Friday, August 24, 2012
The world has received yet more proof that Iran is “continuing to make accelerated progress toward achieving nuclear weapons,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday in a meeting with US Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) during the latter’s tour of the Middle East.
Netanyahu spoke in response to a New York Times report warning that nuclear inspectors would soon report that Iran has installed “hundreds of new centrifuges in recent months” and may be ramping up nuclear fuel production. He said that Iran was making progress on its nuclear program “while totally ignoring international demands.”
Officials from the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were meeting Iranian officials in Vienna Friday in hopes of a breakthrough on gaining access to nuclear sites – in particular, the Parchin military complex southeast of Tehran that they suspect was used for nuclear-weapons-linked experiments.
On Thursday, diplomats in Vienna told Reuters that Iran had increased uranium enrichment activities at the Fordo facility, a key nuclear site buried deep underground.
While Netanyahu warned once more that Iran was proceeding undeterred by international efforts to halt its nuclear program, the former chief of the General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, said Thursday that there is no reason for Israel to unleash a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities at this time.
The Times of Israel
Several days after the United Nations ended its observer mission in the country in failure, the killing in Syria continues unabated - 200 dead Wednesday, 100 Thursday, over 20,000 in total since last year (at least 18,000, according to conservative UN estimates). Though the Syrian army boasts achievements such as the capture of three predominantly Christian neighborhoods in the main commercial hub Aleppo on Thursday, clashes both there and in the capital Damascus - two key battlegrounds - continue for over a month now.
By all accounts, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is in serious trouble - confirmation of this is found, among other places, in a statement by his vice-prime minister who suggested on Tuesday that the regime would be willing to discuss Assad's resignation. The Syrian president is facing extreme pressure on all fronts - even his closest international allies such as Russia and Iran have hinted that they could reconcile themselves to his downfall under certain conditions.
Yet Assad's rule is not quite over yet, and his current overtures toward the exit are unlikely to prove more than tricks designed to win time. Meanwhile, he seems hell-bent on exporting the conflict to his neighbors - if not Israel for now, which is known to have little patience for such adventures, then at least Lebanon and Turkey - in hopes of demonstrating to his enemies just how much trouble he is capable of stirring.
It would appear that he was inspired to do this in part by studying the downfall of Libya's former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who put up a tough fight inside his country but failed to take any of it to his enemies' territory, thus greatly reducing his chances of survival. Both Lebanon and Turkey serve as key bases for resupply of the Syrian rebels.
In any case, clashes between Sunni Muslims and Alawites - members of the same religious sect to which Assad belongs - in the Lebanese city of Tripoli claimed at least 13 dead and 100 wounded this week, and so far the Lebanese army has been unable to impose a ceasefire. In separate incidents last week, around 50 Syrians were kidnapped in Lebanon by Shi'ite clans whose members had in turn been abducted in Syria by elements of the Free Syrian Army.
The situation in Lebanon has been particularly tense since a prominent Lebanese politician and ally of Assad, Michel Samaha (a former minister of information), was arrested with explosives and charged with plotting to destabilize the country earlier this month. According to a number of authoritative reports, the evidence against him is substantial.
It seems that, as a pro-Western member of the Lebanese parliament who barely escaped an assassination attempt recently told The New York Times, "Assad is trying to say to the world, when Syria is destabilized, the region will be, too ... It's him asking: Are you capable of handling this regional chaos? And if you're not, protect my regime."
Over to Syria's north, Turkey is also pointing a finger at both Damascus and its patron, Tehran, for a bombing near a police station in the city of Gaziantep on Monday which killed nine and wounded over 60 . A convoluted intrigue is emerging around the Kurdish issue between Syrians, Turks, Iraqis, and Iranians (incidentally the four regional countries with significant Kurdish populations). A recent discussion on the blog of the prominent Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis, captures the complexities of this issue.
The Syrian regime has long been a patron of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a violent low-intensity campaign against Turkey for decades). Recently, it has let the PYD, a Kurdish organization that is closely related to the PKK, take over a number of Syrian cities in the north. As Landis put it, "Assad's Kurdish strategy appears to be to help the PKK to take control of the Kurdish regions of Syria in the North East. His aim is to hurt both the Free Syrian Army and Turkey, which are leading the opposition against him. In general, his strategy is to weaken the Sunni Arabs of Syria." 
Iran is helping Assad; Turkey, on the other hand, has been trying to leverage its relationship with Iraq's Kurds and to set up a parallel Kurdish organization in Syria, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), in order to rally the anti-Assad elements among the Kurds and to neutralize the PKK in the country. It has not been very successful: the KNC remains fairly disorganized and marginalized, much like the Syrian opposition as a whole.
The role of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in this set-up is the least clear of all, and he could prove to be the wild card. Maliki, a Shi'ite, is engaged in power struggles with both Sunni Arab groups and with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. He is widely perceived as a close ally of Iran and of Assad, but whether he sees eye-to-eye with them on the Kurdish issue is uncertain.
In an exchange published on the Syria Comment blog, an anonymous "Iraq intelligence specialist" challenges Landis' analysis:
I was reading your post on Syrian Kurdistan and noted that you judged that the regional Shia will probably support Syrian Kurdish aspirations. I think this will not be the case for the Iraqi Shia parties. ... [I[f Barzani and the KRG were able to jump Iraq's borders and become part of a broader regional Kurdish alliance, it would be a disaster for the Malikiyoun. So Baghdad is going to have to walk a very fine line where Syria's Kurds are concerned: they can't denounce Bashar's strategy of giving the PYD control of Kurdish areas, but neither can they countenance an autonomous, free-floating Syrian Kurdistan that could someday join up with Barzanistan ...Landis responds, essentially, that this is a legitimate concern for Maliki, but that the Iraqi prime minister may not be as worried about the Kurds in the long term as he is about the Sunni Arabs in his country. In the short term, moreover, a PKK domination of the Syrian Kurdish arena could hurt Barzani's strategic relationship with Turkey:
If he [Maliki] can hurt Barzani by forcing him to link up with the PKK, he will ruin Barzani's delicate understanding with the Turks. Should the PKK come out the winner in Eastern Syria, rather than the more moderate KNC, Barzani will be forced into a very difficult and embarrassing position. He will have to chose between his fellow Kurds in Syria, led by the PKK , and Turkey. For this reason, I suspect that Prime Minister Maliki will devilishly refuse to stand in the way of the PKK in Syrian Kurdistan in order to scuttle Iraqi Kurdistan's pro-Turkish gambit and saddle Barzani with a "terrorist" partner. The Kurdish issue is a major thorn in the Turkish side, and if Landis is right about Maliki's calculations, with his help Assad could unravel years of Ankara's efforts to court the Iraqi Kurds. Besides, other minorities in Turkey, such as Turkish Alawites and Alevis (another off-shoot of Shi'ite Islam), are reportedly sympathetic toward Assad and could cause trouble if Ankara decides to intervene more forcefully in its southern neighbor.
All this comes amid a new round of saber-rattling by the United States, whose President Barack Obama issued a harsh warning to Assad that any use - or even moving around - of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and would prompt an American intervention in Syria. According to several reports, the Pentagon's preparations for such a scenario have reached advanced stages, with "small teams of special operations troops" on stand-by.
This rhetoric has echoes of former US president George W Bush's campaign against Iraq in 2003 (which was initially billed as an operation against weapons of mass destruction), as Russia and China were quick to point out. Russia, in particular, publicly assured Obama that Assad had no intention of using his chemical stockpiles, and used the occasion also to preach against repeating the Libyan scenario of last year. In the course of the debates, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly likened the UN resolution which authorized the international campaign against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to "medieval calls for crusades".
However, despite their unwavering public support for Assad - or perhaps precisely because of it - the Russians are clearly nervous. This is evidenced, for example, by reports in the Russian press that Russian military personnel in the naval base near the Syrian city of Tartus is prepared for imminent evacuation. (Tartus is the only Russian naval base on the Mediterranean and a major reason for Russia's support for Assad.)
Moreover, Putin's reference to the crusades can be seen as a belated attempt to woo Sunni Muslim sensitivities, which have started to turn against Russia due to the Kremlin's support of the Syrian regime.
Most importantly, despite Assad's military ability to hold out for now, his long-term prospects if facing a hostile majority of the Syrian population are bleak. Without financial injections from his foreign friends - some of whom, such as the Iranians, are feeling the pressure of international sanctions themselves - Assad could hardly keep the Syrian economy afloat for more than a few months.
Militarily, too, the situation is far from great for his regime. After a Syrian fighter plane was shot down by the rebels last week - Damascus claims it crashed due to a technical malfunction - even Syrian aircraft have reportedly started to undertake evasive maneuvers when approaching rebel targets. (The American-based intelligence analysis organization Stratfor speculates that this may be the reason for a Syrian incursion into Iraqi air space on Thursday.)
On the ground, meanwhile, large swathes of the countryside are in rebel hands, and the Syrian army faces significant challenges when trying to move even armored forces around (as evidenced also by the increased reliance on air power).
Not to mention that the damage to Assad's inner circle sustained by the July 18 bombing in Damascus was apparently greater than initially acknowledged, and may take longer to repair than anticipated.
Recent reports claim, for example, that the president's infamous brother, Maher Assad, commander of the feared Fourth Division of the Syrian army, was incapacitated or even killed in the attack. (Incidentally, I had reported on an attempt to poison high-ranking officials and speculated on these pages that a major decapitation attack might happen some time before it did. See Syrian violence invites foreign intervention, Asia Times Online, June 12, 2012).
While there has been no confirmation of Maher's condition, other reports note his and his troops' absence from key battle grounds such as Aleppo.
Given this and the growing international momentum against him - specifically the American threats in the last days - it makes sense for Assad to swallow his pride and offer to discuss his resignation in order to win time. If he can start negotiating, he would be able to regroup, rehabilitate his forces, and wait for regional dynamics to turn against his enemies. Many analysts have described Lebanon, which endured a long civil war in the 1970s and 80s, as a tinderbox waiting for a match, and even Turkey, which has enjoyed relative overall stability in the last decades, is far from safe.
Given the lawlessness that has taken hold in much of Syria and the increasing presence among the rebels of foreign jihadists ranging from Afghanis to Libyans to Iraqis to Chechen rebels (to name a few nationalities), hardly anyone in the neighborhood is safe. Even more distant countries such as Russia are looking on nervously.
It is highly doubtful whether Assad's tricks can save his rule in the long run. For now, however, despite the regime weakening by the day, there is hardly an end in sight for the bloodshed - and even should he depart, bloody conflict in the country will not necessarily end.
It might be time to sweep the cobwebs out of that old nuclear bunker at the bottom of the garden after reports in state-run Chinese media confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army is actively developing an intercontinental missile capable of penetrating US defences.
News first emerged of the planned ‘super missile’ from defence industry bible Jane’s Defence Weeklylast week, according to South China Morning Post.
It apparently claimed that a Dongfeng-41 (DF-41) intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), had been fired in testing last month by the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps.
This third-generation missile, US military sources told Jane’s, contain multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) – effectively multiple warheads – meaning they would be almost impossible for current US defences to take down.
Jordanian media report that Syria's ambassador in Amman, Bahjat Suleiman said that his country is capable of destroying Israel's nuclear facilities should Damascus come under attack
Speaking during a meeting with a Jordanian-Syrian delegation at the embassy in Amman, Syria's Ambassador to Jordan Bahjat Suleiman said that Syria is capable of destroying Israel's nuclear facilities with 20 missiles, should Syria be attacked, in spite of the many casualties Syria would incur over such a move, Jordanian media reported Thursday.
The delegation arrived at the embassy in order to wish the ambassador and his country a happy Eid el-Fitr holiday and express support for Bashar Assad's regime.
"What the Zionists have, nuclear weapons-wise, could cause us major casualties should they attack Syria. In contrast, we could cause massive losses to their nuclear facilities and we wouldn't need more than 20 missiles," the ambassador told the delegation.
According to Jordanian reports, the ambassador said that in spite of the disparity in the number of casualties, Israel would not be able to bear the loss of life and the significant strategic losses.
He explained that this would lead Israelis to emigrate elsewhere and would symbolize the beginning of the end of the State of Israel.
According to the Ambassador, Syria would not stand idly by if attacked, but would not be the one to launch a war.
Suleiman also commented on the defection of Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, claiming that he fled the country and joined the rebels in exchange for $20 million.
Meanwhile, tensions between Syria and Jordan remain high following the firing four Syrian missiles in Jordan's northern region, injuring a child and several others.
This led to a strong response from the Jordanian government which summoned the top Syrian diplomat in Amman to protest the attack.
A Jordanian government spokesman said that he believed the missile fire was unintentional but a government official warned that Jordan would take the appropriate measures should the missile fire be repeated.
Russian scientists are closer than they have ever been to creating artificial intelligence. The program called “Eugene” has almost passed the famous Turing test, which checks a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior.
The program-emulating a personality of a 13-year old boy was exhibited at an international science contest in the United Kingdom along with four other programs.
Even with the exacting criteria, “Eugene” has left all its competitors far behind.
The test was designed by mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing over 60 years ago. During the examination a human judge engages in a text conversation with a machine and an actual human being without seeing them. If the judge fails to tell the machine from the human in at least 30 percent of the answers, the program passes.
So far no program has managed to pass successfully but Russia’s “Eugene” has come strikingly close. It deceived human judges in 29,2 percent of the answers.
A total of 29 judges took part in the test with some 150 dialogues taking place.
German Intelligence Chief Gerhard Schindler has issued a warning saying that Europe is at great risk of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists.
In a wide-ranging interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, Schindler said the German foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), is particularly concerned about the threat posed by homegrown terrorists, individuals who are either born or raised in Europe and who travel to war zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen to obtain training in terrorist methods.
Schindler said: "A particular threat stems from Al Qaeda structures in Yemen. They want to bring Jihad to Europe. Among other tactics, this involves the 'lone wolf' model, which involves individuals who are citizens of the targeted country and who go abroad for training. We know that this is strategy is currently high on Al Qaeda's agenda, and we are accordingly attentive."
Schindler's comments came just days after Spanish authorities arrested three suspected al Qaeda terrorists who were allegedly plotting an airborne attack on a shopping mall near Gibraltar, the British overseas territory on the southernmost tip of Spain.
Schindler's warning also comes amid the backdrop of a high-security court trial of four suspected Al Qaeda members which began in the German city of Düsseldorf on July 25. German public prosecutors say the defendants -- three home grown Islamists born in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and one Moroccan national -- were planning to stage a "sensational terror attack" in Germany.
Also known as the "Düsseldorfer Cell," the defendants are also accused of plotting to assassinate the former commander of German Special Forces (KSK Kommando Spezialkräfte) as well as to attack the US Army base in the Bavarian town of Grafenwöhr.
German authorities began monitoring the group in early 2010, when the American Central Intelligence Agency alerted German police to the fact that the Moroccan, Abdeladim el-Kebir, 31, had entered Germany after having been trained at an Al Qaeda camp in Waziristan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2010.
German public prosecutors say El-Kebir, also known as Abi al-Barra, was the ringleader of the Düsseldorfer Cell and, following orders from an unidentified senior Al-Qaeda operative, in November 2010 began working on a plot to blow up public buildings, train stations and airports in Germany. After several months of surveillance by German police, El-Kebir was arrested in April 2011.
Before his arrest, El-Kebir also recruited three accomplices he knew from his student days in the German city of Bochum: a 32-year-old German-Moroccan named Jamil Seddiki, a 21-year-old German-Iranian named Amid Chaabi, and a 28-year-old German named citizen Halil Simsek. The three were arrested in Germany in December 2011.
Prosecutors say that Seddiki was in charge of producing explosives while Chaabi and Simsek were responsible for communications with the al Qaeda leadership.
During testimony in court, it emerged that all four defendants led inconspicuous lives. Simsek, for example, who was born in the German city of Gelsenkirchen, earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Bochum. He had wanted to become a German police officer but his application was rejected for medical reasons. Chaabi, who was born in Bochum, was studying Information Technology at the University of Hagen when he was arrested. Seddiki, a high school graduate, was working as an electrician.
Prosecutors have compiled 260 ring-binders containing evidence gathered by investigators; the prosecutor's arraignment runs to 500 pages. The main accusation against the men is that they set up a terrorist cell and prepared to commit murder.
Federal Prosecutor Michael Bruns told the court that the defendants "planned to carry out a spectacular and startling attack" in Germany and that the defendants "wanted to spread fear and horror."
The trial is expected to run for 30 days; a verdict is expected in November. If the four accused men are found guilty, they face up to ten years in prison.
(In November 2011, a federal court in Brooklyn, New York indicted el-Kebir on charges of conspiring to provide Al-Qaeda with explosives and training. If extradited and convicted, el-Kebir faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.)
Underscoring German officialdom's anxiety over home grown Islamic terrorism, the German state of Lower Saxony recently published a practical guide to extremist Islam to help citizens identify tell-tale signs of Muslims who are becoming radicalized.
Security officials said the objective of the document is to mitigate the threat of home-grown terrorist attacks by educating Germans about radical Islam and encouraging them to refer suspected Islamic extremists to the authorities -- a move that reflects mounting concern in Germany over the growing assertiveness of Salafist Muslims, who openly state that they want to establish Islamic Sharia law in the country and across Europe.
The 54-page document, "Radicalization Processes in the Context of Islamic Extremism and Terrorism," which provides countless details about the Islamist scene in Germany, paints a worrisome picture of the threat of radical Islam there.
According to the report, German security agencies estimate that approximately 1,140 individuals living in Germany pose a high risk of becoming Islamic terrorists. The document also states that up to 100,000 native Germans have converted to Islam in recent years, and that "intelligence analysis has found that converts are especially susceptible to radicalization…Security officials believe that converts comprise between five to ten percent of the Salafists."
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said the United States was preparing for “threats” emerging from Iran and Syria’s turmoil as an aircraft carrier headed to the region ahead of schedule.
The USS John Stennis and its strike group will set forth shortly for the Persian Gulf, a deployment ordered four months ahead of time to minimize the gap in which the United States has only one carrier in the region. The Stennis strike group, which was initially due to deploy at the end of the year to the Pacific, is relieving the USS Enterprise which is slated to be decommissioned.
Visiting the nuclear-powered carrier at its home base in Washington on Aug. 22, Panetta said that the accelerated deployment was meant to deal with numerous threats currently present in the Middle East right now.
“Obviously Iran is one of those threats that we have to be able to focus on and make sure that we’re prepared to deal with any threats that could emerge out of Iran,” Panetta told reporters. “Secondly, it is the turmoil in Syria, and we’re obviously following that closely as well,” Panetta said.
Panetta said the United States was also maintaining its force due to the risk of Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz and amid the Arab Spring, which “presented both challenges and opportunities.” Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil passes, in response to punishing U.S. sanctions.
Another senior U.S. official said diplomacy can still solve the crisis over Iran’s suspect nuclear program, adding that it had relayed the message to Israel. “”We are focused on combining diplomacy and pressure, trying to get Iran to be serious at the negotiating table and we are in full consultations with the Israelis about the picture that we see, and we will continue to make those points clear,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Aug. 22.
In another related development, Israeli army chief, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, warned that those who believe they can “eradicate” Israel will face the brunt of Israeli power, in a veiled threat to Iran.
“These days, the state of Israel and its residents are being threatened. These threats indicate a mistaken evaluation of our strength and capabilities,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse . “Those who believe they can eradicate Israel and act on these beliefs will face the brunt of the defense power,” he added, according to a military statement.
Gantz’s remarks come just days after Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei said that the “cancerous tumour” of Israel is the biggest problem confronting Muslim countries today.
Meanwhile, Lebanese Hezbollah claimed to have conducted a massive military exercise in southern Lebanon this week, deploying 10,000 gunmen over three days in a war-game scenario. According to Egyptian daily al-Gomhuria, the drill was personally supervised by Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah.
The daily said the majority of the exercise took place at the Beqaa Valley and simulated actual fighting and defending of strategic villages. The report also said that Hezbollah operatives have been instructed to prepare the residents of southern Lebanon for the possibility of war.
Iran has installed many more uranium enrichment machines in an underground bunker, diplomatic sources said on Thursday, potentially paving the way for a significant expansion of work the West fears is ultimately aimed at making nuclear bombs.
Several sources said Iran had put in place additional enrichment centrifuges in its Fordow facility, buried deep inside a mountain to protect it against any enemy strikes.
One source suggested it involved hundreds of machines.
“Our basic understanding is that they were continuing to install,” a Vienna-based diplomat said, adding the new centrifuges were not yet operating.
If confirmed in a report expected next week from the UN atomic watchdog, the development is likely to be seen as a sign of Iran’s continued defiance of international demands to curb its nuclear program, which Tehran says is entirely peaceful.
At Fordow, near the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, Iran is enriching uranium to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, activity which the West wants it to stop immediately as it brings it closer to the level required for nuclear weapons.
In a possible sign of further Iranian defiance in the face of such pressure, several sources said Iran had put in place additional enrichment centrifuges in the Fordow facility, buried deep inside a mountain to protect it against enemy strikes.
One source suggested hundreds of machines had been installed.
The most recently retired IDF chief of staff, Lt.-Col (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, has added his voice to the chorus of former defense officials saying that there was no need for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program at this time.
One Western envoy said that the suspected clean-up at Parchin was “intensifying” and that this made it doubtful that inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would uncover any hard evidence there, even if they were allowed to go.
“Given the extent of the cleanup, it is indeed unlikely the agency, if it ever gets access, would find anything at Parchin,” the diplomat said.
There was no immediate comment from Iran's mission to the Vienna-based UN atomic agency. It has previously dismissed the allegations about Parchin, which it says is a conventional military facility, as “ridiculous.”
In video footage taken by a Makor Rishon journalist and aired on Channel 2 on Thursday evening, Ashkenazi said that “we’re still not there,” adding that a metaphorical nuclear suitcase was not about to be sent in Israel’s direction from Iran.
Instead of a strike, Ashkenazi said, a “combination of strategies” should be employed at this time, listing a covert war and economic sanctions coupled with diplomacy as some of the required steps.
“These should be supported by a third strategy, and that is keeping a military option that is realistic and credible,” Ashkenazi added. “That is what I think has to be done.
The former army chief said he hoped a combination of all the measures would be enough to get Iran to suspend its nuclear program.
Turning his attention to the civil war raging in Syria, Ashkenazi said the toppling of the Assad regime would “at the end of the day improve our strategic situation... even if Assad is replaced by a Sunni regime or government.”
Ashkenazi said that he did not believe Egypt would turn into a violent Islamist regime hellbent on using force against Israel anytime soon.
“I don’t think they can commit a serious act even if they get [the capabilities],” he said.