What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Continue reading “What Was Accomplished in Afghanistan?”

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”

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)”

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”

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?”

The Geneva Talks Are Not About Syria

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

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

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

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

The NATO intervention in Libya was an unmitigated disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral Outrage from Munafiqun

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

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

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

Red Lines, Syrian Blood

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Red Lines, Syrian Blood”

Game Theory v. Reality in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)”

Moammar Gaddhafi, Giantslayer

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

The Arab Spring and the New Mujahadeen

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

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

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

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

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

Resist Overly-Simple Narratives About Syria, Asad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published 7/28/2012 by SISMEC.

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”

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.