February 19, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Inside Free Syria: Poorly armed, lacking in allies, and against all odds, an insurgency seeks to topple the Assad dictatorship
February 19, 2012
The mountains outside Antakya were wrapped in black clouds the day we crossed the border from Turkey into Syria. The smugglers said this was a good sign as the Syrian Army patrols don’t care for rain and mud, and would tend to stay in their huts, making our crossing safer. That was how it turned out. We pushed up the border fence and crawled through at around 9 p.m. There were horses heavily laden with contraband waiting for us just inside. We rode them across the mountains in the rain and arrived in Syria without being seen.
I had made contact with the smugglers in Antakya through Syrian opposition friends, some days previously. This is the only way into northern Syria for journalists at the present time. I wanted to head to Idleb Province, one of the centers of the insurgency against the Assad family dictatorship, and now one of the regime’s main targets. My purpose was to gain an impression of the Free Syrian Army, the increasingly important armed element in the revolt against Assad, from inside one of its heartland areas.
Antakya itself is buzzing with the semi-visible activities of both the Syrian regime and the opposition. The Free Syrian Army in Antakya is immensely security-conscious, particularly since the kidnapping and forced return to Syria of its founding member, Colonel Hussein Harmoush, last year. But the activities of the FSA are also severely restricted by the Turkish authorities, which watch it carefully, and whose gaze it seeks to avoid.
Antakya combines this sense of intrigue with the questionable charms of a mountain resort town in winter. Prior to crossing, I met with an FSA officer, Captain Ayham al-Kurdi, for an initial briefing.
I spoke with Kurdi in a rundown office in an apartment. A native of Hama, the 30-year-old former signals officer in a Syrian antiaircraft unit described to me how he came to the insurgency.
He was stationed near Daraa, a town close to the Jordanian border and the birthplace of the uprising, in mid-2011. He recalled his shock at witnessing the use of anti-aircraft munitions against civilian demonstrators in the area, as the Assad regime sought to murder the revolt in its cradle.
The use of these munitions was intended as a tool of terror. Their bullets kill people no more or less than regular ordnance. But from the regime’s point of view, they had the additional attraction of setting the bodies of those they hit on fire, turning the corpse into a symbol of deterrence to all who would challenge Assad’s rule. What they also did was to make Ayham al-Kurdi and others reassess their view of the government. Kurdi made his decision to desert, and help set up the beginnings of armed resistance to Assad.
Kurdi’s assessment of the strategic reality facing the Syrian revolution was grim: “If there is no international or Arab intervention,” he made clear, “this situation could continue for years.” The revolution has powerful enemies. The captain counted them on his hands, and the reasons for their enmity to the insurgency against Assad. First, Iran: “The Syrian revolution,” said Kurdi, “was a shock for the Iranian project. The Iranians want to control the region—Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf. The Syrian revolution came to break this dream. So it is natural for the Iranians to help Assad.”
But together with the Iranians, there were their Lebanese clients, Hezbollah, and beyond this Russia and China, looming and impervious. “A great Arabic and international movement” is what Captain Kurdi wants to counteract this. He is not confident that it will come.
Before I left his office for the border and the smugglers, as a way of farewell, Kurdi shared with me a curious rumor—if it is a rumor—that I would hear repeated a number of times in the days ahead. It concerned the possible use of chemical warfare by Assad against protesters. The claim was made regarding the Homs area, which even more so than Idleb, is currently the main focus of the regime’s violence. Homs city is being subjected to a merciless pounding by government artillery.
In Talbisa, next to Homs city, Kurdi told me, they sprayed pesticides on demonstrators from the air. The soldiers were equipped with a new type of gas mask. “Assad said before that we were germs,” he concluded, “now we’re insects. I guess that’s progress.” He wished me luck inside…
Germania, Hitler’s Dream Capital: Albert Speer’s plan to transform Berlin into the capital of a 1,000-year Reich would have created a vast monument to misanthropy
February 19, 2012
In 1937 Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was given the task of transforming Berlin from the sprawling metropolis that it was into Germania, the gleaming new capital of a Greater German ‘World Empire’, the centrepiece of the civilised world.
It was a vast undertaking. Plans, swiftly drawn up by Speer’s office, were presented to the public on January 28th, 1938. The reaction within Germany was predictably enthusiastic, with newspapers carrying detailed explanations and commentaries. Der Angriff stated that the designs were ‘truly monumental … far exceeding all expectations’, while the Völkischer Beobachter proclaimed grandly that ‘from this desert of stone, shall emerge the capital of a thousand-year Reich’. The foreign press, though less effusive, nonetheless concurred. The New York Times, for instance, described the project as ‘perhaps the most ambitious planning scheme’ of the modern era.
The plans certainly did not want for ambition. In accordance with Hitler’s original sketches they centred on a grand boulevard, which was to run from north to south for around seven kilometres through the heart of the city, linking two proposed new rail termini. Given carte blanche in redesigning this vast swathe of the city centre, Speer and his minions had had a field day and their plans read like a catalogue of comparatives and superlatives. The vast Grand Hall, for instance, close to the Reichstag, would have been the largest enclosed space in the world, with a dome 16 times larger than that of St Peter’s in Rome. Designed to host 180,000 people, there were concerns among the planners that the exhaled breath of the audience might even produce ‘weather’ beneath the cavernous coffered ceiling. The 117-metre tall Arch of Triumph, meanwhile, was designed – on Hitler’s express instruction – to carry the names of Germany’s 1.8 million fallen of the First World War engraved upon its walls. Similarly massive, it would have comfortably accommodated its Parisian namesake beneath its arch. Linking these monuments along the new axis would be a plethora of new buildings, civic and commercial, flanking broad avenues, ornamental obelisks, an artificial lake and a vast ‘circus’ peppered with Nazi statuary.
The image that will be familiar to many is of Hitler inspecting the white scale-model of this main axis, which was presented to him on his 50th birthday in April 1939 and was erected in a side-room of the Reich Chancellery. Though Hitler’s interest in the project was restricted almost exclusively to the north-south axis – and he would often return to muse over the model – the plans were not limited to that one area. Speer had succeeded in incorporating those headline designs into a much more thoroughgoing reorganisation of the city’s infrastructure.
First of all, Berlin’s rail network was to be overhauled, with the two new stations replacing three old termini and with many miles of sidings being replaced by a new line that would circle the city centre. Roads, too, were to be redrawn. The two new boulevards – the proposed north-south axis and the east-west axis, completed in 1939 – were only the centrepiece of a radical redevelopment. In addition Speer foresaw the city’s formerly organic urban growth being rationalised by the addition of radial thoroughfares and four concentric ring roads, the outermost of which would provide a direct connect-ion to the German autobahn network.
Entire suburbs were to be constructed to provide modern housing stock, administrative buildings and new commercial developments, which, it was planned would accommodate over 200,000 Berliners, moved out of the slums of the city centre. New airports were foreseen, including one for seaplanes on the lake at Rangsdorf. Even the city’s parks would be revamped, with horticultural studies being commissioned to report on the species that were required to restore the 18th-century flora of the region. Such was the scale of the Germania plans that, when Speer’s father – himself an architect – saw them, he summed up the thoughts of many of his contemporaries, saying: ‘You’ve all gone completely crazy.’
Of course only a tiny fraction of these grandiose designs would ever be realised. The visitor to Berlin today will struggle to see much evidence of Speer’s Germania unless he or she knows where to look. Most obvious is the boulevard west of the Brandenburg Gate, which is the old east-west axis and which is still illuminated by some of Speer’s original – and rather elegant – street lamps. Meanwhile the Victory Column (inaugurated in 1873 following Prussia’s victories over Denmark, Austria and France in the 1860s and 1870s) was moved to its present location to make way for the projected north-south Axis. Most bizarrely, the southern suburb of Tempelhof still contains a huge circular concrete block weighing over 12,000 tonnes – the Schwerbelastungskörper, or ‘heavy load-bearing body’ – which was supposed to help Speer’s engineers gauge the ability of Berlin’s sandy soil to take the vast weight of the proposed Arch of Triumph. Too large and too solid to demolish, the block stands to this day as a silent monument to Nazi megalomania.
More than a pipedream
Given that so little of Germania was ever completed and that only a fraction of it remains, it is easy to underestimate its significance. Speer’s planned rebuilding of Berlin is too readily dismissed as a Nazi pipedream; a still-born manifestation of Hitler’s architectural fantasies thankfully confined to the drawing board. Yet, in spite of the fact that Germania never came into being it would be a mistake if we were to allow ourselves to view it merely as an abstract: a folly, or an architectural curiosity somehow divorced from the odious regime that spawned it. For, as we shall see, Germania was in many ways a rather perfect representation of Nazism.
First, the issue of its feasibility must be assessed. Despite its soaring ambition the plan to re-model Berlin was part of a veritable orgy of building that had gripped the later, peacetime years of the Third Reich. Much of that, certainly, was relatively small-scale – barracks, settlements, schools and so on – but a number of projects showed similarly monumental tendencies and were themselves considerable feats of planning and construction. Most famously, perhaps, there is the example of Hitler’s vast new Reich Chancellery, which stretched the entire 400-metre length of the Voss Strasse in Berlin and was completed in 1939 at a cost of over 90 million Reichsmarks.
Other Berlin landmarks were similarly grandiose: the Olympic Stadium, opened in 1936, seated 100,000 spectators and was part of a much larger complex that was intended as much for political as for sporting ends. Göring’s Air Ministry, meanwhile, also completed in 1936, was once the largest office building in the world, offering 2,800 rooms across seven floors with 4,000 windows and nearly seven kilometres of corridors. Today it is home to the German finance ministry.
Elsewhere construction was no more modest. In Nuremberg Speer’s famed tribune on the Zeppelin Field was dwarfed by the nearby Congress Hall, modelled on the Colosseum in Rome, which was built to accommodate 50,000 of the Nazi faithful. Though it only reached a height of 39 metres – as opposed to the 70 metres that was planned – it is still the largest surviving building of the Nazi period; while at Prora, on the Baltic coast, a huge holiday resort was constructed, which, though unfinished at the outbreak of war in 1939, stretched for 4.5km along the seafront and would have housed over 20,000 holidaymakers. Even Hitler’s folly above Berchtesgaden – the Kehlsteinhaus, or ‘Eagle’s Nest’ – was an ambitious project. Completed in 1938, after little over a year in construction, it was sited atop an Alpine ridge at an altitude of over 6,000 feet and was accessed via a purpose-built seven-kilometre mountain road, which had to be blasted into the mountainside.
When considering Hitler’s plans for Berlin, therefore, one must bear in mind the wider context of Nazi construction and the astonishing track record that Hitler’s architects already had in successfully realising his visions. Germania was not mere Nazi ‘pie in the sky’. It was a part of a concerted programme to provide Germany with a portfolio of grand-scale, monumental architecture, which, Hitler believed, would be seen as the defining buildings of the age, rivals to Egypt, Babylon and Rome, inspiring future generations of Germans. It was certainly not merely a dictator’s architectural wish-list…
February 19, 2012
A new study shows Europe’s power waning — and if the continent doesn’t get its act together soon, it could put the global order in serious jeopardy
Until recently, Europeans enjoyed a pretty comfortable position in most international organizations. At the IMF, they had an unquestioned hold on the directorship and could lecture other countries on how to govern themselves and run their economies, while each large European country had its own IMF representative. But all that changed in 2011. Now, Europeans are themselves being lectured by China and Brazil for not solving their financial crisis despite having the resources to do so. Europe managed to hang on to the directorship in June when Christine Lagarde succeeded Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but only because of divisions among emerging economies. If the euro crisis continues, Europeans will likely be forced to give up more of their voting weight — as they started doing in 2010 during a reallocation of IMF board seats – and ultimately lose the directorship
The power realignment at the IMF is just one example of the way the euro crisis has undermined Europe’s geopolitical clout in the past two years, transforming it from a reliable global problem-solver to a problem itself. True, the sky is not falling: Europe has had some remarkable successes in 2011, such as the successful intervention in Libya, the relatively smooth entry of Russia into the World Trade Organization, and the agreement reached at the Durban conference on climate change. But the out-of-control debt crisis has started eroding Europe’s foreign-policy tools and degrading its leverage with other powers like China. The 2012 edition of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard – the result of intensive research by 40 researchers under the auspices of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution — makes this downward trajectory abundantly clear. If the euro crisis is not solved this year, Europe could experience in the years ahead an even more dramatic loss of power, one that would have negative consequences for world order, multilateral organizations, and the United States.
Washington may be pivoting toward Asia and casting its lot with emerging powers like India and Brazil to maintain its leadership position. But a continued erosion of Europe’s place in the world would bode ill for the Western liberal order Washington seeks to defend. For all their flaws, Europeans are still the largest contributors to international organizations and the largest purveyors of development aid, and they still outspend all the BRIC countries combined in defense expenditures. Additionally, Europe plays an important role in getting the cooperation of other powers for collective solutions favored by the United States…
The European Foreign Policy Scorecard evaluates the collective performance of Europeans — both EU institutions and the 27 member states — in reaching their foreign policy objectives in the world during the course of one year (see 2010 edition here). European performance is assessed on 80 policy issues, gathered in six broad themes: relations with China, Russia, the U.S., Wider Europe (comprised of Eastern Partnership countries, Balkans, and Turkey), Middle East and North Africa, and multilateral institutions). The table above presents the average performance of Europe for 2011.
Consider Europe’s soft power. Some countries are still eager to join the European Union and even adopt the euro, countries such as Iceland, Croatia, Turkey — or Poland and Hungary. But as Europe has drifted toward economic stagnation and political gridlock, the governance model for which the European Union stands — that of an expanding and ever more effective multilateralism as a solution to the problems of a globalized world — has been discredited in the eyes of many others. Advocates of regional integration projects in places such as Latin America and Southeast Asia are now less likely to look to Europe for inspiration. Last year, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva sounded this very alarm when he affirmed that “the world does not have the right to allow the EU to end” because “what Europeans achieved after [World War II] are part of the democratic heritage of humanity.” Unfortunately, there’s only so much the world can do. It’s up to Europeans to make the idea of Europe powerful again.
Take for example the remarkable events of the past year. The debt crisis has had a tangible impact on Europe’s ability to react to the Arab Awakening — arguably the most important geopolitical event in its neighborhood since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa initially presented a challenge to European governments that, like the United States, had cozy relationships with autocratic rulers such as Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. Europe quickly got on the right side of history, however, and agreed to a common strategy that promised the region “money, markets access, mobility.” But largely because of the financial crisis, member states have so far failed to deliver much: Budget constraints limited the money they were prepared to offer to 5.8 billion euros in direct funding; populist fears about immigration restricted offers of greater mobility for students and workers; and protectionist sentiment, fueled by economic difficulties, precluded any real opening of markets, especially to North African agricultural products. As a result, Europe is not in a position to have as much of an impact on the transformation of its southern neighborhood as it would have had a few years ago. This also means that conditionality (“more for more”) is a less potent tool of influence because the potential gains for Arab Spring countries are limited…
The table above presents the detail of grades given to Europe for its performance in the MENA region in 2011. Grades are awarded based on three criteria. Two of them (unity and resources, each given on a 0 to 5 scale), relate to policies themselves, while the third one (outcome), on a 0 to 10 scale, relate to results. These criteria correspond to simple questions: Were Europeans united around clear objectives? Did they try hard? Did they succeed? The overall result is given as a grade out of 20 and also converted to a letter grade. To learn more on the methodology used in the Scorecard, see here.
Beyond the Arab Awakening, the financial crisis has also undermined Europe’s embryonic attempt to develop so-called “strategic partnerships” with the world’s great powers. Realist powers such as China and Russia have long attempted to play Europeans off against each other. But in the last few years, member states had gradually begun to realize that they have a European interest in agreeing to a common position before negotiating with the Chinese or Russians. In particular, 2011 was supposed to be the year in which the European Union implemented a new approach to China based on unity and reciprocity. Rather than maintaining separate approaches to Beijing, member states were supposed to present a united front in order to increase their leverage. For example, they were aiming at opening Chinese public procurement markets (for projects like road- and dam-building) that are currently closed, while Chinese firms can bid for European markets.
Instead, Europe’s crisis turned into China’s opportunity. Cash-strapped member states sought to secure investment rather than open Chinese markets and, more importantly, independently petitioned Beijing to buy their sovereign bonds. As a result, while the European Commission made valuable efforts to open up China’s public procurement markets and ensure access to rare-earth minerals, Brussels often fought alone on these issues while member states individually sweet-talked Beijing and prioritized their bilateral ties. Europeans did have some collective successes with China — on Libya and climate change, for example — but these pale in comparison with the shift in the balance of power that took place in 2011. In late October, in between a European Council meeting and the G-20 summit he was about to host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to see whether China would contribute to an enlarged eurozone bailout fund (the answer was no). It is hard to rebalance a relationship or insist on a revaluation of the yuan when you come begging. It’s no surprise, then, that an EU-China summit and a high-level economic dialogue were canceled in November…
February 19, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.