Thomas Jefferson: I pledge undying hostility to any government restriction on the free minds of the people

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The Guardian Guantanamo Bay Files: Al Queda Assasin ‘worked for MI6’


An al-Qaida operative accused of bombing two Christian churches and a luxury hotel in Pakistan in 2002 was at the same time working for British intelligence, according to secret files on detainees who were shipped to the US military’s Guantánamo Bay prison camp.  Adil Hadi al Jazairi Bin Hamlili, an Algerian citizen described as a “facilitator, courier, kidnapper, and assassin for al-Qaida”, was detained in Pakistan in 2003 and later sent to Guantánamo Bay.

But according to Hamlili’s Guantánamo “assessment” file, one of 759 individual dossiers obtained by the Guardian, US interrogators were convinced that he was simultaneously acting as an informer for British and Canadian intelligence.  After his capture in June 2003 Hamlili was transferred to Bagram detention centre, north of Kabul, where he underwent numerous “custodial interviews” with CIA personnel. They found him “to have withheld important information from the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service and British Secret Intelligence Service … and to be a threat to US and allied personnel in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.

The Guardian and the New York Times published a series of reports based on the leaked cache of documents which exposed the flimsy grounds on which many detainees were transferred to the camp and portrayed a system focused overwhelmingly on extracting intelligence from prisoners.

A further series of reports based on the files reveal:

• A single star informer at the base won his freedom by incriminating at least 123 other prisoners there. The US military source described Mohammed Basardah as an “invaluable” source who had shown “exceptional co-operation”, but lawyers for other inmates claim his evidence is unreliable.

US interrogators frequently clashed over the handling of detainees, with members of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF GTMO) in several cases overruling recommendations by the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF) that prisoners should be released. CITF investigators also disapproved of methods adopted by the JTF’s military interrogators.

• New light on how Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora as American and British special forces closed in on his mountain refuge in December 2001, including intelligence claiming that a local Pakistani warlord provided fighters to guide him to safety in the north-east of Afghanistan.

The Obama administration on Monday condemned the release of documents which it claimed had been “obtained illegally by WikiLeaks”. The Pentagon’s press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said in many cases the documents, so-called Detainee Assessment Briefs, had been superseded by the decisions of a taskforce established by President Barack Obama in 2009.  “Any given DAB illegally obtained and released by WikiLeaks may or may not represent the current view of a given detainee,” he said.

According to the files, Hamlili told his American interrogators at Bagram that he had been running a carpet business from Peshawar, exporting as far afield as Dubai following the 9/11 attacks.  But his CIA captors knew the Algerian had been an informant for MI6 and Canada’s Secret Intelligence Service for over three years – and suspected he had been double-crossing handlers. According to US intelligence the two spy agencies recruited Hamlili as a “humint” – human intelligence – source in December 2000 “because of his connections to members of various al-Qaida linked terrorist groups that operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.

The files do not specify what information Hamlili withheld. But they do contain intelligence reports, albeit flawed ones, that link the Algerian to three major terrorist attacks in Pakistan during this time. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-confessed architect of the 9/11 attacks, told interrogators an “Abu Adil” – an alias allegedly used by Hamlili – had orchestrated the March 2002 grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave that killed five people, including a US diplomat and his daughter.

He said Abu Adil was also responsible for an attack that killed three girls in a rural Punjabi church the following December, and that he had given him 300,000 rupees (about $3,540) to fund the attacks. The church attacks have previously been blamed on Lashkar I Jhangvi, a Pakistani sectarian outfit that has developed ties with al-Qaida in recent years.

Separately, US intelligence reports said that Hamlili was “possibly involved” in a bombing outside Karachi’s Sheraton hotel in May 2002 that killed 11 French submarine engineers and two Pakistanis.  But the intelligence against the 35-year-old Algerian, who was sent home last January, appears deeply flawed, like many of the accusations in the Guantánamo files.

Some of the information may have been obtained through torture. US officials waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times at a CIA “black site” in Thailand during his first month of captivity. And little evidence is presented to link Hamlili to the Karachi hotel bombing, other than that he ran a carpet business – the same cover that was used by the alleged assassins to escape.

What is clear, however, is that Hamlili was a decades-long veteran of the violent jihadi underground that extends from northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into north Africa. From the Algerian town of Oran, he left with his father in 1986, at the age of 11, to join the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Later he fell into extremist “takfir” groups, recruited militants to fight in the Algerian civil war, and gained a reputation for violence.

Under the Taliban the Algerian worked as a translator for the foreign ministry and later for the Taliban intelligence services, shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the runup to 9/11. Last January Hamlili and another inmate, Hasan Zemiri, were transferred to Algerian government custody. It was not clear whether they would be freed or made to stand trial.

Clive Stafford Smith, whose legal charity, Reprieve, represents many current and former inmates, said the files revealed the “sheer bureaucratic incompetence” of the US military’s intelligence gathering.  “When you gather intelligence in such an unintelligent way; if for example you sweep people up who you know are innocent, and it is in these documents; and then mistreat them horribly, you are not going to get reliable intelligence. You are going to make yourself a lot of enemies.

The Guantánamo files are one of a series of secret US government databases allegedly leaked by US intelligence analyst Bradley Manning to WikiLeaks. The New York Times, which shared the files with the Guardian and US National Public Radio, said it did not obtain them from WikiLeaks. A number of other news organisations yesterday published reports based on files they had received from WikiLeaks.

Syrian MPs resign after assault on protestors has resulted in nearly 100 deaths this past week

Published in the Guardian.

douma protester syria
At least 10 mourners were killed in Syria as pro-democracy protesters buried their dead after the bloodiest day yet of an uprising against the county’s authoritarian government. Two politicians also resigned from parliament in a sign of growing unease at the government’s use of lethal force. Nasser al-Hariri, a member of Syria’s parliament from Deraa, told al-Jazeera Arabic TV: “I can’t protect my people when they get shot at so I resign from parliament.” Minutes later a second politician, Khalil al-Rifae, also from Deraa, resigned live on the channel.

The resignations – the first during this crisis – were a significant sign of unease at escalating violence. Security forces again opened fire at funerals for Friday’s victims, where large crowds of mourners were chanting anti-government slogans. A witness in Izraa told the Observer that five people from nearby Dael and Nawa were shot dead at the entrance to the town . “They were attempting to come to the funerals of 10 people killed on Friday,” he said. He insisted the security forces and army were responsible. News agencies reported that at least two mourners had been shot dead by snipers in Douma, a suburb of Damascus, and three in the district of Barzeh.

Human rights organisations and activists said at least 76 people and possibly more than 100 were killed during the largest and bloodiest protests yet on Friday, as the unrest continued into its eighth week. Many were shot in the head and chest, and mosques were used as hospitals. Al-Jazeera reported accounts of Syrian security officers entering hospitals and clinics to take the dead and injured to military hospitals in an apparent attempt to cover up casualty figures.

Local human rights organisations claimed some Syrian Christians were among the dead. Christians, who make up around 10% of Syria’s population of 22 million, are largely supportive of the regime due to fears of a backlash by the Sunni Muslim majority. The claims could not be independently verified. Easter celebrations, in which parades of children and families usually flood the streets of Damascus’s old city, have been cancelled. It is unclear whether this was a decision by Christian leaders or if the government had put pressure on them in a bid to prevent large gatherings.

With the death toll since 18 March now above 280, international condemnation of Syria has begun to grow. Barack Obama issued a strongly worded statement calling the violence “outrageous” and said that it should “end now”. As in other protests that have swept the Arab world, social media have been one of the powerful tools of protest, subverting official channels. Amateur video footage of bloody scenes continued to emerge from the protests.

In one video, posted on YouTube, a man tells how security forces killed his son and left him to die. As the situation escalates, Syrian observers said the government had made it clear that it intended to cling to power with the use of violence, despite attempts at reform. “They want to push demonstrators to the limits,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a Syrian dissident based in Dubai. He still believed that President Bashar al-Assad had time to show that he was serious about reform.

But after Assad recently lifted the country’s state of emergency, abolished the security court and appointed new governors in Latakia, Homs and Deraa, other commentators said he was running out of options.  Protesters have responded with a new round of chants. “We want the toppling of the regime,” said a resident of Ezraa, a small southern town that saw one of the highest death tolls on Friday. “The blood of our martyrs makes this our responsibility now.”

Activists acknowledged some concerns that protesters, who have been overwhelmingly peaceful so far, will be tempted to take up arms in self-defence. Syrians say weapons licences are hard to come by for non-Baath party members, but many people in the tribal southern region own guns.

The regime still retains the loyalty of the military and leading businessmen as well as many among the country’s minority communities. In the streets of central Damascus, many say they would rather stick with stability than take a risk on what would come if Assad’s regime was to fall.

Syria’s government, which has continued to blame the deaths on armed gangs, expressed “regret” at Obama’s sharp condemnation of Friday’s violence. “It isn’t based on a comprehensive and objective view of that is happening,” it said in a statement posted on the official Sana website. It added that Syria viewed Obama’s comments as “irresponsible”.  The statement came as al-Jazeera correspondent Cal Perry was ordered to leave the country, adding to an almost total blackout on independent and foreign media.

Love and the Law: An exerpt from Bulleh Shah (Required reading if you have studied the law)

Bulleh Shah (1680 – 1757) was a Punjabi Sufi poet, a humanist and philosopher from what is now considered Pakistan. As one of the leading figures in social thought and spiritualism, Bulleh Shah continually challenged the norms of society, be it materialism or hate for one’s fellow man.

While his work is expansive, the following passage was picked for a personal reason.  Throughout my career as a law school student I have felt an internal stuggle between what I would call my “Universal Self” (or innate sensibility of “fairness”) and the technical nature of the law as embraced by practioners and academics. Several justices over the years, the worst of which is Justice Scalia, have treated the cases that come before the US Supreme Court as a time to showcase thier talent of rationally explaing a inhuman or heartless decision by the court.

Most law school students in the first year, before they have been indoctrinated to accept the notion that injustice can/must be done in order to maintain the court’s precedent, always raise questions of a court not deciding the “right way” even though the Justices were maintained a high level of technical legal analysis. That is because we come into law school believing in our own internal moral compass, again what I would call a relationship to the Universal Self, and the process of learning the law forces one to take actions that may violate one’s own moral code becuase it is the “technically” correct thing to do.  

So I present Bulleh Shah’s verse which I will label as Love and Law. Though he presents teh argument as lambasting the laws created around religions by organizations and priests, but it easily translates to the abject focus on technical rationality in the modern legal forum.  This has been a more significant and epiphany inducing peice than anything I have read in law school- so for all the young lawyers, PLEASE READ THIS!

Love and Law are struggling in the human heart.
The doubt of the heart will I settle by relating questions of Law
And the answers of Love I will describe, holy Sir;

Law says go to the Mullah (priest) and learn the rules and regulations.
Love answers, “One letter is enough, shut up and put away other books.”
Law says: Perform the five baths and worship alone in the temple (reffering to the 5x daily prayer of Muslims) 
Love says: Your worship is false if you consider yourself seperate from the Universal Self.

Law says: Have shame and hide the enlightenment
Love says: What is this veil for? Let the vision be open
Law says: Go inside the mosque and perform the duty of prayer
Love says: Go to the wine-house and drinking the wine, read a prayer

Law says: Let us go to heaven; we will eat the fruits of heaven
Love says: There, we are custodians or rulers, and we ourselves will distribute the fruits of heaven
Law says: O faithful one, come perform the hajj (pilgrimage), you have to cross the bridge
Love says: The door of the Beloved (God/Allah) is in ka’baa; from there I will not stir 

Law says:  We placed Shah Mansur (a contraversial Sufi Saint) on the stake
Love says: You did well, you made him enter the door of the Beloved (God/Allah)
THE RANK OF LOVE IS THE HIGHEST HEAVEN, THE CROWN OF CREATION.
OUT OF LOVE, HE (Allah/ God) has created Bulleh, humble, and from dust.   

Bahraini Woman Willing to Fast Unto Death if Family is Not Released

Zainab al-Khawaja
 A Bahraini woman who witnessed her father, a well-known human rights activist, being seized by masked soldiers, beaten unconscious and then taken into custody, has told the Guardian that she is willing to die on hunger strike unless he is released. Zainab al-Khawaja, 27, will today enter her fourth day without food in protest at the violent arrest and subsequent disappearance of the outspoken dissident Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, along with her husband and brother-in-law.

Zainab, who was brought up in exile in Denmark, is taking only water, and told the Guardian she is already feeling weak, with breast-feeding sapping her strength faster than she had expected. She says she will leave her 18-month-old child with family members if she dies.

Around a dozen masked and heavily armed soldiers, apparently from Bahrain‘s special forces, stormed her apartment in the capital, Manama, at 2am on Saturday. Her father had previously called for Bahrain’s king to face trial for murder, torture and corruption. The family’s attempts to find out from the police what has happened to the men have failed and they fear they are being tortured. Zainab, who started her fast on Monday, said she now dreams about her father’s fate.

“I am willing to go all the way,” she said. “Either they come out or I will not eat. I don’t care where it ends up.” Asked whether she was willing to die, she replied: “Yes. It is difficult with a child but I am willing to make that sacrifice. My daughter has great aunts and grandmothers who will look after her if anything happens to me … We have the feeling that sacrifices are necessary to bring changes to our country, but what is making it harder is the way the world is reacting. Still the US administration is standing with the dictator here.”

Her threat to take her own life came amid signs that the Bahraini regime is toughening its stance against pro-democracy activists. Yesterday was the funeral of the third protester to die in police custody this month. Chanting mourners in Manama pulled the burial cloth off Kareem Fakhrawi, a member of Wifaq, a leading Shia opposition group, to reveal a puncture wound to his neck, extensive bruising across his upper arms, sides and abdomen, and lesions around his lower leg and ankle.

Zainab is documenting her starvation on her Twitter account under the name angryarabiya. On the site she explains: “I love democracy & freedom. Therefore, I hate Arab dictators, and American neo-colonialism. Wanna know why Arabs are angry, I’ll tell u.” More than 8,000 people have signed up to follow her. Human Rights Watch yesterday called on Bahrain’s public prosecutor to investigate deaths in custody reported since 3 April, citing “signs of horrific abuse” on the body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who died after turning himself in to the police, who had threatened to detain members of his family if he did not.

The authorities alleged he had tried to run a policeman over in a car during an anti-government protest. The interior ministry issued a statement published in Bahrain newspapers saying that he had “created chaos” in a detention centre “which led security forces to bring the situation under control”. The ministry attributed the death in custody of Zakariya Rashid Hassan, 40, arrested on charges of calling for the overthrow of the regime, to “sickle cell anaemia complications” despite his brother showing Human Rights Watch a photo he said he took during pre-burial cleansing which showed a wound on his right shoulder, a gash on his nose and blood that had issued from his ears and lips.

If those responsible are not stopped soon the number of dead in custody will exceed those killed during the protest,” the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights warned yesterday. A coalition of 19 Middle Eastern human rights organisations also condemned Bahrain’s latest crackdown and warned that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja “is at great risk of being subjected to additional torture and ill-treatment while being detained incommunicado”.

The government remains defiant in the face of allegations that they are violating human rights, and Khalid al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, posted on Twitter that al-Khawaja “is not a reformer … he called for the overthrow of the legitimate regime … he violently resisted the arrest and had to be subdued”. In an account of the raid posted on her website, Zainab al-Khawaja described how her father was “grabbed by the neck, dragged down a flight of stairs and then beaten unconscious in front of me”.

“He never raised his hand to resist them, and the only words he said were: ‘I can’t breathe,'” she wrote. “Even after he was unconscious, the masked men kept kicking and beating him while cursing and saying that they were going to kill him.”

She said the special forces also beat up her husband, Wafi Almajed, and her brother-in-law, Hussein Ahmed, but their focus was on her father, who they repeatedly called “the target” during the raid. She is also demanding the release of her uncle, Salah al-Khawaja, arrested three weeks ago.  Zainab said yesterday: “Before they arrested people you thought, yes, they may be tortured, but you will see them again. Now you can’t be sure.

She added that the spate of deaths in custody appears to be a deliberate government tactic to increase fear among dissidents. “The government seems to be proud of this because they are the ones announcing the deaths.”  “It’s outrageous and cruel that people are taken off to detention and the families hear nothing until the body shows up with signs of abuse,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to explain why this is happening, put a stop to it, and hold anyone responsible to account.”

Amnesty International estimates the government is holding more than 400 activists over protests that began on 14 February. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said the number is more than 600.

Charles Kenny- Dont Mess With Taxes

Published in Foreign Policy

Every spring, the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group, announces Tax Freedom Day: the date by which the average employed American will have earned enough income to pay off his or her taxes for the year. This year, that day will be April 12. The Adam Smith Institute, a London-based, free-market think tank that makes a similar calculation for Britain, suggests that British taxpayers will have to work until around May 30 to pay off their own dues.

Tax Freedom Day is a clever-enough gimmick if your aim is to stir up ire over the government stealing income that rightfully belongs to the good people who have earned it through the toil of their labors. In an environment where Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher is considered an expert on fiscal policy, it might even work. But it is worth remembering that, from a global perspective, how much we earn is actually 95 percent luck and maybe 5 percent toil. And it isn’t heavy-taxing big government that affects your income — it’s bad government.

The idea that anyone who works hard enough can become rich is a powerful one; for Americans, it’s not just appealing but central to national identity. The problem is that this vision of social mobility doesn’t hold true within the United States — and on a global scale, it’s just plain silly. The reason you earned as much as you did last year has far less to do with how hard you worked than with where and to whom you were born. In the United States, of those children born to parents in the bottom 10 percent of incomes, around one-third remain at the bottom as adults, and over half remain in the bottom 20 percent. Only one out of 77 children born into the bottom 10 percent of incomes reaches the top 10 percent as an adult, according to Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

But the advantages of being born rich rather than poor in America — large though they are — pale in comparison with the advantages of being born in a wealthy country rather than a developing one. The average rural Zambian will enjoy a lifetime income of about $10,000, compared with a lifetime income of around $4.5 million for the average resident of New York City. That’s not because Zambians are all soulless and corrupt. It’s because a Zambian with the same skills, intelligence, and drive earns a lot less in Zambia than she would in the United States — as is made abundantly clear every time a Zambian moves to the United States and starts earning a lot. The same people doing exactly the same job earn much, much more if they move from a poor to a rich country to do that job. In 1995, a construction carpenter’s wage in India was $42 a month. In Mexico, it was $125 a month. A South Korean carpenter, by contrast, made almost 10 times what his Mexican counterpart did; an American one made almost 20 times more.

For those of us lucky enough to be living in a rich country, are taxes really holding us back from a life of ease? In a word, no. Over the (not very) long term, it isn’t tax rates that decide how much money you take home — it is rates of economic growth. If a British person in 1984 paid no taxes at all, receiving as manna from heaven infrastructure, health care, education, policing, pensions, welfare benefits, and all the other services that the state provides, his or her take-home income (adjusted for inflation) would still be below that of post-tax Britons today. The same would be true of an American in 1988. People in the West are lucky enough to have been born in — or nearly as lucky to have moved to — countries that have seen a lot of economic growth over the past two centuries. That’s the reason they’re rich.

 Of course, an anti-tax advocate would respond that low taxes and a correspondingly small government are the secret to a country’s riches — an idea that is appealing, widespread, and very wrong. The last 100 years or so have seen the fastest rates of global economic growth in history; they’ve also seen the biggest governments of all time. From William Easterly and Sergio Rebelo writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research to Ross Levine and David Renelt in the American Economic Review (as well as numerous other analyses), economists have consistently failed to find robust cross-country evidence that a government’s size — measured by tax take or spending as a percentage of GDP — has any bearing, positive or negative, on its economic growth. Want further proof? Many developing countries see personal income tax receipts that would make a Tea Partier tip his tri-cornered hat in admiration, amounting to less than 2 percent of GDP. If a small income tax burden really was the determining factor in driving growth, those countries would all be richer than Luxembourg.

But while there isn’t a proven link between government size and economic growth, there is an important relationship between the quality of government and growth. If a government can’t ensure a basic level of security, stability, fair dealing, and public goods like infrastructure and education, whether it’s large or small is irrelevant — that country will be poor. If the government is providing those basic requirements, it doesn’t matter if it’s also blowing 10 percent of its GDP on bridges to nowhere, high-tech bombers for the last war, or corporate subsidies for ethanol production — that country will be rich. Better government equals richer people — it is as simple as that.

So why do rich people think it is all about effort rather than the luck of the draw? For one thing, there’s the oft-repeated finding from social psychology that people blame their own failures on circumstances beyond their control (“I was fired because the boss never liked me”) and the failures of others on personal flaws (“He was fired because he never did any work”). The reverse also holds: People take far more credit than they should for successful performance as part of a group, particularly if they do not know other group members personally. All of us — not only the rich — are just incredibly narcissistic by nature.

The second factor is that when we make comparisons it is usually to our peers, not the world as a whole. And our peers tend to have gone to the same type of school, work in the same field, and live in the same part of the world. Within these narrow groups, income differences — however small on a national or global scale — are more likely to be about ability and hard work. The fact that you earn more than your colleague who joined the firm at the same time as you did probably does have something to do with your different personal characteristics. The fact that you earn more than a peasant farmer in Lesotho doesn’t. At the same time, you rarely stop to care about how much a peasant farmer in Lesotho earns — despite the fact that the income gap between you and the farmer is many multiples larger than the gap between you and your colleague. However powerful our psychological foibles and narrow frames of reference may be, though, they are beside the point when it comes to public policy.

There are lots of reasons to hate current tax codes — not least because they are ridiculously complex and stuffed with loopholes for groups that can afford the best lobbyists. And governments the world over remain wasteful and spendthrift — including America’s, of course. Especially in poor countries, people ought to be focused on making government more efficient, equitable, and transparent — an effort that will entail lower government revenues in some cases and less government regulation in lots of cases. But the focus should be on better government, not smaller government. And the idea that taxation takes money that is rightfully ours alone, or that if only we managed to reduce the tax burden by a few percentage points we’d all be rich, is laughable. If you are in a wealthy country and it is tax time, be thankful you live somewhere where government works — and pay up.

Foreign Policy Magazine: Obama Should Assist Syrian Democracy-Protestors


The regime of Bashar al-Asad faces unprecedented and unexpected challenges from peaceful protestors demanding political change. Across Syria, citizens have taken to the streets, initially calling for little more than political and economic reforms. The regime responded with force, killing dozens of unarmed demonstrators. As in other cases across the region, regime violence has hardened the determination of the opposition, and mobilized growing numbers of Syrians to participate in mass protests. Regime collapse in Syria remains a distant prospect, but contrary to the expectations of most observers, Damascus is now in play. 

The mass protests and regime violence have left officials in Washington uncertain about how to respond. Faced with the opportunity of actively supporting an uprising against one of America’s most determined and brutal opponents in the Middle East, the Obama administration has demurred. Subsequent regime violence has not yet produced a noticeable shift in the administration’s seeming ambivalence about what to do with Damascus. Given the stakes involved in the Syrian case, caution and prudence are not inappropriate. Sooner rather than later, however, the administration will need to figure out both how much support it is prepared to offer the Syrian uprising, and what it is prepared to do, both now and in the longer-term, should this wave of protests be snuffed out.

This was not supposed to happen. For more than two months, Syria seemed insulated from the wave of popular uprisings sweeping the region. From the regime’s perspective, quiescence reflected the legitimacy it derived from its nationalist credentials and its leadership of the “resistance front.” On Jan. 31st, President al-Asad told the Wall Street Journal that despite its “more difficult circumstances than most Arab countries,” Syria was stable because its government was “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people.”

Many analysts accepted the claim that Syria was stable, if not for the reasons Asad claimed. Stability was the result not of the regime’s legitimacy or its purported nationalist credentials, but its long history of brutally repressing dissent. Elsewhere in the region, mass uprisings shattered the “wall of fear” that had been carefully cultivated by authoritarian regimes over the course of decades. Not in Syria, where the mukhabarat state continued to cast a long, dark shadow. Moreover, many Syrians had internalized the regime’s rhetoric about the risks of disorder if the regime were not present to defend social peace at home, and the cause of resistance abroad, or the ease with which sinister forces might drag Syria into the conflicts and instability that surrounded it in Lebanon and Iraq. These, we believed, were the real reasons that Syria remained “stable.” 

No longer. The courage and defiance of Syrian protestors has given the lie to regime claims of legitimacy. Its nationalist identity and anti-Westernism could not indefinitely insulate it from demands for accountability — the radical and destabilizing notion that the regime might be held to account. Beginning with a tiny gathering of human rights activists in Damascus on March 16, moving south to the dusty border town of Deraa and its surrounding region on March 18, small gatherings of peaceful protestors signaled that the Syrian regime was not immune after all to the discontent and alienation that is fueling uprisings across the Arab world. 

Nor it seems, did the Syrian regime demonstrate any greater creativity or insight in how it has responded to protests than did its counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. In his long-awaited speech on March 30, President Asad talked about learning.  “We tell them,” he said, “that you have only one choice, which is to learn from your failure, while the Syrian people have only the choice of continuing to learn from their successes.” Precisely what the Asad regime has learned from recent events, however, is unclear. Despite the President’s rhetoric, the Asad regime has adopted the same combination of repression and concession, real bullets and false promises of reform, that have failed to appease protesters in every other case in which it has been used. 

Yet the end of “Syrian exceptionalism” does not mean that the regime’s fate is inevitable.  Protests have spread well beyond Deraa, yet they remain small and scattered. Opposition groups are poorly organized, fragmented, and face formidable obstacles to coordination.  In some areas, such as Lattakia, repression seems to have forced the opposition into near silence. Protests in Syria have not yet congealed into a mass uprising. The regime could yet regain its footing, reassert its authority, even with its claims to legitimacy severely frayed. 

Violence being deployed against the opposition is stiffening resistance, but it is also taking a toll. So are the regime’s counter-measures, including not only its carefully orchestrated pro-Asad demonstrations, but its willingness to deploy the oldest moves in the Ba`thist playbook: demonizing protestors as traitors, agents of foreign powers, and enemies of the Syrian people. However ham-fisted the President’s speech appeared to outside observers, and to many Syrians, it was virtually pitch perfect in its evocation of classic Ba`thist themes: foreign plots, Syrian steadfastness, the virtues of order, and the determination of the regime to crush its adversaries and prevail against formidable odds.  Unfortunately, the courage of Syrian protesters may not be enough to prove Asad wrong.

In channeling his father’s generation of ruthless autocrats, Bashar al-Asad has dismantled the last residual hopes that somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he might seize this moment of crisis to resurrect his self-claimed identity as a reformer. He has also thrown a large wrench into initial U.S. responses to the Syrian uprising. After the March 30 speech, the willingness of some U.S. politicians to characterize Asad as a reformer — an improbable gamble, perhaps, that by ensnaring Bashar in his own reformist claims he might be compelled to act like one — is not a viable position. It is time for the administration to re-boot its Syria policy, address the dilemma of just how much risk it is willing to take, what it will do if uprisings succeed, and how it will respond if they are successfully put down.

For the U.S., the temptation to assist in ushering in the end of the Asad regime is no doubt enormous. The possibility of tipping Syria, of supporting a transition that would not only eliminate a determined and vicious adversary of the U.S. in the Middle East, but fundamentally transform the balance of power in the region, is a prize of such vast consequence that it is hardly surprising to hear calls mounting for the Obama administration to seize the moment and actively back regime change in Damascus.

We are encouraged to imagine the possibilities such a change might bring: Iran hemmed in, its regional project in tatters; Hizballah and Hamas weakened by the loss of a leading regional sponsor and supplier of weapons; a possible democratic government in Damascus, a possible negotiating partner for Israel, perhaps even an ally of the West?  Heady stuff, to be sure. Even if such gains do not materialize, is it not in our interest to assist in removing a brutal adversary from power? Do the potential gains not outweigh the possible loses, as one prominent former U.S. diplomat to the region suggested. 

Perhaps. Yet this grand vision of a truly new Middle East rest on exceptionally wobbly foundations. This is certainly the moment for the U.S. to lend support to Syrians struggling against the Asad regime. Yet the administration should not be lulled by the sirens of regime change into acting on the presumption that things could not be worse.  Even if we acknowledge that fears of instability play into the regime’s hands, regime collapse might well be followed by a period of violent social conflict, the Lebanization of Syria, and the emergence of a regional order that is much darker and less compliant than the one held out by advocates of regime change. The growing sectarianism evident across the Gulf reminds us how quickly identity conflicts could arise in the Levant, with potentially devastating consequences. 

One critical element of such an approach must include expanded efforts to develop a coherent, capable Syrian opposition. Ultimately, the one way to respond to concerns about the instability that might accompany regime change, or the fear that what replaces the Asad regime might be worse, is to contribute to the development of a viable, democratic, alternative Syrian leadership. Rather than holding out for the vain possibility that Bashar al-Asad might bring reform to Syria, the U.S. should immediately begin to back Syria’s true democratic reformers, and strengthen the prospects for long-term regime transformation in Damascus.