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History > 2013 > USA > International (V)




Bodies of children whom activists say were killed by gas attack in the Ghouta area,

lay on floor in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 21.

Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters


Boston Globe > Big Picture > Assault in Syria        August 23, 2013















My Jewish State


December 31, 2013
The New York Times


LONDON — A year ends, another begins, time for reminiscences and resolutions, regret and hope, best-of and worst-of lists, confessions and crystal-ball gazing — most of it pretty excruciating. It will take a nanosecond longer to scroll back to one’s year of birth. So it goes.

I am not going to gripe about brilliant Twitter. I have nothing new to say about Miley Cyrus. But I am going to make one prediction for 2014. It is that, for all John Kerry’s efforts, this will be another year in which peace is not reached in the Middle East. (And if I am wrong, I vow Sisyphean penance in eternity.)

Plenty of bad things have happened between Israelis and Palestinians of late. There has been a steady uptick in violence. Israel’s freeing of 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners was naturally greeted with joy in Ramallah, and by a wave of Israeli government tweets condemning the celebration of terrorists. Along with the release came word that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will likely announce plans for 1,400 new housing units in the West Bank, just as Kerry arrives for his 10th peace-seeking visit. This has infuriated Palestinians. So, too, has an Israeli ministerial committee vote advancing legislation to annex settlements in the Jordan Valley. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said the vote “finishes all that is called the peace process.” Such contemptuous characterization of a negotiation from a leading protagonist is ill-advised and bodes ill.

Then there is the rebounding Israel-is-a-Jewish-state bugbear: Netanyahu wants Palestinians to recognize his nation as such. He has recently called it “the real key to peace.” His argument is that this is the touchstone by which to judge whether Palestinians will accept “the Jewish state in any border” — whether, in other words, the Palestinian leadership would accept territorial compromise or is still set on reversal of 1948 and mass return to Haifa.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, says no; this “nyet” will endure. For Palestinians, such a form of recognition would amount to explicit acquiescence to second-class citizenship for the 1.6 million Arabs in Israel; undermine the rights of millions of Palestinian refugees; upend a national narrative of mass expulsion from land that was theirs; and demand of them something not demanded from Egypt or Jordan in peace agreements, nor of the Palestine Liberation Organization when, in 1993, Yasir Arafat wrote to Yitzhak Rabin that it recognizes the right of Israel “to exist in peace and security.”

This issue is a waste of time, a complicating diversion when none is needed. As Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli political scientist, put it to me, “It’s a tactical issue raised by Netanyahu in order to make negotiations more difficult.”

Of course, any two-state peace agreement will have to be final and irreversible; it must ensure there are no further Palestinian claims on a secure Israel. It may well require some form of words saying the two states are the homelands of their respective peoples, a formula used by the Geneva Initiative. But that is for another day.

If Israel looks like a Jewish state and acts like a Jewish state, that is good enough for me — as long as it gets out of the corrosive business of occupation. Zionism, the one I identify with, forged a Jewish homeland in the name of restored Jewish pride in a democratic state of laws, not in the name of finicky insistence on a certain form of recognition, nor in the name of messianic religious Greater Israel nationalism.

When I spoke to him in Tel Aviv a few months ago, Yair Lapid, a top government minister, said: “The fact that we demand from Palestinians a declaration that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, I just think this is rubbish. I don’t need that. The whole point of Israel was we came here saying we don’t need anyone else to recognize us anymore because we can recognize ourselves. We are liberated.”

That’s right. It’s also true that Palestinians leaders, with zero democratic accountability, and through facile incitement, are not preparing their people for territorial compromise at or close to the 1967 lines. Then again, nothing in Israel’s actions facilitates that. And on we go to more failure, more victories of narrative over normalcy.

A last word: This column is dedicated to Mike O’Connor, fearless journalist, great Bosnia hand for The New York Times, vivid chronicler of the Israel-Palestine conflict over several years for NPR, and most recently representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists in Mexico, where saving press freedom is a daily struggle. Mike was an acute observer of the kind of human folly, fatuousness and self-interest that perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It brought him to tears. Yet he always found a way to laugh. Mike died suddenly on Sunday, age 67, in Mexico City. If nothing else, I hope Kerry and the rest prove me wrong for him.


Maureen Dowd and Thomas L. Friedman are off today.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 1, 2014

An earlier version of this column misstated

when the journalist Mike O'Connor died.

It was on Sunday, not last week.

    My Jewish State, NYT, 31.12.2013,






More Guns Will Not Save Iraq


December 31, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama has done the predictable thing by sending more weapons to Iraq to counter an alarming rise in violence. But arms alone will not solve a problem that has its roots in the political alienation of Sunnis and other minorities and the undermining of democratic processes, especially by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The bloodshed has reached catastrophic proportions. More than 8,000 Iraqis died in 2013, including 952 members of the Iraqi security forces. Over all, it is the highest death toll since 2008 and shatters a trend that in 2012 prompted a top administration official to assert that “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”

The deadly surge is attributed to Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni group that is a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, waged the insurgency that brought the country near civil war in 2006 and 2007 before suffering big defeats from Iraqi Sunni tribal groups and American forces. Since the United States withdrew at the end of 2011, the group has gained strength against Iraqi security forces that are incapable of fully protecting civilians, and it has taken in foreign fighters from neighboring Syria and the region. American officials say that Islamic State is deliberately trying to tear the country apart.

Mr. Maliki sought help from Mr. Obama at the White House in November, a turnabout after he failed to reach a deal to keep a small number of American troops in the country after 2011 for training and intelligence gathering.

Some 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, to be fired at militant camps with the C.I.A. providing targeting assistance, were delivered to Iraq last week and 10 reconnaissance drones are expected to follow in March. The Obama administration also plans to provide 48 other reconnaissance drones and the first of an order of F-16 fighter jets. It is pushing a reluctant Congress to lease and eventually sell Apache helicopter gunships to Iraq.

The United States has a strategic interest in Iraq’s stability, which is undoubtedly at risk, making increased counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence-sharing essential. But even the most lethal weapons will not have much positive effect if Mr. Maliki and other Iraqi leaders bicker rather than unite the country around shared goals through credible democratic processes. Mr. Maliki has been central to the disorder, wielding power in favor of his Shiite majority brethren at the expense of the minority Sunnis, stoking sectarian conflict and enabling a climate in which militants could gain traction.

American officials say Mr. Maliki and other Iraqi officials finally understand the dangers of the growing extremism and the fact that a security-only approach will not bring stability. They say that Iraqi security forces have lately been more successful against the militants and that Mr. Maliki and his government have shown more willingness to work cooperatively with Sunnis, resolve oil disputes with the Kurds and put in place a new agreement aimed at promoting civil and social peace. Given his authoritarian duplicity, it is hard to be optimistic. On Tuesday, more than 40 Sunni lawmakers submitted their resignations from Parliament and Sunni ministers threatened to withdraw from the Cabinet after Mr. Maliki’s security forces dismantled a camp used by Sunnis protesting second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government.

As it doles out weapons, intelligence and advice, the Obama administration needs to press Mr. Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to do those things, to ensure that the election in April is free and fair and to commit finally to adopting laws that will address Sunni grievances. It also needs to be prepared to halt or withhold deliveries of weapons if they are misused or if Mr. Maliki continues to put his own interests over his country’s.

    More Guns Will Not Save Iraq, NYT, 31.12.2013,






U.S. Sends Arms

to Aid Iraq Fight With Extremists


December 25, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.

The move follows an appeal for help in battling the extremist group by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who met with President Obama in Washington last month.

But some military experts question whether the patchwork response will be sufficient to reverse the sharp downturn in security that already led to the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, 952 of them Iraqi security force members, according to the United Nations, the highest level of violence since 2008.

Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq. Riding in armed convoys, the group has intimidated towns, assassinated local officials, and in an episode last week, used suicide bombers and hidden explosives to kill the commander of the Iraqi Army’s Seventh Division and more than a dozen of his officers and soldiers as they raided a Qaeda training camp near Rutbah.

Bombings on Christmas in Christian areas of Baghdad, which killed more than two dozen people, bore the hallmarks of a Qaeda operation.

The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.

In a March 2012 speech, Antony J. Blinken, who is currently Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, asserted that “Iraq today is less violent” than “at any time in recent history.”

In contrast, after a recent spate of especially violent attacks against Iraqi forces, elected officials and civilians, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, issued a strongly worded statement on Sunday warning that the Qaeda affiliate is “seeking to gain control of territory inside the borders of Iraq.”

Pledging to take steps to strengthen Iraqi forces, Ms. Psaki noted that the Qaeda affiliate was a “common enemy of the United States and the Republic of Iraq, and a threat to the greater Middle East region.”

But the counterterrorism effort the United States is undertaking with Iraq has its limits.

Iraq’s foreign minister has floated the idea of having American-operated, armed Predator or Reaper drones respond to the expanding militant network. But Mr. Maliki, who is positioning himself to run for a third term as prime minister and who is sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home, has not formally requested such intervention.

The idea of carrying out such drone attacks, which might prompt the question of whether the Obama administration succeeded in bringing the Iraq war to what the president has called a “responsible end,” also appears to have no support in the White House.

“We have not received a formal request for U.S.-operated armed drones operating over Iraq, nor are we planning to divert armed I.S.R. over Iraq,” said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. For now, the new lethal aid from the United States, which Iraq is buying, includes a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, delivered to Iraq last week. The weapons are strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes, and fired at militant camps with the C.I.A. secretly providing targeting assistance.

In addition, 10 ScanEagle reconnaissance drones are expected to be delivered to Iraq by March. They are smaller cousins of the larger, more capable Predators that used to fly over Iraq.

American intelligence and counterterrorism officials say they have effectively mapped the locations and origins of the Qaeda network in Iraq and are sharing this information with the Iraqis.

Administration officials said the aid was significant because the Iraqis had virtually run out of Hellfire missiles. The Iraqi military, with no air force to speak of and limited reconnaissance of its own, has a very limited ability to locate and quickly strike Qaeda militants as they maneuver in western and northern Iraq. The combination of American-supplied Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, tactical drones and intelligence, supplied by the United States, is intended to augment that limited Iraqi ability.

The Obama administration has given three sensor-laden Aerostat balloons to the Iraqi government, provided three additional reconnaissance helicopters to the Iraqi military and is planning to send 48 Raven reconnaissance drones before the end of 2014. And the United States is planning to deliver next fall the first of the F-16 fighters Iraq has bought.

The lack of armed drones, some experts assert, will hamper efforts to dismantle the Qaeda threat in Iraq over the coming weeks and months.

“Giving them some ScanEagle drones is great,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi security at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But is it really going to make much difference? Their range is tiny.”

“The real requirement today is for a long-range, high-endurance armed drone capability,” added Mr. Knights, who frequently travels to Iraq. “There is one place in the world where Al Qaeda can run a major affiliate without fear of a U.S. drone or air attack, and that is in Iraq and Syria.”

In an effort to buttress the Iraqi military’s abilities, the Obama administration has sought congressional approval to lease and eventually sell Apache helicopter gunships. But some lawmakers have been hesitant, fearing that they might be used by Mr. Maliki to intimidate his political opponents.

A plan to lease six Apaches to the Iraqi government is now pending in the Senate. Frustrated by the United States’ reluctance to sell Apaches, the Iraqis have turned to Russia, which delivered four MI-35 attack helicopters last month and planned to provide more than two dozen more. Meanwhile, cities and towns like Mosul, Haditha and Baquba that American forces fought to control during the 2007 and 2008 surge of American troops in Iraq have been the scene of bloody Qaeda attacks.

Using extortion and playing on Sunni grievances against Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, the Qaeda affiliate is largely self-financing. One Iraqi politician, who asked not to be named to avoid retaliation, said Qaeda militants had even begun to extort money from shopkeepers in Ramadi, Anbar’s provincial capital.

A number of factors are helping the Qaeda affiliate. The terrorist group took advantage of the departure of American forces to rebuild its operations in Iraq and push into Syria. Now that it has established a strong foothold in Syria, it is in turn using its base there to send suicide bombers into Iraq at a rate of 30 to 40 a month, using them against Shiites but also against Sunnis who are reluctant to cede control.

The brutal tactics, some experts say, may expose Al Qaeda to a Sunni backlash, much as in 2006 and 2007 when Sunni tribes aligned themselves with American forces against the Qaeda extremists.

But Mr. Maliki’s failure to share power with Sunni leaders, some Iraqis say, has also provided a fertile recruiting ground.

Haitham Abdullah al-Jubouri, a 40-year-old government employee in Baquba, said that “the policy of the sectarian government” had “contributed to the influx of desperate young elements from the Sunni community to the ranks of Al Qaeda.”

In Mosul, most of the security force members who are not from the area have left the city, and Al Qaeda controls whole sections of territory.

“In the morning, we have some control, but at night, this is when we hide and the armed groups make their movements,” said an Iraqi security official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retaliation.

Ayad Shaker, a police officer in Anbar, said that Al Qaeda had replenished its ranks with a series of prison breakouts, and that the group had also grown stronger because of the limited abilities of Iraqi forces, the conflict in Syria and tensions between Mr. Maliki and the Sunnis.

Mr. Shaker said that three close relatives had been killed by Al Qaeda and that he had been wounded by bombs the group had planted.

“I fought Al Qaeda,” he said. “I am sad today when I see them have the highest authority in Anbar, moving and working under the sun without deterrent.”


Yasir Ghazi contributed reporting from Baghdad,

Thom Shanker from Washington

and an employee of The New York Times from Mosul, Iraq.

    U.S. Sends Arms to Aid Iraq Fight With Extremists, NYT, 25.12.2013,






Worshipers Are Targeted

at a Christmas Service in Baghdad


December 25, 2013
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — At least 26 people were killed and 38 others were wounded on Wednesday when a car bomb exploded in a parking lot near St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in a southern neighborhood of Baghdad, according to police and medical officials.

The bomb detonated at the end of Christmas prayers as worshipers were leaving the church in Dora, the officials said.

The victims, most of them Christians, included women and children, as well as a number of police officers posted to guard the church.

A few minutes before the bombing, and barely half a mile away, a series of three other explosions in a market in an Assyrian Christian neighborhood killed 11 people and wounded 22.

Khaled Yacoub, a parishioner at St. John’s, said he had not gone to the church for a long time out of fear, but decided to attend Christmas services with his wife and two children after hearing assurances that he would be safe. “During the Mass, we heard explosions nearby,” he said.

The priest said he would shorten the liturgy so the worshipers could leave early. While taking pictures in the church garden with his children, Mr. Yacoub said, he heard a huge explosion in the parking lot as people were walking to their cars.

“People were running around,” Mr. Yacoub said. “I caught my kids and entered the church. They were crying.” A woman in the church who had been wounded in her legs was asking for help, he said.

He said, weeping: “The priest was talking about peace. He told us that we have to be Iraqi before Christians, and we must love each other.”

His wife, Sahar Yousif, said: “I wasn’t encouraging the Christians to leave the country, but today am rethinking. I do not know who was behind this targeting, but we will not believe the words of brotherhood and peace and coexistence in Iraq anymore.”

Iraqi security forces said they were providing extra security at churches on Christmas and were searching those entering. One police officer stationed near St. John’s said he did not know how the bomb-rigged car made its way into the church parking lot.

Many Christians living in Baghdad and in other provinces traveled in recent days to the Iraqi Kurdistan region to celebrate Christmas and the new year, fearing just this sort of attack.

In other sectarian violence on Wednesday, six Shiite pilgrims were killed and 11 others were wounded when gunmen attacked their bus on a highway southeast of Baghdad. An improvised explosive device hit Shiite pilgrims north of Baghdad, killing five and wounding 11, according to the police.



This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 25, 2013

An earlier version of this article, as well as the headline,

misstated the location of the church

where worshipers were attacked.

It is in a southern neighborhood of Baghdad,

not south of Baghdad.

    Worshipers Are Targeted at a Christmas Service in Baghdad, NYT, 25.12.2013,






As Violence Rises,

Journalists in Iraq Face Renewed Risks


December 23, 2013
The New York Times


BAGHDAD — Journalists have not escaped the recent surge of violence in Iraq, and several have been shot dead at close range. On Monday, militants took a more fearsome approach: a sustained assault involving five suicide bombers on the headquarters of a local TV news station in Tikrit.

The attackers seized hostages and battled security forces for hours as fire engulfed the upper floors of the building where a state television channel also had a bureau.

As the attack unfolded, Abu Mohamed, a reporter with the local station, called his family to say goodbye.

“I told them, we are trapped inside the building and I don’t know if I will survive,” he said. “A few minutes later two gunmen came in and took our phones and shouted at us, demanding that we stay in our rooms. They wore black masks and carried machine guns and hand grenades.”

In the end, the attackers either blew themselves up or were killed by the security forces. The reporter survived, but at least five of his colleagues did not. The attack underscored the increasingly dangerous situation for journalists in Iraq, where at least five other journalists have been killed in the past three months.

The assault in Tikrit, about 100 miles northwest of Baghdad, appears to open a new, deadlier phase in a vicious campaign by militants with Al Qaeda against journalists. As the overall level of violence increases, it has added to the sense here that the country is on a steady slide back to the bloodiest days of the past decade.

And for journalists here, the latest violence has been all the more shocking because their circumstances had begun to improve: Last year, for the first time since 2003, the Committee to Protect Journalists did not report any “work-related fatalities” among journalists in Iraq.

The only place in the world these days more dangerous for a journalist than Iraq is Syria, where the conflict is increasingly reminiscent of the long war here that never quite ended, even after American troops left in 2011.

This year groups linked to Al Qaeda have gained strength in Iraq, and the level of violence has pushed the country to the edge of a new civil war, with more than 8,000 people killed so far, according to the United Nations, the most since 2008. Other attacks on Monday killed at least 20 people, according to news reports.

Before Monday’s attack in Tikrit, there had been a string of attacks on journalists in Mosul, with five journalists killed in three months — at least one of them in public while reporting. Over the past year or so, Mosul and its surrounding areas have once again become a Qaeda stronghold, with militants controlling entire neighborhoods, extorting local businesses, officials and university professors, residents and security officials said.

On Dec. 15, her last day alive, Nawras al-Nuaimi left her university and headed home for a nap before going to work at a local television station. She had just become engaged, to a doctor, and friends said she was realizing her dream of becoming a television news presenter. On her way home, she was ambushed by several gunmen, who shot her in the head and chest. “She was on top of the world,” said a journalist friend, Mohamed, who gave only his first name because he feared he too could be killed.

Security forces have found lists of journalists targeted for assassination during raids on militant hide-outs in Mosul, and many journalists have stopped reporting in the streets or attending news conferences. Like other reporters in Mosul, Mohamed fled to the relative safety of the nearby autonomous Kurdish region. Even there, though, in the city of Sulaimaniya, a reporter was recently killed outside his home.

Mohamed said he had warned Ms. Nuaimi not to go out alone.

“She told me she is not doing anything wrong, why would anyone think of killing me?” he recalled in a telephone interview.

Like Mohamed, Salar Ahmed, a cameraman at a Mosul TV station, left the city recently for the Kurdish region, as fearful for his safety as he is angry at the government for not protecting him and his colleagues.

“To work as a journalist is tantamount to suicide,” he said. “The government and the security forces are incapable of protecting us. They haven’t been able to catch one person involved in any of the killings so far.”

Journalists in Iraq must also deal with intimidation. In Baghdad, one journalist, Halem Hassan, said that after reporting on corruption recently he was visited at his home by an official whom he had written about and whose bodyguard threatened to kill him if he continued.

“I am a simple man; I have only my pen,” he said. “No one can protect me from those people; they have all the power.”

Human Rights Watch recently stated: “Journalists in Iraq face a double threat, from armed gangs gunning them down and prosecutors charging them, all because of what they write. The recent spate of assassinations of journalists has had a chilling effect on journalists, who risk being prosecuted by the very authorities that are supposed to protect them.”

By the end of 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists counted 93 unsolved murders of journalists in Iraq since 2003, not counting the journalists killed in the crossfire of combat. There is no indication that the Iraqi authorities have investigated the cases.


Tim Arango contributed reporting from Istanbul.

    As Violence Rises, Journalists in Iraq Face Renewed Risks, NYT, 23.12.2013,






Texas Plan to Execute Mexican

May Harm U.S. Ties Abroad,

Kerry Says


December 11, 2013
The New York Times


HOUSTON — The scheduled execution next month of a Mexican national by the State of Texas threatens to damage relations between the United States and Mexico and complicate the ability of the United States to help Americans detained overseas, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has warned Texas officials.

The Mexican, Edgar Arias Tamayo, 46, was convicted of shooting and killing a Houston police officer who was taking him to jail after a robbery in 1994. Mr. Tamayo, who was in the nation illegally, was not notified of his right to contact the Mexican Consulate, in violation of an international treaty known as the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. That violation, an international tribunal’s order for his case to be reviewed and a judge’s recent decision to set Mr. Tamayo’s execution for Jan. 22, are now at the center of a controversy that has attracted the attention of the State Department and the Mexican government.

Despite Mr. Kerry’s involvement, there has been no sign that Texas officials plan to delay the execution. On Wednesday, Mr. Tamayo’s lawyers asked Gov. Rick Perry to grant him a 30-day reprieve and petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his death sentence to life in prison. They are using Mr. Kerry’s letter, sent to Texas officials in September, to highlight the international issues at stake.

In 2004, the top judicial body of the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, ordered the United States to review the convictions of Mr. Tamayo and 50 other Mexican nationals whose Vienna Convention rights, it said, were violated and who were sentenced to death in the United States. The international court, also known as the World Court, found that United States courts had to determine in each case whether the violation of consular rights harmed the defendant. In the nine years since the World Court’s decision, no United States court has reviewed the Vienna Convention issues in Mr. Tamayo’s case, said Maurie Levin, one of his lawyers.

In a letter sent to Mr. Perry and the Texas attorney general, Mr. Kerry took the unusual step of weighing in on a state death-penalty case, arguing that Mr. Tamayo’s execution would affect the ability of the United States to comply with the international court’s order in what is known as the Avena case. The World Court’s judgment is binding on the United States, Mr. Kerry wrote, and complying with it ensures that the federal government can rely on Vienna Convention protections when aiding Americans detained abroad.

“I have no reason to doubt the facts of Mr. Tamayo’s conviction, and as a former prosecutor, I have no sympathy for anyone who would murder a police officer,” Mr. Kerry wrote, describing his concern as a “process issue” that could impact the way Americans are treated overseas. “Our consular visits help ensure U.S. citizens detained overseas have access to food and appropriate medical care, if needed, as well as access to legal representation.”

Mr. Kerry also shared with Mr. Perry and the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, a letter sent to him earlier this year by Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Eduardo Medina Mora, who wrote that “this issue has become and could continue to be a significant irritant in the relations between our two countries.”

Texas officials, including Mr. Perry, have argued that the state is not directly bound by the World Court’s decision and that it is a matter best handled by federal officials and Congress, where legislation ordering the states to comply with the tribunal’s judgment is pending. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from — if you commit a despicable crime like this in Texas, you are subject to our state laws, including a fair trial by jury and the ultimate penalty,” Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Mr. Perry, said when asked to respond to Mr. Kerry’s letter.

In 2008, Texas executed another Mexican national, José E. Medellín, who was part of the Avena case and was convicted in the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston. Before Mr. Medellín’s execution, President Bush ordered Texas and other states to review the convictions of Mr. Medellín and the other Mexican nationals whose consular rights were violated. But the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the president had no authority to order state courts to abide by the World Court’s decision, agreeing with the arguments made by Texas’s then-solicitor general, Ted Cruz, now one of its senators in Washington.

Mr. Medellín was executed four months after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hunstville, Tex., site of the state’s death chamber, the busiest in the country. In his 2010 book, “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington,” Mr. Perry wrote that three justices did not agree with the state’s position, “perhaps believing instead that international law should trump the laws of Texas.”

    Texas Plan to Execute Mexican May Harm U.S. Ties Abroad, Kerry Says,
    NYT, 11.12.2013,






Iran Takes Charm Offensive

to the Persian Gulf


December 4, 2013
The New York Times


TEHRAN — Iran’s top diplomat, who only last month brokered a groundbreaking nuclear deal with the world powers, is now traveling the Persian Gulf region, trying to mend ties with Arab neighbors, Sunni nations that harbor deep suspicions of Shiite Iran.

On Wednesday, the diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, arrived in the United Arab Emirates, having stopped in Kuwait, Qatar and Oman this week, with the goal of undoing years of regional tensions, not only sectarian but also the fruit of the confrontational approach of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Zarif met with several Emirati officials, among them Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, where an estimated 400,000 Iranians live and work in companies that are often front offices for trade with Iran — much of it illicit, because of sanctions. Mr. Zarif also invited the Emirates’ president, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, to visit Tehran.

“My interpretation is that these countries as a whole are very much interested in opening a new chapter in their ties with the Islamic republic, which we hope will benefit peace and stability as well as the progress of the people in the region,” Mr. Zarif was quoted as saying by Iran’s state television on Tuesday.

It was only months ago that Mr. Zarif and his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, shocked the West by sending New Year’s wishes to Israelis and indicated a new flexibility in negotiating an end to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. It now seems that the charm offensive is being directed to regional states, which are just as much a priority to Iran as restoring ties with the West, said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist at Tehran University.

“No matter what happens between Iran and the West, improving relations with all regional countries is highly important to us,” he said.

The visit comes against a backdrop of long-growing regional and sectarian tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as they compete for power and influence through proxies in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of deliberately destabilizing Syria by supporting Sunni “terrorists” against the Syrian government. Iran is accused by the Saudis and the West of supporting not just Syria but Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that played a critical role in turning the Syrian civil war in the government’s favor in recent months.

In 2010, the White House rebuffed requests by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to “cut off the head of the snake” by destroying Iran’s nuclear sites in a military strike, according to leaked United States diplomatic cables.

On Sunday, while visiting the Qatari capital of Doha, home to the most important United States military command in the region, Mr. Zarif said Iran sought reconciliation with Saudi Arabia, emphasizing the recent nuclear deal and saying Iran posed no threat to other countries in the region. “We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia should work together in order to promote peace and stability in the region,” he was quoted as saying by news agencies. “This agreement cannot be at the expense of any country in the region.”

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have in recent years expanded their stockpiles of advanced arms, buying nearly $42 billion of precision guided bombs, antiship missiles and F-15 warplanes and other weaponry from the United States.

Iran and the Emirates have a longstanding dispute themselves, over three tiny Persian Gulf islands. In April, Mr. Ahmadinejad paid a visit to one, Abu Musa, where both Iranians and Emiratis live, after the Emirates renewed its ownership claim on the island. Mr. Zarif said this week that Iran was ready to discuss ownership of the island.

Mr. Zarif said he intended to travel to Saudi Arabia, but a date would be set only “after consultations with our Saudi brothers,” the semiofficial Mehr News agency quoted him as saying last week. But some days later, Al Quds Al Arabi, an Arab newspaper based in London, wrote that unnamed Saudi officials had said the time was not ripe for such a rapprochement.

Iran’s foreign minister did not stop in Bahrain during his Persian Gulf tour, as relations between the two countries have been strained since the island’s Sunni rulers cracked down on Shiite-led protests two years ago.

One former Iranian lawmaker, who is close to Iran’s conservative faction, said the aim of Mr. Zarif’s visits was not just to reduce regional tensions but to sound an alarm over Saudi Arabia’s ambitions.

“We must not forget that it is Saudi Arabia sponsoring the terrorists in Syria, and they are also saying they want to purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan,” the lawmaker, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said. “Mr. Zarif should make clear the regional states should not be worried over us, but over the Saudis.”

    Iran Takes Charm Offensive to the Persian Gulf, NYT, 4.12.2013,






Biden Urges Restraint by China

in Airspace Dispute


December 4, 2013
The New York Times


BEIJING — Chinese leaders pushed back at visiting Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Wednesday over what they assert is their right to control a wide swath of airspace in the bitterly contested East China Sea. But the Chinese also indicated that they had not decided how aggressively to enforce their so-called air defense identification zone, which has ignited tensions with Japan.

Shuttling from one feuding neighbor to the other, Mr. Biden arrived here from Tokyo to urge China’s president, Xi Jinping, to show restraint in the zone, which Mr. Biden said the United States regarded as illegitimate and a provocation.

After five and a half hours of meetings, in which Mr. Biden laid out the American case against China’s action and Mr. Xi made a forceful counterargument, senior administration officials said: “President Xi took on board what the vice president said. It’s up to China, and we’ll see how things will unfold in the coming days and weeks.”

Mr. Xi’s response suggested that China and Japan may be able to manage a standoff that had threatened to escalate dangerously, with China scrambling fighter jets over islands that are claimed by both countries.

“I was very direct about our firm position and our expectations in my conversation with President Xi,” the vice president said in a speech to business people on Thursday morning. He urged China to refrain from “taking steps that will increase tension” and to communicate better with its neighbors.

Mr. Xi, who cultivated personal ties to Mr. Biden when he was China’s vice president, sounded a more upbeat note about the broader relationship, though he conceded “regional hot-spot issues keep cropping up.”

He welcomed a somber-looking Mr. Biden as “my old friend” and said nothing directly about the air defense identification zone.

As Mr. Biden was meeting with Mr. Xi, a senior White House official issued blunt criticism of China’s broader human rights record, saying that even Americans doing business here were not secure.

“The Chinese people are facing increasing restrictions on their freedoms of expression, assembly and association,” said the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, speaking at a human rights meeting in Washington. “This is shortsighted.”

For Mr. Biden, China’s sudden action last month upended what was meant to be a tour of Asia with a wide-ranging agenda. Instead, he has had to walk a fine line: defending an ally and rebuking a potential adversary, while preventing a spat over the islands from mushrooming into a wider conflict.

A day earlier in Tokyo, Mr. Biden condemned China’s action as an effort to “unilaterally change the status quo” and said it had raised “the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” He promised to raise those objections with Mr. Xi in Beijing.

Mr. Biden stopped short of calling on China to rescind the zone, something it is highly unlikely to do, given the nationalist sentiments that have been animated by its standoff with Japan. The American military has ignored the zone, sending B-52 bombers last week to fly through it.

Shortly after Mr. Biden arrived, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the new air defense identification zone was a fact of life that the world needed to accept. The spokesman at the ministry, Hong Lei, described it as a “zone of cooperation, and not confrontation.”

Since the zone was announced on Nov. 23, 55 airlines from 19 countries had provided China with flight information, he said. The Federal Aviation Administration has advised civilian aircraft to comply with China’s request. The F.A.A.’s guidance, which officials said was routine, unsettled Japanese officials, who had instructed their carriers not to identify themselves to the Chinese. But Mr. Biden’s strong words, combined with his appeal to China’s top leader, appear to have smoothed over that flap.

“The vice president seems to have put them back on track,” said Michael J. Green, an adviser on Asia in the George W. Bush administration. “Beijing may not like it, and he probably did not want his trip to be all about this, but he had to send a strong message of dissuasion.”

Mr. Xi’s sanguine words were calculated to send a different message, according to China experts. “A reason for Xi’s tone is a desire to make U.S. allies, especially Japan, uneasy about U.S. support by suggesting subliminally that the U.S.-China relationship is more important than other relationships, and the U.S. is keeping it sound despite China-Japan relations,” said Jeffrey A. Bader, a former China adviser to President Obama.

Mr. Xi, repeating a phrase he used at a meeting with Mr. Obama in Southern California in June, said China wanted to build a “new model of major-country relations,” based on respecting each other’s core interests, collaborating on global problems and devising ways to “appropriately handle sensitive issues and differences between us.”

Mr. Biden, while embracing that formulation, said the relationship between China and the United States needed candor and trust. He said Mr. Xi had been candid in their previous meetings, and Mr. Biden’s aides said their exchanges were similarly uninhibited on Wednesday.

Another major area of focus, American officials said, was North Korea, which has entered another period of uncertainty with reports that a powerful uncle of the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, had been purged from his positions. Officials declined to say whether China had intelligence on the ouster of the uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

But they said Mr. Xi displayed renewed interest in pursuing a dual-track strategy of economic pressure and diplomacy to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, prompted in part by the negotiations that recently led to an interim nuclear deal with Iran.

“They talked at some length about what the Iran example means for North Korea,” said a senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the contents of the meeting.

Before his meeting with Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden dropped in on the consular section of the American Embassy to promote its efforts to streamline the issuing of visas, particularly to students seeking to study in the United States. While there, he delivered a pitch to a line of people, many of them teenagers, waiting to submit applications.

“We’re constantly looking for bright, intelligent, innovative young people to come to America and stay in America,” Mr. Biden said. “I hope you learn that innovation can only occur where you can breathe free, challenge the government, challenge religious leaders.”

Mr. Biden’s audience applauded respectfully, though his words were less relevant to them, since the embassy only processes visas for temporary stays.


Jane Perlez contributed reporting.

    Biden Urges Restraint by China in Airspace Dispute, NYT, 4.12.2013,






Not the Time to Squeeze Iran


November 15, 2013
The New York Times


A rare opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program is at risk because many lawmakers, urged on by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, are insisting that Congress impose tougher economic sanctions, perhaps next week as an amendment to the defense bill.

Sanctions have been crucial in keeping the pressure on Iran. But doubling down on them at this delicate moment, when Iran and six major powers, including the United States, have made progress toward an interim agreement, could cause negotiations between the two sides to collapse and, worse, become a pathway to war.

Layers of sanctions, imposed separately since 2006 by the United Nations Security Council, the United States and Europe, have been largely responsible for moving Iran to the point of serious negotiations. Constrained from selling oil, its main moneymaker, and boxed out of the international financial system, Iran is reeling economically. Oil export earnings have fallen from a range between $110 billion and $120 billion annually to a range of $40 billion to $50 billion, of which about half is available to the government. Hassan Rouhani, elected president earlier this year, believes he has a popular mandate — as well as support from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader — to seek an easing of these sanctions through negotiations.

Even so, Israel, groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and lawmakers like Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, want to ratchet up the pressure. Their stated aim is to force Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear program.

From a Western perspective, that would be an ideal outcome. But new sanctions are unlikely to force Iran to abandon an enterprise in which it has invested billions of dollars and a great deal of national pride. Fresh sanctions would also shred whatever little good will the United States and Iran have begun to rekindle. If Tehran walks away from the talks, Washington will be blamed, the international unity supporting the network of sanctions already in place will unravel, and countries that have reduced imports of oil from Iran will find fewer reasons to continue doing so.

The Iranians could conclude that America is determined to overthrow their entire system, and, as a result, accelerate efforts to build a nuclear bomb. This, in turn, could end up leading to American military action (Mr. Obama has said Iran will not be allowed to acquire a weapon), engaging a war-weary America in yet another costly conflict and further destabilizing the region, while setting Iran’s nuclear program back by only a few years.

Iran has a deeply troubling record of hiding its nuclear program and displaying overt hostility to Israel. America and its allies are right to be skeptical of its promises. But the only rational course is to test Iran’s intentions through negotiations. Further, from what is known so far, the proposal on offer seems reasonable for each side. It would freeze major parts of Iran’s program for six months and allow some relief on sanctions, including access to about $10 billion in Iran’s frozen assets, while a more permanent deal is discussed.

Iran has already taken steps in that direction. On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that since Mr. Rouhani took office in June, the country had virtually halted its previously rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment capacity.

President Obama deserves more time to work out a negotiated settlement with Iran and the other major powers. If the deals falls through, or if inspections by the United Nations unearth cheating, Congress can always impose more sanctions then. But if talks fail now, Mr. Netanyahu and the hard-line interest groups will own the failure, and the rest of us will pay the price.

    Not the Time to Squeeze Iran, NYT, 15.11.2013,






Calling America:

Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?


November 2, 2013
The New York Times


SINGAPORE — HAVING lived and worked abroad for many years, I’m sensitive to the changing ways that foreigners look at America. Over the years, I’ve seen an America that was respected, hated, feared and loved. But traveling around China and Singapore last week, I was confronted repeatedly with an attitude toward America that I’ve never heard before: “What’s up with you guys?”

Whether we were feared or loved, America was always the outsized standard by which all others were compared. What we built and what we dreamt were, to many, the definition of the future. Well, today, to many people, we look like the definition of a drunken driver — like a lifelong mentor who has gone on a binge and is no longer predictable. And, as for defining the future, the country that showed the world how to pull together to put a man on the moon and defeat Nazism and Communism, today broadcasts a politics dominated by three phrases: “You can’t do that,” “It’s off the table” and “The president didn’t know.” A Singaporean official who has been going to America for decades expressed shock to me at being in Washington during the government shutdown and how old and emotionally depressed the city felt.

“Few Americans are aware of how much America has lost in this recent episode of bringing the American economy to the edge of a cliff,” said Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy here, and the author of “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World.” “People always looked up to America as the best-run country, the most reasonable, the most sensible. And now people are asking: ‘Can America manage itself and what are the implications for us’ ” — if it can’t?

In talking to Asian college students, teachers, diplomats and businesspeople, here is how I’d distill what was on their minds: “Are you really going to shut down your government again? Like, who does that? And, by the way, don’t think that doesn’t affect my business over here, because I’m holding a lot of dollars and I don’t know what their value is going to be. Also, how could the people who gave us Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, I.B.M., H.P. and Google not be able to build a workable health care website? I know it had five million users, but there are 48 million Indonesians on Facebook!”

Worse, whenever you’d visit China or Singapore, it was always the people there who used to be on the defensive when discussing democracy. Now, as an American, you’re the one who wants to steer away from that subject. After all, how much should we be bragging about a system where it takes $20 million to be elected to the Senate; or where a majority of our members of Congress choose their voters through gerrymandering rather than voters choosing them; or where voting rights laws are being weakened; or where lawmakers spend most of their free time raising money, not studying issues; or where our Congress has become a forum for legalized bribery; or where we just had a minority of a minority threaten to undermine America’s credit rating if we didn’t overturn an enacted law on health care; or where we can’t pass even the most common sense gun law banning assault weapons after the mass murder of schoolchildren?

I still don’t believe there would be many takers for the commentary on the official Chinese news agency Xinhua, after the government shutdown, suggesting that it was “perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world.” But Xinhua got the befuddled part right. Many people would still line up in a blizzard to come to America, though for too many now that is not because we’re the “beacon on the hill” but rather “the cleanest dirty shirt.”

Singapore is not a full-fledged democracy. What it does have is a government that wakes up each day asking: What world are we living in and how do we best use the resources we have to enable more of our citizens to thrive in this world? Little things here catch my eye, like the E.R.P.: the electronic road pricing system that greets you when you drive into the center city and tells you every minute, via an electronic billboard, how much it will automatically charge you when you drive into the downtown. It constantly adjusts the price based on the number of cars that can comfortably fit the roads.

The Bush team tried to fund a similar system to reduce congestion and pollution for Manhattan, but it was killed by other boroughs and lawmakers in Albany. And that is what bothers me most today. It’s not just that we can no longer pull together to put a man on the moon. It’s that we can’t even implement proven common-sense solutions that others have long mastered — some form of national health care, gun control, road pricing, a gasoline tax to escape our budget and carbon bind.

As Andy Karsner, the former assistant secretary of energy who participated in last week’s New York Times forum here, remarked to me: “This is the first time I have visited Singapore where its modernity is not a novelty, but a depressing contrast.” Because, he added, you know that all the modernity and prosperity you see here “is not based on natural resources but on a natural resourcefulness — and on implementing with ease best practices, many of which ironically originated in the United States.”

    Calling America: Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?, NYT, 2.11.2013,






Can Iraq Be Saved?


November 1, 2013
The New York Times


With Iraq wracked by the worst violence in three years, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was in Washington this week looking for military aid and other help. This was quite a turnabout, since he had essentially forced American troops to leave in 2011. Since then, the pressures in Iraq have grown, and Mr. Maliki bears much responsibility for the current turmoil.

His plea for assistance is urgent because Al Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni group and Al Qaeda affiliate that was significantly degraded in 2008, is again a major threat, stoking war against Iraq’s majority Shiites. Since January, more than 7,000 people have been killed in bombings and shootings in outdoor markets, cafes, bus stations, mosques and pilgrimages in Shiite areas.

Al Qaeda in Iraq waged a virulent insurgency that brought the country near civil war in 2006 and 2007, then suffered big defeats from Iraqi Sunni tribal groups and American forces. Since the Americans withdrew, the group has gained strength against Iraqi forces that are incapable of fully protecting civilians and has taken in fighters spilling in from neighboring Syria. These are serious problems. Mr. Maliki, however, has been playing a central role in the disorder. There is no doubt that militant threats would be less pronounced now if he had united the country around shared goals rather than stoked sectarian conflict.

Instead, he has wielded his power to favor his Shiite majority brethren at the expense of the minority Sunnis. The Sunnis, banished from power after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, have grown more bitter as they have been excluded from political and economic life. Mr. Maliki is also at odds with the Kurds, the country’s other major ethnic group in what was supposed to be a power-sharing government.

American officials have often argued that, however imperfect, post-Saddam Iraq has benefited because Iraqis shifted their battles from the street to the political arena. But the escalating bloodshed has steadily poisoned the political space, undermined incipient democratic institutions and made a stable future that much more elusive.

Iraq might be in a safer place today had Mr. Maliki reached a deal with the administration to keep a small number of American troops in the country after 2011 to continue military training and intelligence gathering. He would also have more credibility if he had not aligned Iraq so closely with Iran, a Shiite state, and had not permitted Iran to fly through Iraqi airspace to deliver arms to Syria.

The United States has a strategic interest in Iraq’s stability, and in recent months it has resumed counterterrorism cooperation, including intelligence sharing. That should continue, as should American efforts to foster better relations between Iraq and the region.

President Obama and Mr. Maliki, who met at the White House on Friday, agreed on the need for equipment so Iraqi forces can pursue militants. But there was no indication that Mr. Maliki, who plans to run for a third term, had received new commitments for American-made weapons like Apache helicopters and expedited delivery of F-16 fighters.

Given his authoritarian duplicity, there is no reason to trust him with even more arms unless he adopts a more inclusive approach to governing and ensures that next April’s election will be fair and democratic.

    Can Iraq Be Saved?, NYT, 1.11.2013,






Endless War, Endless Suffering


October 30, 2013
The New York Times


Add a potential polio epidemic to the threats that innocent civilians now face because of Syria’s civil war. It is part of what American officials say may be the worst humanitarian disaster since the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed an estimated 800,000 people. But while the tragedy is unfolding in full view, many countries, including Russia and China, have given hardly anything to the United Nations campaign to meet the Syrians’ basic needs.

Civilians have paid a terrible price ever since President Bashar al-Assad of Syria used force to crush peaceful protests that began in 2011, touching off a full-scale civil war. Officials now put the death toll, including combatants, at 115,000.

Of the Syrians who have survived the war so far, some five million are virtual refugees in their own country — trapped in neighborhoods isolated by military blockades, or uprooted from their homes and living in vacant buildings, schools, mosques, parks and crowded homes of relatives. Most are desperately short of food and medicine, a deprivation likely to worsen as winter sets in.

Meanwhile, another two million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, meaning that seven million people, or about one-third of Syria’s population, have seen their lives upended by the war.

Now comes another trial: the country’s first outbreak of polio in 14 years. United Nations officials have begun to vaccinate 2.5 million children in Syria and more than eight million others in the region after discovering that 10 children in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour have contracted polio. A 25-year campaign by the World Health Organization had largely eradicated what had been a global scourge, narrowing the afflicted states to Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Public health experts suspect that jihadists who entered Syria to join the fight against Mr. Assad may have been the carriers.

The United Nations has asked its members for $1.5 billion to provide food, schooling and medicine to vulnerable Syrians. That is short of the need, yet the response has been disgraceful. Only 61 percent of the money earmarked for refugees outside of Syria has been collected, while 36 percent of the aid for Syrians inside the country has been collected, according to United Nations figures. China, the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States, has donated a miserable $1 million, while Russia, awash in oil and gas profits, has given $10.3 million.

An analysis by Oxfam America, the international aid agency, says that relative to their wealth, France, Qatar, Russia and the United Arab Emirates have donated far less than they can afford. The United States, at more than $1 billion, is the largest contributor, but it can still do better, Oxfam said. Because of the difficulty of obtaining comparable numbers, China was not part of this analysis.

The best way to help the Syrians is to end the war. The next best thing is to mitigate the suffering by contributing generously and by pressuring both sides in the conflict to allow aid workers to deliver essential supplies.

    Endless War, Endless Suffering, NYT, 30.10.2013,






Allies in Revolt


October 29, 2013
The New York Times


It is not every day that America finds itself facing open rebellion from its allies, yet that is what is happening with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. The Obama administration has denied there are serious problems. But there are clearly differences, some perhaps irreconcilable.

Here’s a quick summary: Saudi Arabia and Israel are deeply worried about the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran — their mortal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are sore at President Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in ousting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, in particular his decision not to respond with military strikes to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Mr. Obama instead chose a diplomatic deal under which Syria’s chemical weapons would be dismantled.

The Saudis are also unhappy that Mr. Obama withdrew support for Hosni Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, and then worked with Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was elected to replace Mr. Mubarak but was later thrown out.

All three countries have resorted to threats and displays of pique to make their points. Saudi Arabia renounced a United Nations Security Council seat it had worked hard to win because, it said, the United States and the United Nations had failed to achieve a Mideast peace agreement or solve the Syria crisis, as if either objective could be easily delivered by America alone. Although it is hard to see how other countries like China and Russia would be better alternatives, Saudi officials have gone so far as to complain that they regard the United States as unreliable and would look elsewhere for their security.

Meanwhile, Turkey, a NATO member, has said it would buy a long-range missile defense system worth $3.4 billion from China because China’s bid was lower than bids from the United States and Europe. The decision may also, however, have reflected Turkey’s annoyance with Mr. Obama’s Syria policy. (It’s a dumb deal, too, and Turkish officials now seem to be reconsidering it; China’s system will be hard to integrate with NATO equipment, thus undermining alliance defenses and Turkey’s.)

As for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing his best to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran, including urging Congress to impose more economic sanctions on Iran that could bring the incipient negotiations between Iran’s new government and the major powers to a halt.

Much of this anger at the United States is driven by a case of nerves. The Arab Spring uprisings shook the old order, plunged the region into chaos, created opportunities for Iran to expand its influence in Syria and Iraq and threatened to worsen the Sunni-Shiite divide. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-majority country, in particular, fears an American rapprochement with Shiite-majority Iran.

But Mr. Obama’s first responsibility is to America’s national interest. And he has been absolutely right in refusing to be goaded into a war in Syria or bullied into squandering a rare, if remote, chance to negotiate an Iranian nuclear deal.

In addressing the United Nations last month, Mr. Obama reinforced his intention to narrow his regional diplomatic focus to the Iranian nuclear deal and an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Some have read this as weakness and retreat, rather than pragmatism. We wish he had put more emphasis on Egypt and Iraq. But his priorities make sense. His task now is to reassure the allies that the United States remains committed to their security.

    Allies in Revolt, NYT, 29.10.2013,






N.S.A. Snooping and the Damage Done


October 25, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama spent this week trying to persuade America’s close allies, France and Germany, that the National Security Agency’s extensive eavesdropping in those countries is under adequate control. He was not entirely successful. His efforts to reassure President François Hollande of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany seem to have been as incomplete as the explanations the administration has given to the American public about the agency’s excessive domestic surveillance.

The German government learned this week that the newsmagazine Der Spiegel had new evidence (presumably via information leaked by Edward Snowden) that the N.S.A. had monitored Ms. Merkel’s cellphone. On Monday, Le Monde reported that the agency had gathered data on more than 70 million phone calls and messages inside France within one 30-day period, suggesting a surveillance program that went well beyond any legitimate tracking of international terrorists.

Mr. Obama sought to assure Ms. Merkel that her phone was not being monitored now and would not be in the future, but he seemed to indicate nothing about past monitoring. David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti reported in The Times on Friday that Germany has evidence of monitoring going back to the George W. Bush administration.

The Guardian also reported this week that the phone conversations of at least 35 world leaders were monitored by the N.S.A. in 2006, according to an agency memo leaked by Mr. Snowden. The N.S.A. apparently encouraged American diplomats and officials to provide phone numbers to be added to the surveillance program. Would it be surprising if foreign leaders now became much more restrictive about sharing their numbers with United States officials?

Such surveillance undermines the trust of allies and their willingness to share the kind of confidential information needed to thwart terrorism and other threats. When the N.S.A. violates French or German law, law enforcement agencies in those nations cooperate with the agency at their own risk. There is also the more subtle damage done by the feeling that the United States plays by its own rules and respects neither the sovereignty nor the political sensibilities of some of its closest democratic allies.

Broad data collection programs by the United States government also harm the efforts of American Internet companies to market their services internationally by casting doubt on their ability to protect privacy. Such companies face heavy legal pressures from the N.S.A. and other intelligence agencies to make private data available for government scrutiny.

And there is new pressure on European governments to seek stricter data protection in negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, with the eavesdropping reports souring the political climate for these talks.

European leaders are not naïve about the realities of international snooping. American security is built on the strength and reliability of its international alliances. These should not be put at risk merely because the N.S.A. now has the capacity to monitor more communications in more places than ever.

A good way out of this mess would be for Washington to take up the proposal made Friday by Germany and France to negotiate a formal pact that would set mutually acceptable surveillance guidelines. The next steps must come from Mr. Obama. He should move beyond unpersuasive and vague pledges to balance security against privacy, to substantive guidelines that limit the overreaching of N.S.A. surveillance programs abroad and at home.

    N.S.A. Snooping and the Damage Done, NYT, 25.10.2013,






Egyptians Abandoning Hope and Now,

Reluctantly, Homeland


October 22, 2013
The New York Times


CAIRO — In his years as a dissident, the book publisher had taken on Egypt’s autocratic government and its censors, aided revolutionaries during the uprising and protested in the streets to protect freedoms he thought he had helped the country win.

But like many other Egyptians these days, the publisher, Mohamed Hashem, says he feels defeated by the latest tragic turn, toward growing violence, repression and civil strife after the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July. Tired of waiting for better days, the publisher announced last week that he would emigrate, stunning his friends and a legion of young fans.

“I won’t postpone happiness until I die,” he said.

Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life.

Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.

Others lamented Egypt’s narrowing political horizons and what seemed like the growing likelihood that a military officer will become Egypt’s next leader. Some people said they were shocked at how cavalier their friends and neighbors had become about the rising level of bloodshed.

And for everyone, there was still no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life, the traffic, the rising prices, the multiplying mounds of trash in the streets.

There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.

As he studied in a cafe for medical exams, Tareq Nour, 23, reeled from the headaches. His regular commute to work, at a public hospital, was blocked by protests by Morsi supporters, and government checkpoints. His salary, roughly $45 a month, was too measly to even call an insult, he said. The nightly curfew imposed by the military-backed government further constricted his life.

He had faced peril to build a different future, volunteering in a field hospital during the 18-day revolt against Mr. Mubarak, when Mr. Nour was injured by birdshot. “We’re going back to the old system,” he said. “We didn’t change the country.” So he said he was preparing to travel to the United States, out of necessity more than choice.

“I need to get out of here,” he said.

As citizens grow ever more weary, the government insists that Egypt is moving along a democratic path, and will soon have a constitution that will lead to new elections. At the same time, many fear that elections will simply confirm the restoration of the old order, as the names of generals and security officials are floated as candidates for president, including Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s powerful defense minister.

Fearing that the future is already written, Sarah Radwan, 33, a graphic designer, was waiting to receive her contract to work in Qatar, having few regrets about leaving Egypt behind. After the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, “I had hoped things would get better,” she said. “This was a kind of utopia.”

Ms. Radwan said she had been disappointed by Mr. Morsi’s year as president, and was now worried about the return of the military. Frustration over the last two and a half years had led her, as it had others, to damning conclusions about her society’s capacity to change — to say things that were unthinkable just two years ago.

“The corruption is deep inside us,” she said. “I thought it would take five years. But we’re not even taking the first step.”

Like generations of Egyptians, her father had worked abroad, in Saudi Arabia, and warned about the loneliness of self-exile. “I never thought I would leave,” Ms. Radwan said, saying that in the past she had considered moving only as far as the coast, to Alexandria on the Mediterranean or Hurghada on the Red Sea.

“I love this country,” she said. “I want people to calm down.”

The desperation cuts across ideological lines and threatens to sustain the “brain drain” that stunted Egypt’s development for decades. As the government has cracked down on Mr. Morsi’s supporters, killing hundreds at protests and imprisoning thousands more, Islamists are being hounded from the country, repeating grim cycles of repression and exile from Egypt’s past.

And some who had hoped that the military-backed government would deliver stability — even if it meant using an iron fist — said they were leaving because security had not come soon enough.

Mostafa Sobhy, 32, a pharmacology lecturer, said his salary depended on tutoring foreign students at his university. With Egypt frozen in political crisis, and fears of a militant insurgency growing, the foreigners had all stayed away. Mr. Sobhy said he had taken a job in Najran, a town in Saudi Arabia.

“Mubarak’s days were better,” he said.

Last Wednesday, Mr. Hashem, the book publisher, announced his decision to leave on Facebook, writing that the “nightmare” of exile would become a reality for him.

“I will refuse, fiercely and until I die, to choose between the bitterness of the military or manipulators of religion,” he wrote. “I will emigrate, because I don’t find that which expresses the spirit of the great revolution between those conflicting interests.”

“Until we meet at the next revolution,” he wrote.

In an interview a few days later in the tumbledown offices of Merit, his publishing house, Mr. Hashem laughed as he recalled the bitter response to the post.

Some of his friends, including Egypt’s best-known poets and artists, had called to curse at him. “They said, ‘You’re being a coward, and running away,’ ” he said. Other people understood. One online commenter, Mohamed Abdel Nasser, wrote that Mr. Hashem’s was the only proper response until Egypt’s “madness” was over.

The walls around Mr. Hashem were lined with the hundreds of books Merit had published, including some about taboo subjects that other publishing houses had been afraid to touch. His Facebook post seemed to have been more a manifesto than a plan: he had not settled on a destination, but thought of going to one of the countries where he had won awards for literary freedom over the years, like Germany or the United States.

Visitors, including young artists who had spent hours in Mr. Hashem’s nightly literary salons, stopped by to greet him. He said they made him want to reconsider his decision to leave.

“People are deifying Sisi, and others are deifying Morsi,” he said. “All of Mubarak’s men are out there as if nothing ever happened. There is no place for the likes of us.”

“I am lost,” Mr. Hashem added. “I am very, very lost.”


Marwa Nasser and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

    Egyptians Abandoning Hope and Now, Reluctantly, Homeland, NYT, 22.10.2013,






Aid to Pakistan to Resume

as Tension With U.S. Eases


October 19, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The United States plans to give more than $1.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan for programs that had been blocked because of tension between the two nations over events including the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, American officials said Saturday.

The decision to release the money, expected to be discussed when President Obama welcomes the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to the White House on Wednesday, was confirmed by the State Department and Congressional officials.

The White House has set a warm tone for the Obama-Sharif session, officially stating that the meeting would highlight the “resilience of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship” and further cooperation on trade and economic development, regional stability and the fight against extremism.

For all the good will that the Obama administration is seeking to generate through this package, relations between the countries are still dictated by tensions over the C.I.A.-operated drone program. Mr. Sharif’s government has repeatedly condemned American drone strikes that have occurred in Pakistan’s tribal belt since his administration began in June, despite assurances from American officials that the strikes were killing few civilians.

Another point of contention has been the future of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of American combat troops in 2014. American officials believe that Pakistan can play a key role in efforts to draw the Afghan Taliban into peace talks, yet remain suspicious of the Pakistani military’s links to certain militant factions such as the Haqqani network, which has carried out many attacks on Western and Afghan troops inside Afghanistan.

Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, said the renewed aid was “part of a long process of restarting security assistance cooperation after implementation was slowed during the bilateral challenges of 2011 and 2012.”

The relationship with Pakistan struck a low point in 2011, when a C.I.A. contractor shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, the Navy SEAL team killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad and an errant American airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border.

American military assistance had been frozen since the Bin Laden killing, in May 2011. At the peak of tension between the two nations, Pakistan blocked American and NATO supplies from crossing in and out of Afghanistan, causing them to pile up at the border and creating logistical difficulties for the shrinking war effort and the withdrawal of troops.

Relations have been gradually improving since then. Pakistan reopened the NATO supply routes in 2012, after the Obama administration apologized for the 2011 airstrike.

The official notifications from the State Department to Congress, required to release the funds, were sent during several months over the summer, long before the visit of Mr. Sharif was planned. The decision to release the money was previously reported on Saturday by The Associated Press.

“U.S. security assistance continues to build the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities of Pakistan’s security forces, which is critical to countering violence in the western border regions,” Ms. Harf said in an e-mail.

She added that civilian aid had “continued uninterrupted.” Civilian aid, she said, had “delivered real results on the issues most important to Prime Minister Sharif and all Pakistanis: energy, education, and economic growth.”

The United States provides about $2 billion in annual security aid, roughly half of which goes to reimburse Pakistan for conducting military operations to fight terrorism.


Declan Walsh contributed reporting from London.

    Aid to Pakistan to Resume as Tension With U.S. Eases, NYT, 19.10.2013,






As Iran Shifts,

Hard-Liners See Threat to Battle Cry


October 18, 2013
The New York Times


TEHRAN — With the believers pouring out of the Friday Prayer site in Tehran, Ali Akbar and his friends sprang into action, hastily spreading posters of the American flag on the asphalt and switching on their megaphone.

“Death to America!” one of them yelled through the loudspeaker, as others urged the middle-aged men leaving the prayer grounds to stomp on the American flags. “Death to America!” the men shouted back, with a certain casualness that betrayed decades of uttering Iran’s most important revolutionary slogan.

As Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, steers the country away from its confrontational posture toward the West, he is inevitably calling into question the bedrock anti-American ideology of the Islamic republic. That is turning the revolution’s leading slogan, “Death to America,” into a political battleground.

“These three words are the blood of our ideology,” said one of those leaving Friday Prayer, Mohammad Jahanbi. He said he had been a political prisoner during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and was a veteran of the bloody eight-year war with Iraq. “We must hold on to ‘Death to America’; otherwise, our revolution will be lost.”

But the current government has been calling for reasoned actions rather than slogans. “We can stand against powers with prudence rather than with slogans,” Mr. Rouhani said recently.

The issue gained prominence recently when the personal Web site of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who is close to the new government, published his older memoirs. Mr. Rafsanjani had indicated that the founder of the Islamic republic, his mentor and revolutionary comrade Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had once hinted that “Death to America” could be eliminated if the conditions were right, just as relations could be re-established, if needed.

Mr. Rafsanjani was immediately attacked in hard-line newspapers, and state-run television broadcast a long program countering his claims, accusing “some” of insinuating the idea of duality in the stances of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Rafsanjani issued an apology.

The affair quickly blew over, but it underscored the hard-liners’ fears about the warming relations between Iran and the West, not to speak of an ultimate normalization. While they officially support the current nuclear talks between the government and representatives of the “great Satan,” hard-liners are worried that Mr. Rouhani’s outreach could change Iran’s rigid political landscape beyond recognition.

After all, some have said, “Death to America” could be eliminated from the revolutionary discourse just as surely as “Death to the Soviet Union” was a generation ago.

And so they marched, a couple of hundred people in this capital of 12 million. American flags were burned, children waved portraits of President Obama with Dracula-like fangs, and security officers holding walkie-talkies tried to look inconspicuous.

While many, if not most, Iranians in the capital scoff at the “Death to America” crowd, anti-Americanism remains an important part of the Islamic republic’s ideology and legitimacy.

The state television program that criticized Mr. Rafsanjani cited a passage from the last will and testament of Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989. “The U.S.A. is the foremost enemy of Islam,” it said. “It is a terrorist state by nature that has set fire to everything everywhere, and its ally, the international Zionism, does not stop short of any crime to achieve its base and greedy desires, crimes that the tongue and pen are ashamed to utter or write.”

The state news media give prominence to anti-American demonstrations, like a well-orchestrated outburst recently among Iranian pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This week, state television showed believers during Id al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, who would almost not stop shouting “Death to America.”

Mr. Rouhani’s government has announced that it wants to conduct a public opinion survey on the advisability of its outreach to the United States. But it is unclear if this will happen, analysts say, because it would lay bare the ideological divisions in the Islamic republic.

A similar poll conducted in 2003 showed that 70 percent favored establishing ties with America. There was no follow-up, though, because the pollsters were jailed for several years.

In the Islamic republic, support of “the people” is often cited by all factions. But with the animosity toward the United States, things can get complicated. A majority of the Iranian electorate voted for Mr. Rouhani and his conciliatory international polices, while the revolutionary narrative prescribes that the fight against America is eternal and supported by all Iranians.

At the demonstration on Friday, the script played out like clockwork, as it has for the past three decades. About two dozen protesters worked themselves into a frenzy, and domestic and international camera teams and photographers zoomed in as the demonstrators set fire to an American flag.

As black smoke filled the air, they pumped their fists and let out a lusty “Death to America.”

An older man, wearing a black skullcap, a sign that he had been on the pilgrimage to Mecca, dragged a plastic poster showing Mr. Obama decorated with Stars of David and the word “oppressor.” As he was about to throw it on the fire, one of the young organizers of the demonstration stopped him.

“Don’t burn this,” he said. “We paid for this poster with public money. We need to use it for a very long time to come.”



This article has been revised

to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 19, 2013

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the Web site that published former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs. It was Mr. Rafsanjani’s personal Web site, not the personal Web site of a hard-line general.

    As Iran Shifts, Hard-Liners See Threat to Battle Cry, NYT, 18.10.2013,






Syrian Civilians

Bore Brunt of Rebels’ Fury,

Report Says


October 11, 2013
The New York Times


LATAKIA, Syria — Before dawn on Aug. 4, Raed Shakouhi, an olive and walnut farmer in a government-held hilltop village near the Syrian coast, just across a valley from rebel territory, was woken by gunshots and cries of “God is great.”

Mr. Shakouhi, 42, hid among nearby trees with his wife and four young children. The next day, he emerged to find his uncle shot dead, his family’s possessions stolen or destroyed, and the streets littered with bloodstains and the carcasses of farm animals, he recalled last month in an interview in the state-run shelter where he now lives. Many of his neighbors here in Latakia and in the surrounding villages, mostly members of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, fared even worse.

In a coordinated attack, numerous rebel groups fought off a small garrison of government troops and swept into the villages, killing 190 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Friday. At least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children, the report said. More than 200 civilians are still being held hostage.

“This is the first time that we have documented opposition forces actually systematically targeting civilians,” said Lama Fakih, the group’s deputy director in Beirut, Lebanon, who last month visited five of the villages, which the government had recaptured by Aug. 19. She also reviewed medical records and interviewed 19 witnesses as well as doctors, military officials and opposition members for the 113-page report.

“We have up to now not documented anything approaching this scale of abuse” by opposition fighters, Ms. Fakih said, adding that the number and methodical nature of the killings constituted a “crime against humanity.”

There have been reports of smaller-scale atrocities by rebel forces, including the videotaped execution of seven Syrian Army soldiers last year. Human Rights Watch has documented some of those attacks, as well as what it calls “egregious war crimes and crimes against humanity” by government forces, including the killing of nearly 250 people in the mostly Sunni towns of Banias and Bayda in May, and a widespread policy of detaining and torturing opposition activists.

The disclosures in the latest report cast further doubt on the effectiveness of Western efforts to isolate foreign fighters and other extremists within the rebellion and foster a command-and-control structure for the fractured opposition forces. And they seem bound to bolster the government’s strategy of convincing Syrians and world leaders that the alternative to its rule is chaos and extremism.

The groups accused of leading the Latakia operation and committing the bulk of the atrocities include the extremist, foreign-led Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — which is also engaged in armed conflict with rival rebel groups — along with the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and two other Islamist groups that include foreign fighters.

None of those cited as primary participants appear to be under the control of the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, which has struggled to show it can retake the initiative on the ground from extremists. But at least 20 groups took part in the fighting, the report says, including some affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, the loose-knit collection of mainly Syrian rebel forces the council is trying to organize.

And in a video filmed nearby during the operation, Gen. Salim Idris, who leads the military council, is seen insisting that his forces played a leading role, in statements responding to criticism from Islamist groups that his fighters were hanging back. The report said it was unclear whether forces linked to General Idris took part in the initial Aug. 4 attack, when forensic evidence suggests most of the civilians were killed. But it also said that anyone continuing to coordinate with such groups could be complicit in war crimes.

The Human Rights Watch report accuses the five leading fighting groups of crimes against humanity; names several private donors in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf countries as financiers of the operation; blames Turkey for allowing the fighters to use its territory; and calls for an arms embargo against the five groups, adding to its previous calls for such an embargo against the Syrian government.

“Unified action by the international community is really long overdue when it comes to trying to deter these abuses and violations,” Ms. Fakih said, recommending that war crimes in Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court, which could investigate all parties.

The killings increased fear among the Alawite population, Syria’s largest religious minority. Alawites in the province of Latakia said in interviews that they were being indiscriminately targeted because President Bashar al-Assad and many government leaders are Alawites. During the attacks, an Alawite shrine was damaged and its sheik killed.

The report did not find evidence that children had been cooked in pots, fetuses ripped from mothers’ bodies or women sexually mutilated, as some government supporters had contended. But it documented several witness accounts of women, children and elderly people being gunned down as they tried to flee and of the infirm being killed in their homes, as well as forensic evidence that victims had been bound, decapitated or shot at close range.

In a school in Latakia converted into a shelter for people who had fled the villages, people indicated a willingness to speak of their experiences, but government officials prevented reporters from talking to anyone except Mr. Shakouhi, saying a psychiatrist had ruled that survivors were too traumatized to discuss the events.

A doctor in Latakia, who asked not to be identified for safety reasons, said the government appeared to have kept the episode relatively quiet, a surprise given its eagerness to highlight what it identifies as opposition atrocities and its cooperation with Human Rights Watch, which said officials did not impede access or sit in on interviews. The doctor said she and other Alawites in Latakia suspected that the government wanted to avoid news reports that could provoke panic or revenge attacks against Sunnis, which could further destabilize the area, and to conceal anger among Alawites that the villages were not better defended.

The attackers used cannons, mortars, rocket launchers, armored vehicles and tanks captured from the army, routing an army post and killing 30 soldiers after two soldiers had switched sides and shot at their comrades from behind, the report said.

Fighters dressed in black or in Pakistani-style tunics then strode through villages, attacking people with seeming abandon, witnesses said.

A villager in Blouta, Basheer Shebli, told Human Rights Watch that during the attack, he heard a man outside his house say, in classical Arabic, indicating he was probably a foreigner, “Let’s kill whoever is in the house.” As Mr. Shebli fled with his wife and four children, gunfire erupted. He was shot several times, and his wife was killed, dropping their 4-year-old son, who was taken hostage.

Ghazi Ibrahim Badour of Barouda said fighters opened fire as he and his wife fled with their 10 children.

“My daughter Sefah Badour, who has a master’s in Arabic literature, and my daughter Sara, who has a degree in philosophy, were killed,” he said. Morgue photos confirmed his account of Sefah being shot in the head and Sara in the chest.

Another woman, Saada Mansour, appeared to have had her hands cut off to make it easier to steal the bracelets she often wore, one relative speculated. “They were just tin,” he said, according to the report.

In the shelter, Mr. Shakouhi said the attackers had destroyed his olive orchard, emptied barrels of olive oil from his storeroom, scattered his family pictures and smashed the lute he loved to play.

Still, he said he wanted a settlement to end the war. “If we get a compromise, it’s victory for the sake of the nation,” he said.

Asked if he could again live side by side with nearby villagers who supported the rebels, Mr. Shakouhi said he could, adding that if any of them took part in the attack, they must have been forced or brainwashed.

“Anyone who knows what Syria means, he is my brother,” he said.


Hwaida Saad and an employee

of The New York Times contributed reporting.

    Syrian Civilians Bore Brunt of Rebels’ Fury, Report Says, NYT, 11.10.2013,






Target in U.S. Raid on Somalia

Is Called Top Shabab Planner

of Attacks Abroad


October 6, 2013
The New York Times


NAIROBI, Kenya — The target of the American commando raid in the Horn of Africa, a Kenyan of Somali origin known as Ikrimah, is one of the Shabab militant group’s top planners for attacks beyond its base in Somalia, an American official said Sunday.

Though Mr. Ikrimah had not been tied directly to the Shabab’s deadly assault on a shopping mall in Nairobi last month, fears of a similar attack against Western targets broke a deadlock among officials in Washington over whether to conduct the raid.

Special-operations commanders were in favor, pushing for a more aggressive response to the rising threat from the group in Somalia, while administration officials were nervous about incurring American military casualties. As it turned out, there were none, according to a United States official — but Mr. Ikrimah was not captured, and there is as yet no evidence that he was killed in the firefight that broke out on the Somali coast in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Mr. Ikrimah is an associate of two Al Qaeda operatives who were involved in the 1998 bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi and in the 2002 attacks on a hotel and an airline in Mombasa. SEAL Team 6, the Navy commando unit that killed the Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was dispatched to try to apprehend him.

The Navy SEALs approached the Somali coast under cover of darkness for what was supposed to be a stealthy snatch-and-grab operation from a seaside villa in the port town of Baraawe.

But instead of slipping away with the senior militant they had come to capture, the SEALs found themselves under sustained fire. The American troops retreated unharmed after inflicting casualties on the Shabab defenders, but the militant group has claimed victory in the skirmish on Saturday.

“Al Shabab can lick their wounds and take some satisfaction that, after all, they repulsed the world’s most powerful military force,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “On the other hand, for Al Shabab it sends a pretty disquieting message that the U.S. is willing to intervene and bring the war right to their doorstep.”

Many questions about the raid remained unanswered on Sunday. The villa might have been a residence belonging to Ahmed Abdi Godane, the Shabab’s leader, according to local residents in Baraawe who were reached by phone on Sunday. The spokesman for the Shabab, Sheik Abdiaziz Abu Musab, denied that the villa housed anything other than “normal fighters,” saying it was “like any other house — it is not that special.”

Analysts said it was highly unlikely that the raid had resulted in the death of either Mr. Godane or Mr. Ikrimah. If it had, “you would think the U.S. would make a major fuss about it,” said Abdi Aynte, director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies in Mogadishu. “The fact that they don’t know they’ve killed someone or not tells us a lot about the fact that the raid was not too successful.”

Saturday’s operation came after months of simmering tensions inside the American government about whether direct-assault missions in Somalia were worth the potential risks to American troops.

“The evolution of threats has refocused counterterrorism resources and attention on Africa and on terrorist groups operating in that region,” said Valentina Soria, a security analyst at IHS Jane’s in London.

Former officials and Somalia experts said that the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command has been collecting more precise intelligence for some time about the whereabouts of senior Shabab leaders, and have pushed for permission to carry out capture-or-kill missions inside the country.

State Department officials wondered whether such raids could accomplish enough to justify the significant risks the American troops would run. Animating the discussions have been questions about whether Al Shabab posed a danger to Americans compared with groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has tried to attack the United States on several occasions. The attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi last month, which left more than 60 people dead, “provides the impetus politically to respond to the changing threat,” said Bill Braniff, executive director of Start, a terrorism research center based at the University of Maryland.

The mall attack yielded intelligence leads, as militants actively discussed the days-long siege in Kenya among themselves; tracing those discussions made it easier to determine the militants’ whereabouts. Planning for the commando raid began more than a week ago, an official said.

“The opportunity question is about intelligence — when do you have enough information to act?” said Mr. Braniff. “When you do have information, that tends to force your hand.”

The raid in Baraawe was the most significant operation by American troops in Somalia since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, in a raid near the town four years ago. Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a militant commander who acted as the group’s liaison with Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, was apprehended in April 2011 by the United States military in the Gulf of Aden. Last year, a team of Navy SEALs rescued two hostages held by Somali pirates, also without suffering any casualties.

The Shabab spokesman, Mr. Musab, claimed the group had advance word that the raid on Saturday was coming, though its nature was unclear. “There was some information that there was going to be a strike that took place,” he said, adding that the group’s fighters fired the first shots in the firefight. He said the commandos came ashore using small speedboats launched from a larger naval vessel out at sea.

An American official briefed on the operation said the SEALs withdrew from the firefight to avoid civilian casualties. A local witness said he saw four fresh graves for militants killed by the SEALs. But the losses were unlikely to put a dent in the activities, at home or abroad, of the Shabab, a group with thousands of committed fighters.

Even so, analysts said the message sent by the raid might have been more important than the outcome.

“The Shabab territories are dwindling, so that means the Shabab leaders will be more vulnerable,” said Stig Hansen, a Norwegian academic who is writing a book on the resurgence of Islamic militancy in Africa. “They wanted to show that it costs the Shabab to do international operations.”


Nicholas Kulish reported from Nairobi, Kenya;

Eric Schmitt from San Francisco,

and Mark Mazzetti from Madrid.

Josh Kron contributed reporting from Mombasa, Kenya.

    Target in U.S. Raid on Somalia Is Called Top Shabab Planner of Attacks Abroad,
    NYT, 6.10.2013,






Libya Condemns U.S.

for Seizing Terror Suspect


October 6, 2013
The New York Times


TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya’s fragile interim government condemned the United States on Sunday for what it called the “kidnapping of a Libyan citizen” from this capital city a day earlier, and Libyan lawmakers threatened to remove the prime minister if the government was involved.

The capture of the Libyan, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Anas al-Libi and was indicted on a charge of planning Al Qaeda’s 1998 bombing of two American Embassies in East Africa, was so fast and left so few clues behind that Libyans were only slowly coming to grips with what had occurred. The government denied an American assertion that it had played a role in the operation amid anger that the nation’s sovereignty had been violated.

But as a measure of just how tired the public is of the chaos that has gripped the country since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, some Libyans angry at the raid expressed exasperation at their government’s failures to bring any measure of security to its people.

“There is hardly very much that is going on, except that every three or four days there is a new assassination,” said Mohamed Mufti, a Western-educated physician and liberal intellectual in Benghazi. “This government seems to be suffering terminal inertia.”

The reaction to the capture of Abu Anas underscored the stakes for the United States as it gave up on waiting for the Libyan government to grow strong enough to challenge the militias that wield power, and detain fugitives living with impunity on Libyan soil.

For months, a swelling team of federal investigators, intelligence agents and Marines waited behind the barbed wire and gun turrets of the fortified compound around the United States Embassy here, aware of suspected terrorists at large in the streets — including suspects in the killing last year of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi — and increasingly frustrated at the inability of the weak Libyan government to move against them.

Now, with the Abu Anas raid, the Obama administration has signaled a limit to its patience. Two years after the United States backed the NATO intervention that removed Qaddafi, Washington has demonstrated a new willingness to pursue its targets directly, an action that has now prompted some of those suspected in Ambassador Stevens’s death to go into hiding, people here said.

“Of course people are worried about it in Benghazi,” said Mohamed Abu Sidra, a Benghazi Islamist leader and member of Parliament.

Speaking on the sidelines of an economic conference in Indonesia on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture of Abu Anas, saying it complied with American law, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Kerry said the suspect was a “legal and appropriate target” for the United States.

The raid tests the ability of the fledgling Libyan government to weather the furor. Indeed, American officials said the Libyan authorities, in a shift, were willing to tacitly support the raid as long as they could protest in public. But it may also have represented a recognition that the interim government was already losing control over the country. It has been unable to finalize a system to elect a constitutional assembly, to ensure the flow of oil that is the lifeblood of the Libyan economy, and even to protect its own government buildings from periodic siege by armed militias.

On Sunday, government officials and large crowds of mourners turned out to bury 15 soldiers gunned down a day earlier at a checkpoint southeast of Tripoli. The reasons for the gun battle were unclear, but many dead soldiers spoke to the fears of a collapsing state.

The streets of Tripoli were quiet on Sunday night, with no major protests against the arrest or attacks on American interests. But in just a few hours about 2,000 Libyans had signed into a new Facebook page proclaiming solidarity with Abu Anas, who was born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai. “We are all Nazih al-Ruqai, O America,” it was called.

One comment read: “The real Libyan hero rebels should kidnap an American in Libya to negotiate for our brother Ruqai’s release. It is a shame on us and all Libyans. The Americans entered Tripoli with their commandos and they kidnapped our son while we were standing watching.”

Many of the comments were opposed to Abu Anas, however.

Sheikh Abu Sidra, a member of Parliament from Benghazi, said lawmakers would summon the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, and other top officials to testify about whether they had prior knowledge of the raid, noting that Mr. Zeidan had recently visited the United States.

The government denied any knowledge of what it called the “kidnapping of a Libyan citizen,” contradicting statements by American officials the previous day.

“As soon as it heard the reports, the Libyan government contacted the United States authorities to demand an explanation” for “the kidnapping of a Libyan citizen,” the government said in a statement.

But that disclaimer was unlikely to convince many, said Saleh Meeto, a liberal member of Parliament.

“It is trouble for the government,” he said. “They are trying to remove themselves from being involved.” All Libyans would be opposed to interference by a foreign power, he said.

A senior United States official said the operation to capture Abu Anas had been in the works for weeks and that it “involved a great deal of planning.” The official added, “The window of opportunity opened recently, and we took it.”

But other analysts suggested the calculus also included the determination that the situation in Libya — and therefore the ability to act — now seemed more likely to deteriorate than improve. “The administration is worried about things going sideways, or worse, in Libya, so they took advantage of a rare window of opportunity to remove the threat before it became worse,” said Rudy Atallah, the former director of African counterterrorism policy for the Pentagon.

The Libyan interim authorities have struggled since the overthrow of Qaddafi to build an army or police force, and to subdue various independent local militias, Islamist militants and regional separatists who have capitalized on the power vacuum.

This summer, though, marked an ominous turning point in Libya’s descent into chaos when its government became unable to assure the steady flow of oil. Militias, separatists, striking workers and others sought to extort the state by interfering with the production and shipment of oil. The weak central government was unwilling to cave in but powerless to stop them.

By in July, production had fallen to about 200,000 barrels a day from a norm of about 1.3 million, costing the government $5 billion, according to Geoff D. Porter, an analyst who tracks the Libyan oil sector. Normally a major energy exporter, Libya could no longer keep the lights on in the capital and blackouts grew common. The government began using its long-term currency reserves to meet regular payrolls.

Western supporters of the Libyan government had long argued that it could use oil revenue to provide services and buy support. But “instead of hydrocarbon receipts being the glue that holds the country together, they have become a tool for prying it apart,” Mr. Porter wrote in a recent assessment.

Analysts in Washington said the willingness of the United States to risk adding new strain to Libya’s precarious interim government suggested a tacit acknowledgment of its diminished prospects.

“They decided to cross the line,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who previously worked as a state department adviser on Libyan policy and other issues. “They started taking direct action, and it is decision they must have made with awareness and a certain resignation.”


Carlotta Gall reported from Tripoli, Libya,

and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt from San Francisco,

Mark Mazzetti from Madrid, and Suliman Ali Zway

and Osama Alfitory from Tripoli.

    Libya Condemns U.S. for Seizing Terror Suspect, NYT, 6.10.2013,






U.S. Raids in Libya and Somalia

Strike Terror Targets


October 5, 2013
The New York Times


CAIRO — American commandos carried out raids on Saturday in two far-flung African countries in a powerful flex of military muscle aimed at capturing fugitive terrorist suspects. American troops assisted by F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents seized a suspected leader of Al Qaeda on the streets of Tripoli, Libya, while Navy SEALs raided the seaside villa of a militant leader in a predawn firefight on the coast of Somalia.

In Tripoli, American forces captured a Libyan militant who had been indicted in 2000 for his role in the 1998 bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The militant, born Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai and known by his nom de guerre, Abu Anas al-Liby, had a $5 million bounty on his head; his capture at dawn ended a 15-year manhunt.

In Somalia, the Navy SEAL team emerged before sunrise from the Indian Ocean and exchanged gunfire with militants at the home of a senior leader of the Shabab, the Somali militant group. The raid was planned more than a week ago, officials said, after a massacre by the Shabab at a Nairobi shopping mall that killed more than 60 people two weeks ago.

The SEAL team was forced to withdraw before it could confirm that it had killed the Shabab leader, a senior American security official said. Officials declined to identify the target.

Officials said the timing of the two raids was coincidental. But occurring on the same day, they underscored the rise of northern Africa as a haven for international terrorists. Libya has collapsed into the control of a patchwork of militias since the ouster of the Qaddafi government in 2011. Somalia, the birthplace of the Shabab, has lacked an effective central government for more than two decades.

With President Obama locked in a standoff with Congressional Republicans and his leadership criticized for a policy reversal in Syria, the raids could fuel accusations among his critics that the administration was eager for a showy foreign policy victory.

Abu Anas, the Libyan Qaeda leader, was considered a major prize, and officials said he was alive in United States custody. While the details about his capture were sketchy, an American official said Saturday night that he appeared to have been taken peacefully and that he was “no longer in Libya.”

His capture was the latest blow to what remains of the original Qaeda organization after a 12-year American campaign to capture or kill its leadership, including the killing two years ago of its founder, Osama bin Laden, in Pakistan.

Despite his presence in Libya, Abu Anas was not believed to have played any role in the 2012 attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, senior officials briefed on that investigation have said, but he may have sought to build networks connecting what remains of the Qaeda organization to like-minded militants in Libya.

His brother, Nabih, told The Associated Press that just after dawn prayers, three vehicles full of armed men had approached Abu Anas’s home and surrounded him as he parked his car. The men smashed his window, seized his gun and sped away with him, the brother said.

A senior American official said the Libyan government had been apprised of the operation and provided assistance, but it was unclear in what capacity. An assistant to the prime minister of the Libyan transitional government said the government had been unaware of any operation or of Abu Anas’s capture. Asked if American forces had ever conducted raids inside Libya or collaborated with Libyan forces, Mehmoud Abu Bahia, assistant to the defense minister, replied, “Absolutely not.”

Disclosure of the raid is likely to inflame anxieties among many Libyans about their national sovereignty, putting a new strain on the transitional government’s fragile authority. Many Libyan Islamists already accuse their interim prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, who previously lived in Geneva as part of the exiled opposition to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, of collaborating too closely with the West.

Abu Anas, 49, was born in Tripoli and joined Bin Laden’s organization as early as the early 1990s, when it was based in Sudan. He later moved to Britain, where he was granted political asylum as a Libyan dissident. United States prosecutors in New York charged him in a 2000 indictment with helping to conduct “visual and photographic surveillance” of the United States Embassy in Nairobi in 1993 and again in 1995. Prosecutors said in the indictment that Abu Anas had discussed with another senior Qaeda figure the idea of attacking an American target in retaliation for the United States peacekeeping operation in Somalia.

After the 1998 bombing, the British police raided his apartment and found an 18-chapter terrorist training manual. Written in Arabic and titled “Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants,” it included advice on car bombing, torture, sabotage and disguise.

Since the overthrow of Colonel Qaddafi, Tripoli has slid steadily into lawlessness, with no strong central government or police presence. It has become a safe haven for militants seeking to avoid detection elsewhere, and United States government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information, have acknowledged in recent months that Abu Anas and other wanted terrorists had been seen moving freely around the capital.

The operation to capture Abu Anas was several weeks in the making, a United States official said, and President Obama was regularly briefed as the suspect was tracked in Tripoli. Mr. Obama had to approve the capture. He had often promised there would be “no boots on the ground” in Libya when the United States intervened there in March 2011, so the decision to send in Special Operations forces was a risky one.

American officials said they would want to question Abu Anas for several weeks. But they did not dispute that New York, where an indictment is pending against him, was most likely his ultimate destination. Mr. Obama has been loath to add to the prisoner count at the American military facility at Guantánamo Bay, and there is precedent for delivering those suspected of terrorism to New York if they are under indictment there.

The operation will do nothing to quell the continuing questions about the events in Benghazi 13 months ago that led to the deaths of four Americans. But officials say the operation was a product of the decision after Benghazi to bolster the counterterrorism effort in Libya, especially as Tripoli became a safe haven for Qaeda leadership.

The capture of Abu Anas also coincided with a fierce gunfight that killed 15 Libyan soldiers at a checkpoint in a neighborhood southeast of Tripoli, near the traditional home of Abu Anas’s clan.

A spokesman for the Libyan Army general staff, Col. Ali Sheikhi, said five cars full of armed men in masks pulled up at the army checkpoint at 6:15 a.m. and opened fire at point-blank range. It was not clear if the assault at the checkpoint was related to the capture of Abu Anas or his removal from Libya.

The raid in Somalia was the most significant raid by American troops in that lawless country since commandos killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a Qaeda mastermind, near the same coastal town four years ago. The town, Baraawe, a small port south of Mogadishu, is known as a gathering place for the Shabab’s foreign fighters.

Witnesses described a firefight lasting over an hour, with helicopters called in for air support. A senior Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “The attack was carried out by the American forces, and the Somali government was pre-informed about the attack.”

A spokesman for the Shabab said that one of their fighters had been killed in an exchange of gunfire but that the group had beaten back the assault. American officials initially reported that they had seized the Shabab leader, but later backed off that account.

A United States official said that no Americans had been killed or wounded and that the Americans “disengaged after inflicting some Shabab casualties.”

“We are not in a position to identify those casualties,” the official said.

The F.B.I. sent dozens of agents to Nairobi after the siege of the Westgate shopping mall to help the Kenyan authorities with the investigation. United States officials fear that the Shabab could attempt a similar attack on American soil, perhaps employing Somali-American recruits.

A witness in Baraawe said the house was known as a place where senior foreign commanders stayed. He could not say whether they were there when the attack began, but he said 12 well-trained Shabab fighters scheduled for a mission abroad were staying there at the time of the assault.

It was not clear what role if any the target of the American assault had played in the attack on the Nairobi mall.One United States official said it was still unclear whether any Americans had been involved in the Westgate siege, though several Kenyan officials said they now believed that there had been as few as four attackers — far fewer than the 10 to 15 the government had previously reported.

A spokesman for the Kenyan military said Saturday that it had identified four of the attackers from surveillance footage as Abu Baara al-Sudani, Omar Nabhan, Khattab al-Kene and a man known only as Umayr.

The spokesman, Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir, said none of the militants had escaped the mall. “They’re all dead,” he said.

The footage, broadcast on Kenyan television on Friday night, showed four attackers moving about the mall with cool nonchalance.

At least one of the four men, Mr. Nabhan, was Kenyan, officials said, and believed to be a younger relative of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the Qaeda operative killed four years ago near Baraawe, the site of Saturday’s raid.

The elder Mr. Nabhan was a suspect in the bombing of an Israeli hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002 and the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Matt Bryden, a former head of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, said the tactics used in the Westgate attack were similar to those used by the Shabab in a number of operations in Somalia this year. But he also said that local help had been needed to pull off an attack on that scale, and that several of the men identified as taking part in the attack had been connected to the group’s Kenyan affiliate, known as Al Hijra.

“We should certainly expect Al Hijra and Al Shabab to try again,” Mr. Bryden said. “And we should expect them to have the capacity to do so.”


David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo;

Nicholas Kulish from Nairobi, Kenya;

and Eric Schmitt from San Francisco.

Reporting was contributed by Suliman Ali Zway

and Carlotta Gall from Tripoli, Libya;

Michael S. Schmidt and David E.

Sanger from Washington; Josh Kron from Mombasa, Kenya;

and Mohammed Ibrahim from Mogadishu, Somalia.

    U.S. Raids in Libya and Somalia Strike Terror Targets, NYT, 5.10.2013,






Obama Speaks to President of Iran

in First Talk Since 1979


September 27, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The long-fractured relationship between the United States and Iran took a significant turn on Friday when President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani became the first leaders of their countries to speak since the Tehran hostage crisis more than three decades ago.

In a hurriedly arranged telephone call, Mr. Obama reached Mr. Rouhani as the Iranian leader was headed to the airport to leave New York after a whirlwind news media and diplomatic blitz. The two agreed to accelerate talks aimed at defusing the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program and afterward expressed optimism at the prospect of a rapprochement that would transform the Middle East.

“Resolving this issue, obviously, could also serve as a major step forward in a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” Mr. Obama, referring to Tehran’s nuclear program, told reporters at the White House after the 15-minute phone call. “It would also help facilitate a better relationship between Iran and the international community, as well as others in the region.”

A Twitter account in Mr. Rouhani’s name later stated, “In regards to nuclear issue, with political will, there is a way to rapidly solve the matter.” The account added that Mr. Rouhani had told Mr. Obama, “We’re hopeful about what we will see from” the United States and other major powers “in coming weeks and months.”

The conversation was the first between Iranian and American leaders since 1979 when President Jimmy Carter spoke by telephone with Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi shortly before the shah left the country, according to Iran experts. The Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah’s government led to the seizure of the American Embassy and a 444-day hostage crisis that have left the two countries at odds with each other ever since.

Although both Republican and Democratic presidents have reached out to Tehran in the interim, contact had been reserved to letters or lower-level officials.

The call came just days after Mr. Obama had hoped to encounter Mr. Rouhani at a luncheon at the United Nations and expected to shake hands. Mr. Rouhani skipped the luncheon and later indicated it was premature to meet Mr. Obama. But a meeting on Thursday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran was described as constructive and led Iranian officials to contact the White House on Friday to suggest the phone call, according to American officials.

A senior Obama administration official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities, said the White House had expressed the president’s interest in meeting Mr. Rouhani to the Iranians this week but was surprised when they suggested the phone call. Mr. Obama placed the call from the Oval Office around 2:30 p.m., joined by aides and a translator.

He opened by congratulating Mr. Rouhani on his election in June and noted the history of mistrust between the two nations, but also what he called the constructive statements Mr. Rouhani had made during his stay in New York, according to the official. The bulk of the call focused on the nuclear dispute, and Mr. Obama repeated that he respected Iran’s right to develop civilian nuclear energy, but insisted on concessions to prevent development of weapons.

Mr. Obama also raised the cases of three Americans in Iran, one missing and two others detained. In a lighter moment, he apologized for New York traffic.

The call ended on a polite note, according to the official and Mr. Rouhani’s Twitter account.

“Have a nice day,” Mr. Rouhani said in English.

“Thank you,” Mr. Obama replied, and then tried a Persian farewell. “Khodahafez.”

By talking on the phone instead of in person, Mr. Rouhani avoided a politically problematic photo of himself with Mr. Obama, which could have inflamed hard-liners in Iran who were already wary of his outreach to the United States. As it was, conservative elements in Tehran tried to reinterpret his statements acknowledging the Holocaust while he was in New York.

The state news channel, the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, had not mentioned the phone call with Mr. Obama as of midnight Friday after word of it broke, and the original messages on Mr. Rouhani’s Twitter account were deleted and replaced with more anodyne comments. But Mr. Rouhani’s office announced the call in a statement carried by the Iranian state news agency.

“This voice contact has for now replaced the actual shaking of hands, but this is clearly the start of a process that could in the future lead to a face-to-face meeting between both leaders,” said Amir Mohebbian, a political adviser close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Abbas Milani, an Iranian scholar at Stanford University, said Mr. Rouhani wanted to avoid looking as if he was making concessions. “The U.S. and the West have wisely decided to allow the regime to make its claims of victory at home, so long as they play earnest ball in meetings abroad,” Mr. Milani said. A call to a leader on the way to the airport may not be normal protocol, he added, but “in this case it was adroit policy for both sides.”

American advocates of closer relations between the two countries were optimistic. “The phone call wasn’t just history,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control group, who attended a dinner with Mr. Rouhani in New York. “It helped fundamentally change the course of Iranian-U.S. relations. We’re on a very different trajectory than we were even at the beginning of the week.”

But others expressed caution, arguing that Iran was reaching out only because of the sanctions that have strangled its economy.

“The economic pain now is sufficient to oblige a telephone call, though not a face-to-face meeting,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which supports stronger sanctions against Iran. “We will see whether the pain is sufficient for the Iranians to shut the heavy-water plant at Arak and reverse Iran’s path to a rapid breakout capacity with enriched uranium.”

Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican majority leader, criticized Mr. Obama for not pressing Iran to halt what he said was its support for terrorism and for Syria’s government. “It is particularly unfortunate that President Obama would recognize the Iranian people’s right to nuclear energy but not stand up for their right to freedom, human rights or democracy,” he said.

In announcing the call with Mr. Rouhani, Mr. Obama said that only “meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions” on the nuclear program could “bring relief” from sanctions.

“A path to a meaningful agreement will be difficult, and at this point, both sides have significant concerns that will have to be overcome,” he said. “But I believe we’ve got a responsibility to pursue diplomacy, and that we have a unique opportunity to make progress with the new leadership in Tehran.”

Recognizing the delicacy of the outreach effort, Mr. Obama made a point of trying to reassure Israel that he would not jeopardize an ally’s security. “Throughout this process, we’ll stay in close touch with our friends and allies in the region, including Israel,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is scheduled to visit Mr. Obama at the White House on Monday.

Before leaving New York, Mr. Rouhani said his government would present a plan in three weeks on how to resolve the nuclear standoff. “I expect this trip will be the first step and the beginning of constructive relations with countries of the world,” he said at a news conference.

He went on to say that he hoped the visit would also improve relations “between two great nations, Iran and the United States,” adding that the trip had exceeded his expectations.

Mr. Rouhani and his aides have been on an extraordinarily energetic campaign to prove that they are moderate and reasonable partners and to draw a stark contrast with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Mr. Rouhani has yet to propose anything concrete to suggest how different the Iranians really are in their approach. The first glimpse of that is due to come on Oct. 15 and 16, when Iran plans to present its own road map in Geneva.

Mr. Rouhani emphasized that his government had the authority and the will to reach a nuclear settlement within what he called “a short period of time.” But he was visibly irritated when asked whether his diplomatic blitz was merely designed to buy time with his Western interlocutors.

“We have never chosen deceit as a path,” he said. “We have never chosen secrecy.”


Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran,

Mark Landler from Washington,

and Somini Sengupta from the United Nations.

    Obama Speaks to President of Iran in First Talk Since 1979, NYT, 27.9.2013,






Iran’s Leader,

Denouncing Holocaust,

Stirs Dispute


September 25, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — As he conducts a high-profile good-will visit to New York this week, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, says he is bringing a simple message of peace and friendship. But on Wednesday, Mr. Rouhani set off a political storm here and in Iran, with an acknowledgment and condemnation of the Holocaust that landed him in precisely the kind of tangled dispute he had hoped to avoid.

Mr. Rouhani, in an interview on Tuesday with CNN, described the Holocaust as a “crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews” and called it “reprehensible and condemnable.” It was a groundbreaking statement, given that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied the systematic extermination of Jews during World War II. Mr. Rouhani largely repeated his comments in a meeting with news media executives on Wednesday.

But a semiofficial Iranian news agency accused CNN of fabricating portions of Mr. Rouhani’s interview, saying he had not used the word Holocaust or characterized the Nazi mass murder as “reprehensible.” Mr. Rouhani spoke in Persian; officials at CNN said they used an interpreter provided by the Iranian government for the interview, which was conducted by Christiane Amanpour.

The dispute over his comments reflects the extreme delicacy of the Holocaust as an issue in Iranian-American relations. More broadly, it speaks to the political tightrope Mr. Rouhani is walking, trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with the United States that will ease sanctions to please everyday Iranians, without provoking a backlash by hard-liners.

Such careful calculations prompted Mr. Rouhani to eschew a handshake with President Obama at the United Nations General Assembly. After weeks of conciliatory moves, including Iran’s freeing of political prisoners, Iranian and American officials said they believed Mr. Rouhani needed to placate hard-liners in Tehran, who would have bridled at images of an Iranian leader greeting an American president.

“Shaking hands with Obama would have won Rouhani huge points with the Iranian public, but it would have caused Iran’s hard-liners a conniption,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Rouhani avoided other land mines at the United Nations. His comments to the General Assembly, though less inflammatory than those of Mr. Ahmadinejad, touched on similar themes and grievances: the lack of respect for Iran, the West’s refusal to recognize its right to enrich uranium, and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

But when Mr. Rouhani sat down later with Ms. Amanpour, he moved into fraught territory. Asked whether he shared his predecessor’s belief that the Holocaust was a myth, Mr. Rouhani replied, according to CNN’s translation, that he would leave it to historians to judge the “dimensions of the Holocaust.”

But he added, “In general, I can tell you that any crime or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people — is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.”

The Iranian news agency Fars, which has ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, posted its own translation of Mr. Rouhani’s answer, and claimed that he did not use the word “reprehensible” and that he said historians should be left to judge “historical events,” not “the Holocaust.”

That translation resembles more closely the way Mr. Ahmadinejad used to discuss the issue. In an interview with CNN in 2012, he said: “Whatever event has taken place throughout history, or hasn’t taken place, I cannot judge that. Why should I judge that?”

In what appeared to be an effort to head off criticism of Mr. Rouhani, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Wednesday that the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, said the president had presented Iran’s clear and revolutionary stands in his United Nations speech.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s refusal to recognize the Holocaust became a symbol of Tehran’s implacable hostility. For Israel, it is evidence that Iran is bent on its elimination, and this is why Israel is so determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

While American Jewish leaders characterized Mr. Rouhani’s remarks as a modest step forward, they remained deeply skeptical of Iran’s intentions and its readiness to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

“Assuming the accuracy of the translation, for me his comments are duly noted,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “But he’s only acknowledging, and rather belatedly, the universally acknowledged truth of the last 70 years. That does not warrant a standing ovation.”

Israeli officials reject Mr. Rouhani’s claim that the factual details of the Holocaust are a matter best left to historians. In fact, some analysts say, even raising doubts about the scope of the genocide is itself a form of Holocaust revisionism.

A statement issued last week by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “It does not take a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust — it just requires being a human being.”

Mr. Netanyahu, rattled by Mr. Obama’s desire to engage Iran, has warned that Mr. Rouhani, with his professorial demeanor and moderate tone, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Yet Iran’s hard-liners, Mr. Sadjadpour said, “probably view him as sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

The complex political crosscurrents were on display in the Iranian news media’s coverage of Mr. Rouhani’s day at the United Nations. A reformist newspaper, Shargh, published pictures of Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Obama during their speeches, with the headline “Perhaps Another Time” — a reflection of the letdown among average Iranians about the missed opportunity for a handshake.

But another paper, Kayhan, which is close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed horror over the possibility that “the clean hand of our president would for moments be in the bloody clench” of Mr. Obama.

Advisers and analysts close to the government in Tehran said that after weeks of conciliatory statements and gestures by Mr. Rouhani, the excitement had gotten out of hand.

“We need to gain something from the Americans, before we pose and smile with them,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, an official who is one of the few trusted to interpret the speeches of Ayatollah Khamenei. “Of course, Mr. Rouhani also needed to convince some at home that he is not making any wild moves.”

Mr. Rouhani himself suggested that a meeting would have been premature and might actually have jeopardized the longer-term goal of striking an agreement on the nuclear program. Speaking to editors and columnists in New York on Wednesday, he said, “I believe we did not have enough time to make it happen.”

“If we do not take our first steps carefully,” he said, “we may not at the very least be able to obtain mutual goals that are in our minds.”

White House officials, though deflated, said Mr. Rouhani’s decision showed he is an astute political player who knows how to calm hard-liners at home while charming audiences abroad. Those are skills they say he will need to navigate the treacherous waters of Iranian politics.

“The issue of the relationship between the United States and Iran is incredibly controversial within Iran,” said a senior administration official. “For them it was just too difficult to move forward with that type of encounter at the presidential level, at this juncture.”


Mark Landler reported from Washington,

and Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran.

Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.

    Iran’s Leader, Denouncing Holocaust, Stirs Dispute, NYT, 26.9.2013,






As the New Iranian Leader

Gets a Warm Reception,

Israel Calls for Caution


September 24, 2013
The New York Times


JERUSALEM — With the United States and other nations extending an increasingly warm welcome to the new president of Iran at the United Nations this week in New York, Israel finds itself in a bind: eager to unmask what it sees as an empty charm offensive, yet at risk of being seen as a spoiler unwilling to consider the possibility of change in Tehran’s nuclear policy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Israel’s delegation to boycott Tuesday’s appearance by Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, at the United Nations General Assembly and later denounced Mr. Rouhani’s address there as “a cynical speech that was full of hypocrisy.”

In a statement released after 2 a.m. Wednesday in Israel, Mr. Netanyahu said Iran’s strategy was “to talk and play for time in order to advance its ability to achieve nuclear weapons.”

Earlier Tuesday Mr. Netanyahu expressed appreciation for President Obama’s statement in his United Nations address that “Iran’s conciliatory words will have to be matched by action that is transparent and verifiable.” Mr. Netanyahu said, “Israel would welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons.” But he said that so far Iran had offered only “cosmetic concessions.”

“We will not be fooled by half-measures that merely provide a smoke screen for Iran’s continual pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters in Tel Aviv hours before Mr. Rouhani spoke before the General Assembly. “And the world should not be fooled, either.”

Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian use, but Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials point to Tehran’s recent installation of advanced centrifuges and its continued denial of access to its nuclear facilities as evidence that it is working toward such weapons.

Israeli analysts have begun to worry that Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line approach will leave him isolated by allies who want to test Mr. Rouhani’s seriousness, especially since Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states that share Israel’s view have largely remained silent.

With Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to meet Iran’s foreign minister on Thursday as part of the so-called P5-plus-1 group tackling the nuclear question, they said Mr. Netanyahu faced the tricky challenge of raising concerns without sounding like a prophet of doom. The P5-plus-1 powers are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany.

“It’s a very dangerous and very awkward situation for Netanyahu to be perceived as the only naysayer and warmonger,” said Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. “He has to try and find the right balance between being cautious and warning the world that it should not fall for any of these ruses, but at the same time to be seen to give it a chance and to welcome it if it happens.”

Dan Meridor, a veteran Israeli minister who was a moderating influence in Mr. Netanyahu’s previous cabinet, said a better strategy would be for Israel to “speak positively” about Iran’s new leadership, invoking a Hebrew phrase that means “respect him and suspect him.”

Efraim Halevy, a former chief of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and a former national security adviser, said the prime minister would do better not to “personalize” the situation, because “demeaning somebody doesn’t do anything useful.”

In some ways, the current dynamic echoes what some saw as an effective good cop/bad cop dynamic last year, when Mr. Netanyahu and his defense minister repeatedly raised the specter of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities as the White House urged more time for diplomacy and sanctions to take effect. But after a year in which Jerusalem and Washington had been more aligned on Iran, some now worry that Mr. Rouhani’s diplomatic offensive and the relative embrace it has received could revive the momentum for a unilateral Israeli strike.

Instead, several experts suggested, Mr. Netanyahu could take credit for helping to bring Iran to the negotiating table.

“The process was meant to be pressure; isolation, military and economic; until the day comes you will see the Iranian leadership trying to climb down from this track — maybe that’s what we’re seeing,” Mr. Meridor said. “Don’t be too positive, but welcome the open arms of the United States, not just to be nice and to hug, but to see whether they will take the ladder to step down. Don’t say no.”

The challenge was made more difficult by the fact that Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday was 5,000 miles away from United Nations headquarters. Mr. Netanyahu, himself a former United Nations ambassador who has made expert use of the General Assembly stage, chose not to attend the opening day of the annual session to avoid traveling during the Jewish holidays this week, Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah. He is scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama on Monday and address the United Nations on Tuesday.

Israel’s delegation in New York was instructed to skip Mr. Rouhani’s speech because of what the prime minister’s office described as Iran’s denial of the Holocaust and calls for Israel’s destruction. That prompted criticism from Israel’s centrist finance minister, Yair Lapid, who said it was “reminiscent of the way Arab states behave toward Israel” and cautioned, “Israel shouldn’t be portrayed as a serial objector to negotiations uninterested in peaceful solutions,” according to Ynet, an Israeli news Web site.

Separately, Israeli officials urged a charismatic rabbi and mystic who had been asked by an American businessman to meet with the Iranian president this week not to do so, according to Yossi Elituv, an Israeli journalist who works with the rabbi, Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Monday that a group of Iranian-American Jews had also rebuffed an invitation to meet the Iranian president and foreign minister.

Supporters of Mr. Netanyahu’s approach said it was important not to get caught up in the theater of Mr. Rouhani’s New York tour, and to focus instead on the situation in Iran. They pointed to reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency showing continued uranium enrichment, moves toward plutonium development and research on warheads, as well as a military parade where Mr. Rouhani spoke.

“The notion of Rouhani as a breath of fresh air does not fit with the continuing Iranian concealment efforts,” said Dore Gold, another former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who now heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “You have to tell the truth, and that’s what the prime minister of Israel does: he tells the truth about what’s going on in Iran.”

But Ari Shavit, a Haaretz columnist who was in the United States this week, said there was a wide gap in perception between the United States and Israel. Mr. Shavit, who has written extensively about the issue, said that while Mr. Netanyahu had “intellectually won the debate” over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, “he totally lost the world.”

“Being perceived as in a bunkerlike mentality does not persuade people,” he said. “He should say the truth, but he should really find a way of giving it a new color so people would listen.”


Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.

    As the New Iranian Leader Gets a Warm Reception, Israel Calls for Caution,
    NYT, 24.9.2013,






Iran’s New President Preaches Tolerance

in First U.N. Appearance


September 24, 2013
The New York Times


In what may have been the most widely awaited speech at the United Nations, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, preached tolerance and understanding on Tuesday, decried as a form of violence the Western sanctions imposed on his country and said nuclear weapons had no place in its future.

Mr. Rouhani, whose speech followed President Obama’s by more than six hours, also acknowledged Mr. Obama’s outreach to Iran aimed at resolving more than three decades of estrangement and recrimination, and expressed hope that “we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.”

But the Iranian leader also asserted that the “shortsighted interests of warmongering pressure groups” in the United States had resulted in an inconsistent American message on the nuclear dispute and other issues.

Mr. Rouhani restated Iran’s insistence that it would never pursue nuclear weapons in its uranium enrichment program, saying, “this will always be the position of Iran.”

But he offered no specific proposals to reach a compromise on the nuclear dispute, which has led to Iran’s severe economic isolation because of Western sanctions that have impaired its oil, banking and manufacturing base.

The sanctions, he said, are “violent, pure and simple.”

The speech by Mr. Rouhani, a moderate cleric who is close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared partly aimed at his own domestic audience and was his most prominent opportunity to explain his views, following his election in June. His ascent came after eight years of pugnacious saber-rattling by his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who regularly railed against the United States and Israel, questioned the Holocaust and provoked annual walkouts by diplomats at his General Assembly speeches.

There was no such mass walkout this time.

“We believe there are no violent solutions to world crises,” Mr. Rouhani said.

Mr. Rouhani’s visit to the United Nations has been widely anticipated for any signs of the moderation and pragmatism that he said his administration was bringing to Iran. But his speech still provoked skepticism and criticism.

Thousands of anti-Rouhani demonstrators rallied outside the United Nations headquarters, including members and sympathizers of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian dissident group that is banned in Iran and was removed from a State Department terrorist group list last year after an aggressive lobbying effort in Washington.

Pro-Israel lawmakers and interest groups criticized Mr. Rouhani’s speech as lacking specifics and echoing the themes Mr. Ahmadinejad had espoused. “Those who expected a dramatic departure are disappointed,” said Gary Samore, the president of United Against Nuclear Iran, a New York-based group that has advocated for strong sanctions against the country. “This address was surprisingly similar to what we are used to hearing from Iran, both in tone and substance.”

Mr. Rouhani never once mentioned Israel by name in his speech, although he did speak to what he called the violence perpetrated on the Palestinians. “Palestine is under occupation,” he said. “The basic rights of Palestinians are tragically violated.”

Israeli leaders, who have called Iran an existential threat to Israel, have publicly criticized Mr. Rouhani as no different from others in the Iranian government.

In a generic reference to Iran’s critics, Mr. Rouhani said they had established what he called “propagandistic and unfounded faith-phobic, Islamo-phobic, Shia-phobic and Iran-phobic discourses,” which he said posed “serious threats against world peace and human security.”

Those who malign Iran, Mr. Rouhani said, “are either a threat against international peace and security themselves or promote such a threat.”

“Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region,” he said.

He concluded his speech with a reference to both the diversity and unity of religions in their affirmation of peace and tolerance.

“My hope, aside from personal and national experience, emanates from the belief shared by all divine religions that a good and bright future awaits the world,” he said. “As stated in the Holy Koran: ‘And We proclaimed in the Psalms, after We had proclaimed in the Torah, that My virtuous servants will inherit the earth.'”

    Iran’s New President Preaches Tolerance in First U.N. Appearance,
    NYT, 24.9.2013,






President Obama at the United Nations


September 24, 2013
The New York Times


In his address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama gave some coherence to his foreign policy vision, which acknowledges both America’s role in the world and its limited ability to determine events inside other nations. He also set important, if incomplete, priorities for the rest of his term. Mr. Obama is well known for giving good speeches, so the question is whether he can implement a consistent, effective strategy to achieve his goals.

It is no surprise that Iran was at the top of his agenda. The recent election of a more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, has improved opportunities to pursue a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear program, which threatens regional stability. More surprising was Mr. Obama’s decision to give prominence to Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, which the White House initially held at arm’s length even as Secretary of State John Kerry began to bring the two sides together. We hope that means the United States-brokered negotiations, taking place behind closed doors, may be making some progress.

On Iran, Mr. Obama was appropriately cautious, noting that more than three decades of hostility between the United States and Iran will not be overcome easily. Even so, Mr. Obama said “the diplomatic path must be tested,” gave Mr. Kerry that task and held out the hope that a nuclear deal would be a major step toward “a different relationship — one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Mr. Rouhani, in his own speech to the General Assembly, also spoke of tolerance and understanding and said nuclear weapons had no place in his country’s future. But he made no specific proposal to demonstrate that Iran was prepared to go beyond the well-chosen words. Whether the two nations can actually break new ground might be seen when Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, attends a scheduled meeting with Mr. Kerry and representatives from the other major powers negotiating the Iran dispute later this week. It would be the highest level meeting between the two countries since 2007. (The White House proposed an “encounter” between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani at the United Nations, but Iranians refused the overture as “too complicated” politically.)

Before the world leaders, Mr. Obama took pains to defend his threat of military action against Syria for the use of chemical weapons as crucial to getting a Russian-brokered deal on the table and the Security Council to act. He sharply called on Russia and Iran to accept reality: that the Assad regime cannot be left to stand and the continuing war would lead to an increasingly violent arena for extremists. And he insisted that America would be engaged in the Middle East for the “long haul.”

There was much to consider in his comments about how and when America will use its influence and its force in the future. He warned that the danger for the world is not that America is eager to immerse itself in other countries but that it may disengage and leave a leadership vacuum that no other nation is ready to fill.

Mr. Obama affirmed his intention to use “all elements of our power, including military force,” to secure America’s interests, like preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. But he also said that after more than a decade of war and a conflicted record in the Middle East, America has gained a “hard-earned humility” about its ability to alter the course of other countries. The challenge for the United States is balancing those two ideas.

    President Obama at the United Nations, NYT, 24.9.2013,






Obama Defends U.S. Engagement

in the Middle East


September 24, 2013
The New York Times


UNITED NATIONS — President Obama on Tuesday laid down a retooled blueprint for America’s role in the strife-torn Middle East, declaring that the United States would use all of its levers of power, including military force, to defend its interests, even as it accepted limits on its ability to influence events in Syria, Iran and other countries.

In a wide-ranging speech to the General Assembly that played off rapid-fire diplomatic developments but also sought to define what he called a “hard-earned humility” about American engagement after 12 years of war, Mr. Obama insisted that the United States still played an “exceptional” role on the world stage. Turning inward, he said, “would create a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”

Mr. Obama embraced a diplomatic opening to Iran, saying he had instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin high-level negotiations on its nuclear program. He called on the Security Council to pass a resolution that would impose consequences on Syria if it failed to turn over its chemicals weapons.

And he delivered a pitch for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, talks that have restarted at the prodding of Mr. Kerry.

Hours later, Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, echoed the call for diplomacy, telling the General Assembly that “we can arrive at a framework to manage our differences.” But Mr. Rouhani said Iran would insist on its right to enrich uranium, and he warned Mr. Obama to resist influence from “warmongering pressure groups.”

Mr. Rouhani, who had mounted an aggressive charm offensive in the weeks before arriving in New York, also declined a chance to shake hands with Mr. Obama — avoiding a much-anticipated encounter that would have bridged more than three decades of estrangement between the leaders of Iran and the United States.

In their speeches, both leaders balanced their ideals as statesmen with their imperatives as politicians. But for Mr. Rouhani, a handshake may have proved too provocative for hard-line constituencies back home. At the end of a day of drama and dashed expectations at the United Nations, the spotlight swung back to the grinding work of diplomacy that awaits both nations.

In the morning, it was a somewhat diminished American leader who faced a skeptical audience of world leaders here. After first threatening, then backing off, a military strike against Syria, and now suddenly confronting a diplomatic opening with Iran, Mr. Obama has employed a foreign policy that has at times seemed improvisational and, in the view of many critics, irresolute.

The president acknowledged as much, saying his zigzag course on military strikes had unnerved some allies and vindicated the cynicism of many in the Middle East about American motives in the region. But he said the bigger threat would be if America withdrew altogether.

“The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, and aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage,” Mr. Obama said. “I believe that would be a mistake.”

Despite a war-weary public and its declining reliance on Middle Eastern oil, the United States would continue to be an active player in the region, Mr. Obama insisted, defending its interests; advocating for democratic principles; working to resolve sectarian conflicts in countries like Iraq, Syria and Bahrain; and, if necessary, intervening militarily with other countries to head off humanitarian tragedies.

“We will be engaged in the region for the long haul,” Mr. Obama said in the 40-minute address. “For the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation.”

For a president who has sought to refocus American foreign policy on Asia, it was a significant concession that the Middle East is likely to remain a major preoccupation for the rest of his term, if not that of his successor. Mr. Obama mentioned Asia only once, as an exemplar of the kind of economic development that has eluded the Arab world.

Much of Mr. Obama’s focus was on the sudden, even disorienting flurry of diplomatic developments that began after he pulled back from the brink of ordering a strike on Syria last month. He said Iran’s overtures could provide a foundation for an agreement on its nuclear program, but he warned that “conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable.”

Referring to the moderate statements of Mr. Rouhani, and an exchange of letters with him, Mr. Obama sounded a cautiously optimistic tone about diplomacy. “The roadblocks may prove to be too great,” he added, “but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested.”

Similarly, Mr. Obama pushed negotiations at the Security Council on a Russian plan to transfer and eventually destroy President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. But he faulted Russian and Iran for their support of Mr. Assad, saying it would further radicalize Syria. And he claimed it was only the American threat of military action against Syria that had set in motion these diplomatic efforts.

“Without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all,” the president said. “If we cannot agree even on this, then it will show that the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws.”

The president spoke immediately after Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, delivered a blistering denunciation of the United States over reports that the National Security Agency monitored e-mails, text messages and other electronic communications between Ms. Rousseff and her aides. Last week, Ms. Rousseff canceled a state visit to Washington to signal her displeasure with the N.S.A. surveillance, the most significant diplomatic fallout from revelations that have also strained relations with other allies, like Mexico and Germany.

Mr. Obama took note of these grievances, saying the United States was rethinking its surveillance activities as part of a broader recalculation that included restricting the use of drones, and transferring prisoners out of the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and ultimately shutting it down. His words echoed a speech he delivered last spring on the need for the United States to get off “perpetual war footing.”

“Just as we reviewed how we deploy our extraordinary military capabilities in a way that lives up to our ideals,” the president said, “we have begun to review the way that we gather intelligence, so as to properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies, with the privacy concerns that all people share.”

Mr. Obama reaffirmed his support for another perennial American project: bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. With talks starting again between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Obama appealed for support.

“The time is now ripe for the entire international community to get behind the pursuit of peace,” he said. “Already, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have demonstrated a willingness to take significant political risks.”

Mr. Obama also sent a warning to Egypt’s military-backed government that it would lose American support if it continued to crack down on civil society. His message was viewed positively by the Egyptian state news media, despite the criticism, because he credited the government with taking steps toward democracy.

“We will continue support in areas like education that benefit the Egyptian people,” he said. “But we have not proceeded with the delivery of certain military systems, and our support will depend upon Egypt’s progress in pursuing a democratic path.”

For all his caveats, Mr. Obama left no doubt that the United States would use its political, economic and, if necessary, military power in the Middle East. Acknowledging that his position on Syria had prompted uneasiness in the region, he insisted that the United States would still act to protect its interests.

The president also issued a fervent call for countries to intervene when necessary — as the United States did in Libya, but conspicuously did not do in Syria.

“Sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Somini Sengupta from the United Nations, Michael R. Gordon and Rick Gladstone from New York, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 24, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of former President Jimmy Carter’s wife. She is Rosalynn Carter, not Rosalyn.

    Obama Defends U.S. Engagement in the Middle East, NYT, 24.9.2013,






The Boy Who Stood Up to Syrian Injustice


September 21, 2013
The New York Times


MAFRAQ, Jordan — AS in the fairy tale, in Syria it was the children who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

Syria’s civil war began in March 2011 with demands for freedom from schoolchildren in the provincial town of Dara’a — kids like Muhammad, a skinny seventh grader. He still hasn’t recovered from the torture he endured, and he and his parents asked that his last name not be published.

Muhammad, now part of the growing Syrian refugee diaspora in Jordan, still weighs less than 100 pounds and looks like a shy middle schooler. It’s hard to imagine him confronting a playground bully, let alone the nation’s tyrant.

Maybe the story of these children’s courage can help build spine in world leaders, who for two and a half years have largely averted their eyes from the humanitarian catastrophe that is Syria. The agreement on chemical weapons may be a genuine step forward, but it does not seem particularly relevant to Syrians suffering from more banal methods of mass murder.

Muhammad was not a part of the first group of child activists, who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Dara’a. The government, with knee-jerk brutality, arrested and tortured them.

That’s when other citizens, Muhammad included, poured out on the streets to demand the students’ release. The authorities opened fire on some protesters and arrested others, including Muhammad. Police officers beat the boy, then just 11 years old, with rubber hoses; he says that even when the soles of his feet were whipped, he didn’t divulge the names of activist schoolmates.

After four days, Muhammad’s father, Adnan, paid a $1,000 bribe to get the boy freed. The father and mother say that they warned the boy not to protest because his activities could get his father fired from his job.

Muhammad defied his parents and marked his 12th birthday by continuing to protest. At one demonstration, police detained him and clubbed him with the butt of a rifle until his knee was shattered.

A doctor, Kathem Abazeid, treated Muhammad and others injured by security forces. The secret police later executed Dr. Abazeid for treating protesters, the family says.

Muhammad also faced a more mundane challenge: How could he take his seventh-grade final exams without getting arrested when he showed up for them? His school principal sympathized and arranged for Muhammad to take the exams secretly; the principal was later executed as well, the family says.

By now, Muhammad’s parents were so repulsed by the government’s brutality that they shifted positions. “At this point, we started siding with our son,” Adnan says.

When the security forces couldn’t find Muhammad to arrest him, according to the family, they punished his parents by burning down the family home, with all their possessions inside. They also detained Adnan, who says interrogators suspended him for nine days by his wrists, broke his arm and several ribs, and tortured him with electric shocks.

What kept Adnan from revealing his son’s location were thoughts of another boy detained in Dara’a: Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, 13. When Hamza’s body was returned to his parents, it had burn marks and smashed kneecaps, and it had been sexually mutilated.

So despite unbearable pain, Adnan gave up nothing; a father’s love prevailed over unbearable torture. When he was released after six weeks, the family fled to Jordan.

The International Rescue Committee has been helping Muhammad and his family. The family has medical records documenting the abuse, and both Adnan and Muhammad still suffer from their injuries.

These days, Muhammad is one of one million Syrian child refugees abroad, according to the United Nations. Like most of them, he doesn’t attend school. Children like him, uneducated and unskilled, will constitute a Syrian lost generation.

Neda Radwan, a psychologist for the International Rescue Committee, counsels the refugees and sees constant signs of survivor torment.

“I’ve tried art therapy with the children,” she said. “They refuse to draw anything but dead bodies.”

She showed me some of the drawings. They brim with bombs and blood, windows into the minds of children overwhelmed by violence.

I fear we’re heading down an unspeakable path: a war in Syria that may continue for years and claim hundreds of thousands of lives, the risk of the collapse of King Abdullah’s government in Jordan, and growing spillover of violence in Lebanon and Iraq.

There are no simple fixes to the Syrian tragedy, but there are steps we can take that might help. We can bolster moderate rebel groups with weapons, training and intelligence. Like many Syrians, I favor missile strikes on President Bashar al-Assad’s air force to reduce his capacity to bomb civilians, although few Americans agree with me. Certainly we can push much harder for humanitarian access to aid needy Syrians. We can also do more to educate refugee children like Muhammad.

Above all, let’s not just shrug and move on. If a scrawny seventh grader can stand up to a despot, so can we.

    The Boy Who Stood Up to Syrian Injustice, NYT, 21.9.2013,






As It Makes Overtures to Iran,

U.S. Strives to Reassure Israel


September 20, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration embarks on a highly visible diplomatic overture to Iran, White House officials are engaged in a quieter, behind-the-scenes effort to reassure Israel that they will not fall for the charms of Iran’s new president by prematurely easing pressure on his government to curb its nuclear program.

In private conversations with Israeli officials and a few public statements, administration officials have emphasized that they remain skeptical of Iran’s intentions on the nuclear program, and that they will judge Iran by its actions, not by the conciliatory words of its newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani. In advance of his arrival in New York next week for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani has signaled a willingness to negotiate an agreement over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

But the White House’s reassurances did not prevent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel from issuing a harsh condemnation of Mr. Rouhani this week, presaging a potential showdown with President Obama over how to deal with Iran, after a period in which the two leaders appeared finally to be in sync.

Amid news of an exchange of letters between Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani, and fresh discussion in Washington of negotiations that could lift sanctions against Iran, Mr. Netanyahu’s office dismissed as “media spin” a raft of statements by Mr. Rouhani about the peaceful goals of Iran’s nuclear program and his willingness to engage in diplomacy.

“There is no need to be fooled by the words,” said a lengthy Israeli statement issued late Thursday in response to Mr. Rouhani’s NBC News interview. “The test is not in what Rouhani says, but in the deeds of the Iranian regime, which continues to advance its nuclear program with vigor while Rouhani is being interviewed.”

Mr. Netanyahu, who has described Mr. Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” has stepped up his longstanding campaign against Iranian nuclear development in recent days, and plans to make it the focus of a meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington on Sept. 30 and a speech to the General Assembly the next day.

While American officials have repeatedly told their Israeli counterparts that they would be cautious in their dealings with the Iranian president, the White House has also made clear that it has an obligation to test whether Mr. Rouhani’s expressions of interest in diplomacy are genuine.

“We certainly recognize and appreciate Israel’s significant concerns about Iran, given the threats that have been made against Israel and the outrageous comments that have come out of Iran for many years about Israel,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Friday, previewing the message that Mr. Obama will deliver to the United Nations next Tuesday, a week earlier than Mr. Netanyahu.

“There’s not an open-ended window for diplomacy,” Mr. Rhodes said. “But we do believe there is time and space for diplomacy.”

Washington and Jerusalem both want to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but have often disagreed on the timetable and strategy for doing so. Israel, which sees a nuclear Iran as a dire threat to its existence, has pressed for a more forceful military threat. The United States, while stressing that all options are on the table, has urged Israel to give diplomacy and sanctions more time.

Mr. Rouhani’s election has clearly intrigued the White House. Senior officials said that unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he seemed to have the authority from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to negotiate on the nuclear issue. He also has a broad political mandate in Iran, officials said.

“It’s certainly different perspectives looking at the same picture,” said Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former Netanyahu aide. “Israel is clearly focused on Iranian action, and the messages in Washington seem more hopeful about Iranian intentions.”

Since Mr. Netanyahu’s United Nations speech last year laying out his red lines on Iran, and especially since Mr. Obama’s visit to Israel in March, the two countries have seemed in alignment. But many Israeli leaders and analysts saw Mr. Obama’s zigzag response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons as a bad omen for his resolve in stopping Iran.

“Netanyahu’s words were most likely meant for the ears of the members of Congress, so they will not let Obama get carried away by Rouhani’s overtures,” Ron Ben-Yishai, a journalist, wrote in an analysis published on Ynet, an Israeli news site. “The Israelis are also telling their American counterparts that just like in the case of the Syrian crisis, a credible military threat is needed in order to get results on the diplomatic track.”

Mr. Netanyahu said last week that “the message in Syria will also be heard very well in Iran,” and that “the world needs to make sure that anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction will pay a heavy price for it.”

On Thursday, he said again that “the international community must increase the pressure on Iran” until it halts uranium enrichment, removes enriched uranium from the country, dismantles the Fordo nuclear plant and stops “the plutonium track.”

In Washington, a leading pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a memo on Friday, echoing much of Mr. Netanyahu’s plan. It added that Iran must allow inspectors into a military plant at Parchin where, it said, Iran tests explosives. “Pleasant rhetoric will not suffice,” the group said. “If Iran fails to act, sanctions must be increased.”

Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, said in an interview published Friday that the Iranians were six months away from developing a bomb, and that “there is no more time to hold negotiations.” He told the right-leaning newspaper Yisrael Hayom that Washington’s promise of “all options on the table” had not been enough.

Israeli officials and experts differed on what to make of Mr. Rouhani’s recent statements and actions in advance of his American trip. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said there was a contradiction in many of his statements.

“He’s saying, ‘We’ve never wanted a nuclear weapon, we’ll never produce a nuclear weapon,’ ” Mr. Oren said. “But then he says, ‘Time is running out for a negotiated solution.’ ”

Emily Landau of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University said she saw “no indication of any willingness to reverse course on the nuclear front,” citing 1,000 recently installed centrifuges and Mr. Rouhani’s refusal to consider suspending uranium enrichment.

But Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said Friday that there was a chance Mr. Rouhani was promising real change and that a meeting between him and Mr. Obama would be positive for Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu did not limit his criticism of Mr. Rouhani to the nuclear issue. He also addressed Mr. Rouhani’s ducking of a question about whether he, like his predecessor, believes the Holocaust was a myth. Mr. Rouhani answered, “I’m not a historian; I’m a politician.”

Mr. Netanyahu’s statement declared, “It does not take a historian to recognize the existence of the Holocaust — it just requires being a human being.”


Mark Landler reported from Washington,

and Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem.

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

    As It Makes Overtures to Iran, U.S. Strives to Reassure Israel, NYT, 20.9.2013,






Signs of Distress Multiplied

on Killer’s Path to Navy Yard


September 19, 2013
The New York Times


In the days before Aaron Alexis called the police in Newport, R.I., to complain that he was hearing voices sent by a “microwave machine,” employees at the Residence Inn in nearby Middletown were struggling to cope with his behavior.

Daily logs kept by the hotel detailed how on successive nights, he knocked on doors to find the voices, woke up a person in one room and frightened another so badly she asked to move. Then came a call from his employer.

“Brenda from The Experts Inc. called re: Mr. Alexis in 407,” a Residence Inn employee noted in a log dated Aug. 7 that was reviewed by The New York Times.

“She explained that he is unstable and the company is bringing him home,” the entry continued. “She asked me to check the room (it was vacant), and check him out.”

The call from the company, placed six weeks before Mr. Alexis, a former Navy reservist who the police say shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, suggests it had deep concerns about his state of mind and raises questions about why he continued to be sent to Navy bases in different states to work on their computer systems.

Company officials have said that although they knew Mr. Alexis was complaining about voices, they believed he was saying that the hotel was too noisy. The company did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Thursday.

It was one of numerous occasions in the weeks just before the shootings on Monday when Mr. Alexis’ increasingly bizarre behavior was noted by others, including hotel employees, guards at a Virginia airport and the police in Newport. Yet no one managed to head off the violence.

Much remains unknown about Mr. Alexis’ life and what drove his actions, gaps that are likely to remain at least partly unfilled with his fatal shooting by police officers at the navy yard. But as details emerge, they suggest a man engaged in an intense internal struggle for control, a battle he ultimately lost. And like other mass killers before him — James E. Holmes in Colorado, Jared L. Loughner in Arizona, Seung-Hui Cho in Virginia — he left a trail of telltale signs that were minimized, misinterpreted or ignored.

In many ways, Mr. Alexis, 34, seemed a jumble of contradictions. In Fort Worth, where he spent years in the Navy Reserve, he was described as friendly and sociable, drinking Heineken at bars with co-workers and chatting with customers at the Thai restaurant Happy Bowl, where he worked for a time.

But he also held a piece of himself apart. “He would kind of close into himself,” said Melinda Downs, who knew him in Fort Worth and served as a motherly figure in his life. “He didn’t let a whole bunch of people in, because he’d been hurt. He handled himself carefully.”

Like others, Ms. Downs recalled Mr. Alexis as “sweet” and often “playful.” But he also had outbursts of rage, some extreme; he told the police in Seattle in 2004 that he shot out the tires of a construction worker’s car in an anger-fueled “blackout.” And co-workers at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York described him as a person who held on to grudges and did not tolerate fools gladly.

Perhaps in an effort to keep his more violent emotions in check, Mr. Alexis practiced Theravada Buddhism, meditating for hours on the thick rugs of a temple in White Settlement, the suburb west of Fort Worth where he lived on and off for three years. He told one man affiliated with the temple that he aspired to be a monk, but he would stay up late at night playing violent video games in his room.

Mr. Alexis, a computer specialist who led an itinerant life, traveling to naval installations around the country to service their systems, seemed aware of his emotional problems, telling friends he suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it is not clear whether he ever sought mental health treatment. Visiting an emergency room at a veterans’ medical center in August, he said only that he was having trouble sleeping, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Yet in the last weeks before the shooting, when he ricocheted from Washington to Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and possibly other states, whatever control that Mr. Alexis seemed to have maintained began to fissure, the cracks spreading through his life.

The notation made in the log of the Residence Inn in August was one of several describing his tortured two-day stay there. He complained about kitchen noises that were disturbing him in his fourth-floor room, though the kitchen was several floors below, the hotel noted. Later he called the desk to complain about noises coming from the room under his.

On the evening of his second day at the hotel, he checked out suddenly, moving to a room at the Navy base reserved for veterans. But he stayed only a few hours, moving again, to the Marriott in Newport.

Early the next morning, he called the Newport police, telling them about the voices and saying he was being followed by people whom he had argued with at an airport in Virginia.

His interpretation of the airport dispute may have veered into paranoia, but the argument itself was probably real. Glynda Boyd, 50, of Birmingham, Ala., said in an interview that she was standing at a gate in the Norfolk airport on Aug. 4, laughing and talking with family members, when an intense young man in bluejeans and a T-shirt approached them from across the aisle of the terminal.

“Why is she laughing at me?” the man asked her, referring to her 78-year-old aunt, who sat in a wheelchair near the boarding door. Ms. Boyd, whose account was first reported by Fox News, said she and her family later recognized the man as Mr. Alexis when they saw his image on television.

“She’s just laughing, she don’t know you,” Ms. Boyd, who said her family had just come from a reunion in Norfolk, told him. But he persisted, asking again, while rubbing his head and moving his arm as if reaching for something. When Ms. Boyd and her brother moved away, seeking out an airline agent and asking her to call security, Mr. Alexis, who had been speaking softly, grew belligerent and began shouting obscenities, she said.

“You could see there was something very wrong with him,” she said, adding that she felt he could easily become violent. “We said, he’s either on drugs or he’s mental.” Security guards arrived and Mr. Alexis eventually calmed down, Ms. Boyd said, returning to his own gate and making a call on his cellphone. Later that day, he checked into the Residence Inn outside Newport. It is not clear whether the Experts ever ordered him home or exactly where he traveled next.

But on Aug. 18, at a meeting of a Thai Buddhist congregation in Raynham, Mass., about 40 miles north of Newport, Mr. Alexis approached Mongkol Kuakool, the head monk. He introduced himself in Thai and told the monk he had a “pain in his head.”

“When I come to the temple it gets better, it’s good,” Mr. Kuakool remembers him saying. He added, “When he explained it, I was afraid of him.”

Mr. Alexis, Mr. Kuakool said, spent the night in his car and returned to the temple the next morning. He thanked the monk, bowed to the gold statue of the Buddha and signed the guest book before leaving, writing, “Happy to visit here.”

The two late-summer encounters may have been signs that Mr. Alexis’ private tumult was becoming more public. But as early as July he seemed to be having problems with both finances and friends.

In Fort Worth, where he was living with Nutpisit Suthamtewakul and his wife, Kristi, the owners of Happy Bowl, he complained about his paychecks from the Experts, saying that they were late or that he was not getting paid enough.

“He had a problem with his company,” Mr. Suthamtewakul said. Mr. Alexis worked for the Experts from last September until January, then took off several months to attend college. But he returned to the company in July, telling friends he needed money.

For nearly three years, he and Mr. Alexis had shared living quarters in Fort Worth and in White Settlement, a town of 16,000 dotted with bingo halls, pawn shops, auto-repair garages, self-storage facilities and vacant businesses and homes. The town is home to a number of immigrants from Thailand.

Mr. Alexis attended meditation sessions at a nearby Buddhist temple, Wat Busayadhammavanaram, chanting and praying with the mostly Southeast Asian worshipers and learning the stages of purification that are part of Thai Theravada teachings.

“People have free will to commit wrongs or rights,” according to a Web site explaining the Theravadan school. “Evil doings may result when egoism, cravings, attachments, and ignorance are expressed as greed, hatred, and violence, which, if unmitigated, is perpetuated through rebirth.”

Mr. Alexis learned to speak Thai, studying at night at Happy Bowl and visiting Thailand. Not everyone believed he was devoted to Buddhist principles, though. Michael Ritrovato, who met Mr. Alexis at an Asian festival, said he seemed more interested in finding ways to meet Thai women. “Maybe he meditated,” Mr. Ritrovato said. “But he wasn’t like the monks.” He added, “He was a big-time Asian-girl person.”

A few of Mr. Alexis’ friends in the Fort Worth area said he drank often. “We’d go to any kind of bar,” Mr. Suthamtewakul said.

He said he noticed nothing of concern in Mr. Alexis’ behavior during the early summer, other than his persistent worry about his car. One night he got up at 2 a.m. to check on it, flashlight in hand, Mr. Suthamtewakul recalled. “He constantly think that someone was going to take something from him or try to damage his property,” he said.

But in July, relations between the Suthamtewakuls, who had recently married, and Mr. Alexis became strained. He complained that their cat had fleas and stole food from the refrigerator, according to Ms. Suthamtewakul. He complained that Mr. Suthamtewakul no longer had time to spend with him. He owed them money, she said.

On July 5, Mr. Suthamtewakul filed a police report accusing Mr. Alexis of putting sugar in the gas tank of his Honda Accord. And soon after, Mr. Alexis left, moving in with his friend Ms. Downs and her husband.

“I got married, and I wanted to spend time with my wife, and he understand,” Mr. Suthamtewakul said. “He might have a little problem with my wife, but for me, we’ve been friends.”

Ms. Downs saw the breakup of the household differently, saying Ms. Suthamtewakul had driven Mr. Alexis out.

Still, she said, she could not think of anything in Mr. Alexis’ life that “would cause this type of reaction” and noted that before leaving Texas, he had put his belongings in storage. “He was planning on returning,” she said.


Reporting was contributed by Trip Gabriel, Joe Goldstei

and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington;

Lauren D’Avolio from Fort Worth;

Nate Schweber from New York;

Kirk Johnson from Seattle and Kim Severson from Atlanta.

    Signs of Distress Multiplied on Killer’s Path to Navy Yard, NYT, 19.9.2013,






Forensic Details in U.N. Report

Point to Assad’s Use of Gas


September 16, 2013
The New York Times


A United Nations report released on Monday confirmed that a deadly chemical arms attack caused a mass killing in Syria last month and for the first time provided extensive forensic details of the weapons used, which strongly implicated the Syrian government.

While the report’s authors did not assign blame for the attack on the outskirts of Damascus, the details it documented included the large size and particular shape of the munitions and the precise direction from which two of them had been fired. Taken together, that information appeared to undercut arguments by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria that rebel forces, who are not known to possess such weapons or the training or ability to use them, had been responsible.

The report, commissioned by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was the first independent on-the-ground scientific inquest into the attack, which left hundreds of civilians gassed to death, including children, early on Aug. 21.

The repercussions have elevated the 30-month-old Syrian conflict into a global political crisis that is testing the limits of impunity over the use of chemical weapons. It could also lead to the first concerted action on the war at the United Nations Security Council, which up to now has been paralyzed over Syria policy.

“The report makes for chilling reading,” Mr. Ban told a news conference after he briefed the Security Council. “The findings are beyond doubt and beyond the pale. This is a war crime.”

Mr. Ban declined to ascribe blame, saying that responsibility was up to others, but he expressed hope that the attack would become a catalyst for a new diplomatic determination at the United Nations to resolve the Syrian conflict, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and millions displaced.

There was no immediate reaction to the report from the Syrian government. But just two days before the report was released, Syria officially agreed to join the international convention on banning chemical weapons, and the United States and Russia, which have repeatedly clashed over Syria, agreed on a plan to identify and purge those weapons from the country by the middle of next year. Syria has said it would abide by that plan.

The main point of the report was to establish whether chemical weapons had been used in the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, an area long infiltrated by rebels. The United Nations inspectors concluded that “chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale.”

The weapons inspectors, who visited Ghouta and left the country with large amounts of evidence on Aug. 31, said, “In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used.”

But the report’s annexes, detailing what the authors found, were what caught the attention of nonproliferation experts.

In two chilling pieces of information, the inspectors said that the remnants of a warhead they had found showed its capacity of sarin to be about 56 liters — far higher than initially thought. They also said that falling temperatures at the time of the attack ensured that the poison gas, heavier than air, would hug the ground, penetrating lower levels of buildings “where many people were seeking shelter.”

The investigators were unable to examine all of the munitions used, but they were able to find and measure several rockets or their components. Using standard field techniques for ordnance identification and crater analysis, they established that at least two types of rockets had been used, including an M14 artillery rocket bearing Cyrillic markings and a 330-millimeter rocket of unidentified provenance.

These findings, though not presented as evidence of responsibility, were likely to strengthen the argument of those who claim that the Syrian government bears the blame, because the weapons in question had not been previously documented or reported to be in possession of the insurgency.

Moreover, those weapons are fired by large, conspicuous launchers. For rebels to have carried out the attack, they would have had to organize an operation with weapons they are not known to have and of considerable scale, sophistication and secrecy — moving the launchers undetected into position in areas under strong government influence or control, keeping them in place unmolested for a sustained attack that would have generated extensive light and noise, and then successfully withdrawing them — all without being detected in any way.

One annex to the report also identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.

Other nonproliferation experts said the United Nations report was damning in its implicit incrimination of Mr. Assad’s side in the conflict, not only in the weaponry fragments but also in the azimuth data that indicated the attack’s origins. An analysis of the report posted online by the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, said “the additional details and the perceived objectivity of the inspectors buttress the assignment of blame to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government.”

The United States and its allies seized on the volume of data in the report to reaffirm their conclusion that only Syrian government forces had the ability to carry out such a strike, calling it a validation of their own long-held assertions.

Both the British and American ambassadors to the United Nations also told reporters that the report’s lead author, Dr. Ake Sellstrom, a Swedish scientist who joined Mr. Ban in the Security Council briefing, had told members that quality of the sarin used in the attack was high.

“This was no cottage-industry use of chemical weapons,” said Britain’s ambassador, Sir Mark Lyall Grant. He said the type of munitions and trajectories had confirmed, “in our view, that there is no remaining doubt that it was the regime that used chemical weapons.”

Samantha Power, the American ambassador, acknowledged implicitly the credibility issue that has confronted the United States on Syria chemical weapons use, a legacy of the flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that led the United States into the Iraq war a decade ago.

“We understand some countries did not accept on faith that the samples of blood and hair that the United States received from people affected by the Aug. 21 attack contained sarin,” she said. “But now Dr. Sellstrom’s samples show the same thing. And it’s very important to note that the regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition posses sarin.”

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, said there were still too many unanswered questions. In talking to reporters, he asked, if the Syrian forces had indeed been responsible and sought to attack insurgents, “how is it possible to fire projectiles at your opponent and miss them all?”

“We need not jump to any conclusions,” he said.

The report’s release punctuated a tumultuous week spawned by the global outrage over the attack, in which an American threat of punitive force on the Syrian government was delayed as Russia proposed a diplomatic alternative and intense negotiations between the United States and Russia led to a sweeping agreement under which Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal could be destroyed.

The United Nations, in danger of becoming irrelevant in helping to end the Syria conflict, was suddenly thrust back into a central role, with the Security Council now engaged in deliberations over an enforceable measure to hold Syria to its commitment on chemical weapons.

Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of France and Britain said Monday that they would not tolerate delays in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons.

“It is extremely important that there are no evasions,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said at a news conference with Mr. Kerry in Paris.

Mr. Kerry said, “If Assad fails in time to abide by the terms of this framework, make no mistake, we are all agreed — and that includes Russia — that there will be consequences.”

The release of the report came as a separate panel of investigators from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva said they were investigating 14 episodes of suspected chemical weapons use.

Reporting was contributed by Michael R. Gordon from Paris, Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon, and David E. Sanger from New York.

    Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of Gas, NYT, 16.9.2013,






U.S. and Russia Reach Deal

to Destroy Syria’s Chemical Arms


September 14, 2013
The New York Times


GENEVA — The United States and Russia reached a sweeping agreement on Saturday that called for Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by the middle of 2014 and indefinitely stalled the prospect of American airstrikes.

The joint announcement, on the third day of intensive talks in Geneva, also set the stage for one of the most challenging undertakings in the history of arms control.

“This situation has no precedent,” said Amy E. Smithson, an expert on chemical weapons at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “They are cramming what would probably be five or six years’ worth of work into a period of several months, and they are undertaking this in an extremely difficult security environment due to the ongoing civil war.”

Although the agreement explicitly includes the United Nations Security Council for the first time in determining possible international action in Syria, Russia has maintained its opposition to any military action.

But George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, emphasized that the possibility of unilateral American military force was still on the table. “We haven’t made any changes to our force posture to this point,” Mr. Little said. “The credible threat of military force has been key to driving diplomatic progress, and it’s important that the Assad regime lives up to its obligations under the framework agreement.”

In Syria, the state news agency, SANA, voiced cautious approval of the Russian and American deal, calling it “a starting point,” though the government issued no immediate statement about its willingness to implement the agreement.

In any case, the deal was at least a temporary reprieve for President Bashar al-Assad and his Syrian government, and it formally placed international decision-making about Syria into the purview of Russia, one of Mr. Assad’s staunchest supporters and military suppliers.

That reality was bitterly seized on by the fractured Syrian rebel forces, most of which have pleaded for American airstrikes. Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Western-backed rebels’ nominal military command, the Supreme Military Council, denounced the initiative.

“All of this initiative does not interest us. Russia is a partner with the regime in killing the Syrian people,” he told reporters in Istanbul. “A crime against humanity has been committed, and there is not any mention of accountability.”

An immediate test of the viability of the accord will come within a week, when the Syrian government is to provide a “comprehensive listing” of its chemical arsenal. That list is to include the types and quantities of Syria’s poison gas, the chemical munitions it possesses, and the location of its storage, production and research sites.

“The real final responsibility here is Syrian,” a senior Obama administration official said of the deal.

Speaking at a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry said that “if fully implemented, this framework can provide greater protection and security to the world.”

If Mr. Assad fails to comply with the agreement, the issue would be referred to the United Nations Security Council, where the violations would be taken up under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes punitive action, Mr. Kerry said.

Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia made clear that his country, which wields a veto in the Security Council, had not withdrawn its objections to the use of force.

If the Russians objected to punishing Syrian noncompliance with military action, however, the United States would still have the option of acting without the Security Council’s approval. “If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act,” President Obama said in a statement.

The issue of removing Syria’s chemical arms broke into the open on Monday when Mr. Kerry, at a news conference in London, posed the question of whether Mr. Assad could rapidly be disarmed, only to state that he did not see how it could be done.

Less than a week later, what once seemed impossible has become a plan — one that will depend on Mr. Assad’s cooperation and that will need to be put in place in the middle of a fierce conflict.

To reach the agreement, arms control officials on both sides worked into the night, a process that recalled treaty negotiations during the cold war.

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov held a marathon series of meetings on Friday, including a session that ended at midnight. On Saturday morning, the two sides reconvened with their arms control experts on the hotel pool deck as they pored over the text of the agreement.

Obama administration officials say Russia’s role is critical since it has been a major backer of the Assad government, and the American assumption is that much, if not all, of the accord has Mr. Assad’s assent.

At the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, pledged to support the agreement, and he announced that Syria had also formally acceded to the international Chemical Weapons Convention, effective Oct. 14.

In his statement, Mr. Obama called the use of chemical weapons “an affront to human dignity and a threat to the security of people everywhere.”

“We have a duty to preserve a world free from the fear of chemical weapons for our children,” he said. “Today marks an important step towards achieving this goal.”

Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain issued a statement after a call with Mr. Kerry in which he welcomed the agreement on Syrian chemical weapons as a “a significant step forward.”

It was a British parliamentary vote against military action that dampened momentum by the United States, France and Britain to conduct airstrikes in the wake of an August chemical strike in Syria.

“The priority must now be full and prompt implementation of the agreement, to ensure the transfer of Syria’s chemical weapons to international control,” Mr. Hague said.

Under the agreement, titled “Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons,” an inspection of the chemical weapons sites identified by the Syrian government must be completed by November. Equipment for producing chemical weapons and filling munitions with poison gas must be destroyed by November.

The document also says there is to be “complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment in the first half of 2014.”

A priority under the agreement reached Saturday is to take steps to preclude or diminish the Assad government’s ability to employ chemical weapons before they are destroyed.

An American official said such steps could include burning the least volatile component of binary weapons, a type of chemical agent that becomes potent only when separate elements are mixed. Another way to disable at least part of Syria’s stockpile, the official said, would be to destroy the equipment for mixing the binary component or destroying the munitions or bombs that would be filled with chemical agents.

An American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department protocol, said the United States and Russia had agreed that Syria has 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, including sarin and mustard gas.

The United States believes at least 45 sites in Syria are associated with its chemical weapons program. Nearly half of these have “exploitable quantities” of chemical weapons, though the American official said the Assad government may have moved some of the agents.

The American official said there was no indication that any of Syria’s chemical stocks had been moved to Iraq or Lebanon, as the Syrian opposition had charged. “We believe they are under regime control,” the official said.

Russia has not accepted the American data on the number of chemical weapons sites. The difference may reflect the larger disagreement as to who was responsible for an Aug. 21 attack that the United States says killed at least 1,400 civilians, many of them women and children.

If the Russians were to agree both on the number of chemical weapons sites and that the sites are all in government-controlled areas, that would suggest that the Assad government was culpable for the attack, and not the rebel forces as the Russians have asserted.

The four-page framework agreement, including its technical annexes, is to be incorporated in a Security Council resolution that is to be adopted in New York.

One concern in carrying out the deal, however, involves how to protect international inspectors who go to Syria. There will be no cease-fire so the inspectors can carry out their work.

Asked whether rebels would aid the inspectors, General Idris, the Western-backed rebel military commander, called the issue “complicated,” saying, “If investigators come, we will facilitate the mission.”

He said there were no chemical weapons in rebel-controlled areas, adding: “I don’t know if this will just mean that investigators will pass through the regions that are under rebel control. We are ready.”

The sense of betrayal among nominally pro-Western factions in the opposition has grown intensely in recent days.

In the northern Syrian province of Idlib, a rebel stronghold, one commander said that the agreement on Saturday proved that the United States no longer cared about helping Syrians and was leaving them at the mercy of a government backed by powerful allies in Russia and Iran.

Maysara, a commander of a battalion in Saraqeb, said in an interview that he had paid little attention to the diplomacy on Saturday.

“I don’t care about deals anymore,” he said in an interview. “The Americans found a way out of the strike.”

He added: “The Russians did what they want. The Americans lied, and believed their own lie — the U.S. doesn’t want democracy in Syria. Now I have doubts about the U.S. capacities, their military and intelligence capacities. The Iranian capacity is much stronger, I guess.”


Peter Baker contributed reporting from Washington,

and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon.

    U.S. and Russia Reach Deal to Destroy Syria’s Chemical Arms,
    NYT, 14.9.2013,






U.S. Eases Sanctions

to Allow Good-Will Exchanges With Iran


September 10, 2013
The New York Times


The Obama administration on Tuesday eased longstanding restraints on humanitarian and good-will activities between Iran and the United States, including athletic exchanges. It was at least the second American government relaxation of Iranian sanctions this year and came as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled his desire to improve relations.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions on Iran, said in a statement that it had cut the bureaucracy for obtaining exemptions in order to expedite the provision of health services, disaster relief, wildlife conservation and human rights projects in the country. Also authorized are “activities related to sports matches and events, the sponsorship of sports players, coaching, refereeing and training, in addition to other activities.”

The Treasury statement said the action, which eliminates requirements for special exemption licenses on a case-by-case basis, reflected what it called “this administration’s commitment to reinforcing ties between the Iranian and American people.”

Advocacy groups welcomed the step. The National Iranian American Council, which is critical of Iran’s government but opposes the sanctions, said it had been working for years to loosen the restraints on humanitarian and athletic exchanges.

“Today’s action is critical in helping prevent broad sanctions from isolating ordinary Iranians and ensuring that humanitarian needs of ordinary people do not fall prey to political disputes between the U.S. and Iranian governments," the group’s policy director, Jamal Abdi, said in a statement. “In lieu of formal diplomatic relations between the two governments, people-to-people diplomacy and athletic exchanges are crucial for bridging divides between the American and Iranian people."

The Treasury action came only a few weeks after an Iranian tennis referee, Adel Borghei, hired in May to work at the United States Open, was blocked from taking the job because of sanctions regulations enforced by the Treasury Department. The Akrivis Law Group, a Washington firm that specializes in sanctions law, agreed to represent him and secured a license that enabled him to work after his story had been publicized by the Iranian and American news media.

An Akrivis lawyer, Farhad Alavi, said in a telephone interview that the timing of the Treasury’s easing of the rules “obviously follows on the coattails of the tennis case.”

Most Treasury sanctions concerning Iran in recent years have tightened restrictions as part of a broader American policy to pressure Iran into concessions over its disputed nuclear program. Iran insists the program is peaceful but the West and Israel suspect it is meant to enable Iran to make nuclear weapons.

Last May the Treasury and State Departments lifted sanctions on companies seeking to sell personal communications technology to ordinary Iranians.

Mr. Rouhani, who was elected in June and took office last month, has said he wanted to reduce Iran’s isolation and to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute. He has not specified whether Iran was prepared to make any concessions, but in an interview on Iranian state television on Tuesday he said that time for resolving the dispute was limited and that “I am hopeful we can, step by step, solve this problem.”

    U.S. Eases Sanctions to Allow Good-Will Exchanges With Iran, NYT, 10.9.2013,






A Syrian’s Cry for Help


September 9, 2013
The New York Times


THE story is simple. Here in Syria, there is a regime that has been killing its subjects with impunity for the last 30 months. The notion that there is a mysterious civil war that is inextricably linked to the nature of the Middle East and its complicated sectarian divisions is far from the truth.

The primary perpetrator of violence is the government of Bashar al-Assad, which controls public resources, the media, the army and the intelligence services. The civilians who rose up against that regime, first peacefully and then through armed resistance, constitute a broad spectrum of Syrian society.

When a government murders its own citizens and they resist, this can hardly be called a civil war. It is a barbaric campaign of the first degree.

During the revolution’s first year, Syrians demanded international protection. First we asked for no-flight zones or humanitarian corridors, and later for weapons and military aid for the Free Syrian Army, but to no avail.

Not a month went by without some American or NATO official expressing little appetite for intervention. Realizing that this attitude was not about to change, the regime escalated the violence. It attacked the rebels with everything it had: first with rifles, then with tanks, helicopters, jet fighters, missiles and toxic gases.

Meanwhile, Western powers masked their diplomatic inertia with empty rhetoric about a “political solution.” Yet they have failed to coax the regime — which has not once indicated that it is ready to abandon its “military solution” — to the negotiating table.

Inaction has been catastrophic. While the world has dithered, Syrians have experienced unprecedented violence. Around 5,000 Syrians were killed in 2011. About the same number are now being killed each month. The regime has targeted lines outside bakeries; it has used Russian cruise missiles to bomb densely populated areas; and local activists say they have documented 31 occasions when it has used chemical weapons (United States officials have confirmed only some of these attacks).

Countless Syrians, among them women and children, have been subjected to arbitrary detention, rape and torture. A staggering seven million people — one-third of Syria’s population — are now displaced, either internally or externally.

These violations have all been documented by international organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Human Rights Council. These organizations have repeatedly attempted to refer the Syria file to the International Criminal Court, but Russian and Chinese barriers have stood in their way.

Russia and China have used their veto privilege on three occasions, blocking Security Council resolutions condemning the regime’s war crimes and crimes against humanity. Russia continues to provide arms and diplomatic cover to a regime that is becoming more dangerous by the day.

In the West, reservations about supporting the Syrian rebels that once seemed callous and immoral are now considered justified because of the specter of jihadism. But this view is myopic.

Jihadist groups emerged roughly 10 months after the revolution started. Today, these groups are a burden on the revolution and the country, but not on the regime. On the contrary, their presence has enabled the regime to preserve its local base, and served to bolster its cause among international audiences.

It is misguided to presume that Mr. Assad’s downfall would mean a jihadist triumph, but unfortunately this is the basis for the West’s position. A more accurate interpretation is that if Mr. Assad survives, then jihadism is sure to thrive.

What Syria needs is a legitimate government that is strong enough to delegitimize militias, to disarm and integrate them, and to enforce adequate policies to confront them. The Assad government does not have popular legitimacy. Only its demise can signal the beginning of the end of nihilist jihadism, and thus the beginning of Syria’s recovery.

Justice and humanity demand that the Assad regime be punished for its crimes. Even though the Russians and the Chinese have managed to impair the Security Council, it is still possible for an international and regional coalition to carry out this task.

A half-hearted intervention will not be enough. The United States and those who join it must not simply “discipline” the regime for its use of chemical weapons alone, without making a decisive impact on events in Syria. To do so would be a waste of effort and send the wrong message.

We Syrians are human beings of this world, and the world must stop the Assad regime from killing us. Now.


Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a writer and activist,

was a political prisoner from 1980-96.

    A Syrian’s Cry for Help, NYT, 9.9.2013,






In Shift, Syrian Official

Admits Government Has Chemical Arms


September 10, 2013
The New York Times


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Nearly buried in the diplomatic din over Syria, the country’s foreign minister acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that the Syrian government possessed chemical arms, something it had never admitted before, and declared that the country aimed to become a signatory to the international convention banning the weapons.

The oblique admission by the foreign minister, Walid Moallem, came as he suggested that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was ready to accept a deal advanced by Russia, Syria’s most powerful ally, to place the weapons under international supervision to avoid a threatened American military strike.

“We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations,” Mr. Moallem said in a statement, which he read on Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese television station that leans in favor of the Syrian government.

Mr. Moallem, who has been visiting Moscow, also said Syria was “ready to cooperate fully” with the Russian initiative, “particularly given that we want to become a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” A similar statement was also released to Interfax, a semiofficial news agency in Russia.

After decades of Syria neither confirming nor denying it possessed such weapons, Mr. Moallem’s assertion was another twist in a seesawing week of global diplomacy over allegations that Mr. Assad’s government used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21, leaving hundreds dead in what appeared to be the worst single atrocity of the Syrian civil war.

Mr. Assad has denied responsibility and Mr. Moallem provided no new information about that attack on Tuesday. The Obama administration, declaring the attack an atrocity that cannot go unanswered, has blamed Mr. Assad’s government and threatened a military reprisal.

Mr. Moallem appeared to do an about-face from Mr. Assad’s statement in an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, broadcast the day before, in which Mr. Assad would not concede that Syria even had such munitions.

It was unclear whether Mr. Moallem’s apparent burst of transparency represented a policy shift by the Assad government on the chemical weapons question or was, as some critics suggested, part of a calculated publicity effort to undercut any remaining American momentum for military action.

Syria’s official news agency, SANA, did not mention Mr. Moallem’s statement in its coverage of his visit to Moscow, saying only that he had told his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, that Syria welcomed the proposal by Russia “to ensure the safety of its citizens and the security of its territories and based on confidence in the Russian leadership which is seeking to prevent U.S. aggression on the Syrian people.”

In Syria, the war raged unabated on Tuesday, as it has throughout the debate swirling in recent weeks in world capitals over the Syrian chemical munitions arsenal, believed to be one of the world’s largest.

Government air and artillery strikes bombarded towns across the Damascus suburbs. Rebels and security forces traded barrages around the central city of Homs. Infighting continued between rebel groups. All the while, Syrians continued to flee their homes and wonder if anything could bring a stop to the violence.

The fighting was a reminder that even if the current debate over chemical munitions is resolved — with an American military strike or a diplomatic deal — there is little sign it will end the war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and left much of the country physically and economically in ruins.

In interviews over the telephone and Skype, Syrian rebels expressed despair, government supporters declared victory, and others expressed a mix of relief that American attacks did not seem imminent and confusion over American intentions.

“I feel like I’m being played as a sucker,” said an antigovernment activist, K. Ibrahim, who fled the country after being detained twice for her political activities, but who opposed any American strikes. Like the others interviewed, she asked to be only partly identified for safety.

“I’m not getting the U.S.A. right now,” she said. “I’m not getting what they’re doing.”

Syrian rebels and activists said they did not trust Mr. Assad or Russia to follow through on quarantining the chemical weapons — and that even if they did, it would take months or years and let Mr. Assad off easily, without protecting civilians or hastening an end to the war.

“Did it ever happen in history that a judge ordered the release of the offender just because he handed over his weapon that killed people?” said Abu Hamza, an antigovernment activist in the rebel-held northern city of Raqqa. “Today I desire death.”

Abu al-Haytham, the commander of a rebel group in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, said he had redeployed fighters to attack government bases after the expected American strike, but was now forced to revise those plan because the strike might never happen.

He said he believed that under any deal, the government would secretly retain some chemical weapons stocks, continue using them and blame rebels for the attacks.

“We will continue the battle — it’s either death or life, no other choice,” he said. “Bashar will feel stronger now — why not, since all his fears have gone?”

Supporters of the government cast Russia in a heroic light.

“Obama is a coward,” said Shifa, 29, a humanitarian worker from Jaramana, a government-held suburb near Damascus. “He didn’t have enough support in the first place to do the strike, and now he just feels relieved.”

She said that Russian officials had saved Mr. Obama by proposing the weapons deal in response to an off-the-cuff suggestion on Monday by John Kerry, the American secretary of state, that Mr. Assad could avoid the strikes by giving up his weapons.

“The Russians are great and very smart,” she said.

But Syrian civilians who support the uprising expressed dismay — and suspicion that the United States had never intended to intervene and was working with Russia.

“I think that Bashar and Obama and Russia are on the same side,” said Ashraf, 36, an engineer in Damascus. “People had high hopes,” he said, that the American strike would help, but he added that he now believed “they were never planning it in the first place.”

Ms. Ibrahim, the activist who fled Syria, said she had opposed the limited nature of the attack proposed by Mr. Obama, because she did not believe it would lead to a stable resolution of the conflict, now in its third year. Such a military intervention, she said, would at best “turn the regime into a militia” and most likely leave Syria in even more chaos.

“It’s a critical situation,” she said. “Syria is not a country you want to see blow up. Some control needs to be established in this country.”


Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times

contributed reporting.

    In Shift, Syrian Official Admits Government Has Chemical Arms, NYT, 10.9.2013,






Obama Backs Idea for Syria

to Cede Control of Arms


September 9, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama on Monday tentatively embraced a Russian diplomatic proposal to avert a United States military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons. The move added new uncertainty to Mr. Obama’s push to win support among allies, the American public and members of Congress for an attack.

In a series of television interviews with six cable and broadcast networks, Mr. Obama capped a remarkable day of presidential lobbying for military action and a dizzying series of developments at home and abroad. Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said early Monday that Syria could avoid an attack by putting its chemical weapons in the hands of monitors and agreeing to ultimately eliminate its massive arsenal of poison gas. It was an idea that was quickly praised by top officials in Syria and some lawmakers in the United States.

“It’s possible,” Mr. Obama said on CNN of the Russian proposal, “if it’s real.”

Mr. Obama’s statements about the haphazardly constructed plan appeared to offer him an exit strategy for a military strike he had been reluctant to order, and it came as support on Capitol Hill for a resolution authorizing force was slipping. Even some lawmakers who had announced support for it reversed course.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, said Monday evening that he would not force an initial vote on the resolution on Wednesday, slowing Senate consideration until at least next week. Democrats said they had enough votes to overcome a filibuster but possibly not enough to pass it.

Secretary of State John Kerry opened the door to the Russian idea when he told a reporter at a news conference earlier on Monday that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria could avoid strikes by agreeing to give up his chemical weapons, although Mr. Kerry doubted the plan was feasible.

“Turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting,” he said. “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

Mr. Lavrov seized on the idea, saying that it might form the basis of a compromise. “We don’t know whether Syria will agree with this,” he said at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, adding, “We call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons’ storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction.”

But to some, the offhand nature of Mr. Kerry’s comment and Moscow’s hurried response raised suspicions that the Russians and Syrians were making plans to control the chemical stockpile or were, at the least, using the proposal as a delaying tactic that could undermine Mr. Obama’s efforts for a military strike.

Either way, the proposal did not appear to be one that Mr. Kerry or the Obama administration had intended.

The effort to police such a proposal, even if Syria agreed, would be a laborious and prolonged effort, especially since Mr. Assad’s government has shrouded its arsenal in secrecy for decades. As United Nations inspectors discovered in Iraq after the Persian Gulf war in 1991, even an invasive inspection program can take years to account for chemical stockpiles and never be certain of complete compliance, something that President George W. Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, who was in Moscow, welcomed Russia’s proposal, though he stopped short of pledging that Mr. Assad would comply. His remarks, however, tacitly acknowledged that Syria possessed a chemical arsenal, something it had never publicly done.

It is not known whether Mr. Moallem has the authority to commit Mr. Assad to a significant step like the international control and ultimate destruction of an arsenal that Syria has maintained in large part as a deterrent to Israel, which is widely assumed to have a nuclear arsenal that it has never officially acknowledged.

The Kerry remark that inspired the Russian proposal did not appear to signal a shift in policy. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, later clarified in an e-mail to reporters that Mr. Kerry had simply been “making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using.”

In Washington, a senior Democratic aide said the Russian proposal was a significant factor in the delay of the Senate vote, allowing members to consider the plan and also to hear from the president, who is to meet with them at the Capitol before an address to the nation on Tuesday night.

Mr. Obama called the Russian proposal “a potentially positive development” in his interview on CNN, and promised that his administration would engage with the Russians to see if the world could “arrive at something that is enforceable and serious.” But he said that “if we don’t maintain and move forward with a credible threat of military pressure, I do not think we will actually get the kind of agreement I would like to see.”

The Russian proposal received the early support of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I would welcome such a move,” Ms. Feinstein said in a statement Monday afternoon.

The cautious tone from Mr. Obama about the Russian proposal suggested that his administration was not yet ready to give up on its all-out push for a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security adviser, continued that effort on Monday morning in a speech at the New America Foundation, a Washington research institution, in which she made the case for a military strike even as news of the Russian proposal was crossing the Atlantic.

Ms. Rice emphasized the brutality of the chemical attacks, opening her remarks by describing the “little children, laying on the ground, their eyes glassy.” Failing to act, she said, would send a message of weakness.

But by the end of the day, the White House had clearly signaled that the Russian idea might offer a way to avoid the potential for Congressional rejection of Mr. Obama’s plans for a strike. After meeting with Mr. Obama in the White House, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the president’s former secretary of state, told reporters that the proposal could be an “important step” toward preventing Syria from using chemical weapons again.

Later, in the television interviews, Mr. Obama repeated his desire to take the plan seriously, while still pressing the case for military action to the American public and lawmakers. Mr. Obama told NBC News that he would take the plan “with a grain of salt initially.” But he said that if Syrian officials accepted the Russian proposal, “then this could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”

Reacting to comments by Mr. Kerry that military action against Syria would be “unbelievably small,” Mr. Obama said any attack would not be felt like a “pinprick” in Syria.

“The U.S. does not do pinpricks,” he said in the NBC interview. “Our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria.”

Mr. Obama also responded to warnings of “repercussions” that Mr. Assad made in an interview on Monday morning with Charlie Rose of CBS News. Mr. Obama waved aside that threat in an interview with Fox News.

“Well, actually, we know what Assad’s capabilities are, and, you know, Mr. Assad’s are significant compared to a bunch of opposition leaders, many of whom are not professional fighters,” the president said Monday evening. “They’re significant relative to over 400 children that were gassed. They’re not significant relative to the U.S. military.”


Michael D. Shear reported from Washington,

Michael R. Gordon from London,

and Steven Lee Myers from Moscow.

    Obama Backs Idea for Syria to Cede Control of Arms, NYT, 9.9.2013,






Gambling With the Presidency


September 7, 2013
The New York Times


LADIES and gentlemen, welcome to a foreign policy fiasco.

All along, it’s been clear that President Obama has nothing but bad options in Syria’s civil war. Now, though, he’s found a way to put Congress in a similarly unfortunate position. When the House and Senate vote on whether to authorize strikes on Bashar al-Assad, they’ll be choosing between two potentially disastrous paths: either endorse a quasi-war that many constituents oppose and that this White House seems incapable of justifying on the merits, or vote to basically finish off the current American president as a credible actor on the world stage.

The second option seemed relatively unlikely a week ago, but now — in the House especially — it looks like a live possibility. The politics of a “yes” vote are lousy: the bases of both parties are opposed, the public in general is skeptical, and the president isn’t popular enough to provide cover for legislators worried about how another military adventure would play back home.

These political considerations wouldn’t loom so large if the strategic case for war were clearer. But neither the president nor his secretary of state seems to have figured out what kind of intervention the administration is proposing or why.

The strongest case for striking the Syrian regime is also a relatively modest one: The president drew a line around the use of chemical weapons, Assad crossed it, and a punitive strike is the best way to persuade him not to cross it more flagrantly still. The goal would be to contain a dictator’s most destabilizing impulses, and serve notice to other potential bad actors that there is a price to ignoring American warnings. The historical models would be our 1986 strike on Muammar el-Qaddafi or Operation Desert Fox against Saddam Hussein in 1998; each campaign had a limited purpose that didn’t open into wider war.

The case for a punitive intervention is hardly airtight. (The ’86 strike, for instance, did not induce Libya’s government to cease supporting terrorism.) But it’s more credible than the case the administration has been making, which has been much more expansive in its justifications for war, and therefore much less credible in its promise of a strictly limited involvement.

Secretary of State John Kerry, especially, has consistently spoken about Syria in the language of a crusading Wilsonianism — complete with outraged moralism, invocations of Munich and references to the Holocaust, and sunny takes on the alleged moderation of the Syrian opposition.

Yet if this intervention is actually about making Syria safe for democracy, the strike being contemplated is wildly insufficient to that end. So either the White House is secretly planning for a longer war or else it has no clear plan at all. And either possibility would be a plausible reason for a conscientious Congress to vote against this war.

A lot of observers I respect, conservative and liberal, are hoping for exactly that outcome. They want to see the war-weary American public vindicated at the expense of a Washington establishment that’s spent a decade badly overestimating the efficacy of military interventions. And they hope that in the long run, the shock of a “no” vote might help restore some of the constitutional balance that’s been lost to presidential power grabs and Congressional abdications.

But it’s important to recognize just how unprecedented such a vote would be, and how far the ripples might ultimately spread. It wouldn’t just be a normal political rebuke of President Obama. It would be a remarkable institutional rebuke of his presidency, with unknowable consequences for the credibility of American foreign policy, not only in Syria but around the world.

Presidential credibility is an intangible thing, and the term has been abused over the years by overeager hawks and cult-of-the-presidency devotees. But the global system really does depend on other nations’ confidence that the United States means what it says — that the promises the White House and the State Department make are binding, that our military commitments aren’t just so much bluster, and that when the president speaks on foreign policy he has the power to live up to his words.

It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked this credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance. But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.

This is not an argument that justifies voting for a wicked or a reckless war, and members of Congress who see the Syria intervention in that light must necessarily oppose it.

But if they do, they should be prepared for the consequences: a damaged president, a potentially crippled foreign policy and a long, hard, dangerous road to January 2017.

    Gambling With the Presidency, NYT, 7.9.2013,






Same War, Different Country


September 7, 2013
The New York Times


SAY, did you see the news from Libya — the last country we bombed because its leader crossed a red line or was about to? Here’s a dispatch from Libya in the Sept. 3 British newspaper, The Independent:

“Libya has plunged unnoticed into its worst political and economic crisis since the defeat of Qaddafi two years ago. Government authority is disintegrating in all parts of the country putting in doubt claims by American, British and French politicians that NATO’s military action in Libya in 2011 was an outstanding example of a successful foreign military intervention, which should be repeated in Syria. ... Output of Libya’s prized high-quality crude oil has plunged from 1.4 million barrels a day earlier this year to just 160,000 barrels a day now.”

I keep reading about how Iraq was the bad war and Libya was the good war and Afghanistan was the necessary war and Bosnia was the moral war and Syria is now another necessary war. Guess what! They are all the same war.

They are all the story of what happens when multisectarian societies, most of them Muslim or Arab, are held together for decades by dictators ruling vertically, from the top down, with iron fists and then have their dictators toppled, either by internal or external forces. And they are all the story of how the people in these countries respond to the fact that with the dictator gone they can only be governed horizontally — by the constituent communities themselves writing their own social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above. And, as I’ve said before, they are all the story of how difficult it is to go from Saddam to Jefferson — from vertical rule to horizontal rule — without falling into Hobbes or Khomeini.

In Bosnia, after much ethnic cleansing between warring communities, NATO came in and stabilized and codified what is in effect a partition. We acted on the ground as “the army of the center.” In Iraq, we toppled the dictator and then, after making every mistake in the book, we got the parties to write a new social contract. To make that possible, we policed the lines between sects and eliminated a lot of the worst jihadists in the Shiite and Sunni ranks. We acted on the ground as the “army of the center.” But then we left before anything could take root. Ditto Afghanistan.

The Obama team wanted to be smarter in Libya: No boots on the ground. So we decapitated that dictator from the air. But then our ambassador got murdered, because, without boots on the ground to referee, and act as the army of the center, Hobbes took hold before Jefferson.

If we were to decapitate the Syrian regime from the air, the same thing would likely happen there. For any chance of a multisectarian democratic outcome in Syria, you need to win two wars on the ground: one against the ruling Assad-Alawite-Iranian-Hezbollah-Shiite alliance; and, once that one is over, you’d have to defeat the Sunni Islamists and pro-Al Qaeda jihadists. Without an army of the center (which no one will provide) to back up the few decent Free Syrian Army units, both will be uphill fights.

The center exists in these countries, but it is weak and unorganized. It’s because these are pluralistic societies — mixtures of tribes and religious sects, namely Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druze and Turkmen — but they lack any sense of citizenship or deep ethic of pluralism. That is, tolerance, cooperation and compromise. They could hold together as long as there was a dictator to “protect” (and divide) everyone from everyone else. But when the dictator goes, and you are a pluralistic society but lack pluralism, you can’t build anything because there is never enough trust for one community to cede power to another — not without an army of the center to protect everyone from everyone.

In short, the problem now across the Arab East is not just poison gas, but poisoned hearts. Each tribe or sect believes it is in a rule-or-die struggle against the next, and when everyone believes this, it becomes self-fulfilling.

That means Syria and Iraq will both likely devolve into self-governing, largely homogeneous, ethnic and religious units, like Kurdistan. And, if we are lucky, these units will find a modus vivendi, as happened in Lebanon after 14 years of civil war. And then maybe, over time, these smaller units will voluntarily come together into larger, more functional states.

I still believe our response to Assad’s poison gas attack should be “arm and shame,” as I wrote on Wednesday. But, please do spare me the lecture that America’s credibility is at stake here. Really? Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, and our credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.

We’ve struggled for a long time, and still are, learning to tolerate “the other.” That struggle has to happen in the Arab/Muslim world, otherwise nothing we do matters. What is the difference between the Arab awakening in 2011 and South Africa’s transition to democracy in the 1990s? America? No. The quality of local leadership and the degree of tolerance.

    Same War, Different Country, NYT, 7.9.2013,






Pulling the Curtain Back on Syria


September 7, 2013
The New York Times


WHEN I was a law student in 1982, I escaped torts by backpacking through Syria and taking a public bus to Hama, where the government had suppressed a rebellion by massacring some 20,000 people.

The center of Hama was pulverized into a vast field of rubble interspersed with bits of clothing, yet on the fringe of it stood, astonishingly, a tourism office. The two Syrian officials inside, thrilled to see an apparent tourist, weighed me down with leaflets about sightseeing in Hama and its ancient water wheels. After a bit of small talk, I pointed out the window at the moonscape and asked what had happened.

They peered out at the endless gravel pit.

“Huh?” one said nervously. “I don’t see anything.”

It feels to me a bit as if much of the world is reacting the same way today. The scale of the slaughter may be five times that of 1982, but few are interested in facing up to what is unfolding today out our window in Hama, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.

As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.”

Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock.

The rate of killing is accelerating. In the first year, 2011, there were fewer than 5,000 deaths. As of July 2012, there were still “only” 10,000, and the number has since soared tenfold.

A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million.

In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering.

Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more.

But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?

All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.”

So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.

If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do.

Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.

“So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?” Sarah Palin wrote, in a rare comment that liberals might endorse. Her suggestion: “Let Allah sort it out.”

More broadly, pollsters are detecting a rise in isolationism. The proportion of Americans who say that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has been at a historic high in recent years.

A Pew survey this year asked voters to rate 19 government expenses, and the top two choices for budget cuts were “aid to the world’s needy” and the State Department. (In fact, 0.5 percent of the budget goes to the world’s needy, and, until recently, the military had more musicians in its bands than the State Department had diplomats.)

When history looks back on this moment, will it view those who opposed intervening as champions of peace? Or, when the textbooks count the dead children, and the international norms broken with impunity, will our descendants puzzle that we took pride in retreating into passivity during this slaughter?

Isn’t this a bit like the idealists who embraced the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned war 85 years ago? Sure, that made people feel good. But it may also have encouraged the appeasement that ultimately cost lives in World War II.

O.K., so I’ve just added fuel to the battle for analogies. For now, the one that has caught on is Iraq in 2003. But considering that no one is contemplating boots on the ground, a more relevant analogy in Iraq may be the 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraqi military sites by President Bill Clinton. It lasted a few days, and some say it was a factor in leading Iraq to give up W.M.D. programs; others disagree.

THAT murkiness is not surprising. To me, the lessons of history in this area are complex and conflicting, offering no neat formula to reach peace or alleviate war. In most cases, diplomacy works best. But not always. When Yugoslavia was collapsing into civil war in the early 1990s, early efforts at multilateral diplomacy delayed firm action and led to a higher body count.

Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.

So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.

If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?

    Pulling the Curtain Back on Syria, NYT, 7.9.2013,






The Syria Babble We Don’t Need


September 7, 2013
The New York Times


OUR country is about to make the most excruciating kind of decision, the most dire: whether to commence a military campaign whose real costs and ultimate consequences are unknowable.

But let’s by all means discuss the implications for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Iowa, New Hampshire and 2016. Yea or nay on the bombing: which is the safer roll of the dice for a Republican presidential contender? Reflexively, sadly, we journalists prattle and write about that. We miss the horse race of 2012, not to mention the readership and ratings it brought. The next election can’t come soon enough.

So we pivot to Hillary Clinton. We’re always pivoting to Hillary Clinton. Should she be weighing in on Syria more decisively and expansively? Or does the fact that she authorized the war in Iraq compel restraint and a gentler tone this time around? What’s too gentle, and what’s just right? So goes one strand of commentary, and to follow it is to behold a perverse conflation of foreign policy and the Goldilocks fable.

The media has a wearying tendency — a corrosive tic — to put everything that happens in Washington through the same cynical political grinder, subjecting it to the same cynical checklist of who’s up, who’s down, who’s threading a needle, who’s tangled up in knots, what it all means for control of Congress after the midterms, what it all means for control of the White House two years later.

And we’re doing a bit too much of this with Syria, when we owe this crossroads something more than standard operating procedure, something better than knee-jerk ruminations on the imminent vote in Congress as a test for Nancy Pelosi, as a referendum on John Boehner, as a conundrum for Mitch McConnell, as a defining moment for Barack Obama.

You know whom it’s an even more defining moment for? The Syrians whose country is unraveling beyond all hope; the Israelis, Lebanese and Jordanians next door; the American servicemen and servicewomen whose futures could be forever altered or even snuffed out by the course that the lawmakers and the president chart.

The stakes are huge. Bomb Syria and there’s no telling how many innocent civilians will be killed; if it will be the first chapter in an epic longer and bloodier than we bargained for; what price America will pay, not just on the battlefield but in terms of reprisals elsewhere; and whether we’ll be pouring accelerant on a country and a region already ablaze.

Don’t bomb Syria and there’s no guessing the lesson that the tyrants of the world will glean from our decision not to punish Bashar al-Assad for slaughtering his people on whatever scale he wishes and in whatever manner he sees fit. Will they conclude that a diminished America is retreating from the role it once played? Will they interpret that, dangerously, as a green light? And what will our inaction say about us? About our morality, and about our mettle?

These are the agonizing considerations before our elected leaders and before the rest of us, and in light of them we journalists ought to resist turning the Syria debate into the sort of reality television show that we turn so much of American political life into, a soap opera often dominated by the mouthiest characters rather than the most thoughtful ones.

Last week, in many places, I read what Sarah Palin was saying about Syria, because of course her geopolitical chops are so thoroughly established. A few months back, I read about Donald Trump’s thoughts on possible military intervention, because any debate over strategy in the Middle East naturally calls for his counsel.

They’re both irrelevant, but they’re eyeball bait: ready, reliable clicks. I wonder how long I’ll have to wait before a post on some Web site clues me into Beyoncé’s Syria position. Late Friday, Politico informed the world of Madonna’s. (She’s anti-intervention.)

This type of coverage hasn’t been the dominant one. But plenty of it is creeping in.

Here’s a smattering of headlines, subheads, sentences and phrases from various news organizations last week: “Votes on Syria could have huge ramifications on 2016 contenders”; “Vote puts Republicans mulling 2016 run on the spot”; “Democrats and Republicans are choosing their words carefully, lest they take a hit three years from now”; “the difficult line G.O.P. presidential contenders like Rubio must balance in trying to project a sense of American military might without turning off conservatives skeptical about following Obama’s lead”; “the risk for Paul is if Obama’s prescription for Syria turns out to be a success”; “Mitch McConnell’s muddle”; “Hillary Clinton’s Syria dilemma.”

Some of this rightly illuminates the political dynamics that will influence the final decisions about a military strike that individual members of Congress and the president reach. It’s essential in that regard.

But some merely reflects the penchant that we scribes and pundits have for reducing complicated issues to campaign-style contests and personality-based narratives, especially if those personalities have the stature and thus the marketability of celebrities.

Celebrities get clicks, while the nitty-gritty is a tougher sell. I’ll not soon forget a BuzzFeed post from last February with this headline: “The sequester is terrible for traffic.” It didn’t mean Corollas and Escalades. It meant the number of readers bothering with Web stories on a subject they deemed as dry as they apparently did the federal budget and automatic cuts to spending.

THE traffic lament shared the screen with a link to an utterly different style of political feature asking readers to indicate which “presidential hotties” they’d get down and dirty with. The headline on that post? “Sexy U.S. presidents: would you hit it or quit it?” Sex, I guess, brings on rush hour. Maybe presidents do, too. They’re celebrities, even the dead ones.

It’s easy for the media and our consumers to focus on recognizable figures, how they’re faring and what they’re saying (or, better yet, shouting). I even spotted recent reports on what Chris Christie wasn’t saying. They noted that he hasn’t articulated a position on Syria, though that’s unremarkable and appropriate. He isn’t receiving the intelligence that members of Congress are, and he doesn’t get a vote.

He’s not the story, and neither is Paul or Rubio or the rest of them. What matters here are the complicated ethics and unpredictable ripple effects of the profound choice about to be made.

And if we want the men and women making it to be guided by principle, not politics, it surely doesn’t help for journalists to lavish attention on electoral calculations and thereby send our own signal: that we don’t expect, and voters shouldn’t count on, anything nobler. On a question of war and peace, we need nobler. We need the highest ground we can find.

    The Syria Babble We Don’t Need, NYT, 7.9.2013,






Obama’s Battle for Syria Votes,

Taut and Uphill


September 7, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Each morning for the last week, at 7:45, more than a dozen White House aides have mustered in the corner office of President Obama’s chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, to get their marching orders for what has become the most intense, uphill lobbying campaign of the Obama presidency.

The White House’s goal is to persuade Congress to authorize a limited military strike against Syria to punish it for a deadly chemical weapons attack. But after a frenetic week of wall-to-wall intelligence briefings, dozens of phone calls and hours of hearings with senior members of Mr. Obama’s war council, more and more lawmakers, Republican and Democrat, are lining up to vote against the president.

Officials are guardedly optimistic about the Senate, but the blows keep coming. On Saturday, Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, perhaps the most endangered incumbent up for re-election, came out against the authorization to use force.

In the House, the number of rank-and-file members who have declared that they will oppose or are leaning against military action is approaching 218, the point of no return for the White House. Getting them to reverse their positions will be extremely difficult.

Administration officials say publicly that they are not rattled by such grim vote counts. The debate, they say, will only be fully engaged this week, when Congress returns from recess and Mr. Obama is back from his trip to Sweden and Russia. On Tuesday night, he will lay out his case for a strike to the nation in a speech from the White House.

“It’s too early to jump to any conclusions on where the House or Senate is,” Mr. McDonough said in an interview on Friday. “The effort will only intensify next week.”

To improve its odds, the White House is enlisting virtually every senior official from the president on down. In addition to members of Congress, it is reaching out to Jewish groups, Arab-Americans, left-leaning think tanks and even officials from the George W. Bush administration, some of whom are acting as surrogates. It is also getting help from the nation’s most powerful pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is mounting its own campaign for military action.

The White House and its allies in Congress differ on how the administration handled the first week of the campaign. Administration officials said they succeeded in dispelling doubts about whether the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, carried out the chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21 that they say left more than 1,400 people dead.

“We set a goal this week of making sure people understood the facts of the case,” Mr. McDonough said Friday. “No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence. We’re not really debating the veracity of the central charge.”

But people on Capitol Hill said the White House’s initial case for action proved unpersuasive, particularly in the hearings with Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey.

Lawmakers came away believing that General Dempsey projected an image of military reluctance, that Mr. Hagel seemed occasionally unsure of himself, and that Mr. Kerry exuded a characteristic air of confidence that some members appreciated and others chafed at.

Aides to Congressional Democratic leaders said Saturday that videos of the aftermath of the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, showing civilians lying on the ground in convulsions, have been shown to lawmakers in classified briefings open only to members of Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, posted the videos on the committee’s Web site on Saturday for the public to see.

The next phase of the campaign will be more individualized, and more from Mr. Obama himself. Democrats who are balking are being asked at least to vote against Republican procedural moves meant to delay or derail an up-or-down vote. After all the arguments are exhausted, aides said, it will come down to a personal pitch: the president needs you to save him from a debilitating public defeat.

But first, advisers said, the president needs to explain to the public in his speech on Tuesday why Syria is not another Iraq.

“Right now, to most of the country, this seems like a simple question of, ‘Is Congress going to vote to start another war?’ ” said David Plouffe, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama who, like other veterans of his 2008 campaign, was back in the West Wing last week. “Tuesday night and other opportunities can help fill in the picture for people about both the rationale and limited nature of the response.”

On the day the president is speaking, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee plans to blanket Capitol Hill with 250 advocates, having already contacted dozens of lawmakers to urge them to support a strike.

The advocates will carry a simple message, according to a person involved in the effort: Syria is a proxy for Iran, and the failure to enforce Mr. Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by Mr. Assad will be interpreted in Tehran as a sign that he will not enforce a red line against the production of nuclear weapons by the Iranian government.

Israel itself is staying out of what it regards as a domestic American political debate. But Michael B. Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said he was telling any lawmaker who expressed fears that Syria would attack Israel in retaliation for an American missile strike: “Don’t worry about us. We can defend ourselves.”

Among the most visible surrogates could be Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s former secretary of state, who aides say is likely to address Syria at one or both of two events this week: a previously scheduled visit to the White House on Monday to promote wildlife conservation, and a speech the next day in Philadelphia.

The White House is also putting officials, including the president, before audiences and television cameras. Mr. Obama will tape interviews on Monday with ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and CNN. Mr. McDonough will appear on all five Sunday news programs, and on Monday the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, will address the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute.

The last time the White House lobbied this intensively on a single issue was the 2009 health care law. But unlike that battle, which was largely pitched to the Democratic ranks, the White House this time is also appealing to Republicans. Administration officials note that in private conversations, lawmakers repeatedly asked to have their voices heard on Syria.

The administration’s shift began taking shape late last week at briefings for Congressional chiefs of staff and legislative directors. At a bipartisan briefing that was well attended, Robert S. Ford, the senior American envoy to the Syrian opposition, offered a frightening picture of a Middle East with uncontrolled weapons of mass destruction, aides who attended said.

Tailoring the pitch, the White House and Republican Congressional leaders organized another briefing just for Republican staff members to hear from Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser to Mr. Bush, and Eric S. Edelman, a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Mr. Edelman, in particular, focused on what Republican leaders have been emphasizing: a broader context for the Syrian conflict that includes Iran, loose weapons of mass destruction and the threat to Israel, according to Republican aides.

On the Democratic side, Mr. McDonough met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, while Ms. Rice met with the Congressional Black Caucus, whose loyalty might be crucial.

On Friday, Mr. McDonough and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, held a conference call with Democratic freshmen. Some Democrats have been invited to the Situation Room to meet with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Leaders in both parties say that there is a narrow window to win over or change enough votes to secure passage of the authorization, but that window may close before Mr. Obama’s speech.

Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, wrote an opinion article for The Richmond Times-Dispatch explaining his support for a strike in terms that could sway other Republicans — namely that it could combat the influence of Iran and Hezbollah.

But aides say there was a reason Mr. Cantor chose his hometown newspaper: He had to reach his own constituents, who, like most Americans, are opposed to military action.

Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, called on Mr. Cantor to hear his position but emerged leaning toward no. “I don’t see how they do that now,” he said of winning authorization. “They may be able to squeak it out. But at best it’s going to be razor thin.”


Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.

    Obama’s Battle for Syria Votes, Taut and Uphill, NYT, 7.9.2013,






Remembering All the Children


September 6, 2013
The New York Times


One of the most gut-wrenching scenes from Syria is captured in the images of row upon row of dead civilians. The dead include many children, swaddled in white cloths, angels laid down never to rise again.

According to the United States, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 to kill 1,429 of his own citizens, 426 of them children.

No fully functional heart can see these images and not break, the horror and grotesqueness of the slaughter of innocents being so abhorrent.

These dead children have become linchpins of the Obama administration’s argument to sell Congress and the American people on the need to strike Syria.

Last Saturday, when President Obama announced that he had made the decision that the United States should take military action against Syria, he challenged Congress:

“Here’s my question for every member of Congress and every member of the global community: What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

What price should be and how it must be paid is the question here. The bombs-or-nothing argument that many proponents of United States military action have taken rings hollow. There is a mile of distance between grieving for dead children and avenging those deaths through military force.

Furthermore, one can simultaneously express sorrow for the dead, particularly the children, and resist direct United States military intervention. This is a false choice that uses the dead children as a mask for America’s militaristic instinct, and one that I find repugnant.

In fact, the everyday rhetoric in support of an American strike becomes evermore expansive. This is no longer just about punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. It’s now about sending a signal and shoring up American credibility at the risk of war spreading throughout the region. So creeps the mission.

I recognize that the Syrian civil war is an acute crisis and that we — and the rest of the world that is all too willing to sit back as we shoulder the responsibility — need a clear, cogent way to deal with it. The human toll in Syria — in deaths, displacement and refugees — is staggering.

Still, above all, I’m haunted by the images of the children. But the truth is, they must mingle with the children who haunt me without consummate photographic documentation or international outrage.

They are the millions of other children who die each year on this planet with little notice. Where is the intervention for them? Who will be their hero? Mass deaths grab the headlines more than individual ones, but every needless death of a child should needle our conscience.

According to a June report for Unicef, “malnutrition contributes to 3.1 million under-5 child deaths annually, or 45 percent of all deaths for that age group.”

Here in the United States, the Department of Agriculture released a report this week that found for the fifth year in a row that 1 in 6 Americans are “food insecure,” many of them children. Most of them receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, yet Congress is considering cutting back on that aid.

Furthermore, a recent report by the Children’s Defense Fund pointed out:

“The number of children and teens killed by guns in 2010 was nearly five times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action that year in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shouldn’t our legislators be as concerned about the wars at home as they are about the wars overseas?”

As you will no doubt recall, Congress punted on the most rudimentary of new gun control measures this year.

This is not to measure one child’s death against another or to diminish the gravity of what is happening in Syria. This is simply to say that every death of a child is a tragedy, and that the humanitarian impulse to help should also apply to the children of the world who die out of view of cameras and out of range of wars.

Do our hearts cry out for their deaths? Are we moved to action to prevent more deaths like theirs? A relatively sudden death from a poison gas attack is obviously horrific. But, is not a gradual death from starvation?

Yes, let’s remember and mourn and be motivated by the dead children in Syria. But let’s also not forget all the other dead children of the world, including our own.

    Remembering All the Children, NYT, 6.9.2013,






Report Says Syrian Forces

Have Used Cluster Bombs


September 4, 2013
The New York Times


In the shadow of a confrontation over whether Syria’s government had attacked civilians with internationally banned chemical munitions, a rights group reported Wednesday that Syrian armed forces had repeatedly used cluster bombs, another widely prohibited weapon, in the country’s civil war.

The group, Human Rights Watch, said in a report on cluster bomb use that it had documented dozens of locations in Syria where cluster bombs had been fired over the past year.

Cluster bombs are munitions that may be fired from artillery or rocket systems or dropped from aircraft. They are designed to explode in the air over their target and disperse hundreds of tiny bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Each bomblet detonates on impact, spraying shrapnel in all directions and killing, maiming and destroying indiscriminately.

Those that fail to explode on impact can still detonate like land mines when disturbed later. A growing number of countries have agreed to a treaty banning the weapons and have destroyed stockpiles; Syria is not among them.

“Syria is persisting in using cluster bombs, insidious weapons that remain on the ground, causing death and destruction for decades,” Mary Wareham, the advocacy director for the arms division at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Meanwhile, other countries around the world that have joined the treaty are showing a strong commitment to get rid of cluster bombs once and for all.”

Syria’s government has denied using cluster munitions in the civil war.

The Human Rights Watch report said that representatives of the 112 nations that so far have signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions, are scheduled to meet on Sept. 9 in Lusaka, Zambia, to monitor adherence.

According to another rights group, the Cluster Munition Coalition, based in London, there are 85 countries that have not signed the convention, including three permanent members of the Security Council — China, Russia and the United States. Most countries in the Middle East have not signed, including Syria, Israel and Jordan. Two of Syria’s neighbors have: Lebanon and Iraq.

The coalition said that children make up one-third of all casualties caused by cluster munitions. It said 60 percent of the total casualties caused by the weapons are civilians going about normal activities.

The Human Rights Watch report said the group had identified 152 locations in Syria where government forces had used at least 204 cluster bombs between July 2012 until June 2013, in 9 of the country’s 14 governorates. Several locations, the report said, had been repeatedly attacked with cluster munitions.

    Report Says Syrian Forces Have Used Cluster Bombs, NYT, 4.9.2013,






Rockets in Syrian Attack

Carried Large Payload of Gas,

Experts Say


September 4, 2013
The New York Times


A new study of images apparently from the Syrian attack last month concludes that the rockets delivering toxic sarin gas to neighborhoods around Damascus held up to 50 times more nerve agent than previously estimated, a conclusion that could solve the mystery of why there were so many more victims than in previous chemical attacks.

The study, by leading weapons experts, also strongly suggests that the mass of toxic material could have come only from a large stockpile. American, British and French officials have charged that only the Syrian government and not the rebels was in position to make such large quantities of deadly toxins.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress, in hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, that the United States believes the Syrian military was responsible for the attack, and in classified briefings officials have pointed to Unit 450, which controls Syrian chemical weapons.

The new study was conducted by Richard M. Lloyd, an expert in warhead design, and Theodore A. Postol, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They based their investigation on scores of online videos and photographs posted since the Aug. 21 attack sent thousands of sick and dying Syrians to hospitals in the Damascus suburbs.

In interviews and reports, the two weapons specialists said their analysis of rocket parts and wreckage posted online suggested that the warheads carried toxic payloads of about 50 liters (13 gallons), not the one or two liters (up to half a gallon) of nerve agent that some weapons experts had previously estimated.

“It’s a clever design,” Dr. Postol said of the munitions in an interview. “It’s clever not only in how it was implemented but in the effectiveness of its dispersal. It accounts for the large number of causalities.”

Shortly after the attack, some analysts said they doubted if the identified rockets could have carried enough nerve agent to have caused the mass casualties. Mr. Lloyd and Dr. Postol say their analysis explains how the misidentification of a central rocket part resulted in the excessively small payload estimates.

In an interview, Mr. Lloyd said the manufacture of the rockets, if not the deadly nerve agent, appeared to be within the capabilities of both the Syrian government and the rebels.

But Stephen Johnson, a former British Army chemical warfare expert who is now a forensic expert at Cranfield University, at Shrivenham, said if the estimate of a 50-liter payload was correct, only the Syrian government could have achieved such a large volume of production.

“That’s a fairly substantial amount to produce yourself and beyond the opposition in its wildest dreams,” he said. Suggestions that the Syrian rebels seized or secretly obtained such amounts, Mr. Johnson added, lacked credibility. “It’s more supportive of the argument that it was the government,” he said.

The Obama administration has charged that the Syrian government fired rockets carrying warheads filled with sarin, a liquid nerve agent that vaporizes into a deadly mist that human skin can quickly absorb. The toxin throws nerves and muscles all over the body into overdrive, resulting in lung paralysis and death. The pupils of victims are often tiny because the iris, a muscle, contracts so much.

In their analysis, Mr. Lloyd and Dr. Postol said experts analyzing pictures of the rocket debris in Syria had misidentified thin tubes found sticking out of the ground as the payload canister. Instead, they say, the tubes made up an inner explosive device that, when the rocket slammed into the ground, caused a much larger container to burst open and disperse large volumes of gas.

Photographs of impaled rockets, the weapons experts say, often show the crumpled skin of the larger canister lying nearby.

“This design explains the evidence on the ground,” Dr. Postol said. The cloud from the impacting rocket, he added, probably rose to a height of 10 or 15 feet.

Dr. Postol is a professor and national security expert in M.I.T.’s Program in Science, Technology and Society. Mr. Lloyd, in two decades at Raytheon, a top military contractor, wrote two books on warhead design and now works for Tesla Laboratories, a military contractor in Arlington, Va.

Raymond A. Zilinskas, a senior scientist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a former United Nations weapons inspector, said the analysis of the two weapons experts seemed plausible. He said that deadly rockets that Iraq fired at Iran in the 1980 held nine liters of toxic chemicals, and that the Syrian rockets involved in the massacre looked like those but with an added secondary canister.

“I can’t say if it was 50 liters,” Dr. Zilinskas said, “but it would certainly add to the payload.”


David E. Sanger contributed reporting.

    Rockets in Syrian Attack Carried Large Payload of Gas, Experts Say,
    NYT, 4.9.2013,






The Right Questions on Syria


September 4, 2013
The New York Times


Critics of American military action in Syria are right to point out all the risks and uncertainties of missile strikes, and they have American public opinion on their side.

But for those of you who oppose cruise missile strikes, what alternative do you favor?

It’s all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month. Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar al-Assad steps down. So what do you propose other than that we wag our fingers as a government uses chemical weapons on its own people?

So far, we’ve tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn’t worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more Al Qaeda elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It’s admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let’s acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year.

A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war. Today, I’m dismayed that so many liberals, disillusioned by Iraq, seem willing to let an average of 165 Syrians be killed daily rather than contemplate missile strikes that just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the number of dead in the civil war, is exasperated at Western doves who think they are taking a moral stance.

“Where have these people been the past two years,” the organization asks on its Web site. “What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence.”

In other words, how is being “pro-peace” in this case much different in effect from being “pro-Assad” and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?

To me, the central question isn’t, “What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?” I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It’s this: “Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?”

Let’s be humble enough to acknowledge that we can’t be sure of the answer and that Syria will be bloody whatever we do. We Americans are often so self-absorbed as to think that what happens in Syria depends on us; in fact, it overwhelmingly depends on Syrians.

Yet on balance, while I applaud the general reluctance to reach for the military toolbox, it seems to me that, in this case, the humanitarian and strategic risks of inaction are greater. We’re on a trajectory that leads to accelerating casualties, increasing regional instability, growing strength of Al Qaeda forces, and more chemical weapons usage.

Will a few days of cruise missile strikes make a difference? I received a mass e-mail from a women’s group I admire, V-Day, calling on people to oppose military intervention because “such an action would simply bring about more violence and suffering. ... Experience shows us that military interventions harm innocent women, men and children.”

Really? Sure, sometimes they do, as in Iraq. But in both Bosnia and Kosovo, military intervention saved lives. The same was true in Mali and Sierra Leone. The truth is that there’s no glib or simple lesson from the past. We need to struggle, case by case, for an approach that fits each situation.

In Syria, it seems to me that cruise missile strikes might make a modest difference, by deterring further deployment of chemical weapons. Sarin nerve gas is of such limited usefulness to the Syrian army that it has taken two years to use it in a major way, and it’s plausible that we can deter Syria’s generals from employing it again if the price is high.

The Syrian government has also lately had the upper hand in fighting, and airstrikes might make it more willing to negotiate toward a peace deal to end the war. I wouldn’t bet on it, but, in Bosnia, airstrikes helped lead to the Dayton peace accord.

Missile strikes on Assad’s military airports might also degrade his ability to slaughter civilians. With fewer fighter aircraft, he may be less able to drop a napalm-like substance on a school, as his forces apparently did in Aleppo last month.

A brave BBC television crew filmed the burn victims, with clothes burned and skin peeling off their bodies, and interviewed an outraged witness who asked those opposed to military action: “You are calling for peace. What kind of peace are you calling for? Don’t you see this?”

    The Right Questions on Syria, NYT, 4.9.2013,






The Era of Disbelief


September 4, 2013
The New York Times


This is a particularly bad time to sell the American people a war, and make no mistake: we are being sold, and this “military action,” in another time and place — and in some quarters, here and now — would be called an act of war.

Americans are not only weary of war, they’re weary of the politicians who commit us to it.

According to Gallup, only 10 percent of Americans now have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, a record low since Gallup started tracking the measure in 1973.

Only 36 percent have the same level of confidence in the presidency.

Furthermore, the degree to which Americans trust the government in Washington to do the right thing at least most of the time has tanked since peaking in the jingoistic, post-9/11, post-traumatic-stress era.

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans trusting the government to do the right thing always or at least most of the time hit a high of 60 percent in October 2001.

That high level of trust mixed with a high level of patriotism, a clear attack on American soil and a clear enemy who publicly took credit responsibility for the attacks made going to war in Afghanistan an easy choice. President George W. Bush could do no wrong. His approval rating soared to 90 percent.

Then came Iraq, and so began W.’s disaster. The focus shifted from the country harboring the terrorists who’d just finished an attack on an American business center to the country where W.’s father had left business unfinished.

So while American patriotism was at a record high — according to Gallup, the proportion of people in this country who said that they were extremely or very proud to be American reached 92 percent in 2002 — the Bush administration, with its nest of warmongers, set about selling a trumped-up war with trumped-up “facts.”

The Bush administration led us to a well that they knew was poisoned. Skepticism began to displace trust as the lies came into full resolution. Our faith had been misplaced; our confidence had been betrayed.

We were promised that the war would only last a few months, but it stretched on from one miserable year to another and the bodies of young American men and women stacked up or came home mangled.

We were told that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had a stockpile of “weapons of mass destruction.” None were ever found in our war of mass deception.

We were told that the Iraqi people would see us as a “hoped-for liberator.” We would come to be seen as a nightmare occupier.

How could the government have sold us such distortions? How could so many of us have bought them? Never again, we said.

Now here we are with another administration coming to Congress and to the American people, asking for approval to strike another Middle Eastern dictator over weapons of mass destruction.

But this time, the facts on the ground in America have been altered. The aftertaste from Iraq still lingers. Trust in the government to do the right thing at least most of the times has plunged to just 19 percent. Congress is divided on how we should proceed. And the international community has yet to rally in favor of intervention.

Striking Syria has given Americans a chance to exhibit and exercise the caution that they eschewed in the lead-up to the Iraq war, and they are doing just that.

According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week, 6 in 10 Americans oppose launching missile strikes against the Syrian government even if the United States says it has determined that the Syrians used chemical weapons.

People are questioning everything — as they should. Are we absolutely sure of the evidence? Are there no options other than military options? Can we be guaranteed that we won’t face retaliation and that we won’t be drawn into a protracted engagement? Will bombing ease the refugee crisis or exacerbate it? Is this really about sending a message to Syria about its use of chemical weapons, or is Syria just a proxy, a small state on which we can make a big statement, a way for us to send a signal to others that our word is absolute? Is this an act of humanitarianism or militarism?

And what do we hope to accomplish? The president has said that he’s not interested in regime change with this action, and many fear that deposing Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, at this moment could cause more problems than it would solve. We are wary of terrorist elements within the opposition who would love to get their hands on Syria’s weapons. In this community of thought, the Syrian civil war is a war among demons with few angels.

And yet, Syria’s civilians still suffer. More than 100,000 are dead, seven million are displaced (that’s a third of the country’s population), including two million refugees.

Something should be done, but what? And why must we do it? This is not an easy issue, but committing this country to military action never should be. President Obama is not President Bush and Iraq isn’t Syria, but trust is trust, and when certitude melts into uncertainty, it is hard to reshape.

    The Era of Disbelief, NYT, 4.9.2013,






Split Senate Panel

Approves Giving Obama

Limited Authority on Syria


September 4, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate committee voted Wednesday to give President Obama limited authority to use force against Syria, the first step in what remains a treacherous path for Mr. Obama to win Congressional approval for a military attack.

The resolution would limit strikes against Syrian forces to a period of 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more days after consultation with Congress, and it would block the use of American ground troops.

The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria. Two liberal Democrats voted against the resolution, one voted present and three Republicans voted for it. The Senate panel’s action capped a day of fierce debate in both houses of Congress that indicated there is a widespread impulse to respond to the deadly chemical weapons attack but deep divisions over how much latitude the president should have to do so.

The White House welcomed the vote, declaring, “America is stronger when the president and Congress work together.” But administration officials said that while they expected the full Senate to vote next week, after Congress returns from recess, they did not think the House would act until the week after and were girding for a prolonged debate.

As the Senate committee hashed out its resolution, under the shadow of a potential filibuster, members of Mr. Obama’s cabinet pressed their case for action before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, drawing sharp criticism from Republicans, and raising doubts among Democrats, over the wisdom of getting drawn into a messy sectarian conflict.

However fractious the arguments, the lawmakers clearly responded to the challenge that Mr. Obama handed them earlier in the day, when he declared that authorizing a military strike was not a test for him but for Congress and the international community.

“I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Stockholm on the first day of a three-day visit to Sweden and Russia, where he will take part in a summit meeting that is likely to be dominated by the war in Syria.

“My credibility’s not on the line,” he said, appealing to lawmakers and foreign leaders to back his plan to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad. “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”

Still, the Senate vote was hardly resounding. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, co-author of the resolution and the ranking Republican on the committee, was one of the Republicans who sided with Mr. Obama. Another was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a freshman who voted with his state’s senior senator, John McCain, an ardent proponent of robust intervention.

The three Democrats who did not support the resolution served as a warning to White House aides still searching for support in the House. Senators Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico are newcomers who reflect the sentiment of the House Democratic ranks they recently left. Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the Senate’s newest member and a longtime denizen of the House, voted present, saying he was still haunted by his vote to authorize war in Iraq.

“In the days to come, I will further examine the classified intelligence information and consult with experts before deciding how I will vote on the final resolution when it is considered on the Senate floor,” Mr. Markey said in a statement.

The panel had struggled in drafting the resolution, with the committee’s leaders pressing to limit the duration and nature of military strikes, while Mr. McCain demanded more — not less — latitude for the military to inflict damage on Mr. Assad’s forces. To assure the support of Mr. McCain, who is viewed as crucial to the authorization’s final passage, the committee toughened some of the language.

Noting that “it is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria,” it urged a “comprehensive strategy” to improve the fighting abilities of the Syrian opposition.

The panel set aside a resolution by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican leading the opposition to the strikes, which would have declared that the president has the authority to act unilaterally only when the nation faces attack. Democratic and Republican Senate leaders agreed on Wednesday night to gavel in a brief session on Friday to put the war resolution on the Senate’s calendar so the clock can begin counting down to a final vote toward the end of next week.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Paul said the senator was considering parliamentary maneuvers to ensure that final passage of the resolution would require a vote of 60 senators, but she said no decision had been made about how to do that. If the Senate does authorize military action, it will have to reconcile its authorization with whatever resolution emerges from the House. A resolution being circulated by two Democrats, Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Representative Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, would impose even tighter limits on Mr. Obama, authorizing only a single round of missile strikes, unless there is another chemical weapons attack.

For the second day in a row, divisions over what do in Syria played out at a combative hearing in which Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, argued the Obama administration’s case.

Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Kerry offered a new argument: extremist groups fighting against the Syrian government would become stronger if the United States did not carry out a military strike.

Mr. Kerry said the United States had worked hard in recent months to persuade Arab nations and benefactors not to finance or arm the more extremist rebels who are battling Mr. Assad’s forces. But if the United States does not punish the Assad government, Mr. Kerry said, it is likely that some Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition will provide arms and financing to the best rebel fighters, regardless of whether they are extremists. “We will have created more extremism and a greater problem down the road,” Mr. Kerry said.

After days of discussion over whether a limited military strike would be effective, administration officials sought to assure anxious lawmakers that it would not provoke a major escalation in the fighting.

Representative Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, asked if a missile attack might set off a chain reaction that could lead to a military action as prolonged as the 78 days of NATO bombing in Kosovo. “How do you define limited and short duration?” he asked. “And what might Assad do in retaliation?”

General Dempsey acknowledged that was a risk but argued that the danger had been mitigated since the United States had signaled that it was planning a limited strike, even as it retained the ability to carry out additional attacks if Mr. Assad responded in a provocative manner. “We’re postured for the possibility of retaliation,” he said.

The most heated moment in the hearing came when Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, accused Mr. Kerry of taking a hawkish stand on Syria while ignoring the terrorist attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya.

“Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. force in past conflicts,” Mr. Duncan said. “Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?”

His voice rising with anger, Mr. Kerry responded that as a senator, he had supported “military action in any number of occasions,” citing the invasions of Panama and Grenada. Mr. Kerry also voted in favor of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, before turning against the war.

“We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi,” Mr. Kerry said.

In an indication of the hostility that Russia has shown to any American military action, President Vladimir V. Putin accused Mr. Kerry of lying to Congress.

“They lie beautifully, of course,” Mr. Putin said in remarks that were televised in Russia. “I saw the debates in Congress. A congressman asks Mr. Kerry, ‘Is Al Qaeda there?’ He says, ‘No, I am telling you responsibly that it is not.’ ”

“Al Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this,” Mr. Putin said. “It was very unpleasant and surprising for me — we talk to them, we proceed from the assumption that they are decent people. But he is lying and knows he is lying. It’s sad.”


Peter Baker contributed reporting from Stockholm,

and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow.

    Split Senate Panel Approves Giving Obama Limited Authority on Syria,
    NYT, 4.9.2013,






Shadow of a Doubt


September 3, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — It’s a bewildering time here.

Nancy Pelosi is the hawk urging military action. Britain refuses to be our poodle. The French are being less supercilious and more supportive militarily. Republicans are squeamish about launching an attack. Top generals are going pacifist.

The president who got elected on his antiwar stance is now trying to buck up a skittish Congress and country about why a military strike is a moral necessity. Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t want to go to war with the Army Chuck Hagel has. John Bolton is the dove who doesn’t think we should take sides, or that it matters “what the intelligence shows.”

Once more, we’re vociferously debating whether to slap down a murderous dictator who has gassed his own people, and whether we have the legit intel to prove he used W.M.D.

Many around the president are making the case that if he doesn’t stand firm on his line in the sand, having gotten so far out on a limb, he’ll look weak and America will lose face and embolden its foes. The secretary of state is arguing if the dictator had nothing to hide, why was he so reluctant to let in U.N. inspectors?

In many ways, Syria is an eerie replay of Iraq, but with many of the players scrambled and on opposite sides.

Just about the only completely consistent person is John McCain, who’s always spoiling for a fight.

Once more, we see the magnitude of the tragedy of Iraq because the decision on Syria is so colored by the fact that an American president and vice president took us to war in the Middle East on false pretenses and juiced up intelligence, dragging the country into an emotionally and financially exhausting decade of war and an identity crisis about our role in the world.

W. was so black and white, as he mischaracterized and miscalculated, that he ended up driving America into a gray haze, where we’re unsure if our old role as John Wayne taking on the global bad guys is even right.

We now actually have a president who understands the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. But our previous gigantic misreadings of the Middle East, and the treacherous job of fathoming which sides to support in the Arab uprisings — are the rebels in these countries the good guys or Al Qaeda sympathizers? — have left us literally gun shy.

It should not be so hard to reach a consensus on trying to prevent Bashar al-Assad from killing tens of thousands and making refugees of millions more, with chemical weapons and traditional ones.

But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday dramatically showed how our misjudgment on Iraq infects our judgment on Syria.

A panel of top Obama officials who don’t even agree themselves about what to do in Syria did their best to stick to White House talking points, arguing against what Secretary of State John Kerry called “armchair isolationism,” as they were grilled by skeptical, and sometimes hostile, senators.

Kerry and Hagel both voted as senators for the authorization to invade Iraq and then came to regret it; Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last spring that he was uncertain if the U.S. “could identify the right people” to give arms to in the Syrian opposition.

But there was the trio trying to help the president make his case that American credibility is too big to fail.

“After the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war, how can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited?” asked Senator Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

Indeed, Kerry showed how slippery the slope is when he answered a question by Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who opposed the Iraq invasion but supports a Syrian smackdown.

When Menendez asked Kerry if the administration would accept “a prohibition for having American boots on the ground” as part of a resolution authorizing force in Syria, Kerry replied: “It would be preferable not” to “have boots on the ground.”

Then came the “but.” “But in the event Syria imploded, for instance,” Kerry said, “or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of Al Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us — the British, the French and others — to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee chided Kerry: “I didn’t find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground.”

Realizing he had been undiplomatic, the top diplomat retreated from his scary hypothetical immediately, saying, “Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can.”

It’s up to President Obama to show Americans that he knows what he’s doing, unlike his predecessor.

    Shadow of a Doubt, NYT, 3.9.2013,






Arm and Shame


September 3, 2013
The New York Times


The Obama team has clearly struggled with its Syria policy, but, in fairness, this is a wickedly complex problem. We need a policy response that simultaneously deters another Syrian poison gas attack, doesn’t embroil America in the Syrian civil war and also doesn’t lead to the sudden collapse of the Syrian state with all its chemical weapons, or, worse, a strengthening of the Syrian regime and its allies Hezbollah and Iran. However, I think President Obama has the wrong strategy for threading that needle. He’s seeking Congressional support for a one-time “shock and awe” missile attack against Syrian military targets. The right strategy is “arm and shame.”

Let me explain. Count me with the activists on the question of whether the United States should respond to the Syrian regime’s murder of some 1,400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, with poison gas. If there is no global response to this breaching of a universal taboo on using poison gas, the world will be a much more dangerous place. And only America can spearhead a credible response: Russia and China have rendered the United Nations Security Council meaningless; Europe is a military museum; the Arab League is worthless; all others are spectators. We are out front — alone. We may not want to be, but here we are. So we must lead.

But upholding this norm in the context of the Syrian civil war is not a simple matter. Start with the fact that probably the only way to produce a unified, pluralistic, multisectarian Syria is for an international army to come in, take over the country, monopolize all weaponry and referee a long transition to consensual rule. Syrians can’t forge that on their own now. But such a force is not possible in this century, and Iraq demonstrated how hard it is for even that option to work.

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons its long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

By contrast, just limited bombing of Syria from the air makes us look weak at best, even if we hit targets. And if we kill lots of Syrians, it enables Assad to divert attention from the 1,400 he has gassed to death to those we harmed. Also, who knows what else our bombing of Syria could set in motion. (Would Iran decide it must now rush through a nuclear bomb?)

But our response must not stop there.

We need to use every diplomatic tool we have to shame Assad, his wife, Asma, his murderous brother Maher and every member of his cabinet or military whom we can identify as being involved in this gas attack. We need to bring their names before the United Nations Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court. We need to make them famous. We need to metaphorically put their pictures up in every post office in the world as people wanted for crimes against humanity.

Yes, there’s little chance of them being brought to justice now, but do not underestimate how much of a deterrent it can be for the world community to put the mark of Cain on their foreheads so they know that they and their families can never again travel anywhere except to North Korea, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s dacha. It might even lead some of Assad’s supporters to want to get rid of him and seek a political deal.

When we alone just bomb Syria to defend “our” red line, we turn the rest of the world into spectators — many of whom will root against us. When we shame the people who perpetrated this poison gas attack, we can summon the rest of the world, maybe even inspire them, to join us in redrawing this red line, as a moral line and, therefore, a global line. It is easy for Putin, China and Iran to denounce American bombing, but much harder for them to defend Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction, so let’s force them to choose. Best of all, a moral response — a shaming — can be an unlimited response, not a limited one.

A limited, transactional cruise missile attack meets Obama’s need to preserve his credibility. But it also risks changing the subject from Assad’s behavior to ours and — rather than empowering the rebels to act and enlisting the world to act — could make us owners of this story in ways that we do not want. “Arm and shame” is how we best help the decent forces in Syria, deter further use of poison gas, isolate Assad and put real pressure on him or others around him to cut a deal. Is it perfect? No, but perfect is not on the menu in Syria.

    Arm and Shame, NYT, 3.9.2013,






House Leaders Express Their Support

for Syria Strike


September 3, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama won the support on Tuesday of Republican and Democratic leaders in the House for an attack on Syria, giving him a foundation to win broader approval for military action from a Congress that still harbors deep reservations.

Speaker John A. Boehner, who with other Congressional leaders met Mr. Obama in the Oval Office, said afterward that he would “support the president’s call to action,” an endorsement quickly echoed by the House majority leader, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia.

On Tuesday evening, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed on the wording of a resolution that would give Mr. Obama the authority to carry out a strike against Syria, for a period of 60 days, with one 30-day extension. A committee vote on the measure could come as early as Wednesday.

Uncertainties abound, particularly in the House, where the imprimatur of the Republican leadership does not guarantee approval by rebellious rank and file, and where vocal factions in both parties are opposed to anything that could entangle the nation in another messy conflict in the Middle East.

Still, the expressions of support from top Republicans who rarely agree with Mr. Obama on anything suggest the White House may be on firmer footing than seemed the case on Saturday, when the president abruptly halted his plans for action in the face of growing protests from Congress.

Mr. Obama is now headed to Sweden and Russia, where he will try to shore up an international coalition to punish Syria for a chemical weapons attack and will probably encounter some of the same debates that are cleaving the Capitol.

Before his departure, the White House intensified what has become the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Mr. Obama’s presidency as it deployed members of his war council and enlisted political alumni of his 2008 campaign to press the argument with the public.

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, who answered sharp questions and defended the administration’s strategy for Syria in nearly four hours of sometimes sharp exchanges before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Kerry stirred some confusion about the potential scope of American military involvement when he tried to carve out an exception to a proposed Congressional prohibition on the use of ground troops in Syria — something Mr. Obama and other officials have long ruled out as a general principle.

If Syria were to fall into complete chaos and if the chemical weapons of President Bashar al-Assad’s government there were at risk of falling into the hands of a militant group like Al Nusra, Mr. Kerry said, “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

Later, under questioning by Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican, Mr. Kerry walked back his comment, insisting that he had only been speaking about a hypothetical case. “Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can,” Mr. Kerry said, without quite doing so. “There will not be American boots on the ground with respect to the civil war.”

The Senate resolution — released on Tuesday night by Mr. Corker and the committee’s chairman, Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey — would limit the president’s options and prohibit the use of ground forces. Any strike, it says, should be “tailored” to only deter Syria from using chemical weapons again and to cripple its capacity to do so.

The resolution would prohibit “boots on the ground” and require “the Obama administration to submit their broader plan for Syria,” Mr. Corker said in a statement.

Mr. Menendez added, “We have an obligation to act.”

In one of the most heated moments of the hearing earlier, Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, said that Mr. Obama might go through with an attack if Congress failed to authorize it. Mr. Kerry said that he did not know what Mr. Obama would decide but that the president had the authority to do so under the Constitution.

It was a vivid tableau: Mr. Kerry — the former senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2003, then turned against it — imploring his ex-colleagues to authorize an act of war.

Although he appeared alongside Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — another former senator — and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Mr. Kerry dominated the hearing. He seemed keenly aware of the echoes of Iraq.

“We were here for that vote,” Mr. Kerry said. “We voted. So we are especially sensitive — Chuck and I — to never again asking any member of Congress to take a vote on faulty intelligence. And that is why our intelligence community has scrubbed and rescrubbed the evidence.”

Mr. Kerry said the intelligence proved that the “Assad regime prepared for this attack, issued instructions to prepare for this attack, warned its own forces to use gas masks,” and the intelligence included “physical evidence of where the rockets came from and when.”

Mr. Hagel, who, like Mr. Kerry, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, used another argument used by previous administrations: a warning that authoritarian governments with arsenals of unconventional weapons could transfer them to terrorist groups.

Casting the issue as one of self-defense, the defense secretary also underscored the threat to American military personnel across the region. He said other dictators around the world and militant groups like Hezbollah might be emboldened if the United States did not punish the Assad government. “The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity,” Mr. Hagel said. “It is a serious threat to America’s national security interests and those of our closest allies.”

Before the hearing began, and again after Mr. Kerry spoke, protesters from the antiwar group Code Pink jumped up and shouted against military action. “Kerry, no more war in Syria!” one demonstrator exclaimed, adding that America needed health care and education more than military action.

Although the declared goal of a strike on Syria would be to degrade its ability to launch a chemical weapons attack and deter any future use, General Dempsey was asked whether such an attack would also diminish to a broader extent the Assad military’s abilities.

“Yes,” he replied.

General Dempsey was a subdued presence in the hearing. Although he, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel sought to present a unified front, they have had differences over how to respond to the conflict in Syria in recent months. Mr. Kerry has pushed to provide military support to the rebels and consider deeper military involvement, and General Dempsey has repeatedly highlighted the risks of intervention.

Similar differences were on display among lawmakers who spoke during the Senate hearing or after the meeting with Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader, said she supported the president and sent a letter to fellow Democrats urging that they fall into line. But she conceded, “In my district, I don’t think people are convinced that military action is necessary.”

Ms. Pelosi’s comments reflected her dilemma as a leader of the president’s party, which still has a strong liberal antiwar wing. “The American people need to hear more about the intelligence,” she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Boehner said that despite his support for Mr. Obama, the Republican leadership would not lean on other Republicans to vote for military action and would leave that lobbying to the White House. Mr. Boehner’s stance will ease the pressure on him from members of his party, who believe the United States has no business in Syria. It will increase the pressure on Ms. Pelosi.

The calendar is Mr. Obama’s enemy: Many members from both parties are still back in their districts hearing from constituents, and the feedback, based on numerous interviews, is overwhelmingly negative.

On Tuesday, however, a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, threw its support behind military action in Syria, citing the need to send a strong message to Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, both of which support Mr. Assad.

“Iran is watching us very carefully,” said Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York and a staunch defender of Israel.


Jennifer Steinhauer, Ashley Parker

and Jeremy Peters contributed reporting.

    House Leaders Express Their Support for Syria Strike, NYT, 3.9.2013,






Flow of Refugees Out of Syria

Passes Two Million


September 3, 2013
The New York Times


GENEVA — As the United States and its allies struggled for a course of action to punish the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the United Nations said the number of civilians who had fled to neighboring countries had surpassed two million — a new milestone in what it called “the great tragedy of this century, a disgraceful humanitarian calamity.”

Fear of Western airstrikes in the past week was a factor in an exodus that continued to gather momentum, inflicting acute social strain and political tension on receiving countries, António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said in an interview in Geneva on Monday.

It took two years of conflict in Syria for the refugee figure to reach one million, but only six more months to reach two million, Mr. Guterres noted. In addition, at least 4.5 million people have been driven from their homes inside Syria by the destruction and violence, meaning that close to one-third of the country’s population has been displaced by the civil war, and about half the population has needed humanitarian aid, Mr. Guterres said, putting Syria’s crisis at a level unseen in recent decades.

About 40,000 Syrians fled to Iraq in the last two weeks of August, and 13,000 arrived in Lebanon in the past week. Over all, close to 5,000 Syrians are leaving every day.

“It clearly demonstrates that we are witnessing a conflict in constant escalation,” Mr. Guterres said. “We have to be prepared for things to get much worse before, eventually, they start to get better.”

By the end of August, Lebanon had more than 716,000 Syrians who were registered as refugees with the United Nations and many more who were unregistered, he said, meaning that perhaps one of every four people in the country is a Syrian. About 515,000 Syrians were on the United Nations register in Jordan, 460,000 in Turkey, 168,000 in Iraq and 110,000 in Egypt, with many more likely to be unregistered.

“These countries need massive support from the international community to be able to cope with the challenge,” Mr. Guterres said, emphasizing the acute strain the refugee influx has placed on their economies and social resources. “If that support does not materialize, the risks of instability in the Middle East will dramatically increase.”

Ministers of the four most affected countries will meet in Geneva on Wednesday to work out a common approach on the assistance they need, which will be laid out to donor countries meeting in Geneva at the end of the month.

The international response so far has fallen far short of what is needed, Mr. Guterres warned. Turkey has received financial assistance equivalent to less than 10 percent of what it has spent to support the refugees, he said. Financial backing for Jordan and Lebanon was “totally inadequate,” he added.

The United Nations refugee agency says it has received $548 million, or less than half the $1.1 billion it had sought, to pay for relief for Syrian refugees in 2013. Most came from traditional Western donors, led by the United States, which contributed $228 million, or 40 percent of what the agency has received. European countries, Japan, Canada and Australia have together accounted for about 33 percent. Kuwait has contributed $112 million, or about 20 percent.

By contrast, Russia, the Syrian government’s main ally, has given $10 million. China, which has helped Russia block any authorization of military action against Syria in the United Nations Security Council, has given $1 million.

The scale of need created by the Syrian crisis outstrips any humanitarian relief budget, Mr. Guterres said. “This requires a mobilization of more development-related forms of assistance,” he said, or Syria’s crisis could drain the resources for humanitarian disasters in other parts of the world.

Because the devastation is so far-reaching, he said, it defies “a humanitarian solution.”

“The solution will have to be political,” Mr. Guterres said. “If no political solution is found, this will assume really catastrophic proportions.”

    Flow of Refugees Out of Syria Passes Two Million, NYT, 3.9.2013,






French Release Intelligence

Tying Assad Government

to Chemical Weapons


September 2, 2013
The New York Times


Paris — The French government sought to bolster the case for military action against Syria on Monday, releasing a declassified summary of French intelligence that ties President Bashar al-Assad’s government to the apparent use of chemical weapons outside Damascus last month.

The report comes as the French public’s apprehension about intervening in Syria is mounting. President Obama’s announcement that he would seek Congressional approval for American military strikes, paired with the British Parliament’s vote against taking part, has left France somewhat isolated on the issue internationally. There are rising calls for a parliamentary vote in France, too, though the French president, François Hollande, has no constitutional duty to consult the legislature before authorizing the use of military force and his government has said it does not intend to do so.

The nine-page intelligence summary, which included propriety French intelligence in addition to analyses of publicly circulated videos and information shared by allied intelligence services, was published on government Web sites on Monday evening. It asserts that Mr. Assad’s forces conducted attacks involving the “massive use of chemical agents” against civilian populations in several suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, and later mounted “significant ground and aerial strikes” with conventional munitions that were aimed at the “destruction of evidence” in those areas. The report gave no indication , however, as to the level of certitude of the conclusions presented.

“Our services possess information, from a national source, that leave one to think that other actions of this nature could again be conducted,” the report warned, though it provided no further detail. It said that none of the rebel groups fighting the Syrian government now possessed the “capacity to stock and use” such chemical agents.

Mr. Assad has rejected all assertions that his government was responsible for those attacks. In excerpts from an interview with Le Figaro published online Monday evening, he said that neither France nor the United States had advanced “a single piece of evidence” linking his government to chemical weapons use, and that a strike on his country would have unknowable consequences. The Middle East is “a powder keg, and the flame is approaching it today,” he said in the interview. “Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists.”

There was widespread consensus among French officials that the Assad government was culpable even before the intelligence report was published Monday, however, so it was not clear what impact the document would have.

The lower house of the French Parliament has scheduled a special session about Syria on Wednesday, but no vote is planned. Several government ministers, including Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, met with top legislators on Monday.

The leader of the opposition in Parliament, Christian Jacob, said afterward that an intervention “could only be justified in the framework of the United Nations.” He expressed concern that France was out of step with its neighbors, including Germany, which has made clear that it would participate militarily only in operations backed by the United Nations. “Why is there no European country, not a single European country as an ally?” he asked.

Alain Juppé, a former prime minister and foreign minister and a respected figure of the opposition center-right, said in a speech on Monday that “even if the Constitution does not require it, I think that in such a context, the Parliament should express itself by a vote, so that the president of the republic can at least rely upon the backing of the national representation.” Mr. Juppé called upon Mr. Hollande to publicly detail his strategy for intervention.

Some on the left have issued similar calls, including the Greens party and a small number of Socialists, as well as the leftist national newspaper Libération.

“After the British dropping out and Barack Obama’s sudden rediscovery of his Congress, François Hollande finds himself quite alone in wanting to hold his war in Syria,” the newspaper said in an editorial on Monday. Under France’s “monarchic constitution,” the president has “every power to make war,” Libération acknowledged. “But can he today be the only head of state to employ force without a vote of the national representation, without even a speech?”

Mr. Hollande, a Socialist, is backed by majorities in both houses of Parliament. Though recent polls indicate that the French public opposes intervention in Syria by a narrow margin, most legislators are thought to favor it.

Mr. Hollande has notably received the public support of the leader of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement party, Jean-François Copé.

“In this blocked situation” in Syria, Mr. Copé said in an interview published Monday in Le Monde, “the first urgent priority is to react in an extremely firm manner in the face of what I view as the unacceptable. The use of chemical gas, if proven, constitutes a crime against humanity.”

French officials say they will await the decision of the American Congress before taking any action, however, not least because France and other NATO allies usually depend on American logistical support for operations overseas.

Still, a decision by Washington against intervention would not “call into question the principle of a sanction” against the Assad government, said Romain Nadal, a diplomatic spokesman for Mr. Hollande. “France will not act alone,” however, and would seek an alternative coalition, Mr. Nadal said. Its possible composition was not clear.

The French intelligence report released Monday largely matched the conclusions of an unclassified summary of American intelligence released Friday, which linked the Syrian government to the chemical attack with “high certainty.” The American government said the attack killed at least 1,429 people.

Though much of the debate in France has been focused on the role of Parliament, there are also growing doubts about the wisdom of any military intervention. “It is not France’s place to intervene in Syria,” the rightist newspaper Le Figaro said Monday in an editorial. “Does one know what chain reaction an intervention, even initially ‘proportionate,’ will set off?”

To respond to the Damascus chemical attack with airstrikes “would be to fall into Assad’s trap,” the newspaper wrote. It recommended instead that France “put a bit of coherence in our Syrian policy,” but it did not elaborate.

    French Release Intelligence Tying Assad Government to Chemical Weapons,
    NYT, 2.9.2013,






Russia Rejects U.S. Evidence

on Syrian Chemical Attack


The New York Times
September 2, 2013


MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister dismissed as unconvincing the evidence presented by Secretary of State John Kerry of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government, saying on Monday that the United States had fallen far short of making a case for international cooperation on military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We were shown certain pieces of evidence that did not contain anything concrete, neither geographical locations, nor names, nor evidence that samples had been taken by professionals,” Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Mr. Lavrov’s remarks signaled that Russia would continue to block the United Nations Security Council from authorizing military intervention against the Syrian government, even if the United States Congress grants President Obama the backing he has requested for an attack.

Mr. Lavrov initially appeared to have developed a strong working relationship with Mr. Kerry, a striking contrast with the often acrimonious relationship that Mr. Lavrov had with Mr. Kerry's predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton. But the Kerry-Lavrov relationship has soured swiftly in recent weeks, particularly after Mr. Obama canceled a planned meeting in Moscow with President Vladimir V. Putin.

“What we were shown before and recently by our American partners, as well as by the British and French, does not convince us at all,” Mr. Lavrov said on Monday. “There are no facts, there is simply talk about ‘what we definitely know.’ But when you ask for more detailed evidence, they say that it is all classified, therefore it cannot be shown to us. This means there are not such facts to encourage international cooperation.”

Mr. Lavrov also took a direct jab at Mr. Kerry. “It is very strange to hear, when we recently discussed the issue, my good colleague, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, say that the American side had produced irrefutable evidence for Russia of the Assad regime using chemical weapons, and then claiming that Russians deliberately refused to recognize the fact.”

Later, at a news conference in Moscow with the South African foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov said Russia would insist that the United States comply with international agreements and not attack Syria without the consent of the Security Council.

“If someone tries to make gross violations of international law a norm, then we will create chaos,” Mr. Lavrov warned. “We will create a situation where the U.N. Charter and the principles under which all the nations of the world have signed up, including the principle of unanimous agreement of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the so-called right of veto, which the United States insisted on — then all of these principles will simply collapse.”

    Russia Rejects U.S. Evidence on Syrian Chemical Attack, NYT, 2.9.2013,






NATO Must Help Obama on Syria


September 2, 2013
The New York Times


MEDFORD, Mass. — President Obama has sensibly opted to seek support from Congress on Syria, which provides a window of time to approach another body that should offer more than moral support: NATO.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization must be part of an international effort to respond to the crisis in Syria, beginning immediately with punitive strikes following the highly probable use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The president, the secretaries of defense and state, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should all approach their counterparts to secure NATO action.

Such action could be justified based on self-defense, owing to the threat posed to Turkey, a NATO member that has backed Mr. Obama’s call for an American-led intervention; the overall threat posed by weapons of mass destruction; and, more controversially, on the evolving international doctrine of a “responsibility to protect.” NATO has not moved forward so far, because of the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing action against Syria, but that is not required under the rules of the alliance — indeed, NATO has previously acted with force without such approval, notably in Kosovo in 1999.

Despite the potential unpopularity of such action — particularly following Parliament’s vote on Aug. 29 against Britain’s use of military force — such a mission is at the core of NATO’s role in the 21st century. While NATO had a Security Council resolution to enforce in Libya, in 2011, the alliance went into Kosovo without such approval. That could be the case in Syria, with a strong push by the United States and its allies France and Turkey, which have pledged to support an intervention in Syria. As with Libya, not every nation would need to actually provide forces (only about half did so in Libya), so long as all supported the basic principle of engagement.

While the rebellion that overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya sent migrants fleeing over the Mediterranean to Europe, the crisis in Syria has an even more immediate impact on NATO members: along the 400-mile-plus border with Turkey.

During my final months as the supreme allied commander for operations, before I retired in May, we deployed Patriot missiles to the Turkish-Syrian border (three sites, with missiles provided by Germany, the Netherlands and the United States) to defend against accidental or deliberate cruise missile attacks from the Assad regime. On multiple occasions, ordnance has been launched from Syria toward Turkey, and the Syrians shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet last year. Some 450,000 Syrian refugees are in Turkey, according to the United Nations. Others are crossing the sea into Greece and other NATO nations.

NATO has been closely monitoring the situation throughout the crisis, and has generally leaned away from intervention given the lack of a Security Council resolution — although NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Monday that “I am convinced, not only that a chemical attack has taken place” but also “that the Syrian regime is responsible.”

The attacks tip the balance — a close one, to be sure — toward a need for punitive strikes as an initial form of intervention. These should be designed not only to send a strong signal that chemical weapons are unacceptable, but also to damage key parts of the Assad regime’s infrastructure. Attacks on aircraft, aviation centers, command and control sites and missile facilities would clearly reduce the danger to Turkey and Greece.

Perhaps the closest analog is not Libya in 2011 (cited by many) but rather the Balkans in the mid- to late 1990s. In Kosovo and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation on the ground was chaotic, more than a 100,000 people were killed, and millions were pushed across borders — all in the context of the permanent partition of the former Yugoslavia into (at least initially) warring parts. It looked a lot like Syria, albeit without weapons of mass destruction.

In Bosnia, there was eventually an international force and a Security Council resolution. This would be the ideal. In Kosovo, on the other hand, there remains controversy about NATO’s role, which was undertaken without such a resolution. But the outcome has been generally good, with NATO more secure, the region more or less at peace and an independent Kosovo now recognized by almost 100 nations.

A consensus on NATO action is possible even without the Security Council, where Russia and China, which have veto power, have declined to support action against Syria. At the moment, France and the United States favor intervention; Germany is leaning against it; and the British will not offer military support. This is actually much like the situation NATO faced in Libya, where Britain and France were at the forefront of intervention, Poland and Germany were leaning back, and the United States somewhere in the middle. Yet NATO quickly achieved consensus on the need for action and moved forward.

President Obama should make a hard push for NATO involvement, much as he is doing with Congress. The arguments are the same, and American influence remains strong in Brussels, where NATO is based.

The American government has concluded “with high confidence” that some 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children, were killed by toxic chemicals. What is the threshold for action? NATO should be part of an international effort to sharply punish the Assad regime, which poses a clear and present danger to the alliance — and the United States should lead NATO in doing so.


James G. Stavridis,

a retired admiral of the United States Navy,

was the supreme allied commander, Europe,

for NATO from 2009 to 2013.

He is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

at Tufts University.

    NATO Must Help Obama on Syria, NYT, 2.9.2013,






Debating the Case for Force


September 2, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama made the right decision to seek Congressional authorization for his announced plan to order unilateral military strikes against Syria for using chemical weapons. There has to be a vigorous and honest public debate on the use of military force, which could have huge consequences even if it is limited in scope and duration.

If he is to win Congressional support, Mr. Obama and his top aides will have to explain in greater detail why they are so confident that the kind of military strikes that administration officials have described would deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria from gassing his people again (American officials say more than 1,400 were killed on Aug. 21) rather than provoke him to unleash even greater atrocities.

They will also have to explain how they can keep the United States from becoming mired in the Syrian civil war — something Mr. Obama, for sound reasons, has long resisted — and how military action will advance the cause of a political settlement: the only rational solution to the war.

There is little doubt that President Obama wants to take military action. As Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday of Mr. Obama, “He believes we need to move. He’s made his decision. Now it’s up to the Congress of the United States to join him in affirming the international norm with respect to enforcement against the use of chemical weapons.”

On Tuesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hear testimony from Mr. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Monday, Mr. Obama got tentative support from Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has been pushing for even broader military action and arming the rebels. Mr. McCain said Congressional rejection of military action would be “catastrophic” and would undermine the credibility of the president and the United States.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Obama, who has been thoughtful and cautious about putting America into the Syrian conflict, has created a political situation in which his credibility could be challenged. He did that by publicly declaring that the use of chemical weapons would cross a red line that would result in an American response. Regardless, he should have long ago put in place, with our allies and partners, a plan for international action — starting with tough sanctions — if Mr. Assad used chemical weapons. It is alarming that Mr. Obama did not.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council, which has the responsibility to uphold treaties outlawing chemical weapons use, has failed to act in any way following the August attack, largely because of the opposition of Russia, Mr. Assad’s chief ally and arms supplier, and China. It is appalling that Russia and China have not been the focus of international outrage and pressure.

The Arab League, representing some of the world’s most anti-Assad governments, on Sunday toughened its previous position when it called on the United Nations and the international community to take “necessary measures” against Syria’s government. But, feckless as ever, the League did not specify what measures it supported and, on Monday, the League’s secretary general said there should be no military action without a green light from the United Nations.

    Debating the Case for Force, NYT, 2.9.2013,






President Gains McCain’s Backing

on Syria Attack


September 2, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.

In an hourlong meeting at the White House, said Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, Mr. Obama gave general support to doing more for the Syrian rebels, although no specifics were agreed upon. Officials said that in the same conversation, which included Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria.

There appeared to be broad agreement with the president, Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham said, that any attack on Syria should be to “degrade” the Syrian government’s delivery systems. Such a strike could include aircraft, artillery and the kind of rockets that the Obama administration says the forces of President Bashar al-Assad used to carry out an Aug. 21 sarin attack in the Damascus suburbs that killed more than 1,400 people.

The senators said they planned to meet with Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, to discuss the strategy in greater depth.

“It is all in the details, but I left the meeting feeling better than I felt before about what happens the day after and that the purpose of the attack is going to be a little more robust than I thought,” Mr. Graham said in an interview.

But Mr. McCain said in an interview that Mr. Obama did not say specifically what weapons might be provided to the opposition or discuss in detail what Syrian targets might be attacked.

“There was no concrete agreement, ‘O.K., we got a deal,’ ” Mr. McCain said. “Like a lot of things, the devil is in the details.”

In remarks to reporters outside the West Wing, he called the meeting “encouraging,” urged lawmakers to support Mr. Obama in his plan for military action in Syria and said a no vote in Congress would be “catastrophic” for the United States and its credibility in the world. Mr. McCain said he believed after his conversation with the president that any strikes would be “very serious” and not “cosmetic.”

Although the words from Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham were a positive development for Mr. Obama and a critical part of the administration’s lobbying blitz on Syria on Monday, the White House still faces a tough fight in Congress. Many lawmakers entirely oppose a strike, and others favor a resolution that would provide for more limited military action than what is in a draft resolution that the White House has sent to Capitol Hill. The conflict of opinion underscores Mr. Obama’s challenge in winning votes in the House and Senate next week and avoiding personal defeat.

A Labor Day conference call with five of Mr. Obama’s highest-ranking security advisers drew 127 House Democrats, nearly two-thirds their total number, after 83 lawmakers of both parties attended a classified briefing on Sunday. Pertinent committees are returning to Washington early from a Congressional recess for hearings this week, starting Tuesday with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will hear from Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“The debate is shifting away from ‘Did he use chemical weapons?’ to ‘What should be done about it?’ ” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in an interview after the Monday conference call.

The push in Washington came as reaction continued around the world to the president’s abrupt decision over the weekend to change course and postpone a military strike to seek authorization from Congress first.

In France, the only nation to offer vigorous support for an American attack, there were rising calls for a parliamentary vote like the one last week in Britain, where lawmakers jolted the White House with a rejection of a British military attack. But the French government, in an effort to bolster its case, released a declassified summary of French intelligence that it said ties Mr. Assad’s government to the use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21.

In Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov dismissed as unconvincing the evidence presented by Mr. Kerry of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. “We were shown certain pieces of evidence that did not contain anything concrete, neither geographical locations, nor names, nor evidence that samples had been taken by professionals,” Mr. Lavrov said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

In Israel, President Shimon Peres offered strong support for Mr. Obama’s decision to seek the backing of Congress, saying he had faith in the president’s “moral and operational” position. “I recommend patience,” Mr. Peres said in an interview on Army Radio. “I am confident that the United States will respond appropriately to Syria.”

In Washington, the White House’s “flood the zone” effort, as one official called it, will continue. Classified briefings will be held for all House members and senators on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama has invited the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate defense, foreign affairs and intelligence committees to the White House. But that night, he will depart on a long-planned foreign trip, first to Sweden and then to Russia for the annual Group of 20 summit meeting of major industrialized and developing nations, a forum that is sure to be dominated by talk of Syria, and bring Mr. Obama face to face with Mr. Assad’s chief ally and arms supplier, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

House Democrats on the conference call with administration officials, which lasted 70 minutes, said Mr. Kerry, who has been the most aggressive and public prosecutor for military action, took the lead. Democrats said he had portrayed not only the horrors of chemical weapons inflicted on Syrian civilians in the Aug. 21 attacks outside Damascus, but also the potential threat, if left unanswered, that such weapons posed to regional allies like Israel, Jordan and Turkey.

Mr. Kerry argued that inaction could embolden Iran or nonstate terrorists to strike those allies, and further encourage Iran and North Korea to press ahead with their nuclear programs.

“One of the important propositions that Kerry put to members was, are you willing to live with the consequences of doing nothing?” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

The secretary of state addressed lawmakers’ concern that the United States should have international support. “The United States will not go it alone,” he said at one point, according to a senior Democrat who declined to be identified. Offers of “military assets” have come from France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, he said, without identifying the assets, and more are expected.

In the week since the Obama administration began moving toward a military strike on the Assad government, Mr. Kerry said, the Syrian military has had about 100 defections, including 80 officers.

General Dempsey reviewed the range of possible targets and how the Pentagon is planning strikes that would minimize risk to civilians. Despite reports that Syrian commanders were moving troops and equipment into civilian neighborhoods, General Dempsey told lawmakers, as he had assured Mr. Obama, that delaying military action would not weaken the effectiveness of any military attack. He suggested that military officials would adjust their targets to address changes on the ground.

The general acknowledged that the United States could not prevent the Assad government from using chemical weapons again, but said the military had “additional options” should a first missile strike not deter a retaliatory strike by Mr. Assad, including in defense of critical allies, presumably Israel, Jordan and Turkey. That possibility, however, describes just the escalating conflict some opponents fear.

“My constituents are skeptical that a limited effort will not mushroom into a full-blown boots on the ground,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

Mr. McCain, who has been arguing for two years that the United States should support a moderate Syrian opposition, said he strongly urged the president on Monday to provide anti-tank and antiaircraft systems to the opposition and to attack the Syrian Air Force.

Mr. Obama indicated that “he favorably viewed the degrading of Bashar al-Assad’s capabilities as well as upgrading the Free Syrian Army,” Mr. McCain said in an interview.

Administration officials have told Congress that the C.I.A.’s program to arm the rebels would be deliberately limited at first to allow a trial run for American officials to monitor it before ramping up to a larger, more aggressive campaign. American officials have been wary that arms provided to the rebels could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda.


David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Moscow,

Jodi Rudoren from Jerusalem, and Scott Sayare from Paris.

    President Gains McCain’s Backing on Syria Attack, NYT, 2.9.2013,




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