Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence

On the night of August 11th, white nationalists held a torch-lit pride parade through the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. They were met with counter-protests, and the demonstrations descended into a melee.

The next morning, these same organizers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Emancipation Park, centered on a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that had been scheduled for removal. Once again, battle lines were drawn, and a fight ensued. This time, the white nationalists were driven back by the counter-demonstrators and then dispersed by police.

While most of the others in the nationalist camp were retreating, one young man aligned with the movement rammed his car into the crowd of counter-demonstrators who were celebrating their victory—killing one and injuring dozens of others. Two state police officers assigned to help contain the unrest also perished en route when their helicopter crashed.

The method of violence deployed against the counter-protestors in Charlottesville seemed to draw inspiration from a string of ISIS-aligned attacks involving motor vehicles. In fact, ISIS claimed responsibility for an incident that occurred days later, when terrorists piloted a van into a pedestrian zone in Barcelona, Spain—killing 13 people and wounding more than 100. It is a common tactic of ISIS to try and “one-up” atrocities committed by others while frenzy about the initial attack is at its height, in order to divert the massive public attention and outrage towards their own cause instead.

In this instance, ISIS was unsuccessful because President Trump’s subsequent remarks–which seemed to praise many of the ethnic nationalist demonstrators as “very fine people,” and to place ethnic nationalists and those protesting against them on equivocal moral standing—generated immense blowback from across the political spectrum and seemed to suck the oxygen away from all other stories.

However, for social scientists symmetrical incidents such as those in Charlottesville and Barcelona can often serve as the basis for “natural experiments”—for instance, to explore whether public reaction to terrorist acts seems to vary in systematic ways when one key variable is changed, such as the ideology or cause of the perpetrator.

My extensive research on this question shows that progressives and conservatives tend to respond to terror attacks in sharply divergent ways—with the biggest contrast occurring when the attacker is either a Muslim or an ethnic nationalist. Continue reading “Charlottesville and Americans’ Increasingly Polarized Response to Terrorism, Political Violence”

Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)

 “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered”

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

 

With the Confederate Battle Standard finally removed from the South Carolina Capitol grounds, many conservative commentators have expressed concern that the battle may not be over, that the movement to abolish public symbols of the Confederacy in may spread to other monuments—for instance, renaming streets and public schools which honor white supremacists, or re-appropriating landmarks and dismantling memorials which commemorate slave owners and segregationists.

Of course, these fears are not unfounded: there is such a movement underway. But what is perplexing is why anyone would find this to be problematic. Conservative claims that these actions amount to “whitewashing history” or “cultural cleansing” are beyond ironic:

It is whitewashing history, on several levels, to celebrate and honor the Confederacy independent of its subjugation of blacks. The so-called “states’ rights” narrative about the origins and meanings of the war are falsified by Declarations of Secession from the southern states, and the words of Confederate leaders themselves—who left no doubt that what they were fighting for was the continuation of slavery. In fact, had they won independence from the North, the vision was to build an empire by conquering and enslaving the denizens of Mexico and Central America as well.

While it is true that there were issues related to the proper collection and allocation of taxes and tariffs, representation in the Congress, and the extent of federal sovereignty—most of these problems also turned on questions about the legal status of blacks (especially given that slaves constituted the majority of the population in many southern districts, and the economy was heavily-dependent on slave labor).

The developments which provoked outright secession were principally the northern state’s general refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slaves Act, along with concerns that Lincoln and the Republicans might ban slavery in any new states which joined the Union (even if they allowed existing slave states to continue the practice, for lack of viable alternatives).

That “Southern culture and way of life” the Confederates were so eager to preserve? It was entirely contingent upon the subjugation of blacks. Whites in slave states rightfully viewed emancipation as an existential threat to their livelihood, their culture and their very lives. They dreaded reprisals by newly freed slaves, be they political, economic, or violent (they assumed the latter most often, given the “savage” constitution of blacks). For this reason, even those few southerners who supported the abolition of slavery generally proposed dumping blacks back in Africa, rather than allowing them to live free and equal alongside their former oppressors (even when the slaves were eventually “freed” they were kept separate from whites through America’s apartheid system).

Again, this is spelled out unambiguously by the very people who spearheaded the rebellion—so it is ahistorical to deny or minimize these realities. For elaboration on this point, see the video below featuring Colonel Ty Seidule, the head of the history department at the US Military Academy at West Point:

 

 

Continue reading “Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)”

Gen. Petraeus Must Face Justice

The U.S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have recommended felony charges against David Petraeus for giving classified information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell. While not a crime in itself (because Petraeus was retired from the military at the time the scandal broke), the affair put Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at significant risk of blackmail. He resigned from the CIA in 2012 shortly after the relationship became public.

The scandal came to light after Broadwell abused her proximity to Petraeus, threatening to use her CIA connections to make a perceived sexual rival, Jill Kelley, “go away” (mafia style); this spurred an FBI investigation. Federal investigators then stumbled upon classified documents in Broadwell’s possession, allegedly provided by her Petraeus, with whom they discovered she was having an affair. According to the New York Times, Broadwell may have even gained access to her lover’s government email account during this period. Given his position at the head of U.S. intelligence operations, the magnitude of such a breach, if confirmed, would be immense.

Yet U.S. lawmakers tasked with overseeing intelligence failed to even question Petraeus about his misconduct. Shortly after the scandal broke, Petraeus was summoned to testify before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, but lawmakers limited their questioning to the 2012 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. And over the course of this inquiry, they did not even ask how Broadwell gained access to highly-sensitive details about the Benghazi attacks (to include confirming the location of CIA blacksites), which she mentioned in a speech at the University of Denver just before the affair came to light.

Instead, the vice-chairwoman of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., urged the White House last week not to press any charges, claiming the general “made a mistake [and] has suffered enough” because of it.

But it is not clear how, or even if, he has suffered. Continue reading “Gen. Petraeus Must Face Justice”

ISIS Flag, Iraq Protests

Yes, ISIS is “Islamic” (But with regards to policy, it really, really doesn’t matter)

It is perhaps disingenuous to claim that ISIS is not “Islamic,” as many Muslim apologists have attempted, in part because there is no “true” and “false” Islam objectively accessible to human beings. Would-be Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s interpretation may be far outside the mainstream contemporary or traditional approaches to Islam, but doesn’t make it “un-Islamic.” In fact, making these pejorative declarations about others’ faith (takfir) is a highly-controversial practice definitive of ISIS, which it uses to justify the persecution of religious minorities. Mainstream Muslims would be emulating their error to declare ISIS as non-Muslims in virtue of their fringe views.

Nonetheless, it is misleading to focus on ISIS’ supposed religion, in part because it implies that the group is organized around some well-worked out theological system, and that most of ISIS’ members subscribe to this system, having joined the organization for primarily religious purposes. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate any of these premises. Continue reading “Yes, ISIS is “Islamic” (But with regards to policy, it really, really doesn’t matter)”

Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have insisted that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. Worse still, they argue that the group’s barbaric practices are intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world.

The ignorance of these commentators is stunning. In fact, there are organizations whose depravity, scale, and threat to the United States far surpass that of ISIL. But these groups do not engender the kind of collective indignation and hysteria that ISIL provokes, begging the question: Are Americans truly concerned ISIL’s specific atrocities or the threat they supposedly pose? Or are they particularly disturbed because it is Muslims who are carrying out these actions, or posing this threat?

For example, even as U.S. media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the U.S.:

Continue reading “Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL”

Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap

Just prior to the U.S.-led anti-Daish (ISIS) campaign into Syria, the group released a highly-polished 55-minute documentary, “Flames of War,” in which they challenged the United States to heavily mobilize in Iraq and Syria. They have made similar taunts when they executed Western hostages, seized American weapons, or co-opted the rebels trained to fight against them.

Why are these extremists so eager to lure America into the theater?

Because while al-Daish has unrivaled wealth from multiple channels, a vast array of arms, and commands tens-of-thousands of soldiers– the one thing they seem to lack is popular legitimacy among the local populations. This is a big problem for a group that aspires to statehood. However, the recently-expanded intervention will likely help al-Daish mitigate this challenge by galvanizing the public against a greater enemy (the U.S.-led coalition)—with ISIL portraying themselves as the only force capable of repelling these malignant invaders. Meanwhile, the U.S. will be drawn ever deeper into a war of attrition in which its non-state interlocutors have little exposure and everything to gain.  Continue reading “Obama is Falling into Al-Baghdadi’s Trap”

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State

The public discourse about transnational jihadist organizations indiscriminately lumps together al-Qaeda, its forerunners (such as the Taliban), affiliates (such as Jahbat al-Nusra), its derivatives (such as Ansar al-Sharia or the Islamic State), and even groups which have no strong connection to al-Qaeda or such as Hamas, Hezbollah, or local tribal militants. It is not just laymen who succumb to this error, but media organizations, policymakers, analysts, and often even intelligence and law enforcement officials.

However, understanding the raison d’etre of these transnational jihadist organizations is critical for escaping the pointless cycle of escalation and retaliation which have defined the last decade of “War on Terror.” And in the shorter term, assisting with the evaluation of, and response to, the threats (and opportunities) these groups may pose to the United States and its interests.

Al-Qaeda is a prime example. Osama Bin Laden got his start in the U.S.-sponsored and Pakistani ISI trained mujahedeen resistance movement against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, the movement drew resistance fighters from across the Muslim world—and after the Russians were driven out, a plurality of the exogenous fighters continued to follow Bin Laden in his new organization, which was to continue to the work of expelling foreign powers and autocrats from the Greater Middle East in order to promote the sovereignty of Muslims. At that time, they considered the United States to be an ally.

The group came at odds with America during operation Desert Shield (and later, Storm) when, against Bin Laden’s protests, the government of Saudi Arabia decided to host U.S. forces in the Hijaz to defend and project power against Saddam Hussein (who, for the reference, Bin Laden also wanted to overthrow). This was the moment where America shifted from being an ally of the cause to another foreign occupier which must be resisted.

It’s been nearly 30 years since al-Qaeda first declared jihad against America. A whole generation has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11—and yet it is astonishing how little people understand about al-Qaeda, its ideology, methodologies, and organization. They are even less informed about the nascent Islamic State—to our collective detriment.

Continue reading “On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Al-Qaeda & the Islamic State”

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?”

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”

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”

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.”

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”

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)”

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”

Timeline of the Syrian Civil War

Before the Arab Uprisings, Syria was one of the safest countries in the world. There were robust protections for women and ethno-religious minorities. While the government was authoritarian, the trends were towards liberalization—both economic and political. While there were some factions within Syria who were understandably dissatisfied at the pace of reform (which was, indeed, glacial), the President remained (and remains) popular domestically. In the Middle East, while many were wary of Syria’s close ties to Iran, the President was respected as a bulwark against (perceived) Israeli aggression in the region. On the larger world-stage, Bashar al-Asad was hailed as a moderate and a reformer.

2/2011: Protests begin

The protests began in Syria not long after the military coup which removed Husni Mubarak from power in Egypt. Continue reading “Timeline of the Syrian Civil War”

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

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”

Is Reality Another Victim of the Massacre at Houla?

 

“With a tenuous peace settling over Syria, a former White House official says it would take powerful video images blasted on cable news of regime-orchestrated brutality to draw in the U.S. military. Barry Pavel, a former National Security Council and Pentagon official, tells DOTMIL via Twitter the U.S. “will act only if [a] ‘CNN event’” occurs.”

Unquestionably, the massacre at Houla is a horrific event.  However, many questions should be raised regarding the event and its portrayal in the media. As the news first broke, the BBC posted a story along with the tragic image of a young boy running through a virtual field of body bags. The problem? This image was taken during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The photographer who took the picture was quite vocal in calling out its misuse, and the image was soon removed.

And then there is the plausibility issue. While it would be hard to justify skepticism that the massacre did, indeed, occur—there are legitimate questions as to who perpetrated it. CNN was trying to frame this as an event orchestrated by the Syrian military; this is problematic. CNN (and Western journalists more broadly) readily point out that the Syrian forces are armed with heavy artillery and automatic weapons, while the rebels have only small-arms and not enough of them. Yet the story is apparently that a number of soldiers decided to, at great risk to themselves, enter a rebel-occupied town equipped with nothing but small-arms, knives, and axes to kill more than 100 people at close range, mostly civilian women and children. Moreover, they apparently managed to succeed in this without losing a single man: there are no regime soldiers identified among the dead.

We must also bear in mind that these soldiers would be attacking their fellow Syrians. While many in the Army may feel that fighting against the rebellion is a necessary evil they must commit for the good of Syria itself—it is unlikely that they would want to carry out something so personal as the execution of civilians, regardless of age. Throughout the conflict, as has been widely reported, the Syrian Army’s methods have utilized distance to their advantage:  snipers, heavy artillery, etc.

The massacre at Houla seems more likely to have come from Sunni extremist groups from outside of Syria, an increasing reality in this conflict.  This becomes even more likely if the victims of the massacre happen to be Alawites, Druze, Christians, Shii, some other minority sect; or government sympathizers (as this is a rebel-occupied town). Throughout the crisis in Syria, these considerations have been conveniently overlooked—all dead bodies have been lumped together and CNN has frequently emphasized the rebel’s casualty statistics (as opposed to the official government statistics or those provided by the UN).  These projections have been made  without asking the obvious questions: “Who is in these body bags? How did they die?” The implication is always that these were protestors killed by government forces.

Russia has stated that the Houla events are unclear. While they often take this posture, more for political reasons than epistemological rigor, they are certainly correct in this case. One thing  is clear:  the news media, activists, and various members of the international community are using this event to try to pressure the United States into intervening in Syria more directly, as the U.N. has already stated that it will not.

Published 6/1/2012 by SISMEC.