The Fall of Homs

The rebels may have retreated, but the revolution goes on.

The siege of Homs is over. After a confused and ominous 24-hour news cycle, the Syrian rebels have made a "tactical withdrawal" from the restive neighborhood of Baba Amr, which withstood a month of rocket fire, drone-guided artillery shelling, and possibly even helicopter gunship attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's security forces.

But the rebels' withdrawal was not a total defeat. As of March 1, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could still boast that it had kept some 7,000 soldiers from Maher al-Assad's elite 4th Division at bay on Baba Amr's outskirts, a claim that appeared corroborated by eyewitness accounts. One Homsi in an adjoining district told me last night, Feb. 29, via Skype that tanks were moving in and out of his street in a violent attempt to enter Baba Amr. They'd failed.

Although Baba Amr's fall was inevitable, the snow and freezing cold cast an image of a Levantine Stalingrad in the making. Electricity and water have been shut off in large parts of Homs -- a city of 1 million people -- for the past three days. Food is scarce, prompting the United Nations to fret about mass starvation.

What happens to the civilians in Baba Amr now, particularly with communication lines cut and no YouTube clips being uploaded, is up to the Assad regime's totalitarian imagination. The regime has apparently given the International Committee of the Red Cross the green light to send in humanitarian aid and evacuate the wounded on March 2. Clearly, this step is designed to lend the impression that the armed rebels were responsible for Baba Amr's misfortunes all along. Sources inside the neighborhood, however, say that a "bloodbath" is currently taking place. Seventeen civilians have been beheaded or partially beheaded by security forces, the activist organization Avaaz said March 1.

With the destruction of the opposition's stronghold in Homs, Syria's revolutionaries aren't going to melt into thin air. U.S. and European policymakers might like to believe that Homsis wake up each morning and consult the writings of Gene Sharp, but the bulk of the opposition now recognizes that the revolution must be accomplished through arms and that returning to the passive resistance of eight months ago would amount to a suicide pact.

After all, it's Assad -- not the revolutionaries -- who transformed this into an armed conflict in the first place. The original peaceful protest movement, which originally called for "reforms," was met with wanton acts of brutality. Nor have most Syrians forgotten that 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib, an early rallying symbol for the revolution, wasn't carrying a Kalashnikov when Assad's security forces kidnapped him and then delivered his mutilated corpse back to his parents.

Would these security forces and their shabiha mercenaries promise not to arrest, torture, or shoot at more men, women, and children if the opposition disarmed? If so, who'd believe them? Tens of thousands of civilian fighters and military defectors are fanned out all over Syria at present -- will they be granted "amnesty" to trade their guns in for slogans calling for the toppling of the regime?

Changes are also afoot in the makeup of the Syrian National Council (SNC), the political body designed to represent the opposition, to adapt to the new reality on the ground. On March 1, the SNC established a "military bureau," consisting of civilians and soldiers, to unify the armed opposition and coordinate weapons delivery. The council's media spokesman, Ausama Monajed, responded to an email inquiry asking who would sit on the new military bureau by stating that FSA leader Riad al-Asaad, retired Brig. Gen. Akil Hashem, and Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, and others "have [all] been contacted and [are] on board."

Reports, however, already suggest that Asaad wasn't even consulted about the new bureau, and Hashem has declined to head the organization due to an acrimonious argument with SNC President Burhan Ghalioun. And more bad news: Turkey has refused to host the new bureau.

Whatever the case, the military apparatus of the opposition has never trusted the aspiring political leaders of the Syrian opposition. Asaad called the SNC "traitors" a few weeks ago for not supporting the FSA and for "conspiring" with the Arab League. Meanwhile, Sheikh recently tried to set up a rival "Higher Revolutionary Council" to steal Asaad's thunder.

No matter who heads the SNC's military bureau, it's unclear whether it can actually unify Syria's largely autonomous and atomized militias, which are increasingly manned by civilians. Ghalioun was characteristically oblique in his Paris news conference about the SNC's military strategy, saying that the new bureau's job would be "to protect those peaceful protesters and civilians."

This implies exclusively defensive operations rather than offensive ones, which many rebels unaffiliated with the FSA -- indeed, openly hostile to it -- have already carried out in Damascus's suburbs and the northern province of Idlib.

Like many decisions devised through the SNC's manic-depressive policymaking process, the military bureau announcement was in response to the changing attitude of the Syrian "street." And it's not the only change that followed the international "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia last Friday, Feb. 24. For starters, the conference led to semi-recognition of the Syrian opposition by the United States and the European Union, which dubbed the SNC "a legitimate representative" of the Syrian people -- but not the sole representative.

The conference also led to Ghalioun's explicit offer to Syria's Kurds of a "decentralized" government in a post-Assad state. This is crucial. Kurds constitute as much as 15 percent of the Syrian population, and they want the sort of autonomy their brethren enjoy in Iraq. Ghalioun's overture was designed to forge a rapprochement with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a separate umbrella group made up of 11 Syrian Kurdish parties, which had suspended its membership in the SNC and largely takes direction from Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. Two KNC members told me at a conference in Copenhagen last week that "we can put a million Kurds on the street" the minute their demands are satisfied. This likely isn't an idle boast.

The Friends of Syria conference also led to the formation of an angry breakaway movement within the SNC, called the Syrian Patriotic Group, which is headed by longtime dissidents Haitham al-Maleh and Fawaz Tello. Tello told me the other day that this faction wants to better coordinate with the activists on the ground to bring their prescriptions for winning the revolution in line with the SNC's foreign advocacy work. This faction wants the SNC's 310-member General Assembly expanded to "500 or 600" seats to make room for more grassroots activists inside Syria.

"What we are pushing for is to make the base of the opposition broader and to make the SNC more democratic," Tello said, adding that the SNC's main decision-making bodies, the Secretariat General and Presidential Council, should be subject to elections rather than appointments and reappointments made by Muslim Brotherhood fiat.

All this is progress, of a sort, though how it manifests within Syria remains to be seen. Senior U.S. officials pontificating on Capitol Hill would do well to remember that activists and rebels have never waited for a by-your-leave from the U.S. State Department -- much less from external opposition groups -- to decide how to defend themselves and their families.

As Homs submits to what some are calling an "occupation" by regime forces, the next flashpoint could be Idlib, whole swaths of which are rebel-controlled and which benefits from easy resupply from Turkey. Well, what happens when the 4th Division tries to storm this province? Unlike one neighborhood in Homs, the vast province isn't so easily surrounded. Nevertheless, the last time a major assault was waged in Idlib, 10,000 Syrians fled to Turkey, where they now remain, living in tents. The Turks likely won't sit back and accept tens of thousands of more -- they may be forced to make good on their much-promised "buffer zone" out of necessity if not desire.

As ever, the one setting the schedule for this revolution is none other than Bashar al-Assad. The siege of Homs may be over, but the war for Syria has just begun.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images


Between Iran and a Hard Place

Forced to choose between high gas prices and a nuclear Iran, Barack Obama could very well remake himself into a war president.

When U.S. President Barack Obama enters his White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 5 -- angling to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities -- there will be one seemingly mundane issue on his mind that he may be too uncomfortable to share with his guest: gasoline prices.

There is no gainsaying the corrosive political impact that high gasoline prices have on an incumbent president's chances of getting reelected. With prices projected to hit a national average of $4.25 a gallon by Memorial Day, and with a new poll finding that seven in 10 Americans find the gas price issue "deeply important," the president should be concerned. The tension with Iran has already pushed crude prices to their highest level since the onset of the Arab Spring, adding at least 30 cents to a gallon of regular gasoline. Investors, concerned about potential escalation in the Persian Gulf, are likely to push oil prices even higher. Other factors -- a decline in the dollar, tensions and supply disruptions in oil-producing nations such as Nigeria and Sudan, stocks building up in refineries in preparation for the summer driving season, and a sense that the American economy is improving, to name a few -- have also contributed to the upswing.

No one recognizes the political implications of high fuel prices during an election year more than Obama himself. During the summer of 2008, when he ran against Sen. John McCain, oil prices stood at a historical high of $147 a barrel and gasoline prices surpassed $5 a gallon in some parts of the country. The Republican response -- for the most part "gas-tax holiday" and "drill-baby-drill" sloganeering -- demonstrated the incumbent party's helplessness in the face of an out-of-control oil firestorm. At the time, the crisis worked in Obama's favor. Today, it's the GOP's turn to smell blood. Obama knows this. The problem is that Netanyahu, one of the savviest foreign leaders when it comes to American politics, knows this too.

Israel, meanwhile, is running out of patience with diplomatic responses to Iran's nuclear program, and the momentum for Israeli airstrikes is growing by the day. The economic sanctions against Iran may be biting, but they're not crippling. Iran is moving full steam ahead with its uranium-enrichment activities, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also visited Washington this week, says that Iran will shortly reach a "zone of immunity" in which military intervention by the outside world may no longer be feasible. The recent string of apparent Iranian attacks against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, New Delhi, and Tbilisi have strengthened the perception among Israelis that the regime in Tehran is a loose cannon, while the shameful display of cynicism and apathy at the U.N. Security Council by China and Russia in the face of Bashar al-Assad's atrocities have reminded the Israelis of how unreliable the international community can be when it comes to their national security.

Fed up with the vague official U.S. line that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, Netanyahu is reportedly going to ask Obama to harden the rhetoric against Tehran and make some unequivocal statements about the United States preparing for a military strike in the event that Iran crosses certain red lines. If Obama refuses to oblige, it would expose clear daylight between the two leaders just as they share the same podium at next week's annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It would also expose Obama to harsh GOP accusations that he is weak on Iran. Acquiescence, on the other hand, would elevate the temperature in the global oil market, driving prices to a higher level and deepening Obama's gas price predicament.

As if the horns of this dilemma don't poke enough, Obama has another mine to diffuse: the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran prior to the November elections. Should such an attack take place -- regardless of its success in destroying Iran's nuclear sites -- the short-term implications for the global economy could be dire. A war in the Middle East means an oil shock and, as was the case in 1973, 1979, and 1990, oil shocks are harbingers of recessions. In testimony before the Senate Budget Committee last month, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that a major disruption in oil supply could put the kibosh on the recovery. Indeed, a new oil shock would be just as dangerous as a second heart attack for a fragile patient who is just recovering from his first.

Getting an Israeli commitment to hold its planes on the ground until after the November elections means Israel would have to postpone the attack by at least a year, as a winter strike is more difficult to execute. This is a non-trivial request that -- if even considered -- would come at a hefty price. While such a quiet agreement would never be publicly acknowledged, there would be telltale signs galore. The release of imprisoned spy Jonathan Pollard, a job-creating U.S. weapons deal, or an overturning of the decision to cut missile-defense spending for Israel in the administration's fiscal 2013 budget proposal would indicate to the outside observer that the president may have bought himself more time.

But there is another possibility. Instead of postponing the inevitable crisis, the president may decide to own it.

Some historical perspective is helpful here. Forty-five years ago, America was embroiled in a protracted and costly war in Vietnam. Yet President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, gave Israel a "yellow light" to preemptively attack Egypt, knowing that such a nod meant stirring the hornets' nest of the Middle East, an oil shock, and an escalation in the Cold War. Today, the risks of an Israeli attack for the international system are no smaller. While such an act could be a stunning success, it could just as easily unleash a chain of events that would bring the world to the brink of the Greater Depression.

The key difference between then and now is that Johnson did not run for reelection, and could therefore afford to turn on the yellow light and depart from the scene. Obama, by contrast, wants a second term and cannot afford to relinquish control over what could be a spiraling international crisis. If all other measures fail, Obama's only way of turning lemons into lemonade is to take ownership of, and lead, the military option against Iran, and reinvent himself as a war president in the hope that American motorists will view their pain at the pump forgivingly as part of their patriotic duty. Such an option would also defuse Republicans criticism about Obama being weak on Iran and transform national priorities in the months leading up to the elections.

The link between barrels and bombs -- or bunker busters, to be precise -- has never been more apparent. And, regardless of what transpires, there is an important, widely ignored lesson in the nexus between the two. For decades, American politicians and pundits have toed a line that calls for the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign oil in order to insulate Americans from the volatility of the Middle East. The only difference between the two parties has been that Republicans advocate supply-side, drill-baby-drill tactics while Democrats prefer dieting and demand reductions through fuel-efficiency standards.

These two responses combined have dramatically reined in America's oil imports in recent years. Since 2005, oil imports as a share of overall oil use in the United States have fallen from their 60 percent peak to 46 percent, or 1995 levels. In just seven years, in other words, the United States has reduced its demand for oil imports by an amount equivalent to three times the oil imported by the United States from Saudi Arabia. Though some of this is due to the recession, most of the credit goes to a ramp-up in domestic oil production, enabled by technologies such as deep-water drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and horizontal drilling as well as increased fuel efficiency in vehicles. Pundits and energy experts now declare that America is on the road to self-sufficiency.

But here's the rub: Over the same period of time, oil prices have nearly doubled and the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has increased by 65 percent. In fact, U.S. drivers spent more last year on gasoline than ever before. Should the price of gas hit $4.25 a gallon by the spring, as the Oil Price Information Service predicts, that would represent an 85 percent increase over the 2005 price. The experience of the past seven years reveals nothing less than the collapse of the very energy security paradigm that dominated America's political discourse throughout the tenure of no fewer than eight consecutive presidents and 20 Congresses. Americans were promised that if they drilled more and saved more they would pay less. They did both, and they're paying more.

Why? Over the past 45 years, America has failed to address the real root of its energy vulnerability: oil's virtual monopoly on transportation fuel, enabled by the fact that, for the most part, cars sold in America are made and warrantied to run on nothing but petroleum fuels. As long as most cars are off-limits to competing fuels -- whether electricity, gaseous fuels, or liquids made from biomass, coal, or natural gas -- American motorists and presidents will be financially and politically vulnerable to the convulsions of the Middle East, regardless of how much we drill at home or how efficient our cars are. Only once Americans have cars that encourage fuel competition, thereby eroding the strategic importance of oil, will American presidents be able to pursue the country's foreign policy objectives without fearing shock at the pump. But that's likely small consolation for President Obama as he considers the threats posed by high gas prices on one hand and a nuclear Iran on the other, and his political future -- not to mention the fragile health of the U.S. economy -- hang in the balance.