traffic control systems.”

Defining “enemies” in this case is not always an easy task. China is not an outright foe of the United States, the way the Soviet Union once was; rather, China is both an economic competitor and a crucial supplier and customer. The two countries traded $425 billion in goods last year, and China remains, despite many diplomatic tensions, a critical financier of American debt. As Hillary Rodham Clinton put it to Australia’s prime minister in 2009 on her way to visit China for the first time as secretary of state, “How do you deal toughly with your banker?”

In the case of the evidence that the People’s Liberation Army is probably the force behind “Comment Crew,” the biggest of roughly 20 hacking groups that American intelligence agencies follow, the answer is that the United States is being highly circumspect. Administration officials were perfectly happy to have Mandiant, a private security firm, issue the report tracing the cyberattacks to the door of China’s cybercommand; American officials said privately that they had no problems with Mandiant’s conclusions, but they did not want to say so on the record.

That explains why China went unmentioned as the location of the suspect servers in the warning to Internet providers. “We were told that directly embarrassing the Chinese would backfire,” one intelligence official said. “It would only make them more defensive, and more nationalistic.”

That view is beginning to change, though. On the ABC News program “This Week” on Sunday, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was asked whether he believed that the Chinese military and civilian government were behind the economic espionage. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he replied.

In the next few months, American officials say, there will be many private warnings delivered by Washington to Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, who will soon assume China’s presidency. Both Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Mrs. Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, have trips to China in the offing. Those private conversations are expected to make a case that the sheer size and sophistication of the attacks over the past few years threaten to erode support for China among the country’s biggest allies in Washington, the American business community.

“America’s biggest global firms have been ballast in the relationship” with China, said Kurt M. Campbell, who recently resigned as assistant secretary of state for East Asia to start a consulting firm, the Asia Group, to manage the prickly commercial relationships. “And now they are the ones telling the Chinese that these pernicious attacks are undermining what has been built up over decades.”

It is too early to tell whether that appeal to China’s self-interest is getting through. Similar arguments have been tried before, yet when one of China’s most senior military leaders visited the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in May 2011, he said he didn’t know much about cyberweapons — and said the P.L.A. does not use them. In that regard, he sounded a bit like the Obama administration, which has never discussed America’s own cyberarsenal.

Yet the P.LA.’s attacks are largely at commercial targets. It has an interest in trade secrets like aerospace designs and wind-energy product schematics: the army is deeply invested in Chinese industry and is always seeking a competitive advantage. And so far the attacks have been cost-free.

American officials say that must change. But the prescriptions for what to do vary greatly — from calm negotiation to economic sanctions and talk of counterattacks led by the American military’s Cyber Command, the unit that was deeply involved in the American and Israeli cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants.

“The problem so far is that we have rhetoric and we have Cyber Command, and not much in between,” said Chris Johnson, a 20-year veteran of the C.I.A. team that analyzed the Chinese leadership. “That’s what makes this so difficult. It’s easy for the Chinese to deny it’s happening, to say it’s someone else, and no one wants the U.S. government launching counterattacks.”

That marks another major difference from the dynamic of the American-Soviet nuclear rivalry. In cold war days, deterrence was straightforward: any attack would result in a devastating counterattack, at a human cost so horrific that neither side pulled the trigger, even during close calls like the Cuban missile crisis.

But cyberattacks are another matter. The vast majority have taken the form of criminal theft, not destruction. It often takes weeks or months to pin down where an attack originated, because attacks are generally routed through computer servers elsewhere to obscure their source. A series of attacks on The New York Times that originated in China, for example, was mounted through the computer systems of unwitting American universities. That is why David Rothkopf, the author of books about the National Security Council, wrote last week that this was a “cool war,” not only because of the remote nature of the attacks but because “it can be conducted indefinitely — permanently, even — without triggering a shooting war. At least, that is the theory.”

Administration officials like Robert Hormats, the under secretary of state for business and economic affairs, say the key to success in combating cyberattacks is to emphasize to the Chinese authorities that the attacks will harm their hopes for economic growth. “We have to make it clear,” Mr. Hormats said, “that the Chinese are not going to get what they desire,” which he said was “investment from the cream of our technology companies, unless they quickly get this problem under control.”

But Mr. Rogers of the Intelligence Committee argues for a more confrontational approach, including “indicting bad actors” and denying visas to anyone believed to be involved in cyberattacks, as well as their families.

The coming debate is over whether the government should get into the business of retaliation. Already, Washington is awash in conferences that talk about “escalation dominance” and “extended deterrence,” all terminology drawn from the cold war.

Some of the talk is overheated, fueled by a growing cybersecurity industry and the development of offensive cyberweapons, even though the American government has never acknowledged using them, even in the Stuxnet attacks on Iran. But there is a serious, behind-the-scenes discussion about what kind of attack on American infrastructure — something the Chinese hacking groups have not seriously attempted — could provoke a president to order a counterattack.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: February 24, 2013

An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect month

for a visit to the Pentagon by a senior Chinese military leader.

The visit took place in May 2011, not April 2011.

    A New Cold War, in Cyberspace, Tests U.S. Ties to China, NYT, 24.2.2013,





U.S. Opens Drone Base in Niger,

Building Africa Presence


February 22, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, President Obama announced on Friday that about 100 American troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.

The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts. The United States military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.

In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said about 40 United States military service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.

Mr. Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove the Qaeda and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge the size of Texas in neighboring Mali.

Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater American military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to American troops there.

In an interview last month in Niamey, President Mahamadou Issoufou voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali, as well as growing threats from Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group to the south, in neighboring Nigeria.

French and African troops have retaken Mali’s northern cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, but about 2,000 militants have melted back into desert and mountain hideaways and have begun a small campaign of harassment and terror, dispatching suicide bombers, attacking guard posts, infiltrating liberated cities or ordering attacks by militants hidden among civilians.

“Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations,” Benjamin Benson, a command spokesman in Stuttgart, Germany, said in an e-mail message on Friday.

Mr. Benson did not say how many aircraft or troops would ultimately be deployed, but other American officials have said the base could eventually have as many as 300 United States military service members and contractors.

For now, American officials said, Predator drones will be unarmed and will fly only on surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.

American officials would like to move the aircraft eventually to Agadez, a city in northern Niger that is closer to parts of northern Mali where cells of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups are operating. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the leader of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, visited the base last month as part of discussions with Niger’s leaders on closer counterterrorism cooperation.

The new drone base will join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including one in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.

A handful of unarmed Predator drones will fill a desperate need for more detailed information on regional threats, including the militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. General Ham and intelligence analysts have complained that such information has been sorely lacking.

As the United States increased its presence in Niger, Russia sent a planeload of food, blankets and other aid to Mali on Friday, a day after Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov warned of the spread of terrorism in North Africa, which the Russian government has linked to Western intervention in Libya.

Mr. Lavrov met on Thursday with the United Nations special envoy for the region, Romano Prodi, to discuss the situation in Mali, where Russia has supported the French-led effort to oust Islamist militants. But Russia has also blamed the West for the unrest and singled out the French in particular for arming the rebels who ousted the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“Particular concern was expressed about the activity of terrorist organizations in the north, a threat to regional peace and security,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting. “The parties agreed that the uncontrolled proliferation of arms in the region in the wake of the conflict in Libya sets the stage for an escalation of tension throughout the Sahel.” The Sahel is a vast region stretching more than 3,000 miles across Africa, from the Atlantic in the west through Sudan in the east.

In a television interview this month, Mr. Lavrov said, “France is fighting against those in Mali whom it had once armed in Libya against Qaddafi.”

On Friday, suicide attackers detonated two car bombs near Tessalit, a town in Mali’s far north, according to news reports, while Islamist fighters clashed with Malian soldiers farther south in Gao, where fighting has flared in recent days.

The twin suicide bombings in Tessalit killed three fighters for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A., an ethnic Tuareg armed group that has allied with the French forces, a spokesman for the group said, according to Agence France-Presse. The attackers were killed as well. On Thursday, a guard and an attacker were killed in a car bombing in Kidal, south of Tessalit, that appeared to have targeted a civilian fuel depot, France’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Responsibility for that attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group said it would continue to press its fight and also intended to retake Gao, hundreds of miles to the south.

In central Gao late Thursday morning, Malian and French forces killed about 15 militants from “infiltrated terrorist groups” that had seized the town hall and court, according to the French Defense Ministry. The initial firefight involved only Malian soldiers and militant fighters, the ministry’s statement said, but several French armored vehicles and two helicopters were later involved.

Two militants were killed outside a checkpoint north of the city after “sporadically” attacking the Nigerien soldiers standing guard, the Defense Ministry said. As many as six Malian soldiers were reported wounded.

On Friday, sporadic gunfire and at least two rebel rocket attacks were reported in Gao, according to a Malian officer cited by The Associated Press. Most of the militants fled to the east of the city aboard seven vehicles, the officer said.

Russian officials have pointed repeatedly to the unrest in North Africa and the political turmoil in Egypt as evidence that the Western-supported Arab Spring has created a dangerous and chaotic situation and potential breeding grounds for terrorists. Russia has also used the examples of Libya and Egypt to justify its opposition to any Western effort to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.


Eric Schmitt reported from Washington,

and Scott Sayare from Paris.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Moscow.

    U.S. Opens Drone Base in Niger, Building Africa Presence, NYT, 22.2.2013,






Blasts Across Baghdad Kill at Least 21


February 17, 2013
The New York Times


A wave of attacks targeting Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad on Sunday killed at least 21 people and wounded 125, a security source said.

Four car bombs exploded in Sadr City, targeting civilians in a market, at a bus station and on a major road, killing seven civilians and wounding more than 30 others, according to officials and a security source.

Car bombs also struck in Husseiniya, Al Ameen and Kamaliya, leaving a total of at least seven dead and 32 injured in those areas.

In the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada, close to the Babil Hotel, a roadside bomb killed one person and wounded five others.

    Blasts Across Baghdad Kill at Least 21, NYT, 17.2.2013,






Explosion in Crowded Market

Kills Dozens in Pakistan


February 17, 2013
The New York Times


KARACHI, Pakistan — The death toll from a devastating explosion that ripped through a crowded market in the southwestern city of Quetta on Saturday rose to 84 people as Shiite leaders called for the immediate arrest of the attackers, according to police and rescue officials.

The attack occurred in a neighborhood dominated by Hazaras, a Shiite ethnic minority that has suffered numerous attacks at the hands of Sunni militant death squads in recent years.

A previous attack on Jan. 10, when a Sunni group bombed a snooker hall in Quetta, killed almost 100 Hazaras, prompting domestic and international outrage.

The police said that Saturday’s bomb was apparently set off by a remote-controlled device, hidden inside a water supply truck. The explosion caused a building to collapse, damaged two other neighboring buildings, and a left a crater 12 feet deep and 6 feet wide.

Mir Zubair Mehmood, the Quetta police chief, said that the bomb contained 800 to 1,000 kilograms (as much as 2,220 pounds) of explosives. Local hospitals declared an emergency as rescue efforts were hampered by angry crowds at the bomb site, where distraught Hazaras prevented the police, reporters and rescuers from reaching the scene.

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf quickly condemned the attack, emphasizing the government’s resolve to fight “such dastardly acts” and vowing to bring the perpetrators to justice.

But the seeming ease with which the bombers struck, just one month after a similar sectarian atrocity in the same city, underscored the inability of Pakistan’s security forces to counter the threat from extremist groups as the country moves toward general elections expected to take place by mid-May.

After the January attack, Mr. Ashraf flew to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province, to meet with Hazara families who protested in the streets for four days, sleeping beside the coffins of the bombing victims to protest the government’s inaction.

That protest captured the sympathies of Pakistanis across the country, and helped galvanize political opinion against a growing problem of sectarian attacks on minority Shiites in Quetta, Karachi and northwestern Pakistan.

Standing at the protest site, Mr. Ashraf announced that the government was dissolving the provincial government and handing control to the provincial governor — a move Hazaras had hoped would stop the sectarian bloodshed.

But Saturday’s attack shows that extremists can still operate with impunity in Baluchistan, Pakistan’s largest but most sparsely populated province.

Baluchistan is plagued by several conflicts, including sectarian attacks on Shiites, a nationalist insurgency and ethnically motivated killings. It is also home to Afghan Taliban insurgents who use the province to carry out attacks inside Afghanistan.

The largest sectarian group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is widely believed to be based in the town of Mastung, south of Quetta. Few of its members have been captured or arrested.

Abbas Kumaili, a prominent Shiite leader, speaking at a news conference in Karachi Sunday afternoon, strongly condemned the inability of the government to curb the killing of Shiites.

“The situation is worsening as no action is being taken against banned militant groups,” Mr. Kumaili said. “In fact, these banned militant groups have become more organized and active.”

Mr. Kumaili said Shiite leaders resented the failure of mainstream political parties to strongly condemn extremist Sunni groups.

Human rights groups accuse the powerful Pakistani military of tacit collusion with the sectarian groups, who have reportedly helped the military quell the nationalist insurgency.

The military vehemently denies those accusations and says its forces are overstretched in the region. After the January bombing, responsibility for security in Quetta was handed to the paramilitary Frontier Corps, which vowed to dismantle the sectarian groups.

    Explosion in Crowded Market Kills Dozens in Pakistan, NYT, 17.2.2013,






Damascus on Edge

as War Seeps into Syrian Capital


February 10, 2013
The New York Times


DAMASCUS, Syria — Unkempt government soldiers, some appearing drunk, have been deployed near a rebel-held railway station in the southern reaches of this tense capital. Office workers on 29th of May Street, in the heart of the city, tell of huddling at their desks, trapped inside for hours by gun battles that sound alarmingly close.

Soldiers have swept through city neighborhoods, making arrests ahead of a threatened rebel advance downtown, even as opposition fighters edge past the city limits, carrying mortars and shelling security buildings. Fighter jets that pounded the suburbs for months have begun to strike Jobar, an outlying neighborhood of Damascus proper, creating the disturbing spectacle of a government’s bombing its own capital.

On Sunday, the government sent tanks there to battle rebels for control of a key ring road.

In this war of murky battlefield reports, it is hard to know whether the rebels’ recent forays past some of the capital’s circle of defenses — in an operation that they have, perhaps immodestly, named the “Battle of Armageddon” — will lead to more lasting gains than earlier offensives did. But travels along the city’s battlefronts in recent days made clear that new lines, psychological as much as geographical, had been crossed.

“I didn’t see my family for more than a year,” a government soldier from a distant province said in a rare outpouring of candor. He was checking drivers’ identifications near the railway station at a checkpoint where hundreds of soldiers arrived last week with tanks and other armored vehicles.

“I am tired and haven’t slept well for a week,” he said, confiding in a traveler who happened to be from his hometown. “I have one wish — to see my family and have a long, long sleep. Then I don’t care if I die.”

For months, this ancient city has been hunched in a defensive crouch as fighting raged in suburbs that curve around the city’s south and east. On the western edge of the city, the palace of the embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, sits on a steep, well-defended ridge.

In between, Damascus, with its walled Old City, grand diagonal avenues and crowded working-class districts, has remained the eye of the storm. People keep going to work, even as electric service grows sporadic and groceries dwindle, even as the road to the airport is often cut off by fighting outside the city, and even as smoke from artillery and airstrikes in suburbs becomes a regular feature on the horizon.

But after rebels took the railway station 10 days ago in a city district called Qadam and attacked Abassiyeen Square on an approach to the city center on Wednesday, a new level of alarm and disorder has suffused the city. Rebels have pushed farther into the capital than at any point since July, when they briefly held part of a southern neighborhood.

Near the Qadam railway station last week, many of the government soldiers, their hair and beards untrimmed, wore disheveled or dirty uniforms and smelled as if they had not had showers in a long time. Some soldiers and security officers even appeared drunk, walking unsteadily with their weapons askew — a shocking sight in Syria, where regimented security forces and smartly uniformed officers have long been presented as a symbol of national pride.

The deployment appeared aimed at stopping the rebels from advancing past Qadam, either across the city’s ring road and toward the downtown or to suburbs to the east to close a gap in the opposition’s front line.

But even stationed here in Damascus, the heart of the government’s power, the soldier at the checkpoint — who was steady on his feet — said he felt vulnerable.

“It is very scary to spend a night and you expect to be shot or slaughtered at any moment,” he said. “We spend our nights counting the minutes until daytime.”

The government has hit back hard, striking Qadam with artillery and airstrikes. It has also made pre-emptive arrests in Midan, the neighboring district, closer to downtown, where rebels gained a temporary foothold in July and which they said was their next target.

Soldiers summarily executed four people in Qadam on Friday, according to the Local Coordinating Committees, an anti-Assad activist network, though it was unclear if the victims were would-be military defectors or captured rebels.

On a recent journey along the front line, a traveler saw soldiers speaking harshly to residents at checkpoints outside Yarmouk Camp, a long-contested area east of Qadam that is home to both Syrians and Palestinian refugees, who have lived there for decades. Rebels took over much of the camp in December, drawing government airstrikes that drove out most residents. But about 20 percent of those people appear to have returned, in part, they said, because the government had attacked another refugee camp where they had taken shelter.

A Palestinian refugee who gave only a nickname, Abu Muhammad, was carrying a sack of bread into the camp. He said that he had started out with three sacks for his wife and three sons, but that officers — he said they were from Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect — had shouted at him and confiscated two sacks, accusing him of taking bread to the rebels.

The government is pressing Palestinians to take the camp back from the rebels, Abu Muhammad said. He said that was an absurd demand from a government that bombed its own people, but made no response to last month’s airstrike by Israel. “Why doesn’t the regime send its ‘hero’ army to liberate the camp?” he said.

Another center of recent fighting is just northeast of the city. Rebels who have taken over much of the suburb of Qaboun recently pushed across the ring road there into the city neighborhood of Jobar. From there, said Abu Omar al-Jobrani, a leader of fighters in the area, they moved mortars close enough to attack a munitions factory and air force security headquarters near Abassiyeen Square, a traffic circle that is near a major stadium and that provides access to downtown.

Reports of rebel strikes on Wednesday on such a central landmark, which appeared to be backed up by videos showing black smoke pouring across the plaza, raised new fears in the capital. The government closed the roads around the square, causing traffic jams deep into downtown, and sent dozens of security men to protect the Parliament building. Terrified residents of the central Old City closed their shops.

Fighting continued over the weekend, as the government and rebels fought for control of the ring road near Jobar. Shells and airstrikes kept raining on the neighborhood, sending dust and smoke into the air, higher than the minarets on its mosques.


Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, Lebanon.

    Damascus on Edge as War Seeps into Syrian Capital, NYT, 10.2.2013,






Don’t Let Iran Stall for Time


February 5, 2013
The New York Times


FEW of President Obama’s original foreign policy goals have eluded him so much as engagement with Iran. Over the weekend, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced during a speech in Munich that the United States was ready for direct talks with Iran. With the risk of war over Iran’s nuclear program looming, the offer is prudent, but it is also beside the point. As Iran continues to evade negotiations — literally in this case, since the Iranian foreign minister was in the same building as Mr. Biden — the real question is not whether America should talk to Iran, but how to get the Iranians to talk to us in earnest.

Diplomatic engagement with Iran isn’t a new idea. Every American president from Jimmy Carter on has reached out to Iran. But such approaches have never led to improved relations. That was true of the secret visit by President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, to Tehran in 1986 in what became the Iran-contra affair; it was also true of quiet talks over Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s, when the former achieved only fleeting tactical progress and the latter none at all.

The reasons for failure in all the approaches share a common thread: Iran shrank from any broad bilateral thaw because it feared engagement with the United States more than it feared confrontation.

“Resistance” to the West — and especially to the United States — was a founding principle of Iran’s Islamic regime. And while Iran has gradually normalized relations with many European and Asian allies of Washington, it has not done so with the United States itself, just as it has not with America’s ally Israel. To lose those two nations as enemies would be to undermine one of the regime’s ideological raisons d’être.

As a result, serious engagement with the United States is likely to be only a consequence of a strategic shift by the regime, rather than a cause of it. And so far, no such shift has taken place. While there are signs of increasing dissent within the Iranian government as sanctions begin to bite more deeply, there are also indications that existing sanctions have done all they can in this regard: Iran’s oil exports are ticking upward after a long decline, and high inflation and unemployment have not produced mass unrest. This provides a good reason for America to offer direct talks — to counter Iran’s narrative of “resistance.” But there is little hope that Iran will accept this offer, or that talks right now would be productive.

In fact, the regime may feel that time is on its side. American and Israeli red lines for military action depend on the pace of Iran’s nuclear activities, meaning that Iran can delay conflict simply by slowing those activities, as it recently has done. Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders may be hoping that black-market workarounds and a pickup in global oil demand will allow their country to expand its exports.

So the United States must be more creative in the ways it uses engagement and pressure to hasten a change in Iran’s strategic outlook. On the diplomatic front, America has made clear that it is ready to meet bilaterally whenever Iran is ready to do so; such talks should be a complement — not an alternative — to the current multilateral talks, which also include Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany. But the bilateral talks would have to deal not just with the nuclear issue; they should also address the full spectrum of American concerns, including Iran’s support for terrorist groups.

Since America’s partners in the international negotiations are eager to see direct American-Iranian discussions, and to avoid the military confrontation that could accompany diplomacy’s failure, the United States should also insist that the others toughen their own approaches to Iran’s government, in hopes of strengthening the hands of those within Iran who argue for a course change.

These other countries should better enforce existing economic sanctions, and employ other available levers of pressure. They should warn Iran that they would support American military action if necessary and that they are prepared to treat Iran and its envoys as pariahs. In addition, they should support Iranian dissidents and counter Iranian activities abroad, for example by following America’s lead in designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group and addressing Iranian arms smuggling to Gaza.

As the United States and its allies increase pressure on Iran, it is vital that the Americans remain steadfast in their demands, rather than respond to Iranian obstinacy with increasingly generous offers. If Tehran believes it can wait out pressure or escape it via a narrow technical accord rather than a more fundamental reorientation, it will surely do so.

As the possibility of conflict looms larger and talks drag on, the United States and its allies should worry less about who is on their side of the negotiating table, and more about ensuring that whoever is on the Iranian side actually comes ready to bargain. Otherwise, any American-Iranian talks will not be a diplomatic breakthrough; they will just be another way station on the route to war.


Michael Singh, the managing director of the Washington Institute

for Near East Policy, was the senior director for Middle East affairs

at the National Security Council from 2005 to 2008.

    Don’t Let Iran Stall for Time, NYT, 5.2.2013,






Militants’ Goal in Algeria Gas Plant Siege:

A Giant Fireball


February 2, 2013
The New York Times


TIGUENTOURINE, Algeria — The goal of the heavily armed militants who seized the desert gas plant here is becoming increasingly clear: to turn the forest of pipes and tubes into a giant bomb, and to blow up everything and anyone around. What none of them knew was exactly how, in the endless maze of metal, to do it.

The hundreds of workers at the plant when it was taken over last month found themselves caught between the ruthless militants on the inside and an Algerian Army ringing the perimeter that was bent on showing no weakness. As the realization dawned on the captors that they, too, were essentially captives, they grew agitated and more aggressive, witnesses say. Moreover, the plant’s operations had shut down during their initial assault.

Bristling with weapons, they made their demands known to the remaining employees: restart the plant, get the compressors working again and turn the power back on.

“They pushed me very hard to restart the plant,” said Lotfi Benadouda, the Algerian plant executive whom the militants singled out as the man in charge. “Their objective was to move the hostages to the plant. They wanted to get to the factory with the hostages, and explode it.”

A more complete view of the hostage drama in the Sahara that began the morning of Jan. 16, and of the militants’ motives in carrying it out, has emerged as some of the captives provided detailed accounts of the four-day standoff, which left at least 37 foreign hostages and 29 kidnappers dead.

Their accounts contradicted some of the Algerian government’s public assertions about the crisis and supported others. At times, the government said the militants planned to destroy the gas complex and kill the hostages en masse, but it provided no details or evidence to back up that assertion. At other times, government officials, defending a military raid on the facility, said the militants sought to flee and take captives into the desert, an assertion that some of the captives contradicted.

Now it seems clear that the siege was about more than disabling the plant, and that holding hostages for ransom was not part of the plan. Instead, the militants sought to orchestrate a spectacular fireball that could have killed everyone in the vicinity. While that plot could offer more justification for the Algerian government’s take-no-prisoners response, questions remain about whether the standoff could have been ended with fewer lives lost.

To visit the plant is to appreciate both its vulnerability and the opportunity it afforded the militants, who traveled a mere 30 miles through the Sahara’s sands, across the border from Libya, to attack it.

The plant’s production towers rise suddenly and starkly out of the nearly featureless desert landscape at Tiguentourine after a 45-minute drive from the nearest Algerian settlement, the town of In Amenas. The isolation appears total; there is nothing around it but a sea of sand.

The fierceness of the fight to retake the complex by Algerian security services over four days in mid-January is still evident. Bullet holes pockmark the low, sand-color living quarters; deep gashes in one wall are a testament to the artillery fired on both sides. Between the living quarters and the plant itself, a 10-minute drive, a jumble of shredded, carbonized vehicle remnants stick out from the sand.

Still unclear was whether some of the carnage was avoidable, as officials in foreign capitals have suggested. The Algerians remain convinced their doctrine of no negotiations and maximum force was the right course of action.

What appears increasingly certain is that the attackers benefited from inside help. They used a map to guide them around the facility, and at least one of them had once worked at the plant as a driver, officials said. But what the militants lacked was the technical expertise to execute the dramatic ending that some captives say was envisioned.

The Algerian authorities credit one of the facility’s security agents at an outer guard post with sounding a crucial alarm before being shot in the head. The guard, Lahmar Amine, has since been hailed as a national hero in the Algerian news media, and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal credited him with allowing workers at the plant to shut down gas production.

Others said the militants might have inadvertently cut the power during their assault, thus preventing the plant from operating.

“The plant was shut down because the terrorists blew up the generators,” said an employee at the facility who asked not to be named to avoid repercussions with his employer. The valves needed power to function, he said, and restarting the facility was a much more involved process than taking it down. “It wasn’t going to be started for a long time,” the employee said.

Outside experts said that even with rocket-propelled grenades and high-grade explosives, a natural-gas plant would have been harder to destroy than the militants may have realized. “Natural gas does not explode unless it is in a confined area,” said E. Darron Granger, the senior vice president for engineering and construction at Cheniere Energy, a liquefied natural gas terminal company.

Mr. Benadouda, the plant’s director general and the militants’ main interlocutor for the first two days of the crisis, was still visibly affected by what he had been through. He recalled on Thursday seeing colleagues blown apart and militants’ corpses severed in half, and he was speaking from a central courtyard where, two weeks earlier, hostages had been assembled and menacingly sorted. “I saw many bad things, terrible things,” he said, turning away.

The hostage drama began before dawn on Wednesday, Jan. 16, with the bright muzzle flashes of automatic rifles in the dark Saharan night. A busload of expatriate workers was leaving the facility in an armed convoy when the attackers opened fire. The militants split into two groups, one taking over the living quarters, and the other headed for the gas production facility, which they mined with explosives, witnesses said. Once inside the living quarters, “they were firing everywhere,” said an engineer, Djamel Bourkaib, who stood as he spoke in the shadow of the giant In Amenas towers, still blackened by an explosion during the siege. “If it moved, they shot at it.”

Quickly, the militants began to separate foreign workers — American, British, Japanese and Norwegian — from the Algerians, who were told they would not be harmed. “The terrorists tried to restart the plant in order to get maximum pressure,” Mr. Bourkaib said. “They were looking for engineers to restart the plant.”

Hours into the siege, the gunmen recognized Mr. Benadouda as a man who could be useful to them. That was when the pressure started on him to restart the plant. “We gave them vehicles and food, but we didn’t restart the plant,” Mr. Benadouda said.

By the first evening, tension was building inside the living quarters. The power was still off, everything was dark and the militants were starting to run out of battery charge on their communications equipment. With military forces building up outside, even the militants “thought they were going to be attacked,” Mr. Benadouda said.

On Thursday, Jan. 17, some of the militants, who had communicated that they were protesting the French military intervention in Mali, gathered hostages laden with explosives in five vehicles. The army started firing inside the compound, wounding the militants’ leader. The militants panicked, Mr. Benadouda said, and hundreds of Algerian workers fled.

The militants assembled a convoy carrying foreign hostages. What happened next is still unclear and the source of debate.

Some reports in the Algerian news media speak of army helicopters firing missiles at the procession of vehicles, causing several to explode. Mr. Sellal, at a Jan. 21 news conference, simply said, “There was a strong response from the army, and three cars exploded.” Among the casualties, he said, was Taher Bechneb, the militants’ leader, and some of the hostages.

But a senior official who requested anonymity maintained in an interview that militants in three of the vehicles, realizing that they were immobilized, simply blew themselves and the cars up. A recently retired senior officer who still has ties with his former colleagues also said that no missiles were fired at the cars.

The hostage crisis dragged on for two more days, but the events of Jan. 17 were crucial. The core of the militant operation, including its leadership, had been devastated. The remnants were now at the gas-producing section of the complex, but they did not know how to destroy it.

On Saturday, Jan. 19, the militants parked a car packed with explosives under two central gas-producing towers, then placed five handcuffed hostages — three Norwegians and two Americans, executives at the plant — above the car, workers said. All of the foreigners died in the resulting explosion, workers said.

In the military’s final assault, army snipers killed many of the militants, Mr. Sellal said at the news conference as he defended the government’s approach toward militants whose goal officials here are convinced was a fiery end.

“If you don’t terrorize the terrorists, they will terrorize you,” the senior Algerian official said in the interview.


Adam Nossiter reported from Tiguentourine,

and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin.

Reporting was contributed by Clifford Krauss from Houston;

Henrik Pryser Libell from Oslo; Martin Fackler

and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo;

Stanley Reed, Lark Turner and John F. Burns from London;

and Ravi Somaiya from New York.

    Militants’ Goal in Algeria Gas Plant Siege: A Giant Fireball, NYT, 2.2.2013,




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