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’”

On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations

Due to the intentionally vague language of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have been empowered to interpret their counter-terrorism mandate broadly, to include targets from the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other derivatives and affiliates of al-Qaeda—anywhere around the world and indefinitely.

A key component of these efforts has been the U.S. drone program, intended to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States.

However, through open-source data mining, analysts have long known that those killed in the strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants—with “militant” (or “Enemy Killed in Action” [EKIA]) denoting virtually any fighting-aged male struck down in a campaign. In fact, most of the time the U.S. was not even sure who they were killing, what (if any) group the “militants” belonged to, what (if any) crime they committed which warranted execution or what (if any) threat they posed to the U.S., its personnel or its regional interests.

A cache of military documents leaked to The Intercept confirms this picture by means of the Pentagon’s own statistics and internal reports. However, perhaps the most significant and least explored aspect of the leak is how the documents confirm that the program is not only fundamentally ill-suited to achieve its raison d’etre, it is actually counterproductive in many respects.

 

Continue reading “On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations”

Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2015)

Print version available here.

 

With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues–perhaps too moderate to ultimately win his party’s nomination.[1] On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.[2]

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility.[3] The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.[4]

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).[5]

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo:[6] “Don’t do stupid shit.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such an apparently modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid *stuff*” is not an organizing principle, and “Great nations” need doctrines to guide their foreign policy.[7]

On its face, this line of criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional).[8] Granted, it’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do. However, for this very reason, it is more basic (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means,[9] there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t.

 

Continue reading “Foreign Policy Fundamentalism”

If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change

In the Comedy Central television series South Park, the boys discover a cartel of gnomes who steal people’s underwear. Over the course of the episode it’s revealed that these seizures are part of their business plan which goes:

 

Step 1: Collect Underpants Step 2: ? Step 3: Profit

 

The punchline, of course, is that the underpants gnomes have set up this elaborate enterprise for stealing and stockpiling people’s unmentionables, but none of them have any idea how to leverage these resources in order to reach their aspiration (profits).

It is immediately obvious that step 2 may be the most important part of the entire plan: it tells you if there is a viable path from step 1 to step 3. If there isn’t, step 3 is irrelevant and step 1 is (at best) a waste of time and resources.

But Step 2 happens to be the least exciting part of the process, and the most difficult, complex, contentious—which explains why so many attempt to circumvent it. Instead they just keep repeating step one, at an ever-increasing scale, hoping that step 3 will somehow magically materialize in the process.

So it goes.

While this particular episode was meant to lampoon many aspects of the business world, it unfortunately seems just as reflective of U.S. national security policy. Consider:

 

Step 1: Sanctions Step 2: ? Step 3: regime change or substantial revision of regime policies

Step 1: Overthrow “rogue” government Step 2: ? Step 3: a democratic, secular and/or liberal state emerges in its stead (see: Iraq, Libya, and coming soon, Syria).

Step 1: Arm sub-state or non-state proxies Step 2: ? Step 3: American strategic interests successfully realized in the region

Step 1: Support dictators Step 2: ? Step 3: long-term stability in the Middle East; containment of radical ideologies antithetical to the prevailing order (see: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and coming soon, Libya).

Step 1: Bomb “militants” with drones or airstrikes Step 2: ? Step 3: Transnational/ supranational jihadist groups are defeated

Continue reading “If Underpants Gnomes Took Over the Pentagon, Very Little Would Change”

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 Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction

It is problematic to assert that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is not “Islamic” in large part because the  assertion presupposes there is a “true” and a “false” Islam—one by which Barack Obama or liberal Muslim intellectuals can judge whether others are “authentic” believers or not. This is the same takfir (excommunication) doctrine that animates IS and its precursors, a dogma that most of IS’ critics are eager to condemn when turned on religious minorities (especially Christians) in the Middle East.

Instead, one could argue that IS’s doctrines are far outside the mainstream beliefs and practices of contemporary and historical Muslim communities. By virtue of its fundamentalism, which relies heavily on fringe interpretations, cherry-picking Quranic verses, and revisionist history, IS rejects and does violence to the rich, diverse, and pluralistic Islamic legal tradition. IS tries to be as provocative as possible, especially in relation to other jihadist groups–often deliberately and cynically evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes to goad its Western enemies. Many of its aspirations and tactics, moreover, have modern, secular roots. Alternatively, one could look at who tends to join the group:

Of their Western recruits, many are recent converts who adopted Islam as a sign of their pre-existing support for IS (rather than being driven to IS by their religious beliefs). Others have spent their lives as “cultural Muslims,” with more-or-less secular lifestyles, suddenly becoming “devout” after some kind of socio-legal tension that alienated them from their communities. Regardless of their religious or ethnic background, they are overwhelmingly young people. In short, IS tends to appeal to those who lack a strong theological foundation in Islam. Continue reading “The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction”

On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities

Following ISIL’s immolation Moaz al-Kasasbeh, many attributed the viciousness of his execution to the fact that he was a Jordanian pilot. The narrative is that the coalition airstrikes have been devastating for ISIL, and this extreme act was a desperate bid to dissuade allied forces from further strikes. By this logic, their tactic backfired: not only did the execution lead to more airstrikes, but caused widespread revulsion among Muslims.

There are many problems with this narrative, comforting as it may be—not the least of which its assumption that ISIL somehow couldn’t foresee that Jordan’s likely response would be to escalate. Or that ISIL was somehow surprised that most of their co-religionists were outraged that the group burned to death a fellow Muslim. Of course, these were rather obvious consequences, and it strains credulity that ISIL was taken off guard by them. Indeed, this deepened engagement by hostile powers and heightened polarization of the Muslim community actually serve ISIL’s strategic interests.

They burned alive Lt. al-Kassasbeh in the hopes of provoking a heavy-handed Jordanian response. ISIL’s roots in Jordan run deep: the country is among the top producers of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria; ISIL’s movement was started by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, himself a Jordanian released from prison in 1999 when Abdullah II took the throne. Accordingly, ISIL knows their adversary well–they know that Jordan’s involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign is unpopular (despite the monarch’s best attempts to quell signs of dissent), especially given the country’s endemic social and economic problems; they know that the Jordanian monarch is already struggling to maintain his credibility.

And so, to the extent that ISIL is seen as directly challenging King Abdullah al-Thani, of being able to withstand his “earth-shaking” retaliation—it bolsters their own legitimacy even as it makes Abdullah seem weak or inept by comparison. Especially if they can successfully coax Jordan into deploying ground troops: the heavier Jordan’s investment, and the bolder Abdullah’s rhetoric gets, the more pronounced this effect will be.

Outside the region, ISIL is aware that their provocative actions alienate Muslims in Western societies, often provoking Islamophobia, hate crimes and institutionalized discrimination. They proudly tout progress in achieving a “clash of civilizations” because, to the extent that the Muslim diaspora feels marginalized or persecuted, the greater the appeal of an “Islamic state.”

Continue reading “On the Strategic Logic of ISIL’s Atrocities”

Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh

One of the most popular narratives about ISIL’s recent immolation of Jordanian Moaz al-Kasasbeh is that the group resorted to such brutal measures against the pilot because they are desperate—pushed to the brink by coalition airstrikes. However, there are four major problems with this interpretation: Continue reading “Rethinking ISIL’s Immolation of Moaz al-Kasasbeh”

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”

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”

Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve”

In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.

These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.

Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else.  Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.

Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).

Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.

The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.

But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.

In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”

Continue reading “Credibility is about Outcomes, not “Resolve””

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”

Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States

America’s War on Sexual Violence, Mass Atrocities & Religious Persecution Should Begin at Home

Without question, the so-called “Islamic State” is an abomination that should be wiped from the face of the earth. However, it is unclear whether America is the right agent to see this through. Part of the trouble relates to the Obama Administration’s strategy, which seems likely to empower ISIS even as it undermines the security and interests of America and its allies—but there is an ethical dimension as well:

While ISIS poses a serious (although likely overstated) threat to the governments of Iraq and Syria, over the last two Administrations, the U.S. has itself forcibly overthrown the governments of Iraq and Libya—both in defiance of international law. And along with ISIS, the U.S. has spent the last three years seeking to undermine the Syrian government. Additionally, they have sheltered Israel from meaningful accountability to the international community, allowing the crisis in Palestine to fester. As a result of these policies, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States is actually a greater threat to peace and stability in the region than ISIS—not least because U.S. actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have largely paved the way for ISIS’s emergence as a major regional actor.

But perhaps more disturbingly, many of the same behaviors condemned by the Obama Administration and used to justify its most recent campaign into Iraq and Syria are commonly perpetrated by U.S. troops and are ubiquitous in the broader American society. Until these problems are better addressed, the United States’ efforts to undermine ISIS will be akin to using a dirty rag to clean an infected wound.

Continue reading “Forget the Islamic State, Focus on the United States”

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”

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”

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”

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?”

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”

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”

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”

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”

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”

Eternal Recurrence: Al-Asad & Al-Qaeda

On July 15th 2012, Nawaf al-Fares, Syria’s former Ambassador to Iraq, defected to the opposition. Along with his defection, he called for the international community, especially the United States, to act militarily in Syria to remove President Bashar al-Asad from power. At that same time, he claimed that the al-Asad regime had aided al-Qaeda’s insurgency operations in Iraq— allowing them to transfer weapons, arms and people through Syria, and even allowing them to establish a domestic base of operations. Mr. al-Fares’ claims, however, are obviously incoherent for two big reasons:
Continue reading “Eternal Recurrence: Al-Asad & Al-Qaeda”