The Unraveling of Obama Syria Policy

“Only two days ago, President Barack Obama’s envoy to the Syrian rebels, retired Marine Gen. John Allen, explained confidently that the U.S. would help to train and equip Western-backed fighters to become a credible force that would compel the Assad regime to negotiate a political deal and end the four-year-long civil war.

Yeah. Right. The Obama administration’s plans have little or nothing to do with what is unfolding all too rapidly on the ground: Rebel brigades are demoralized, disintegrating, and fighting among themselves.”

Read full dispatch here at the Daily Beast

Terror-Bonding or Cynical Manipulation?

My take last night on a new twist in the cynical media operations of the so-called caliphate with a hostage ‘reporting’ from the embattled town of Kobani on Syria’s border.

“British hostage John Cantlie, who was abducted by jihadists alongside American journalist James Foley, was featured in a new propaganda video posted Monday night reporting from inside the besieged town of Kobani. He scornfully rejects Western media coverage of the battle for the Syrian border town, saying the militants of the Islamic State are not on the retreat and are now just mopping up…

The video then homes in on a healthy-looking Cantlie, who is dressed in black—like an ISIS fighter—in contrast to the orange jumpsuit of a prisoner he was seen wearing in five episodes of jihadist propaganda films called ‘Lend Me Your Ears.’ His hair has grown out and his skin color is less pale, suggesting that the previous videos were shot several weeks ago, around the time ISIS beheaded Foley and another American reporter, Steven Sotloff.

In the “Lend Me Your Ears” series, the British freelance photojournalist emphasizes that he is a prisoner of the Islamic State, widely known as ISIS or ISIL, and doesn’t know whether he will live or die. But in Monday night’s five-and-a-half minute clip, titled “Inside Ayn al-Islam” (the Arabic name for Kobani is Ayn al-Arab), the 43-year-old Cantlie makes no reference to his captivity, raising questions about whether he has crossed the line and is now a willing propagandist for the jihadists behind the camera.”

You can read the full article here.

I quote also a British security official saying: “The video is troubling. Was this filmed under duress? Volunteered and suggested? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Does it cross a line? Is he playing them?”

And Aleppo?

From my Daily Beast dispatch this weekend:

“A battle is taking shape that could decide the fate of the Obama administration’s strategy for defeating ISIS, and it’s not around the Kurdish town of Kobani. It’s for the future of the second biggest city in Syria, ancient Aleppo, besieged on three sides by the forces of the tyrant Bashar Assad and the murderous zealots of the so-called Islamic State holding part of the other side.

For the relatively moderate Syrian militias to whom the Obama administration already is funneling arms, the neighborhoods of Aleppo where they still hold ground are a last redoubt inside the country. And in the next few hours or days their last supply line to the outside very likely will be cut.”

You can read the full report here.

Can We Afford Such Success?

Gaziantep

According to The Hill newspaper, the White House says its war on ISIS is succeeding: hate to see what failing would look like.

Let’s do a quick rundown: ISIS is advancing in Iraq’s Anbar province, they are close to taking Baghdad airport or at least are in range to bomb it; they are launching suicide bombing runs on the capital; for all the favorable Western press the Pesh (and Iraqis) have made no serious advances since the Mosul Dam; the Iraqi army (which we spent a fortune on) remains in disarray; Kobani is holding on by dint of an extraordinary stand by YPG fighters; the Turkish-Kurdish peace process is on the brink of collapse; Assad is taking advantage; the Syrian rebels are demoralized and ignored; the Syrians feel they are being sacrificed, which they are. Did I leave anything out?

Battle Of The Bugs

Donetsk

Fun piece by Daisy Sindelar on how some pro-Kyiv Ukrainians are nicknaming Russian separatists in the east “koloradi”, or Colorado beetles, for their orange-and-black stripes. The separatists have followed their Crimean counterparts and adopted the orange-and-black St. George ribbon as their symbol.

The ribbon is associated with World War II and worn by veterans on Russian military holidays. And as far as pro-Russians are concerned the wearing of the ribbon now is appropriate – they argue that in east Ukraine they are fighting western Ukrainian fascists and followers of World War II Nazi collaborator Stephen Bandera.

The Colorado beetle is thought to have found its way to central Europe during the 1940s having been brought in accidentally on transport ships – paranoid as ever, the Soviets after the war suggested this had been a dastardly plot by the West to ravage Soviet agriculture.

A Moscow analyst is suggesting that Russian propagandists shouldn’t get worked up about the dubbing of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine “koloradi”, suggesting they should use light-touch irony to respond by calling Ukrainian ultranationalists from the Right Sector, who favor red-and-black colors, “klop-soldatki”, or firebugs.

Here We Go Again

Reading today’s Daily Telegraph on the David Miranda detention and it is easy to be cast back to other misguided UK government efforts to stop leaks and block embarrassing information from seeing the light of day.

It is taking on digital echoes of the Peter Wright affair when the UK government and the security services opened themselves up to derision with farcical efforts to block the publication of Wright’s book detailing MI6 and MI5 dirty tricks, illegal surveillance and a plot to bring down the Wilson government. They couldn’t stop publication abroad and it was easy to purchase the book.

National security was claimed as the issue too back then but it quickly became clear what was at stake was the reputation of the British security services.

Now we have a Prime Minister sanctioning the destruction of hard drives held by the Guardian newspaper containing the material former NSA contractor Edward Snowden stole — as if that will stop the information leaking out. As the Guardian made clear they have duplicates and presumably Greenwald and Snowden do, too, (probably so have the Russians and Chinese by now!).  Possibly the NSA should destroy their hard drives as the information is so sensitive – after all Snowden has demonstrated the puzzle palace’s own computer system isn’t secure.

And then the Telegraph gets a UK government source today hazarding absurdly that David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Greenwald, was detained for his own good as he was carrying sensitive documents and could have been kidnapped by terrorists. Is security at Heathrow Airport so bad?

Presumably the Snowden material does contain information useful to terrorists but the information is also useful for the British and American publics to gauge what is being done in the name of the “war on terror” and for them to assess whether the politicians and the security services have got the balance right between security and civil liberties. Clearly President Obama doesn’t think so with the tweaks and the inquiry he has ordered. But then, of course, he would have done that without the Snowden revelations. Really?

The Price of Freedom

The media and civil libertarians have quite rightly been exercised over Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the extent, reach and range of the intelligence services snooping on Americans (and foreigners) – snooping that’s been done in the name of security and justified as important in the fight against terrorism.

But there’s a sad reflection in today’s Washington Post on how little Americans on the whole care about privacy rights and their own civil liberties.

Walter Pincus notes the scant public interest in an open session this week of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel created by Congress on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The panel examined the once-secret data collection programs but few people attended and Pincus observes: “I viewed the two-hour session Wednesday on C-SPAN, and it had generated only three Facebook recommendations and 52 tweets.”

 

 

Syrian Refugees Skeptical of Obama

Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

Bewildered, exhausted, fearful and grieving for family and friends dead in the 27-month-long civil war, Syrian refugees remain bitter about the lack of Western intervention and are skeptical that President Obama’s decision to arm the rebels will come to much and be able to swing the war decisively.

Many now say all they want is the conflict to end, even if that means a negotiated settlement with President Bashar al-Assad. Some worry what Syria will be like if he does fall and fear the influence of political Islam and the Al Qaeda-affilate Al Nusra.

See my VOA report here.

On Benghazi Confusions and Partisanship

Washington DC

I am back in Washington DC for a few days and am observing with disbelief some of the partisan dictated nonsense about last September’s assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. “Disbelief” is an exaggeration: having lived and worked in Washington for years and having covered U.S. politics and Capitol Hill for more than a decade, I know full well how partisans here can twist almost anything into a pretzel, helped by journalists and commentators who are too lazy to delve much and prefer to ignore inconvenient facts.

Take for example Thomas Sowell’s latest punditry – here is a link to the full article. He says the claim that the attack started out as a protest against an anti-Islamic movie and then ran amok was made up by the Obama administration.

He writes: “This ‘spontaneous protest’ story did not originate in Libya but in Washington. Neither the Americans on duty in Libya during the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, nor officials of the Libyan government, said anything about a protest demonstration.” Sorry Thomas they did and I reported it at the time. 

The protest story started in Tripoli and came from top Libyan officials, including then Libyan Prime Minister-elect Mustfa Abushugar. In my coverage from Tripoli and Benghazi I expressed some skepticism pretty much from the start about the protest line but I did report what Abushugar and others were saying and noted the total confusion in Tripoli about who was responsible and what occurred.  

Here is a quote from a September 15 Daily Beast article I wrote based in part from an interview with Abushugar’s then adviser and spokesman Mohamed Al Akari.

“Akari says that the Libyan authorities have found no evidence of direct (Al Qaeda) participation in the consulate attack. ‘So far we really believe that this was a violent demonstration mainly against the movie that swung out of control. The protesters saw on television what was happening in Egypt and decided to have their own protest. We have no evidence at all that this was Al Qaeda.’”

Abushugar and his aides repeated this line for several days – the prime minister-elect did so with me during several conversations and he made clear that this was what he was telling the Americans.

Admittedly, not all of Libya’s top officials agreed with that line: the president of the General National Congress, Mohamed Magarief, said he believed the assault was planned, was Al Qaeda connected and involved foreigners. He was eager to shift the blame away from Libyans and to dispute a homegrown angle. The outgoing Prime Minister, Abdurrahim Abdulhafiz El-Keib, shifted from pinning the blame initially on “remnants of the former regime” to suggesting that the consulate attack was a “despicable act of revenge” for 9/11.

Confusion and contradiction persisted for days in Tripoli after the assault and the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. I noted in an article on September 13 this:

“As members of Libya’s national assembly elected a new Prime Minister, U.S.-trained engineer Mustafa Abushagur, conflicting reports persisted about how Ambassador Christopher Stevens died during the storming by armed militants of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Some American and Libyan officials say the attack that led to the death of four diplomats and the wounding of several others was more coordinated than originally thought but they cautioned much still needs to be pieced together.”

And I also reported this:

“There were some indications of advanced planning mixed in with opportunism, they say, pointing to the fact that the heavily-armed assailants came well equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns and were able to maintain sustained firefights with Libyan and American security guards at two separate locations—the main consulate compound, a walled-off villa in an upscale district in the city that housed the small temporary mission, and another building a mile away where some staff made for to escape the attack.”

It is hardly any wonder there was confusion in Washington when officials were getting contradictory statements from their Libyan interlocutors. 

Do I see no fault with the Obama administration then? From my perspective there were serious security lapses. The consulate wasn’t a building easy to defend. The reliance on local militias for security was a mistake. Christopher Stevens shouldn’t have been overnighting in Benghazi – in fact he planned to stay five days. There were plenty of warning signs with previous attacks on Western targets, including an assassination attempt on the British ambassador that came very close to killing him, that should have deterred the American ambassador from visiting Benghazi. And to go there during the anniversary week of 9/11 was an astonishing decision, a point made by several Libyan rebel leaders who were close friends with Stevens.  

Stevens Part II: An Inside Job?

“After his men had tied up the morgue supervisor, who had refused to hand over the body, Febrayir, fearful of an attempt to snatch the corpse, ignored instructions about what route to follow to the airport and misinformed his superiors with false updates. His caravan traveled fast, driving straight onto the runaway. Six Americans approached. “They looked totally fatigued. Their faces were blackened,” Febrayir says. “I think they had been in the consulate. One of them clambered onto the back and uncovered Stevens’s face and started to cry.”

From the second part of my Stevens’ investigation for Newsweek. Read here.