Just Foreign Policy News, September 11, 2013
JFP 9/11: War Push Paused as Obama Tries Diplomacy with Russia
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I) Actions and Featured Articles
**Action: Engage Iran for a ceasefire in Syria
Last night, President Obama indefinitely postponed his push for a Congressional authorization for war in Syria, saying he was going to pursue a Russian proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. As the New York Times noted, this historic shift from a push for war to a push for diplomacy came as the Obama Administration faced "implacable opposition to a strike in Syria in Congress and throughout the country," and a vote authorizing military action "was almost certain to lose" as "opposition to a strike was hardening" on Capitol Hill. This shift is a historic opportunity to change the conversation about U.S. policy towards Iran. Engaging Iran is going to be key to achieving a ceasefire in Syria and negotiations to end the civil war. Urge President Obama and Congress to support engagement with Iran to address the crisis in Syria.
Background: It’s Time for Syria Ceasefire, Negotiations and Talking to Iran
If we can talk to Russia about Syria, we can talk to Iran about Syria.
**Action: FAIR: Ask WaPo "Reader Representative" about "Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons"
The Washington Post put the phrase "Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons" in a news article as if it were a known fact, rather than an allegation, that Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons. (See #5 below.) We called the Washington Post on this before and they corrected the record. The Washington Post doesn’t have an "ombudsman" anymore, but they do have a "reader representative." Ask the Reader Representative to work to correct the record: Douglas Feaver, firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) President Obama, facing implacable opposition to a strike against Syria in Congress and throughout the country, said Tuesday that he would hold off on military action for now and pursue a Russian proposal for international monitors to take over and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, the New York Times reports. The Times says Obama "was almost certain to lose" the vote.
2) The Senate formally ended its consideration of a resolution authorizing military force against Syria Wednesday, putting a potentially historic showdown over American military intervention on ice, the New York Times reports. Senator Rand Paul, the leader of the opposition to force, called it "50-50" that a Syrian resolution would remain off the Senate floor for long.
3) If Congress refuses to authorize Obama’s proposed bombing, it will be the first time it has stopped a president from going to war, writes Mark Weisbrot in the Guardian. For those who want the United States to be an empire, that is a scary thought. If there’s a diplomatic deal over Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, credit the people who opposed a rush to war – including many members of the United States Congress, Weisbrot writes.
4) Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country, writes Stephen Kinzer for Al Jazeera. This is an exciting moment for those who wish that the U.S. would finally recognize the limits of its power, abandon its delusions of exceptionalism, and realize that it does not have answers to all of the world’s problems.
5) A Washington Post news story about the pro-war lobbying underway by AIPAC referred to "Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons" as if it were a fact, not an allegation, writes Peter Hart for FAIR. Hart notes that a previous Just Foreign Policy campaign got the Washington Post to run a correction for the headline: "Iran’s Quest to Possess Nuclear Weapons." [You can write to "Reader Representative" Douglas Feaver at email@example.com.]
6) A survey of more than 750 active-duty troops this week found servicemembers oppose military action in Syria by a ratio of about three to one, Military Times reports. The results suggest that opposition inside the military may be more intense than among the U.S. population at large. The Military Times’ results are based on an unscientific survey of Times readers.
7) Gaza officials says Egypt’s military-led government has destroyed at least 40 smuggling tunnels over the last two weeks, the Los Angeles Times reports. The move has exacerbated shortages in Gaza of construction materials and cheap Egyptian-produced gasoline, which are the primary products delivered through the tunnels. Hatem Eweda, director general of Gaza’s Ministry of National Economy, said the recent disruptions have put at risk about 60% of Gaza’s daily commerce. Gaza officials want Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing to commercial imports and exports, thereby eliminating the need for smuggling tunnels.
8) The incursion of Syrian rebels, led by extremist Islamists, into the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, reinforces the worst fears of Syrian Christians and could bolster President Assad’s claims he is the Christians’ protector, the New York Times reports. It may also complicate Obama’s task as he struggles to convince Americans that a military strike against Assad will not strengthen Islamic extremists.
9) The Obama administration on Tuesday eased longstanding restraints on humanitarian and good-will activities between Iran and the US, including athletic exchanges, the New York Times reports. It was at least the second American government relaxation of Iranian sanctions this year and came as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled his desire to improve relations, the Times says.
The Treasury action came only a few weeks after an Iranian tennis referee, Adel Borghei, hired in May to work at the United States Open, was blocked from taking the job because of sanctions regulations enforced by the Treasury Department. The Akrivis Law Group secured a license that enabled him to work after his story had been publicized by the Iranian and American news media. An Akrivis lawyer said the timing of the Treasury’s easing of the rules "obviously follows on the coattails of the tennis case."
1) Obama Delays Syria Strike to Focus on a Russian Plan
Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman, New York Times, September 10, 2013
Washington – President Obama, facing implacable opposition to a strike against Syria in Congress and throughout the country, said Tuesday that he would hold off on military action for now and pursue a Russian proposal for international monitors to take over and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
Speaking to the nation from the White House, Mr. Obama laid out his most extensive and detailed case for an attack to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons. But he also acknowledged the deep doubts of Americans who after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan view any form of military engagement in Syria with alarm.
In a speech that only 48 hours ago was going to be solely a call to arms, Mr. Obama instead offered a qualified endorsement of a proposal that his own advisers conceded was rife with risk, given Russia’s steadfast refusal to agree to any previous measures to pressure Syria, its longtime ally.
"It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments," Mr. Obama said. "But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force."
The president said he had asked Congressional leaders to postpone a vote authorizing military action – a vote he was almost certain to lose – even while making the moral case for punishing Syria for its deadly use of chemical weapons. What Mr. Obama did not say was how long he was willing to wait, what would convince him that the Russian proposal was credible, and what he would do if it was not.
For Mr. Obama, the 16-minute address from the East Room was a frank acknowledgment of how radically the political and diplomatic landscape had shifted in just a few days. With officials on Capitol Hill, at the United Nations and in foreign capitals flocking to embrace Russia’s plan as an alternative to force, Mr. Obama found himself struggling to redefine the terms of the debate.
His speech capped a day of rapid-fire developments as the United Nations Security Council scheduled and then canceled a meeting, Syria embraced the Russian proposal, and Mr. Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva for two days of negotiations with his Russian counterpart.
[…] In signaling his country’s cooperation, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said Tuesday that Damascus would turn over its chemical weapons arsenal to Russia, the United Nations and "other countries" – a startling concession, given that as recently as this week Mr. Assad had disputed that Syria even possessed chemical weapons.
Mr. Obama’s decision to work through the Security Council is itself a shift, given that 10 days ago he described it as "completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable." But administration officials said they were swayed by the level of detail in the Russian proposal, which grew out of an impromptu conversation between Mr. Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin on the sidelines of a summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, last week.
"The Lavrov statement was quite comprehensive," a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Frankly, it exceeded expectations in the level of detail it went into."
On Capitol Hill, where opposition to a strike was hardening, senators emerged from lunchtime meetings with Mr. Obama optimistic that Congress could shift from a resolution authorizing force to one that would give diplomacy more time.
The president impressed on them the need to keep the pressure on Syria and Russia, but expressed support for a delay in any vote until the Security Council makes clear what it plans to do. "I didn’t see any anxiety on the part of the president for an immediate need for action," said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland.
While the House was considered the major obstacle for Mr. Obama in seeking approval for a strike, a shift in the Senate began taking shape before the Russian proposal Monday, when it became clear that the straightforward resolution authorizing force that the president had sought was highly unlikely to pass there either. Only a handful of Republicans were yes votes, and at least 15 Democrats were likely to vote no.
2) Senate Ends Consideration of Resolution on Syria
Jonathan Weisman, New York Times, 2:10 pm
Washington – The Senate formally ended its consideration of a resolution authorizing military force against the Syrian government on Wednesday, moving on to an energy efficiency bill and putting a potentially historic showdown over American military intervention on ice, at least for now.
But a bipartisan and growing group of senators continued their talks on Syria in light of diplomatic efforts to secure the chemical weapons of the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, warned that the United Nations Security Council should be given days – not weeks – to approve a plan to secure those weapons. Without quick progress, efforts to authorize force would begin anew.
"If they’re committed to removing Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons stocks, we know how to do that. We know how it’s done," Mr. McCain said in an interview, adding that he "would love" to see a resolution of force "back on the floor, sooner rather than later."
"We’ll know if this is serious or not," he said. "What’s there to negotiate?"
For now, lawmakers in both parties were happy to set aside the Syrian crisis, mindful that a rejection of the use of force would deliver a blow to the prestige of the president and possibly the nation, but even more mindful that their constituents adamantly oppose military action.
Democratic leaders had feared that bringing up any other legislation, like the energy bill now under consideration, would invite opponents of a military strike to demand a vote that would put lawmakers in a difficult political spot. But Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky and the leader of the opposition to force, promised to make no such move.
"I’m hoping we find a diplomatic solution," Mr. Paul said. "Ultimately, people realize a diplomatic solution where chemical weapons went under international control is better than any military effort could have ever gotten."
But even Mr. Paul called it "50-50" that a Syrian resolution would remain off the Senate floor for long. He said he would probably have an opportunity soon to demand a vote intended to make a Congressional rejection of force binding on the executive branch.
In the meantime, negotiations on an amended resolution of force continued on Wednesday. The initial eight senators involved – Mr. McCain, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, and Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania – have been joined by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, and the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
After an hourlong meeting Wednesday in Mr. McCain’s office, the group agreed to meet again Thursday. Mr. McCain said the effort was aimed not at an entirely new resolution authorizing force but at an amendment to the Foreign Relations Committee’s resolution, which would allow a U.N. Security Council effort a limited time to achieve s results. If the Security Council fails to act, the Senate could move forward with its original war resolution. "I could write it on the back of an envelope. It’s not that complicated," Mr. McCain said.
House Democrats put forward their own new resolution of force that would authorize a military strike if international efforts to secure Syrian chemical weapons fail and if the Assad government uses such weapons again.
3) Syria: thank Congress’s resistance to war for the chance of a diplomatic deal
Mark Weisbrot, Guardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 12.25 EDT
President Obama has headed up a lobbying and public relations blitzkrieg for bombing Syria that seems to surpass any legislative effort of his presidency besides healthcare reform. Why?
If Congress refuses to authorize Obama’s proposed bombing, it will be the first time it has stopped a president from going to war. For those who want the United States to be an empire, that is a scary thought.
These people are very worried about US "credibility", which is not the credibility of a law-abiding government but that of a mafia boss to mete out vigilante "enforcement of international norms" (they can’t say "international law" – as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pointed out, an attack on Syria would clearly be illegal). But allowing a congressional vote has unleashed a swarm of debates, such as: should the US be the world’s policeman? (itself an unfair analogy to millions of real police officers who work to keep the peace and enforce laws fairly); what exactly are "US interests" in another country’s sectarian civil war?; doesn’t foreign military intervention generally make these conflicts worse?; isn’t diplomacy a better option for resolving what has become an international conflict?; and why should we believe our government when it makes unsubstantiated claims about reasons for a war?
Such challenges have been suppressed for 12 years, since 9/11 provided a powerful new pretext for what our government has done abroad for a century. But they have simmered uneasily among the public, and a sizeable share of that public is now organized and putting the fear of mobilized public opinion into their elected officials, including Congress and the president.
This country has a powerful, politically diverse antiwar movement that is flooding Congress with phone calls, letters, and visits. You can see the impact of that movement in the media counts of the likely congressional votes, now standing at about 248 "No" or "Likely No" in the House of Representatives, versus 50 "Yes" or "Likely Yes". A coalition of groups on the left, including the 8m-strong membership of Moveon.org, has mobilized tens of thousands of phone calls to Congress and antiwar vigils in 224 American cities. On the right, the libertarian Campaign for Liberty and allied groups have helped push Republicans into the no camp – not just with phone calls, but with threats of primary election challenges.
The fear among the undecided even includes Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who previously had never met a war he didn’t like. It was this fear, and unprecedented international isolation, that spurred Obama to seek congressional backing. Without such backing, a war that went badly could have serious political repercussions; and the chance of an unpredictable escalation of US involvement is significant. Although Obama said on Monday that he "hadn’t decided" whether he would go ahead anyway without congressional approval, that is bluff; it would certainly bring impeachment moves in the House – which could be quite unpleasant, even if the president were protected in the Senate.
The war party includes what one administration official told the New York Times was "the 800-pound gorilla in the room" – Aipac (the powerful pro-Israel lobby group). That’s a lot of political muscle for this war, but it’s a tough sell. McClatchy News reports how the administration’s argument is "riddled with inconsistencies and hinges mainly on circumstantial evidence". Award-winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter shows that:
[T]he Syria chemical warfare intelligence summary released by the Barack Obama administration August 30 did not represent an intelligence community assessment, [but appears to be] more politicised than the flawed 2002 Iraq WMD estimate that the George W Bush administration cited as part of the justification for the invasion of Iraq.
Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson writes in the New York Times that even the classified version shown to members of Congress doesn’t present any of the underlying evidence. People who were right about the Iraq war are raising huge doubts about the administration’s case for war.
Obama said Monday that he was "not confident" that he would win this vote in Congress – a stark admission of the new reality. But by leading a "full-court press" for the war, he has insulated himself from pro-war establishment backlash if the Congress votes no. He can say that he tried, but that Congress would not support him.
The majority of Americans has long seen the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as not worth fighting. But now, the majority has elected leaders running scared. If that trend continues, an untold number of people who would otherwise be killed by unjustified US military intervention in the future could be saved.
If there’s a diplomatic deal over Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, credit the people who opposed a rush to war – including many members of the United States Congress.
4) An extraordinary turn against military intervention
Americans usually embrace war. Their rejection of President Obama’s Syria plan is historic.
Stephen Kinzer, Al Jazeera, September 10, 2013 4:30PM ET http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2013/9/10/an-extraordinaryturnagainstmilitaryintervention.html
Decisions about what action the United States should take against Syria will decisively affect Syria and much of the Middle East. The biggest impact, however, may be felt inside the US.
The negative reaction in Congress and among the American people to President Obama’s proposal of military intervention has been sharp. U.S. receptiveness to Russia’s proposal to sequester Syria’s chemical weapons shows how eager Washington is to avoid a military response.
Neither this turn nor the potential "no" vote in Congress would represent a full rejection of Obama’s plan. It would, however, be something extraordinary – even historic. It would suggest that a substantial percentage of Americans believe that a proposed war is a bad idea. In the context of American history, this is almost unthinkable.
War is woven into the fabric of American life, and Americans usually embrace it. A century ago, this was because many considered war an exuberant, cleansing, manly endeavor. Theodore Roosevelt, who famously declared that he would "welcome almost any war," exemplified this view. "All the great masterful races have been fighting races," Roosevelt declared, "and the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, then, no matter what else it may retain, no matter how skilled in commerce and finance, in science or art, it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best."
Advances in the technology of destruction and killing made it difficult to sustain belief in war’s beauty or nobility. The idea of manifest destiny gave way to something more sophisticated called liberal internationalism, corporate globalism or, in Henry Cabot Lodge’s formulation, "the large policy."
The first organization founded to promote this ideology, the Council on Foreign Relations, emerged after World War I and took as its motto a Latin word, ubique, which means "everywhere." That word was intended as the succinct answer to a host of great questions: Where does the U.S. have vital interests? Where must it seek to shape the course of events? Where does it have enemies? Where must it be ready to fight?
Because the U.S. possesses such overwhelming military force, it naturally seeks to use that force. This has led inexorably to the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. American leaders have always acted on the assumption that in the end, they have recourse to all the coercive power they need to achieve any geopolitical goal.
Castro is bad? Invade Cuba. The leader of a tiny Caribbean island is executed? Invade Grenada. Noriega is defiant? Invade Panama. Don’t like Milosevic? Bomb Yugoslavia. The Taliban collaborates with our enemies? Bomb Afghanistan. Saddam is defiant? Invade Iraq.
Many Americans who supported these wars came to realize that they did not fully understand the situations into which their country was plunging and that there might be unexpected consequences. They assumed, however, that whatever problems arose, the power of the United States was so overwhelming that it would be able to resolve them. This conviction now seems to be slipping away.
Large numbers of Americans oppose bombing Syria to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons. Newspapers are full of reports about members of Congress whose constituents are begging them to oppose President Obama’s proposed attack. Public opinion surveys show scant support for bombing. Never in modern history have Americans been so doubtful about the wisdom of bombing, invading or occupying another country.
Part of this has to do with the weakness of Obama’s case. No vital American interests are at stake in Syria, and bombing is unlikely to have any substantial effect. Arguing against bombing Syria is easy.
More is at stake than Syria, however. American reluctance to intervene in a faraway land suggests a retreat from hubris toward reality – a creeping fear that the United States, powerful as it is, may not be able to control the effects of its foreign adventures.
Generations of Americans once grew up believing not only that their country was omnipotent, but that it was an essential force for good in the world. One fictional product of the cold war, Rabbit Angstrom, the central figure in a series of John Updike novels, perfectly expressed this view.
"America is beyond power, it acts as in a dream, as a face of God," Angstrom reflects. "Wherever America is, there is freedom, and wherever America is not, madness rules in chains and darkness strangles millions."
Response to the Syria crisis suggests that many Americans no longer believe that. They have concluded that Syrians must work out their own problems and that the U.S. has no business intervening. This is the start of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy.
Part of congressional opposition to an attack on Syria is based on mindless anti-Obama passion. Some is the result of Iraq fatigue. Much of it, however, seems based on an emerging belief that the U.S. cannot be the world’s policeman, that it should turn its attention to urgent challenges at home and that it has neither the moral authority nor the military power to impose its values on the rest of the world.
This is an exciting moment for those who wish that the U.S. would finally recognize the limits of its power, abandon its delusions of exceptionalism, and realize that it does not have answers to all of the world’s problems.
5) A ‘Message’ to Iran–or Misinformation?
Peter Hart, FAIR, September 10, 2013
There’s plenty of discussion about how the threatened U.S. military attack on Syria is really a way of sending a "message" to Iran. And some media accounts inaccurately portray what is known about Iran.
Take this Washington Post news story (9/10/13), by Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe, about the pro-war lobbying underway by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee):
‘An AIPAC official said the group is playing an active role because it sees a direct connection between the Syria crisis and Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons. "If America is not resolute with Iran’s proxy Syria on using unconventional weapons, it will send the wrong message to Tehran about their effort to obtain unconventional weapons," said the AIPAC official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the effort.’
The Post would seem to be portraying "Iran’s effort to get nuclear weapons" as if it were a fact. It’s not–it’s an allegation. Either that, or the Post is granting a source anonymity to make a claim that goes further than the facts allow.
This isn’t a new problem for the Post; in December 2011 the group Just Foreign Policy noted that the Post was running a Web feature with the headline, "Iran’s Quest to Possess Nuclear Weapons." After readers sent messages to Post ombud Patrick Pexton, the headline was changed ("Iran’s Quest to Possess Nuclear Technology").
As Pexton wrote (12/9/11), the International Atomic Energy Agency "does not say Iran has a bomb, nor does it say it is building one, only that its multiyear effort pursuing nuclear technology is sophisticated and broad enough that it could be consistent with building a bomb."
The Post no longer has an ombud, but Douglas Feaver is acting as the paper’s "Reader Representative." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
6) Survey: Troops oppose strikes on Syria by 3-1
Andrew Tilghman, Military Times 1:50 p.m. EDT September 11, 2013
To the list of skeptics who question the need for airstrikes against Syria, add an another unlikely group – many U.S. servicemembers.
A Military Times survey of more than 750 active-duty troops this week found servicemembers oppose military action in Syria by a ratio of about three to one.
The survey conducted online Monday and Tuesday found that about 75% of troops are not in favor of airstrikes in response to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons to kill its civilians.
A higher percentage of troops, about 80%, say they do not believe getting involved in the 2-year-old civil war is in the U.S. national interest.
The results suggest that opposition inside the military may be more intense than among the U.S. population at large. About 64% of Americans oppose airstrikes, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published Monday.
The Military Times’ results are based on an unscientific survey of Times readers and reflect the views of many career enlisted members and officers.
For many troops, money is a key consideration. Troops question the cost of bombing Syria at a time when budget cuts are shrinking their pay raises, putting their benefits package at risk and forcing some of their friends to separate involuntarily.
"We don’t have money for anything else but we have a couple hundred million dollars to lob some Tomahawks and mount an expensive campaign in Syria?" said Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Larue, a 39-year-old maintenance expert at Fort Eustis, Va., referring to the precision-guided missiles that are likely to be used in any strike.
The debate about striking Syria is also revealing a strain of isolationism growing inside a battle-weary military that has spent more than a decade supporting high-tempo war operations overseas.
"People are just sick of it," said Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Harvey, a nuclear-trained officer who works at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia. "It’s like the old pre-World War II isolationism, I hear grumblings of that. People would rather withdraw all our troops and let the rest of the world figure out what to do. I think there is a lot of credence to that argument," he said.
[…] Many troops have concerns about the strategic logic of striking the Syrian regime and implicitly helping the rebels, which include some extremist groups linked to militants in Iraq who were killing U.S. troops just a few years ago. "In my eyes, the rebels in Syria are the same as the insurgents in Iraq," the staff sergeant from Fort Hood said.
7) Gaza shortages worsen as Egyptian government destroys tunnels
Rushdi Abu Alouf, Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2013, 4:30 a.m.
Rafah, Gaza Strip – As part of a crackdown against Sinai militants, Egypt’s military-led government destroyed at least 40 smuggling tunnels over the last two weeks, according to officials in the Gaza Strip.
The move has exacerbated shortages in Gaza of construction materials and cheap Egyptian-produced gasoline, which are the primary products delivered through the tunnels.
Food, clothing and other consumer goods enter Gaza via Israel, supplying about 40% of the basic needs of Gaza, said Hatem Eweda, director general of Gaza’s Ministry of National Economy.
But he said the recent disruptions have put at risk about 60% of the territory’s daily commerce. "We call upon brothers in Egypt to open the Rafah crossing for commercial commerce," Eweda said.
Hamas, the militant group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, wants Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing to commercial imports and exports, thereby eliminating the need for smuggling tunnels.
Egypt and Israel, however, say Hamas uses the tunnels to transfer weapons and fighters to launch terrorist attacks from the Sinai Peninsula in cooperation with Islamic extremists.
Over the last week, Egyptian soldiers have launched a large-scale crackdown against Sinai militants. As part of its operation, the military temporarily closed the Rafah crossing for two days, leaving stranded thousands of Palestinian students and medical patients hoping to leave Gaza.
8) Assault on Christian Town in Syria Adds to Fears Over Rebels
Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, New York Times, September 10, 2013
Beirut, Lebanon – For Syrian rebels fighting in recent days around the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, any gains made in battle could be wiped out in the war of perceptions.
Their incursion into the town, led by extremist Islamists, reinforces the worst fears of Syrian Christians and could bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s claims that he is the Christians’ protector. It may also complicate President Obama’s task as he struggles to convince Americans that a military strike against Mr. Assad will not strengthen Islamic extremists.
Some of the rebels, apparently aware of their public relations problem, said in interviews that they meant Christians no harm. They filmed themselves talking politely with nuns, instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches and touring a monastery that appeared mostly intact. They said they had withdrawn from most of the town, posted videos of shelling there by Mr. Assad’s forces and argued that the government had given the fight a sectarian cast by sending Christian militiamen from Damascus to join in.
But the damage was already done. Most of the town’s residents have fled, and Maaloula, one of the last places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken by Christians and some Muslims, has become a one-word argument against Western support for the rebels – at the worst possible time for Mr. Obama and the opponents of Mr. Assad.
Syrian-Americans lobbying against the proposed American missile strike flooded Congressional message boards with appeals for Maaloula. A common refrain was that Mr. Obama was throwing Syria’s Christians "to the lions."
It was a powerful accusation in a region where a decade of unrest and rising sectarianism, from Iraq to Egypt, has threatened and displaced large sectors of the Middle East’s Christians, a population that had already shrunk significantly through emigration over the past century.
Reached by telephone on Monday night, Mother Pelagia Sayaf, who is in charge of Mar Taqla, a monastery in Maaloula that is among the country’s oldest, said that the 53 nuns and orphans staying there had not been harmed and that the principal damage was shattered windows. Another nun said some of the fighters were local men who promised to protect the monastery.
But the encounter with the rebels had done little to reassure the nuns that in the long run Syria’s Christians would retain the peaceful existence they had long enjoyed.
"If Maaloula survives, it will be a miracle," Mother Sayaf said. "Maaloula is empty. You see ghosts on the walls."
The situation in Maaloula underscores the core problems that bedevil the movement against Mr. Assad: the opposition, rooted in Syria’s Sunni majority, has failed to win over enough Christians, who make up 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, or other religious minorities. More than 450,000 Christians have fled their homes, church leaders say, during more than two years of war.
On the battlefield, well-armed radical Islamist groups, including foreign fighters, show little inclination to coordinate with local battalions, and sectarian killings and references to non-Muslims as infidels further intimidate Christians. In Maaloula, according to fighters, the rebel attack was led by members of the Nusra Front, a group with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, even after local fighters affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army tried and failed to dissuade them.
Last week, as the battle began, opponents of American military action in Syria circulated a recent video of a Syrian Christian woman accosting Senator John McCain, a proponent of military action, accusing him of abandoning Christians. "I could trace my family’s name to the Bible," she said. "We refuse to be forced to leave."
9) U.S. Eases Sanctions to Allow Good-Will Exchanges With Iran
Rick Gladstone, New York Times, September 10, 2013
The Obama administration on Tuesday eased longstanding restraints on humanitarian and good-will activities between Iran and the United States, including athletic exchanges. It was at least the second American government relaxation of Iranian sanctions this year and came as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled his desire to improve relations.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which oversees the sanctions on Iran, said in a statement that it had cut the bureaucracy for obtaining exemptions in order to expedite the provision of health services, disaster relief, wildlife conservation and human rights projects in the country. Also authorized are "activities related to sports matches and events, the sponsorship of sports players, coaching, refereeing and training, in addition to other activities."
The Treasury statement said the action, which eliminates requirements for special exemption licenses on a case-by-case basis, reflected what it called "this administration’s commitment to reinforcing ties between the Iranian and American people."
Advocacy groups welcomed the step. The National Iranian American Council, which is critical of Iran’s government but opposes the sanctions, said it had been working for years to loosen the restraints on humanitarian and athletic exchanges.
"Today’s action is critical in helping prevent broad sanctions from isolating ordinary Iranians and ensuring that humanitarian needs of ordinary people do not fall prey to political disputes between the U.S. and Iranian governments," the group’s policy director, Jamal Abdi, said in a statement. "In lieu of formal diplomatic relations between the two governments, people-to-people diplomacy and athletic exchanges are crucial for bridging divides between the American and Iranian people."
The Treasury action came only a few weeks after an Iranian tennis referee, Adel Borghei, hired in May to work at the United States Open, was blocked from taking the job because of sanctions regulations enforced by the Treasury Department. The Akrivis Law Group, a Washington firm that specializes in sanctions law, agreed to represent him and secured a license that enabled him to work after his story had been publicized by the Iranian and American news media.
An Akrivis lawyer, Farhad Alavi, said in a telephone interview that the timing of the Treasury’s easing of the rules "obviously follows on the coattails of the tennis case."
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