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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

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”

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”

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…”

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”

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny

Summary of a revolution: people making drastic and weighty decisions, rapidly and spontaneously, in a highly emotional state–often under the sway of some charismatic leader.

Question: Are these the sorts of actions we tend to retrospectively endorse or regret?

 

Followers of my work will know that I have been highly critical of virtually all of the revolutionary movements in the MENA region—particularly those in Libya, Syria and Egypt.  It would not be a stretch to say that my default disposition is anti-revolution, although from the response to my work in many  quarters, there does not seem to be a robust understanding of why. So rather than writing yet another expose, this time on the pop-media misinformation and problematic framing of the recent protests in Ukraine, it may be more fruitful to explain just why these movements are so troubling:

Continue reading “The Thin and Highly-Permeable Line Between Revolution & Tyranny”

Nakba or Fursa? The Collapse of the Syrian Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Slow and Agonizing Death of Syria’s Civil War

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

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

The Geneva Talks Are Not About Syria

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

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

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

The 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””

The Semantics of Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “The Semantics of Revolution”

Chemical Weapons, Toxic Discourse

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

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

Breaking the Stalemates in Syria (Literal & Rhetorical)

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

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

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

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

Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria

Jadaliyya “featured” my “Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game” in their 4/4/2013 Syria Media Roundup. In a transparent attempt to “poison the well” against my findings (and in contrast with the neutral-to-positive tone with which literally all of the other articles were described), my paper was summarized as follows:

“Musa al-Gharbi argues that we do not have a clear picture of facts on the ground, claims that might have been pertinent one year ago but that seem problematic today.”

Ignoring the fact that the article in question was drafted in January 2013 and explicitly makes use of contemporary data, such as the UN casualty report which came out a few months ago (i.e. far less than “one year ago”)—is it the case that the article’s claims are no longer pertinent? If so, it would presumably be because either:

  1. We now have a clear picture of the facts on the ground
  2. The dynamics of the conflict have radically shifted on one or more of my major points, or
  3. The “facts on the ground” are no longer terribly important.

The first option seems ridiculous. The article demonstrated fairly robustly how statistics are being misused and misunderstood in discussing the Syrian conflict—there has been no improvement in the public discourse in the interim. It remains difficult to get reliable information, and virtually all data related to the conflict is rather-immediately politicized. Accordingly, the same myths which were highlighted in the paper are still being perpetuated—they are no more true today than they were when the paper was published.

A charitable interpretation of their evaluation may appeal to the third option: perhaps given the way the conflict has escalated, the “facts on the ground” are no longer so important. As the situation spins out of control, there may be a worry that such analyses seem to trivialize the conflict—or turn into an abstract discussion a situation which is life-or-death for so many within and around Syria. While sensitive to this concern, the takeaway from the article should be that this is a situation which calls for much more attention,  much more care, much more engagement. The purpose of the article was to prompt the public to look more deeply and listen more closely when faced with rhetoric related to the conflict—and to pressure policymakers to do the same.

It may be asserted that the conflict has reached a point where these sorts of discussions are moot: the international community cannot wait around for perfect data to act. Such an argument seems perplexing: it is precisely the gravity of the situation and its likely repercussions which demands more care. While we must always make decisions under uncertainty, there is no excuse to ignore information that we actually already have. Although there are reasons to be skeptical of some of the proposed “facts” (such as the casualty statistics), our analysis largely took for granted that the popular data were correct; our aspiration was to examine more closely what that data tells us—that is, to challenge the ways the intelligence has been interpreted and manipulated. And what the data suggests is that the policies of the United States and its allies vis a vis Syria have been wrong-headed; indeed, as it has been in Syria, so it has been throughout the Arab Spring. I will now briefly explain the (continued) significance of my findings:

Continue reading “Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria”

Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Continue reading “Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative”

Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

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

Print version available here.

 

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

 

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

Timeline of the Syrian Civil War

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

2/2011: Protests begin

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

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’s Third Wave

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

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

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

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

Syria: To The Victor, Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published 10/6/2012 by SISMEC

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.