“Yes, Prime Minister” or Brave New World?

June 26, 2014

A “Yes, Prime Minister” video clip is further down this page

 

* Walter Russell Mead: “A group more radical than al-Qaeda, better organized, better financed, commanding the loyalty of thousands of dedicated fanatics including many with Western and even U.S. passports? And this group now controls some of the most strategic territory at the heart of the Middle East? Welcome to President Obama’s brave new world.”

* Mead: “One wishes we had a Republican President right now if only because when a Republican is in the White House, the media and the chattering classes believe they have a solemn moral duty to categorize and analyze the failures of American strategy and policy. Today that is far from the case; few in the mainstream press seem interested in tracing the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure that dog the footsteps of the hapless Obama team in a region the White House claimed to understand. Nothing important has gone right for the small and tightly knit team that runs American Middle East policy.”

* “Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed. No one, ever, will call this administration’s Middle East policies to date either competent or wise – though the usual press acolytes will continue to do what they can to spread a forgiving haze over the strategic collapse of everything this White House has attempted.”

***

* Elliott Abrams: “The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll [in Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere] is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.”

* Abrams: “How did it happen? Begin with hubris: The new president told the world, in his Cairo speech in June 2009, that he had special expertise in understanding the entire world of Islam – knowledge ‘rooted in my own experience’ because ‘I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.’”

* “Despite the urgings of all his top advisers – Panetta at CIA and then Defense, Clinton at State, Petraeus at CIA, even Dempsey at the Pentagon – the president refused to give meaningful assistance to the Syrian nationalist rebels. Assistance was announced in June 2013 and then again in June 2014 but it is a minimal effort, far too small to match the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian Quds Force fighters in Syria [or to stop forcing Sunnis into the hands of militants].”

* The humanitarian result has been tragic: At least 160,000 killed in Syria, eight million displaced, more than a million in Lebanon, 1.25 m in Jordan, Poison gas back on the world scene as a tolerated weapon, with Assad using chlorine gas this year and paying no price whatsoever for this and for his repeated attacks on civilian targets…

***

You can see these and other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia.

 

CONTENTS

1. Parallels between “Yes, Prime Minister” and Obama’s foreign policy?
2. “Welcome to Obama’s brave new world” (By Walter Russell Mead, American Interest, June 23, 2014)
3. “The Man who broke the Middle East” (By Elliott Abrams, Politico, June 22, 2014)
4. “Syrian woman survives 700 days of blockade” (By Diaa Hadid, Associated Press, June 11, 2014)


PARALLELS BETWEEN “YES, PRIME MINISTER” AND OBAMA’S FOREIGN POLICY?

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two articles that take a hardline position on Obama’s foreign policy failings.

Not all readers to this website will agree with these articles, and in fact I think the authors (Walter Russell Mead and Elliott Abrams), both of whom I admire, might be a little too hard on Obama. I can think of one partial foreign policy success: the removal of many of Syria’s chemical weapons stocks (even though this removal was done at the price of allowing the Assad regime to continue slaughtering civilians).

This chemical weapons removal, it should be noted, has not been complete since Assad continues to hide chemical stocks, and to use chlorine gas and other outlawed substances in “barrel bombs” dropped on refugee camps and Syrian towns in recent weeks. The chemical weapons deal was forged not only by the U.S. government but also in cooperation with the Russian one. However, the removal and destruction of any chemical weapons in the hands of Assad must be viewed as some kind of success by the Obama administration.

Nevertheless, five and a half years into his presidency, the overall foreign policy record of the Obama team – whether in the Middle East, Africa, Russia or elsewhere – does not look good at all.

This clip (lasting under a minute) from the classic Britain comedy series “Yes, Prime Minister” is now doing the rounds on social media, and to many, sums up Obama’s approach.

***

I also attach a third article below, by Diaa Hadid (one of the Associated Press’ correspondents in Syria, who, like Elliott Abrams, is a subscriber to this list), “Syrian woman survives 700 days of blockade,” about Zeinat Akhras, a 65-year-old pharmacist in Homs:

“Over the course of the 700-day blockade, her world shrunk to her living room and her kitchen. She survived by eating plants and reading books. She refused to look in the mirror, because seeing her withered state might break her spirit.”

-- Tom Gross


ARTICLES

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Welcome to Obama’s brave new world
By Walter Russell Mead
The American Interest (magazine)
June 23, 2014

ISIS is bigger, badder, richer, and better organized than any jihadi threat the United States has faced thus far. Its rise represents a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

***

A group more radical than al-Qaeda, better organized, better financed, commanding the loyalty of thousands of dedicated fanatics including many with Western and even U.S. passports? And this group now controls some of the most strategic territory at the heart of the Middle East?

Welcome to President Obama’s brave new world. After six years in office pursuing strategies he believed would tame the terror threat and doing his best to reassure the American people that the terror situation was under control, with the “remnants” of al-Qaeda skittering into the shadows like roaches when the exterminator arrives, Obama now confronts the most powerful and hostile jihadi movement of modern times, a movement that dances on the graveyard of his hopes.

The Financial Times has rounded up some expert commentary that tries to describe exactly what kind of organization we’re up against here:

“‘They’re probably the richest jihadi organisation ever seen,’ says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute, and an expert on extremism. ‘They get their money from trafficking weapons, kidnappings for ransom, counterfeit currencies, oil refining, smuggling artefacts that are thousands of years old and from taxes that they have for areas they are in – either on businesses, or at checkpoints or on ordinary people,’ he adds. [...]

“‘Most jihadist groups are tightly controlled, secretive and well co-ordinated, but Isis has essentially taken that to another level, with a quite impressive level of bureaucracy, extensive account keeping, and multiple channels of accountability,’ says Charles Lister, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Centre.”

***

The state ISIS hopes to construct may not endure; in periods of radical instability like this one in the Middle East, the fortunes of war can change with breathtaking speed. But the capacities it is building, the supplies it is gathering, the networks forming around it, the training it imparts, and the enormous psychological boost its current success, however fleeting, gives to the jihadi cause will remain.

One wishes we had a Republican President right now if only because when a Republican is in the White House, the media and the chattering classes believe they have a solemn moral duty to categorize and analyze the failures of American strategy and policy. Today that is far from the case; few in the mainstream press seem interested in tracing the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure that dog the footsteps of the hapless Obama team in a region the White House claimed to understand. Nothing important has gone right for the small and tightly knit team that runs American Middle East policy. Most administrations have one failure in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking; this administration has two, both distinctly more ignominious and damaging than average. The opening to the Middle East, once heralded by this administration as transformative, has long vanished; no one even talks about the President’s speeches in Cairo and Istanbul anymore, unless regional cynics are looking for punch lines for bitter jokes. The support for the “transition to democracy” in Egypt ended on as humiliating a note as the “red line” kerfuffle in Syria. The spectacular example of advancing human rights by leading from behind in Libya led to an unmitigated disaster from which not only Libya but much of north and west Africa still suffers today.

Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed. No one, ever, will call this administration’s Middle East policies to date either competent or wise – though the usual press acolytes will continue to do what they can to spread a forgiving haze over the strategic collapse of everything this White House has attempted, as they talk about George W. Bush at every chance they get. (An honorable exception in the NYT today: Peter Baker has a piece examining the Administration’s failure to end American involvement in Iraq, and making the obvious but important point that the Iraq fiasco is a consequence of Administration failures in Syria. There are more dots still to connect.)

Now, from the ruins of the Obama Administration’s Middle East strategy, the most powerful and dangerous group of religious fanatics in modern history has emerged in the heart of the Middle East. The rise of ISIS is a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the United States and its allies (as well as countries like Russia and even China). It is a perfect storm of bad policy intersecting with troubled times to create the gravest threat to U.S. and world stability since the end of the Cold War.

The mainstream press and the professional chatterboxes of the news shows need to set aside their squeamishness at poring over the details of a major strategic failure by a liberal Democrat. The rise of ISIS/ISIL is a disaster that must be examined and understood. How could the U.S. government have been caught napping by the rise of a new and hostile power in a region of vital concern? What warning signs were missed, what opportunities were lost – and why? What role did the administration’s trademark dithering and hairsplitting over aid to ISIS’s rivals in the Syrian opposition play in the rise of the radicals?

Meanwhile, as the liberal press does its earnest best to ignore the real-time collapse of a foreign policy it once cheered to the rafters, some GOP voices are doing their best to add to the confusion and further muddy the debate. The architects of the war in Iraq are claiming that this disaster somehow vindicates them, and some hope that, as the nature of the danger and the magnitude of the disaster sink in, the nation will call them back to power.

In fact, the architects of the surge and the policies that stabilized Iraq following the nadir of the war do deserve credit; Generals Petraeus and McCrystal, both driven from public service as a consequence of minor indiscretions, tower like giants over the moralistic timeservers who arrogantly and foolishly cast them aside. But if those who led the nation into Iraq want to play a positive role now, they need to embrace some humility and talk about “lessons learned.” If they want to help the United States of America in an hour of real need, they must not try to use the current situation to win personal vindication – and the more stridently they demand it the more they will place obstacles in the path of the debate that we need, marginalize their own voices and divide a people who need to unite as the dangers grow.

Some members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment are looking for ways to rescue their nation and party from the current mess. Les Gelb at the Daily Beast understands the revolutionary nature of the jihadi blitzkrieg, and argues for a new Grand Alliance of the U.S., Russia, Iran and even Assad against the new power in the Middle East. He tries to head off criticisms:

“I’m certainly not saying that Assad is a good guy and that we should abandon pursuing his eventual departure, or that we can now trust Russia and Iran. Washington has and will have serious problems with all these countries. And most certainly, the U.S. will have to stay on its guard. But the fact is that there is common ground with Moscow and Tehran to combat the biggest threat to all of us at this moment. Russia frets all the time about the jihadis in the Mideast making joint cause with Muslim extremists in Russia; it’s Moscow’s number one security issue. Iran worries greatly about the Sunni jihadis torturing and killing Shiites in Syria and Iraq. There’s nothing more frightening in the world today than these religious fanatics.”

But ultimately, even with Gelb’s many caveats, his proposal may not be practical; a number of these “allies” would be at least as interested in weakening the U.S. as in striking at ISIS – and placing the U.S. on one side of a sectarian war has big drawbacks. There is also the question of whether the earnest White House types who have piled up such a disastrous record in the Middle East could negotiate their way into a used car lot, much less handle a complex negotiation involving Russia, Iran, Assad, and a bunch of other canny operators. Even so, Gelb is right about this: The rise of ISIS, unless checked, presents a challenge big enough to change the international alignment of more than one state. We could be looking at a major geopolitical upheaval here, an earthquake whose aftershocks will be felt across the world.

From current press reports, it appears that Secretary Kerry is off to the Middle East on a mission of splitting the difference. On the one hand, he is kissing up to the Saudis: telling the Saudi backed Egyptian leader Sisi not to worry, that the aid check is in the mail, and insisting that any solution in Iraq must involve a better deal for the Sunnis. On the other hand, he is urging the Shia to make nice – to throw Maliki out and “be more inclusive” with the Sunnis in Iraq. This is the sort of counsel the U.S. always hands out in these situations; we want both sides to “rise above” their “narrow interests” and accept a compromise solution that, coincidentally, gives us what we want.

The Middle East’s leaders have heard exactly this kind of message from many Presidents and Secretaries of State in the past. They are less inspired by our logic than American policymakers think. As the region’s leaders listen to Kerry, they will be asking whether he brought anything but the usual stale platitudes in his baggage. What, specifically, does the U.S. want people to do? And what good things will happen to those who agree to support the U.S. line in this crisis, and what bad things will happen to those who don’t? One hopes the White House has given Kerry big bags full of extra-tasty carrots and intimidating sticks; otherwise, his mission this week will be no more successful than his most recent bout of Middle East peacemaking with the Israelis and Palestinians. The problem is that what Middle Eastern leaders want most from the United States is exactly what President Obama doesn’t want to give them: firm promises of significant and effective military support. The Iraqis want more than a few drone strikes, the Saudis want Iran’s ambitions blocked and the “moderate” Syrian rebels effectively helped; the Iranians want the U.S. to crush ISIS for them.

Secretary Kerry faces a tough week, especially after the Egyptians celebrated his visit by convicting three Al-Jazeera journalists on terrorism charges and giving them long prison terms. For our part, we wish him all the success in the world, and observe that any tangible successes – like the ouster of Maliki – would help to restore the credibility of an administration that desperately needs a win.

For the immediate future, there are two things to watch. First, does ISIS’s momentum carry it forward when it reaches the Shia districts of Iraq? The militias and parade groups currently marching around Baghdad and thumping their chests may not be very effective in the field, and it is not yet clear whether the Iraqi Army will fight any better on Shia home turf than it did in the north and the west. The Sunni crushed the Shia in Iraq for decades and there is no law of nature that says they can’t do it again – if they are willing to be brutal enough.

They probably are.

In any case, the fall of Baghdad and further disintegration of the fragile Shia Army would create one kind of situation; the stabilization of a military front north and west of the city or even inside it would be something quite different. Until we know how that develops on the ground, it will be difficult to think much about the future.

Second, there’s the question of the political balance within the ISIS-held territories. Tribal leaders, Baathist activists, other religious groups and their allies outnumber the true ISIS cadres by an immense factor. It is far from clear whether the rebel region in Syria and Iraq will be under one increasingly powerful and effective government or whether it falls apart into factionalism and internal power struggles. For ISIS to impose real order and authority on the population under its military control, and to build up its forces from a guerrilla army to a force capable of imposing dictatorial religious rule on a large civilian population, would be a victory as difficult and in some ways more astonishing than the triumph of its forces on the ground. The U.S. might do better to try to strengthen the non-ISIS components of the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq than to look to Tehran and the Kremlin for help.

So the dust will have to settle before we can tell what exactly we are dealing with. But even as we wait for the new picture to emerge internationally, the American people need to come to grips with a strategic escalation of the terror threat at home. ISIS is much richer, much bigger, much better organized and much better positioned to launch attacks in the U.S. and Europe than any of its predecessors. For now, the organization appears to be focused on its local wars, where it certainly has plenty to do. But we’ve consistently underestimated the group’s capabilities, strategic intelligence, innovative planning methods, and drive to prevail. It would be most unwise to assume that a jihadi terror organization 2.0 like ISIS, richer than Osama bin Laden and better supplied with arms and supporters, is incapable of thinking one or two steps ahead. And there’s the reality that hotheads all over the world will be inspired by its success to try a little murder and mayhem on their own.

So here, alas, is where we now stand six years into the Age of Obama: The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next. He’s the only President this country has got, and one can’t help but wish him well, but if things are going to get any better, he needs to stop digging. He probably needs to bring in some new blood, and he must certainly ask himself some tough questions about why so many of his most cherished ideas keep leading him and his country into such ugly places.

Six years into what the President and his supporters thought would be an era of liberal Democrats seizing the national security high ground from enfeebled, discredited Republicans, the outlook is much grimmer than the President’s team could have dreamed. Perhaps they should take comfort from the example of George W. Bush; at this point in his presidency things looked pretty bleak, too. Between the surge in Iraq and hard work building bridges with allies, Bush had some positive foreign policy momentum going by the time he left office. It’s not a place on Mount Rushmore, but it’s better than the alternative. Mr. Obama must now hope he can accomplish as much.

 

“OBAMA’S DISASTROUS SERIES OF POLICY MISTAKES”

The Man Who Broke the Middle East
By Elliott Abrams
Politico Magazine (Washington)
June 22, 2014

There’s always Tunisia. Amid the smoking ruins of the Middle East, there is that one encouraging success story. But unfortunately for the Obama narratives, the president had about as much as to do with Tunisia’s turn toward democracy as he did with the World Cup rankings. Where administration policy has had an impact, the story is one of failure and danger.

The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.

How did it happen? Begin with hubris: The new president told the world, in his Cairo speech in June 2009, that he had special expertise in understanding the entire world of Islam – knowledge “rooted in my own experience” because “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.” But President Obama wasn’t speaking that day in an imaginary location called “the world of Islam;” he was in Cairo, in the Arab Middle East, in a place where nothing counted more than power. “As a boy,” Obama told his listeners, “I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” Nice touch, but Arab rulers were more interested in knowing whether as a man he heard the approaching sound of gunfire, saw the growing threat of al Qaeda from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula, and understood the ambitions of the ayatollahs as Iran moved closer and closer to a bomb.

Obama began with the view that there was no issue in the Middle East more central than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Five years later he has lost the confidence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and watched his second secretary of state squander endless efforts in a doomed quest for a comprehensive peace. Obama embittered relations with America’s closest ally in the region and achieved nothing whatsoever in the “peace process.” The end result in the summer of 2014 is to see the Palestinian Authority turn to a deal with Hamas for new elections that – if they are held, which admittedly is unlikely – would usher the terrorist group into a power-sharing deal. This is not progress.

The most populous Arab country is Egypt, where Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring arrived, and then with the Army, and then the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and now is embracing the Army again. Minor failings like the persecution of newspaper editors and leaders of American-backed NGOs, or the jailing of anyone critical of the powers-that-be at a given moment, were glossed over. When the Army removed an elected president, that was not really a “coup” – remember? And as the worm turned, we managed to offend every actor on Egypt’s political stage, from the military to the Islamists to the secular democratic activists. Who trusts us now on the Egyptian political scene? No one.

But these errors are minor when compared to those in Iraq and Syria. When the peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad was brutally crushed, Obama said Assad must go; when Assad used sarin gas, Obama said this was intolerable and crossed a red line. But behind these words there was no American power, and speeches are cheap in the Middle East. Despite the urgings of all his top advisers (using the term loosely; he seems to ignore their advice) – Panetta at CIA and then Defense, Clinton at State, Petraeus at CIA, even Dempsey at the Pentagon – the president refused to give meaningful assistance to the Syrian nationalist rebels. Assistance was announced in June 2013 and then again in June 2014 (in the president’s West Point speech) but it is a minimal effort, far too small to match the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian Quds Force fighters in Syria. Arabs see this as a proxy war with Iran, but in the White House the key desire is to put all those nasty Middle Eastern wars behind us. So in the Middle East American power became a mirage, something no one could find – something enemies did not fear and allies could not count on.

The humanitarian result has been tragic: At least 160,000 killed in Syria, perhaps eight million displaced. More than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (a country of four million people, before Obama added those Syrians), about a million and a quarter Syrian refugees in Jordan (population six million before Obama). Poison gas back on the world scene as a tolerated weapon, with Assad using chlorine gas systematically in “barrel bombs” this year and paying no price whatsoever for this and for his repeated attacks on civilian targets. Both of the key officials handling Syria for Obama – State Department special envoy Fred Hof and Ambassador Robert Ford – resigned in disgust when they could no longer defend Obama’s hands-off policy. Can Samantha Power be far behind, watching the mass killings and seeing her president respond to them with rhetoric?

The result in security terms is even worse: the largest gathering of jihadis we have ever seen, 12,000 now and expanding.They come from all over the world, a jihadi Arab League, a jihadi EU, a jihadi U.N. Two or three thousand are from Europe, and an estimated 70 from the United States. When they go home, some no doubt disillusioned but many committed, experienced and well trained, “home” will be Milwaukee and Manchester and Marseille – and, as we see now on the front pages, to Mosul. When Obama took office there was no such phenomenon; it is his creation, the result of his passivity in Syria while Sunnis were being slaughtered by the Assad regime.

And now they have spread back into Iraq in sufficient numbers to threaten the survival of its government. Obama has reacted, sending 300 advisers, a number that may presage further expansion of American military efforts. Perhaps they will find good targets, and be the basis for American air strikes and additional diplomatic pressure. But we had won this game, at great expense, before Obama walked away. The fiery rage of Iraqi Sunnis at the government in Baghdad had been banked by 2009. American diplomatic efforts, whose power was based in the American military role, disappeared under Obama, who just wanted out. It was his main campaign pledge. So we got out, fully, completely, cleanly – unless you ask about the real world of Iraq instead of the imaginary world of campaign speeches. We could no longer play the role we had played in greasing relations between Kurds, Shia and Sunnis, and in constraining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian excesses. The result was an Iraq spinning downward into the kind of Sunni-Shia confrontation we had paid so dearly to stop in 2007 and 2008, and ISIS – the newest moniker for al Qaeda in Iraq – saw its chance, and took it.

So now we’re back in Iraq – or maybe not. Three hundred isn’t a very large number; it is instead reminiscent of the 600 soldiers Obama sent to Central and Eastern Europe after the Russians grabbed Crimea and started a war in Ukraine. Who is reassured by that number, 600, and who is scared by it? Same question for Iraq: Are the Gulf allies reassured by “up to 300” advisers? Is Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the dark mastermind of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, quaking now?

If there is one achievement of Obama policy in the Middle East (because Tunisia’s genuine success isn’t America’s to claim) it is to advance reconciliation between Israel and the Gulf states. This will not be celebrated by the White House, however, because they are joined mostly in fear and contempt for American policy, but it is an interesting development nonetheless. If there is one thing the Gulf Sunni kingdoms understand, it is power – in this case, the Iranian power they fear (as they once feared Saddam’s power, and were saved from it by America). The king of Jordan incautiously spoke several years ago about a “Shia crescent,” but even he must have thought it would take far longer to develop. A map that starts with Hezbollah in Beirut’s southern suburbs and traces lines through Syria and Iraq into Iran would now not be just a nightmare vision, but an actual accounting of where Iran’s forces and allies and sphere of influence lie.That’s what the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and others see around them, growing year by year while their former protector dithers. They see one other country that “gets it,” sees the dangers the same way, understands Iran’s grasp at hegemony just as they do: Israel. Oh to be a fly on the wall at the secret chats among Sunni Gulf security officials and their Israeli counterparts, which must be taking place in London and Zurich and other safe European capitals. In the world they all inhabit the weak disappear, and the strong survive and rule. They are the ultimate realists, and they do not call what they see in Washington “realpolitik.”

From World War II, or at least from the day the British left Aden, the United States has been the dominant power in the Middle East. Harry Truman backed the Zionists and Israel came into being; we opposed Suez so the British, French and Israelis backed off; we became the key arms supplier for all our friends and kept the Soviets out; we reversed Saddam’s grabbing of Kuwait; we drove him from power; we drew a red line against chemical warfare; we said an Iranian bomb was unacceptable.

But that red line then disappeared in a last-minute reversal by the president that to this day is mentioned in every conversation about security in the Middle East, and no Arab or Israeli leader now trusts that the United States will stop the Iranian bomb. After all, we have passively watched al Qaeda become a major force in the heart of the region, and watched Iran creep closer to a nuclear weapon, and watched Iran send expeditionary forces to Syria – unopposed by any serious American pushback. Today no one in the Middle East knows what the rulebook is and whether the Americans will enforce any rules at all. No one can safely tell you what the borders of Iraq or Syria will be a few years hence. No one can tell you whether American power is to be feared, or can safely be derided.

That’s the net effect of five and a half years of Obama policy. And, to repeat, it is Obama policy: not the collective wisdom of Kerry and Clinton and Panetta and Petraeus and other “advisers,” but the very personal set of decisions by the one true policymaker, the man who came to office thinking he had a special insight into the entire world of Islam. In the Middle East today, the “call of the azaan” is as widely heard as Obama remembered from Indonesia. But when leaders look around they see clever, well-resourced challenges from Shia and Sunni extremists armed to the teeth, with endless ambitions, willing to kill and kill to grasp power – and far more powerful today than the day this president came into office. They do not see an American leader who fully understands those challenges and who realizes that power, not speeches, must be used to defend our friends and allies and interests. So there’s one other thing a lot of Israeli and Arab leaders share, as they shake their heads and compare notes in those secret meetings: an urgent wish that Jan. 20, 2017, were a lot closer.

 

HER WORLD SHRUNK

Syrian woman survives 700 days of blockade
By Diaa Hadid
Associated Press
June 11, 2014

HOMS, Syria (AP) – Over the course of the 700-day blockade, her world shrunk to her living room and her kitchen. She survived by eating plants and reading books. She refused to look in the mirror, because seeing her withered state might break her spirit.

Zeinat Akhras, a 65-year-old pharmacist, still bears the effects of nearly two years trapped in her home, surrounded by rebel fighters during the government’s siege on the ancient quarters of the central Syrian city of Homs. She’s still a wispy 38 kilograms (83 pounds), even after gaining four kilograms (eight pounds) since the blockade ended in early May with the fall of the rebels in the city.

“Every day, we said it will end tomorrow,” Akhras said in a recent interview with The Associated Press in her home. “If we counted the number of days, we would have given up.”

Homs’ Old City, a series of crowded neighborhoods, was under siege and bombardment in a campaign by government forces to starve out rebels. Homs had been one of the first to rise up against the rule of President Bashar Assad with protests in March 2011, turning the city into a battleground as government forces cracked down and opponents took up arms.

Government forces clamped the seal over the opposition-held districts in early 2012. Most of the tens of thousands of residents of the areas had already fled. With the siege dragging on, rebels began deserting as hunger spread, and morale collapsed in late 2013. Finally, the last few dozen fighters were evacuated in May to areas further north under a cease-fire, and government forces took full control of the city.

Akhras and her two brothers were among the few civilians who stayed until the end, in their multi-story family home in the al-Maljaa quarter, decorated like many of the area’s homes in an Arab medieval style of black-and-white geometric facades.

They stayed because they feared rebels would seize the building – the fate of other abandoned homes – or would loot the family pharmacy or clothing shop.

In the beginning, the siege was tolerable because Akhras’ family had hoarded provisions for the sometimes long lockdowns during previous gunbattles. They were well stocked with rice, beans and cracked wheat and fuel.

As the blockade deepened, Akhras rarely left the building – perhaps six times during the 700 days, she estimated.

“I used to come back sad from seeing the destruction. This area used to be full of life,” she said.

Life took on a routine.

Her brothers Anas and Ayman went out to check on their businesses and kept an eye on the nearby Mar Elia church. She cooked, kept the building tidy. She rose at dawn and slept at sunset, since there was no electricity. Over the course of the two years, at least 12 shells slammed into their home, causing damage upstairs.

“It was bothersome, because we’d hear explosions day and night. You get used to it.”

A priest asked the Akhras siblings, who are Christians, to hide valuable church property. So gradually, icons and boxes of centuries-old church records piled up in their home. Then, their pharmacy and clothes shop were looted in 2013, so the brothers brought home boxes of remaining medicines and clothes to store as well.

As the siege dragged on, rebel fighters showed up repeatedly demanding food and fuel, Akhras said. They usually came in groups, ordering Akhras to sit in the living room as they raided the kitchen and the upstairs apartments where food was kept. One young rebel snatched a jam jar that “barely had a spoonful left in it,” she recalled.

Toward the end, the fighters didn’t even bother to come with guns – they simply knocked on the door and demanded food. Finally, in mid-2013, armed rebels surrounded the building and came in, carrying away nearly the entire stock of food and fuel. The siblings were left with only cracked wheat, which ran out by January.

Still, she said her family was not harassed by the Sunni rebels for being Christian – it appeared to be because her house was the one with food.

Tragedy came in December. One of her brothers, Anas, who was suffering from cancer, left in a U.N. organized evacuation of hundreds of civilians from the Old City. He died 19 days later.

For the last months, Akhras kept her mind on daily tasks.

Without fuel, her surviving brother Ayman collected firewood. With their supplies down to only tea, oil and spices, Ayman also collected greens – dandelion, chicory and mallow, plants so unnoticed by a city-dweller that Akhras referred to them simply as “grass.” Even those became so scarce that Ayman dug for them in a church cemetery.

Akhras’ duties now included chopping wood to fuel the subya, a traditional heater-oven. She learnt to soak, boil and spice the salvaged greens.

She lost her appetite on the bitter, monotonous meals. She withered from about 127 pounds (58 kilos) when the blockade began to 75 pounds (34 kilos), shrinking as her space grew smaller.

Akhras said she didn’t want to upset herself by looking in the mirror. “I knew I had lost weight. It was like I was on a diet I never wanted.”

Only after the siege was over did she finally see her transformation – she saw herself on TV, in footage of the army’s entry. “I was smaller than a child!” she exclaimed.

In free hours trapped in her home, Akhras devoured books – the Bible and stories of saints, mostly. Neatly arranged on her coffee table stood a row of large bullet casings.

Her darkest days, she said, came after Anas died and when Ayman went to sleep in another building they own to keep away looters. She was left alone as rebels raided the building again, this time digging upstairs for more medicine and clothing.

“I missed my siblings – we are six girls and six boys. I missed my mother who died at the end of 2011,” she said.

Akhras initially didn’t know on May 9 that the blockade had been lifted and government troops had entered the neighborhood. She has no radio and did not listen to the news. In a rare outing to the well across her alleyway, she saw a man who told her, “The army is here.”

Surprised, Akhras found a soldier and asked him for bread – still unaware of how skeletal she appeared. The soldier bought her two dozen pieces of pita bread.

“I ate a whole piece of bread myself,” she said, her eyes shining. “It tasted like sweets.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.