Monday, April 30, 2012

Summary of the Situation

Let's take a step back.  It is important to periodically emerge from immersion in the pool of politics and intrigue, shake off the excess propaganda and barb-slinging, and dry oneself off in the warm embrace of self-reflection and thought.

Let's outline what's happening in the region:
  • Ongoing conflict in Syria; more violence; seemingly failed ceasefire; frustrations from inaction.
  • Islamists in Egypt, with disqualified candidates aplenty; Mandated secularism in politics in Libya; and more-of-the-same in Tunisia.  All relatively quiet in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.
  • Continued, often bloody, protests in Bahrain.
  • Fruitful talks between the US and Iran.  Less chance that World War III will break out.  Less vitriolic shouts from extremists in the US and Israel.
  • Continued soured relations between the US and Pakistan.  Pakistan says "no more drones", and the US responds with more drones.
  • Afghanistan is in limbo, with a recent high-profile Taliban attack in Kabul, and a US president looking for an honorable exit.
From the outlook of US policy, what common themes can we identify?  Well, not many.  The US approach is on a case-by-case basis.  Example: support the Syrian opposition, don't support the Bahraini opposition.  Both wish for more rights, less oppression, etc.  However, the US doesn't have a fleet stationed in Syria-- it does have one in Bahrain.

The US/Pakistan relationship is much like my relationship with my last girlfriend: we're just on different levels.  We don't want the same things, and those things that we do want we want to acquire in different ways.  Can the US breakup with Pakistan, but still be friends?  Friends with benefits, maybe?  It can happen.  But-- and this is no reflection on my ex-- Pakistan has "issues" that it needs to resolve before it can develop meaningful relationships.  Namely, the courts and the executive have to play nice with each other, and the ISI needs to learn how to share, and there's high-level corruption, and... never mind.

Concerning Pakistan, my thoughts are that the US has to stop dangling the military assistance carrot and instead focus on civilian development.  Brandishing the stick won't help either.  In essence, the US has to fundamentally change the way it has been dealing with Pakistan for the past 30 years (since Zia, at least).  No more guns and bombs.  Pakistan has got plenty of those (and just tested a nuclear-capable missile last week).  What Pakistan lacks, and what the US wants, is the desire to stop militants from attacking the Afghani and Pakistani government and people.  That's the issue.  Listen, Pakistan isn't going to change overnight, and the US can't simply abandon it either.  Therefore, pick a strategy and a goal and go for it.  Giving guns isn't the right strategy, and it isn't going to attain the desired goal either.

Before this turns into a dissertation, let's conclude with a broad summary: Multilateralism and regional groups are playing the leading role in ongoing developments.  The US has, and should continue, to pay attention to that information.  Overall, less is more.  Overexposure and over deployment is expensive, dangerous, and harmful to all.  The US needs to pick its battles carefully-- and I use "battles" figuratively.  Hopefully it stays that way.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Have Stick, Will Shout

This paragraph from CNN made me laugh out loud and is worth quoting in full:

Diskin's blunt commentary follows controversial remarks by Israel's top general, who said Iran is led by "very rational people" and doesn't appear poised to build a nuclear bomb that would threaten his nation.

We have left all rational discourse behind when calling people "very rational" is considered a controversial statement.  To be fair, the public dialogue concerning Iran/Israel is not really rational nor discourse.  It is more akin to "speak loudly and threaten with a big stick".

The above paragraph is a great example of how the media can quite effortlessly manipulate perception.  Taking the general's statement and putting it within the context of "controversial remarks" automatically makes the sterile, sexy.  The bland, bombastic.  Suddenly, we've got a story on our hands!  

I don't think that CNN or the author willingly intended to deceive.  In all likelihood, the author wished to inform the reader that the comments of Israel's top general caused an uproar in Israel.  One could call that uproar "controversial".  However, using that word without an explanation taints the content and allows a sense of disbelief or cynicism to creep throughout the paragraph.  One must read a controversial author's comments with a skeptical eye.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

No Islamists Allowed. The Underground is This Way...

Libya's National Transitional Council issued a law today banning political parties based on "religious, regional, or tribal platforms, and outlaws foreign funding."

Rightfully, Islamist groups think that this measure was specifically targeted against them.

My feelings are that these types of measures are counter-productive and harmful in the long term.  It might be satisfying, from a Western perspective, to know that in the upcoming elections there will be no Islamist or Salafist parties running for office (as happened in Egypt).  But, that doesn't mean that Islamists don't exist.  In fact, by denying Islamist parties a voice in parliament, they are forced instead to go underground and search for alternative means to get their message across.  And there you have it: conflict.  The short term satisfaction of no Islamists in government leads to the long term consequences of an underground, suppressed, and probably anti-government Islamist movement-- because if they weren't anti-government before, they surely are now.

Egypt's next elections will prove my point.  If the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists do not satisfy the Egyptians expectations by the time of the next election, they will be voted out of office.  It was no surprise when they were recently elected: they were well organized (thanks to their semi-underground status) and presented an alternative vision for Egypt.  Logistically and organizationally, nobody else was in a position to be voted into power.  That won't, however, be the case in the next round of elections: other parties will have had the chance to organize, form a strategy, and present a case to the Egyptian people.  This upcoming presidential election is another story.  Stay tuned for developments to come-- as dictated by the ruling military council.

The ban in Libya is not only on Islamist parties, though.  It also bans parties based on region or tribe.  Basically, this is to prevent the decentralized, federalist structure that some Benghazis want.  Again, by suppressing that voice, the NTC is sowing the seeds of future conflict.

One cannot have a functioning democracy with an un-democratic structure.  An oligarchy in democratic clothing might be in fashion, but I'm hoping that, much like bell-bottoms, we'll look back on this as just a silly fad.

Assad vs Annan

Can a man who has been ruler of a police state for the past 13 years, and whose father ruled before that for nearly 30 years, draw logical conclusions as to the current state of his rule?  No, and Bashar al-Assad's conception of his regime's stability will ultimately lead to his downfall.

News sources report that the killings are continuing in Syria, despite the presence of UN observers.  In fact, it appears that the Assad regime is targeting those who are cooperating with the UN observers, something UN peace envoy Kofi Annan calls "unacceptable and reprehensible".

Given the violations of the Annan peace plan, one has to wonder what al-Assad is thinking.  What is he ultimately planning for?  What are his goals at this stage?

The most obvious answer would be that he wants to stay in power.  In order to achieve that end, he will battle the opposition factions in whatever way he can.  However, given the international attention that the conflict in Syria is receiving, could he honestly hope to remain in power if the wanton violence finally came to an end?  Does he hope to move on from this?

I am leaning towards a "yes".  It would take a feat of unimaginable hubris to believe that Assad could emerge from this conflict with his rule intact, but a man who has been sheltered from reality for his entire life might fall prey to such delusions of grandeur.  Alternative plans are limited:

  1. Comfortable exile?  Saudi Arabia certainly wouldn't offer haven to Assad (as it offered to Ben Ali of Tunisia).  Iran is a possibility, but I don't think the Iranians need to instigate further international scorn.
  2. Chosen successor?  Handing power over to a chosen successor seems unlikely as well, especially if the successor was an Alawite, and one can't imagine Assad handing power over to anything but an Alawite.
  3. Adherence to the Annan peace plan?  Nope.  Not gonna happen.  Even if we ignored the current violence and watch as somehow the additional UN observers due to arrive in the region somehow put a stop to the killings, what next?  Amicably go along with a "political transition" in Syria?  In essence, agree to be ousted from power, politically rather than militarily?  I doubt it.  Amnesty would not be a likely scenario in a post-Assad Syria -- arrest (and probable execution) are much more likely.
Given the lack of effective alternatives, I believe that Assad will stick it out and continue to fight for the survival of his regime.  He will continue to use the Annan peace plan to stall for time, target active opposition members, and bait the international community into thinking that it has actually achieved progress.  The only way that the international community can break that cycle is with overt military action -- something that seems unlikely at this time, but increasingly necessary.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Meeting a Syrian

A few days ago I met a Syrian guy. Like, a real Syrian. For all my talk and thoughts, I've never met a Syrian person before. You can imagine, dear reader, how interested I became when he told me that he still has family there -- and that a cousin of his had been killed by a government sniper.

What is there to say in a situation like this? As he told his story and expressed his opinions, I found myself continuously repeating "I understand, I understand", trying to show some degree of sympathy and compassion, while simultaneously not trying to sound like a fake. I do understand, to a certain degree, but how can I ever begin to imagine what his family is going through?

Awkwardly, I asked whether he is Sunni, Shite, or Alawite. He's a Sunni.

That led into an uncomfortable part of the conversation. My friend mentioned what is happening in Bahrain, and how it is incomparable to what is happening in Syria. Quantitatively, yes, that is true. Far fewer people were killed (and are being killed) in Bahrain. But, I tell him, comparing the two makes me feel uncomfortable. It is tacitly implying that what is happening in Bahrain isn't as important, which I think is an unnecessary and harmful distinction to draw. Mercifully, we move on to the next topic.

What would he like the international community to do? Give the opposition guns. Taking the role of "common Western opinion", I say that it would be difficult because there are so many factions out there and little structure to the opposition. In effect, we'd just be handing out guns to anybody who asked. He understood, but countered that organization is impossible because of the lack of effective communication between groups. They are in a war, after all.

Good point. My friend also is in favor of buffer-zones. Again, I put on my State Department hat and give a brief rundown about what happened in Srebrenica. "But that was in the middle of the Balkans. We have Turkey." Another good point. A buffer zone with Turkey as the backstop would allow opposition forces to gather, organize, and present a united front. (Senator John McCain has called for much the same thing)

But recent developments might make this all moot. The UN is sending "peace observers", "military observers", "truce observers" or whatever you want to call it to Syria today in order to monitor the Annan peace plan. Didn't the Arab League do that a few months ago? Didn't they leave in disgust at the indiscriminate continued killings of civilians by the Assad regime? Alas, if the UN mission can halt the killings, then I guess we have to call that "progress".

Friday, April 6, 2012

Having Fun With the News!

I enjoy "reading between the lines" in news stories and consequently turning passive reading into active reading.

Take this article from Al Jazeera about Anonymous hacking Chinese government websites.

Examine the language used by the hacker. Quoting from the article:
"Dear Chinese government, you are not infallible, today websites are hacked, tomorrow it will be your vile regime that will fall," the message read. "So expect us because we do not forgive, never. What you are doing today to your Great People, tomorrow will be inflicted to you,"

That's where we can start. Then, take into account the context: "smaller sites for government bureaus and minor cities." Also, the posting was in English.

The motivation for the attacks was to show Chinese citizens how to circumvent government internet controls.

And finally, the perpetrator was Anonymous, a group of hacktivists, lacking (as far as we know) a unified structure. In essence, anybody can claim to be in Anonymous. That's the point. It's more of an idea than an organization. By lacking a hierarchical structure, the group can avoid collapse from the arrest of high-ranking members because there are no "high-ranking" members. (Note: Al Qaeda uses the same strategy. Hey, it works.). At least, that's my understanding of it.

Now the fun part. Let's put it all together. The first clue in our treasure hunt is the language used. To put it bluntly, the writing is awful. "So expect us because we do not forgive, never."?? That sentence alone tells me that the writer -- and by logical extension, the hacker -- is not a native English speaker. Most native English speakers would not use "never" to put the punch at the end of that sentence. They would use "ever" instead. Otherwise, the sentence would have been written, poorly, as: "So expect us because we will never forgive, never." Or something like that. However, using a word like "infallible" correctly means that this is no dummy.

Let's ignore the use of punctuation, because that's a problem with most non-writers. The use of "Great People" is interesting. Capitalizing "Great People" makes me think that this isn't a child or 16 year old kid pulling off this hack. Going out of the way to capitalize that phrase means that this person probably has some idea of the richness of Chinese history and civilization, and has a corresponding appreciation for it. Sophisticated thoughts, indeed.

Lastly, we must consider that only minor government websites were targeted, and one might assume that these are "easier" targets than the Chinese National Bank, for example.

Conclusions, thus far: non-native, but quite competent, English speaker, probably 18-25 years old, non-veteran hacker.

Why post in English on a Chinese government site for a Chinese audience? Remember that the purpose of the hack was to show ways to circumvent Chinese government censorship, so the argument that this was a publicity stunt for a non-Chinese audience is rather weak, but still possible.

My feeling is that the hackers are probably non-Chinese, or at least they don't speak Mandarin (the possibility that the hacker/s are non-Mandarin speaking Chinese expats striking back at the government is very probable). The Al Jazeera article spoke about an Anonymous China twitter account, making me think that these attacks were conducted from outside the country, as Twitter is blocked in China. (Check out a list of blocked websites in China).

Further Conclusion: Not a Chinese resident, non-Mandarin speaker.

Progress, dear friends! Unfortunately, I think that's about all the detective work we can accomplish on this case. We have a non-Mandarin and non-native English speaking, non-Chinese resident, 18-25 year old, non-veteran hacker on the loose! Check under your sofas in Western Europe and the United States!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Hoping for an Adlai Stevenson Moment

It looks like Mr. Annan's effort to halt the killings in Syria has failed. Assad has not recognized a ceasefire and continues with the relentless and brutal murder of fellow Syrians.

What now?

The Syrian National Council (a new entity, for me. I don't remember hearing that phrase before. I wouldn't be surprised if it was just created, but cited in passing, giving the group an air of legitimacy) is asking for money, guns, and material. Secretary Clinton has confirmed that the US is sending communications equipment to the rebels, including night vision goggles. For the moment, guns are not being supplied by the international community.

But what next?

My feeling is that tomorrow, when Kofi Annan briefs the Security Council on the next steps for Syria, he should summon the spirit of Adlai Stevenson (a personal hero) and really stick it to Assad. Mr. Annan has to call it like it is and expose the Assad regime for what they really are -- murderers. Only then will China and Russia have the incentive to support a resolution aimed at stopping the violence and ousting Assad. If Mr. Annan, a well respected and decidedly docile diplomat, shows some vigor in his assessment of the situation, it could very well be the turning point in this sad story. Without his strong support for international action, China and Russia will continue to veto any resolution that the Security Council puts forth.

Mr. Annan, the Syrians cannot wait until hell freezes over. The world needs to act. Now.