Monday, April 24, 2017

The New Yorker

Rescuing the Last Two Animals from the Mosul Zoo
By Robin Wright
Mosul’s forlorn little zoo, a collection of rusted cages in a park near the Tigris River, was abandoned by its keepers in October, as the Iraqi Army began to liberate the city from the Islamic State. For three months, the zoo was a staging ground for isis fighters. More than forty of the zoo animals died, either as collateral damage—trapped between warring combatants—or from starvation. By January, when the eastern half of Mosul was freed, only two animals had survived: Lula, a caramel-colored female bear, and Simba, a three-year-old lion.

Animals, like people, suffer from war psychoses, including P.T.S.D. During the most intense urban combat in history, Lula ate her two cubs from hunger and stress. Simba had been one of three lions. Simba’s father, weak and emaciated, was killed by his mate to provide food for herself and Simba. In the wild, lionesses hunt for the entire pride. She, too, soon succumbed.


Concerned about the fate of Lula and Simba, residents in Mosul sent frantic Facebook messages to Four Paws International, an animal-protection agency based in Austria, appealing for help. In mid-February, the organization dispatched Amir Khalil to Mosul. Khalil is an Egyptian veterinarian who has spent a quarter century saving animals in war zones on three continents. He found Lula deeply traumatized and starving; her snout protruded through her cage’s rusted bars, anxiously seeking food and water. Simba had grown so scrawny that his rib cage was exposed. He wouldn’t stop pacing in his small enclosure. Read on...

Friday, April 14, 2017

The New Yorker

War, Terrorism 
and the Christian Exodus from the Middle East
By Robin Wright   
A decade ago, I spent Easter in Damascus. Big chocolate bunnies and baskets of pastel eggs decorated shop windows in the Old City. Both the Catholic and Orthodox Easters were celebrated, and all Syrians were given time off for both three-day holidays on sequential weekends. I stopped in the Umayyad Mosque, which was built in the eighth century and named after the first dynasty to lead the Islamic world. The head of John the Baptist is buried in a large domed sanctuary—although claims vary—on the mosque’s grounds. Muslims revere John as the Prophet Yahya, the name in Arabic. Because of his birth to a long-barren mother and an aged father, Muslim women who are having trouble getting pregnant come to pray at his tomb. I watched as Christian tourists visiting the shrine mingled with Muslim women.
At least half of Syria’s Christians have fled since then. The flight is so pronounced that, in 2013, Gregory III, the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, wrote an open letter to his flock: “Despite all your suffering, stay here! Don’t emigrate! We exhort our faithful and call them to patience in these tribulations, especially in this tsunami of stifling, destructive, bloody and tragic crises of our Arab world, particularly in Syria, but also to different degrees in Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon,” he wrote. “Jesus tells us, ‘Fear not!’ 
Syria’s Christians are part of a mass exodus taking place throughout the Middle East, the cradle of the faith. Today, Christians are only about four per cent of the region’s more than four hundred million people—and probably less.Read on...

The New Yorker

Trump Drops the Mother of All Bombs
By Robin Wright 
The Mother of All Bombs--the largest conventional weapon in the US arsenal--is so big it cost $300 million to develop and $16 million apiece to produce. The US used it for the very first time this week against the smallest militia it faces anywhere in the world.
When it was first tested, in 2003, the largest conventional weapon in the United States arsenal set off a mushroom cloud visible for twenty miles. The potential damage from the twenty-two-thousand-pound bomb was so vast that the Pentagon ordered a legal review to insure that the device wouldn’t be deemed an indiscriminate killer under the Law of Armed Conflict, the body of law that regulates behavior during wartime. The MOAB was compared to a small nuclear weapon. It’s so large that no U.S. warplane is big enough to drop it: it has to be offloaded from the rear of a cargo plane, with the help of a parachute. Read on...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The New Yorker

The Assad Dynasty:
Nemesis of Nine U.S. Presidents
By Robin Wright
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s first meeting with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, in 1973, dragged on until almost eleven p.m. It ran so long, the Times reported, that the media began to speculate about whether America’s top diplomat had been kidnapped. Assad “negotiated tenaciously and daringly like a riverboat gambler to make sure he had exacted the last sliver of available concessions,” Kissinger recalled in his memoir, “Years of Upheaval.” The marathons were typical. In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker famously waved a white flag “in submission” after almost ten hours because he needed a bathroom break. Baker called negotiating with Assad “bladder diplomacy.”
Since the bloodless coup, in 1970, that brought the family to power, the Assad dynasty—the founding father, Hafez, and his heir and second son, Bashar—has exasperated nine American Presidents. “Time-consuming, nerve-racking, and bizarre,” Kissinger said of his sessions with Hafez al-Assad. Republican and Democratic Administrations alike have coaxed and cajoled, prodded and praised, and, most recently, confronted and condemned the Assads to induce policy changes....Read on

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump Embraces Sunni Autocrats
By Robin Wright
On February 11, 2011, shortly after 3 p.m., President Obama stepped before a microphone in the Grand Foyer of the White House. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had just resigned after weeks of mass protests, in Tahrir Square and nationwide, and a final nudge from the White House. “There are few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place,” Obama said. “This is one of those times.” He compared the peaceful overthrow of Mubarak—who had been the centerpiece of U.S. policy in the Arab world for three decades—to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Gandhi’s civil disobedience against British colonialism.

“The wheel of history turned at a blinding pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights,” Obama said. Two months later, Mubarak was detained on allegations of corruption, embezzlement, abuse of power, and negligence for failing to stop the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.


The wheel of history is now turning, at an equally blinding pace, in reverse. Mubarak was freed last month; he returned to his mansion in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. His two sons and other Mubarak-era officials, also jailed for corruption, are free now, too. On Monday, President Trump hosted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the former field marshal who orchestrated a military coup, in 2013, against Mubarak’s successor.
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Thursday, March 30, 2017

The New Yorker

The Bodies of Mosul
By Robin Wright 
I drove into Mosul in a battered Nissan pickup truck in mid-March. Iraq’s second-largest city, once a thriving manufacturing and commercial center, is now a wreckage of destroyed factories, shops, and homes. Huge craters from bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition obstructed major intersections. The craters, designed to slow ISIS suicide drivers targeting the Iraqi Army, have since filled with filmy, stagnant water; they were treacherous to circumvent. Roads were lined with rubble from five months of war—chunks of concrete, twisted electricity poles and downed wires, shards of window glass. Almost every block of East Mosul was littered with charred cars. ISIS seized them from residents, setting them alight to emit black smoke and hide their movements from coalition warplanes.

There were still many bodies on the streets, even though isis was forced out many weeks ago. I spent an afternoon in Hay al-Tameem, or “Neighborhood of Nationalization,” a district where isis ran a bomb factory and confiscated homes for leaders and senior fighters. Signs in black spray paint identified houses as “Property of the Islamic State.”


“There were a lot of Russian isis fighters here,” Ahmed Sobhay, who lived across the street from the bomb factory, told me. Thousands flocked to the Islamic State from the Russian Republic of Chechnya, but Sobhay never dared to ask for their home towns. isis fighters sporadically held a gun to his head to demand his co√∂peration; once, they put a gun to the head of his six-year-old son, Ammer, to ask if his father was secretly smoking. Sobhay said he pulled his children out of school and didn’t let his wife or daughter go out in public for fear they would be carried off by ISIS.
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Friday, March 24, 2017

Face to Face with the Ghost of ISIS
By Robin Wright 
On a crisp spring day in March, in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, I met Abu Islam, a senior isis leader nicknamed the Ghost of isis by Iraqi intelligence for his elusiveness. He was escorted into a small office with faux-wood paneling and no windows at the Special Forces Security Compound in Kurdistan. His hands were manacled in front of him; he was blindfolded by a dark hood pulled over his loose black Shirley Temple curls. Long sought by the Iraqi government, Abu Islam was notorious for running clandestine cells of suicide bombers—some of whom were as young as twelve—and carrying out covert terrorist operations beyond the Islamic State’s borders. Having had a few years of religious training, he was also tasked with teaching the unique isis version of Islam to new fighters. Still in his mid-twenties, Abu Islam rose to become the isis “emir” of Iraq’s oil-rich province of Kirkuk.


Abu Islam’s capture, in October, was one of the most important in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. Most of the isis √©lite have fled or been killed since Iraq launched its most ambitious military offensive, late last year, to retake Mosul. “He’s a guy we chased for more than two years,” Lahur Talabany, the head of Kurdistan’s Zanyari intelligence service, told me. “To pick him up and realize that we finally got him, it was a big catch for us.”
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Friday, February 17, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump's Flailing Foreign Policy
By Robin Wright
When I was five, I almost drowned after stepping into the deep end of a lake. I can still recall the terror, my small arms flailing toward the sunlight above the water, my legs kicking in all directions to find ground. A month into the Trump Presidency, that image haunts me as an apt metaphor for both the Trump Administration’s foreign policy and the gasping-for-breath fear among many old hands watching it play out.
“Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” General Tony Thomas, who heads the United States Special Operations Command, remarked at a military conference in Maryland this week. “I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war.”

The President is increasingly bewildering or worrying friends and foes alike. Longstanding allies now publicly chide America. On Thursday, the French Foreign Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called the Trump Administration’s policy on the volatile Middle East “very confusing and worrying.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel—who has become the de-facto spokesperson for the West’s liberal democracies since Trump took office—rebuked his “America First” policy this week. “No country can solve the problems alone; joint action is more important,” she said.
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Monday, January 30, 2017

Donald Trump, Pirate-in-Chief
By Robin Wright
Donald Trump has had a fixation on Iraq’s oil—and America’s right to seize it—for at least six years. In 2011, he told a Fox News producer that the U.S. should “take the oil.” It was a common theme on the campaign trail last year. “We go in, we spent three trillion dollars. We lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then look what happens is we get nothing. You know, it used to be the victor belong the spoils,” Trump said on NBC’s “Today Show,” in September. “There was no victor there, believe me. There was no victory. But I always said, ‘Take the oil.’ “

During his first week in office, Trump has twice repeated the claim—and alluded to a new opportunity to do just that. “Maybe you’ll have another chance,” he said, in unscripted remarks at the C.I.A., on his first full day in office. Four days later, ABC’s David Muir pressed him on what he meant. “We’re gonna see what happens,” the President said. “You know, I told you, and I told everybody else that wants to talk when it comes to the military, I don’t wanna discuss things.” The Administration is now reviewing options to be more aggressive, in both Iraq and Syria, against the Islamic State.

The reaction, from Washington to Baghdad, has been outrage—and bewilderment. “What he’s talking about is theft, pure and simple,” Robert Goldman, a professor at American University who has taught the laws of war for four decades, told me. “We have no right, and never had a right, even as an occupier, to take their oil. So what he is talking about is patently illegal under the laws of war, under which we are bound.”
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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Khizr Khan, Gold Star Father, on Refugee Ban
By Robin Wright 
Since his six-minute speech at last summer’s Democratic Convention, Khizr Khan has become a kind of celebrity, an honorable everyman who stood up for America’s Muslim community. The story he told of his son Humayun, a captain in the U.S. Army who gave his life to stop a suicide bomber approaching his troops in Iraq, in 2004, was emotional, and it made for gripping television. The Washington Post called the image of Khan waving his pocket-size Constitution in the air—and asking if Donald Trump had ever read it—one of the most memorable of the campaign. “I will lend you my copy,” Khan said, addressing Trump. “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.” His speech made the Constitution a best-seller on Amazon. Google searches on it soared tenfold.


Khan, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was born in Pakistan; his son Humuyun was born in the United Arab Emirates. Both became U.S. citizens in 1986. On Sunday, Khan stopped by my house in Washington, and, over honey-lavender tea, discussed President Trump’s new executive order banning the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely and all refugees for four months. The executive order suspends the entry of all citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—for ninety days. The order also calls for a general review of U.S. vetting procedures. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The New Yorker

How to Lose the War on Terror
By Robin Wright 
 Last July, anguished by the war in Syria and the plight of millions fleeing the grisly six-year conflict, Andrea Dettelbach e-mailed her rabbi at Temple Sinai, in Washington, D.C. She suggested that the synagogue sponsor a Syrian refugee family. He agreed. Temple Sinai has since raised “unbelievable amounts of money” for the family, she told me, found cell phones to give them when they arrive, organized a life-skills team to help with everything from banking to education, and lined up doctors, including a female internist who speaks Arabic. Dettelbach’s basement is full of boxes, of donated furnishings, clothing, a television. “One member of the congregation decided, instead of giving gifts last year, to buy all new pots and pans in the names of her friends.” Temple Sinai partnered with Lutheran Social Services to launch the complex process.

The wait was almost over. “We were expecting a family within a week or two,” she said. “This is the history of the Jewish people and a commitment to helping those in need. As an American, it’s opening our doors to those who seek refuge. It’s who we are as a people. How can we turn our back on them?”


On Wednesday, President Trump decreed an end to all processing and admission of Syrian refugees in the United States “until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made.” The arrival of Temple Sinai’s refugee family, who had been waiting for years and come so close to finding a safe haven, is now put off indefinitely “or forever,” Dettelbach told me. “They were vetted to an inch of their lives. It’s insane to hold them accountable for what is going on in their country—or in our country.” Trump’s action was part of a wide-ranging, eight-page executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.”
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Sunday, January 22, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump's Vainglorious Affront to the CIA
By Robin Wright
The death of Robert Ames, who was America’s top intelligence officer for the Middle East, is commemorated among the hundred and seventeen stars on the white marble Memorial Wall at C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia. He served long years in the region’s hellholes—Beirut; Tehran; Sanaa, Yemen; Kuwait City; and Cairo—often in the midst of war or turmoil. Shortly after 1 p.m. on April 18th, 1983, Ames was huddling with seven other C.I.A. staff at the high-rise U.S. Embassy overlooking the Mediterranean, when a delivery van laden with explosives made a sharp swing into the cobblestone entryway, and accelerated into the embassy’s front wall. It set off a roar that echoed across Beirut. My office was just up the hill. A huge black cloud enveloped blocks.

It was the very first suicide bombing against the United States in the Middle East, and the onset of a new type of warfare. Carried out by an embryonic cell of extremists that later evolved into Hezbollah, it blew off the front of the embassy, leaving it like a seven-story, open-faced dollhouse. Sixty-four were killed, including all eight members of the C.I.A. team. Ames left behind a widow and six children. He was so clandestine that his kids did not know that he was a spy until after he was killed.


On his first full day in office, President Trump spoke at the C.I.A. headquarters in front of the hallowed Memorial Wall, with Ames’s star on it. Since his election, Trump has raged at the U.S. intelligence community over its warnings about Russian meddling in the Presidential election. At the CIA, he never mentioned Ames or the many others who have died serving the U.S. intelligence service. He instead talked about himself. 
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The New Yorker

Trump Disrupts World
By Robin Wright 
Donald Trump knows how to rattle the world. Since Friday, the President-elect has given two interviews that jolted governments from Brussels to Beijing. Many of his ideas disparage the principles, institutions, and alliances central to U.S. foreign policy. Some date back to the Republic’s founding, while others have been adopted since the mid-twentieth century to prevent global conflagrations.

In a joint interview with Britain’s Times and Germany’s Bild, Trump didn’t just laud the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union as a “great thing”; he predicted—and implicitly welcomed—the dismantling of the entire E.U., a bloc backed for sixty years by the United States as the key to healing the divisions that sparked two world wars. “I believe others will leave,” he said. “I do think keeping it together is not going to be as easy as a lot of people think.”

Trump called NATO—the centerpiece of trans-Atlantic security—“obsolete.” He charged that it “didn’t deal with terrorism,” even though its first deployment outside Europe was to Afghanistan after 9/11. From 2003 to 2014, NATO commanded the International Security Assistance Force, which, at its peak, included a hundred and thirty thousand troops from fifty-one NATO and partner countries. It was the longest and toughest single mission in NATO history.

Trump also put German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of America’s half dozen closest allies, in the same category as Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, seized the Crimea from Ukraine, and has warplanes bombing the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “I start off trusting both, but let’s see how long that lasts,” he said. “It may not last long at all.” He even took on BMW, warning that the German company and other foreign automakers would face a tariff of thirty-five per cent if they tried to import cars built at plants in Mexico to the United States.

 Read on...

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The New Yorker

The Obama Legacy on Jihadism
By Robin Wright 
One of the most memorable moments of the Obama Presidency was his abrupt appearance on nationwide television, shortly before midnight, on Sunday, May 1, 2011. The press pool, which had been given a “lid” to stand down for the night almost six hours earlier, received an e-mail alert from the White House to get positioned for a statement. Many had to scramble to get ready before President Obama walked down the red carpet to a podium set up in the East Room. “Tonight,” he announced, “I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda.”
 It would prove to be Obama Administration’s high point in confronting jihadism. The President’s legacy on extremism will be mixed. He leaves the White House with the threat both broader and more diverse than when he took office. During his eight years, jihadis gained far more turf, more followers, more arms, and more money. They have had a deadlier impact and a bigger theatre of operations than they had in 2009—even though most of the trends were seeded during the Bush Administration. Obama may never fully recover from his description of the Islamic State, in 2014, to David Remnick, as the “jayvee team” involved in “various local power struggles.”
 At the same time, the Administration has turned the tide on jihadism over the past two years. The two premier movements—the Islamic State and Al Qaeda—are both on the defensive. The Islamic State caliphate, which straddles Iraq and Syria, will have been about halved when Obama walks out of the Oval Office for the final time, next week. At its height, in 2014, it was about the size of Indiana or the country of Jordan. For all the fighters it recruited during the Obama years, ISIS has now lost the majority of them—an estimated fifty thousand. It has somewhere between fifteen thousand and eighteen thousand still on the battlefield, U.S. officials have told me.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The New Yorker

Rafsanjani, Iran's Wiliest Politican, Dies 
By Robin Wright
During his four-decade political career, Iran’s former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani earned many nicknames. He was called the Shark, both for his smooth, hairless cheeks (reflecting his Mongol ancestry) and the killer political instincts that helped him manipulate one of the most turbulent revolutions in modern times. After the 1979 ouster of the Shah, Rafsanjani amassed so much power in fifteen years—as the speaker of parliament, President, a wartime Commander-in-Chief, and Friday Prayer Leader—that he was dubbed Akbar Shah, which means “great king.” After a revolution that ended millennia of monarchy, it was not always meant as a compliment.


Rafsanjani, who began his religious studies at the age of fourteen, was one of nine children of a prominent pistachio farmer. He studied under Ayatollah Khomeini—taking his surname from his province when he became a cleric, as is the custom—and joined the Imam’s opposition to the Shah, in 1963. After the 1979 revolution, Rafsanjani became the theocracy’s Machiavelli—at times wily and ruthless, at other times a jokester who gently cajoled followers with his famed Cheshire-cat grin. He once wept publicly over the Iranian victims of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. He played the system until the end.
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The New Yorker

Trump and Iran: 
Yet Another Hostage Crisis
By Robin Wright
Short of last-minute diplomacy, Donald Trump will inherit another hostage crisis with Iran on Inauguration Day—thirty-five years after the first hostage drama at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran ended, as Ronald Reagan was sworn in, and exactly one year after the Obama Administration’s swap to free five more Americans. The Islamic Republic has quietly arrested more Americans since the nuclear deal went into effect, in January, 2016, which coincided with a separate U.S. payment of $1.7 billion, transferred in three planeloads of cash, to settle a legal case from the Shah’s era. The deals were designed to curtail Tehran’s cyclical seizure of Americans, which had been a problem for both Bush Administrations, too.


Only they didn’t. At least six Americans and two green-card holders are now imprisoned or have disappeared in the Islamic Republic. One is now the longest-held civilian hostage in U.S. history. An undisclosed number have not been publicly identified.
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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The New Yorker

My Reunion with a Lebanese Hijacker
By Robin Wright 
I met “Hamza” Akel Hamieh in Beirut in the early nineteen-eighties after he had already hijacked six planes—a record to this day—to draw the world’s attention to the kidnapping of Musa al-Sadr, his religious leader. One of the hijackings, in 1981, was among the longest in aviation history. He commandeered a Libyan plane, midair between Zurich and Tripoli, and ordered it on a six-thousand-mile transcontinental odyssey to Beirut, then Athens, Rome, Beirut again, and Tehran, before ending back in Lebanon. Hamieh walked away, free, from all six hijackings. No one was injured or killed.

It took me a couple of years to find Hamieh in Beirut’s militia labyrinth, amid the chaos of a civil war and the Israeli occupation. He moved among the front lines. I finally found him at his uncle’s home. We talked for hours about his life and his war stories. He was a case study of how men turn to militancy and violence, and he became a chapter in my first book.


I went back to Lebanon this fall and saw Hamieh again, more than three decades after we’d first met. His hair had turned silver, and he grown a little paunchy. The first thing I asked was whether Hamieh had hijacked any planes since we last met. He laughed. “No,” he said, though the issue that had spurred all six hijackings, carried out between 1979 and 1982, had never been resolved.
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