Back in November, two bomb blasts in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed 23 people. From the very beginning, it was known that an al Qaeda-linked group known as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades was responsible for the attack. In a fascinating sequence of events, we have learned that the mastermind of the attack, Majed al-Majed, died in Lebanese custody. Iran claims that Majed had very strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and specifically to Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan. In a very interesting twist, Saudi Arabia announced a pledge of $3 billion to Lebanon, ostensibly to be used to buy weapons from France. The announcement most likely came after Majed had been arrested but before news reports had leaked out about his detention, although news reports vary widely on when and where he was detained.
The announcement of the Saudi pledge to Lebanon came on December 29:
Saudi Arabia has pledged $3bn for the Lebanese army, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced, calling it the largest grant ever given to the country’s armed forces.
“The king of the brotherly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is offering this generous and appreciated aid of $3bn to the Lebanese army to strengthen its capabilities,” Suleiman said in a televised address on Sunday.
He said the funds would allow Lebanon’s military to purchase French weapons.
An AFP report suggested that Majed was arrested around December 26:
An Al-Qaeda-linked Saudi suspect detained in Lebanon is being held in a military hospital because “he is in poor health”, a medical official told AFP Friday.
The doctor who had been treating Majid before his arrest without knowing who he was said he suffers from kidney failure and requires regular dialysis.
“On December 26, the hospital where Majid was being treated contacted the Red Cross to arrange his transfer to another hospital,” said the source.
But before the suspect arrived at the second facility, “the Lebanese army intelligence intercepted the ambulance and arrested Majid,” the source said, adding that neither the hospital nor the ambulance teams had prior knowledge of who Majid was.
In its announcement on January 1 of Majed’s arrest, the New York Times has highly conflicting information about when the arrest took place. First, this bit suggests they were working under the assumption that the arrest was near the January 1 date of the article:
He was taken into custody just three days after Saudi Arabia pledged a $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese Army.
But near the end of this same article, the Times suggests that he was in custody as early as December 15 (clearly before the Saudi pledge was announced):
While it is not known when Mr. Majid was detained, Hezbollah’s television channel Al Manar quoted Lebanese security officials as saying that an attack on a security checkpoint on Dec. 15 near Sidon and the Ein al-Hilwe camp was an attempt by militants to free him.
Given the additional detail and reporting from doctors involved in his treatment, the AFP report seems to me to be more reliable, placing Majed’s arrest after December 26, but most likely not very long after that date since a patient requiring dialysis cannot put if off for very many days.
The Times report suggests that Saudi Arabia considered Majed to be a criminal: Continue reading
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In my post yesterday morning on the French move to submit a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to an international group for their safe destruction, I noted that this process naturally would require an immediate ceasefire. My underlying assumption was that the need for a ceasefire would be obvious to anyone giving the situation any thought. Personnel will need to move freely about the country to find and log the materials that will need to be destroyed. These materials will need to be moved to central locations for incineration or chemical processing to render them safe. If the personnel and the dangerous materials they will be transporting are attacked indiscriminately, the risk of releasing huge quantities of very dangerous agents looms large and the very process of trying to prevent civilian deaths could instead to lead to widespread lethal exposure.
Sadly, as I noted in the post, the French proposal does not appear to include a call for a ceasefire. Now that Russia is opposing the proposed language (because it calls for Syria to admit it carried out the August 21 attack and it includes a mandate for military action if Syria does not comply with the resolution), the opportunity exists for a new proposal to add the concept of a ceasefire.
Even more sad, though, is how our two leading bastions of foreign policy journalism, the New York Times and Washington Post, addressed the issue of how the chemical stockpiles can be destroyed. Both noted how “difficult” the process will be during the ongoing hostilities, but neither managed to point out the necessity of a ceasefire.
Here is how the Times addressed the issue:
As difficult as it may be to reach a diplomatic solution to head off a United States strike on Syria, the details of enforcement are themselves complex and uncertain, people with experience monitoring weapons facilities said.
Syria would first have to provide specifics about all aspects of its chemical weapons program. But even that step would require negotiation to determine exactly what should be declared and whether certain systems would be covered, because many delivery systems for chemical weapons — including artillery, mortars and multiple-rocket launchers — can also fire conventional weapons.
Then, experts said, large numbers of foreign troops would almost certainly be needed to safeguard inspectors working in the midst of the civil war.
“We’re talking boots on the ground,” said one former United Nations weapons inspector from Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still works in the field on contracts and did not want to hurt his chances of future employment. “We’re not talking about just putting someone at the gate. You have to have layers of security.”
Of course, many more “boots on the ground” are needed to protect the inspectors if there has not been a ceasefire negotiated and agreed to by both the Syrian government and the many factions of rebels fighting them. The Times even trots out the Pentagon estimate of how many troops would be required to secure the weapons in an invasion scenario:
A Pentagon study concluded that doing so would take more than 75,000 troops. That rough estimate has been questioned, but the official said it gave “a sense of the magnitude of the task.”
The Post does no better in its quest for just how the weapons could be secured and destroyed:
As diplomats wrangled over competing plans for securing Syria’s chemical weapons, arms-control experts warned Tuesday of the formidable challenges involved in carrying out such a complex and risky operation in the midst of a raging civil war.
U.N. teams dispatched to Syria for the mission would be attempting something new: finding and safeguarding a long-
hidden arsenal in a country that has long stood outside key international arms-control agreements — all while exposed to crossfire from Syria’s warring factions.
Poor Joby Warrick and his associates just can’t conceive of how the “crossfire” could end, even though the process of sending in the inspectors begins through UN negotiations.
Yes, there are many different factions on the “rebel” side in this conflict, but even brief investigation shows that many of them are actually proxies for several of the foreign powers that claim to have “interests” in Syria. A UN resolution that has at its heart a ceasefire would be a huge step toward showing that all of the various countries supporting militias in Syria intend to provide the opportunity for safe destruction of what could be the third largest repository of chemical weapons in the world. Although a truly international force of armed peacekeepers likely will be needed, sending them in without a ceasefire already negotiated would make the whole process of rounding up and destroying the chemical weapons a recipe for a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions.
Of course, a true optimist would note that a ceasefire would open the door to discussions to defuse political tensions within Syria while the process of destroying the chemical weapons is carried out. That would of course thwart those whose real objective is regime change in Syria through violent means but would perhaps create the opportunity for peaceful regime change. Is the world finally ready to give peace a chance after twelve years of unfocused rage?
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The Russian gambit to take accidental diplomat John Kerry up on his offer of an “impossible” scenario under which Syria could avoid US military action continues to gather steam. This morning, both the Washington Post and New York Times fill us in on French plans to take the Russian proposal to the UN, where there seems to be a chance that there will not be a veto at the Security Council.
The Times gives us some information on the sequence of events leading to the proposal:
Mr. Lavrov said he had discussed the proposal with the Americans before announcing it at a hastily arranged briefing on Monday evening. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin discussed the idea privately on the sidelines of last week’s summit of the Group of 20 nations, and Mr. Lavrov discussed it with Secretary of State John Kerry.
They spoke as Mr. Kerry flew home to Washington after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.
In their conversation, Mr. Kerry told his Russian counterpart, “We’re not going to play games,” according to a senior State Department official.
That’s a good idea from Kerry not to play games, since he had been so badly outplayed to that point. So the official position appears to be that Obama and Putin had discussed the idea but Kerry stumbled onto the same concept, but only as an impossibility? Okay, then.
The Post has similar language on the sequence of most of the events between Kerry and Lavrov, but is a bit more nuanced as to the Obama and Putin discussion:
Obama said in an interview on “PBS NewsHour” on Monday that he had discussed the possibility of international monitoring with Russian President Vladimir Putin at last week’s Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg.
The senior State Department official said Lavrov had previously discussed the idea in conversations with Kerry, including a telephone call as recently as Thursday, but never in the context of the proposed U.S. military action.
Clearly, the plan being discussed now, where Syria turns its chemical weapons over to international groups for eventual destruction goes well beyond “monitoring”. Is Obama claiming that discussions on monitoring are the equivalent of discussing this plan? Or is it just a desperate attempt to save face? I’m okay with face-saving if the lives of Syrian civilians are also spared.
Putting those considerations aside, though, I have one major concern about the French plan as described. Here is the Times description: Continue reading
Happy Monday. Insert a picture of that cat here–you know which one. I resemblez it.
• Good gravy, people. When National Geographic Magazine covers drones, it’s way past time for a national dialog about their use domestically. Crop dusting, my backside; there’s nothing except for the subhead in this article to genuinely suggest the designers, manufacturers, and potential buyers of drones are thinking about non-surveillance, non-policing applications for these unmanned aerial devices.
• Of course it hasn’t helped our current condition that not one but at least two generations of military were shaped into the “Generation Kill” mold, about which Foreign Affairs learns from retired General Stanley McCrystal.
“People hear most about the targeting cycle, which we called F3EA — “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze.” You understand who or what is a target, you locate it, you capture or kill it, you take what intelligence you can from people or equipment or documents, you analyze that, and then you go back and do the cycle again, smarter.”
Color me skeptical, but this doesn’t sound like appropriate training future civilians–those now serving in our military–will use for guiding crop dusting or weather monitoring drones.
• “Generation Kill” has a shadow identity, as well; the legitimately uniformed forces have dark counterparts in crime, which is likely shaped by the same attitudes as the military and police who chase them. Thwarted in illegal weapons sales, the supply chain arms traffickers use may be put to use in purveying goods of a different kind of kill. The horsemeat contamination scandal in Europe appears to be built upon the infrastructure of criminal arms dealer Viktor Bout. Where once illegal weapons might have been hidden in dog food, now illegal dog food is hidden in, well, our food.
• Of course, when this all gets too serious and we need to be distracted, somebody offers up a clown since bread and circuses always work to appease the masses. Today’s fool is Gérard Depardieu, savaged for his luxe lifestyle and his exile from his mother country. France’s current “supertax” policy–75 percent assessed against all income above one million euros, intended as a short-term fix to a national budget deficit–ostensibly drove Depardieu into the arms of the ever-execrable Russia. The actor whose work is synonymous with modern French cinema is now reviled as minable, pathetic. What seems incredibly pathetic to me is the strident ignorance of both policy makers and the French; only 3000 countrymen were subject to the tax, and it is too easily escaped. Was the problem really with these 3000 that the budget suffered, or were other structural problems at fault that might not yet be repaired? One can see readily how a similarly simplistic law enacted in the States could have similarly ridiculous and ineffective results. But Depardieu is an easy, large, and slow-moving target, not unlike the French royals who could not outrun the guillotine. Minable, indeed; how readily the populace is distracted by redirection to a clown.
What could possibly go wrong? From a Dawn article only an hour or two old:
The Pakistani government has announced a national holiday on Friday to protest against the American anti-Islam [sic] that has caused an outrage throughout the Muslim world.
The federal cabinet decided to make Friday an official “day of expression of love for the prophet” after discussing the “Innocence of Muslims” movie, which has triggered more than a week of violent protests across the Islamic world, a senior government official said.
The move came after religious parties called for a day of protest on Friday to denounce the film.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik, while speaking to media representatives earlier today, said that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would join protestors in their demonstrations.
The head of the Sunni Tehreek religious party on Monday urged people across the country to close their businesses and hold rallies against the film, which was made in the United States.
As if the furor over the video weren’t enough on its own, a French magazine is fanning the flames by publishing a new Mohammad cartoon, and in response France is closing a number of embassies and international schools on Friday:
A French magazine ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad on Wednesday by portraying him naked in cartoons, threatening to fuel the anger of Muslims around the world who are already incensed by a film depicting him as a womanizing buffoon.
The French government, which had urged the magazine not to print the images, said it was temporarily shutting down premises including embassies and schools in 20 countries on Friday, when protests sometimes break out after Muslim prayers.
Riot police were deployed to protect the Paris offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo after it hit the news stands with a cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing the turbaned figure of Mohammad in a wheelchair. On the inside pages, several caricatures of the Prophet showed him naked.
We are now well beyond the realm of “spontaneous” reaction to a single provocative and poorly produced video. When governments nearly half a world apart take actions two days in advance of anticipated demonstrations that seem virtually guaranteed to descend into violence, then somehow the actions of a few demented agitators in the West and a few demented religious zealots in Asia and the Middle East seem to have achieved their goals of bringing even more chaos to a troubled world.
Are the demented agitators in the West just a handful of losers working independently toward a shared goal, or are there hidden forces providing financial and logistic support? Sadly, Pakistan is showing by its actions that they are allowing religious zealots to have too much power over their government. This should serve as a warning to those who would decrease the separation of church and state in the US, but don’t look for that lesson to be learned any time soon.
Friday seems virtually guaranteed to be ugly.
Although today’s meeting with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano in Tehran is still in process as of this writing, Iran has put out very hopeful signals ahead of both this meeting and the resumption on Wednesday of the P5+1 talks in Baghdad. Adding to the atmosphere that a deal could be in the works are some positive words from Amano himself:
Before his arrival in Tehran Amano told reporters, “I really think this is the right time to reach agreement. Nothing is certain but I stay positive.” Amano added “good progress” had already been made.
“We need to keep up the momentum. There has been good progress during the recent round of discussions between Iran and the IAEA,” Reuters quoted Amano as saying.
The same Mehr News piece carried upbeat news from the Iranian side as well:
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had said he hoped an agreement would be reached to devise a “new modality” between Iran and the IAEA during Amano’s visit.
“Iran had previously invited IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano to make a trip to Iran, but he decided to travel to Tehran and hold talks with our country’s officials before the Baghdad talks,” Salehi said.
“We regard the visit by the agency’s director general as a gesture of goodwill,” Salehi stated. “The focus will be on the issue of modality and a new working modality to help clear up the ambiguities and (answer) the agency’s questions. And we hope that an agreement will be reached between both sides to devise a new modality.”
Fars News has the details on who is taking part in today’s meeting:
Amano, accompanied by his chief inspector Herman Nackaerts and number two Rafael Mariano Grossi, was welcomed at the airport by Iran’s IAEA envoy, Ali Asqar Soltaniyeh, and a number of other officials.
During his one-day stay, Amano will hold talks with Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Fereidoun Abbassi Davani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
The high levels of the participants on both sides of the talks do suggest that a deal could be imminent, and Fars collected a number of statements from diplomats agreeing: Continue reading
Reaction to the leaked IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear technology continues. In a remarkable article in the New York Times that reads more like an Op-Ed (h/t MadDog), we see the writer urging the US to join the more militant posturing coming from . . .France. [It appears that the world has now completely inverted from the days of Freedom Fries in 2003.] In addition, the New York Times has joined in repeating the whispers that some sort of Mossad-MEK operation was involved in the blast in Iran that killed the head of their missile development program. Also, Iran is discussing changing the extent to which it cooperates with the IAEA. International intrigue surrounding Iran also is enhanced with conflicting reports on the cause of death of Ahmed Rezaei in Dubai. Rezaei is the son of Mohsen Rezaei, who previously served as head of the Revolutionary Guards, ran for President of Iran and now heads the Expediency Council. Dubai has termed the death a suicide but most Iranian sources are labeling it suspicious.
The Op-Ed piece in the New York Times masquerading as a news article is penned by John Vinocur who is based in Paris for the Times’ sister publication the International Herald Tribune. Vinocur opens with a slap at US leadership:
That’s not the way the French would describe their role in the world. Rather, the fact is that France, in many respects, led the United States into battle in Libya and provided much of the willpower leading to a victory over the Qaddafi regime that is shared by the Americans, British and others.
Vinocur then misrepresents the findings of the IAEA report, stating flatly that “the Iranians now have enough fuel on hand to produce four nuclear weapons”, leaving out the key piece of information that this fuel has not yet been enriched to weapons grade and that there is no evidence or even any suggestion that Iran is engaging in enrichment to weapons grade. Continue reading