Peace in the Middle East…

According to Jimmy Carter, Hamas is ready for peace — if Israel withdraws to its 1967 boundaries (i.e., cedes all of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan, and half of Jerusalem) immediately, it will agree to a ten-year cease-fire.

Translation: “If you accede to our demands right now, we won’t attack you1 for the next ten years.”

My suggested answer: “Cus ’emac.2

1 Of course, we reserve the right to arrange for other groups to attack you, or to transfer our weapons to other groups.

2 When one of my officemates asked what that phrase meant, someone else walking by translated: “Well, the second word means ‘your mother.'”

Published in: on April 21, 2008 at 14:41  Comments (10)  

Politics: A little more complex than usual

So remember that case of an Israeli plane having to jettison its bombs over Syrian airspace about two weeks ago? It’s been becoming clear over the past week that there was a good deal more to it. The Washington Post is now reporting as straight news (not rumor) that this was a concerted Israeli attack against a suspected Syrian nuclear site, constructed with North Korean assistance, and the attack staged after conferring with the US.

So there are quite a few pretty explosive statements in that last sentence.

(1) Syrian nuclear site — this is the first mention of Syria trying to get the Bomb. I’m quite sure that they want it, but it wasn’t at all clear that they’d made any steps towards getting one. I’m still not 100% convinced that this was really a nuke facility — but it was some kind of extremely-high-value military target, the sort of thing that you risk a sneak attack in the dead of night for.

(2) Maybe the most interesting thing about this attack is what didn’t happen. Has anyone heard any Arab government making loud warnings about the consequences of Israeli aggression? Or the Saudis arranging for broad denunciations of Israel on pan-Arabic television stations? Or for that matter, has anyone even heard the Syrians complaining about the fact that they just got bombed?

Nope. Me neither. There’s been a deafening silence.

Tehran has been making some veiled threats (their assistant minister of defense making statements about how the military has contingency plans to bomb Israel if Iran is attacked), but even that’s been pretty quiet.

My read on this: First of all, I appear to have grossly overestimated how well Bashar al-Assad is doing. If he’s in such a weak plae that he doesn’t feel that he can loudly complain and get sympathy from the Arab world, then he knows that the Arab world doesn’t care if he lives or dies, and that he knows that the threat of an Israeli attack against Syria proper is very severe.

This makes some other things make more sense. For one thing, there’s been this planned war. I can see how Hamas and Hezbollah would come out ahead from it – but Syria? If Syria were to try to get into a war with Israel, it would be defeated almost immediately. Its military capabilities have been deteriorating since the Soviet Union fell apart, and they weren’t all that great even then. al-Assad isn’t backing this war, he’s trying to figure out ways to make sure it happens way the hell away from him.

It also means that a coup against al-Assad is still a very real possibility. He’s never been popular at home. (Nor was his father, really. Not a nice fellow.) His habit of establishing Syrian influence in Lebanon by assassinating opposing politicians (another one was killed in a car bomb just last week) makes neighboring countries nervous. And frankly, trying to build a nuclear facility (or anything else similarly likely to bring down unpleasant foreign interest) in that area is just plain stupid — the western Islamic world is trying to get the situation to calm down, so that they can try to contain Iran, and doing something like that could trigger another massive military “event” in the region. Or even worse, he could actually get the Bomb, and start to lord it over other Arab states, which they frankly would like a lot less than Israel doing the same. At least they know that Israel isn’t going to try to destabilize their regimes or take over.

Anyway, while all this is happening the situation in Gaza is continuing to get tenser. The Israeli government has referred to the regime in Gaza as a hostile one, and the border continues to be completely closed; Gaza’s economy has pretty much shut down. Hamas continues its low-level fighting with Israel.

My expectations for the immediate future: There will be further Israeli actions to shut down Hamas’ military capability in Gaza, especially focused on shutting down their arms supplies via the Philadelphi Corridor. (Along the Gaza/Egypt border) Most of these operations will be secretive, but a few may be loud and public. At the same time, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes negotiation going on to try to head off a war; but several factions are trying to sieze power in Lebanon, Syria is trying to get involved in that, and there could be a coup in Syria at any time. (Or none) Both Syria and Lebanon are on the brink of civil war, and if that war gets serious enough Hezbollah is going to have too many problems at home to start exporting trouble. Israel is going to have elections soon, (probably the government will dissolve in a few months; public confidence in Olmert is extremely low) but policy probably won’t change too radically no matter who is elected.

So we’re looking at a period of quiet fighting and delicate manoeuvering, with a chance for localized all-out conflagrations.

Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 22:47  Comments (8)  

When you hear Gen. Petraeus’ report…

Those “positive statistics” you hear from him seem to be an excellent case of how to manipulate data. Here’s a nice article from the Washington Post summarizing the issue. For example, the report is touting the reduction in sectarian violence, but

Intelligence analysts computing aggregate levels of violence against civilians for the NIE puzzled over how the military designated attacks as combat, sectarian or criminal, according to one senior intelligence official in Washington. “If a bullet went through the back of the head, it’s sectarian,” the official said. “If it went through the front, it’s criminal.”

Ilan Goldenberg summarized it nicely:

“So to recap. The violence numbers do not include: 1) Sunni on Sunni violence. 2) Shi’a on Shi’a violence 3) Car bombs 4) Getting shot in the front of the head.”

General Petraeus was chosen for this job in no small part so that he would be the one giving this testimony to Congress; and he was chosen for that because he’s widely respected. But him coming before Congress, not reporting on his own professional judgement but on that judgement as modified to accord with administration goals, is a farce.

On the other hand, Adm. William Fallon (commander of CENTCOM) recently spoke at the Commonwealth Club and gave a very interesting talk about his own background and how he sees the present situation in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa. I must say that he’s impressed me a great deal of late; his presence in CENTCOM strikes me as some of the best news coming out of that part of the world these days.

Published in: on September 10, 2007 at 16:26  Comments (8)  

Breaking news

Slight heat-up in activity in the Middle East. Apparently Syrian air defenses fired on an Israeli recon flight, forcing it to drop its bombs and fuel in an empty chunk of desert. Story just in from the wires.

Future impact unclear. The latest rumor mill I’ve heard is that Syria wanted to reschedule the war that was supposed to happen this past summer (which was going to be some joint Hamas / Hezbollah / Syria / logistics by Iran effort, but got scotched because Hamas and Fatah decided to have a civil war instead) for mid-November, but that sort of specific rumor has to be taken with a nontrivial grain of salt. Nonetheless, the basic schedule seems likely; all four of those groups still really want a war right about now, and it’s just a matter of when is convenient.

Impact on US domestic politics, when that happens, will be an interesting question as well.

Published in: on September 6, 2007 at 10:08  Comments (12)  

OK, this is worth seeing…

Via gleemie, from “Jihad: The Musical!” — just closed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival —

“I Wanna Be Like Osama”

Published in: on September 3, 2007 at 11:15  Comments Off on OK, this is worth seeing…  
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Basic investigative reporting

posted this lovely little find:

An elderly Iraqi woman shows two bullets which she says hit her house following an early coalition forces raid in the predominantly Shiite Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. At least 175 people were slaughtered on Tuesday and more than 200 wounded when four suicide truck bombs targeted people from an ancient religious sect in northern Iraq, officials said. (AFP/Wissam al-Okaili)

So, What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Actually, there are two things — one obvious, one subtle. See if you can catch them both.

Why source-checking is important

Published in: on August 15, 2007 at 14:28  Comments (2)  


In order to counter allegations that his foreign policy stance is naïve, today Barack Obama threatened to invade Pakistan.

Boy, he sure countered that allegation. Does he intend to conquer and hold a country of 157 million people, largely in hard-to-access mountain regions? Or is the plan simply to invade hostile areas like Waziristan, so that we can drive the people there slightly further into the mountains (which they’ve practiced holding by guerilla warfare for the past three thousand years or so) and in the process destabilize and delegitimize the central government until Musharraf’s fragile grip on power fails, and the increasingly strong Islamist movement in the Pakistani military takes over?

I do like him as a “fresh face…” but seeing him on the last debate, he came across as an amateur. If he wants to get serious support in the primary, he’s going to need to fill in his foreign policy background with some real understanding, not half-assed grandstanding.

Published in: on August 1, 2007 at 12:16  Comments (8)  
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Another little oddity.

Yesterday, I was listening to the radio, (transcript and recording) and heard Gen. David Petraeus (who’s acting as the President’s mouthpiece, not the Army’s) defending how well we’re doing in Iraq. There were a few interesting changes in the official administration line:

  • The main source of our problems isn’t sectarian violence, it’s al Qaeda. News to me, and apparently news to US forces too; CIA director Michael Hayden recently listed them as the fifth biggest issue, behind the local insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality, and general anarchy. (Good CSM article here)
  • He said that it’s far too soon to be asking for benchmarks about the “surge,” and that benchmarks aren’t that meaningful anyway, because the surge has only had one month to operate in so far. That’s odd; I recall the surge first being ordered this January, and the 30,000 additional troops were deployed in February. (Detailed order of battle; the new units were the 2nd BDE 82nd Airborne, 1st BDE 34th Infantry, 4th BDE 1st Infantry; they were followed by 3rd BDE 3rd Infantry in March, 4th Stryker BDE 2nd Infantry in April, 2nd BDE 3rd Infantry in May, as well as extension of deployments for various Marine units (including the 15th MEU), and deploying the USS Stennis group) So how exactly does that translate as only having had a month to prove it? (Answer: Because we said so. This administration has a disturbing tendency to make public statements that directly contradict their previous statements, and state that what they say now has always been their policy.)
  • And in related amusement, Lt. Gen. Odierno gave an interesting briefing where he gave as evidence for how good things are in Baghdad that he walked a thousand meters there.

    Just to get this straight: Several months after we deploy 30,000 additional troops and move troops from all of Iraq into Baghdad (and thus cede control of more land back to civil war and insurgency), a 3-star general visits (with all of the attendant security precautions), and with a full armed escort, can walk a full thousand meters on foot through the defended area without being shot. This constitutes a significant improvement in the conditions in Iraq and evidence that our strategy is working.

    Working at what, exactly, I’m not sure, but it’s apparently working.

I think I need to start playing a game with the news reports. I call it, “Kafka or Orwell?”

Edit: Here, let’s play.

Published in: on July 20, 2007 at 18:32  Comments Off on Another little oddity.  
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Notes on driving in Tel Aviv

(I know I should be writing about politics now, but that’s going to be an extremely involved post)

  1. Traffic drives on the right-hand side of the road, with certain exceptions noted below.
  2. Lane markings, if present, are purely advisory. Cars should drive wherever there is not already another car.
  3. Turn signals and hazard lights don’t convey any information, so don’t use them. The horn works instead.
  4. Parking occurs wherever one manages to stop the car, typically as far right as the car can get. Depending on the circumstance, this means either on the sidewalk, in the parking lane, in the rightmost traffic lane, or in some other lane of traffic.
  5. Two-wheeled motorized vehicles (motorcycles, Vespas, etc) travel wherever they can get away with. This is one of the exceptions to the rule about right-hand driving.
  6. Getting ahead is very important. If two lanes are about to merge (or rather, if the road is narrowing so that merging is pretty much necessary) head right and accelerate; see if you can pass the person in front of you before it’s too narrow.
  7. Do not let anyone get in or pass you. The repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma with many players and no repeat interactions has only one stable equilibrium, and Tel Aviv is in it. If you let someone in, not only will several people force their way in, but other people will pass you from the left and the right simultaneously to get into the gap.
Published in: on June 19, 2007 at 13:09  Comments (32)  
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Waiting for the other shoe

This post is going to be short on newsy links, because I’m a bit swamped for time right now. But just a general FYI… things are heating up in the Middle East in several important ways. So here are a bunch of disjointed snippets that may be of interest.

  • In the region of Israel, there’s a ramp-up to the real war for which the earlier Lebanon war was a dress rehearsal. But it’s a bit less clear what form this war will take.
    • The internal fighting between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian territories has heated up, but I don’t see any clear evidence of heavy outside involvement in it; this could be a bona fide internal matter. It does ensure that Fatah is pretty irrelevant to the outside world for the near future, although Hamas has enough capacity to continue firing a steady barrage of rockets into Israel. Israel’s patience is wearing thin once again, which is why it started actually counterattacking a few days ago, and Olmert warned that nobody is immune. This is a not-subtle reference to saying that even Hamas members of the Palestinian Parliament are legitimate targets if they’re actively involved in making war against Israel, which you would think would be an obvious sort of statement. Nonetheless, certain media outlets (notably Al-Jazeera and Le Monde) portray this as a horribly inflammatory act by Israel. (Odd little tidbit: The news story about Olmert’s announcement kept getting revised in the English edition of Al-Jazeera, so that as the day went by the phrasing sounded more and more gentle.)
    • The internal fighting in Lebanon is heating up as well. This appears to be a fight between the official Lebanese Army (relatively speaking, good guys; they represent in some way the general Lebanese population) fighting against Sunni forces inside the refugee camps. These Sunni forces are apparently being backed by al-Qaeda, which is a bit odd because since when does al-Qaeda give a rat’s ass about the Lebanese field? Something odd is up here and I haven’t quite figured it out. Meanwhile, Hezbollah (which is a Shi’ite force in Lebanon, maintaining its own 20,000-strong army mostly under the control of Iran) is trying to rearm as fast as possible, with significant arms purchases from Russia in the past few months. (These are technically being sold to Syria, which means that both Syria and Hezbollah are likely to end up with them.) This includes significant quantities (100’s of units) of C-802 shore-to-ship missiles.
    • Note that Syria is arming up in that story. Bashar al-Assad seems to have gotten his domestic issues sorted out reasonably well, so if war flares up he may try to take advantage of the situation by getting involved. Jordan probably won’t, which means that Syria is going to try to up its creds with the Islamist world and weaken Jordan’s by comparison. That would give a huge bonus to Islamist groups that have been trying to recruit in rural Jordan, at the expense of making those groups more openly opposed to the Jordanian government, and if King Abdullah isn’t careful that could end up with a coup. Let’s see if he knows how to handle this hot potato. (I’m guessing it won’t be by fighting with Israel; his best move is probably to do some combination of cracking down on militants and providing better economics to the countryside. Which is going to be hard, so if we can arrange for financial support to Jordan for peace in the near future there’s likely to be a good dividend in it. Their countryside is already one of al-Q’s prime recruiting grounds)
    • Meanwhile in Israel, there’s going to be a runoff for the Labor party leadership, but it looks like Ehud Barak is the favorite to win. And thank God — he’s one of the few people there whom I trust to both know how to use force and to know how to make peace. If he wins the Labor party, that means there’s a good chance of forcing elections reasonably soon, or otherwise jiggering things so that he ends up as PM again. Which would be good for regional stability in all ways. (Other countries are a lot less likely to invade if they know he’s in charge. Olmert as PM and that idiot Amir Peretz as Defense Minister was practically an invitation to come cause trouble)
  • Meanwhile, further East…
    • The US had high-level talks with Iran about Iraq. So here’s the back story: Iran has offered the US a deal, which basically amounts to the US giving Iran free rein in Iraq (approval over high-level government appointments, their military can “help maintain peace,” etc), as well as not putting up any serious opposition to the Iranian nuclear program (I’m assuming that public loud statements are fine, so long as there’s no actual action), in exchange for Iran making sure that the US withdrawal from Iraq goes reasonably smoothly and the country doesn’t descend into chaos. Now, I don’t know exactly what the US said back to this, but I did notice a few important things: First, we had high-level talks with them, which is really the biggest thing they wanted — to be treated as a top-level regional power. Second, from the announcement it seems that we’re implicitly accepting the Iraq portion of the deal, although the public phrasing of it makes it sound very nice and like both sides can claim victory. (It isn’t; pay attention to what the US and Iran are actually getting out of the deal they’re announcing, and you’ll notice a certain asymmetry. Well, that’s what happens when you get into wars you can’t win.) Third, the official line is that we only discussed Iraq and not the nuke program, but I don’t quite buy that — from what I’ve heard of the Iranian proposal, it tied the two together, and I can’t imagine any reason why Iran wouldn’t want to do so. The lack of discussion may mean that the nuke issue was simply tacitly accepted by the US, or that they just really don’t want to talk about the fact that they’re talking in public. Which is understandable.
    • This suggests that we’ll start a significant troop drawdown in Iraq in a few months, and modulo various diplomatic niceties Iran will basically start increasing its diplomatic and military presence there. This means that Iran will end up with solid control over Iraq, Syria and (through Hezbollah) Lebanon, as well as a completely ineffectualized Afghanistan, thus giving them a complete arc of control across the entire Middle East. They won’t be playing a direct part in the coming war, but they’re sure going to be pulling the strings behind it.
    • The US wasn’t entirely stupid in these negotiations, though. As they were starting, the Fifth Fleet sent two carrier groups (the Stennis and the Nimitz) into the Persian Gulf for war games, just as a hint to Iran: We still have the military power. You’re getting away with this, but that does not mean you’re getting away with whatever you want.
    • Thoughts: We don’t really want to fight a land war against Iran right now. Nobody’s up to the challenge, and Russia will definitely be giving them equipment backing etc.; Putin has been aching for some opportunities to flex Russian power against the US. (He’s been doing it a good deal against Europe with fuel supplies etc…) None of the post-Cold-War presidents have done a good job of making Russia feel that it’s getting proper respect as a world power, and we’re paying the price in that Russia is now determined to earn its creds by showing how much power it actually has.
      That said, we can still screw with Iran in various ways if push comes to shove. They can hide their nuclear installations, for example, but their oil installations are pretty visible. If it comes time for a military operation, one could always bomb the living hell out of those. (Drive the price of gas up, sure, but that may not be an entirely bad thing anyway.)
  • On the subject of terrorism, there are a lot of vague rumors but nothing concrete. This summer would definitely be a time that various groups would be very happy to pull off some major attacks, but it’s not clear if they’re logistically prepped for it. Various foreign-involved or oil-related facilities in Saudi Arabia are major targets and will probably be attacked, but they can also defend themselves better than most targets. There may be attempts in Europe or even the US, but my crystal ball doesn’t have enough information to say anything useful about that. So I’ll keep a weather eye open and see what transpires.

So that’s it for now. Lots of vague noise, little concrete. I think we’re in a sort of final stage of back-room negotiation and planning before things start to really go off visibly. Late summer (July / August / September) will likely heat up considerably. For now, there are just the quiet rumblings of a large herd of heavily-armed political elephants in the distance…

Published in: on May 29, 2007 at 12:00  Comments (22)  
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