Published: 12 May, 2012, 17:28
A leaked US Air Force document stipulates a drone that happens to capture surveillance images of Americans may store them for a period of 90 days. The paper appears to justify spying on citizens, as long as it is “incidental.”
The document accepts that the Air Force may not record information non-consensually; however it does state “collected imagery may incidentally include US persons or private property without consent.”
The report, dated April 23 was discovered by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and has been put online.
Data that is accidentally recorded may be stored for a period of 90 days by the Pentagon while it is analyzed to see if the subjects are legitimate targets for state surveillance. The Pentagon may also disseminate this data among other government organizations if it sees fit.
“Even though information may not be collectible, it may be retained for the length of time necessary to transfer it to another DoD entity or government agency to whose function it pertains,” states the document.
In addition, it justifies the gathering of data on domestic targets in certain circumstances. According to the paper, these include surveillance of natural disasters, environmental studies, system testing and training, and counterintelligence and security-related vulnerability assessments.
The document seems to spell bad news for civil liberties, considering the US government passed a bill in February allocating $63 billion to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
If the bill is signed into law it will effectively allow the FAA to fill US skies with drones, a massive 30,000 predicted to be operational in US airspace by 2020.
Over 30 prominent civil rights groups in the US have rounded on the FAA and demanded that it reconsider the legislation and hold a rule-making session to address privacy and safety threats.
“Unfortunately, nothing in the bill would address the very serious privacy issues raised by drone aircraft. This bill would push the nation willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected,” said the American Civil Liberties Union in response to the legislation.
The bill has sparked fears among Americans that their civil liberties may be under threat, considering that the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been extended to carry out attacks on militants.
- Air Force Document: Drones Can Be Used To Spy On Americans (wrc559.com)
- | Wake Up: US Air Force drones can now spy on YOU! (truthaholics.wordpress.com)
The commentary in China’s Liberation Army Daily falls short of a formal government statement, but marks the harshest high-level warning yet from Beijing about tensions with the Philippines over disputed seas where both countries have recently sent ships to assert their claims.
This week American and Filipino troops launched a fortnight of annual naval drills amid the stand-off between Beijing and Manila, who have accused each other of encroaching on sovereign seas near the Scarborough Shoal, west of a former U.S. navy base at Subic Bay.
The joint exercises are held in different seas around the Philippines; the leg that takes place in the South China Sea area starts on Monday.
“Anyone with clear eyes saw long ago that behind these drills is reflected a mentality that will lead the South China Sea issue down a fork in the road towards military confrontation and resolution through armed force,” said the commentary in the Chinese paper, which is the chief mouthpiece of the People’s Liberation Army.
“Through this kind of meddling and intervention, the United States will only stir up the entire South China Sea situation towards increasing chaos, and this will inevitably have a massive impact on regional peace and stability.”
Up to now, China has chided the Philippines over the dispute about the uninhabited shoal known in the Philippines as the Panatag Shoal and which China calls Huangyan, about 124 nautical miles off the main Philippine island of Luzon.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan in the South China Sea, which could be rich in oil and gas and is spanned by busy shipping lanes.
Beijing has sought to resolve the disputes one-on-one but there is worry among its neighbors over what some see as growing Chinese assertiveness in staking claims over the seas and various islands, reefs and shoals.
In past patches of regional tension over disputed seas, hawkish Chinese military voices have also emerged, only to be later reined in by the government, and the same could be true this time.
Since late 2010, China has sought to cool tensions with the United States over regional disputes, trade and currency policies, human rights and other contentious issues. Especially with the ruling Chinese Party preoccupied with a leadership succession late in 2012, Beijing has stressed its hopes for steady relations throughout this year.
Nonetheless, experts have said that China remains wary of U.S. military intentions across the Asia-Pacific, especially in the wake of the Obama administration’s vows to “pivot” to the region, reinvigorating diplomatic and security ties with allies.
The Liberation Army Daily commentary echoed that wariness.
“The U.S. strategy of returning to the Asia-Pacific carries the implication of a shift in military focus, and there is no better strategic opening than China’s sovereignty disputes with the Philippines and other countries in the South China Sea,” said the newspaper.
“The United States’ intention of trying to draw more countries into stirring up the situation in the South China Sea is being brandished to the full,” it said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
- China top military paper warns of armed confrontation over seas (thehimalayantimes.com)
- South China Sea Standoff Ratchets Up A Notch (chinabystander.wordpress.com)
- China accused of escalating South China Sea standoff (ctv.ca)
- Philippines says new China ship aggravates sea row (staradvertiser.com)
- Russian ships arriving in China for naval war game (worldnews.msnbc.msn.com)
- US and Philippines begin South China Sea drills (1oneday.wordpress.com)
- It’s Getting Ugly Between China And The Philippines In The South China Sea (businessinsider.com)
AP | Feb. 4, 2012, 6:07 AM
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard began military exercises Saturday in the country’s south, the latest show of force after threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for tougher Western sanctions.
Plans for new Iranian naval games in the Persian Gulf off the country’s southern coast have been in the works for weeks. State media announced new maneuvers in southern Iran involving ground forces, but it was not immediately clear whether they were part of the planned naval training missions scheduled for this month or a separate operation.
The latest military maneuvers got under way following stern warnings by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about any possible U.S. or Israeli attacks against Tehran’s nuclear facilities. It also comes after Western forces boosted their naval presence in the Gulf led by the American aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.
Iran officials and lawmakers have repeatedly said that their country would close the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in retaliation for sanctions that affect Iran’s oil exports. They have as yet made no attempts to disrupt shipping through the waterway, the route for one-fifth of the world’s crude oil, and the U.S. and allies have said they would respond swiftly to any attempts at a blockade.
Last month, Iran’s navy wrapped up 10 days of exercises in the Gulf, but the Revolutionary Guard — which is directly under control of the supreme leader — represents a significantly stronger military force and controls key programs such as missile development. Iranian state media announced the new maneuvers, but gave no further details.
Khamenei, in a speech nationally broadcast on Friday, staked out a hard line after suggestions by Israel that military strikes are an increasing possibility if sanctions fail to rein in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
He pledged to aid any nation or group that challenges Israel and said any military strikes would damage U.S. interests in the Middle East “10 times” more than they would hurt Iran. The comments also may signal that Tehran’s proxy forces — led by Lebanon’s Islamic militant group Hezbollah — could be given the green light to revive attacks on Israel as the showdown between the archfoes intensifies.
The West and its allies fear Iran could use its uranium enrichment labs — which make nuclear fuel — to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Israel has so far publicly backed the efforts by the U.S. and European Union for tougher sanctions that target Iran’s crucial oil exports. But Israeli leaders have urged even harsher measures and warn that military action remains a clear option despite Western appeals to allow time for the economic pressures and isolation to bear down on Iran.
Iran’s oil minister repeated claims that an EU oil embargo will not cripple Iran’s economy, claiming Saturday that the country already has identified new customers to replace the loss in European sales that accounted for about 18 percent of Iran’s exports.
Rostam Qassemi also reinforced Iran’s warning to Saudi Arabia and other fellow OPEC members against boosting production to offset any potential drop in Tehran’s crude exports, saying the cartel should not be used as a political weapon against a member state.
Although Israel has raised the strongest hints that it is likely to start a military campaign, Khamenei reserved some of his strongest comments for Israel’s key U.S. ally.
“A war itself will damage the U.S. 10 times” more in the region, said Khamenei.
Khamenei claimed Iran, however, could only emerge stronger. “Iran will not withdraw. Then what happens?” asked Khamenei. “In conclusion, the West’s hegemony and threats will be discredited” in the Middle East. “The hegemony of Iran will be promoted. In fact, this will be in our service.”
On Thursday, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, suggested the world is increasingly ready to consider a military strike if sanctions fail. The head of the country’s strategic affairs ministry, Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, also suggested Iran’s main military installations are still vulnerable to airstrikes — even as Iran starts up a new uranium enrichment facility deep in a mountainside bunker south of Tehran.
Yaalon’s comments appear to reinforce earlier suggestions by other Israel officials that the window for a possible attack is closing and Israel would need to strike by summer to inflict significant setbacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity under standing guidelines.
At Ramstein Air Base in Germany, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said sanctions remain the best approach to pressure Iran. But he told U.S. airmen Friday that Washington keeps “all options on the table and would be prepared to respond if we have to.”
Khamenei answered by repeating Iran’s declarations that it will never roll back its nuclear program, which he had earlier said was now part of the country’s “identity” and a cornerstone of its technological endeavors. On Friday, Iran said it successfully sent a small satellite into orbit in the third such launch in recent years, state media reported.
“From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group confronts the Zionist regime, we will endorse and we will help. We have no fear expressing this,” said Khamenei, using the phrase widely used by Iran’s leader to describe Israel.
Read more: BI
- Iran Begins New Military Exercises in South (foxnews.com)
Piecing together sound bites to form a rough idea of what’s actually going on is about the only option available right now, so when Leon Panetta announced yesterday that he thinks Israel may strike Iran this spring it immediately made the news.
After that, Israel allegedly believes Tehran will enter a “zone of immunity” where they will have enough enriched uranium, stashed in bunkers deep enough, that only U.S. bombs will be able to penetrate and they will be helpless to act on their own.
Ignatius did not cite a source, but reported the news from Brussels where Panetta was attending a NATO Defense meeting.
It’s a reasonable argument that is bolstered by the fact that Israel cancelled its massive missile defense drill with the U.S., slated for the same period, saying that they couldn’t spare the forces at that time. The drill is said to be back on the books for October.
For its part, Iran is doing nothing to assuage any concerns over its intentions as it launched a satellite into orbit Friday.
Nasser Karimi at the Associated Press reports the launch raises concerns not only for the satellites possible military applications, but because the rocket that delivered it uses the same technology as a ballistic missile would use. Say, an inter-continental ballistic missile fitted with a nuclear warhead.
Israel announced Thursday that Iran is developing technology that will enable it to launch such a missile that will reach the continental United States. This satellite launch only reinforces this possibility.
In an official announcement the Iranian supreme leader warned any action against Iran will have dire effects on the U.S.
CNN reports that Iran’s supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameni announced “You see every now and then in this way they say that all options are on the table. That means even the option of war.” During Friday prayers in Tehran, he continued, “This is how they make threats against us.”
“Well, these kinds of threats are detrimental to the U.S.,” he said. “The war itself will be 10 times as detrimental to the U.S.”
The Ayatollah went on to say that Iran pledges its full support to any country or organization that attacks Israel and that the U.S. and Israel will soon face defeats in a coming “great event.”
In a random aside: A South African telecom is being sued for aiding Iran’s nuclear development in exchange for an exclusive cellular license within the country.
Read more: BI
- ‘Israel to strike Iran in April, May or June’ – US Defense Sec (rt.com)
- ‘Panetta believes Israel will attack Iran this spring’ – Jerusalem Post (jpost.com)
- Panetta believes Israel may strike Iran this spring (telegraph.co.uk)
- Khamenei warns over military strike, oil embargo threat – Jerusalem Post (jpost.com)
- Barak: If sanctions fail, Iran must face military strike – Jerusalem Post (jpost.com)
- Israel could attack Iran as early as April: Panetta – New York Daily News (nydailynews.com)
- New fears over Iran’s missile capability (smh.com.au)
United States, Washington: US President Barack Obama participates in an interview with YouTube and Google from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, January 30, 2012. (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)
Published: 31 January, 2012, 22:08
On Monday afternoon, Barack Obama became the first president to host a virtual town hall live on the Internet.
While that might be a feat worthy of the record books, President Obama did something else during his address that America has become accustomed to: he lied to the world.
Speaking Monday during a live web-chat hosted by Google, the president took on a series of issues submitted by the American people. Over the span of 45 minutes, President Obama addressed the Stop Online Piracy Act while refusing to side with either end of the argument, admitted to the world that he isn’t all that swell of a dancer and took a query from a professional puppeteer. In between ignoring the real issues or offering any sort of solid solution to the nation’s biggest problems, the president did put something rather important out for the world to ponder: America’s ongoing drone missions aren’t really all that bad.
If you ask anyone outside of the Oval Office — or especially America — they might tell you otherwise.
Tackling a question posed on drone strikes, President Obama defended the ongoing missions on Monday, saying they were necessary to target terrorists in a most effective manner. “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in,” the president said on the topic of drones. While an argument could easily be made that operating drone missions in lieu of putting boots on the ground is best for the US Armed Forces, the president put a lot on the line Monday when he downplayed the result of the strikes.
Those drone attacks, carried out by unmanned aircraft controlled thousands of miles away, don’t do a lot of harm, said the president. According to Obama, drones had
“not caused a huge number of civilian casualties” and he added that it’s “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”
How small is that not-so huge number? If you ask anyone outside of the American intelligence community, they’ll tell you it is in the hundreds.
But what’s a few hundred civilian deaths, right?
Obama suggested that continuing the drone program would not be detrimental to the safety of foreign citizens, but studies conducted outside of the US say otherwise. Last summer, the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism argued that since America began drone strikes, at least 385 civilians had been executed in US-led attacks. Of those statistics, the Bureau added that around half of the dead were children under the age of 18.
If you don’t take the word of foreign reporter’s, even American intelligence can confirm that the “not a huge number” statistic might be a bit of an exaggeration. One senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity added to CNN last year that CIA drone strikes had taken the lives of 50 civilians in all. As drone strikes go unreported and deaths unaccounted for, the actual number, unfortunately, is probably much higher than what either the CIA or the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can come up with. In a single strike last March, 26 Pakistanis were killed during a US strike over Islamabad. Once all deaths were accounted for, it was revealed that over a dozen of the deaths in that single raid were suffered by innocent civilians.
When the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released their findings last year, they said that the number of civilians killed in US drone strikes were probably 40 percent higher than what the US was actually reporting. Between 2004 and 2011, they put the estimate of civilian deaths at a figure of 385, but added in the research that the toll could actually come close to tallying 775 casualties.
Which, if you ask President Obama, is not a huge number.
If 775 isn’t a huge number, than 56 is practically a fraction. That’s the number of children executed by US drones in the first 20 months of the Obama administration.
“Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many,” responded Unicef to the news at the time.
In 2009 alone, almost 600 civilians were killed on the ground in Afghanistan, and the United Nations put 60 percent of that figure as a direct result of airstrikes, drone or otherwise. In Pakistan, civilians say they are terrified of the robotic planes and the damage that they have already done. “There was not a single Taliban militant in Pakistan before 9/11 but since we joined this war, we are facing acts of terrorism, bombing and drone strikes,” Movement for Justice leader Imran Khan told the press in 2011.
In Libya, where the United States never even engaged in an official war, according to Obama, American troops launched 145 drone strikes in an attempt to oust the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in a matter of months. As with most drone missions, the Department of Defense has not released any official statistics on what casualties were caused by the strikes.
Regardless of what damage a drone strike can have on enemy insurgents, experts say that the toll visited on civilians is several times that of militants. In a 2009 report from the Brookings Institute, Senior Fellow Daniel L Byman wrote that “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”
In Pakistan where drone strikes have become practically commonplace, civilians are terrified that they will become the next accidental target of American aircraft. Saadullah, a teenage boy who spoke with a BBC reporter last year, lost both of his legs in drone strikes. Three of his relatives, all civilians, have also been killed by American strikes. Asghar Khan, an elder in Islamabad that also spoke to BBC, said three of his relatives were also shot down in airstrikes.
“My brother, my nephew and another relative were killed by a drone in 2008,” said Khan. “They were sitting with this sick man when the attack took place. There were no Taliban.”
A decade after the US began so-called cooperation with Pakistani intelligence, anti-American sentiments continue to grow as do the number of casualties. “When we intervene in people’s countries to chase small cells of bad guys, we end up alienating the whole country and turning them against us,” counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen tells the Brookings Institute.
Now as the US puts surveillance drones over the skies of Iraq even after that war has officially ended, yet another country is becoming concerned that drones will drop bombs on their own civilians. “We hear from time to time that drone aircraft have killed half a village in Pakistan and Afghanistan under the pretext of pursuing terrorists,” 37-year-old café owner Hisham Mohammed Salah told the New York Times just this week. “Our fear is that will happen in Iraq under a different pretext.”
Under the Pentagon’s new revised budget, the US will phase out around 100,000 military staffers while adding droves of drones to its already established arsenal of robotic planes. Will drones soon become the United States’ not-so-secret weapon and phase out its Armed Forces personnel entirely? It’s not out of the question. After all, a drone strike authorized by Obama last year led to the death of two American citizens with alleged terrorist ties.
Don’t worry, though. Obama says these things are kept on a tight leash. Who actually pulls on that is as good of a guess as anyone’s, though. In November, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the “signature” strikes that account for most of the CIA’s drone missions only end up on the desk of the president after they are carried out. The US must only inform Pakistan of those strikes, by the way, if they believe the death toll will exceed 20.
Which really isn’t that big of a number either.
Source – RT
- Obama (finally) confirms drone strikes in Pakistan (negativentropy.wordpress.com)
- President Obama Says US Must Be ‘Judicious’ in Drone Use (dissenter.firedoglake.com)
- Obama Defends US Drone Program (myfoxphoenix.com)
- Obama admits ‘worst-kept secret’: US flies drones over Pakistan (csmonitor.com)
- Obama Admits to Pakistan Drone Strikes (ibtimes.com)
- Obama confirms US drones in Pakistan – News24 (news24.com)
- Civilian Deaths Due to Drones Are Not Many, Obama Says – New York Times (nytimes.com)
- With its deadly drones, the US is fighting a coward’s war | George Monbiot (guardian.co.uk)
Iran ‘denintely’ shutting down Strait of Hormuz if EU bans oil
Tensions in the Gulf could reach a breaking point as a senior Iranian official said Iran would “definitely” close the Strait of Hormuz if an EU oil embargo disrupted the export of crude oil, the semi-official Fars news agency reports.
With Washington’s decision to deploy a second carrier strike group in the Gulf, the prospect of all-out war in the region is becoming increasingly likely.
- Iran threatens to stop Gulf oil if sanctions widened (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Iran: Highlights and Developments 1/22 (showdownmideast.com)
The United States is sponsoring the construction of facilities in Georgia on the threshold of a military conflict in Iran, a member of Georgian opposition movement Public Assembly, Elizbar Javelidze has stated.
According to the academician, that explains why President Mikhail Saakashvili is roaming the republic opening new hospitals in its regions.
“These are 20-bed hospitals…It’s an American project. A big war between the US and Iran is beginning in the Persian Gulf. $5 billion was allocated for the construction of these 20-bed military hospitals,” Javelidze said in an interview with Georgian paper Kviris Kronika (News of the Week), as cited by Newsgeorgia website.
The opposition member stated that the construction is mainly paid from the American pocket.
In addition, airports are being briskly built in Georgia and there are talks of constructing a port for underwater vessels in Kulevi on the eastern Black Sea coast in Georgia.
Javelidze believes that it is all linked to the deployment of US military bases on the Georgian soil. Lazika – one of Saakashvili’s mega-projects, a new city that will be built from a scratch – will be “an American military town”. According to the politician, “a secret airdrome” has already been erected in the town of Marneuli, southern Georgia.
The opposition member wondered who would protect Georgia in case if Iran fires its missiles against US military facilities on the territory of the Caucasian state.
All in all, about 30 new hospitals and medical centers were opened in the former Soviet republic in December last year. The plan is to build over a hundred more.
As for Lazika, the Georgian president announced his ambitious idea to build a second-largest city in Georgia, its western economic and trade center, at the end of 2011. According to the plan – which was slammed by his opponents and many analysts – Saakashvili’s dream-town will become home to at least half a million people within a decade.)
- American re-arming of Georgia will spark new aggression – S. Ossetia (rt.com)
- Congrats – Biden tips his hat to Georgia trade (politico.com)
- US State Department Pressure Ended Russian Intelligence Supported Bombings in Rep of Georgia – Why not State Support of Terrorism Too? (americandefenseleague.wordpress.com)
- Georgia Wants Strategic Alliances in Russia’s Backyard (time.com)
- Georgian opposition ready for fresh fight with Saakashvili (rt.com)
- The Neocon War Against Russia (lewrockwell.com)
- Saakashvili: Hillary Saved Us (thedailybeast.com)
- Georgian billionaire enters politics to oust Saakashvili (rt.com)
- You: Georgian Opposition Says the Country’s Democracy Is Slipping (thedailybeast.com)
Posted By Josh Rogin
As the violence in Syria spirals out of control, top officials in President Barack Obama‘s administration are quietly preparing options for how to assist the Syrian opposition, including gaming out the unlikely option of setting up a no-fly zone in Syria and preparing for another major diplomatic initiative.
Critics on Capitol Hill accuse the Obama administration of being slow to react to the quickening deterioration of the security situation in Syria, where over 5,000 have died, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Many lawmakers say the White House is once again “leading from behind,” while the Turks, the French, and the Arab League — which sent an observer mission to Syria this week – take the initiative to pursue more aggressive strategies for pressuring the Assad regime. But U.S. officials said that they are moving cautiously in order to avoid destabilizing Syria further, and to make sure they know as much as possible about the country’s complex dynamics before getting more involved.
But the administration does see the status quo in Syria as unsustainable. The Bashar al Assad regime is a “dead man walking,” State Department official Fred Hof said this month. So the administration is now ramping up its policymaking machinery on the issue. After several weeks of having no top-level administration meetings to discuss the Syria crisis, the National Security Council (NSC) has begun an informal, quiet interagency process to create and collect options for aiding the Syrian opposition, two administration officials confirmed to The Cable.
The process, led by NSC Senior Director Steve Simon, involves only a few select officials from State, Defense, Treasury, and other relevant agencies. The group is unusually small, presumably to prevent media leaks, and the administration is not using the normal process of Interagency Policy Committee (IPC), Deputies Committee (DC), or Principals Committee (PC) meetings, the officials said. Another key official inside the discussions is Hof, who is leading the interactions with Syrian opposition leaders and U.S. allies.
The options that are under consideration include establishing a humanitarian corridor or safe zone for civilians in Syria along the Turkish border, extending humanitarian aid to the Syrian rebels, providing medical aid to Syrian clinics, engaging more with the external and internal opposition, forming an international contact group, or appointing a special coordinator for working with the Syrian opposition (as was done in Libya), according to the two officials, both of whom are familiar with the discussions but not in attendance at the meetings.
“The interagency is now looking at options for Syria, but it’s still at the preliminary stage,” one official said. “There are many people in the administration that realize the status quo is unsustainable and there is an internal recognition that existing financial sanctions are not going to bring down the Syrian regime in the near future.”
After imposing several rounds of financial sanctions on Syrian regime leaders, the focus is now shifting to assisting the opposition directly. The interagency process is still ongoing and the NSC has tasked State and DOD to present options in the near future, but nothing has been decided, said the officials – one of whom told The Cable that the administration was being intentionally cautious out of concern about what comes next in Syria.
“Due to the incredible and far-reaching ramifications of the Syrian problem set, people are being very cautious,” the official said. “The criticism could be we’re not doing enough to change the status quo because we’re leading from behind. But the reason we are being so cautious is because when you look at the possible ramifications, it’s mindboggling.”
A power vacuum in the country, loose weapons of mass destruction, a refugee crisis, and unrest across the region are just a few of the problems that could attend the collapse of the Assad regime, the official said.
“This isn’t Libya. What happens in Libya stays in Libya, but that is not going to happen in Syria. The stakes are higher,” the official said. “Right now, we see the risks of moving too fast as higher than the risks of moving too slow.”
The option of establishing a humanitarian corridor is seen as extremely unlikely because it would require establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, which would likely involve large-scale attacks on the Syrian air defense and military command-and-control systems.
“That’s theoretically one of the options, but it’s so far out of the realm that no one is thinking about that seriously at the moment,” another administration official said.
Although the opposition is decidedly split on the issue, Burhan Ghalioun, the president of the Syrian National Council, earlier this month called on the international community to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria.
“Our main objective is finding mechanisms to protect civilians and stop the killing machine,” said Ghalioun. “We say it is imperative to use forceful measures to force the regime to respect human rights.”
Is the U.S. bark worse than its bite?
Rhetorically, the administration has been active in calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside and protecting the rights of Syrian protesters, despite the lack of clear policy to achieve that result. “The United States continues to believe that the only way to bring about the change that the Syrian people deserve is for Bashar al-Assad to leave power,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Dec. 21.
On Tuesday, Dec. 27, the administration hinted at stronger action if the Syrian government doesn’t let the Arab League monitors do their work. “If the Syrian regime continues to resist and disregard Arab League efforts, the international community will consider other means to protect Syrian civilians,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
The Syrian National Council (SNC), the primary organization representing the opposition, has been very clear that it is seeking more than rhetorical support from the United States and the international community. An extensive policy paper titled, “Safe Area for Syria,” edited by SNC member Ausama Monajed, laid out the argument for armed intervention by the international community to aid Syrian civilians.
“The Syrian National Council (SNC) is entering a critical phase in the Syrian revolution whereby the hope of a continued campaign of passive resistance to an exceptionally brutal and unrestrained regime is becoming more and more akin to a suicide pact,” Monajed wrote.
But Washington is uncomfortable acting in concert with the SNC: Officials say there is a lack of confidence that the SNC, which is strongly influenced by expatriate Syrians, has the full support of the internal opposition. U.S. officials are also wary of supporting the Syria Free Army, made up of Syrian military defectors and armed locals, as they do not want to be seen as becoming militarily engaged against the regime — a story line they fear that Assad could use for his own propaganda, officials said.
There is also some internal bureaucratic wrangling at play. This summer, when the issue of sending emergency medical equipment into Syria came up in a formal interagency meeting, disputes over jurisdiction stalled progress on the discussion, officials told The Cable. No medical aid was sent.
So for now, the administration is content to let the Arab League monitoring mission play out and await its Jan. 20 report. The officials said that the administration hopes to use the report to begin a new diplomatic initiative in late January at the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad and authorize direct assistance to the opposition.
The officials acknowledged that this new initiative could fail due to Russian support for the Assad regime. If that occurs, the administration would work with its allies such as France and Turkey to establish their own justification for non-military humanitarian intervention in Syria, based on evidence from the Arab League report and other independent reporting on Assad’s human rights abuses. This process could take weeks, however, meaning that material assistance from the United States to the Syrian opposition probably wouldn’t flow at least until late February or early March. Between now and then, hundreds or even thousands more could be killed.
There is also disagreement within the administration about whether the Arab League observer mission is credible and objective.
“This is an Arab issue right now, and the Arab League is really showing initiative for the first time in a long time,” said one administration official.
“[The Arab League monitoring mission] is all Kabuki theatre,” said another administration official who does not work directly on Syria. “We’re intentionally setting the bar too high [for intervention] as means of maintaining the status quo, which is to do nothing.”
Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the administration was caught off-guard by how the opposition became militarized so quickly. The administration’s message had been to urge the opposition to remain peaceful, but that ship has now sailed, he said.
“We have a pretty strong policy of not engaging the Syria Free Army directly, because earlier it was agreed that peaceful protesters had the moral high ground over the regime and were more able to encourage defections,” he said. “But there was no clear light at the end of that peaceful protest strategy. We assumed, incorrectly, that the civil resistance strategies used in Egypt and Tunisia were being adopted by the Syrian opposition, but that didn’t happen.”
Most experts in Washington have a deep skepticism toward the Arab League monitoring mission. For one thing, it is led by a Sudanese general who has been accused of founding the Arab militias that wreaked havoc in Darfur. Also, many doubt that 150 monitors that will eventually be in Syria can cover the vast number of protests and monitor such a large country.
The Assad regime has also been accused of subverting the monitoring mission by moving political prisoners to military sites that are off-limits to monitors, repositioning tanks away from cities only when monitors are present, and having soldiers pose as police to downplay the military’s role in cracking down on the protesters.
“It seems awfully risky for the U.S. to be putting its chips all in on that mission,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow with the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “There never was a serious mechanism for it to be a strong initiative.”
Badran said that the Arab League monitoring mission just gives the Assad regime time and space to maneuver, and provides Russia with another excuse to delay international action on Syria.
“Now you understand why the Russians pushed the Syrians to accept the monitors,” he said. “It allows the Syrians to delay the emergence of consensus.”
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the administration is trying to balance the value of protecting civilians with the interests of trying to ensure a measure of stability in Syria.
“The biggest thing is extensive consultation with as many international allies as possible. That’s another feature of this administration,” said Katulis. “And when change does come to Syria, the Syrians have to own it.”
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to requests for comment.
- The US must ratchet up pressure on Syria | Matthew Brodsky (guardian.co.uk)
- Activists: Syrian troops kill 9 despite monitors (goerie.com)
- Arab League monitors head to Syrian opposition stronghold – CNN (edition.cnn.com)
- US: Assad’s Syria a ‘dead man walking’ (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- White House warning: Assad must end crackdown or face ‘additional steps’ (jta.org)
- Syria frees 755 prisoners as observers tour Homs (theglobeandmail.com)
- Protest could be turning point in Syrian unrest (smh.com.au)