Across the Bay

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Syria Complicit with Al-Qaeda in Iraq in Killing Americans

A propos my post yesterday, and Syria's, uh, "complex ties" with al-Qaeda, check this out from the ExportLaw Blog (emphasis mine):

A federal district court in Washington, D.C., issued an opinion* last Friday awarding significant compensatory and punitive damages in a law suit against Syria brought by relatives of Jack Armstrong and Jack Hensley. Armstrong and Hensley were two U.S. civilian engineers who were kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq in 2004 by al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (“al-Qaeda in Iraq”). This incident gained worldwide notoriety after the terrorists released a gruesome video of the beheadings on the Internet.

Normally the sovereign immunity doctrine prohibits claims in U.S. courts against foreign nations. The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (”FSIA”), 28 U.S.C. § 1602 et seq., however, permits such actions arising out of acts of terrorism where the foreign nation through official action has provided material support for extrajudicial killings, where the foreign nation was a designated state sponsor of terrorism at the time, and where the victim was a U.S. national. The court found that all these conditions were met with respect to Syria and the two beheadings at issue by al-Qaeda in Iraq. The court entered judgment against Syria in the amount of $412,909,587. This total award included separate awards for loss of income from the two decedents, pain and suffering by the two decedents, solatium to the immediate family members, and punitive damages. The award for punitive damages made up $300,000,000 of the total award.

Read all the damning details of the case in this file (PDF). The thing is, much of this information was available in open source media -- including the reports of a Zarqawi training camp in Syria and Abu Qa'qa's possible ties with the Zarqawi crew (which regime clown Moubayed even admitted in one of his hilariously diverse "versions" of Abu Qa'qa'). On this, see also the column today by Meshari al-Dhaydi in Asharq al-Awsat. (Update: Al-Dhaydi's column is now available in English).

In fact, it has been reported that it was during his stay in Syria that Zarqawi planned the murder of the US diplomat Lawrence Foley in Jordan. Shaker al-Absi, who later appeared with Fateh Islam, was convicted in Jordan for his role in this murder. Syria refused to extradite him, and ended up giving him freedom of movement after a supposed detention of two years (which is clearly ridiculous and transparent) -- see here, e.g. -- facilitating his entry into Lebanon where he stayed in the bases of the Syrian-created, -trained, and -supplied proxy, Fateh Intifada, before "appearing" later on as the face of the heretofore unheard-of Fateh Islam (whom it was first said was headed by Abu Khaled al-Amleh, who is a Fateh Intifada official still harbored in Syria as far as everyone is concerned).

Here's a little more on this from an otherwise (typically) awful, confused and glaringly lacking report by Nir Rosen (emphasis mine):

The newcomers began to arrive in the camps under the name of Fatah al Intifada during the July 2006 war. They were led by Shaker al Absi, an officer of Fatah al Intifada who was trained as a pilot in Libya and served as one in North Yemen, in addition to fighting in Nicaragua. Al Absi was in his 50s. A Palestinian born in Jordan, he had spent most of his life in Syrian and Lebanese camps. He was said to have been very religious for a long time. In 2002 he was arrested by the Syrians with fifteen others for trying to infiltrate the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. He spent two and a half years in jail and, upon his release, was said to have gone to Iraq, eventually making his way to the Helweh camp in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. There, he and his followers trained tough men from the slums of Tripoli to fight in Iraq. Gulf Arabs who flew in to Beirut to go to Iraq also gathered there. They were segregated from the rest of the camp and better financed, eating better food, such as lamb.

Abu Yasser, the Fatah al Intifada leader for northern Lebanon, was surprised because the newcomers were bearded, prayed five times a day, and abstained from smoking. He was also surprised by the presence of foreigners among them. And while Fatah al Intifada was known to pay low salaries, some of the newcomers had laptops and went around on motorcycles. He asked the Syrian-based Abu Khaled al Omla, deputy commander of Fatah al Intifada, who the newcomers were. “We have new fighters,” Abu Khalid said. “We must learn from Hezbollah’s military and discipline. They are destined for Gaza.” Abu Khalid was using his organization to reorient the networks sending fighters to Iraq and sending them to Lebanon instead.

In other words, this well-known Syrian proxy was part of the regime-sanctioned network of transit and "reorientation" for Jihadists. They could be sent to Iraq to kill Americans, but also redirected into Lebanon or, e.g., Jordan. Here's an example of the redirection to Jordan:

Last year, an attempt on the Amman Airport was barely thwarted after the arrest of Mohammad al-Darsi upon his entry on Jordanian soil. He had left Libya a few days earlier to go to Damascus, where a jihadist recruiter dissuaded him from going to Iraq, directing him towards Jordan instead, where he was to self-detonate among the travelers at Amman Airport.

For the Jordanians, who had flagged -- in vain -- Darsi's arrival in Damascus, their neighbors [the Syrians] are buying their security by tolerating jihadists on their soil.

The regime's fingers in these networks extends to European cells as well. Hence the German authorities' disclosure that recent planned attacks against American targets in Germany led back to Syria, which was also the source for the fuses of the bombs that were to be used in the attack.

Since Syria also served as the transit stop for European Jihadi-wannabes en route to either Afghanistan or Iraq, some of them could also be "redirected," as happened, e.g., with a few French ones, and the Syrians would also be able to use them to offer "intelligence cooperation" to European countries if the opportunity arose. It's a mafia terror racket in every sense of the word, using terrorist blackmail. It's more than "buying security." Terror sponsorship is the regime's principal, if not the only, foreign policy tool.

This regime is now convicted in a US court for providing material support for al-Qaeda terrorists in the murder of American civilians, not to mention soldiers.

Now they're trying to lay the groundwork with a bogus story to seek renewed security domination in Lebanon under the pretext of fighting Jihadists -- in Northern Lebanon! -- when they've been the Grand Central of terrorist networks of all stripes and colors.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Syrian Memo and Order of Operations

Close observers of the Syrian modus operandi once again see that the Syrian regime is following its standard operating procedure with the latest blast in Damascus, followed by the blast today in Lebanon. The patterns are all exactly the same, the flacks are the same, and the message is the same.

Let's start with some context: Assad's clear focus on Tripoli as a potential window for a desired military comeback in Lebanon. This, as I noted before, started well before this year, all the way back to 2006 and after it with the regime info operations with the participation of people like Sy Hersh (not to mention utterly dishonest and/or idiotic pieces about "al-Qaeda in Lebanon," which echoed propaganda by flacks like Fidaa Itani et al.), which was followed by the Fathi Yakan and Fateh Islam fiasco, to the concentrated attacks against the Army in the north, including the assassination of Gen. Francois Hajj, to the Syrian-instigated clashes in Tripoli, all the way to Assad's comments to president Suleiman about "terrorists running around in your country" being responsible for the assassination of Gen. Muhammad Suleiman (which is total nonsense of course -- not to mention Baradei's comments about his assassination) and his comments at the Damascus summit dictating to Suleiman that he should crack down on "extremists" in the north, followed by the Syrian troop movements at the border, and then the recent (nothing is coincidental) renewed campaign by Rami Makhlouf's paper against Bandar Bin Sultan -- right before the attack -- how he had really orchestrated the assassination of Hariri by bringing in a Salafist cell into Lebanon.

Then came the explosion in Damascus, which was, predictably (and oh so transparently), immediately followed by yet another attack against the Lebanese Army in northern Lebanon. And today, Rami Makhlouf's paper once again immediately repeated the Bandar-Lebanon line regarding the Damascus explosion.

The Syrians immediately tampered with the facts of the explosion and quarterbacked, albeit clumsily, what leaked and what the emerging talking points that would be disseminated by regime tools, flacks and hired pens (Landis, Moubayed, and the Bouthaina Shaaban-Michel Smaha machine) and picked up by the media (more on that below).

For instance, as columnist Fares Khashan chronicled, the news that the attack was made to be more against the Shiite shrine as opposed to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence, not to mention that its timing was officially changed from 7:30 to 8:45AM. The claim, by an eyewitness, that a general was killed in the explosion was muzzled. That the general may very well have been the deputy chief of the Palestine Branch, Gen. Abdel Karim Abbas -- one of the Syrian officers interrogated by the Hariri probe for their suspected involvement in the murder -- was obviously buried by the regime. However, it's now being picked up by European agencies, such as AKI, and that fact is generating curiosity in European diplomatic circles.

Khashan lists a number of illogical, buried, suspicious or manipulated elements, all of which pose serious questions to the official regime talking points which is being disseminated by its tools like Landis and Moubayed. This is not to mention other scenarios that have floated, including eyewitness stories that this was a "work accident," as it were. Other eyewitness accounts were also dumped.

In the rush to disseminate the regime memo from Syria, Landis took the lead, but Moubayed soon followed, crystallizing the official talking points. Here's the king of comedy with his "analysis":

Another observer, who declined to give his name, had a different theory.

"This is either Israel, or a certain Arab country that has had nothing but scorn for Syria since 2005. I don't want to mention names; everybody knows who I am taking about," he said.
The attack ... might harden Syria's position on Lebanon and what it sees as the rise of militancy in the north of its smaller neighbour. (Emphasis mine.)

Yes, "another observer." Riiiiight. That "other observer" just "coincidentally" happened to regurgitate verbatim what the editorial in Rami Makhlouf's al-Watan said, what the Bouthaina-Smaha propaganda outlets have put out, and what the official regime rags also put out: that this is a Lebanese-Saudi-Salafist conspiracy!

However, even assuming that this line of reasoning -- that Jihadis are behind this -- is accurate, why is the focus on Lebanon, as opposed to, say, Iraq or Syria itself? Well, the king of comedy has the answer ready: "Syria's ties with militants including Al Qaida-linked groups is complex and complicated."

You don't say! Let's review some of that -- in the very words of this regime clown and his fellow court jester, Landis -- shall we?

Here's a sample of good ol' Sami's dizzying accounts of those "complex" ties, which change according to the particular regime memo at the time.

What about the fellow flack, Landis? Well, in 2006 he wrote: "Syria has the ability to funnel arms to Hezbollah and Palestinian groups as well as radical Sunni groups which allows it to destabilize Lebanon if its interests are ignored."

Ain't that the truth. More on that in a second. But before that, let's see what he said about the regime's cooperation with al-Qaeda: "The al-Qaeda type jihadist groups are not emerging in Syria because Syria encourages them in other countries." Indeed. Now compare that with the Zisser quote I used in my October 2007 post:

Damascus started to see the Islamists as perhaps the only possible means by which to enhance its regional standing, gain influence in neighboring countries and bring domestic tranquility to Syria itself.

Landis pushed it further in a June 15, 2007 post, where he adopted and justified Syria's attack on UNIFIL and Lebanese figures: "Syria seems willing to play this game of chicken. It believes it can survive it. The fact that there have been no successful acts of terrorism in Syria for 20 years has produced a sense of invulnerability."

Now we are being told that the "threat" of "Salafists" is coming to Syria from... Lebanon! Riiiight.

Once again, here's Moubayed issuing threats and regurgitating the Syrian order of operations in a remarkably poor, even shameful report by Nick Blanford, which does nothing but uncritically advance the official Syrian talking points -- which are orders of operations and threats:

"We have extremists in Iraq and in Lebanon. Any one of them can be suspects," in the Damascus bombing, says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "If an intelligence war has been waged by any of the usual suspects against Syria, we are in for difficult times since security is a red-line in Syria."

So Iraq is casually thrown in there, but as Moubayed had said earlier, the real regime order of operations is against Lebanon. After all, the regime's ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq are "complex and complicated." Moubayed repeated the same regime talking points in a pathetic piece written by the often-ridiculous Borzou Daragahi of the LAT, which quotes another flack, Ahmad Moussalli (a hack belonging to Fouad Makhzoumi, another insignificant, but wealthy, clown of the Syrians):

"The handwriting has been on the wall for a while," Sami Moubayed, a political analyst in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said Sunday. "There have been signs of trouble coming in from Iraq or Lebanon."

Daragahi, playing water carrier, makes sure to uncritically frame his piece around the official Syrian talking points which he was fed and which he regurgitated verbatim. He was rewarded by having an earlier, equally piss poor and sinister report, quoted back by "Syria's privately owned newspaper," i.e., Rami Makhlouf's paper, in a way that suits the narrative which they had fed him, verbatim. Hence, the paper's headline reads: "... The American Los Angeles Times pointed out that the north [Lebanon] extremists have received Saudi money to enhance their armament in the face of Hezbollah."

This circular "reporting" is a standard MO of the Syrians' info ops (see examples here and here), which they've used with Sy Hersh when they fed him that garbage about Fateh Islam, and then quoted it back as authoritative, "objective" Western reporting. This is how Western journalists become (willingly or not) water carriers and useful idiots and participants in the info ops of a violent terror-sponsoring regime.

Again, all of this now has been keeping with the theory that this is the work of Jihadists, which is by no means established. Nick Blanford's laughable citing of "initial suspicions" (defined by whom!? Why is it given uncritical credit?! Based on what, other than the regime's talking points, which are unchallenged in Blanford's report?! The "initial suspicion" was also "Israel"; is that supposed to be given credence too? Why isn't it being given such credence?) notwithstanding.

But even if we play on that turf, the notion that the threat comes from Lebanon's Salafists is absurd for the very simple reason that aside their utter marginality, the recent events in Tripoli have shown just how weak and scattered and ineffective the Salafists are in Lebanon (see here and here).

In fact, a recent report by none other than Nick Blanford ironically (if perhaps unintentionally) highlighted this fact. Bakri, for instance, is a clown in Tripoli. Blanford's piece by and large affirms that the Salafists aren't much in Lebanon, but at the same time he, or his editors, are trying to sell a more dramatic story, namely that we're on the verge of the worst because of the Salafists.

What is never explained is something I've written about repeatedly on the blog. Aside from the argument that there are many types of Salafists, and that most in Lebanon are non-violent, even if they are backwards, the fact is (as noted by the regime clowns above) several Salafist or Islamist groups, like Fathi Yakan's, Bilal Shaaban's, and Hashem Minqara's, are allied with Syria and Iran, while others in the Palestinian camps are handled by Hezbollah. (See here, here, and here, e.g.). These are the people nobody mentions (including luminaries like Hersh and Rosen). This is not to mention the Salafists' actual operational capabilities, especially inside Syria, which somehow no one bothers to critically examine.

And so, at the end, the "Salafist" talking points of the regime is irreparably punctured, especially given the regime's own collusion with jihadi groups and its "Grand Central" policy. But then again, it's merely an order of operations, and that's the light in which it must be read and nothing else. Hence the explosion in Lebanon today.

The NOW Lebanon editorial today sums it up, recalling what I started this post by dubbing the predictable Syrian modus operandi which they've been using for years:

It is prime time for Damascus to flash its credentials to the international community as the neighborhood cop, doing its bit for the war on terror.
Therefore, it is not in the realm of science fiction to posit that Syria is trying to create an in into Lebanon by claiming that Sunni terror groups – read Salafists – are destabilizing northern Lebanon. It will also argue that, since the Lebanese army cannot perform its national duty and crack down on these insurgents, the onus is on Syria to snuff out what Damascus is peddling as an odious threat to regional, not mention Syrian, security.

What the world forgets, or doesn’t even know for that matter, is that the Lebanese Salafists are overblown as a threat, and that any attempt by the army to go chasing ghosts in the North will only create dangerous tensions with Lebanon’s Sunnis. It is easy to tar the Salafists, rather than the Assad regime, with the al-Qaeda brush and suggest links between North Lebanon, rather than Damascus, and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. But the reality is that they are by and large impoverished clerics eking out a living by seeking funding from benevolent Gulf nations. The criminal Salafist element, those who are recruiting for, and operating in, Iraq are either already known to the Syrian authorities or languishing in Lebanese jails.

Analysts who said that Syria had taken a page out of Moscow’s book and seen Russia’s behavior in South Ossetia and Georgia as a template for a similar show of regional strength must be more convinced than ever, especially in light of last week’s deployment of Syrian troops on Lebanon’s northern border, that a worrying jigsaw is falling into place.

Indeed. And it's a transparently obvious one, too, regardless who perpetrated the attack.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Boss! The Planes, The Planes!

As you know, per the wisdom of regime hacks, Syria "analysts" and their fellow travelers, US sanctions on Syria are "meaningless" and merely "symbolic." And so, we're told, the US should really do itself a favor and lift these sham measures already!

As such, it has been purely "symbolic" that the Syrian regime essentially no longer has an operating airline fleet (Boeing is an American company, after all). And that's why it was purely "symbolic" when it was frantically declaring in the media (as Bashar himself did during his visit to France, and was followed by Dardari) that, as a result of the pathetic French opening, Airbus was going to sell and/or lease it new planes.

The Airbus deal was very clearly a high priority for the regime (one apparatchik put it on a par with signing the EU association agreement in terms of priorities). Regime hired pens, like the King of Comedy, regime clown Sami Moubayed, pompously declared that the purchase would be "in defiance of the Syria Accountability Act" (which he elsewhere called a "crippling reality" -- in a "meaningless, symbolic" way of course)! Of course, since Airbus planes contain more than a "symbolic" 10% American component, the "symbolic" sanctions "symbolically" terminated any such deal. EADS, Airbus' parent, is now even denying any talks are taking place with the Syrians on any deal. And while we're at it, the EU Association Agreement is not any closer to being signed this year either. Just ask Javier Solana.

Moreover, in an act of absolute "symbolism," news from Europe has it that Syrian Air sent an Airbus engine to Lufthansa in Germany for refurbishing and now can't get it back because the Germans, "symbolically," won't re-export.

The Syrian Air-Airbus wild speculation fest continues, and the Syrians have since adjusted their prospective dates of when they will supposedly get the Airbus planes to Spring 2009, (wink wink, when, in the Syrian narrative, an engaging Obama will come to the rescue and lift all sanctions, humbly apologizes, and accepts the generous Syrian offer of an "honorable defeat" and asks for forgiveness on both knees) but nothing, either concrete or "symbolic," has (or, I suspect, will anytime soon) come of it.

PS: I recently touched on the issue of the sanctions, and how they shouldn't be lifted unconditionally, as per the advice offered by the engagementitis-fever "experts" who cluelessly counsel unconditional engagement while simultaneously having the audacity to pose as "realists."

Apparatchik Genius!

Tariq al-Homayed captures the genius of the Syrian regime apparatchik in this biting, hysterical column (English) in Asharq al-Awsat. It also gives one measure of the great economic reforms introduced by Bashar Assad!

The Syrian Minister of Finance, Doctor Mohammed al Hussein, wrote an article for the Syrian Al Thawra Newspaper entitled, ‘Syria: The Country Least Affected by the Financial Crisis…The Reasons Lie in its own Capitalism,’ in order to reassure citizens and investors that Syria is the state least affected by the financial crisis and if only he didn’t write!

In the article, the minister said, “We can confirm that the Syrian economy, out of all the regional economies, has been least affected by this crisis.” He added, “The reason for this goes back to restricting the channels through which this crisis could pass to enter Syria…some of the best ways of which are through financial institutions, financial markets, investments, foreign currencies and foreign trade.”

Please pay attention to the minister’s explanation: “The Syrian financial market is yet to be born, and the financial institutions and banks are still in their infancy, the capital of which is mostly domestic and even if there is non-Syrian capital, in most cases the source is Arab.”

What the finance minister is trying to say, in simple terms, is that Syria has been saved from this international financial crisis because his country has no financial market and because of the regression of banks and financial institutions in Syria, as well as the lack of foreign investments. Any Arab investments are merely grants or accompanied by political motives.

Therefore, the finance minister is attributing his country’s escape from the international financial crisis not to the strength of the Syrian economy but to its deterioration and underdevelopment.
The question that should be put to His Excellency, the Syrian minister of finance, is: If you do not have a financial market or strong and dynamic banks and financial institutions, or foreign investments, then what need is there for a ministry of finance?

And here I was thinking Sami Moubayed was the undisputed King of Comedy! Another entry in the annals of Syrian regime apparatchik genius.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

CIA Director on Syria's Nuclear Site

CIA Director Michael Hayden discussed the other day the role of US and other friendly foreign intelligence services in the operation that destroyed Syria's clandestine nuclear facility:

Thanks to some outstanding intelligence work, we were able last year to spoil a big secret, a project that could have provided Syria with plutonium for nuclear weapons. I’d like to cover it here because it’s an excellent example of how CIA and our Community colleagues attack the problem of nuclear proliferation.

It was reported in the press last April, and you’re probably familiar with its outlines. We knew that North Korea and Syria had been cooperating since the late 1990s in the nuclear field. The depth of that relationship was revealed in the spring of last year, when we identified a nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in the eastern desert of Syria. It was similar to the one at Yongbyon in North Korea, but with its outer structure heavily disguised.

The situation became critical late last summer, when we judged the facility could be nearing operation. The Al-Kibar reactor was destroyed the morning of 6 September 2007. The Syrians immediately cleared away the rubble and every trace of the building, stonewalling the IAEA when asked to explain. Their cover-up only underlined the intense secrecy of this project and the danger it had posed to a volatile region.

I want to focus briefly on two important aspects of this intelligence effort: the quality of tradecraft, in terms of collection and analysis, and the value of collaboration, both with colleagues in our government and with foreign services.

More than anything else, our work was a classic example of multidisciplinary, blue-collar analysis. We had a group of officers who started working overtime on this issue in April 2007 and kept at it for months. Virtually every form of intelligence—imagery, signals, human source, you name it—informed their assessments, so that they were never completely dependent on any single channel.

For instance, a report from a foreign partner initially identified the structure at Al-Kibar as a nuclear reactor similar to one in North Korea. But even without that piece of the puzzle, it wouldn’t have been long before we reached the same conclusion. We had previously identified the facility on imagery as a suspicious target. When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor. We would have known it was North Korean, too, given the quantity and variety of intelligence reports on nuclear ties between Pyongyang and Damascus.

Still, our analysts were open to alternative possibilities at every juncture. Early on, they applied a methodology that laid out the inconsistencies in each competing hypothesis. They carefully examined whether the building might be for another purpose, like a conventional power plant, or a water treatment facility. In each case, the arguments simply didn’t add up. The reactor hypothesis was the most difficult to refute with the available evidence.

We then stepped back and tried to turn the basic premise on its head: OK, we’ve got a nuclear reactor in Syria built with North Korean help, but is it necessarily for a Syrian program? Might it have been built by North Korea for its own use, to secretly replace the Yongbyon reactor they had pledged to shut down? We took that hypothesis and worked very hard on it, but the mainstream theory held sway.

Finally, this was a success reached through close collaboration across agencies, departments, and governments. Dedicated officers at CIA, DIA, the Department of Energy, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and NSA came together as a team, each bringing a specific expertise to the table. And this was an intelligence problem that required a wide range of knowledge. I already mentioned all the different forms of collection, but it also drew from a remarkable diversity of analytic firepower—everyone from nuclear technology and weapons experts to political and leadership analysts.

Our foreign partnerships too were critical to the final outcome. These relationships aren’t a matter of occasionally passing along a report that may or may not be useful. They’re more akin to working together on a complex equation over a long period. Each tries to solve a variable that in turn helps a partner solve another, and so on until we’ve cracked the case. That’s what good intelligence is all about.

I hope my remarks today have given you a better idea of how CIA is meeting the counterproliferation challenge. The Intelligence Community as a whole has taken great strides since the pre-war NIE on Iraq to strengthen our tradecraft, and I think it shows with both the Iran estimate and the Al-Kibar effort. The rigor of our sourcing, the emphasis on alternative analysis, and the integration of our expertise with those of our colleagues have never been greater.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

From Russia with... Not Much

Here's my op-ed in tomorrow's Daily Star on Assad's recent trip to Moscow. Make sure to also read the following piece by Guy Bechor, which I reference in my article.

The Syrian bluster is all about trying to re-brand their relationship with Russia in order to alter perceptions about Syria's -- not Russia's -- role in the region. Instead, as Ron Ben-Yishai put it, Assad ended up "sounding like a bumbling fool."

More to come.