Kill the Messenger

What Russia taught Syria: When you destroy a city, make sure no one -- not even the story -- gets out alive.

It was a star-filled night in Chechnya's besieged capital of Grozny. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked with the Chechen rebel commander away from the warmth of our safe house. When we entered a bombed-out neighborhood 15 minutes away, I put the battery in my Iridium satellite phone and waited for the glowing screen to signal that I had locked on to the satellites.

I made my call. It was short. Then the commander made a call; he quickly hung up and handed me back the phone. "Enough," he said, motioning for me to remove the battery.

As we walked briskly back to the safe house, it was exactly 10 minutes before the cascade of double wa-whumps announced the Grad rocket batteries pounding the vacant neighborhood we had just left.

It was December 1999, and the Russian assault on Grozny was unfolding in all its gruesome detail. After the dissolution of so much of the former Soviet empire, Chechnya was one country that the newly minted prime minister, Vladimir Putin, refused to let go of. His boss, Boris Yeltsin, and the Russian army had been defeated and then humiliated in the media by Chechen forces in the first war. Five years later, Russia was back. And Putin's new strategy was unbending: silence, encircle, pulverize, and "cleanse." It was a combination of brutal tactics -- a Stalinist purge of fighting-age males plus Orwellian propaganda that fed Russians a narrative wherein Chechen freedom fighters were transformed into Islamist mercenaries and terrorists. More than 200,000 civilians were to die in this war, the echoes of which continue to this day.

This time, journalists were specifically targeted to prevent sympathetic or embarrassing reports from escaping the killing zone. As such, you can't find a lot of stories about the second Chechen war. One of the few and best accounts was written by Marie Colvin, who described her terrifying escape from Grozny for the Sunday Times. Last month, Colvin thought she could roll the dice and enter the besieged Syrian city of Homs to defy yet another brutal war of oppression. This time she lost.

It's impossible to know whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- a longtime ally of Russia -- studied the success of the last Chechen war before launching his own assault on the restive city of Homs. However, his Russian military advisors surely know the tactics well. The crackdown in Homs carries a grim echo of Grozny, both in its use of signals intelligence to track down and silence the regime's enemies and in its bloody determination to obliterate any opposition, including Western journalists.

Assad's ability to lethally target journalists using satellite-phone uplinks could well have cost Colvin her life. Multiple reports have suggested that Syrian forces used phone signals to pinpoint her location and then launched a rocket barrage that resulted in her death on Feb. 22, along with that of French photographer Remi Ochlik and multiple Syrian civilians.

The use of satellite and cellular transmissions to determine a subject's location was relatively new a decade ago, when I was in Grozny. Tracking phone transmissions to hunt down targets began in earnest with a covert unit of U.S. intelligence officers from the National Security Agency (NSA), CIA, Navy, Air Force, and special operations called "The Activity." This snooping unit was also called the Army of Northern Virginia, Grey Fox, and even Task Force Orange. We see much of this technology used to inform modern drone and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command strikes. My decade covering U.S. spec ops, intelligence gathering, and their contractors highlighted the impressive ability of various countries to monitor, locate, network, and act on what is called SIGINT, or signals intelligence.

The Russians have their own version of this capability, which fell under the command of the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information, now part of the Federal Protective Service. In the United States, it would be equivalent to the NSA and FBI combined, and the agency provides sophisticated eavesdropping support to Russia's military, intelligence, and counterterrorism units -- and to Russia's allies, including Syria.

Russia has spent a long time perfecting these techniques. On April 21, 1996, Chechnya's breakaway president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was speaking on a satellite phone with Russian envoy Konstantin Borovoi about setting peace talks with Yeltsin. During the phone call, he was killed by a signal-guided missile fired from a Russian jet fighter. The warplane had received Dudayev's coordinates from a Russian ELINT (electronic intelligence) plane that had picked up and locked on to the signal emitted by the satellite phone. It was Russian deception and brutality at its finest.

It should have been clear even back then that there was a benefit and a distinct penalty to modern communications on the battlefield.

Flash forward to Syria today. The opposition Free Syrian Army is officially run by a former air force colonel who commands a barely organized group of army defectors supported by energetic youth. They rely almost entirely on cell-phone service, satellite phones, the Internet, and social media to organize and communicate. Early in February, according to a Fox News report, Qatar provided 3,000 satellite phones, which the Syrian rebels have used to upload numerous impactful videos and stories.

These past few weeks, under a barrage of mortar, tank, and artillery shells, their plaintive calls for help from inside the besieged Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs sparked international outrage. But without Western journalists filing for newspapers and television outlets, these videos -- mostly shaky, low-resolution footage of corpses and artillery strikes -- wouldn't have had the impact they deserve.

In a welcome resurgence of non-embedded journalism, brave reporters like Colvin and many others risked their lives to enter Homs and report from the ground. What they showed us was moving, horrific, and embarrassing. Once again, Western governments were caught doing nothing -- while women, children, and innocents were murdered by their own government. It's a playbook the Syrians are good at: The shelling of Homs began on Feb. 3, 2012 -- exactly 30 years after the Hama massacre, in which Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, killed up to 15,000 civilians over three weeks in a similar program of wanton destruction.

What we haven't seen as clearly is the extent to which the Syrian regime (thanks to its Russian advisors) now has the tools of electronic warfare to crush this popular uprising -- and anything that happens to get in the way. Syria is one of Russia's biggest clients for weapons, training, and intelligence. In return for such largesse, it has offered the Russian Navy use of Tartus, a new deep-water military port in the Mediterranean. Moscow sold Damascus nearly $1 billion worth of weapons in 2011, despite growing sanctions against the oppressive Assad regime. With these high-tech weapons comes the less visible Russian-supplied training on technologies, tactics, and strategies.

The sounds of rockets pulverizing civilians should have brought back memories and warnings to Colvin. She would have recognized all the signs from her previous reporting in Chechnya, where she and her escorts were hunted relentlessly by Russian domestic security agents who sought to arrest, silence, or kill any journalist attempting to report on the slaughter of civilians.

My time in Grozny included being surrounded three times by the Russian army, numerous direct bombardments, and frequent close calls. I paid attention to the safety warnings of the Chechen rebel commanders who kept me alive. These rebels were once part of the Soviet military and intelligence apparatus and were fully schooled in Russia's dirty tricks. They taught me much. Chief among them was not communicating electronically while in country, not trusting "media guides," and never telling people where I was going. If captured by Russian troops, they urged me -- for my own safety -- to say that I had been kidnapped by Chechen forces.

Just as I exited Chechnya, I met Colvin, who was heading in. She wanted to know as much as she could. I warned her of the duplicity and violent intent of the Russian military and their Chechen proxies. Despite my warnings, she bravely entered Chechnya and wrote riveting, award-winning stories that now sound almost identical to her coverage from Syria.

I was distressed to read of Colvin's death in Syria, and even more distressed to think she might still be alive now if she had remembered some basic warnings. Her first error was that she stayed inside the rebel "media center" -- in reality, a four-story family home converted to this use as it was one of the few places that had a generator.

The second was communication. The Syrian army had shut down the cell-phone system and much of the power in Baba Amr -- and when journalists sent up signals it made them a clear target. After CNN's Arwa Damon broadcast live from the "media center" for a week, the house was bombarded until the top floor collapsed. Colvin may have been trapped, but she chose to make multiple phone reports and even went live on CNN and other media channels, clearly mentioning that she was staying in the bombed building.

The third mistake was one of tone. She made her sympathies in the besieged city clearly known as she emotionally described the horrors and documented the crimes of the Syrian government.

Unsurprisingly, the next day at 9 a.m., a barrage of rockets was launched at the "media center." She was killed -- along her cameraman, Remi Ochlik, and at least 80 Syrian civilians across the city -- targeted with precision rocket barrages, bombs, and the full violence of the Syrian army.

In Grozny, Russian forces decided that they would eliminate everything, everybody, and every voice that stood up to the state -- including journalists who tried to enter. Syria has clearly made the same determination in Homs. This military action is intended to be a massacre, a Stalinist-style lesson to those who dare defy the rulers of Syria.

The United Nations estimates that more than 7,500 Syrians have so far been killed in the yearlong spasm of violence there. Perhaps this ghastly toll would be even higher now if brave reporters like Colvin had not entered. With the recent news that the rebels have retreated from the bombardment of Baba Amr to safer territory, Assad's forces, as well as their Russian advisors, are claiming victory. According to official news reports from the Syrian Information Ministry, "the foreign-backed mercenaries and armed terrorist groups" have fled, the corpses of three Western journalists have been "discovered," and Homs is now "peaceful."

Despite what Damascus claims, this fight is not yet over. And we need more brave and bright journalists who will shine a light in places like Syria, where a regime works diligently to plunge its people into darkness. But let's not forget whose callous playbook they're using.



Netanyahu Won't Attack Iran


The intensity of background spin emanating from Washington and Jerusalem threatens to leave very little to the imagination in advance of the March 5 meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Various U.S. officials, current and former, named and anonymous, have shared their skepticism regarding Israel's ability to inflict decisive damage on Iran's nuclear-enrichment program, as well as their trepidation at the costs, consequences, and retaliatory attacks that might follow from an Israeli strike. These same officials have intelligence-driven doubts as to whether Iran even has any intention of crossing a nuclear threshold to weaponization. Their Israeli counterparts, meanwhile, push home the need for the United States to draw red lines beyond which there will be an American commitment to military action (with former Israeli intel chief Amos Yadlin taking the case to the New York Times' op-ed pages) and suggest that Obama would be to blame in the event of an Israeli strike. Subtle it isn't.

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world is holding its breath, convinced that yet another military confrontation in the Middle East will have disastrous consequences, especially during such a tumultuous period in the region, including for the global economy, with energy prices already hitting new and unexpected highs. Even those regional leaders who might privately welcome a military poke in the eye for Tehran do so against the wishes of their own publics and with uncertainty as to what else might unravel in the wake of a strike.

Curiously missing in this flurry of coverage has been a more considered assessment of the internal dynamics in play for Israeli decision-makers and how those might be most effectively influenced. Too often, the calculations of Israel's leaders are depicted as if this were a collection of think-tankers and trauma victims given a very big and high-tech army to play with. Netanyahu represents the latter, guided by his "existentialist mindset" and his 101-year-old historian father. (The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg drew heavily on the father-son relationship in his assessment 18 months ago that an Israeli strike on Iran was imminent.) Peter Beinart has written, "Benjamin Netanyahu has only one mode: apocalyptic." And the prime minister often depicts contemporary realities as akin to 1938.

In Shalom Auslander's new novel, Hope: A Tragedy, the lead protagonist, Solomon Kugel, discovers a living and elderly Anne Frank in his attic, at one level seemingly a metaphor for the identity politics of contemporary American Jewry -- we all carry Anne Frank around with us in our heads. Bibi Netanyahu can sometimes sound like an Israeli version of Solomon Kugel, the difference being that in the Israeli "attic" we keep both Anne Frank and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the two apparently merging when it comes to the prime minister's depiction of the threat posed by Iran and how it should be handled.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, by contrast, is portrayed as the rational, calculating calibrator of the "zone of immunity" when it comes to Iranian technical progress on the nuclear front and the precision of Israeli bombing thereof. When Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, in a lengthy and splashy New York Times Magazine essay, answered in the affirmative his own question of whether Israel would attack Iran, his assessment relied overwhelmingly on conversations with Barak.

The case for the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran largely rests on these twin pillars: Bibi's sense of existential danger and Barak's calculating military mind. But though it is not unreasonable to suggest that historically driven angst and national security considerations will factor significantly in Israeli decision-making, it is wholly misleading to ignore and factor out of the equation Israeli politics, as is consistently the case in media coverage.

Netanyahu operates in a highly political environment. Israel is a rambunctious (though certainly imperfect) democracy, in which reelection is a matter of more than passing interest for any prime minister. While Defense Minister Barak may be a serial risk-taker whose days of electoral viability are behind him, those things are certainly not true of Netanyahu. Bibi has served twice so far as Israel's prime minister and is close to becoming the second-longest-serving PM in Israel's history.

A tendency characterizing Netanyahu's long term in office, and a counterintuitive one at that, is the degree to which he has been risk-averse, not only in matters of peace, but also in matters of war. No Operation Cast Leads, Lebanon wars, or Syria Deir ez-Zor attack missions under his watch. In fact, he has no record of military adventurism. What's more, Netanyahu hardly appears to be in need of a Hail Mary pass, military or otherwise, to salvage his political fortunes. Polls consistently show that he is a shoo-in for reelection. The right-wing block in Israel currently has a hegemonic grip on Israeli politics, something that seems unlikely to change. Netanyahu secured his own continued leadership of the Likud party in Jan. 31's primary. His primacy on the right faces few challenges from either within the Likud or beyond it. Despite never winning favor with much of the mainstream media, the messy management in his own office, and the challenges of coalition balancing (particularly over issues of religion and state), Netanyahu maintains solid approval ratings with a relatively strong economy and can even now bask in Israel's lowest unemployment numbers in 32 years.

Although it is fair to speculate that a successful, daring mission to the heart of Iranian airspace would be domestically popular and a boost to the prime minister, such a mission is anything but risk-free. Not only would the specific military action be fraught with uncertainty and potential hiccups, but the fallout from a strike, even one successful in immediate terms, could have far-reaching repercussions and consequences for Israel in the security and diplomatic arenas and by extension, of course, in the domestic political domain. The Hebrew expression she'yorim shotkim ("silence when shooting") is used to describe the phenomenon whereby domestic criticism of the government is suspended when military action is under way. The problem for Netanyahu is that all signs point to that rule not applying in this case. Former security establishment figures at the highest levels have mounted an unprecedented campaign warning Israel's leader and its public of the follies of launching a solo and premature Israeli military action against Iran. Most outspoken has been recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has described a strike on Iran as "the stupidest thing I have ever heard." But he has not been alone. Other former IDF chiefs of staff, as well as Shin Bet and intel leaders, have joined the cautioning chorus. Many are unlikely to shut up if Bibi defies their counsel. And in the public arena, these voices cannot be dismissed as just so many self-serving chickenhawk politicians. The fallout from an attack on Iran is possibly the biggest threat to Bibi serving a third term.

Another oft-overlooked aspect is the absence of public pressure in Israel for military intervention or of a supposed Iranian threat featuring as a priority issue for Israelis. The pressure to act is top-down, not bottom-up. And to the extent to which there is trepidation among the public, that is a function of fear at the blowback from Israeli military action, rather than fear of Iranian-initiated conflagration. Also to be factored in is the possibility of 2012 being an election year in Israel (though technically the current parliament could serve until October 2013). If Netanyahu does pursue early elections, as many pundits expect, then the political risk associated with an attack increases, heightened by the likelihood of a strike being depicted as an election ploy. What's more, prices at the pump are an issue for Israeli voters, just as they are in the United States.

Especially noteworthy is the extent to which the elements of Netanyahu's coalition further to his right have not embraced or promoted military action against Iran. In fact, they tend to demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm at the prospect. This applies to both the ultra-Orthodox and the greater Israel settler-nationalists. One reason is that they view the Iran issue as peripheral when compared with, say, the pursuit of settlements and an irreversible presence in all of greater Israel. In fact, a strike on Iran is sometimes depicted as presenting a threat to the settlement enterprise, in as much as there is an expectation that part of the fallout would be enhanced pressure on Israel to tamp down resulting regional anger by displaying more give on the Palestinian front. With so many in the settler movement convinced that the irreversibility of 40-plus years of occupation is within touching distance, the last thing they want now is to rock the boat by creating new and unpredictable challenges to their cause. From the outside, that may seem a stretch, given the American and international timidity with which every new settlement expansion is greeted. Yet concern is voiced in settlement circles when the likes of Haaretz Editor in Chief Aluf Benn makes the case for an Itamar (a hard-core ideological settlement) in exchange for Natanz (an Iranian nuclear facility) -- an idea that has led some errant Israeli peaceniks to flirt with joining the pro-war camp on Iran.

The more settler-centric right is also cognizant of the distraction value served by the Iranian nuclear issue in deflecting attention from its land grabs and entrenchment in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Chances are, settlements won't be making any headlines in next week's Obama-Netanyahu meeting. Thus, removal of Iran from the agenda is a losing proposition for the settler lobby. Netanyahu himself surely appreciates the extent to which this comes in handy, in that focusing on Iran (although not attacking Iran) allows Israel to line up together with the West in the camp of the "good guys" for once, as opposed to in the doghouse on the Palestinian issue. Want a sense of just how well this distraction serves the greater Israel cause? Take a look at Goldberg's latest interview with Obama for the Atlantic -- 4,561 words and not one of them mentions the Palestinians or settlements.

Finally, in the "maybe Netanyahu won't attack after all" column, Israel's leadership is aware that its nonmembership in various nuclear accords and its assumed weapons-of-mass-destruction capacity will be dragged more harshly into the spotlight following an Israeli strike -- not something that is likely to lead to precipitous Israeli disarmament, but unwanted, unpleasant, and unpredictable, nonetheless.

So, an Israeli strike is far from inevitable. But let's go a step further. A more granular appreciation of the Israeli scene may help identify points of influence to focus on if war opponents are to diminish the prospect of precipitous Israeli action.

First there is the role of Barak. The above political considerations do not apply to him. He is the antidote to Netanyahu's risk-aversion and, in this instance, strengthens all of Netanyahu's worse tendencies. Alongside Barak, Israel's three security agencies (the IDF, Mossad, and Shin Bet) have undergone changes at the top over the past year. The previous chiefs were (according to reports) outspoken in their opposition to a strike on Iran. The new chiefs are apparently less robust in asserting that position. Israel might consider that not acting in the current circumstances will lead to a sense of "crying wolf" and that Israeli threats down the line would begin to lose credibility. And to take military action now would be in keeping with Israel's response posture to date toward the Arab Spring -- a porcupine-like hunkering down and displaying of quills and, in this case, a reaffirmation of what Israel likes to call its power of deterrence.

Obama might opt for developing a strategy that confronts all this head-on. He should begin by focusing his political calculations and risk-avoidance instincts laser-like on March 5's guest -- Netanyahu. Even the most junior politician in Israel knows that Netanyahu is a character who can be pressured, especially when he is anyway uncertain, as in this instance. So, keep making the case for the downsides associated with military action, how dicey and perilous the consequences could be, especially in the context of regional turbulence. Drive that message home in the military-to-military dialogue (as seems to be happening), thereby strengthening the collective spines and anti-solo-strike predilections of Israel's new security chiefs, and pursue a carefully calibrated freezing out of the troublemaker Barak.

At the same time, work Netanyahu's coalition allies by encouraging all their pre-existing neuroses about where a strike might lead on other fronts, notably in the Palestinian arena. Given the intensity of traffic between Jerusalem and Washington, have those U.S. senior officials, especially the uniformed ones, briefing the other members of Israel's security cabinet and, if necessary, their rabbinical sages. Finally give maximum impetus to renewed nuclear talks, following Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili's recent letter to EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton. (Israel is already trying to sabotage renewed negotiations via enrichment-suspension preconditions.) If a diplomatic avenue is shown to have some traction, then this will be an additional factor complicating any immediate Israeli move to action. Ultimately, the U.S. narrative on Iran should shift gears more comprehensively by right-sizing the Iran threat, de-emphasizing the nuclear issue, and acknowledging Iran's diminished status post-Arab Spring -- but that is a project for after Nov. 6.

The other alternative is for the president to give the Israeli leader what he is apparently clamoring for -- a deeper U.S. commitment to act militarily if Iran crosses certain red lines. That might look like a win-win at first glance. Obama avoids the prospect of another war or cleaning up after an Israeli strike during this reelection season, gets Congress and Republican candidates off his back on Iran, and can even wrap his newfound belligerence in the claim that he has consistently promised that all options are on the table. Netanyahu, meanwhile, stays within his comfort zone -- no hard choices, no risks, and a smooth reelection, while driving U.S. policy further in his direction and claiming a win in Washington (again). Obama appears to have set off on this path in that new interview with Goldberg, emphasizing that U.S. policy on Iran "includes a military component," adding for good measure "I don't bluff."

If indeed Netanyahu is less keen on a strike than his posturing would have us believe, and if 2012 for Israel's leadership is in fact less about "zones of immunity" that Iranian facilities may acquire and more about "zones of impunity" that a U.S. election year confers on Israeli policy toward Iran, then perhaps this has been the Israeli intention all along: to checkmate the United States by locking it into a logic of confrontation down the road. Israel's position has, after all, been relatively clear in preferring a "stars and stripes" rather than a "blue and white" label on the military taming of Iran.

If Obama pursues such a formula and this helps avoid war in the tricky months ahead, it is not to be sneezed at. But at the same time, there is a very real downside to this approach. It carries the promise of greater problems and escalation ahead -- making a negotiated solution ultimately less likely, possibly provoking Iran, and placing Israel in the very unwise position of cheerleading America into a war.

Gali Tibbon - Pool/Getty Images