Want to shake up the status quo? Account for the default effect.

Observers typically assume that if people are dissatisfied with a state of affairs, they will work to change it. Cognitive and behavioral scientists know that this assumption frequently fails as a result of the “default effect

For instance, Americans have widespread concerns about how software and entertainment companies are collecting and using their data or manipulating their choices.

Yet, in most cases companies do disclose what data they collect and what they do with it. Typically, they allow consumers to adjust their settings in order to exert greater control over what gets disclosed and how it’s used—and even provide the ability to “opt out” of features that users find undesirable.

Nonetheless, only around 5 percent of users meaningfully adjust their default settings. In fact, most will never even read the terms of service agreement. This is because, for most, it would require a prohibitive investment in time and effort to effectively navigate the “legalese” of service contracts, or to understand what the default settings are, identify which ones they’d like to change, how to change them, and the implications of those changes.

Hence, we arrive in a situation where, despite people being deeply unsatisfied with the status quo, almost no one attempts to do anything about it. Continue reading “Want to shake up the status quo? Account for the default effect.”

Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?

In March 2016, the Green Party nominated Dr. Jill Stein as their candidate for President of the United States. They have had female vice-presidential nominees on every single ticket since 1996, and ran all-female tickets in 2008 and 2012. But unfortunately, the highest the Green Party has ever performed in a general election was in 2000, when they garnered nearly 3% of the popular vote. The party was relegated to obscurity thereafter—decried as spoilers who bear responsibility for the election of George W. Bush and everything that followed.

And while both the Democratic and Republican parties have previously nominated a woman to be their vice-presidential nominees (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, respectively), Hillary Clinton is the first woman to appear at the top of one of the major party tickets—making her the first viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history. The U.S. has lagged far behind many other countries in achieving this milestone. For perspective, there have been 11 women from Muslim-majority nations that have served as PM or President, and about 1 out of every 10 contemporary governments has a female head of government or head of state.

The significance of Clinton’s achievement transcends mere symbolism: As a black man, the presidency of Barack Obama has impacted me in ways that are hard to describe, despite frequent political differences. Similarly, while adamantly opposed to Hillary’s nomination, I appreciate how meaningful it could be for a generation to grow up experiencing a woman as the “leader of the free world”—even more so at this moment, when women seem poised to simultaneously head up Britain, France and Germany as well (the implications of the fact that most of these are center-to-far right leaning politicians is a matter for a different essay). However, throughout this political season I have also found myself both perplexed and outraged by how little discussion there has been about the historic nature of Ms. Clinton’s principal Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.

Now, with the Democratic primary officially concluded, following Sanders’ concession to Hillary Clinton and his full-throated convention endorsement—it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on just how significant his campaign has been, and what Sanders’ supporters can take from it going forward.

Continue reading “Who Cares About Bernie Sanders’ Historic Candidacy?”

Iraqi, Syrian Refugees May be ISIS’ ‘Achilles Heel’

In the aftermath of the series of attacks in Paris, attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), French President François Hollande has declared a three-month state of emergency. This measure enables the military and law enforcement to monitor, arrest, detain and interrogate persons, with little or no due process. These powers will be exercised primarily against France’s besieged Arab, Muslim, immigrant and refugee populations.

Meanwhile, France has closed its borders and is calling for an indefinite suspension of the EU’s open-border (“Schengen”) system. Other EU states are calling for reducing the Schengen zone to exclude those countries most effected by the refugee crisis. Throughout the EU there is growing resistance to admitting or resettling refugees from the greater Middle East.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. House of Representatives has overwhelmingly voted to halt the already stringent and meager U.S. program to resettle refugees from Iraq and Syria. Thirty-one governors have warned that would-be migrants from the Middle East are not welcome in their states, and a majority of the American public has turned against accepting more refugees. One of the frontrunner candidates for president of the United States, Donald Trump, has even called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” All of these maneuvers are playing into the hands of ISIS.

ISIS has strongly condemned refugees’ seeking asylum in Western nations, repeatedly warned would-be expatriates that Muslims will never be truly accepted in the United States and the EU (hence the importance of an “Islamic State”).  In order to render this a self-fulfilling prophecy, ISIS ensured that one of the attackers carried a fraudulent Syrian passport, which was left to be discovered at the scene of the crime before its owner detonated his suicide vest.

ISIS is counting on Western nations to turn would-be refugees back towards their “caliphate,” because this massive outpouring of asylum seekers poses a severe threat to the legitimacy and long-term viability of ISIS. Accordingly, if Western nations were truly committed to undermining ISIS, they should embrace and integrate refugees from ISIS-occupied lands.

 

Continue reading “Iraqi, Syrian Refugees May be ISIS’ ‘Achilles Heel’”

What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?

The U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan was justified in large part by highlighting the plight of women under Taliban governance. Within the first weeks of the campaign, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Cherie Blair helped spearhead a highly-effective propaganda effort to convince the public that the U.S. and the U.K. were engaged in a moral war—one which was fundamentally about human rights rather than merely advancing geopolitical or security interests—thereby necessitating a massive ground invasion and state-building enterprise to transform Afghan society, rather than a more limited venture to  dislodge and degrade the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Of course, the U.S. bore significant moral responsibility for the plight of Afghan women, given the central role that the CIA played in sponsoring mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War—before, during, and after the Russian occupation. Leaders trained in these programs would go on to found the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaeda—groups which were not only responsible for the widespread oppression of the Afghan people, but also for planning and executing the suicide bombings of September 11, 2001.

And so, the moral implications of the war were extraordinary: had Operation Enduring Freedom been successful, it would have not only liberated Afghan women, but avenged 9/11—and in the process, helped to rectify a particularly dark chapter in U.S. foreign policy. And this, it was held, would go a long way towards winning the “hearts and minds” of people around the world.

Unfortunately, the mission was not a success, and most of the promises made at the outset of the conflict, particularly with regards to women’s empowerment, have failed to materialize. In response, insofar as they talk about Afghanistan at all, policymakers have attempted to claim that the primary U.S. interest in the country is, and always has been, about denying a foothold to the Taliban and other extremist groups—although even by this measure, the campaign has been a failure.

Nonetheless, this revisionism cannot be allowed to stand. We must evaluate America’s longest war according to the terms by which the occupation was justified–improving the status of Afghan women. And by this standard, the war must be condemned in the strongest terms: according to the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), it is impossible to verify whether any of the U.S. investments in Afghanistan have benefitted women at all.

 

Continue reading “What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?”

There Is No Iranian Nuclear Threat

On April 21, Iran and six world powers resumed the final phase of nuclear talks after a preliminary framework deal reached earlier this month. Iran and the P5+1 countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — are expected to reach a final accord by the end of June.

Yet hawks in Washington and Israel argue that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, or even remain within “sprinting” distance of acquiring one. They argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, would be increasingly belligerent on the international stage, likely provoking an arms-race in the Middle East. In worst-case scenarios, a nuclear-armed Iran may even precipitate WWIII and cast the world into nuclear winter. Given these dire projected risks, hawks generally oppose any nuclear agreement with Iran which allows the country to continue enriching uranium—which is tantamount to saying they oppose negotiations altogether.

For the sake of argument (and simply for the sake of argument), let’s assume these fears are well-founded, and not only does Iran want a nuclear weapon, but they actually succeed in obtaining one. Moreover, let’s assume that the Islamic Republic may even be willing to use weapons of mass destruction against their adversaries. The brute fact remains that Iran would not actually be able to carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the U.S.; even the threat of a so-called “dirty bomb” is negligible.

 

Continue reading “There Is No Iranian Nuclear Threat”

Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions

Iran’s nuclear program was founded in 1957 as part of U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. As part of this deal, the United States helped provide the training, technology and infrastructure allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. It was America that built Iran’s first nuclear reactor in 1967, subsequently providing them with the highly-enriched uranium to power it.

Soon thereafter, Iran began researching how to weaponize the technology. Ironic from today’s vantage point, Israel played a pivotal role in helping Tehran develop this capacity–much to the chagrin of the United States at the time. Washington would soon see further “Atoms for Peace” investments in India, Pakistan and Israel translated into weapons programs—with these latter three refusing to sign onto the U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and eventually obtaining the bomb. In a further irony, all three have emerged as critical U.S. allies in the region despite these maneuvers.

For his part, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did sign onto the treaty in 1968, although this did not end his ambition for weaponized nuclear capacity, which was ultimately brought to a halt by the 1979 Islamic Revolution which drove him from power.

Iran’s new religious leadership not only reaffirmed the NPT signed by the deposed dictator, but Ayatollah Khomeini disparaged nuclear weapons as haram under Islamic law–a binding fatwa reiterated and expanded in 2005 by Khomeini’s successor and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Continue reading “Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions”

Netanyahu’s Politics of Fear Have Proven Highly-Effective

As the Israeli election results continue to be finalized, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has again emerged victorious—likely holding onto 30 of their current 31 seats in the government. The Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s primary opposition, garnered only 24 seats, with the Joint List of Arab candidates rounding out third place with a likely 14 seats. It was a decisive win for Likud and Netanyahu—one which could extend their mandate into 2019 and put Netanyahu on the path to being the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history.

In the international media, much has been made of PM Netanyahu’s brazen last-minute maneuvers to energize his right-wing base: His controversial speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Iran’s supposed nuclear threat was intended largely as domestic propaganda—a successful attempt to circumvent Israeli campaign laws. In the days before the polls, he also grew more transparent in his position on the Palestine, insisting that there will be no Palestinian State so long as he remains Prime Minister. In the final hours he resorted to race-baiting pleas that Israeli Jews go to the polls to prevent “Arabs” from having a meaningful sway in the elections.

None of these maneuvers should have been surprising. Benjamin Netanyahu has built his entire political career out of portraying Iran and Palestine as existential threats to the Jewish people:

Continue reading “Netanyahu’s Politics of Fear Have Proven Highly-Effective”

The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless

On Dec. 30, the United Nations Security Council rejected a proposal put forward by coalition of Arab states and the Palestinian Authority calling for “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli forces” from all Palestinian territories seized after 1967, and full Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza by December 31, 2017.

The resolution needed 9 votes to pass, but ultimately garnered 8, with United States and Australia voting against it and 5 abstentions — an outcome achieved by Washington cajoling Nigeria to abstain at the last moment. But even if the measure passed, the U.S. had already signaled plans to exercise their veto and override the vote—as it has already done 41 times on Israel’s behalf since 1972. Continue reading “The “Paper-State” of Palestine is Worse than Useless”

Normalize Relations with Iran Now, Not Later

In an administration which has become known for largely continuing the disastrous policies of the previous White House and doubling-down on its own proven failures—President Obama stunned the world with his surprise announcement that the United States would be normalizing relations with Cuba.

The President pointed out that the extraordinary sanctions regime, which has been in place for more than 50 years, has failed at its stated goal of achieving regime change in Cuba. Instead, it has senselessly immiserated the Cuban people for decades. Deeper engagement, he offered, would be the best path forward in bolstering an exchange of ideas between the two countries and promoting mutual well-being. The logic which motivated the Administration to revise its policy on Cuba would seem to apply equally to Iran. Continue reading “Normalize Relations with Iran Now, Not Later”

Critical Context on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria

The Obama Administration has just announced that they and their coalition allies have begun a fierce campaign of airstrikes in Syria, bombing primarily “hard-targets” in the IS stronghold of Raqqa (about 20 of them). Here’s what is known—and perhaps more importantly—what is not known so far:


“Sunni Arab” Partners

The U.S. was the only non-Arab actor to participate in the Syria raids. Collaborating with the U.S. were five other Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan.

While many pundits have and will continue to describe them as “moderate Arab allies”—what “moderate” usually means is something akin to “compliant with the U.S. agenda in the region.” What may be more significant to note about these powers is that they are all monarchies—in fact, the actors who took part in the strike are most of the region’s surviving dynasties (excluding only Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco).

The Gulf monarchs are far from beloved in Iraq, even among the Sunni population. Readers may remember that the “Sunni” Hussein regime wanted to go to war with the KSA, provoking the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield; even in the face of the ISIS threat, Iraq has categorically refused to allow ground troops from these countries to operate on Iraqi soil. There is a long enmity between the peoples of Iraq and the Gulf monarchs—and an even deeper enmity between these powers and the Syrians. So the idea that the populations of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria will find these forces and their actions legitimate simply in virtue of the fact that they are “Sunni” is a gross oversimplification that reinforces problematic sectarian narratives even as it obscures important geopolitical truths. Among them:

If anything, the alliance that carried out the strike actually reinforces the narrative of the IS: it will be framed as the United States and its oppressive monarchic proxies collaborating to stifle the Arab Uprisings in order to preserve the doomed status quo. Continue reading “Critical Context on the U.S. Airstrikes in Syria”

Fantasyland Syria and its Horrific Real-World Consequences

In the wake of the Islamic State’s takeover of northern Iraq and Syrian territories, several foreign policy hawks have blamed the Obama administration’s for failing to act in Syria. They claim that had the U.S. provided greater arms to the Syrian rebels or directly intervened on their behalf, Syria’s “moderate” opposition would have long triumphed over both the government and religious extremists.

Since the conflict began in 2011, much has changed in Syria: The rebels’ Supreme Military Council and its political analog have virtually imploded even as transnational extremists increasingly flood the area. At the same time, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been gaining more ground. Almost as if these developments are irrelevant, the beltway pundits’ policy prescriptions have remained astonishingly the same:  the U.S. should provide better arms for the rebels or directly intervene on their behalf.

Rather than causing the situation to deteriorate further, these critics argue that facing a more capable opposition with more credible foreign backing, the Syrian government will simply capitulate to the demands of Western powers and their regional allies. Meanwhile, better-armed “good” rebels will make inroads against groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — and the Syrian people will embrace and entrust them to guide the country through a transition.

If this all sounds somewhat fanciful, consider the source: Continue reading “Fantasyland Syria and its Horrific Real-World Consequences”

Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond

On Aug. 14, embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stepped down and accepted the candidacy of his successor, Haider al-Abadi, who was nominated last week by the Iraqi president in an effort to end months of political stalemate in Baghdad. Maliki’s ouster has been a key demand of the Sunni opposition and United States. His resignation was welcomed, remarkably, by both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, the end of Maliki’s reign was heightened by a coup from within his Shia alliance that had been brewing for some time. However, his removal alone — more symbolic than substantial — will not resolve the deeper political crisis that threatens Iraq’s unity and long-term viability.

This threat is often framed in terms of sectarian tensions among Iraq’s Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. But sectarianism in Iraq is also easy to misunderstand or overstate. The current turmoil results not from the centuries-old feud between Sunnis and Shias but from a revolt against very specific governmental policies — most of which have their origins in the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Continue reading “Understanding Sectarianism in Iraq and Beyond”

Arming the Syrian Rebels is Counterproductive: Here’s Why…

A critique circulating by many foreign policy hawks is that the Obama Administration was far too concerned about delineating the “moderates” from the “extremists” of Syria’s rebellion, and only providing support to the former. They speculate that if the United States had provided more aid early on, extremists like the Islamic State would have never risen to prominence.

Despite its ubiquity, this narrative rests uneasily atop a gross neglect and misreading of recent history. Hillary Clinton, in particular, should take note:

Continue reading “Arming the Syrian Rebels is Counterproductive: Here’s Why…”

Al-Malaki Has Been Deposed, To What Avail?

Contrary to the popular narrative, Iraqi PM Nouri al-Malaki was not a sectarian leader. His fault was that he was an overly-ambitious autocrat who had the further misfortune of presiding over a fundamentally sectarian political system–and during the particularly polarized period in the Mideast which followed the Arab Uprisings.

And while deposing al-Malaki had been a key demand of the Sunni opposition (as well as the United States), it is critical to recognize that the prime minister met his end at the hands of the Shii alliance, who wanted him gone for their own reasons. It was not a response to the Sunni uprising, but an intra-Shii coup which had been in the works for some time:

Continue reading “Al-Malaki Has Been Deposed, To What Avail?”

Israel & Palestine: The One State Solution

Throughout the current crisis, Israeli apologists and spokespeople have attempted to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, for the wanton carnage and destruction unfolding in Gaza. One of their consistent talking points has been that, following Israel’s 2005 retreat from the Gaza strip in the wake of the Second Intifada and Hamas’ 2006 electoral landslide victories, the organization could have built a “Palestinian paradise” in Gaza—but they instead chose to squander their efforts and resources on terrorism, at the expense of the Palestinian people, “forcing” Israel to kill thousands of Palestinians, mostly civilians, for the sake of its own continued existence.

Of course, all of this is nonsense. Continue reading “Israel & Palestine: The One State Solution”

It was Israel which sought out this war with Hamas

In the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the dominant discourse is that the Palestinian militants provoked the hostilities — while Israel, as President Barack Obama affirmed last week, is acting in legitimate self-defense. Many have attempted to problematize this narrative, for instance by arguing that Israel, as an occupying power, does not have a legitimate legal or moral claim to self-defense. Others have argued that rockets fired by Hamas do not constitute an existential crisis for Israel or its citizens and certainly did not warrant the killing of more than 500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including women and children.

While these are all valid and important points, the broader narrative remains largely unchallenged: Hamas began firing rockets at Israel first, triggering Israel’s latest military incursion. This is not true. In fact, far from acting in self-defense, the crisis is the result of deliberate actions by Israel over the last few weeks — first to stir up anti-Arab sentiment among the Israeli population and then to provoke Hamas into open conflict.

Continue reading “It was Israel which sought out this war with Hamas”

War is Peace: Al-Sisi, Abu Mazen, Netanyahu and the Cynical Ceasefire

Following Abu Mazen’s too-hasty embrace of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and corresponding criticism of Hamas, the popular narrative of the ongoing crisis in Gaza is that Hamas has betrayed the truce agreement despite Israel’s hours-long unilateral compliance. The truth of the matter is that Hamas didn’t violate the ceasefire because it never signed onto it. In fact, they have from the outset rejected any such reprieve prior to negotiating the terms of an armistice with Israel. Yet despite their clear position with regards to a truce, Hamas was not consulted in the formation of Egypt’s proposal—in fact, they claim to have found out about it through media reports. The proposal put forward by the Egyptians was not a serious attempt to bring the conflict to a resolution—it will exacerbate the crisis, as it was likely designed to do.

Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, shares Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas—an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom al-Sisi perhaps rightly views as an existential threat to his nascent regime; both groups are banned in Egypt under al-Sisi’s orders. He jailed his predecessor on trumped up charges of colluding with Hamas. He indefinitely closed the Rafah Crossing into Egypt—Gaza’s only connection to the outside world given Israel’s illegal land and sea blockade–in an attempt to choke off Hamas and weaken its position among Gazans. He subsequently destroyed the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle assets into Gaza circumventing the crossing. He is even courting a joint missile-defense system with Israel in order to help contain the group and its patron Iran—as part of a growing security partnership between the two countries.

All of these measures have and continue to feed into the ill-substantiated race-baiting conspiracies resonating across the Arab world (and beyond) that al-Sisi is Jewish and a Manchurian candidate for Israel and its Zionist hardliners. This impression is further exacerbated by Israel’s quiet but persistent support for al-Sisi’s deposing of President Muhammad Mursi, as well as his personal rise to power and subsequent brutal crackdown on Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Accordingly, al-Sisi was and remains a radically inappropriate choice as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, notwithstanding Egypt’s traditional role in easing tensions between the two parties. As the situation in Gaza deteriorated, al-Sisi sat on his hands for nearly a week, likely savoring Israel’s attempts at breaking Hamas. And then, despite it being easily within its power to do so, Egypt refused to give Hamas any kind of an “out” in their proposal, anything they could take back to their constituents as a victory—al-Sisi put forward a proposal destined, likely intended, to fail, and only under pressure from the Arab world and the West to put on a spectacle of “doing something.”

The United States suffers from a similar conflict of interest preventing them from serving as a mediator between Hamas and Israel: America has refused to recognize Hamas’ government as legitimate from the time they rose to power in 2006 until the formation of its unity government last month. Instead, the Bush II Administration passed sanctions punishing Gazans for exercising their democratic agency when Hamas rejected Israel’s terms for forming a government. Thereafter, they plotted (unsuccessfully) to forcibly overthrow Hamas in collaboration with Fatah. When these measures failed, Israel and Egypt began their blockade of the Gaza Strip, turning it into a virtual open-air prison—of course, with the support of the White House.  This situation has persisted, virtually unabated, to the present. Continue reading “War is Peace: Al-Sisi, Abu Mazen, Netanyahu and the Cynical Ceasefire”

The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast

Earlier this month, the White House unveiled its new foreign policy credo: “Don’t do stupid shit.” While many lamented the modesty of this approach, acting with restraint in order to limit iatrogenesis is certainly a worthy goal—and an approach with wide and enduring popular support—in fact, this is the vision most of Obama’s voters endorsed they elected him (twice).

Despite the past several years of a foreign policy which uncomfortably mirrors that of his predecessor, there have been faint glimmers of hope, such as when the Administration took the long-overdue measure of shuttering many of the State Department’s semi-clandestine “democracy promotion” programs, or its gesturing towards reconciliation with Iran. But these moments of sanity have been far too few and far between. And it didn’t take long for this new commitment to run off the rails, despite its humble aspirations. In fact, it was dead on arrival: Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s “Yeminization” of the Mideast”

Al-Sisi Triumphs Over the Deep State, the Regime is Reborn!

This week, Gen. al-Sisi formally announced his bid for presidency, as well as his simultaneous resignation as Minister of Defense and the SCAF’s Chief of Staff. In his speech he detailed, at length, the ongoing crises facing Egypt.

Left out of this tirade were the inconvenient truths that these endemic problems, which animated the unprecedented protests against Hosni Mubarak, were not meaningfully addressed in the year the SCAF administered Egypt under the administration Gen. al-Tantawi (al-Sisi’s mentor)—nor has there been substantial progress on these challenges in the several months since the SCAF reclaimed power after deposing President Mursi. Worse still, al-Sisi seemed to have no significant proposals for resolving these persistent problems other than continuing to court petrodollars from the Gulf monarchies in exchange for security and geopolitical services.

The announcement of his candidacy was no surprise—if anything, many were puzzled as to why it took so long for him to officially declare his bid for president. The short answer: he wanted to be sure that there was no chance he would lose or be deposed after stepping down as head of the SCAF. Continue reading “Al-Sisi Triumphs Over the Deep State, the Regime is Reborn!”

Libya in Transition… But to What?

Since the overthrow of Gaddhafi, Libya’s capital has long been consumed by fierce struggles between Islamists and the coalition aligned with former PM Zeidan, largely perceived as Western proxies—each with their own parliamentary blocks and militias. Over the course of the last several months, there have been many attempts at deposing the country’s first democratically-elected Prime Minister, with militias going so far as to abduct him at gunpoint and demand his resignation. These failed attempts have begun to give way to calls for altogether disbanding the parliament. However, last month the opposition finally managed to sack the embattled PM due to his mismanagement of eastern separatist movements.

Following the vote of no-confidence in his government, Zeidan promptly fled the country—he had been banned from leaving due to an ongoing investigation of “financial irregularities” involving payments to one of the armed groups which had been besieging Libya’s oilfields.

It is not clear who will replace Zeidan. The deputy PM Sadiq Abdulkarim, who recently survived an assassination attempt himself, has been apparently passed over. Instead, the parliament has named Libya’s defense minister to the post on a temporary basis—possibly in an attempt to rally the army behind them in the wake of last month’s threatened military coup. He has since demanded more power for his government to address the myriad crises facing the country.

The parliament was forced to hold this and other referenda in a luxury hotel, after anti-Islamist protestors stormed the Parliament building, killing one, injuring several, and causing extensive damage to the premises.

This attack followed the preliminary announcement of the election results for Libya’s new Constituent Assembly—a poll in which more than a fifth of the seats were unable to be filled as a result of polling-place violence or election boycotts, and less than 14% of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots at all. These results suggest a growing sense of disenchantment among Libyan’s with their government, perhaps best embodied by the separatist movements gaining strength in the country’s east and south:

Continue reading “Libya in Transition… But to What?”

Red Hands, False Flags: Erdogan’s Plan for War with Syria

Earlier this week, two videos, totaling 15 minutes, began circulating on YouTube wherein senior Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan, discuss at length their intentions to have extremist groups in Syria carry out an attack on the Tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire’s founder. This attack would then serve as a pretext for a land invasion into Syria–just days prior to the leak, the Turkish government declared a violation of this site as a “red line” which could prompt such an intervention (for which authorization has already been granted).

ISIS was to be implicated in the attack, and the Erdogan administration was going to attempt to tie ISIS to the al-Asad regime, claiming the Syrian government was funding these jihadists in order to undermine the rebellion. And so, the response from Turkey would be to assist the “good rebels,” thereby striking a simultaneous blow to ISIS and their “patron:”

 

 

Continue reading “Red Hands, False Flags: Erdogan’s Plan for War with Syria”

Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition

The Syria National Coalition (SNC), much like its predecessor, the Syrian National Council, has never enjoyed much legitimacy or influence within Syria. Their only meaningful link to events on the ground has been the Supreme Military Council (SMC), headed up by the military defectors who initially called themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ostensibly reports to the Coalition as its civilian leadership. Unfortunately, the SMC has not enjoyed much more credibility than its “government-in-exile:”

Many of the most significant rebel militias have explicitly and unequivocally rejected the legitimacy of both the SNC and the SMC, decrying them as exogenous tools (despite the massive and growing role of foreign money, supplies and fighters these very groups also rely on)—forming the so-called “Islamic Front” as an alternative umbrella group.  Since then, relations between various armed factions have devolved into an open civil war (within the larger civil war) for Northern Syria.

Dr. Salim Idriss has gone so far as referring to the idea of a unified Free National Army as a “pipe dream”—words which seem prescient in light of the most recent developments:

Following the close of the second round of Geneva II talks, the SNC made the surprise announcement that it was relieving Dr. Idriss from his duties as the SMC’s Chief of Staff, replacing him with Brigadier General Abdullah al-Bashir—thereafter making renewed calls for sophisticated weaponry. It appears as though these efforts will bear fruit, despite the SMC’s proven inability to control the resources already being provided.

Dr. Idriss has refused to recognize this decision on the part of the government-in-exile—and actually now refuses to recognize said government at all, severing all ties with the SNC and those forces which remain loyal to it. And he is not alone in going rogue: a number of the key SMC commanders have joined with him. In essence, there are now two Supreme Military Councils, each of whom refuses to recognize or coordinate with the other, and neither of whom exert much leverage on the ground.

One critical effect of this development is that the already-marginal influence of the SNC within Syria (via the SMC) has been dramatically reduced. This has important implications: Continue reading “Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition”

The Slow and Agonizing Death of Syria’s Civil War

Those who are hoping that an agreement between the exogenous opposition and the Syrian government can bring an end to the civil war misunderstand the purpose of the Geneva communique and subsequent talks: the aim is to get foreign powers to stop exacerbating and perpetuating the crisis, principally the United States and its regional allies. If they agreed to this, a deal between the regime and the SNC would be totally irrelevant—absent foreign funds, supplies, and fighters, the rebellion could not sustain itself.

There is abundant empirical evidence that most of the Syrian population supports the government over the armed opposition. But for those who find this too difficult to swallow, as has been argued elsewhere, it almost doesn’t matter how people feel about the regime precisely because it is the default—it will remain in power unless and until a sufficient portion of the population actively sides with the opposition (barring direct foreign military intervention). That is, what really matters is how the Syrian people feel about the rebels–and on this point, the trends are unambiguous and highly-unfavorable: Continue reading “The Slow and Agonizing Death of Syria’s Civil War”

The Geneva Talks Are Not About Syria

In the second round of Geneva II talks, the government agreed to a temporary ceasefire in Homs, and a lifting of the blockade, in order to allow citizens to flee if they wish, and to allow some aid and provisions to enter for those who remain. Immediately following this concession on the part of the government, the United States and its allies attempted to push a Chapter 7 resolution through the U.N. Security Council. Under the auspices of enforcing this agreement with the Syrian government, the resolution would have placed nearly the entire blame for the conflict and subsequent atrocities on the Baathist regime, and could have paved the way for direct military intervention, via R2P, to “change the balance of power on the ground.”

Russia and China declared this proposal dead on arrival, with Lavrov accusing the United States of obstructing the peace process in Syria through their continued insistence that the only acceptable end to the conflict is al-Asad’s departure, and through their continuing to raise the prospects of military intervention.

One cannot help but feel a sense of déjà vu: Continue reading “The Geneva Talks Are Not About Syria”

The “Deep State” Declares Independence in Egypt

To be clear, the Egyptian military does not aspire towards total control of the state, with all of the responsibilities entailed thereby—what they want, what they have always wanted, is to be beyond accountability to the civilian population, to have their budget immune to external oversight or reduction, to reserve the right to intercede as they deem necessary in the political affairs of the state without any reciprocal checks by legislators, and to respond with impunity against those whom they deem to be a threat to their social order.

It was in the service of these ends that they deposed Husni Mubarak: a maneuver designed to preserve, not change, the status quo. In the aftermath of their first coup they unyieldingly struggled to limit the civilian government from exerting any meaningful control over critical state institutions—efforts which were bolstered by other elements of the deep state with complimentary vested interests in perpetuating the existing order—culminating in a second coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term.

It’s been a tumultuous affair, but it appears as though the junta’s efforts have paid off. Continue reading “The “Deep State” Declares Independence in Egypt”

Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran

Initially, Bashar al-Asad had developed his chemical weapons programs as a deterrent against Israeli and Western aggression—lately, he has discovered that these arms are more of a liability than an asset, nearly provoking the very invasion they were intended to ward off.

For its part, Iran has been unyielding in their condemnation of the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and for good reason: they were the victims of a heinous series of attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein, with the tacit approval of his Western patrons. Few understand as profoundly as Iran how truly abominable these armaments are—the same impetus which drives the Europeans to abolish these weapons also motivates the Islamic Republic.

And yet, in his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a number of dire warnings related to Iran’s nuclear energy program. As part of this tirade, he recalled how North Korea made a similar bid to have sanctions reduced in exchange for deconstructing their nuclear program. He correctly reminds us that once these embargoes had been sufficiently lifted, the regime “sprinted” towards finishing and testing a nuclear weapon, now menacing the region, and indeed, the world. He warned about a similar outcome should sanctions be lifted “prematurely” on Iran.

Of course, the obvious flaw in Netanyahu’s “logic” is that Iran has no desire to be another North Korea pariah state— instead, to transform into the economic and geopolitical superpower they are destined to become once international sanctions are lifted. And they hardly need nuclear weapons to achieve this end. Continue reading “Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran”

Will a too-late “victory” for America hasten the untimely demise of Libya? The rendition of Abu Anas

On October 5th 2013, in a joint operation between the CIA and U.S. Special Forces, the United States captured and extracted Nazih Abdul-Gamed al-Ruqai, known popularly as Abu Anas al-Libi (not to be confused with the late Abu Yaya al-Libi of AQSL).

Abu Anas was a high-priority target, implicated in the 1998 U.S. Embassy Bombings, and working as one of al-Qaeda’s most significant computer and intelligence specialists, with close ties to al-Qaeda Senior Leadership (AQSL).

The international community has long been aware that Abu Anas was residing in Tripoli. In December of 2010, two months before the uprising in Benghazi, the Gaddhafi regime informed the U.N. that Abu Anas had returned to Libya and asked the international community for assistance in capturing him. Moammar Gaddhafi had long acted as a bulwark against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and had been one of their primary targets.

Shortly after Abu Anas’ arrival, the uprising began in Benghazi, an area known to be an al-Qaeda stronghold: according to the CTC, Libya provided the most fighters per capita to the insurgency in Iraq, by a longshot—most of these from Eastern Libya a la Benghazi. This area had also long been a trouble-zone for the regime.  And yet, rather than purging Abu Anas and breaking up his al-Qaeda cells in Libya first, the United States prioritized the destruction of the Gaddhafi regime—a government that had been cooperating with America and the international community on containing terrorism and WMDs since normalizing relations under the Bush Administration.

Then, despite having already overstepped UNSCR 1973, the United States and its allies refused to dedicate sufficient resources and manpower to establish order in the aftermath and render the transitional government viable–lest the Obama Administration more obviously break its pledge that the mission would be quick and painless with  “no boots on the ground.”  After all,  the President faced re-election the following year.

NATO promptly declared the Libya campaign to be the most effective and efficient intervention in the organization’s history, an evaluation the Obama Administration was quick to parrot, but one which was no less premature and ill-fated than President’s Bush’s now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.

As a result of the U.S. led (from behind) “strategy” in Libya, Abu Anas  was given the autonomy and resources to promote and enforce al-Qaeda’s ideology across Libya and the broader Maghreb, acting as the primary liaison between AQSL and AQIM affiliated groups in Libya, and primary network-builder among these militias. These efforts have been extraordinarily successful. Continue reading “Will a too-late “victory” for America hasten the untimely demise of Libya? The rendition of Abu Anas”

Two Years, Three States, Two Civil Wars? Post-Revolutionary Libya

The NATO intervention in Libya was an unmitigated disaster.

At the outset, Washington policymakers believed that the people would rise up en masse against Gaddhafi, and embrace the new “democratic” government which was installed in the aftermath of his execution. This didn’t happen.

Instead, NATO was pulled  ever deeper into the theater because there were few military or government defections, Gaddhafi didn’t buckle in the face of direct Western intervention, and the people did not rise up against him in substantial numbers; they would not even support the rebels with food, water, or supplies. Despite the no-fly zone, his forces continued to close in on Benghazi, forcing NATO to expand its military involvement, to include arming and training the rebels.

Ultimately, the tide was turned by the participation of AQIM; an al-Qaeda detainee released from Guantanamo Bay became one of the most prolific leaders of the rebellion. The organization offered their support to the rebels early on in the protests—and why shouldn’t they have? The government was moving in on their territory. According to the CTC, Libya provided the highest number of foreign insurgents in Iraq, per capita; most of these hailed from east, a la Benghazi.

But even the influx of al-Qaeda fighters was insufficient to “close the deal.” Continue reading “Two Years, Three States, Two Civil Wars? Post-Revolutionary Libya”

The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.

In philosophy circles, bullshit is a technical term denoting a claim presented as “fact” although its veracity has not been established. The truth value of bullshit is largely irrelevant to its propagators. Bullshit is disseminated in the service of particular ends, typically opaque to the audience. There is no better description for the White House’s case for intervention in Syria.

It stinks of Karl “Turdblossom” Rove, who once said:

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

The Obama Administration had been intending to use the Ghouta incident as a pretext for changing the balance of power “on the ground” in Syria. They were prevented from direct military action as a result of the deft maneuvering of Syria and Russia, so they have instead ramped up the delivery of arms to the rebels, and stand poised to shift the training of said rebels from a small CIA operation into a much larger Pentagon-run operation.  Simultaneously, the State Department has began sending the rebels vehicles, sophisticated communications equipment, advanced combat medical kits, and other gear–collectively, these actions amount to a “major escalation” of U.S. involvement in the Syrian Civil War.

Moreover, the White House continues to make its case for strikes, despite the deal which was recently achieved with Russia and the al-Asad government.  There are bills being floated in the Senate which would empower the President to “punish” Syria if the Administration deems the regime’s progress “unsatisfactory,” even in the absence of U.N. agreement. If the history of Iraq is any indication, we can rest assured that the progress will be deemed insufficient regardless of how well the Syrian government complies, providing ever-new pretexts to increase “allied” involvement.  The opposition is already calling for further military restrictions on the Syrian government.

That is, while the recent developments were inconvenient for the Administration, the plans to depose al-Asad have been in the works since 2004–they will not be abandoned so easily. Sanity may have prevailed in this particular battle, but the war rages on. What follows is the most direct and systematic refutation of the Administration’s case for military intervention in Syria—deconstructing their justifications one by one.

Continue reading “The Obama Administration’s Case for Military Intervention in Syria? Bullshit.”

Moral Outrage from Munafiqun

“When it is said to them: ‘Make not mischief on the earth,’ they say: ‘why, we are but peacemakers!’
Surely, these are the ones who foster discord, but they perceive it not.”
Al-Qur’an 2:11-2

In the midst of his ill-fated case in the Parliament to authorize the use of force in Syria, PM David Cameron claimed that the recent attacks in Ghouta mark “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century.” We can sidestep the fact that it was likely the rebels who carried out this attack—his claim is patently absurd.While it is certainly despicable that hundreds of non-combatants, to include women and children, were killed in such a horrific fashion—does it really compare to the horrors of chemical attacks during the two world wars? Or even to the US use of chemical agents (such as Agent Orange and napalm) during Vietnam, which killed not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands. To this day, the Vietnamese are plagued by birth defects and other health epidemics as a result of these attacks—to say nothing of the long-term consequences to the Japanese as a result of the United States deploying nuclear weapons (the only country in the world to have done so).

The incident in Ghouta is not even equivalent to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iran—which, according to a recent article by Foreign Policy, the United States tacitly approved of.  Nor is it equal to the US use of depleted uranium shells in Iraq during the Gulf Wars.It is also perplexing that these latest 300 somehow evoke more outrage than the previous hundred-thousand lives lost, and the millions displaced within and around Syria, and the decimated infrastructure of the country–brought about by the US and Gulf-sponsored insurgency. It is conceivable that more Syrian civilians will be killed in the US “response” than in the Ghouta attack itself.  It is confusing how these most recent martyrs provoke such a drastic US response in the face of the thousands who have been killed in Egypt following the coup of the first democratically-elected president in the country’s history. The US continues to sponsor and arm the SCAF, even as it seeks to overthrow Bashar al-Asad. And lest we forget, America’s #1 regional ally is an apartheid state which exercises an unyielding disregard for international law. Continue reading “Moral Outrage from Munafiqun”

Red Lines, Syrian Blood

It doesn’t matter whether or not Bashar al-Asad used chemical weapons. The U.S. and its allies are going to carry out an attack on Syria in the very near future; the reasons for this attack have nothing to do with the recent incident in Ghouta.

In response to the chemical attack in April, two months later the United States declared that the al-Asad regime had crossed its red line and began to provide arms to the rebels. They provided enough assistance to complicate the regime’s campaigns in critical areas, but not nearly enough support to allow the rebels to march on Damascus.

According to The Washington Post, this policy was decided weeks before the reports of chemical weapons use had surfaced; in fact, CBS News reported that these efforts were already underway before the chemical attacks occurred—they were merely stepped-up in June. That is, the reports of chemical weapons use in Syria were used as a pretext to justify a deeply unpopular decision the Administration had already committed to.

There were a number of serious problems with the Obama Administration’s case against al-Asad. Having reviewed the evidence of the U.S. and its allies, the U.N. declared it to be unconvincing and ordered their own investigation into the incident. Subsequently, their war crimes investigator would claim that the evidence strongly suggested that it was the rebels who carried out the attack.

This should not have been surprising—al-Qaeda has a history of resorting to these tactics, and the means, motive, and demonstrated intent to do so. The attacks were small-scale, using a chemical agent that the organization is known to possess. Moreover, the attack was carried out on an area which was actually under government control at the time, rather than a rebel-held area (similarly, Eastern Ghouta was not a “rebel-held area;” while formerly seized by Jahbat al-Nusra, it had been largely retaken by the government since May).

The evidence was so strong against the White House narrative that the only people to endorse their account were those previously committed to intervention (France, the UK, Israel, the monarchs). And even though many of the Administration’s claims regarding this incident have been proven problematic, at best—in an Orwellian fashion, the White House continues to put forward their narrative without any regard for the facts, and without tempering their claims at all in light of subsequent evidence.

Continue reading “Red Lines, Syrian Blood”

An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt

A week after carrying out his ultimatum to depose President Mursi, General al-Sisi delivered a new 48-hour ultimatum to those alienated by his actions to end their protests against the military coup.  Even as the general demanded that the protesters end their demonstrations, he called upon his own supporters to take to the streets nationwide in order to give the army a “mandate” to confront its critics, whom he referred to as “terrorists.” This call to action was later parroted by Egypt’s interim president (a high-ranking member of the disgraced Mubarak regime, hand-picked by Gen. al-Sisi) and the tamarod “rebels.” Of course, this supposed license is ironic given that one of the common criticisms of President Mursi is that he overstepped his popular mandate—despite the overwhelming victory of his party in parliamentary elections, and its subsequent win in the presidential race. Apparently, while democratic elections do not empower their victors with a strong mandate, protests can give the SCAF legitimacy to do anything—first to commit a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term, and now it seems to restore the Mubarak-era police state.

Empowered by the opposition rallies (although apparently not disempowered by those who were protesting the coup), scores of peaceful protestors were killed in the streets, with Human Rights Watch reporting that the majority of victims were shot in the chest, neck, or head—indicating that the security forces were shooting to kill.  Later, these forces stormed and attempted to dismantle the protest camps. The interim government would go on to announce that the despised Mubarak-era “religion police” were to be re-activated, even as  al-Mansur gave the army renewed legal grounding to arrest civilians. It is likely that these will be just the first of many “necessary” authoritarian measures in Egypt’s new “War on Terror,” a campaign which will increasingly jump from propaganda into reality as a result of the SCAF’s actions:

Throughout the protest movement which preceded the military coup against Husni Mubarak, and in subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections, the Islamists were overwhelmingly peaceful and law-abiding participants in the democratic process—and they would prove to be its primary beneficiaries. However, the actions by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) throughout, culminating in the removal of President Mursi and the subsequent persecution of the Brotherhood—these sent the message to many Islamists that the democratic and legal process is a dead end: the deep-state and its international supporters have no respect for the popular will.The state’s institutions have continued to be dominated by the SCAF, the deep-state and the fulul (high-ranking members of the former regime who were ostensibly cast out of government when the dictator was deposed, but who were also given blanket-immunity from prosecution for the regime’s crimes and often retained significant wealth and influence). This corruption has been so long-standing, and runs so deep, that the state apparatus is incapable of being reformed; instead, by any means necessary, it must be uprooted in its entirety and replaced—and by something other than Western models of governance. Although not inevitable, extremism is certainly a natural response to these convictions.

The army claimed that the coup was necessary to prevent Egypt from descending into chaos—predictably, their intervention brought about the very outcomes it was supposed to prevent; however, by feeding into sectarianism and violence, elements from among the protesters are inadvertently supporting the SCAF’s narrative in the name of resistance.  Exploiting these developments, it is likely the army will continue to serve as a destabilizing force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future.  And while the army’s actions have been widely depicted as a forced response to extraordinary circumstances, this is actually the third major attempt by the SCAF to seize “legitimate” total control over the state since the military coup which deposed Mubarak. Accordingly, the notion that the SCAF is acting in the interests of democracy is absurd– and the belief they will transition real authority to a civilian government seems naïve at best:

Continue reading “An Archaeology of the Crisis in Egypt”

Game Theory v. Reality in Syria

Despite the overwhelming skepticism of the international community, the Obama Administration recently changed its evaluation of the ‘evidence’  of chemical weapons use in Syria. By its own admission, this was to serve as a pretext for their previously-rendered and domestically unpopular decision to deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict in an attempt to offset the Syrian army’s momentum in recent months. Simultaneously, the Administration deployed a number of U.S. assets to Jordan and delayed the scheduled Geneva II summit on Syria in the hopes that the rebels could gain ground in the interim. According to Washington policymakers, this should put the regime in a weaker negotiating position going into the talks, making it increasingly likely that Bashar al-Asad will be willing to step down, or offer greater concessions to Western powers.

This strategy is informed by Game Theory, popular among the sociologists, political scientists and economists who advise Washington policymakers–reaching its current level of popularity largely as a result of prominent intellectuals at the University of Chicago, from whence the president hails.

Game Theory models “rational” choices in competitive situations—where “rationality” is defined in terms of risks v. payoffs / costs v. benefits calculations, typically relative to some material outcome. Of course, the dirty little secret of Game Theory is that whenever its experiments are run with actual subjects (as opposed to the typical method of running simulations with idealized agents), people are found to be robustly irrational—this is actually a good thing, as a game-theoretic “perfectly rational” agent would essentially be a psychopath/sociopath.

Considering that most people are not psychopaths, it should not be surprising to find out that practitioners reliant upon game theory generally have terrible predictive success rates (exacerbated by the “Black Swan” problem). The supposed credibility of the method is derived almost entirely from post-hoc analyses of historical events—analyses which can be conveniently spun regardless of what course of events ultimately occurs; accordingly, Game Theory serves mostly to “explain” the status quo rather than to provide insight into fluid  situations. For these reasons, even prominent game-theorists have come to admit that the method has negligible “real-world” utility, and that reliance upon the method for making predictions about actual situations is likely to do more harm than good (insofar as it obscures more effective analytic frameworks or is used to lend credibility to terrible policies); apparently Washington hasn’t received the memo. Continue reading “Game Theory v. Reality in Syria”

Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey”

When people read analyses, they typically interpret them in terms of popular narrative frameworks which are currently in circulation. This heuristic is usually reliable—most analyses explicitly draw from these competing interpretations; accordingly, reading things in this fashion allows one to much more quickly understand what is being said in the analysis and why it matters. However, as with any heuristic,  this method also imparts various biases and blindspots, which can at times be problematic. For instance, if one is dealing with an analysis which avoids reliance on these frameworks because they are ill-formed, or one that explicitly sets out to undermine them, or a work that shifts between various interpretive strategies—in all of these cases, it is common for the intent of the analysis to be totally overlooked, and for the work to be misconstrued as arguing in favor of the very thing it is trying to work against.  Often, audiences will read things into a work which the article itself does not mandate. Such has been the case with reactions to my recent essay, “How to Avoid Being a Turkey: Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests.”

This piece motivated two excellent response articles—however, neither of them were very successful at undermining what the author was actually trying to argue. In both cases, my interlocutors seemed to believe that I was taking a position against the protests and/or in favor Prime Minister Erdogan—neither of these are true. Instead, I set out to complicate a number of problematic narratives which were taking hold in the popular discourse—the point of this analysis was to get the reader to step back and reflect upon what was happening more carefully, undercutting “black & white” dichotomies that polarize the discourse and result in ham-fisted policies.

Dr. Gramling’s article can and should be read in complete harmony with mine—we make many of the same points, and the differences between us are entirely matters of emphasis. A careful reading will reveal that there is actually no outright contradiction anywhere between Dr. Gramling’s work and my own.

There are substantive differences between my article and that of Dr. Silverstein—however, even his analysis begins by conceding agreement on a number of key points, and many of the outstanding differences are not as drastic as my interlocutor seems to believe. And in the places our views authentically diverge, my critic has generally failed to undermine my position or substantiate his own.

Continue reading “Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey””

Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests

In recent weeks there has been a deluge of coverage and analysis of Istanbul’s Taksim Square protests. These events have typically been framed as another case of a popular and peaceful youth movement being crushed by an authoritarian dictator; often pundits have gone so far as to label these protests as the beginning of a “Turkish Spring,” drawing on the same utterly false frameworks which have dominated the public discourse throughout the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. However, this caricature of the current (and probably future) struggle in Istanbul ignores a number of inconvenient facts:

First, the protests were not as peaceful as the narrative suggests. While the media has given a good deal of coverage of  riot police deploying tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, stun grenades  and batons on the crowds, from the beginning of the protests there have been contingents who fought with and taunted the police, to include launching stones, Molotov cocktails, and fireworks at the authorities. In fact, by some accounts the water cannons and tear gas were deployed in response to this initiation of violence by the protestors.  Either way, once that door gets opened, it is easy for the innocent to be punished along with the guilty. This is indeed, what some of the provocateurs may have been seeking: it is a common tactic in protest movements for activists to goad the authorities into an overly-forceful response in an attempt to build international sympathy for their cause and grow their numbers domestically.

However, when incendiary devices are being deployed in the heart of major metropolitan areas at the height of tourist season, when there are incidences of vandalism, arson, and looting—once certain lines are crossed, the state has an authentic responsibility to bring an end to these behaviors for the sake of public safety. There are certainly some among the protestors who went way too far in their attempts at instigation—and the Turkish authorities were all too eager to take the bait—and the entire (mostly peaceful) movement paid the price for this game.

Second, the protests were not popular. While it is true that tens-of-thousands took to the streets of Istanbul, this number does not seem as impressive when one considers that we are discussing a city populated by 14 million (similarly, it is important to note the distinction between “diversely-comprised” and “popular.” Many erroneously conflate the former with the latter). There is no reason to believe that the protests represent the popular will; in fact, as we will see, there are plenty of reasons to doubt this.

Erdogan is not a dictator—he is a democratically elected Prime Minister serving his third and final term, following the AKP’s decisive victory in the 2011 elections—his party’s electoral success has been unprecedented, and has been growing with each election. There should be little doubt that if it came to a referendum, the AKP and Erdogan would maintain their impressive majorities (conveniently, the media failed to cover the large counter-rallies in support of the prime minister). In fact, the narrative of “Islamist tyranny” is ironic in this context: Continue reading “Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests”

Rejoinder to “Order, Freedom and Chaos: Sovereignties in Syria”

Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game,” demonstrated that contrary to the popular narratives, most Syrians seem to support President al-Asad over the armed rebels. Moreover, it was argued that most of the casualties from the conflict were combatants, that the regime probably controlled more territory than the narrative suggested, that the dynamics of the conflict seem to favor the regime in the medium-to-long term (a bold claim at the time), and that the influence of foreign jihadists was far greater than their numbers may suggest—influence which would only grow over time.

These claims have been unanimously vindicated: the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has actually changed their methodologies, now distinguishing more clearly between combatant and non-combatant civilians; while there is still much to critique about their specific numbers (and their ideological bias), they now acknowledge as well that most of the casualties have been combatants. The Arab League has recently stated that about 40% of Syria is outside of the government’s control, meaning the regime controls the majority of the country (contrary to previous rhetoric that the regime controlled less than a third of Syria). And as I argued in “The Numbers Game,” the parts of the country which are not being administered by the government are generally not being controlled by the rebels, either. Moreover, as projected, the regime has been making strides in retaking these ungoverned territories since December 2012—to include a number of rebel strongholds. Finally, rebel forces are increasingly reliant upon the weapons, training, and leadership of Jahbat al-Nusra and other transnational jihadist organizations—and are increasingly adopting their ideologies;  The New York Times has gone so far as to report that there was no evidence of a “secular” fighting force anywhere in rebel-held Syria. Unspeakable crimes are committed daily by the rebels, to include instances of cannibalism.

Deploying the same methodologies from  “The Numbers Game,”  I subsequently demonstrated that despite the media fetish on regime airstrikes and calls for a no-fly zone in Syria—deaths from aerial bombardments amounted to less than 9% of the total casualties, most of which were likely combatants.  These numbers have since been echoed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Despite the apparent success of these analyses, in the most recent issue of Middle East Policy my friend and colleague George Abu Ahmad leveled a number of serious charges against me, attempting to undermine my conclusions and proposing an alternate method for understanding the conflict in Syria. I will briefly respond to these criticisms here:

Continue reading “Rejoinder to “Order, Freedom and Chaos: Sovereignties in Syria””

The Semantics of Revolution

Many in media and academic circles seem to pride themselves on having advanced beyond the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric that defined the aftermath of  September 11th (2001).  However, upon analysis is clear that the primary development has been the transformation of these frameworks into euphemistic forms:  consider, for instance, the supposed conflict between the liberals and the Islamists; this dichotomy is ill-formed on several levels:

First, the categories are not mutually exclusive: one can simultaneously be an Islamist and a liberal. And while there are certainly conflicts vis a vis liberalism across the Middle East and North Africa, the tension is not between liberalism and  Islam—instead, it is a tension internal to liberalism itself, in simultaneously promoting free markets, secularism, pluralism, and democracy—ideologies which are neither intrinsically compatible nor inevitable. Insofar as these values are unpopular in the MENA region, it is often because they conflict with socio-cultural norms which transcend any particular religion (or religion altogether). Of course, left out of this discussion is any suggestion that liberalism may not be the ideal social model, or that the people of the MENA region have a right, perhaps a duty,  to derive alternative models from their own history, culture, values, and frames of reference.

In a similar manner, the supposed dichotomy of “moderates v. extremists” is ill-formed. Typically when this distinction is deployed it is unclear what “moderate” means. The most natural definition of a moderate would be someone who rejects extreme methodologies (such as violence) in order to advance their ideological views. But by that standard, many hardcore salafi groups would be moderates, as would the Muslim Brotherhood—while the (ever-elusive) liberal-secular components of the Free Syrian Army would be extremists, as they are attempting to instantiate their political ideal through force. However, as many news reports convey a desire to arm the  “moderate” factions of the rebels, it seems as though a rejection of extreme methods cannot be what is meant by the term.

Instead, a “moderate” is typically one who espouses  pro-West or liberal sentiments—regardless of how extreme they may be in terms of methodologies or ideological fervor relative to their adversaries. Conversely, anyone who resists Western values, interests, or modes of governance is de facto an “extremist.”

The dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” is ill-formed first because it presupposes that the two are separate–when in fact, their history is intimately intertwined. And secondarily, because it presents Islam as a monolith. Insofar as commentators now acknowledge diversity within Islam, the talk primarily circles around the supposed clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, this portrayal is also problematic. For one, it assumes that Sunnis and Shiites are a homogenous forces, rather than extremely diverse populations with a number of conflicting ideologies, interests, and alliances. Moreover, this framing obscures Islamic sects who do not neatly fall into the “Sunni/ Shia” divide, such as Sufis and the Druze. Finally, this caricature overlooks the significant (if dwindling) populations of other MENA religions, such as Christians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians.  And then there is the large (and growing) Jewish population, most of whom reside in Israel—a significant source of tension with both Sunnis and Shiites (and also between them). However, in the Jewish case, as with others (such as the Kurds), ethnic alliances are actually more significant than religious or other identities. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives presume Sunnism and Shiism to be incompatible, when in fact the two have a long history of interplay and periods of syncretization. The current climate of sectarianism is largely the result of U.S. policies in Iraq, rather than reflecting an ancient and unyielding feud.

While terms like “Islamist,” “Moderate,” “Sharia Law,” “Muslim,” etc. are frequently bandied about in popular discourse, their referents are typically opaque (at best), rendering the conversations which rely upon these terms more-or-less vacuous. Not only do reductive binaries (e.g. “liberals v. islamists,” “moderates v. extremists,” “West v. Islam,” “Sunnis v. Shiites”) fail to address the critical dynamics at work in the region—they actually obscure said dynamics even as they polarize discussants. While these conceptions are convenient insofar as they reinforce ethnocentric narratives and can be easily fit into the small segments of news-themed entertainment between advertisements—greater nuance is required should one wish to understand the real underway across the Middle East and North Africa, and the revolution which may be at hand:

Continue reading “The Semantics of Revolution”

Chemical Weapons, Toxic Discourse

In a letter responding to inquiries by Arizona Sen. John McCain, a  hawkish advocate for U.S. intervention in Syria for the better part of two years  (independently of the “chemical weapons” question, which is merely his latest pretext for U.S. involvement), the White House stated that there is intelligence suggesting that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. McCain interpreted this as an admission that the al-Asad regime has crossed the President’s “red line,”  confirming long-held assertions by the British, French, and opposition activists—as well as recent Israeli “intelligence.” According to McCain, the U.S. is left with no credible option except to intervene; a number of other congressmen were quick to jump on that bandwagon.

It is troubling that all of the groups endorsing this intel have an interest in getting the U.S. more deeply involved. Like McCain, France’s Hollande has been a staunch and long-time advocate for international intervention. In Nov. 2012, Britain began moving towards a no-fly zone. Last month, Britain and France declared their intention to begin arming the rebels, defying EU embargoes which forbid this, and showing a total disregard for  the UN’s call to the Arab League and their Western allies to stop providing arms, supplies, and training to the rebels. Israel has been quietly pushing the U.S. towards intervention since August 2012.  So it should not be surprising that these same groups find the “evidence” of Syrian chemical weapons use highly credible: the intelligence has been heavily politicized.  Having reviewed all of the evidence, the U.N. declared that it falls well-below appropriate standards. A review of the Obama Administration’s letter reveals why: Continue reading “Chemical Weapons, Toxic Discourse”

Breaking the Stalemates in Syria (Literal & Rhetorical)

In a number of interviews in recent months, U.S. Secretary of State Kerry has been talking about the need to “change Bashar al-Asad’s calculus” with regards to the conflict in Syria. While there is a sense in which this statement is correct (should the goal be the President’s resignation), Kerry seems to misunderstand what Bashar’s calculus is, and accordingly, what sorts of actions are going to change it.

For instance, according to Kerry, the regime has refused to negotiate an end to the conflict; and this is because Bashar has hitherto assumed he can just “shoot his way out of this.” Of course, no part of this is accurate.  President al-Asad had initially hoped that he could reform his way out of the crisis–enacting a number of significant measures which were met with wide popular support, to include a new constitution which would have enshrined an end to his rule after one more presidential term. Over the course of this conflict, the president has consistently endorsed, proposed, and complied with ceasefires. The primary reason these measures have failed is because the opposition’s “leadership” had no control over the militias (this remains the case): they can agree to ceasefires, but cannot get the rebel forces to comply.

Similarly, Bashar has consistently pushed for negotiations and dialogue, including recently calling on the BRICS nations to help end the bloodshed in Syria, because Western powers and their regional allies continue to exacerbate the violence. Looking at the casualties per month, the rate of killings has accelerated corresponding to the amount of arms, aid, and training being provided to the rebels. This continues to the present, when aid and training to the rebels has expanded to include CIA training and support: March 2013 has been the deadliest month to date in the conflict—the numbers of refugees have increased at an even faster pace.

Thus far, Western (and allied) intervention has, unconditionally, been making things worse rather than better. In fact, the main hang-up to a negotiated end to the conflict has been the U.S. insistence that the president resign as a precondition to talks. Continue reading “Breaking the Stalemates in Syria (Literal & Rhetorical)”

Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative

In early 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regional and international allies were all warning him that an American invasion was imminent. Hussein’s reply was basically, “I know Washington’s tone is getting aggressive, but they aren’t going to try to remove me. I’m the only one in the region who is really taking the fight to the terrorists and fundamentalists. I’m the only one in the region putting real pressure on Iran. Despite our differences, they aren’t crazy! There is no way the United States is going to invade Iraq.”

Saddam was gravely overestimating America’s sanity. Forty-five months later, he was hanging from the gallows, his Baath regime dismantled, his country in shambles. The carnage and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq horrified the world.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there was widespread hope that we would see a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy:  troops would leave Afghanistan and Iraq, detainees would leave Guantanamo. No more gunboat liberalism. No more wars fought on false pretenses, driven by delusional ideologues, and contrary to American interests. The death of the nebulous global “war on terror” was nigh.

This “hope” proved ill-founded – the promised “change,” ephemeral.

Since Obama took office, the war on terror has dramatically expanded. Nomenclature notwithstanding, it remains global, vague, and unending – increasing its dimensions from the Middle East to West Africa, and the real world into cyberspace with digital pre-emptive strikes. It is a war which continues to be waged at the expense of civil liberties. America continues to drive more people towards extremism than it removes from the field through many of its counterterrorism tactics such as the drone program.

As far as Palestine or Iran are concerned, Ehud Barak said it best: “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing, and Israeli cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

The astonishing continuity between the Bush II and Obama administrations is nowhere clearer than America’s disastrous foreign policies related to the Arab Spring – policies which were driven by ideology and misinformation, no less under Obama than his predecessor (in fact, many of the same people from the Bush Administration inform policies for Obama).

The Arab Uprisings brought regime change to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and likely Syria; the United States played a decisive role in all of these “revolutions.”  And that role was usually to make things worse and more complicated.

 

Continue reading “Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative”

Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Originally published in Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Print version available here.

 

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Asad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue.

 

Continue reading “Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers”

Liberals v. Democrats in Egypt

If people are truly given the right to self-determination, there is a good chance that, in many societies, most will reject the bulk of the (classical) liberal agenda — but isn’t this their right?

As a case study, consider Egypt. Much has been made over President Muhammad Mursi’s temporary power-grab, of the Islamist dominance in Parliament, and the Islamic flavor of the recently ratified Egyptian constitution. More disturbing, perhaps, is the Mursi Administration’s increasingly “authoritarian” response to continued civil disobedience. While these developments shock liberal sensibilities, it is not clear that they run contrary to the will or interests of the Egyptian people.

While the international media loves to focus on secular, liberal protestors, they are not representative of the general population of Egypt: neither their will, their values, nor their interests. Nor were they responsible for the transition in Egypt; in fact, many of the current protestors against Muhammad Mursi were in favor of the Mubarak Regime. The recent protests have been relatively small; the opposition movement is divided and disorganized; there have been constant counter-demonstrations in favor of the President, sometimes larger than those against him. For years, labor movements and Islamists represented the primary opposition blocs to the Mubarak regime. Accordingly, the narrative that the Islamists “hijacked” the revolution seems problematic. Continue reading “Liberals v. Democrats in Egypt”

Moammar Gaddhafi, Giantslayer

It would not be surprising if there are many in the Obama Administration who occasionally think, “I miss Moammar Gaddhafi.” And if no one there is thinking that, they should. And not just because of the camping trips he would take in New York City, his amazing sense of style, his elite unit of all-female bodyguards, or his obsession with Condoleezza Rice (culminating in a video tribute to her, complete with an original song entitled, “Black Flower in the White House“). It turns out that the U.S. led (from behind) intervention in Libya may have been an enormous tactical error for the Obama Administration—a mistake which continues to haunt the world to this day: Continue reading “Moammar Gaddhafi, Giantslayer”

Ideological Pluralism v. Legal Pluralism

In the wake of Egypt’s historic democratic elections, Islamist candidates won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliament. A Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, would go on to win Egypt’s inaugural presidential elections. Recently, voters ratified a new Egyptian constitution which is perceived to grant Islamic institutions (such as al-Azhar) significant influence over the government.

As it is in Egypt, so has it been throughout the MENA region: at first glance, it would seem as though Islamists have been the primary beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. However, contrary to the popular discourse, the challenge facing these governments is not in reconciling Islam with liberalism.  Instead, the problem is internal to liberalism itself: in the MENA contexts, there seems to be tension in simultaneously promoting authentic democracy and a universal body of laws. There are historical reasons for this:

Colonialist powers, in an attempt to keep the peoples of the MENA region divided against themselves, carved up state boundaries in such a way as to fragment and alienate the various ethnic and religious groups—creating weak majorities which would be unable to drive out the occupiers, while patronizing minority populations (entendre intended), who would thereby be dependent upon their colonizers to ensure continued protection and influence. These tensions were exacerbated by the colonialists’ insistence on a series of universal laws governing these states, which created a zero-sum political game. Under such a system, governments are forced into a democratic dilemma; they can either:

  1. Foster a government which is unrepresentative of the majority of its citizens in many critical aspects, for the sake of protecting minority groups, or
  2. Allow minorities to be held ransom by the tyranny of the majority.

Neither of these seem particularly appealing; however, these two options need not be exhaustive. It may be that the best way to allow for a government to be representative and responsive to the popular will while empowering and protecting minorities is to reject the notion that there must be a single body of laws which governs all citizens. Continue reading “Ideological Pluralism v. Legal Pluralism”

The Arab Spring’s Third Wave

Insofar as it is helpful or accurate to understand the “Arab Spring” as a meta-movement which began with the December 17, 2010 self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazizi, we can break it into a few significant “waves.” The first wave of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were quick, peaceful and orderly, relative to the second wave with the much more protracted, chaotic and violent uprisings in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

As these movements continue to evolve, some have argued that much of the Arab world would lose their appetite for civil disobedience once the revolutions got bloody, were radicalized or descended into civil war. It was even proclaimed that the Arab Spring was dead because a few similar authoritarian regimes remained quite unscathed.

While secular dictators have been overthrown, the Arab monarchs seem to have weathered the storm through a potent mix of token gestures of reform, fear-mongering, internal repression, historical/cultural hegemony, and geopolitical maneuvering.

For their part, Western nations and the international media have tired of championing popular democratic change in the region – especially as the monarchies in question are some of the West’s closest regional allies. In spite of all of these countervailing forces, however, there has been a recent renewal and escalation of protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan. We are witnessing the formation of a third wave of the Arab Spring uprisings, wherein protesters target monarchs instead of dictators.
Continue reading “The Arab Spring’s Third Wave”

Syria: To The Victor, Ruins

As the conflict has dragged on in Syria, growing in intensity with no sign of resolution or international intervention, the regime may seem incredibly resilient: they have been able to push the rebels out of Damascus, to protect the majority-Alawite territories, to hold Aleppo, and to keep pressure on the insurgents through artillery and airpower.

But it is costing them roughly $1 billion per month to do this, and the regime is estimated to have only $5 billion in their coffers, enough money to last until March. After that, the army will begin running out of bullets, bombs, fuel, salaries, etc. At that point, the Alawites and some other religious minorities may continue to side with Bashar because they have nowhere else to go, but many of the Sunnis who currently support the president will likely jump ship.

The rebels do not have to fear bankruptcy.  Between their primary supporters (Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States), the rebels have access to virtually unlimited capital and supplies. Moreover, through unobjective and problematic reporting, Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Western media have granted the rebels a virtual monopoly on the media, allowing them to favorably shape international public opinion.

The allies of Bashar al-Asad provide no such support—the “Axis of Resistance” is on the verge of disintegration. Hamas has endorsed the opposition and has relocated their operations to Egypt and Qatar. Iran is on the verge of economic collapse and is facing extensive inner turmoil as well as the threat of an Israeli invasion. Hezbollah is in crisis due to leader Hassan Nasrallah’s vocal and unwavering support of al-Asad, and local and regional criticism of their governance of Lebanon– with sectarian tensions spilling into that country from Syria. Russia and China can block the UN from intervening; they may even continue to sell supplies and weapons to al-Asad–but, again, he may not be able to purchase anything for much longer.

If the son of Hafez lasts long enough, his one chance to close the deal is over the winter, which will be punishing—especially  due to the large displaced and refugee populations, paired with Syria’s crumbling infrastructure and the growing strain the refugees are placing on neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

Beyond the tactical challenges this sort of weather poses for guerilla fighters, the desperate situation may convince a number of Syrians that they’ve had enough of this bloodshed and instability. Perhaps, rather than being merely ambivalent towards the opposition, the civilian population may become hostile to it; the FSA is already having an increasingly difficult time finding new recruits.  If the President can decisively crush the rebels militarily and/or spiritually during this period, he could exit gracefully:  on his own terms, in accordance with the constitution voters ratified in February.

On the other hand, if the rebellion can survive until spring,  they will be well-positioned to triumph over the regime. The warmer weather will allow an influx of new foreign fighters, and the U.S. will have a good deal more flexibility or zeal, depending on November 6, and will likely begin to arm the rebels, or even institute a no-fly zone or safe zones along with the other regional allies. In short, the rebels will get a second wind even as the regime goes bankrupt, perhaps smarting from mass defections from salary-less security forces and similarly broke key allies.

The real problem is what would come next: What happens when the fractured opposition fights among itself for control and legitimacy? Even as al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups fight secularists and religious minorities–with international players patronizing their preferred groups to ensure their own influence over the way subsequent events unfold?

This is assuming, of course, that Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel do not get dragged or step more fully into Syria, along with their geopolitical allies…

 

Published 10/6/2012 by SISMEC

Afghanistan Faces a Post-Modern Security Crisis

So far in 2012, NATO forces have seen a 45% increase in “insider attacks” against coalition forces by their Afghan security counterparts, accounting for more than 18% of the total 2012 NATO casualties. Beyond the loss of life, these attacks have had a devastating impact on the trust and cooperation between NATO and Afghan forces, threatening the integrity of the overall mission, including the coalition’s plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014. Earlier this month, NATO suspended joint operations with the Afghan forces and ordered their personnel to carry loaded weapons at all times.

Who are the perpetrators of these attacks? Typically, average Afghan soldiers who joined the security forces in “good faith,” hoping to serve their country, earn a stable paycheck, etc. NATO estimates that only 25% of these “green on blue” attacks are the result of Taliban infiltration or co-option of Afghan security forces.  What can we say of the other 75%? Their good intentions are precisely the cause of their angst.

Their uniforms, initially a source of personal and national pride, also identify these soldiers as being on the “same team” as the drones, as Karzai and his corrupt and unpopular government, etc. These Afghan forces find themselves fighting primarily against their own countrymen, side-by-side with U.S. forces who often harbor orientalist, racist or anti-Islamic sentiments (although at times they are merely culturally ignorant/ insensitive).  These forces have also committed a host of atrocities, war-crimes, and sacrilegious acts in Afghanistan over the last decade, many of which have gone essentially unpunished. While these crimes by American forces are largely glossed over in U.S. media as rare “bad-apples” or cases of PTSD (if they are covered, at all), they are disturbingly ubiquitous and are ever-present in the Afghan consciousness.

The nature of the “insider attacks” is very telling: there is no apparent tactical intent— the shooters simply target any and all coalition forces within range.  There is no attempt to prioritize “high-value” targets, to interrupt delicate missions or to destroy critical infrastructure. The acts are totally nihilistic; the perpetrators want to die— in fact, that is virtually all they want. Shooting the NATO forces is a symbolic means of shooting themselves, of targeting that aspect of their identity represented by their uniforms through an action which negates the impulses which led them to enlist (nationalism, a sense of self-worth or identity, the desire to provide for and protect their loved ones, etc.). And their symbolic suicide typically and appropriately culminates in their actual death through coalition retaliatory fire.

What can be done to reduce these incidents? Coalition forces cannot create any kind of deterrence strategy, as the perpetrators want to die. They cannot remove the motivations for their death-wish, either: they do not have the time or resources to cease drone strikes, purge domestic corruption, or dramatically change the culture/composition of the U.S. forces.  It will be challenging enough to build the necessary force-levels, infrastructure, etc. by 2014 while maintaining pressure on the Taliban. Similarly, NATO does not have the ability to eliminate collateral damage or rogue atrocities, as these are simply realities of war.

From a tactical point of view, the United States is essentially in a Catch-22: the only solution to this problem is to pull coalition forces out of Afghanistan. However, they must first ensure the Afghan forces can provide some measure of stability after said withdrawal. In order to accomplish this, they will need to recruit even more of the local population into the coalition forces. However, as many of these “average Afghans” will be ill-equipped to deal with the aforementioned identity conflicts, we should expect “insider attacks” to become increasingly prevalent (the purer the motivations of these recruits, the more prone they will be to disillusionment/nihilism). This will further erode trust and confidence between the NATO and Afghan forces, interfering with the coalition’s ability to properly train these new forces they are recruiting. And so, the situation may perpetuate itself ad infinitum, or the coalition may be forced to abruptly abort the mission in Afghanistan, essentially handing the country back to the Taliban.

 

Published 9/22/2012 by SISMEC.

The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen

Following the military coup which removed Hosni Mubarak, it was widely reported that al-Qaeda was rendered obsolete by the Arab Spring. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, pronounced:

“The Arab Revolts of 2011 represent a total repudiation of al Qaeda’s founding ideology. For 20 years, al Qaeda has said that the regimes of the Arab World are nasty dictatorships and that the only way to overthrow them is to support al Qaeda and its terrorism. And then, in a few weeks, the people of the Arab World have overturned two despotic governments by means of non-violent demonstrations and they have begun a process of reform and revolution that will alter the basic bargain between the ruler and ruled in the Middle East…”

This sentiment was only amplified in light of the U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership: Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Yaya al-Libi and Said al-Shehri (among others)—personality strikes which continue to this very day despite the growing evidence of blowback.

Indeed, al-Qaeda had lost a good deal of their leadership, their popular support, and their morale. Their attacks had been  mostly confined to the Mideast (as attempts at strikes in the West had been consistently intercepted), and their victims were primarily other Muslims. Before he was killed, Osama bin Laden lamented the fact that al-Qaeda had become consumed with purging apostates and ethno-religious minorities at the expense of their primary mandates:  to overthrow tyrannical and secular regimes (replacing them with Sunni theocracies), to drive out foreign forces from the MENA region, and to redress wrong committed against the Muslim community worldwide.

In short, al-Qaeda had serious problems—but not insurmountable ones. In light of how the “Arab Spring” revolutions have progressed, largely as a result of meddling by the US and the Gulf, the organization and its affiliates seem to be on the verge of a renaissance rather than extinction.
Continue reading “The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen”

Resist Overly-Simple Narratives About Syria, Asad

While one would never know it from the news, the reform process in Syria is actually going smoother than it is in Egypt. If this might sound crazy to the everyday headline reader, think of it this way:  Syria has a popularly approved new constitution, a democratically elected parliament that the state actually recognizes and one with clearly defined powers and responsibilities. Egypt, on the other hand, has no constitution, a parliament which is not recognized by the state and a president whose role is ambiguous.  While it would be easy to view the reforms in Syria cynically, the reality may not be so simple. In fact, throughout the Syrian uprising, President Bashar al-Asad has made substantial moves to resolve the conflict.

Prior to the “Arab Spring” uprisings, Asad was hailed worldwide as a reformer.  Indeed, only several years ago the very pundits and policymakers that are now calling for his overthrow portrayed Asad as being committed to liberalizing the Syrian economy, normalizing relations with the global community, protecting women’s and minority rights, and gradually instituting democratic reforms. When the protests began, Bashar moved quickly to signal to the protestors that he had heard their concerns: he dismissed his cabinet, vowed to lift the emergency laws in Syria (which curtailed certain civil liberties), lifted 3-year old government bans on YouTube and Facebook and promised to increase the speed of the democratic transition in Syria.

And then, he actually came through on that promise. In February 2012, the President submitted a new constitution for Syrian approval. This constitution included serious concessions: it eliminated the Ba’ath Party’s guaranteed majority in parliament (for the first time in more than 40 years) and limited presidential term limits to seven years, with the potential to be re-elected only once.  It is not an understatement to say that these concessions marked an end to Bashar’s hegemony over the country. And despite opposition calls to boycott the referendum (and occasional voter intimidation), more than 57% of the electorate turned out to vote, and more than 89% of these voters approved the proposal.

The opposition refused to acknowledge this new constitution, despite the ostensive purpose of their protests being to ensure respect for the popular will. American policymakers immediately called the referendum a “sham,” although they provided no evidence of ballot rigging or fraud. Thereafter, President Asad opened up Syria to the UN, the Red Cross, and the certain members of the international press.  He also promised to quickly hold free parliamentary elections in accordance with the new constitution, and in May 2012, he came through on this promise as well.

Again, the opposition called for Syrians to boycott the elections; again, the majority of the electorate ignored that call.  The election, which occurred in the presence of UN observers, had a participation rate in excess of 51% (despite the fact that voting was virtually impossible in rebel-held areas). And while the Ba’ath Party and its allies won the majority of seats, this is largely because most of those who would have voted for other candidates (i.e. the opposition) largely refused to take part in the process. But even without their participation, the parliament was elected by a majority of the electorate.

In Syria, as in all of the “Arab Spring” countries, the protestors represent a minority of the population ( typically, less than 1% of the population). And even within this group, the armed insurgency  is an extreme minority— a minority of a minority. By all indications, to point to  the aforementioned elections and the lack of involvement by most Syrians in the insurgency and/or protests uncovers that a sizeable population of Syrians want a diplomatic solution to the uprisings and seem content to leave Bashar al-Asad in power, provided he remains committed to the reform process (there are even substantial civilian counter-protest and counter-insurgency movements in Syria—although these, of course, get no media coverage).

Beyond all of the concessions highlighted hitherto, after agreeing to Annan’s Six-Point peace plan, the President ordered a cease to shelling in the rebel areas, and withdrew as many forces as he felt he could without jeopardizing security/stability—  especially for endangered minority groups. And he held by this cease-fire. Unfortunately, the FSA (Free Syrian Army) and the SNC (Syrian National Council), neither individually nor collectively, have authority over many elements of the opposition, which increasingly include foreign fighters/ terrorists.  Even regarding their own forces, the FSA/SNC leadership is decentralized and somewhat chaotic; and so, the agreement gradually disintegrated as a result of consistent infractions.

However, the President returned to the negotiating table, proposing a new approach which focused on deescalating problem zones first and then building outwards from there. The opposition was quick to reject this plan, bombing Damascus and killing members of the President’s cabinet. The opposition has since attempted (and failed) to take over Allepo.  These actions by the rebels have radically escalated the conflict. Unfortunately, the only way to bring the opposition more seriously to the negotiating table would be for their primary state allies (Turkey, Qatar, the US, Saudi Arabia) to force them. They have no incentive to negotiate as long as the foreign aid keeps flowing, and  the state actors fueling the resistance have been placing their geopolitical interests over the security and desires of the Syrian people.

In short, these moves on the part of the opposition, which defy the popular interests and the popular will, are an ominous sign for democracy in Syria, should the rebels prevail. In fact, armed and/or military revolutions like the one being attempted in Syria have virtually no precedent of establishing democracies, especially in the Middle East.  The al-Asad family took power in Syria through just such a revolution, as did Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, Hosni Mubarak’s military government, the Gaddafi regime, and the Afghani Taliban (who were armed, trained and funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, in much the same way as the Libyan and Syrian rebels).  And the coups which ushered in these authoritarian states also typically took place under the auspices of restoring power to the “common man.” It is no wonder that so many Syrians view President al-Asad as a more trustworthy and reliable partner for instituting democratic reforms— he probably is.

 

Published 7/28/2012 by SISMEC.

Will Egypt Vote to Re-Install the Regime It Just Overthrew?

On 6/14/2012, just days before Egypt’s runoff presidential election, Egypt’s High Court announced the dissolution of Parliament. Rather than the (elected) Parliament appointing representatives to draft a constitution, the entire process will be overseen by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). We can rest assured that this constitution will ensure the Army a prominent place in power, and limit the power of the elected government.

Simultaneously, the Court affirmed the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, the final Prime Minister under former President Hosni Mubarak, despite the post-revolution law which explicitly barred former Mubarak-administration officials from running in civilian elections. These developments come on the back of a number of rollbacks of post-Mubarak reforms. How did we get here?

After Hosni Mubarak refused to step down on February 1, 2011, the Army removed him from power (later, placing him under arrest). The next day, Vice-President Suleiman announced that Mubarak had, in fact, resigned (although these words never came out of Mubarak’s mouth); it was also declared that the SCAF would assume “temporary” control of the government, until a constitution was drafted and elections were held.

In November 2011, the SCAF authorized the “Selmy Document,” which contained the following significant provisions:

  • Any forthcoming civilian government would not have tactical control of the military (unlike the American system where Congress and the President set the agenda, which the Army is bound to execute).
  • The elected government would have no oversight/control over the military budget
  • The Army would forever serve as the “Protector of Legitimacy,” with the right to remove any elected government, at any time.
  • The Army had ultimate approval/veto power for the forthcoming constitution, and any laws passed by the Parliament.

Thereafter, the Islamists (specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Nour Party, and others) were overwhelmingly elected to Parliament (despite the consistent portrayal of the Revolution as liberal and secularist), winning nearly 70% of the available seats . While the powers of the President and Parliament are still vague, absent a constitution – with a Muslim Brotherhood president (Muhammad Morsi, who won the first round in the presidential election) and such a strong majority in Parliament, the civilian government could be unified in such a way as to be a legitimate counterweight to the army.

However, running against Mursi in the presidential runoff is the Ahmed Shafiq, the final Prime Minister under Hosni Mubark (whom Shafiq has described as his role model). Shafiq ran on a platform to ensure stability with an “iron fist,” to roll back some of the reforms of the revolution, and to purge the government of Islamists (who have been a problem for the military from the time the government was instituted).

In order to win the presidency, Shafiq aims to stoke the fears that liberals, secularists, and religious minorities have about such a strong Islamist influence on the state; should he get enough of these to turn out for him, he could easily win the election (towards that end, he recently asserted that he would be happy to appoint a Christian woman as his vice-president).

Following the presidential election, and the drafting of the new constitution, the SCAF will oversee another set of Parliamentary elections (this action should also be understood in light of their March 2012 expulsion of foreign NGO’s from the country; the SCAF will have much more control over the democratic process, with less oversight and influence from external parties). It seems to be the SCAF’s hope that the Islamists will have a weaker showing, and the aforementioned alternative factions will do better.

The result will be a divided Parliament, thereby ensuring that whatever powers the Parliament has will be difficult to actually exercise— at the very least, the SCAF can hope for an alternative alliance sufficient to act a foil for the Muslim Brotherhood. The result would be a total erosion of checks and balances on the military by the civilian government—a de facto coup: the Regime would be back (sans the Mubaraks), and not a moment too soon.

Published 6/15/2012 by SISMEC