The Weekly Dispatch


September 18 - 30

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for September 18 - 30!

Embassy Riots Followup:

Following the release of an inflammatory YouTube video two weeks ago, a series of protests rocked the Middle East, resulting in the storming of several American embassies and the death of the American ambassador to Libya. While the protests themselves have largely abated, given the severity of the events, I wanted to follow up on some of the aftermath of the riots.


Thousands of Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi on the 21st in frustration over the killing of the widely popular American ambassador. The protestors seized control of the headquarters of several militias, including those of Ansar al-Sharia, a Salafi group thought responsible for the ambassador’s killing. The Libyan government seized on the popular momentum on the 24th, issuing a decree that all militias not under the control of the Defense Ministry disband and leave government property. The militias pushed back, though, attacking a hotel housing members of the National Congress, injuring two people.

Libya today looks to be a power struggle between two main factions: the Islamist militias, who, while instrumental in defeating Qaddafi, are looking for a government based on strict Sharia law; and the elected government and the rest of the Libyan citizens who have shown repeatedly that they’re interested in a legitimate, mostly secular, representative government. The militias have played a valuable role in both liberating the country and in securing vital infrastructure in the post-Qaddafi power vacuum (Ansar al- Sharia, in addition to their less-laudable activities, acted as security for the main hospital in Benghazi), but ultimately they don’t share common cause with the Libyan people. The popular action on the 21st indicates the people are likely to be the victors here, but Libya has certainly not stabilized yet.


Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s highest religious authority, issued a statement on the 20th calling for Muslims to show restraint in the face of insults against the religion. A week later, though, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi joined the leaders of several other nations, including Libya and Pakistan, in calling for limits on free speech at the UN.

The call for limits on free speech are troubling, though anti-blasphemy laws are nothing new in the region. Morsi continues to show he is his own man: though he seems sincerely interested in a democratic Egypt, he seems in no way interested in pandering to the west or America. He does seem interested in stability in the region, though - especially stability fostered by a resurgent Egypt - and that does line up with American interests. The Grand Mufti’s statements are laudable, though I frankly don’t know how much weight they will carry. He is already known as a moderate, and has made his opinion on extremism clear, which means he may not have a lot of influence over the sort of groups which were involved in the embassy riots.


The Pakistani government declared a national holiday on Friday the 21st, encouraging peaceful protests over the film. The protests rapidly turned violent, leading to 19 deaths and more than 160 people wounded. A Pakistani Cabinet Minister offered a $100,000 reward for the death of the person behind the film.

Pakistan is the most dangerous and unstable country in the region right now. The ISI (Pakistani Intelligence) has used Islamic extremist organizations as proxies in Afghanistan and India for the better part of two decades, and these groups and their offspring are now entrenched in Pakistan. Several analysts have written about the rising tide of Islamism in the Pakistani Military, suggesting the organization might not be able to be counted upon should Pakistan attempt to take control of its northern territories. The Pakistani government practically endorsed the riots, and the bounty offer is illegal in the country but appears to have drawn little more than faint condemnation.

The US Drone program in Pakistan is partially responsible for Pakistan’s recent turn towards extremism - I will have more on this topic later.


Mass protests broke out in Spain on Tuesday as protestors marched on Parliament to protest planned austerity measures. The protests were met with a harsh response by riot police, with around 32 people injured in the melee. Meanwhile, in Greece, the Guardian reports that the police are increasingly referring citizens to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party to settle law enforcement matters.

Despite every scrap of evidence to the contrary, the EU continues to push austerity as a panacea for Europe’s woes. While the protests in Spain are notable (as are those in Portugal, Greece, France, and Italy), the Guardian’s report from Greece is much more troubling. The biggest danger in the Eurozone is posed by groups like Golden Dawn. Economic matters can generally be dealt with, but the breakdown of civil society and the increased prominence of fascist groups presents a very real danger not just to Greece but to the rest of Europe. The rise of the national socialist and fascist groups of the 1930’s was in no small way a response to the economic hardships of the era - Golden Dawn’s ascent in Greece should make policymakers extremely nervous.


The Islamist militant group al-Shabaab was routed from its last stronghold, the city of Kismayo, by Kenyan troops on Friday. The group has sworn to continue to fight as a guerrilla force.

This is another piece of good news for Somalia following the elections earlier this year. If al-Shabaab keeps its promise to switch to insurgency-style tactics, Somalia could be in for a rough time, though the country is still in a better position now that the group has been routed from all its territory. It remains to be seen whether the country can keep these gains after the African Union forces depart: al-Shabaab is itself the offspring of an earlier Islamist group that was routed from Somalia in 2006. Somalia has been a country without an effective government since 1991, so it’s entirely too early to declare victory.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


August 27 - September 17

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for August 27 - September 17!

Obviously I’m off schedule this week, but I wanted to make sure to cover the riots at the Embassies. I should be back on schedule for the next Dispatch. This is a long one, and includes some content written a couple weeks ago.

Embassy Riots

On September 11th, following the release of a film insulting Islam, a group of ultraconservative Islamists rioted at the US Embassy in Cairo, scaling the embassy walls and replacing the American flag with an Islamist flag. On the same day, riots outside the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya escalated into an attack on the embassy that left the US Ambassador to Libya and three other state department employees dead. Over the following few days, protests erupted in Yemen, Sudan, Tunesia, Lebanon, and several other countries.

This was the first time a US Ambassador has been killed since 1988. The attacks came as a shock in the wake of the Arab Spring, which many in the West watched with optimism, so it’s worth taking a close look at what really happened here.

The Film

The backstory behind the film is bizarre. The production quality is absolutely atrocious, and all of the dialogue mentioning Mohammed or Islam in the film was clearly dubbed after production. Both the cast and the crew of the film have stated they were deceived about the purpose of the film, claiming they were told it was about an Egyptian warlord from 2000 years ago. The film appears to be the sole brainchild of its producer, a Coptic Christian parolee who appears to have been responsible for dubbing the dialogue. The film was promoted by various right-wing and Coptic groups, including Pastor Terry Jones of Florida, famous for burning Korans, and was published on YouTube in Arabic a few days before Sept. 11. It somehow came to the attention of the religious establishment in Egypt and was widely decried, with both the Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa and the Muslim Brotherhood calling for protests over the movie. From there, word of the obscure film spread throughout the Middle East, prompting calls for protests from religious leaders.

The video itself is ultimately irrelevant. It was such a hatchet-job of a film and produced with such limited support that it’s more an act of vandalism than a proper piece of media: the film was obviously never designed to be watchable, it was designed to pack as much vitriol and blasphemy into 14 minutes as possible. It’s the equivalent of a Westboro church protest - blatant shit-stirring - and it’s a good bet most of the protestors hadn’t actually seen the film.

So if the film doesn’t matter, then what happened in the streets?

The Protests

It’s worth splitting the events out into three areas: Libya, Egypt, and the rest of the region.

The protests at the Libyan embassy resulted in the deaths of four State Department workers, including the Libyan ambassador. The people who killed the ambassador, though, were not protestors. They were heavily armed, with assault rifles, rockets, and smoke grenades, and apparently pursued the ambassador some way before managing to kill him. The Libyan security forces apparently fought back strongly, and the newly-elected Libyan parliament issued a rapid and strong apology and denunciation of the killing. It appears the ambassador’s killing was premeditated, and the protests were either used as cover or stirred up for the purpose. There are two lessons from Libya: The first is that the country is far from under control, and Salafist (ultra- conservative Islamist) militant groups are largely free to operate at will. This is bad. The second, though, is that the new Libyan government will engage with the west. They are not strong enough yet even to exert control over the whole country, but as the new government develops, it looks to be a possible ally in the region. This is good.

The protests started first in Egypt, and were strongest there, stretching for several days and involving street fights with security forces. There were peaceful protests, but several of the more hard-line Salafist groups took the opportunity to exert themselves in the street. The concerning part is that the Egyptian security forces, which, unlike Libyan forces, can still exert control of the streets, did not contain the protests for the first couple of days. More concerning was the new Egyptian president Morsi’s long wait before decrying the violence at the embassies - it took a call from President Obama and a reminder of the several billion dollars of aid money Egypt is expecting from the US to jar him into action. This is concerning: it implies Morsi either politically cannot decry the expressions of the ultra-conservative elements in Egypt or is not willing to do so. While some changes in the US/Egypt relationship were expected after the Mubarak government fell, the US has been sincere in its efforts to promote democracy in Egypt. Morsi’s first reaction, combined with calls by his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, for more protests in the streets following the embassy violence, are not a good sign for future US/Egypt relations. The death of the Libyan ambassador was a tragedy, but events in Egypt may well cast a longer shadow.

Events in both Libya and Egypt still fit into the broader regional landscape. Ultra-conservative Islamist elements have been a feature of the region for some time - the Arab Spring moved the dictators out of the way, which means these groups are more visible, but they’ve been there all along, along with anti-Western sentiment. This doesn’t mean these are majority positions - though in several countries, they appear to be significant enough that governments are having to tread carefully in dealing with the protests. The Arab Spring was (rightly) cheered in the West, but many of the dictators replaced survived in part because they were supported by the West and because they cracked down on exactly the sort of ultra-conservative groups which have promoted these protests. I don’t think the sentiments expressed over the last few days are broadly representative, but it’s a fair bet it will take some time to figure out exactly what form the relationship will take between the West and the nations of the Middle East.


Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, announced on September 6 a plan for open-ended, unlimited purchases of distressed sovereign European debt by the bank. The move, by far the most aggressive by the bank, would still tie bond purchases to austerity measures, but does promise to lower borrowing rates across the Eurozone.

If the ECB had announced this plan two years ago, the Eurozone wouldn’t be where it is now. The continued demands for austerity are unfortunate, but likely a political necessity to get the plan approved. The new plan doesn’t solve all of Europe’s problems - Spain, Italy, and Greece all still face significant economic hurdles, but Draghi has managed to finally backstop the Eurozone: if the ECB actually goes through with the bond purchases, the EU will now be able to avoid a sovereign default. The big remaining question is whether Germany will go along with the plan. The Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, was the one “No” vote for the ECB’s plans, and German courts are deciding this week whether the European Stabilization Fund (the previous attempt to save the Euro) will go through. It’s still possible for Europe to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but for the time being, this is extremely good news.

US Economy

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced a new bond purchasing program aimed at stimulating the lackluster US economy on the 14th. The new program will largely aim to buy mortgage bonds to increase consumer spending, and does not have a fixed duration, with the Fed announcing it will continue the program even after the economy starts to pick back up.

The Fed’s actions are unlikely to have an immediate or drastic effect on the economy. Interest rates are already exceedingly low, and it’s unlikely lower rates will spur much more spending than they have already. Paradoxically, the Fed’s promise to keep rates low until at least 2015 is part of the reason this move won’t strongly affect the current economic outlook: Anyone looking to borrow knows rates will stay low, and most borrowers are still facing a slow and uncertain economy. Still, the size and length of this program, and its implicit promise to allow some inflation, should help push the economy forward a bit - for all its other maneuvers, the Fed so far has been extremely timid when facing any prospects of inflation, which has limited the size, duration, and impact of previous acts. With inflation well below two percent, the Fed has finally decided the job market is the more pressing concern.

The current economic climate isn’t crying for monetary (Fed) stimulus. Interest rates have been as low as they’ve ever been for several years now, with salutary effects in the financial markets but little apparent effect on the broader economy. The problem is and continues to be high unemployment and low demand, not lack of funding. The fundamental mechanism by which monetary policy aims to affect the economy is by making money and loans cheaper, and therefore inducing borrowing and spending - but without demand and with uncertain economic prospects, few businesses are willing to invest in anything right now. Compounding the problem is the “Fiscal Cliff” slated for the beginning of next year, in which expiring tax cuts and draconian budget cuts aim to put another brake on an economy that’s almost in reverse. What the economy needs right now is proper leadership, not more money, and Bernanke has been urging Congress to do something, anything, for the better part of a year now. It looks like the Federal Reserve has finally decided that, whatever little benefit their action may have, it’s better than nothing, especially if Congress fails to act before next year.


Note: This section was written before the embassy events occurred.

It was brought to my attention last dispatch that I hadn’t covered Bahrain - this is true. The bulk of the events in Bahrain occurred last year before I began writing the Dispatch, but it’s a story that deserves to be heard, and the situation continues. There’s quite a bit to unpack here, so this is going to be a long section.


Bahrain is an island nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. A small, oil-rich nation, its population is around 500-600 thousand, though at any given time there are several hundred thousand expatriates from other nations. The country is predominantly Muslim, and predominantly (60-70%) Shia. It has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family, a Sunni tribe, since the late 1700s, and the al-Khalifas have relied heavily on sectarian tensions to keep power. Bahrain is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Arab oil-producing nation on the Arabian Peninsula, and is the home of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf.

The Uprising and the Crackdown

Al Jazeera produced an excellent documentary on the Bahraini uprising in June, entitled “Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark”. I recommend watching that for a more in-depth (and certainly more visceral) background.

The Bahraini uprising began February of last year as the local expression of the Arab Spring. Three days of peaceful protests at Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain calling for a more representative government and equal rights for the majority Shia population ended in violence with a pre-dawn raid by the police which resulted in the deaths of four protestors. The following day, the army opened fire on a group of protestors marching back to the square, killing one more protestor and wounding several more. The attacks sparked even larger protests, this time calling for the King’s ouster, and by February 22, more than 150,000 Bahrainis had joined the protests at Pearl Roundabout - Bahrain’s population is around 500,000.

On March 14, after several more weeks of protest, the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to send troops to help the Bahraini monarchy put down the rebellion, sending thousands of troops, mostly from Saudi Arabia, to Bahrain. On March 15th, the King declared a state of emergency, and on the 16th, more than 5000 troops stormed Pearl Roundabout, violently clearing the plaza. Over the following weeks, security forces systematically targeted protestors and opposition figures, invading the hospitals and arresting doctors who treated protestors, knocking down Shia mosques, and beating, arresting, and torturing opposition figures. Since then, the government has continued targeting Shia neighborhoods - a recent report by Physicians for Human Rights called out the Bahraini security forces for firing tear gas directly into houses in Shia neighborhoods, which can cause severe medical problems.

The crackdowns in March fractured the popular movements. Protests and crackdowns have continued since, and the government seems caught between a reformist faction led by the Crown Prince, which has attempted to negotiate with the opposition, and a hardline faction led by the Prime Minister. Arrests of opposition leaders have continued, and the government has stepped up rhetoric decrying the protests as Iranian-led Shia machinations aimed at destabilizing the country.


It’s worth noting that the Bahraini crackdown is the first time the Peninsula Defense Force, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s security force, has ever actually engaged an opponent. That it’s first real use was to put down a popular uprising is extremely telling. There’s also some question as to the amount of latitude in dealing with the protests the al-Khalifas actually have given their reliance on Saudi Arabia - the Saudis have been just as ardent in putting down any sign of a Shia uprising in their own country, and are generally extremely hostile towards the Shia.

There’s an opening for Iran to stir the pot in Bahrain as well: Bahrain’s uprising is mostly Shia, increasingly sectarian (due to the government’s own actions), and is already creeping towards violence. Given the proximity of the country to Iran, and the fact that groups with Iranian ties have operated there in the past, there’s a genuine possibility Iran could eyeball Bahrain as a cheap way to sow chaos in the back yard of two of its regional foes. Increased instability or a truly violent Shia uprising in the country would cause significant problems for both Saudi Arabia, which has managed to keep a lid on its own Shia population over the last year, and the US, which would be faced with the prospect of a violent insurrection right outside one of its largest and most important naval bases.

For the US, the Bahraini uprising and the al-Khalifa’s violent reaction should prompt some introspection as to our geopolitical ties. American hands have largely been tied in Bahrain due to both the strategic importance of the naval base and our reliance on Saudi Arabia’s petro-largesse to bankroll our other adventures in the region. In short, because of our oil dependency, we’ve been unable to even comment loudly as the autocratic rulers of a regime we heavily support violently repressed their own people. Among the dividends of the world’s largest military and deepest pockets is apparently not genuine strategic autonomy: our silence as the Bahraini Shia have been abused by their own government does grave harm to our image in the region and provides further material for those rallying against us. Our energy problem leads us to back dangerous autocrats, push coups, spend trillions of dollars on occupations and other military adventurism, ignore overwhelming evidence of climate change, spoil natural habitats, and sow instability around the world. There is simply not a single other strategic US objective that has done more to tarnish our image, destroy our credibility, and force us to either engage in or support despicable, immoral behavior than our reliance on petroleum, and Bahrain’s crackdown, and our impotence throughout, should be cause for serious reflection.

Additional Reading

* In the Kingdom of Tear Gas - Gregg Carlstrom for the Middle East Research and Information Project * Bahrain’s triangle of conflict - Reza H. Akbari, Jason Stern for Foreign Policy * A Revolution Paused in Bahrain - Cortni Kerr, Toby Jones for MERIP



The Iraqi vice president, a Sunni, was sentenced to death by the predominantly Shia government for allegedly running a death squad in Iraq.


The new Somali parliament elected a former political activist, Hassan Sheik Mohamud, as its new president. Mohamud survived an almost immediate attempt on his life the next day while giving a press conference.

Thanks again for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!


August 13 - 26

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for August 13 - 26!

My new schedule is working out much better for me - I think this is much closer to a sustainable pace given the rest of my workload, and it also helps smooth out the news cycle a bit, though I do worry about landing slightly behind the curve on some stories. More tweaks to come, I think, but for now, let’s get started!


Iran kicked off the two day summit of the Non-Aligned Movement on Sunday. The summit is attended by delegates from more than 118 nations, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Earlier in the week, the New York Times reported that Iranian currency traders are now heading to Afghanistan and to Iraq to skirt sanctions and to obtain US currency.

The Iranians are using the NAM summit to show they are not nearly as isolated internationally as the US has claimed. With more than 120 nations, including the leaders of two US allies and the UN Secretary General in attendance, the point is well made. India in particular has been resistant to the US’s efforts, and has improved its trade ties with Iran in the past couple years (though they’re likely getting good prices - the sanctions on Iran haven’t been completely toothless). The reports about currency trading in Afghanistan and Iraq are especially stinging for the US: both countries have been the recipients of enormous amounts of US spending, the very currency being traded to the Iranians in violation of US sanctions.

The picture painted is of both the limits of US influence and the growing capability of non-Western nations. Iran is being protected in the UN by Russia and China; it is being supported economically by China and India; and Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all worked to improve their ties with the country this year. Despite the US’s best efforts, Iran remains both a regional power and an integral member of the international community. The sanctions have taken their toll, but the threat of attack by the US seems distant now - by all evidence, the US (rightly) sees a nuclear Iran as manageable, and certainly there’s no plan to do anything important before November 6th. This leaves an Israeli strike as the remaining wildcard. Given the very public dissent over the wisdom or timing of such a move among the Israeli elite and clear lack of US support for an attack, that seems unlikely for the time being.


On Monday, President Obama warned Syria that the US Military could intervene in Syria were there signs of chemical weapons either being used or being transferred or lost to outside groups. The conflict in Syria is spilling over the Lebanese border, culminating this week in a spate of kidnappings between rival Sunni and Shiite families.

The US continues to resist getting involved militarily in Syria, but Obama’s statement is the second very public warning over its chemical weapons, which are the one factor that would force US action, at least on a limited scale. Unfortunately, there are very few scenarios now which wouldn’t prompt US intervention. The Saudis and the other Gulf States won’t let the Free Syrian Army fail, which means that unless the Alawite regime throws Assad overboard in a bid for peace, the conflict becomes a fight for survival for Assad. The longer the fight drags on and the more desperate things get for the current regime, the more likely it is the chemical weapons get deployed. Even if Assad gets deposed without using the weapons, the chaos following the government’s collapse would provide too ripe an opportunity for enterprising groups to make off with them.

Global Economy

The economy of the Eurozone as a whole contracted last quarter, as modest growth in France and Germany was offset by sharp contractions in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Finland. The UK also dropped back into recession, contracting by 0.5% in the second quarter. Meanwhile, the US Fed indicated that it might start a third round of monetary stimulus to help boost the flagging US economy.

After two and a half years of austerity-only policy, both the EU and the UK are back in recession. Policymakers have now tried austerity-only policies in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal, and the results are absolutely awful across the board. There’s not a single country where austerity policies have resulted in anything looking like growth, and yet policymakers keep doubling down across Europe. So far the US has dodged the Austerity bullet and stayed out of another recession because the Federal Reserve is politically independent. Calls for austerity in the middle of the recession were insane three years ago and are just batshit now - no one sound of mind can look at the numbers coming out of Europe and have any illusions that austerity is a viable growth-producing policy.



Three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after what was largely seen as a politically motivated show trial. The ruling prompted outrage in the west - though as the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins pointed out in an editorial, Russia is hardly alone in jailing its citizens to “send a message,” and the US’s outrage rings particularly hollow following the crackdown on the Occupy movement this last year.


Somalia swore in a new Parliament this week in a process that, while flawed, has prompted hope for the future of the nation. With the help of the international community, Somalia has managed to both curb piracy and largely remove Al Shabab, raising hopes for the future of the chronically chaotic country.

Final Thoughts

One more story popped up that I didn’t get to cover above:

From the NYT: Capitol Dome Is Imperiled by 1,300 Cracks and Partisan Rift

The Capitol dome is in dire need of repairs - it’s cracked, leaking, and starting to rust. The bill for the repairs, though, is $61M, and the House won’t approve the money because of budget concerns this year.

There’s fiscal prudence, and then there’s watching the crown jewels of the nation collapse in upon themselves. It would be difficult to conceive of more potent symbolism than seeing the Capitol dome collapse due to Congress’s bizarre fixation on austerity at a time when interest on federal debt is practically zero and the unemployment rate is still above 8%.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!


July 29 - August 12

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for July 29 - August 12!

As you’ve no doubt noticed, the Dispatch has been rather inconsistent recently. While I enjoy writing the Dispatch, it’s rather a lot of work, and I’ve been having a hard time balancing it against the rest of my schedule. Because of that, I’m shifting the Dispatch to a biweekly schedule for the foreseeable future. Sorry for the recent inconsistency - as always, the Dispatch is a work in progress!

South China Sea

The Chinese government appointed a legislature of 45 people and a garrison of soldiers to govern a group of small islands in the South China Sea in a move widely seen as an attempt to assert China’s claim to more than 770,000 square miles of disputed territory. China has been increasingly bold in its attempts to assert its claims in the South China Sea, sending patrol ships throughout the region and issuing stern warnings against American intervention in what they see as their territory. Other nations in the region have begun responding to China’s posturing: The Philippines are dramatically increasing military spending and building closer ties with the US, while Vietnam, whose territorial waters most overlap the Chinese claim, announced they would hold live-fire naval exercises in the region.

China’s claims to the sea, the so-called ”nine-dotted line,” overlap the territorial claims of nearly every other country in the region. The country has dramatically stepped up its attempts to assert its claim this year, which has alarmed both neighboring countries and the US. The islands China is claiming aren’t particularly valuable - the five islands covered by China’s new legislators are home to all of 1,100 people - but the sea itself is important to China for several reasons. From a military standpoint, the Chinese are surrounded by US allies, and the territorial waters allotted under the UN maritime treaties are too close to offer any real strategic buffer. Economically, China is determined to ensure they have access to the valuable shipping lanes through the sea. The region is also suspected of having rich deposits of minerals and oil, and are valuable fishing waters. Finally, there’s a historic element here, as well: China has a long history of influence in the region, going back through several dynasties. However, the UN Maritime Treaties were signed during a time when China was cut off from the international community; because of this, China feels it has been unfairly shut out of what is its historic claims, and does not feel particularly bound by the UN agreements. This is likely to be the single largest area of international dispute this year.


The trial of Russian punk band Pussy Riot came to a close this week, with the band members delivering their closing statements on the 8th. The band was arrested in March on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” following a performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the seat of the Russian Orthodox Church, in which they decried the Church’s open support for Putin. The trial has become the international face of the Putin regime’s crackdown on dissent, which started shortly after Putin took office for his third term.

A good rule of thumb: If the action you’re contemplating to silence critics of your rule is going to result in several months of your name plus the words “Pussy Riot” showing up in headlines around the world, you might want to reconsider. Newspapers exist to sell copies, and there are no two words in the English language more likely to do so than “Pussy” and “Riot.” Putin’s regime managed to crack down brutally on protestors following his re-election with almost no widespread notice from the wider world, which might be why they thought they could get away with a show trial for the three singers. Pussy Riot is a political performance art group: they exist to draw attention to broken political processes. In that, whatever the court ultimately decides to do with them, the group has succeeded. Nobody watching this farce can have any illusions about the nature of Putin’s rule.


Djibril Bassolé, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, traveled to northern Mali on the 8th, meeting with Iyad ag Ghali, the head of Ansar Dine, the militant Islamist group which has taken control of the region. Bassolé stated on his return that Ghali “had shown himself open to a negotiated solution.”

Ansar Dine is a group of militant outsiders who exploited the chaos in Libya and a long-running tribal feud to take control of territory that isn’t theirs, impose Sharia on those who don’t want it, destroy ancient artifacts, and create a safe haven for terrorist groups. Their presence in Northern Mali is bad for everyone in the region. It’s not immediately clear what Bassolé is attempting to accomplish here: Ansar Dine wants to keep the territory they took, and presumably everyone else wants them out - This is not a situation that would seem to call for negotiation.


The Guardian reported this week on the plight of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya ethnic group in the wake of sectarian riots which broke out in early June. Following the Military’s declaration of a state of emergency in early June, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused the Burmese police of a widespread campaign of abuses against the Rohingya, who the Burmese government do not consider citizens. Facing a flood of refugees, Bangladesh has passed laws criminalizing sheltering the Rohingya and banned aid groups attempting to help the group.

The state of the Rohingya is a sharp contrast to the otherwise good news out of Myanmar this year. While the country held relatively open democratic elections for the first time this year, the continued repression of various ethnic groups, including the Kachins in the north and the Rohingya in the west, are a serious and continued black mark on the Myanmar government. Elections, no matter how free, are not a license to ignore serious human rights violations for the Myanmar government or the rest of the world.



The Iranian Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council visited both Damascus to meet with the Assad regime and Beirut to meet with the Secretary General of Hezbollah. NightWatch points out that the apparent ease with which the Iranian minister was able to come and go in Damascus doesn’t suggest a region wracked with fighting. The situation in Syria continues to be difficult to assess due to particularly poor or ill-sourced reporting.


Egyptian President Morsi replaced several top military officials, including Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the military council which ruled Egypt after Mubarak was deposed. The decision was said to have been made in consultation with the armed forces, though it came as a shock to most outsiders; Tantawi has been the face of the Egyptian armed forces through a protracted power struggle with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s too early to tell exactly what this means, but as the move was apparently made in consultation with the armed forces and the military has so far not responded negatively, this looks more like rearranging deck chairs than any legitimate shift in Egypt’s power balance.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the weeks ahead!


July 16 - July 24

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for July 16-23!

I’m continuing on last week’s theme of covering larger, slower-developing stories. This week, we’re revisiting Syria, looking at America’s failed corn crop, and touching briefly on the latest banking scandal at HSBC.


As always, Syria has been heavy in the news the past few weeks. Three stories in particular stuck out: On July 11, Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, announced he had joined the Syrian opposition.

On July 18, a bomb blast in Damascus killed three top Syrian officials, including Assad’s brother-in-law, the Syrian Minister of Defense, and the regime’s Crisis Management Chief. Two days later, Syria’s intelligence chief died of wounds from the bombing. Finally, on July 19, the Free Syrian Army 0seized several border checkpoints, including all four crossings into Iraq, while the Syrian Army battled rebels in Damascus.

Put together, these three stories, more than any of the diplomatic maneuvering at the UN, point to the end of the Assad regime.

Al-Fares, the Iraqi ambassador, is not important just for the title he held: he is the head of a huge Sunni tribe which straddles the Syrian/Iraqi border. Syria, like much of the Middle East, is a patchwork of tribes. The Sunnis who hold a high position in the Assad regime usually do so because of family ties or political expediency, and al-Fares is no exception. His defection, more than most, could cause trouble for the regime, as his tribe is large, powerful, and is well positioned on the eastern border to cause problems for the regime.

The bombing was notable for two reasons: First, the men who were killed were significant figures in the Assad regime. Paramount among them is Assad’s brother in law, Assef Shawkat. He was seen as a central figure in the regime’s crackdown, though all four were trusted members of Assad’s inner circle. They will be extremely difficult for the regime to replace, and their absence may significantly curtail the regime’s flexibility. The bombing itself is of note as well: the attack was in the style of the Sunni extremist groups which have started to play a more prominent role in the rebellion. This is possibly the most consequential victory for the rebels so far; that it may have been accomplished by Sunni extremists is highly concerning.

Finally, the FSA border seizure validates an announcement by Israel that the Syrian army had pulled troops from the Golan Heights border region to deal with the uprising in Damascus. While several of the border crossings have since been reclaimed by the Syrian army, their seizure shows the Syrian army may be reaching a limit on where and how it can project force. They’re still better armed, better trained, and more capable than the fractious rebel forces, but they’re starting to get overwhelmed.

Overall, the picture that’s emerging doesn’t look good for the Assad regime: they’re losing support across the country, their command structure has been decapitated, and they’re running up against the limits on the Army’s ability to hold the whole Syrian territory. The concern is that there still is not a viable alternative government: there’s no single group with the support, credibility, and cohesiveness ready and able to step up as the new Syrian government.

Finally, one other story has been making the rounds: On Monday, the Syrian Interior Minister made an announcement concerning the country’s chemical weapons. He said three things: the Syrian regime was safeguarding its chemical weapons, they would not be used against Syrian civilians, and they would only be used to respond to foreign attacks. Much of the media seems to have run with the third point, saying Syria has threatened to use chemical weapons if attacked. This is a bit ridiculous. It comes as a surprise to nobody that Syria has chemical weapons; this is the first time they’ve acknowledged the fact, but it’s been well known for years that the regime has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons. It should also come as little surprise that the weapons are intended for use in case of an invasion. Sarin gas makes poor interior decoration, and indeed has few uses off the battlefield. The Syrian regime’s statement was in response to recent concerns by the US and Israel over the status of those weapons, and the message was intended to allay the sort of fears that would lead either NATO or the IDF to attempt to secure Syria’s chemical weapons. Whatever threat might have been contained in the message covered well-travelled ground, and certainly didn’t deserve the attention it has earned.


Thanks to Jon Buzan for general guidance and info

A crippling heat wave has wreaked havoc on the US corn crop, prompting the USDA to lower its output forecast by 18% and driving Corn futures up by over 40%. While a warm spring had lifted farmers’ hopes, June brought disaster: the worst drought in 56 years, with more than 55% of the country experiencing some form of drought. A weak harvest in South America earlier this year due to drought conditions is compounding the problem, and the governments of both Russia and Kazakhstan announced their crops would disappoint this year due to inclement weather. US Corn prospects are so dim that US livestock companies are looking to import corn from Brazil to make up the shortfall.

I’ll start with the elephant in the room, climate change. The short version is, it’s both extremely difficult and too early to draw conclusions about whether or not human influenced climate change had a hand in this drought. However, a recent study published by NOAA points to climate change as a likely driving factor behind a spate of severe weather events last year, indicating the likelihood of extreme weather has increased dramatically since the 1960s. Whether or not this year’s drought will be linked to climate change, both the scientific consensus and an increasing body of evidence point to human-driven carbon output as a clear threat to our climate, and, as this year’s crop shows, inclement weather is cause for concern.

Growers were perhaps overly optimistic this year too. After last year’s poor harvest, farmers took hope from an early spring and seeded more land than usual, but the mild winter may well have contributed to the severe drought sweeping the country.

The biggest issues domestically are likely to be economic. Farmers may lose most of their crops, and with it most of their revenues. Agriculture has been largely spared the recession so far – food tends to be extremely income inelastic (that is, people do not necessarily buy less as the cost goes up), especially corn-based food – but losing a crop is a different story. Insurance companies are now going to have to pay out on a far, far larger set of claims than usual, and if there’s one thing the last 5 years have taught us, it’s that when a financial company is under stress, there’s probably another one at risk too. There will be a series of ripple effects to producers of farm equipment, farm laborers, and other companies involved in the harvest, transit, storage, and processing of the grains involved. Finally, several of the states in the grain belt derive most of their state budgets from agriculture; a failed harvest could increase the number of states and municipalities facing bankruptcy, and the US economy is hardly in a place to absorb further bad news.

On a global scale, the impact is likely to be far more dire. The US exports nearly half the world’s corn and nearly a third of the world’s wheat and soy; a disaster in US agriculture is a disaster for the world. In 2008, a spike in food prices led to food riots across the globe, and the Arab Spring of 2011 coincided with another period of high food prices. The tie between food prices and global conflict has been studied extensively; little good will come of another year’s failed harvest, especially given the turmoil we’ve already seen this year.


While the LIBOR affair is still working its way through the banking system, HSBC has added another scandal to the industry: on July 17, a US Senate subcommittee released a 340-page report detailing how lax compliance controls at HSBC enabled a host of groups, from Mexican drug cartels to Saudi terrorist financiers, to move money through HSBC’s banks to and from the US, flouting money laundering laws. The report also accused the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency of turning a blind eye to HSBC’s lax controls.

The LIBOR scandal is both a more widespread and certainly a more costly scandal – the LIBOR rate affects the cost of nearly every financial transaction in the world – but this scandal deserves note because of the sheer breadth of groups HSBC did business with. It’s rare to have a single scandal involve Mexican drug cartels, Saudi Arabian terrorist financiers, Iranians, Cubans, Sudanese, and Burmese. HSBC seems to have categorically violated every single US banking sanction over a four year period; it would be difficult to imagine how they could have broken more US banking laws. The head of HSBC’s internal control division resigned, as well he should, though the chairman of the company during the period investigated by the Senate is now a British minister and thus unlikely to face significant sanction. The scope of the scandal, though, suggests problems at a large number of HSBC affiliates: this is not the product of one department, or one lax regulator, but that of a large portion of HSBC. Focusing on who specifically is to blame misses the point: HSBC as a whole apparently became a go-to shop for money launderers across the globe.

Thanks as always for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


July 1 - July 15

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for July 1 through 15!

I devoted this week to clearing a couple stories that have been simmering for a while - none of the topics this week are New, but they are ongoing and noteworthy.

Let’s get started!

LIBOR Scandal

On June 28th, the Financial Services Authority, the UK’s financial regulatory body, levied a $450M fine against Barclays Bank. The penalty is due to the findings of an investigation into attempts by the bank to manipulate the London Interbank Offered Rate, or LIBOR, one of the benchmark numbers used to set interest rates on a wide variety of financial instruments. In addition to Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, and Lloyds are also facing investigations, and a series of lawsuits filed in courts around the world suggest at least 12 other major banks were involved in the scandal.

The scale of this scandal is phenomenal. Three factors will be particularly significant:

First, while it appears UK regulators neither endorsed nor encouraged the rate fixing, they did completely fail to investigate the matter until now, and not for lack of evidence of wrongdoing. It’s hard to critique actions taken during the financial crisis, but in 2008 it seems the regulators turned a serious blind eye to bank behavior. At the same time, it’s unlikely only UK banks were involved with the crisis, so there’s a question of whether and to what degree regulators elsewhere were negligent as well.

Second, a vast, vast majority of credit instruments are indexed to LIBOR, including credit default swaps and other insurance schemes. Any companies which have been adversely affected by movements of LIBOR during the time the FSA says the rates were being manipulated may have legal claims against the banks involved. Charles Schwab has already filed suit against 16 banks, alleging the banks’ actions cost investors more than $45Bn, and it’s likely many, many more lawsuits will follow.

Finally, the scale of the scandal and the casual nature of the emails exchanged during the conspiracy period suggest, as many analysts have posited, a widespread cultural indifference to regulation in the financial services industry. In the (admittedly unlikely) event regulators decide to dig further into the banks, it’s almost certain the LIBOR scandal wasn’t the only breach of rules occurring.

In all likelihood, the result of this crisis will be a series of fines on the order of a few hundred million dollars against a few banks. Banking regulators, here and around the world, have, since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, been at great pains to describe the banks as robust, trustworthy institutions, and I’d be frankly shocked to see that change now. The fundamental problem with the financial services industry is cultural: it was cultural in 2006 and 2007 when the entire industry turned a blind eye to the house of cards that was the CDS trade; it was cultural in 2008 and 2009 when they took in billions of rescue funds, payed massive bonuses, laid huge bets with taxpayer money, and rigged LIBOR; it was cultural in 2010 and 2011 when they spent millions in profits generated from taxpayer- and federal reserve- supplied funds lobbying against regulations and oversight; and it’s cultural in 2012 when the head of Barclays testifies the Bank of England told him to rig interest rates. Regulators have been repeatedly shocked by the degree to which large, respected institutions have flouted the rules, and the reason the institutions have been willing to do so is because the regulators have been by-and-large toothless. A $450M fine is barely a slap on the wrist to a company that made $7Bn last year. Absent significant new oversight or regulation, expect more scandals of this sort.


After pushing the Malian military out of the northern half of the country, the Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine, their Islamist allies, fell out over questions of how to govern the region. After a brief conflict, Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda affiliates claimed control of the entire northern region. The Islamists have since begun destroying historic Sufi shrines and temples across the region, decrying the centuries-old monuments as un- Islamic.

The world has been slow to respond to events in northern Mali so far. This is partially due to the coup which displaced the democratically-elected government in Mali and allowed the rebel groups the opening to consolidate their hold over the northern half of the country; the leaders of the coup have behaved extremely poorly since taking control and have earned little sympathy from the leaders in the rest of the region. The rapid displacement of the (relatively moderate) Tuareg rebels by the Islamists should help spark more aggressive action, though: the groups occupying the north now are avowed al Qaeda affiliates, and the Malian army is clearly incapable of removing them on its own. The region’s proximity to Europe should help motivate the West into supporting action to bring the area back under control. Unfortunately, the damage to Timbuktu’s heritage has already been done.


US DEA agents shot and killed a suspected drug smuggler on July 3, the second incident in a month in which US agents have shot suspected traffickers in Honduras. The incidents are part of a pattern of increased DEA presence in Honduras; in May, DEA agents were involved in a botched raid that reportedly ended with four civilians dead and sparked riots in the country. Honduras has increasingly become a focal point in the War on Drugs; unlike many in the region, the country’s government is friendly to the US, and has allowed three new military bases to combat the drug trade.

In the wake of the original incident in May, the DEA stated its agents operated solely as support for Honduran troops, and would not engage in firefights unless their lives were threatened. Apparently that’s no longer the case, and given the spate of incidents DEA agents have been involved with over the last two months, it’s questionable whether that restriction ever was in place. The US’s close relationship with Honduras is particularly troubling given the current Honduran government: having won power in the wake of a 2009 coup after other opposition parties withdrew in protest, the administration of President Lobo has been accused of a series of politically motivated killings and other human rights abuses. The US’s increased presence comes as always with heavily increased military aid, which will help shore up the repressive government.

Honduras’s problems with smuggling and drug gangs are the same faced across the region: Heavy demand from the US combines with corrupt law enforcement officials to enable narco-cartels to operate with impunity in the region. The US’s response so far has been to flood countries along the smuggling routes with money and military equipment while pressing for wildly unpopular policies such as forced aerial eradication of suspected opium farms and aggressive military interdiction of suspected smugglers. The net result has been to increase the overall levels of violence, provide weapons and training to corrupt military officials (the Zetas, now one of the most violent and powerful cartels in the region, began as US-trained counter-narco troops), and to generally alienate the populace. The policy has not materially affected the availability of drugs in the US, and has cost us dearly overseas.

Everywhere they operate, the cartels are enabled by corrupt officials and complicit governments. US policy aims would be furthered far more by promoting solid, competent, transparent, accountable governance in the region than by paramilitary raids. In that light, that the US has doubled down on the Honduran project is rather disheartening.

Final Thoughts

All three of these stories exist because of the limitations of our current political climate: the LIBOR scandal is a product of years of economic zeitgeist that have severely constrained our ability to properly regulate financial institutions; our escalating affair with a corrupt Honduras reflects our inability to objectively evaluate the War on Drugs; and Mali’s crisis, and the potential danger it presents to the rest of the world, persist because the West has war fatigue after a decade bogged down in the Middle East. These are stories that shouldn’t have happened.

(Ok, that was a bit of a down note to end on. Here’s a video of fainting goats to wash it down with.)

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead! Eric

June 26 - July 1

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 26 - July 1!

Health Care

The Supreme Court ruled the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, though only when interpreted as a tax. The ruling, anxiously awaited by both parties, affirms one of the Obama administration’s signature accomplishments. Surprisingly, the deciding vote was that of Chief Justice Roberts, widely seen as a conservative justice, who joined the four liberal justices in forming the majority.

The Supreme Court ruling is a big win for the Obama Administration, but Roberts’ opinion is more notable for the why than the what. Roberts treated the mandate as a tax because it lacks any serious associated criminal charge, but in doing so he also rejected the Administration’s assertion that the mandate was allowed under the Constitution’s Commerce clause, which states Congress can regulate interstate commerce. The Commerce clause, along with the Necessary and Proper clause, have formed the constitutional underpinnings for a vast array of federal laws since the early 1800s. In ruling the mandate was not allowed under the Commerce clause, Roberts set a limiting precedent on what can be covered as Commerce, and thus what Congress can regulate or legislate. I suspect this will be the true long-term effect of the Court’s ruling, whatever the eventual fate of the PPACA.


With 95% of the vote counted, official polls from Mexico’s presidential elections showed Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ahead by 6%.

The PRI ruled Mexico for 71 years, gaining a reputation for corruption and electoral fraud that lead to their eventual ouster in 2000. Since then, Mexico has faced a host of problems, including a faltering economy and an increasingly bloody drug war, which may explain PRI’s recent success at the polls. There may be other factors at play, too: a week before the elections, the Guardian revealed evidence that Televisa, the largest television network in Mexico, had funded and run a campaign for Peña Nieto in 2009, helping him secure the governorship of Mexico State, his stepping stone to the Presidency. Given the PRI’s past, the allegations are exceedingly troubling in a country already struggling with widespread corruption.

Additional Reads

Two interesting reads recently concerning Mexico:

* Cocaine Incorporated digs into the history and structure of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest drug cartel. It’s a great read, and the sheer amount of money and corruption that makes an organization like the Sinaloa viable is incredible.

* The Kingpins digs into the effects of the cartels and drug money on the political situation, and paints a picture in places so absurd that one begins to wonder what sort of person would actually want the job of cleaning up that mess bad enough to try to rig an election for it.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


June 19 - June 25

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 18 - 25!

It’s been a busy week, so let’s get right to it:


In a surprise move Tuesday, the Pakistani Supreme Court forced the dismissal of Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani, citing the contempt of court conviction the court leveled against him earlier this year. The ruling Pakistani People’s Party nominated Makhdoom Shahabuddin as the new Prime Minister the following day, but mere hours later, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Shahabuddin over drug charges, blocking his nomination. The PPP responded by nominating and electing Raja Pervez Ashraf as the new Prime Minister. Mr. Raja’s election is particularly notable as he is the former minister for water and power - Pakistan earlier this week faced several days of riots due to widespread power outages and a soaring heat wave.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has a long-standing grudge against the head of the PPP, President Zardari, which is the underlying reason for this spate of judicial activism. That said, Chaudhry has been aggressive, but he hasn’t had to overstep the law: Zardari has an outstanding corruption charge in Switzerland, which provided the opening for the contempt charge against Gilani, and the fact is the man they nominated to replace him already had a drug charge awaiting a warrant. The new Prime Minister is also facing allegations he took kickbacks on the construction of power plants during his tenure - a charge all the more damning given the terrible state of Pakistan’s power grid.

Zardari, the Pakistani President, came to power after his wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated. Before he took office, he was known as “Mr. 10 percent” for taking kickbacks on government contracts. It’s difficult to really fault the Pakistani Supreme Court’s activism given the apparent difficulty the PPP is having finding people without pending corruption charges to proffer as Prime Minister.


The third round of nuclear talks between Iran and a group of six nations (the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China) ended in disappointment this week as the negotiators failed to even commit to another meeting, deciding instead to have “technical experts” meet to determine whether there is enough common ground for new talks.

The talks were handicapped from the outset by both a lack of trust and fundamental misunderstandings on both sides. The Iranian’s key demand is a recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but the six powers believe the Iranian nuclear program is ultimately a weapons program. The proposal by the West was almost laughable, though: in return for stopping enrichment, shipping out their uranium, and shutting down their nuclear facility, the Iranians would get parts to repair their civilian airplanes and fuel for their nuclear reactor. There’s something to be said for starting negotiations with a lowball bid, but you do run the risk of insulting your negotiating partner if you go too low.


After an early victory announcement last week, Egypt’s election commission announced Wednesday they would need more time to review charges of fraud before announcing an official winner. After several days of escalating tensions, including large scale street protests, the commission declared Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood the President of Egypt. Morsi is Egypt’s first civilian president, though he comes into a severely weakened presidency: the Military dissolved parliament and issued an interim constitution giving itself widespread power last week.

Egyptian politics have been rather difficult to read. It’s clear there’s a large amount of back room dealing between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and this week’s delay in announcing the winner was almost certainly due to ongoing power jockeying between SCAF and the Brotherhood. SCAF has the guns and the power, but the Brotherhood can put people in the streets. The deal right now seems to be that the Brotherhood gets the Presidency, but the military keeps control of national security and foreign relations. That leaves Morsi to deal with the economy and the rest of the internal situation in Egypt - a challenge whose prospects for success don’t bode well for the Brotherhood in the next elections.


In response to airstrikes on Gaza, Hamas launched its first attack against Israel in over a year, firing more than 100 rockets into Israel over three days before acceding to Egyptian efforts to broker a cease-fire. Violence flared again on Saturday following Israeli airstrikes, though by Saturday evening, a new truce had been struc k.

(Many an analyst has run aground on the rocky shores of the Israel/Palestine conflict, so I encourage you to take my thoughts here with a larger grain of salt than usual.)

Hamas as an organization is undergoing some rather large changes. Amid evidence of some internal power struggles this year, they’ve broken ties with Iran, and until this week, they’ve managed to keep relative calm in Gaza. My suspicion is this is closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascension in Egypt. Hamas was born out of the Muslim Brotherhood, and when they announced their split from Iran, they did so in Cairo - their new patron is almost certainly the Brotherhood. If this is true, it means stability in the Gaza Strip is now tied to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Despite hand-wringing about the rise of the Islamists in Egypt, this could wind up working rather better for Israel. Hamas’s former patron, Iran, was solely interested in causing problems for Israel. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, is both interested in peace in the region and concerned with the fate of the Palestinian people themselves. If this past year’s cease fire is indicative of the direction Hamas’s political wing would prefer to go, the Brotherhood’s ascent may wind up being the best thing to happen to the Israel-Palestine peace process in years.


On Tuesday, a Russian ship apparently transporting refurbished attack helicopters to Syria turned back mid-journey after its insurance contract was revoked by its British issuer at the behest of the British government. Two days later, a Syrian pilot became the first defector from the Syrian Air Force, flying his jet into Jordon seeking asylum. Also this week, the New York Times and the Guardian published a pair of articles shedding light on efforts to supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army: the Guardian reported on the weapons sales, including a transfer of two Shabiha prisoners from the Free Syrian Army to their Arab weapons suppliers, while the New York Times reported on the CIA’s presence in Turkey, where they are attempting to make sure the supplied weapons are not diverted to the growing extremist and Al-Qaeda aligned groups. The biggest event of the week, though, was the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syrian air defense. Turkey, a NATO member, has asked for a consultation with NATO to determine its response.

This is the first time I’ve seen insurance contracts used as a coercive force, though I doubt it will be the last. The defection may help explain why the Syrian government has been reluctant to involve the Air Force in putting down the uprising: the Air Force has been seen as a stalwart pro-Assad group so far, so a defection among their ranks is a sign of more widespread weakness in the regime.

The most consequential event this week by far was the downing of the Turkish fighter jet. Turkey is a member of NATO, which means that if it is under attack, it can invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter - the mutual defense clause - which would oblige the rest of NATO to help the country defend itself. Turkey has yet to do this, but the fact that it now has reason to do so dramatically changes the situation around Syria. Until now, the West has been trying to maneuver the Security Council into supporting some sort of intervention, but it has been stymied by Russia. The downed Turkish fighter now gives NATO all the justification it needs for military intervention in Syria. It’s hard to overstate how much this changes the diplomatic landscape: until now, there’s been no legitimate threat of force against Syria, and Russia has been able to veto any strong action against the country. Now that Syria has attacked a Turkish jet, there’s an opening for legitimate military action against Syria that bypasses Russia. The next round of diplomatic proposals to both Assad and the Russians will no doubt press this point home.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


June 11 - June 18

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 11-18!

The Dispatch is a day late this week because as of Sunday night two of the big stories of the week were still up in the air. Moving forward, however, the Dispatch will be moving to Monday night, as I rather like having a weekend.


Egypt held run-off elections for President this week, the first since Mubarak fell. The run-offs pit the two largest power centers in Egypt against each other: the military, which took power after Mubarak’s fall, represented by Ahmed Shafik; and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political group which won a majority in parliament in January, represented by Mohammed Morsi. The elections themselves were overshadowed, however, by the Egyptian Supreme Court, which ruled the election of nearly a third of the members of Parliament illegitimate, and ordered the body dissolved. The military quickly instated martial law, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military’s governing body, declared it would assume legislative powers, as well as convene a council to draft Egypt’s new constitution. The elections were held on Saturday and Sunday as planned, and Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won, though what his role will be remains to be seen.

The nature of the Egyptian Revolution has been a subject of debate since Mubarak left power. While the most oft-repeated narrative has been that of a popular uprising, many analysts have pointed to the military’s strong and continued roll, as well as Mubarak’s military background, as evidence of a military coup. The protests in the street were the catalyst, but the real shift in power wasn’t to the people, it was from one member of the military to another, and that’s where it’s stayed. Events of this week would seem to enforce that view.

There’s another side to the situation worth noting, though, and that’s the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt. Before the courts dissolved Parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood was on track to control both the Legislature and the Presidency. There’s also evidence of Brotherhood attempts to take control of the drafting of the new constitution; attempts to form a constitutional commission have been repeatedly stymied by boycotts by both liberal and hardline Islamist representatives reacting to Brotherhood overreaches. The Brotherhood and the military have been meeting repeatedly since Mubarak’s fall, and much of Egypt’s recent domestic politics can be seen as an extension of the power dynamics between these two groups. The military is legitimately concerned about the Brotherhood taking full control of the country - the dissolution of Parliament may be more a response to Brotherhood overreach than SCAF ambitions.

Either way, the winner this week was not Democracy, a fact the Egyptian people are keenly aware of: polls indicate the voter turnout was around 25%.


Greece held a second round of Parliamentary elections this week, after the last round failed to produce results. The two main parties in the election were the center-right New Democracy party, who had pushed for Greece to stay in the Eurozone, and Syriza, a coalition Leftist party which had promised to fight Greece’s imposed austerity. The New Democracy party received a plurality of the votes, but not enough to avoid having to form a coalition government.

Prospects look better for actually forming a government this time, but Greek politics of late haven’t tended towards geniality, so it’s anyone’s guess whether this election will actually yield a government. The election ultimately wasn’t about whether Greece should stay in the Euro or not - the vast majority of Greeks don’t want to leave the currency, and even Syriza wasn’t arguing for Greece to exit the Euro - but whether and on what terms it should attempt to renegotiate the loan agreement signed in October. Syriza argued for a much more assertive negotiating stance, but even New Democracy has argued the loan agreement and its attached austerity measures need to be renegotiated. The rest of Europe appears to be falling in line with this view, if for no other reason than a paralyzed Greek government can’t pay anyone anything.


After slightly more than 3 months in the country with little to show for their efforts, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Syria announced it was suspending operations because the region had become too violent to continue. Russia, one of Syria’s few remaining supporters, has dispatched two warships to the region to protect its remaining citizens and assets in the region.

There are now three problems in Syria. The first is Bashar al-Assad. After a year of increasingly bloody crackdowns, there’s no future for Syria that includes Assad. The Russian warships have raised some eyebrows due to Russia’s continued support for Assad, but a higher Russian profile in the region will expose the country to more of the heat in the region, which could force the Russians to make a choice about whether they’ll continue to support Assad or not. Should the Russians decide the Syrian situation has become too costly, they could pressure Assad to step down - a case much more easily made with two warships and a tank column.

The second problem is the Syrian opposition, which is at best incoherent. The Free Syrian Army may be the most cohesive faction, and while their military capabilities have apparently increased quite a bit, the recent chaos in Libya shows what happens when the militias are stronger than the government. The Syrian National Council has very little support inside Syria, and hasn’t managed to become the unifying front they’d hoped to be. There are a few dozen other groups in play, but nobody apparent with the ability and the respect required to actually act in a governing role. If Assad is taken out of the picture, there’s no group in the opposition ready to step in to replace him, but there are now plenty of heavily armed militias.

The third problem would be the reaction of other groups in the country to Assad’s departure. Among the more concerning are the Shabiha, the militias who have been blamed for the recent massacres. The groups are ostensibly pro- Assad, but there are questions about how much control over them the central government really has. Should the Assad regime collapse, the Shabiha may go with, or they may spawn another faction vying for power. They’re well-funded and clearly prone to violence, a bad combination in a country with a power vacuum. Another concern are the emerging Sunni extremist groups - Syria has become a magnet for extremist groups in the region, and in the event of either a full collapse or the emergence of an Islamist government, these groups could wind up taking up residence in the country.

The Syrian situation is close to full collapse. Between international pressure on the Syrian regime, increased incidence of the sort of massacres that tend to attract NATO interventions, a more assertive opposition, and no real clear road to a post-Assad government, the country is in a very precarious position. The situation will almost certainly require a settlement between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government sans Assad, most likely negotiated by external players and probably with significant military presence at hand to keep the independent factions from going rogue or attempting to drag the country into a deeper civil conflict of the sort Iraq endured after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!


June 4 - June 10

Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for June 4 - 10!

This week’s dispatch is fairly brief - there were a number of stories over this week, but only two that really rose to the front. I expect a bit soon, though - between the elections in Egypt and Greece and the buzz from Syria, I suspect next week will be rather interesting.


Burmese president Thein Sein warned that a flare-up of sectarian violence between the Muslim minority group, known as the Rohingya, and Buddhists in the country’s western state of Rakhine may threaten the country’s move to democracy. The violence, which started on Monday with the killing of 9 Muslims in retaliation for the murder of a Buddhist woman, has claimed 7 more lives and caused the government to declare a state of emergency in the region.

The president’s warnings are apparently serious: the country’s constitution allows for the army to take over the country in times of national crisis. It’s unlikely the sectarian violence in will spill too much further - the violence is concentrated around the Muslim minority, who mostly live in the western- most part of the country - but the President’s concerns do underline the fragile nature of the Democratic transition in Burma. While the country has made enormous strides in the past year or so, the military and its affiliates are still very well represented in Burma’s power structures. With so much still unclear about the country’s rapid transition to democracy, the president’s apparent fear of a return of the Army’s rule is concerning.


The Spanish government announced the country had secured over $125Bn in bank bailout funds from the Eurozone. The news followed growing concerns over the solvency of Spanish banks, including a downgrade by Fitch and an assessment by the IMF that Spanish banks need more than $50Bn to remain solvent. Unlike most of the Eurozone bailouts, this seems to have come with almost no strings attached.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is taking a victory lap right now, and he deserves it: the Spanish bailout is one of the most proactive and generous actions by the Eurozone so far. Most of the banking bailouts have come with strict austerity demands or other restructuring requirements, but all evidence so far is Spain managed to get a nearly string-free bailout. What’s more, the amount of money offered by the Eurozone is more than double the IMF’s estimate of what Spanish banks need to stay afloat.

There’s two possibilities here: The first is that the Spanish government finally made the Eurozone financial leaders blink. The EU might be able to survive a Greek exit, but the Spanish economy is three times the size of the Greek economy, at over a trillion dollars - the Eurozone wouldn’t survive a messy Spanish exit, a point the Spanish government has made loudly and repeatedly the last few months. The size of this bailout suggests the Eurozone may be acting decisively to get ahead of the crisis and prevent further contagion effects from fears of a Spanish collapse. The other possibility is that the Spanish economy is in a whole lot worse shape than even the IMF suspected. The Eurozone agreed to the bailout fairly quickly, and they haven’t been known for generous packages so far, so I’m left wondering if there’s something worse on the Spanish books than we’ve seen so far.

Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!