The Scorpion and the Frog

For years, Syria supported a witches' brew of terrorist groups across the Middle East. Now, it's payback time.

For 16 months now, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been blaming "foreign-backed terrorists" for the uprising that threatens to unseat him. It's an old scare tactic, one he used 11 years ago, albeit in subtler form, when he referred to the activists behind the so-called Damascus Spring as "a foreign agent acting on behalf of an outside power" -- and one that sounds suspiciously like Muammar al-Qaddafi's attempt to pin his own uprising on international terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and drugs. But as the Syrian rebellion descends into all-out civil war, it is becoming clear that there is a grain of truth to Assad's claims.

In recent weeks, alarming developments -- including videos of al Qaeda fighters released on jihadi websites, eyewitness reports from CNN's Ivan Watson, and testimony from two European photographers who were kidnapped in Syria by militants from Chechnya, Pakistan, and Bangladesh -- suggest that foreign jihadists have indeed joined the struggle against Assad's regime. And these aren't just isolated events: The New York Times reports that at least three al Qaeda affiliates currently operate in Syria, and, according to intelligence estimates cited by Seth Jones, associate director of Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center, at least 200 operatives are fighting with or alongside rebel groups.

To be sure, most rebels are Syrian nationals and the vast majority, no doubt, are not sympathetic to al Qaeda's cause. Of course, that won't stop Assad from attempting to tar the entire revolt based on the presence of a comparatively small contingent of fighters. The Syrian president, however, shouldn't be surprised that there are foreign fighters in his country -- he invited them in, after all. The only new development is that some of these fighters appear to have turned against their erstwhile patron.

A notorious state sponsor of terrorism, the Baathist regime in Damascus has long tolerated the presence of foreign militants as part of its regional strategy. Indeed, an impressive list of militant organizations, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, Fatah al-Intifada, and, until recently, Hamas, has maintained bases or been headquartered in Syria. But while some of these relationships have soured as a result of the Syrian government's response to the uprising, the fallout from Assad's meddling in Iraq and Lebanon will contribute most to his undoing.

Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Syria notoriously became a transit route for foreign fighters looking to wage jihad against coalition forces. According to records seized by U.S. forces in Sinjar, Iraq, more than 600 fighters were smuggled across the Syria-Iraq border between August 2006 and August 2007 to join the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an umbrella organization of Iraqi insurgents affiliated with al Qaeda.

West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, which analyzed and published the records, reported that roughly 40 percent of these fighters hailed from Saudi Arabia, with another 20 percent coming from Libya. The remaining fighters trickled in from Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Tunisia, and a smattering of other Middle Eastern countries. Despite their diverse backgrounds, however, they all eventually converged in Syria, where they either entered training camps on the Syrian side of the border or proceeded directly on to Iraq. The process was orchestrated by at least 95 Syrian "coordinators" who specialized in recruiting suicide bombers and foreign fighters from specific regions, according to Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

U.S. officials made little secret of their suspicion that the Syrian government was complicit in this flow of fighters into Iraq. In public testimony before Congress in April 2008, Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq, said that the Syrian government had "not [done] enough to shut down the key network that supports [al Qaeda in Iraq]." In private, he was even more blunt: A leaked U.S. State Department cable reveals that he told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in December 2008 that Assef Shawkat -- Assad's brother-in-law and Syria's director of military intelligence -- had "detailed knowledge" about the activities of al Qaeda facilitators in Syria. Ironically, Shawkat died along with other top Syrian security officials in a July 18 bombing in Damascus, which the regime blamed on suicide attackers. It was precisely the kind of attack he had helped perpetrate against coalition forces in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has also consistently accused Syrian intelligence officials of training terrorist operatives. In 2009, Iraqi officials released the taped confession of an al Qaeda militant who claimed to have been trained in Syria. The head of the camp, the operative said, was a Syrian intelligence agent named Abu al-Qaqaa. The Syrian government, moreover, has a history of conducting these kinds of smuggling operations, as the authors of the West Point report point out. In the early 1980s, for instance, Syrian intelligence operatives helped smuggle jihadists from the Persian Gulf into southern Lebanon. Before ferrying them across the border, however, Syrian officials took photographs of the jihadists' passports and placed them on a terrorist watch list -- they were apparently worried about blowback even then.

Fast-forward three decades, and these fears have become a reality. Shared tribal and family ties across the Syria-Iraq border, coupled with the operation of criminal smuggling networks, mean that much of the 422-mile border remains permeable -- and this time, the Syria-to-Iraq jihadi highway appears to be running in reverse. Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism fellow at the New America Foundation and one of the authors of the West Point report, writes that diplomats say "dozens" of jihadists have entered Syria from Iraq, "a number that prudence dictates likely includes at least some from al-Qa'ida's ISI." This assessment dovetails with a statement made by a Maliki aide reported in the New York Times claiming, "The wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have." In other words, he said, "Al Qaeda that is operating in Iraq is the same as that which is operating in Syria."

A lack of security along the Syria-Lebanon border has also come back to haunt the Syrian regime. Syria has long insisted on a policy of lax border control, refusing a proposal to allow European guards to secure the border following the 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and pressuring the Lebanese government not to step up monitoring from its side of the border. These steps have ensured that the Syrian regime has faced few problems in shipping weapons to Hezbollah, its most powerful Lebanese ally -- keeping the movement well-armed against Israel and its domestic opponents.

But while Hezbollah has remained a staunch ally of the Syrian regime, the unguarded border is now also exploited by anti-Assad groups. From the border region nestled in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, for instance, hundreds of Lebanese Sunni jihadists have managed to slip into Syria to join the fight against Assad. Many of these fighters have traveled to Homs, a rebel stronghold, but there is at least one exclusively Lebanese unit operating near the Lebanese border, according to the Times of London.

Lax security protocols in Lebanon have also enabled smugglers from across the region to move weapons across the border to rebel forces. In late April, for instance, Lebanese authorities intercepted a large shipment of weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, en route to the rebels from Libya. The next month, they confiscated 60,000 rounds of ammunition aboard an Italian tanker in Lebanon's port city of Tripoli. The tanker had recently docked in Alexandria, Egypt, where the bullets were taken onboard. There is, of course, no way to accurately measure the volume of weapons being smuggled into Syria through the Lebanese portal, but all available indicators suggest that this is also no longer a unidirectional highway. As Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to Lebanon and Syria, put it recently, "There are reasons to believe that there is a flow of arms both ways -- from Lebanon into Syria and from Syria into Lebanon."

Ultimately, the Syrian strategy of financing foreign exploits seems to have backfired. Assad's ruthless response to peaceful protests -- including laying siege to and shelling restive cities like Daraa -- alienated many Sunni extremist groups, which have a "complicated and fluid" relationship with Damascus, as Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy describes it. These groups, including Hamas and various affiliates of al Qaeda in Iraq, had been happy to accept handouts from Assad before the uprising, but were ultimately sympathetic to the largely Sunni protest movement. As a result, Tabler argues, recent months have witnessed "a disintegration of many of the regime's close connections to regional militant groups it had previously strongly backed."

Most of these organizations did not actively take up arms against Assad -- Hamas, for instance, simply downgraded its presence in Damascus and moved key officials to offices in Qatar and Egypt -- but the souring of relations has helped cement the conflict's sectarian parameters. It has also made it easier for al Qaeda to rally support across the Arab world. Indeed, just days after Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas's political bureau, announced he was moving his office, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called on his supporters to join the struggle against the Syrian regime.

Assad might be alarmed by the foreign terrorists operating in his country, but he should not be surprised by their presence. Given Syria's history of sponsoring foreign terrorist organizations, it would actually be extraordinary if none had stuck around to take advantage of the current unrest. What the uprising has revealed is a split between Sunni and Shiite extremist groups: Hezbollah remains a stalwart ally of Syria while Hamas has distanced itself and al Qaeda is attempting to hijack the opposition. As always, there do appear to be exceptions; Palestinian Islamic Jihad is the lone Sunni holdout in the Assad camp, possibly because it stands to gain additional resources from Damascus now that its list of allies is getting shorter. At the end of the day, however, Assad is learning the dangers of doing business with groups whose interests only temporarily overlapped with his own. But if the Syrian president looks like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," it is Aesop's fable about the frog who trusted the scorpion that best captures the moral of this story.



Climate of Failure

Environmentalists are just now waking up to the reality that if we're going to stop global warming, we're going to have to be a lot more politically savvy.

The heady days of early 2009, when advocates for global action on climate change anticipated world leaders gathering later that year around a conference table in Copenhagen to reach a global agreement, are but a distant memory. Today, with many of these same leaders focusing their attention on jumpstarting economic growth, environmental issues have taken a back seat. For environmentalists, it may seem that climate policy has dropped from the political agenda altogether.

They're right. The world's biggest emitters have reached a consensus of sorts, but not the one hoped for in Copenhagen. In the United States, President Barack Obama has borrowed his energy policy -- "all of the above" -- from the Republicans. Europe has dithered on any further commitments to emissions reductions as governments have been completely consumed by the euro crisis. China and India have used the follow-on conferences to Copenhagen, held in Durban and Cancun, to decisively push international climate negotiations into the long weeds. Leaders' attention to climate policy is not coming back -- at least not in any form comparable to the plans being discussed just a few years ago.

Copenhagen will likely be remembered as the moment when advocates for action lost their innocence. For more than a decade, expectations had been raised for a grand global bargain to put a price on carbon that would compel a major reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions -- notably carbon dioxide -- over the coming decades. To understand why this bargain failed requires a basic understanding of where carbon dioxide comes from and how it is reduced. A very simple but powerful framework for such an understanding was proposed in the 1980s by Japanese scientist Yoichi Kaya. Kaya explained that future carbon dioxide emissions would be the product of four factors: population, economic activity, how we obtain our energy, and how we use that energy.

We can simplify these four factors even further. Population and income together are simply GDP, or aggregate economic activity, and the production and consumption of energy reflect the technologies of energy supply and demand. The resulting Kaya Identity -- as his equation has come to be called -- simply says:

Emissions = GDP x Technology

With this simple equation before us, we can see the fundamental challenge to reducing emissions: A rising GDP, all else equal, leads to more emissions. But if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable.  Right now, leaders on six different continents are focused on efforts to grow GDP, and with it jobs and wealth. They're not as worried about emissions.

If you spend any time in the midst of the climate debate, it won't be long before you will be assailed by those who would like to argue that economic growth is unnecessary or even wrong, and stopping it is a key to reducing emissions. I hear these arguments mostly from wealthy liberal academics in posh university towns across the richer parts of the world. Noted environmental activist Bill McKibben, for example, frequently makes the case that "growth may be the one big habit we finally must break," and he is far from a lone voice. But of course, no candidate has ever secured political office on an anti-growth platform. One has to live in a thickly insulated bubble to think that stopping or reversing growth could ever be a feasible way to reduce emissions.

So what's the solution, then? The Kaya Identity tells us that instead of GDP, the focus must be on technology, and here the math is surprisingly simple. Stabilizing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would require more than 90 percent of the energy we consume to come from carbon-free sources like nuclear, wind, or solar. Policymakers often discuss reducing annual emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels. But emissions today are already more than 45 percent higher than in 1990, so that higher level implies a need to cut by more than 90 percent from today's levels. Put another way, in round numbers, we could keep at most 10 percent of our current energy supply, and 90 percent or more would have to be replaced with a carbon-free alternative. Today, about 10 percent of the energy that we consume globally comes from carbon-free sources -- leaving a long way to go.

Frustratingly, this 90 percent threshold for carbon-free energy supply is largely independent of how much energy the world consumes. Every major projection of future energy consumption foresees growth in energy demand around the world, which makes sense when you consider that today 2 billion people or more lack basic access to energy. Energy demand is skyrocketing in China and India, and eventually will in Africa. But even letting your imagination go wild and envisioning a future world that consumes half of the energy we do today would still require that more than 80 percent of our energy supply be carbon-free. This isn't a statement about the feasibility or desirability of improved energy efficiency; it's just math.

Consider this: If the goal is to stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a low level by 2050 (in precise terms, at 450 parts per million or less), then the world would need to deploy a nuclear power plant worth of carbon free energy every day between now and 2050. For wind or solar, the figures are even more daunting.

For several decades, the dominant view among climate specialists was that imposing a high price on carbon emissions -- whether through a tax or a traded permit system -- would create the economic incentive necessary to stimulate the green energy innovation needed. Unfortunately, the track record of such schemes is not encouraging. Any policy that depends for its success on creating economic stress on consumers (or voters) to motivate massive change is a policy doomed to fail. Voters typically respond to higher energy prices by voting out of office any politician or party who is perceived to be working against their economic interests. Supporters of carbon pricing have no good answer for the politics.

Australia has tried to get around this problem by subsidizing its relatively low carbon tax with broader income-tax reform -- that is, the government is returning to consumers more money than is collected by the tax. But the policy still remains wildly unpopular, with 38 percent of the public feeling worse off under the tax and only 5 percent feeling better off one month after its introduction, despite consistent strong support for non-specific action on climate.

Or consider Germany, where the government, having expressed a desire to shut down nuclear and fossil-fuel power altogether, is quickly waking up to reality. German politicians have begun to realize that their present choices are more carbon-intensive fossil fuel, more nuclear, or letting the lights go out. The impotence of the European Emissions Trading Scheme, due to an excess of tradable permits resulting from the economic downturn, actually creates incentives for more coal -- in 2012, black coal consumption is expected to increase by 13.5 percent. The Economist recently concluded that for Germany, "Greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to be higher than they would have been [without the nuclear shutdown] for quite a while to come."

Efforts to secure a high carbon price to create incentives for change still have staunch advocates in the environmental community, despite the little evidence that it can work. Advocates for carbon pricing typically argue that the costs are low or even nonexistent. The typical basis for such claims is an economic model that projects net costs over the better part of a century, with claims of low costs based on that aggregated, hypothetical sum. Such models, often laden with dodgy assumptions -- such as predictions of the magnitude and pace of future technological innovation in energy -- offer little solace to the politician who runs for election every two years and whose political fortunes hinge on the actual short-term costs.

The evidence that a high carbon tax is politically infeasible seems irrefutable, based on experience and common sense. Yet, even so, to try to push the debate forward, advocates constantly seek to demonstrate that climate change is taking place with high tangible costs, as if to try to rebalance the cost-benefit math. Such efforts to stoke alarm have no apparent limit, no matter how tenuous the science. For instance, even though scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have observed that the magnitude of drought in the central United States has actually decreased over the past century, there has been a rush to attribute the 2012 drought solely to human causes. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian economist, cheered on the drought and its devastation, writing "It sounds harsh, but in light of these realities, this year's U.S. drought is good news ... fears about imperiled food security may be our best hope for breaking through widespread climate-change denial and generating the political pressure to do something."

Science and nature provide enough varied data to paint anyone's political ink blot, ensuring that the debate over the weather sustains without end. In this debate ostensibly about the science, the opposing camps have created names for one other -- "alarmists" (who say the costs of inaction will be high) and "deniers" (who say that the costs of inaction will be low or even zero). The end result has been neither to win the debate nor secure a political mandate, but to politicize the science itself.

Even Foreign Policy has played this game. When in 2010 I observed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had made a rather silly error in its report by including a graph that could not be found in the scientific literature (and was erroneous to boot), FP included me in a line-up of alleged "climate deniers." Rather than seeking to get the science right, the magazine sought to enforce conformity of view. The good news is that the IPCC error has been widely recognized (even by the IPCC author who created the questionable graph) and the FP effort to discredit my views lives on only in the bowels of blogospheric debates over climate, dredged out occasionally by those relying on ad hominem attacks in the never-ending climate wars.

So what's the next step? For years -- decades, even -- science has shown convincingly that human activities have an impact on the planet. That impact includes but is not limited to carbon dioxide. We are indeed running risks with the future climate through the unmitigated release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and none of the schemes attempted so far has made even a dent in the problem. While the climate wars will go on, characterized by a poisonous mix dodgy science, personal attacks, and partisan warfare, the good news is that progress can yet be made outside of this battle.

The key to securing action on climate change may be to break the problem into more manageable parts. This should involve recognizing that human-caused climate change involves more than just carbon dioxide. This is already happening. A coalition of activists and politicians, including numerous prominent scientists, have argued that there are practical reasons to focus attention on "non-carbon forcings" -- human influences on the climate system other than carbon dioxide emissions. The U.N. Environment Program argues that actions like reducing soot and methane could "save close to 2.5 million lives a year; avoid crop losses amounting to 32 million tons annually and deliver near-term climate protection of about half a degree Celsius by 2040."

Some of these opportunities are political. For instance, in the United States, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a loud and theatrical opponent to most action related to climate, supports action on non-carbon forcings, particularly efforts to reduce the amount of particulates in the air. As he explained to the Guardian  "Al Gore probably would be against automobile accidents and I am too. This has nothing to do with the CO2 issue." The lesson here is that if Gore and Inhofe can find common political ground on one important aspect of the issue, then there is plenty of hope for progress.

Other human influences on climate, such as those caused by chlorofluorocarbons, which are also known to impact the ozone layer, offer other tantalizing opportunities for progress while circumventing the most gridlocked parts of the debate. Similarly, the global demand for huge amounts of energy in coming decades provides a compelling rationale for energy technology innovation independent of the climate issue.

Of course, we can't ignore carbon dioxide. Carbon emissions will remain a vexing problem because they are so tightly bound to the production of most of the world's energy, which in turn supports the functioning of the global economy. But even here the situation may not be hopeless. America's recent boom in the production of shale gas illustrates the virtuousness of innovation: In the United States, shale gas has become widely available and inexpensive due to technologies developed by the government and private sector over decades and has displaced large amounts of coal in a remarkably short time, dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the process. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, carbon dioxide emissions in 2011 were lower than those of 1996, even though GDP increased by more than 40 percent after inflation.

Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the challenge of stabilizing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, because it is still carbon intensive, but the rapidly declining U.S. emissions prove an essential policy point: Make clean(er) energy cheap, and dirty energy will be quickly displaced. To secure cheap energy alternatives requires innovation -- technological, but also institutional and social. Nuclear power offers the promise of large scale carbon-free energy, but is currently expensive and controversial. Carbon capture from coal and gas, large-scale wind, and solar each offer tantalizing possibilities, but remain technologically immature and expensive, especially when compared to gas. The innovation challenge is enormous, but so is the scale of the problem. A focus on innovation -- not on debates over climate science or a mythical high carbon price -- is where we'll make process.

The vast complexity of the climate issue offers many avenues for action across a range of different issues. What we need is the wisdom to have a constructive debate on climate policy options without all the vitriolic proxy battles. The anger and destructiveness seen from both sides of this debate will not be going away, of course, but constructive debate will move on to focus on goals that can actually be accomplished. To paraphrase the great columnist Walter Lippmann, politics is not about getting people to think alike, but about getting people who think differently to act alike. The climate issue will never be solved completely, but it's still possible for us to make things better or worse.

I'm all for doing better.