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September 19, 2013

Iran May Not Learn the Right Lessons from Syrian Diplomacy

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Max Fisher and Daniel Drezner argue that those who claim the Obama administration has lost its "credibility" toward Iran have it all wrong. Here's Fisher:

Obama's decision to back off Syria strikes, and I'm bolding this part because it's important, boosts the credibility of his stated position that he isn't seeking Iran's destruction and that he will seek peace with Iran if they first meet his long-held demands on nuclear enrichment. That's exactly the message Tehran needs to hear right now.

I think we need be careful not to get too carried away. The Russian plan has barely been put to the test. We don't know if the Assad regime is genuinely willing to hand over its chemical arsenal or whether they're simply going to stall for time and hope that the political will to launch punitive strikes further erodes in Washington. If Assad is simply stalling and manages to avoid military strikes without surrendering his arsenal, Tehran will likely draw a very different lesson than the one Drezner and Fisher think they're currently receiving.

Moreover, it's going to be very difficult for Iran to accept the idea that the Syrian deal shows the Obama administration isn't seeking Iran's destruction when the Pentagon talks openly about arming Syria's opposition even with a chemical weapons deal in place. That sends exactly the opposite message to Iran, who need only look to Libya to understand the consequences of accepting a Western disarmament deal.

Finally, it's also worth considering what lesson Washington will take away from this: namely, that threats of military force are vital to forging a diplomatic breakthrough (something many Iran analysts have been arguing for a long time). If this becomes the conventional wisdom, it could provoke the administration into another high-wire act, threatening military strikes against Iran and then banking on a last minute diplomatic breakthrough to peaceably bring about a deal.

(AP Photo)

September 16, 2013

Seeing the Mideast Through a Cold War Lens Will End Badly for America

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While I took issue with Andrew Sullivan's idea that Vladimir Putin now "owned" the mess in Syria, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin evidently took the idea to heart and is terrified at the prospect. According to Tobin, it's quite possible that Putin could end up "owning" the Middle East with damaging results for the U.S. around the world:

The guiding principle of Russian foreign policy is twofold: annoy, humiliate, and defeat the United States every chance they get and thereby help rebuild the lost Soviet empire whose fall Putin still mourns. Russian adventurism in Syria won’t stop there. It will extend into Asia and cause havoc and diminish American influence there and everywhere else.

I think Tobin is utterly wrong in his premise that a loss of influence in one area of the world will lead to a loss everywhere (an argument that should have been put to bed after it was thoroughly discredited during the Cold War), but just for the sake of argument, let's accept that his framing is correct. Does it therefore make sense to overthrow Assad? Not even close.

First, let's look at the lay of the land. Russia has one client -- a regime that is battered by a civil war and that looks to be battling a fierce insurgency for years. It has a second, tepid ally in Iran. The U.S., on the other hand, can count on all the other major countries in the region. It's a chessboard that looks distinctly favorable to the U.S. even if Assad stays in power.

Second, for all of Tobin's breathless talk about "Brezhnev-era" diplomacy and Putin's scheme to reconstitute the Soviet empire (!), there is no chance whatsoever that Russia can re-assemble anything remotely like the Soviet Union again. It will never reclaim Central or Eastern Europe. Central Asia is independent and is as likely to tilt toward China as it is toward Russia. Ukraine, Russia's best hope for a pliable neighboring client, is also balking at Russian overtures, despite the election of Viktor Yanukovych, who was widely seen as in Putin's pocket. As Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn noted recently, Russia's entire geopolitcal strategy for its near abroad is collapsing. The idea that saving Assad's bacon is an important building block in restoring Russian power makes sense only if you ignore almost every other development in Russia's Putin-era foreign policy. (It also ignores the strong evidence that Russia is in pretty bad shape domestically, too.)

Then there's the history. The last time the U.S. aided rebel groups to blunt the advance of Russian power, in Afghanistan, it ended in a transnational jihadist movement that killed thousands of Americans. Back then, the U.S. had the benefit of not knowing the danger of Islamic radicalism. Back then, Russia was a legitimate national security threat that warranted such risk taking. Today, there is no such excuse. Russia is hardly a large enough "threat" to the U.S. to warrant stoking a jihadist whirlwind in Syria just to give them a black eye.

(AP Photo)

September 13, 2013

Unfortunately, Obama Still "Owns" the Syrian Mess

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Andrew Sullivan thinks President Obama has just handed "ownership" of the Syrian morass to Vladimir Putin:

But the upshot right now – so far as I can see – is that Russia and not America now owns this conflict. It is Putin who is on the hook now – and the more Putin brags about his diplomatic achievement the more entrenched his responsibility for its success will become. And that is perfectly in line with Russia’s core interests: Putin is much closer to Syria than we are; he must be scared shitless of Sunni Jihadists who now loathe him and Russia more than even the Great Satan getting control of WMDs. Those chemical weapons could show up in Dagestan or Chechnya or the Moscow subway. It is Putin – and not Obama – who is therefore much more firmly stuck between the Sunnis and the Shia in Syria – not to speak of the Christians.

I'm not sure. It's true the ball is Putin's court, but the only way the Obama administration can keep it there is to keep threatening to do something reckless. Why else does Secretary Kerry continue to threaten military strikes against Syria? Because the administration thinks this is the only way to get Putin's attention and cooperation.

Obama, in other words, is in more-or-less the same spot he was in since the crisis began: making threats that he will have to follow through on for the sake of his "credibility" if he doesn't get the results he wants.

A wise administration would have used the Russia offer as cover to extricate itself from the quicksand of Syria's internal strife (quicksand the administration walked into with open eyes and careless lips), but instead they're doubling down on the same foolhardy gamble that landed them in this mess in the first place.

(AP Photo)

September 9, 2013

Does Obama Want Congress to Say 'No' to Syria?

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When UK Prime Minister David Cameron lost a parliamentary vote to strike Syria, I called for his resignation. One member of Parliament agreed, shouting "resign!" at the Prime Minister. (He has yet to heed our advice.) Why should he resign? Because a prime minister, whose position is like a combination of the U.S. presidency and the House speakership, must remain in firm control of parliament to be an effective leader.

The American system was designed differently. It is not uncommon for the President and Congress to squabble. However, one area in which the President is given nearly unlimited discretion is foreign policy. As the nation's Commander-in-Chief and Diplomat-in-Chief, the President is given wide latitude to act on our behalf.

And that's what makes President Obama's decision to ask Congress about striking Syria so puzzling. By virtue of the War Powers Resolution, the President can engage in brief military action without congressional approval. Even more head-scratching is the fact that Mr. Obama didn't ask Congress before joining a coalition to attack Libya.

So, why ask Congress about Syria?

The conventional wisdom would probably suggest that President Obama is seeking political cover. A clear majority of Americans do not want to get involved in Syria, but Mr. Obama feels that he needs to do something since he metaphorically drew a red line (which he is now denying, as if we don't have a video of him drawing a red line).

But there is another possibility -- albeit a very cynical one.

Mr. Obama saw what happened in the UK; Parliament put its foot down and flat-out rejected Mr. Cameron's call for action in Syria. So scolded, Mr. Cameron backed down and will not join any coalition to strike Syria.

Is it possible that Mr. Obama hopes that the same thing will happen in Congress?

After all, it's not a big secret that Mr. Obama isn't keen on going to war. He even admitted as much at the G-20 summit, when he remarked, "I was elected to end wars, not to start them." In light of his reluctance to use American force, it is quite possible that his "red line" comment was nothing more than an attempt to sound tough. In actuality, he never intended on using force in Syria. But, now his rhetorical mistake has taken on a life of its own and has morphed into a full-blown foreign policy crisis.

If that's true, then Mr. Obama isn't seeking "political cover"; he's seeking a way out.

Additionally, the President has already hinted at the possibility of using a rejection from Congress for political advantage. In Stockholm, Mr. Obama said that his credibility wasn't on the line, but the credibility of Congress was.

In the hyper-partisan environment that is Washington, DC, it is not difficult to imagine the President saying, "I wanted to punish Syria, but the Republicans didn't want to support me." Simultaneously, it is not difficult to imagine Republicans taking the opportunity to vote against the President, even if it weakens the institution of the presidency.

Let's hope that's not what's going on. Because if it is, both Mr. Obama and Congress are gambling with the very credibility of the United States.

(AP photo)

September 5, 2013

Is "Limited and Surgical" the Syrian War's "Cakewalk"?

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Washington interventionists have a bad habit of blundering blindly into foreign adventures, overly confident in their ability to shape events at the end of a bayonet. Prior to the Iraq war, we were assured the affair would be a "cakewalk" (which it technically was, until the decision to stick around and rebuild the country).

For the looming intervention in Syria, we're being assured that any U.S. action would be "limited" and "surgical." (Secretary Kerry went so far as to claim, in language equal parts Orwellian and risible, that the U.S. would not even be going to "war" with Syria, just, you know, bombing it.) Clearly, that's the Obama administration's preference, but once the missiles start to fly, they're not the only ones calling the shots.

In fact, there are a number of plausible scenarios in which a "limited" action could spiral into something altogether different:

1. The Syrian regime could respond by attacking U.S. allies, either covertly or overtly.

2. The regime could resume chemical weapon strikes, goading the U.S. to act again and more comprehensively.

3. Iran and Hezbollah could retaliate against the U.S. or Israel.

4. The attacks could succeed in breaking the chain of command that governs Syria's chemical weapons, leaving them vulnerable to theft by al-Qaeda-aligned militants or Hezbollah agents.

5. The attacks could lead to the collapse of the Syrian regime and lead, in turn, to a failed state that leads to even more violence spilling across Syria's borders.

Do I think any of these are likely to happen? Probably not. If I had to guess, I'd bet most of the consequences would be more of the long tail variety. But the idea that Washington can ensure that any intervention in Syria will be "limited" is absurd. There are plenty of ways it could be anything but.

(AP Photo)

August 29, 2013

"Syria Can Get Worse"

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While they support punishing Assad for the use of chemical weapons, Syria Comment objects to a broader intervention. Their reasons are numerous and worth reading in full, but this bit on the consequences of toppling Assad is worth highlighting:

Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse.

It's frankly amazing that this is not well understood following the chaos of post-Saddam Iraq. And yet, those urging the United States to "do something" to bring about the collapse of the Assad regime choose to ignore it.

(AP Photo)

August 27, 2013

How Spiderman Explains the Coming U.S. War in Syria

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"With great power comes great responsibility."

These immortal words, imparted by Uncle Ben to his nephew, Peter Parker, form the moral impetus to the career of one of the world's great superheros -- Spiderman.

It's also a philosophy that many of Washington's foreign policy elite subscribe to, casting America as a global Spiderman, responsible for punishing bad guys and maintaining global law and order. And it's the reason why, despite clear opposition from the public, the Obama administration is poised to plunge the U.S. deeper into Syria following the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

Just listen to the language the Obama administration (and outside interventionists) are using to justify intervention. “Make no mistake," declared Secretary of State John Kerry, "President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people." And who will hold Assad accountable? The United States. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the "violation of international norms" is what is spurring the Obama administration to action. Who is responsible for upholding these norms? The United States.

The idea that it is somehow a uniquely American responsibility to uphold the norm against using WMD in war (a civil war, no less) is more than a bit odd. America has not only facilitated the use of chemical weapons attacks against civilians, it was the only country to use nuclear weapons in war. Hypocrisy aside, there are more practical problems with this approach.

In these situations the U.S. isn't like Spiderman -- a nimble hero with precision web-slinging -- but more like the Incredible Hulk, largely ignorant to what's going on on the ground and just as likely to do immense damage as save the day.

There are almost no military analysts who think the kinds of limited "punishment" strikes against Assad will have any significant impact. In fact, one of the very architects of a "surgical" strike plan on Syria has doubts the plan would work. The only way the U.S. could truly punish the regime would be to facilitate its collapse -- but that would merely usher in a period of complete chaos and the likelihood that Syria's chemical weapons would get into the wrong hands. The quest for locating "good guys" to arm and win the day was fanciful in the beginning of the war and has only become more untenable as jihadists have entrenched themselves in the rebel ranks.

None of these practical concerns, however, appear strong enough to overwhelm the administration's momentum to action. For Washington, it's just too tempting to play the hero.

(AP Photo)

July 11, 2013

Shock: U.S. Weapons Ending Up in the Wrong Hands in Syria

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Here's a surprise out of Syria:

U.S. and Western weapons have been reaching Iranian-backed Shiite militias fighting to keep Bashar Assad's forces in power in Syria.

Analysts say it's unclear if the weapons were captured, stolen or bought on the black market in Syria, Turkey, Iraq or Libya. Propaganda photographs from Shiite militias posted on dozens of websites and Facebook pages show the weapons were acquired in new condition, said Phillip Smyth, an analyst for Jihadology.net, a site affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Many of the weapons are things the militias "shouldn't really have their hands on," Smyth said. Iranians love to show "they have weapons and systems that are very close to the Americans."

Heck, the U.S. has showered so many weapons on the Middle East it's just too difficult to tell which ones are being used by civilian-slaughtering, Iranian-backed militias and which ones are going to ... "good guys." Obviously, the right thing to do is send more weapons. Hezbollah might be running low.

(AP Photo)

June 27, 2013

Iraq's Shiite Militias Are Fighting in Syria on Behalf of Assad

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Shiite militias from Iraq are engaged in the civil war in Syria, according to a new report from the Washington Institute. The group -- Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA) -- is being aided by Iran's Qods Force and while it's currently just a small group (some 800-2,000 fighters), the Washington Institute's Michael Knight sees it as having a potentially "strategic impact on the war."

Why? "Small but highly motivated forces can have a disproportionate impact in civil wars, where the fighting is often focused on specific locales, and where small, iconic battles can significantly affect morale," Knight writes. "Lebanese Hezbollah's direct intervention at al-Qusayr is one example of this phenomenon, and the role of the predominantly Iraqi LAFA forces around Damascus could become another..."

Iran has played a "key role" in forming this militia and sending them into the Syrian fray, Knight continues. Citing Philip Smyth, an "independent expert on LAFA's operations," Knight claims that Shiite militias formerly targeting U.S. troops have been retrained in Iran and Lebanon to wage a more conventional urban war against Syrian rebel groups.

Despite U.S. pressure and Iraqi assurances, the flow of support from Baghdad to Damascus continues.

What should the U.S. do? Knight suggests bombing the Damascus airport and instituting a no-fly zone in the country -- essentially, starting another U.S. war in the region.

That doesn't strike me as a very sensible option, given how beneficiaries of the last U.S. war in the region -- Iraqi Shiites -- are behaving.

(AP Photo)

June 18, 2013

America's Terrorism Strategy Makes No Sense

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Pew Research has released a new survey showing that a strong majority of the American people do not support President Obama's decision to arm the Syrian rebels. "Overall, 70 percent oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria; just 20 percent, favor this," Pew wrote. "Opinion is little changed from December of last year (24 percent favor) and support is down slightly from March, 2012 (29 percent favor)."

Regardless of what the American people think, the administration is plodding deeper into the Syrian morass. How deep they go remains to be seen.

Stepping back, though, you really do have to marvel at the abject absurdity of America's counter-terrorism policy. On the one hand, the danger from al-Qaeda is so tremendous and urgent, that it's imperative that all communications everywhere, including those of U.S. citizens, be monitored and collected in complete secrecy with almost no serious oversight.

On the other hand, it's not so urgent that we can't dump guns into groups fighting alongside (and with the same strategic goals) as al-Qaeda or worry about creating fresh new safe havens where they can plot further mayhem.

(AP Photo)

June 13, 2013

Bill Clinton Thinks American Opinion Shouldn't Shape U.S. Policy -- But Syrian Opinion Should

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Bill Clinton thinks President Obama risks looking "foolish" if he heeds opinion polls and stays out of Syria's civil war:

“Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,” Clinton told McCain during an event for the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Manhattan Tuesday night. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit — like, as long as you don’t make an improvident commitment.”

While American wishes don't count for much, Clinton thinks the will of the Syrian people matters more:

“Nobody is asking for American soldiers in Syria,” Clinton said. “The only question is now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hezbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing, should we try to do something to try to slow their gains and rebalance the power so that these rebel groups have a decent chance, if they’re supported by a majority of the people, to prevail?” [Emphasis mine.]
Of course, we have no idea what percentage of the Syrian people support the rebellion, but evidently vague assertions of Syrian public opinion are more compelling to Clinton than very clear evidence of American opinion.

It also never seems to dawn on Syrian interventionists that if a majority of Syrians really do support the rebellion, that rebellion is going to win no matter what the U.S. does. Everyone points to the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan as reasons for the U.S. to stay out of Syria, but they're useful lessons for Iran and Hezbollah as well. Insurgents with a wellspring of domestic support can't be defeated militarily, at least not easily or cheaply. The most powerful army in the world backed by the largest economy in the world struggled mightily with a pair of insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If Syria's revolution is as broad and deep as interventionists claim, it will bleed Hezbollah and Iran without help from the U.S.

(AP Photo)

June 5, 2013

No U.S. Interest in a Syrian Intervention

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According to the latest Gallup polling, most Americans want no part of the war in Syria:

Sixty-eight percent of Americans say the United States should not use military action in Syria to attempt to end the civil war there if diplomatic and economic efforts fail, while 24% would favor U.S. military involvement.

American's are also skeptical that diplomatic and economic means will end the fighting -- only 27 percent think that's likely.

For now, it appears the Obama administration is hewing closer to the public on this. Then again, polling conducted before the Libyan intervention showed a preference to stay out, and we all know how that ended.

(AP Photo)

May 23, 2013

Assad's Loss Isn't Necessarily America's Gain

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Gen. Jack Keane and Danielle Plekta argue (paywalled) that the Obama administration should go to war against the Assad regime:

To successfully target Assad's air power, one option is to outfit moderate rebel units vetted by the CIA with man-portable antiaircraft missiles, otherwise known as Manpads. Providing more moderate rebels with Manpads is a reasonable choice, though unlikely to be decisive because time is on Assad's side. There is also a risk that the weapons could be diverted to al Qaeda-related groups. Despite that risk, however, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus recommended this strategy last summer.

A cleaner and more decisive option is to strike Syrian aircraft and the regime's key airfields through which Iranian and Russian weapons are flowing to government forces. If American forces use standoff cruise missiles and B-2 stealth bombers for these strikes, they will be out of the enemy's reach....

If the U.S. pursues this strategy, moderates among the rebels will be strengthened, Syrian civilian casualties are likely to be reduced (though not eliminated) and finally, after two long years, Assad will be on notice. This option leaves room for escalation to the no-fly zone, and for a further escalation to attacks on Assad's ground forces if he uses chemical weapons again or tries to transfer them to America's enemies.

It would be nice to know how an intervention will help consolidate a post-war Syria that somehow accommodates itself to American interests and purges itself of al-Qaeda elements. These are critical details that are almost completely absent from most opinion pieces urging American intervention.

Just as with Iraq, it seems far more important to most Washington hawks that the United States precipitate the collapse of a hated regime irrespective of what follows -- even if what follows (as, again, in Iraq) are al-Qaeda sanctuaries and heightened sectarian civil war.

(AP Photo)

May 22, 2013

The Containment of Iran Is Playing Out as Predicted

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In a piece published in September, 2009 I highlighted one of the dangers of Washington's obsession with "containing" Iran:

The principle danger in any containment scheme is that the U.S. will set in motion forces it does not understand and cannot control. The most relevant example, of course, is American support for the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s. What began as an effort to covertly bloody the Soviet Union, gradually, and unintentionally, spawned a transnational terrorist movement that eventually struck the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001. Many of the same Afghan militants who proved useful to the U.S. in the 1980s have now turned their guns on America...

Indeed, the rise of al Qaeda points to the singular danger of any Iranian containment regime: it could stir up a Sunni jihadist whirlwind. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, would not only need arms to keep Iran in check militarily, but would step up an ideological campaign to undermine the legitimacy of its Shiite theocracy in the eyes of the Muslim world. This ideological conflict would put the U.S. in the absurd position of supporting the same theological forces which have propelled al Qaeda terrorism.

This is precisely what has happened in Syria, especially as Iran and Hezbollah have thrown in their lot with Assad. Here, for instance, is the advice of Max Boot:

In this regard it would help enormously if Hezbollah were not successful in its efforts to keep the Assad regime in power. A failed intervention in Syria would do tremendous damage to its standing in Lebanon, while a successful intervention would allow it to maintain its grip on power by safeguarding the arms pipeline flowing from Tehran via Damascus.

That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. do more to ensure that Hezbollah loses in Syria–not only by providing arms to vetted rebel factions but also by employing our airpower to ground Assad’s air force and thus removing a crucial regime advantage. Time is slipping away as Assad recovers on the battlefield.

The upshot of this advice is to make Syria safe for al-Qaeda by purging it of Hezbollah. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

(AP Photo)

May 16, 2013

The Problem with Comparing Syria to Rwanda

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As the Syrian civil war grinds on, proponents of getting the United States involved have resorted to moral condemnations to goad President Obama into action. "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda," writes Peter Feaver. His Shadow Government colleague Kori Schake accuses President Obama of "moral negligence" for not allowing Syria's lung-eating rebels access to more advanced means of killing Assad's troops (which they promise, cross their hearts, not to turn on their American sponsors, unlike some other people Washington has armed in the past).

As moral cudgels go, the Rwanda charge is useful -- no less a figure than President Clinton has acknowledged, and apologized for, American inaction.

But it raises a couple of big questions: what could the U.S. have reasonably done in Rwanda, and are even those measures enough to help anyone in Syria?

It's easy, with hindsight and a wave of the hand, to insist that there were easy solutions within reach in Rwanda (ignoring the more debatable claim that it was up to the U.S. to "do something" in the first place). But the reality was far more complex. There was a reason that President Clinton didn't act.

Samathana Power, long a critic of America's failure to "do something" in Rwanda, wrote what is likely the definitive look at the policy options available to the administration at the time. Reading it, it's not clear why any of the measures proposed to the Clinton administration would have been decisive and, as Power recounts, there was deep skepticism at the Pentagon about a U.S. commitment there. The suggestions short of direct military intervention -- such as jamming "hate broadcasts" issuing from the country's radio stations and imposing embargoes on arms that weren't instrumental in the killings -- may not have done anything.

"Pentagon planners understood that stopping the genocide required a military solution," Power wrote. "Neither they nor the White House wanted any part in a military solution. Yet instead of undertaking other forms of intervention that might have at least saved some lives, they justified inaction by arguing that a military solution was required."

But this is deceptive. Another way to frame the Clinton administration's logic is that the Pentagon did not want to be drawn into Rwanda's conflict, so it refused to take steps along the road to being drawn into that conflict. All or nothing is not a false choice, because ultimately a "something" choice immediately ensnares the U.S., and the logic of doing more only grows more powerful. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

Now, unlike Rwanda, "other forms of intervention" in Syria consist of riskier policies than jamming radio stations. Things like arming rebel groups and establishing no-fly zones -- i.e. policies that even more explicitly tie the U.S. to the fighting in Syria. But like Rwanda, these interim steps are almost certainly not going to "help" Syria in the humanitarian sense of the word. They will help depose Assad, but absent a means to stabilize a post-Assad Syria, there's liable to be a failed state and all the attendant bloodshed and lawlessness that implies.

It's no surprise that the Obama administration is reluctant to "do something" more than it has already done. It has nothing to do with moral abdication and everything to do with common sense.

(AP Photo)

May 7, 2013

Not Surprisingly, Neocons Offering Bad Advice on Syria

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Bret Stephens lists a variety of aggressive steps that Obama should take in Syria and then offers one unintentionally hilarious one:

(5) Be prepared to seize and remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, even if it means putting boots (temporarily) on the ground.

Mr. Obama has categorically ruled out sending troops to Syria, and he plainly regrets drawing a red line that he didn't mean to honor when it came to the use of chemical weapons. But even scarier than the threat of Assad killing more Syrians with those weapons is the possibility they would fall into terrorist hands—Sunni or Shiite—as Syria dissolves further into anarchy. That may have happened already. It will certainly happen if nothing is actively done to stop it.

Here's what the Pentagon had to say about a possible "boots on the ground" mission to neutralize Syria's chemical weapons arsenal:

The Pentagon has told the Obama administration that any military effort to seize Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons would require upward of 75,000 troops, amid increasing concern that the militant group Hezbollah has set up small training camps close to some of the chemical weapons depots, according to senior American officials.

There's nothing "temporary" about invading another country.

Syria is on fire and the brightest minds of the neoconservative movement think it's the height of strategy to put Americans in the middle of the inferno -- and then dump gasoline on it.

(AP Photo)

May 2, 2013

Syria Shows Which Voices Matter in the U.S. Foreign Policy Debate

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There have been several recent opinion polls in the U.S. showing a strong preference for staying out of Syria's civil war. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 61 percent of respondents opposed U.S. involvement in Syria. Another, from the New York Times and CBS, found that 62 percent of Americans polled said Washington had no responsibility to "do something" about the fighting in Syria.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is signalling that it is ready to arm Syrian rebel groups, drawing the U.S. inexorably deeper in a struggle the American people say they want no part of.

All of this raises an important question: if the American people don't want any part of Syria's civil war, who does? Who's clamoring for action in Syria? As far as I can tell it consists of journalists and think tank analysts, members of Congress, some of the president's advisers and foreign governments. The American public, writ-large, as best we can tell, is not.

And that's all you need to know about whose opinion is actually decisive when it comes to shaping U.S. policies.

Let's also stipulate that the American people could be wrong about Syria. They certainly are not well informed: a full 36 percent of people polled had "neither heard nor read" anything about Syria's civil war, according to the Reuters survey. But right or wrong, their opinion doesn't count for much.

(AP Photo)

April 3, 2013

These Are the European Countries Sending Fighters into Syria

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Like Iraq before it, Syria is becoming a magnet for foreign jihadists. The Washington Institute's Aaron Zelin has compiled a rough sketch of what the influx looks like and where it's coming from. Zelin estimates that between 2,000 and 5,500 foreign fighters have entered Syria of which between 135-590 came from Europe. Here's Zelin's European break-down:

* Albania: 1
* Austria: 1
* Belgium: 14-85
* Britain: 28-134
* Bulgaria: 1
* Denmark: 3-78
* Finland: 13
* France: 30-92
* Germany: 3-40
* Ireland: 26
* Kosovo: 1
* Netherlands: 5-107
* Spain: 6
* Sweden: 5

Zelin estimates that there are currently 70-441 Europeans still in Syria, mostly on the front lines in the war against Assad.

I wonder if they're all fighting for democracy and a Western-aligned Syria?

(AP Photo)

March 28, 2013

How the U.S. Is Waging Covert War in Syria

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In what's being dubbed (perhaps optimistically) as a "carefully prepared covert operation" the U.S. and European powers are directing increasingly sophisticated weapons shipments from Gulf states to Syria's rebels, the AP is reporting. Arms shipments to Syrian rebels have doubled over the past four weeks as the rebels have encroached on the Syrian capital.

The division of labor reportedly looks like this: Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund the weapons purchases from Croatia or black market arms dealers in Europe; Jordan and Turkey provide land access for the weapons to enter Syria, while the U.S. and Europe 'coordinate' who gets what. According to an "Arab official, a diplomat and military experts" quoted by the AP, only "secular fighters" are receiving the weapons. How that is ensured, however, was not revealed.

The Syrian rebels have advanced to Damascus and the covert effort was being framed as giving the rebels the needed muscle to secure supply lines between Jordan and Damascus and then make a final move on the capital:

The opening of the weapons pipeline through Jordan “provides a fresh approach” to Syrian rebels, said Shashank Joshi, a military expert who has been monitoring the arms flow for two years for Britain’s Royal United Services Institute think tank.

“This way opens a new front in southern Syria. It breaks free from connections with Saudi and Lebanese middlemen (in Turkey), while ensuring the weapons get to those rebels with secular, or nationalist ties, rather than the jihadists,” he said.

Sweden-based arms trafficking expert Hugh Griffiths, who has been monitoring the arms flow and collecting independent data, said some 3,500 tons of military equipment have been shipped to the rebels since the traffic began in early 2012. He said there were at least 160 airlifts of weapons deliveries from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and later Jordan, with the most recent being a shipment of unspecified material from Qatar to Turkey on Sunday.

“Nothing compares in terms of the intensity of these flights over months-long periods at a time,” said Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Two prominent independent researchers monitoring weapons traffic — Eliot Higgins in Britain and Nic Jenzen-Jones in Australia — said Croatian arms began appearing only recently in Syria. They include M60 recoilless guns, M79 Osa rocket launchers, and RBG-6 grenade launchers, which all are powerful anti-tank weapons.

No word yet on how Washington plans to cope with a failed state in Syria that is awash in the weapons it's helping to pour in.

(AP Photo)

March 19, 2013

Syrian Jihadists May Have a Chinese Recruit

In a YouTube clip reportedly from a Syrian jihadi group called the "Mujahideen Brigade Front," a Chinese convert to Islam who claims to have fought in Libya and is now battling the Assad regime in Syria, apologizes to Syria on behalf of the Chinese for his government's support of the Assad regime.

He also threatens China with "economic sanctions" once the rebels prevail.

Foreign Policy has the translation.

March 6, 2013

How Syria's Refugee Crisis Compares

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With the UN reporting that nearly a million refugees have fled the fighting in Syria, the Economist ranks the Syrian war third among recent refugee crises. It still trails the first Iraq war and Rwanda in the terms of the numbers displaced during a given time period, but it may well catch up if the fighting continues and conditions inside the country continue to deteriorate.

The staggering refugee toll is putting a major strain on the countries surrounding Syria, particularly Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The BBC took a close look at how these refugees are living, and it isn't pretty.

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Kerry's Magic Words Will Keep Arms from Falling into Jihadist Hands

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Secretary of State John Kerry has a plan to stop Gulf state weapons from ending up in jihadist's hands in Syria:

Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the Obama administration supported efforts by Middle Eastern nations to send arms to the opposition in Syria, and had had discussions with foreign officials to emphasize that those arms should go to moderate forces rather than to extremists.

“We had a discussion about the types of weapons that are being transferred and by whom,” Mr. Kerry said after a meeting with the prime minister of Qatar, which has been involved in arming the Syrian opposition. “We did discuss the question of the ability to try to guarantee that it’s going to the right people and to the moderate Syrian opposition coalition.”

Mr. Kerry’s comments were the most direct public affirmation to date that the Obama administration was supporting efforts to arm the Syrian resistance, provided that the arms are sent by other nations and that care is taken to direct them to factions the United States supports. [Emphasis mine.]

It's been discussed and emphasized. Is anyone else reassured by that?

(AP Photo)

February 27, 2013

Three Reasons Not to Arm Syria's Rebels

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The Washington Post reports today that the Obama administration is moving to equip rebel factions inside Syria with body armor, armored vehicles, military training and medical aid. While Obama has not moved as swiftly as many would like, his administration is moving America deeper and deeper into Syria's civil war. The next, logical step in the administration's incremental intervention is passing arms to the rebels. Here are three reasons why it's a mistake:

1. The U.S. cannot contain the aftermath. The struggle for a post-Assad Syria does not end with the dictator's downfall -- it begins. Simply arming various rebel factions does nothing to stabilize or secure a post-war Syria, nor ensure that any of the governing institutions these factions would control are up to the task of bringing order to the entire country. The U.S. struggled with over 100,000 troops in Iraq to restore order and bring some semblance of governance to the country. It would likely fare no better in Syria.

2. Weapons are fungible. The notion that the U.S. can simply provide weapons only to the 'good guys' in the Syrian war is a fantasy. Weapons, like cash, are a fungible commodity. There is nothing to stop those weapons from moving between groups once they are inside the country. The upshot is that any weapons the U.S. provides could end up in the hands of jihadists bent on future attacks against U.S. and Western interests.

3. It opens the door to deeper involvement. Even though President Obama has been reluctant to throw the full weight of the U.S. behind the effort to unseat the Assad regime, Washington's involvement in the civil war has crept steadily forward -- egged on by a cohort of analysts and politicians whose advice on the Iraq war proved disastrous for the United States. As the U.S. takes additional steps to involve itself in Syria's civil war, the logic and momentum of even deeper intervention will take hold.

(AP Photo)

February 26, 2013

Top House Democrat Wants to Arm Syrian Rebels

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) thinks it's a good idea to dump weapons into Syria. Engel evidently believes the U.S. has a "choice" between brokering a peace deal with Russia and Assad, or precipitating the Assad regime's violent collapse.

Engel does not offer any evidence to support the proposition that arming the rebels will produce an outcome amenable to American interests -- this is now apparently simply assumed on faith.

In other Syrian news, the Saudis are reportedly funneling infantry weapons from Croatia into Syria. Not to worry though: they're only giving those weapons to "secular" and "nationalists" groups -- and not jihadists. According to an unnamed CIA official, the rebellion against Assad remains "fragmented" and "operationally incoherent."

Maybe someone should tell Rep. Engel.

February 21, 2013

How Syria's Rebels Resupply Themselves

Al Jazeera's Casey Kauffman reports from rebel-controlled Syria on how smuggling lines in the mountains are keeping the rebellion against Assad alive.

February 11, 2013

Obama's Syria Call

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During testimony last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs indicated that they had agreed with a State Department and CIA proposal to arm factions of the Syrian rebellion. This advice was rejected by the Obama White House after a CIA analysis showed that the light weapons under consideration would not have shifted the balance. The idea of providing heavier weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles, was apparently not considered.

Naturally, this is being seized on by proponents of arming the rebels, such as Sen. John McCain, as proof of the president's shortsightedness. Instead, it seems like a prudent call.

All the arguments for providing Syria's rebels with heavy, "game changing" weapons hinge on the outcome of a post-war Syria, and that is an area where Senator McCain and others have been awfully vague. Merely toppling the Assad regime does nothing for America. The resulting chaos could be worse for U.S. interests if al-Qaeda cells flourish and begin attacking regional and international targets, or if another anti-American regime takes hold. If the U.S. can't make the situation better, it's wise not to make it worse.

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2013

Obama vs. His Cabinet on Arming Syrian Rebels

Watch White House, Cabinet Split on Civil War in Syria on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Reports surfaced this week that the Obama White House rejected the advice of the CIA, State Department and Defense Department to arm the Syrian rebels. The NewsHour explores the internal debate.

January 17, 2013

Meanwhile, in Syria...

A Syrian man records this video as Syrian regime tanks fire all around him:

December 7, 2012

Should the U.S. Attack Syria if Assad Uses Chemical Weapons?

When President Obama first warned Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, that even making moves toward using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that might force the United States to drop its reluctance to intervene in the country’s civil war, Mr. Obama took an expansive view of where he drew that boundary....

But in the past week, amid intelligence reports that some precursor chemicals have been mixed for possible use as weapons, Mr. Obama’s “red line” appears to have shifted. His warning against “moving” weapons has disappeared from his public pronouncements, as well as those of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. The new warning is that if Mr. Assad makes use of those weapons, presumably against his own people or his neighbors, he will face unspecified consequences. -- New York Times


This sounds a bit too finely parsed to me -- and in any event, the newer formulation makes more sense. But that begs a vastly more important question: it a good idea? Should the U.S. intervene militarily if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons against the rebels?

According to the Pentagon (and outside experts) efforts to neutralize Assad's chemical stockpile could entail upwards of 75,000 troops and days of airstrikes. And, as the Times piece notes, bombing chemical weapons depots could simply release the toxins into the air -- the very result everyone is trying to avoid. Many of those stockpiles are in urban areas and efforts to destroy them may also facilitate their uncontrolled spread if they're not entirely destroyed at the outset.

Moreover, and to put it bluntly, if tens of thousands of Syrians dying by mortar round and small arms fire hasn't moved the U.S. to intervene, it's not clear why Syrians dying by chemicals would be any different. The only reason I can see is a desire to enforce a norm against the use of WMD -- but is that reason enough to deepen U.S. involvement? The U.S. has an obvious interest in this norm, but so do all civilized states. (I'm personally on the fence. I can see the argument for attacks, not against Syrian chemical weapons depots perhaps but against regime assets -- Assad's house, military bases and airfields, etc. -- if Assad takes that fateful step.)

November 28, 2012

Europe Isn't Crazy Enough to Give Syrian Rebels Missiles, Right?

The New York Times reports that the Syrian rebels have gotten their hands on surface-to-air rockets and have used them at least once to down a regime helicopter, as shown above. The question now becomes: how did they get them? According to the Times:

Debate has raged since the start of the insurgency over whether Western and Arab nations should provide Syria’s rebels with portable antiaircraft missiles, often called Manpads. Some fear that such weapons could be smuggled away from the conflict and later used by terrorists against civilian airliners.

Manpads funneled by the United States to Pakistan helped Afghan rebels turn the tide against the Soviet Union in the Afghan war of 1980s. But that example is full of ambivalence — often cited in the Syria debate — because it led to an extended buyback program and decades of worry after Islamist militias, which eventually collaborated with Al Qaeda, prevailed over the Soviet-backed government in Kabul.

“Once these weapons are outside of government control, it is often extremely difficult to track their movement and control who has access to them,” said Matthew Schroeder, an analyst who studies missile proliferation at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

The rebels have slowly been acquiring them nonetheless, including from Syrian military stock captured in battle, and according to the unconfirmed accounts of some rebel commanders, via smuggling from outside.

Tuesday’s helicopter downing occurred not far from a large military base outside Aleppo, which rebels overran last week. It comes after a monthlong string of rebel raids on air bases, followed by their ransacking for weapons.

Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the use of the missile “a big deal, but not a surprising deal,” and said it appeared to confirm one of two things: weapons seized from bases are functional, or that there has been truth to the quiet talk that after the recent meeting in Doha, Qatar, to reorganize the Syrian opposition into a new coalition, outside countries would provide more sophisticated weapons to the rebels.

It would be one thing if the rebels raided regime stocks - that's unavoidable. But if any Western government thinks funneling surface-to-air missiles to Syrian rebels is a good idea, they need to have their heads examined. These weapons can be used to down passenger jets and there's no way that Western intelligence officials could stop a few of these weapons from leaking beyond Syria (it will be hard enough to stop Syria's own stockpiles from leaking).

Al-Qaeda has a long and ugly history of targeting Western aircraft. Literally handing over potent tools to Islamist rebels to do just that is insane.

November 20, 2012

On the Ground with Civilians in Syria

Watch Syrian Civilians 'Feel Abandoned' by the West in Civil War on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

The NewsHour's Margaret Warner gives us a look at what Syria's civilian population is coping with.

November 16, 2012

Securing Syria's Chemical Weapons a Daunting Task

The Pentagon estimates it would need 75,000 troops to secure Syria's chemical weapons sites, according to the New York Times:

The Pentagon has not yet been directed to draft detailed plans of how it could carry out such a mission, according to military officials. There are also contingency plans, officials say, for securing a more limited number of the Syrian chemical weapons depots, requiring fewer troops.

The discovery that Hezbollah has set up camps close to some of the depots, however, has renewed concern that as the chaos in Syria deepens, the country’s huge chemical weapons stockpiles could fall into the wrong hands. Hezbollah fighters have been training at “a limited number of these sites,” said one senior American official who has been briefed on the intelligence reports and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But the fear these weapons could fall into the wrong hands is our greatest concern.”


October 16, 2012

Arming Syria's Rebels, Ctd.

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Walter Russell Mead responds to my skepticism about arming Syria's rebels:

The worst case for the United States in a post-Assad Syria would be that groups linked to al-Qaeda become dominant players either in the country’s government as a whole or in control of significant regions in a country that fragments. Such groups would be nests of terrorists acting to destabilize not only Syria itself but Iraq, Lebanon, and the wider Middle East. They would certainly be active in Russia and, through extensive ties with the Arab diaspora in Europe, add considerably to the security headaches the West faces....

Aiding the less ugly, less bad guys in the Syrian resistance, and even finding a few actual good guys to support, isn’t about installing a pro-American government in post civil war Syria. It’s about minimizing the prospects for a worst-case scenario—by shortening the era of conflict and so, hopefully, reducing the radicalization of the population and limiting the prospects that Syrian society as a whole will descend into all-out chaotic massacres and civil conflict. And it’s about making sure that other people in Syria, unsavory on other grounds as they may be, who don’t like al-Qaeda type groups and don’t want them to establish a permanent presence in the country, have enough guns and ammunition to get their way.

While I think Mead is right not to oversell his prescription, I fear this may be wishful thinking. First, weapons are fungible. There is no way - short of some of the high-tech and probably implausible solutions sketched here - for the U.S. to only arm the people it wants. Once weapons go into Syria, Washington will have zero control over who gets what, which means the more lethal instruments we pour into the country, the greater the odds anti-American forces will lay their hands on them.

Second, where is the evidence that the introduction of better weaponry will shorten the conflict? I can see the argument for how it might - if the rebels take down more regime planes and helicopters for instance, it might break the will of pro-regime forces to fight. But Assad's survival thus far is indicative that he has more than mere cronies and mercenaries fighting on his behalf. If the regime and its Alawite supporters believe they are fighting for their very survival, they are going to keep on fighting to the bitter end, which means for the rebels to prevail they will have to engage in ethnic cleansing of a sort. So the argument that arming the rebels will shorten the conflict is an assumption - not a fact. It may just intensify the bloodshed and suffering inside Syria without achieving a decisive victory for our side.

Mead argues that arming the "less bad" elements in the Syrian revolt will insulate a future Syrian government from being ruled by al-Qaeda sympathizers or prevent portions of the country from falling under al-Qaeda control. Unfortunately, the minute the protests against Assad became violent, some portions of Syria were going to fall prey to jihadists. This was a legacy of, among other things, Assad's cultivation of jihadist groups and the invasion of Iraq, which cracked western Iraq open to foreign fighters who have funneled themselves into Syria (pdf). Preventing more territory from falling into al-Qaeda's hands means arming a proxy force to fight those groups once Assad falls: once the first Syrian civil war ends, a second battle has to be undertaken to uproot whatever jihadists have taken refuge in the country.

This second phase - arming a post-Assad regime to fight jihadists - makes more sense (it's something the Obama administration is doing in Libya), since custody of American weapons would at least be transferred to a nominal government that is coherent and answerable to us. But that should await the fall of the current regime.

As Mead notes, the U.S. doesn't have any good options and doing nothing is not without risks. But in such an environment I think caution is warranted. Pouring advanced weapons into a country with a disorganized and often anti-American rebellion is a recipe for trouble.

(AP Photo)

October 15, 2012

America's Mideast 'Allies' Are Arming Jihadists in Syria

Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats. - David Sanger

If you want to sum up the folly of Washington's Mideast strategy, this paragraph does a nice job. Here are American "allies" funneling weapons to the same ideological forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and yet the U.S. taxpayer and armed forces are supposed to protect them from an Iranian nuclear weapon.

October 12, 2012

Scoring the VP Debate

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Speaking strictly about the foreign policy sections of last night's VP debate (and not about Biden's near-constant harrumphing), I thought the vice president had the edge, but he was not without his shortcomings. To tick off the list:

Libya: Ryan made some of the strongest points of the night on Libya - not ideological points about the wisdom of the intervention - but on the more basic insistence that the consulate was woefully insecure and that the administration's response to the attack was completely inadequate. As Josh Rogin pointed out, Biden completely contradicted the State Department by insisting that the administration had no idea that the consulate had requested more security - digging the administration even deeper into a mess they should have never created in the first place.

Syria: Biden (and the moderator) essentially forced Ryan into conceding that the major thing a Romney administration would do differently in Syria would be to call Assad bad names. Literally, the big difference Ryan was able to elucidate between his ticket and the Obama administration was that when the Syrian revolt started he would not have called Bashar Assad a reformer. It was extremely obvious that there was no substantive difference in policy between the two camps when it came to America's response. (Incidentally, Biden appeared to suggest that the U.S. was actually arming the rebels - did anyone catch that?)

Afghanistan: Here too, Biden exposed the Romney/Ryan position as little more than baseless carping. Ryan agreed with the 2014 withdrawal but said that more U.S. troops should be in Afghanistan currently fighting and dying rather, as Biden noted, than "trained" Afghans. But while Biden sounded emphatic about a U.S. departure in 2014, the actual agreement between Kabul and Washington leaves open the possibility that small numbers of combat troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 for counter-terrorism missions. Biden's strident insistence that we'd be out of there no matter what was either a signal that the U.S. would not seek to keep troops there beyond the deadline or a misrepresentation of the administration's longer-term strategy.

Iran: Both Ryan and Biden fell victim to their own rhetoric on Iran. For his part, Ryan's insistence that the U.S. had to have "credibility" for the Mullahs to knuckle under was exploded, painfully, when Martha Raddatz asked him if he really expected the U.S. to restore this supposedly lost credibility in two months - or by the time Iran is expected to reach the 90 percent enrichment thresh-hold they are moving toward. As with Syria (and reflecting, I think, the over-reliance on neoconservative advisers) it was clear that the the Romney/Ryan position places an amazing amount of faith in bombastic rhetoric to achieve concrete ends.

Ryan's principle Iran argument was that it took the Obama administration too long to enact crushing sanctions - a point I think Biden dealt with by noting that Iran is actually not building a bomb and that time remains on our side. Ryan was also running away from the very clear implication of his rhetoric: that a vote for Romney/Ryan is a vote for another war in the Mideast.

Yet Biden fell into his own trap on Iran. While trying to tamp down the hysteria about an imminent Iranian weapon, Biden also pointedly noted that the U.S. would stop Iran from getting a bomb no matter what and that "this president doesn't bluff." So even as Biden was trying to paint Ryan as eager for another war in the Mideast, he was explicitly promising that the Obama administration would start one itself if Iran didn't change course.

Stepping back, it was rather disheartening to see, as Larison noted, a foreign policy discussion that omitted extremely important issues like China, Asia and the Eurozone crisis. There's more - a lot more - to U.S. foreign policy than the Middle East, but you would never know it listening to the debate.

(AP Photo)

October 10, 2012

Will Arming Syria's Rebels Prevent a Jihadist Takeover?

By doing nothing decisive, we’re ceding ground to be bad guys in the resistance. There is plenty of money going to the extremists, and their networks (not destroyed or ‘back on their heels’) of fighters and funders are working overtime. By not trying to find reliable partners to cooperate with among the rebels and giving them the tools to get the job done, we are ceding ground to al-Qaeda in whatever shape post-Assad Syria takes. - Walter Russell Mead

This is a common lament, both among pro-interventionist Western commentators and among Syrian rebel forces themselves. But how true is it? Let's presume the U.S. arms the rebels - but only the Good Ones Who Share Our Values - and they're able to fight more effectively against Assad's forces. Will the jihadists decide to quit the battlefield? Why would they do that? Are we supposed to assume that the Syrian forces fighting the Assad regime will instantly turn their guns on the jihadists in their midst if and when they succeed in overthrowing Assad? Won't they have bigger fish to fry at that point?

The possibility of jihadist enclaves in Syria is very real and it's reasonable to assume that the longer fighting drags on, the more opportunities there will be for safe havens and terror networks to take root. But these same networks are just as likely to feed on post-war instability and chaos - which is what is likely to attend the downfall of Assad. What's needed to prevent extremists from gaining traction inside Syria is not American weapons but some plan to actually achieve internal security inside the country. Short of that, arming the rebels may have some merit, but it's not likely to prevent al-Qaeda and its cohorts from taking root in the country.

October 3, 2012

Why Won't Obama Intervene in Syria?

Jeffrey Goldberg is frustrated with President Obama's seeming lack of a coherent policy in the Middle East, particularly with respect to Syria:

Could Obama simply be avoiding a messy foreign entanglement during his bid for re-election? If this were true, it would make him guilty of criminal negligence. Is he the sort of man who would deny innocent and endangered people help simply because greater engagement could complicate his re-election chances? I truly doubt it.

Here’s another possible explanation: Perhaps Obama isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is. Of course, he has had his successes. I’m not sure you’re aware of this, but Osama bin Laden is dead (killed, apparently, by Obama, who used only a salad fork and a No. 2 pencil). And, despite Republican assertions to the contrary, he has done far more to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions than his predecessor, George W. Bush, ever did.

Yet Obama’s record in the Middle East suggests that missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty.

Syria is the most obvious example. Assad is a prime supporter of terrorism (as opposed to Qaddafi, who had retired from terrorism sponsorship by the time his people rose up against him), and his regime represents Iran’s only meaningful Arab ally. The overriding concern of the Obama administration in the Middle East is the defanging of Iran. Nothing would isolate Iran -- and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah -- more than the removal of the Assad regime and its replacement by a government drawn from Syria’s Sunni majority. Ensuring that Muslim extremists don’t dominate the next Syrian government is another compelling reason to increase U.S. involvement.

I have no idea why the administration is withholding the aid Goldberg is demanding - or even if they are (would it surprise anyone to learn several years hence that the administration's support for Syria's uprising was more robust than is being publicly reported today?). What I do know is that there's something Goldberg fails to note: that the consequence of stepped-up U.S. aid could create a situation far worse for American interests than the current, bloody insurgency.

What might that be? How about a large-scale civil war in Syria that cracks the door even wider for al-Qaeda to set up yet another regional base (you know, like the one that blossomed in Iraq after the U.S. fought the last war Goldberg urged on Washington)? Or perhaps a war that slips Syria's borders (it's already leaking out) and ignites a wider conflagration, drawing the U.S. in at great cost in blood and treasure. Both could happen without a U.S. intervention, of course, but pouring on the gasoline isn't likely to help put out the fire.

Even under the best of circumstances, the U.S. would have trouble consolidating a new government in Syria - one capable of respecting minorities (or at least not slaughtering them, as happened in Iraq), providing security for the country and - importantly - towing the U.S./Gulf state line on vital regional issues. It seems that absent some clear strategy for a Syrian end-game, any intervention would be grossly irresponsible - and even a good strategy could crumble apart once it meets on-the-ground realities in Syria.

Interestingly, Goldberg concludes his piece with perhaps the best explanation for why the administration has been reluctant to dive into yet another regional war:

The Middle East is a misery for American presidents. Very few, including Obama, have managed to shape events there in ways that benefit the U.S.

Amazingly, this failure never seems to deter American pundits.

August 10, 2012

Hezbollah's Falling Stock

David Schenker charts it:

Prior to the so-called "Arab Spring," Nasrallah was among the most beloved and feared men in the Arab world. But a year and a half into the popular Syrian uprising, with Hezbollah's allies in Damascus in trouble and the militia's clerical patrons in Tehran facing a possible American or Israeli attack, Nasrallah seems to have lost his mojo.

Question: is it better over the long-run for Nasrallah to be marginalized by events in the region or martyred by an Israeli missile?

August 8, 2012

Russian General: Rumors of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Some dark humor out of Syria:

A Russian general met reporters at the Defense Ministry in Moscow on Wednesday to deny reports that he had been killed by rebel forces in Syria and was shown on television looking well. "I want to confirm that I am alive and well. I am in good health and I'm living in Moscow," Vladimir Petrovich Kuzheyev, a reserve general, was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.

Russian television briefly showed footage of Kuzheyev, in a blue shirt and no tie, at the Defense Ministry.

A Syrian rebel group said it had killed a Russian general working as an adviser to Syria's Defense ministry in an operation in the western Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

August 6, 2012

Obama Administration Planning for a Post-Assad Syria

Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration has embarked on contingency planning if and when Bashar Assad is run out of town (or up a lamp post):

Even with fighting raging in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad digging in, the State Department and Pentagon are quietly sharpening plans to cope with a flood of refugees, help maintain basic health and municipal services, restart a shattered economy and avoid a security vacuum in the wake of Mr. Assad’s fall, administration officials say....

Even though the White House has all but ruled out military intervention, the Pentagon is drafting contingency plans for operations with NATO or regional allies to manage a large flow of refugees over Syria’s borders and safeguard the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

The administration’s efforts have been driven by a bleak prognosis shared by most officials: Mr. Assad’s fall would be likely to set off a grave, potentially violent and unpredictable implosion in a country strained by even more tribal, ethnic and sectarian divisions than Iraq, possibly in the midst of a presidential election campaign at home.

On the one hand, this is the eminently sensible thing to do. The U.S. may have very limited leverage over what happens inside Syria, but it can try to mitigate the regional fallout as best it can. On the other hand, it is also a somewhat surreal exercise, as the Times continues:

“What we don’t want to do is descend into the total chaos that Iraq did,” said Ms. Jouejati, who is participating in a similar planning effort among Syrian activists coordinated through the United States Institute of Peace, an independent but Congressionally financed organization in Washington. Even so, she added, “I don’t think we want the United States to impose lessons learned here.”

Exactly. Does the U.S. really have any credibility when it comes to patching up societies riven by multi-ethnic and sectarian clashes? Why does the administration think its plans are going to survive contact with a post-Assad Syria, especially when it won't have the ability to implement or enforce them inside the country? There's a strong case to be made that the U.S. should be actively monitoring and trying to interdict some of the more potent weapons of the Assad regime, but wading into the political arena is a bridge too far.

August 2, 2012

The Obama Administration's Not-So-Secret Plan for Syria

Inexorably, the administration is pushing itself deeper into Syria's civil war, as Josh Rogin reports:

Two administration sources confirmed that the president has issued a finding allowing non-lethal assistance to non-violent groups inside Syria, which opens the door to more communications and intelligence help for the local councils, but closes the door on the idea of providing the Free Syrian Army with direct arms, military training, or other deadly assistance. It also closes the door on the idea of providing safe havens inside Syria using U.S. assets.

The White House wants to try to limit U.S. involvement in the crisis before the election, these administration sources said, in what one official said amounts to a "political lid," and the agencies are trying to come up with strategies to increase pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad within those boundaries.

The CIA, for instance, is reportedly aiding in the flow of arms from Gulf countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia by helping to vet arms recipients, as allowed by the non-lethal finding. The Washington Post's David Ignatius also reported that the finding allows the CIA to help the rebels with "command and control."

But some inside the administration are pushing for more.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn, when the dust settles, that the U.S. was doing quite a bit more than advertised.

August 1, 2012

The Syrian Aftermath

Anne-Marie Slaughter offers a strategy for intervening in Syria:

It is time for bold action, of the kind Mr Obama took in deciding to go after Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and to intervene in Libya. In Syria this would mean putting together a coalition of countries that would commit to providing heavy weapons (and possibly air cover) to all commanders on the ground who sign the “Declaration of Values” supporting a democratic and pluralist Syria put forward by the nine commanding generals of the military council of the FSA. To receive weapons, these commanders must show they control safe zones and admit foreign journalists, civil society activists and the UN to monitor the implementing of the declaration’s principles. They must also allow citizen journalists to upload photographs of what they witness to an official website maintained by the coalition.

Let's presume that rebel commanders sign and abide by this declaration. Let's further imagine that this cohort successfully overthrows Assad. That still leaves the entire post-war transition to manage. That's the most important part! How is that going to work? What gives Slaughter confidence that the forces on the ground in Syria can cohere around a new, modestly improved government? Who manages that transition? Who provides security for that transition?

It's rather astounding that Washington policymakers can talk so blithely about waltzing into another Middle Eastern state with the memory of the Iraq war and its attendant debacles so fresh.

July 31, 2012

As Syria Goes, So Goes Iraq?

Joost Hiltermann analyses the powder keg that is Iraq:

It’s easy to be distracted by an uptick in violence in Iraq and ignore the larger political crisis in which al Qaeda, however diminished in its capabilities, can operate with apparent impunity. Despite last week’s events, violence has been at a steady level since 2008 – too high for sure to those caught up in the spasms that occur, but sufficiently low to nonetheless convey a general sense of stability – a vast improvement over the days of sectarian fighting some years ago. Spectacular attacks have punctuated a pattern of declining violent incidents, causing mass casualties even as overall casualty levels have gone down. Shia militias, which mainly targeted the U.S. presence, put their guns back under their beds after the military component of that presence came to an end late last year....

What matters in Iraq today isn’t so much its sporadic violence, however spectacular in nature, as the total absence of basic consensus over how the country should be run, as deepening discord could trigger a new round of civil war.

But wait, it gets worse:

In this unhappy state of affairs, the Syrian crisis threatens to exacerbate political tensions in Iraq and give them a renewed sectarian cast. As the minority-based Assad regime goes down, Syria’s Sunnis are certain to rise, re-empowering Iraq’s Sunnis, who have felt marginalized since 2003. Shiite perceptions of a looming Sunni alliance of Gulf states, Turkey, and a new Syria arrayed against the remaining Shia-run bastion of Iran and Iraq – with the intent of bringing down Maliki to deal a further blow to Iran’s influence in the region – are increasing sectarian polarization in Iraq. This is the perfect breeding ground for groups such as al Qaeda, which may find it easier to recruit in Sunni quarters, finding deep frustration and grievance, but also new Syria-inspired hope that the tide is again turning in their favor.

This is also the logical endgame of Washington's singular focus on "containing" Iran. We are fanning a jihadist whirlwind. Rather than stepping back and allowing the Mideast to work out its own problems and sectarian blood feuds, we're repeatedly jabbing our fingers into the hornet's nest.

July 26, 2012

As Assad Teeters, Hezbollah Gets Nervous

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Laure Stephan reports that Hezbollah is standing by Bashar Assad, come what may:

Hezbollah fears the collapse of the Syrian regime, described by Nasrallah as “more than a bridge” in a reference to the country’s role in the transit of Iranian arms. Losing an ally like that would weaken the Shi’a party in the event of a conflict with Israel because Hezbollah’s arms supplies would be cut off. Nasrallah however espouses a publicly confident stance, and has promised the Israelis some “surprises” if they attack Lebanon.

Nasrallah also stated that military strategy was more important than anything else for the party insofar as its relations with Syria go. It is no longer a question of defending “the oppressed” as it has been maintaining in its political charters and by siding with the Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and Yemenis since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Holding on to its weapons, upholding the "axis of resistance" -- Iran, Syria, Hezbollah – against Israel has become top priority.

But the price to be paid for Nasrallah’s refusal to condemn the Syrian regime’s repression – which he prefers to refer to as “violent acts” committed by both sides – is very high: nothing less than his degree of popularity in the Arab world. Syrian activists are now portraying Nasrallah on social media sites as a paunchy little man whereas before he was held in high esteem in Syria because of his anti-Israel stance.

What's interesting is that we could very well have a situation develop where Hezbollah and al-Qaeda come into direct conflict. We already have Sunni jihadists declaring war on Iran. It's not a stretch to imagine that al-Qaeda takes it upon itself to combat "Iranian influence" in the region by attacking its proxies if they gain another foothold in Syria.

(AP Photo)

July 24, 2012

CIA Still Trying to Assess Syrian Rebels

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The Washington Post reports that the CIA is still trying to get a read on the Syrian uprising:

U.S. spy agencies have expanded their efforts to gather intelligence on rebel forces and Assad’s regime in recent months, but they are still largely confined to monitoring intercepted communications and observing the conflict from a distance, officials said.

Interviews with U.S. and foreign intelligence officials revealed that the CIA has been unable to establish a presence in Syria, in contrast with the agency’s prominent role gathering intelligence from inside Egypt and Libya during revolts in those countries.

With no CIA operatives on the ground in Syria and only a handful stationed at key border posts, the agency has been heavily dependent on its counterparts in Jordan and Turkey and on other regional allies.

The lack of intelligence has complicated the Obama administration’s ability to navigate a crisis that presents an opportunity to remove a longtime U.S. adversary but carries the risk of bolstering insurgents sympathetic to al-Qaeda or militant Islam.

Not to worry: U.S. pundits with absolutely none of the already limited information that the CIA has are ready to make sweeping claims about the moral necessity of aiding the rebels who - we are assured by people who cannot possibly know - are "the good guys." Even American senators assert that Syrian rebels are "fighting for universal values." So that must make it so.

And besides, those intelligence agencies closest to the scene must have a firmer grasp on things:

“But we’ve got to figure out who is over there first, and we don’t really know that,” said a U.S. official who expressed concern over persistent gaps and who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing intelligence matters. “It’s not like this is a new war. It’s been going on for 16 months.”

The lack of clarity has also fueled anxiety among U.S. allies in the region over who will control Syria if Assad falls. Even among Arab intelligence services eager to help rebels overthrow Assad, “the vetting process is still in the early stages,” said a Middle Eastern intelligence official, insisting on anonymity to discuss his country’s involvement in the Syrian crisis.

These intelligence agencies evidently don't understand that all of these messy complexities will disappear in the face of "American leadership."

(AP Photo)

July 23, 2012

Planning for the Aftermath in Syria

Josh Rogin reports on the "quiet" efforts to plan for a post-Assad Syria:

For the last six months, 40 senior representatives of various Syrian opposition groups have been meeting quietly in Germany under the tutelage of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) to plan for how to set up a post-Assad Syrian government.

The project, which has not directly involved U.S. government officials but was partially funded by the State Department, is gaining increased relevance this month as the violence in Syria spirals out of control and hopes for a peaceful transition of power fade away. The leader of the project, USIP's Steven Heydemann, an academic expert on Syria, has briefed administration officials on the plan, as well as foreign officials, including on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul last month.

The project is called "The day after: Supporting a democratic transition in Syria." Heydemann spoke about the project in depth for the first time in an interview with The Cable. He described USIP's efforts as "working in a support role with a large group of opposition groups to define a transition process for a post-Assad Syria."

Nowhere in the planning process is there any indication of how security is supposed to be established in Syria once Assad falls (assuming that he does). That seems to be a rather glaring omission.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal reports on other "quiet" efforts by the U.S. government to unseat Assad:

The U.S. has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to front-line allies.

A centerpiece of the effort this year focused on getting Iraq to close its airspace to Iran-to-Syria flights that U.S. intelligence concluded were carrying arms for Assad loyalists—contrary to flight manifests saying they held cut flowers. The U.S. has also tried to keep ships believed to carry arms and fuel for Syria from traversing the Suez Canal, with mixed results.

July 19, 2012

Chavez Must Stop Helping Assad

By Joel Hirst

Few would dispute that Syria’s government has run afoul of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the new norm in international law that United Nations member states approved in 2005 to try and help prevent the worst “mass atrocity crimes” of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. These are the same crimes prosecutable under the International Criminal Court and are particularly heinous because they are crimes committed by governments against their own people. R2P allows for UN intervention in extreme cases.

Naturally, as most things go with the United Nations, what was signed enthusiastically by member states is quickly swept under the rug in the face of very real challenges. Countries that do not have a culture of respect for rule of law at home easily disregard international law. What today is Syria could very well be them tomorrow. While, like in Libya, authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia can often be brought in line with their R2P obligations, it will not ever be willingly. For them, weapons deals and energy relationships too often trump human freedom.

However there often emerges in international relations a regime that is so disdainful of human life and their international obligations that they cannot be swayed even as the world begins to turn against the oppressors. For Syria, this is Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, who is going out of his way to be a problem. As the violence against the Syrian people reaches such a crescendo that even the Russians are starting to distance themselves, Chavez stands firm as one of Bashar al Assad’s most important allies.

Since December 2011, Chavez has sent at least three diesel shipments to Assad to help fuel his war machine. In October of 2011 just as the violence was spinning out of control Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro led a delegation to Damascus of Foreign Ministers from the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) to show support for the Assad regime. (The ALBA is President Chavez’s regional network of Anti-American governments. It includes Syria and Iran as observers.) And just this month, Venezuela’s National Assembly passed a resolution calling for an international movement to “reject intervention” in Syria. As he did with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, President Chavez supports prolonging and preserving Assad and his undemocratic regime.

This is a tragedy. The vast majority of the Venezuelan people make common cause not with the Assad dictatorship but with those being shelled for their desire to live in a country free of tyranny. President Chavez would do well to remember this and begin to live up to his international obligations.
---
Joel D. Hirst is a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. Find him on Twitter: @joelhirst. This post originally appeared on the Freedom Collection.

July 18, 2012

A U.S. Invasion of Syria Won't End the Violence

Max Boot makes a very good point here with respect to the attack against Assad's inner circle today:

But while the victims–the men who directed the military forces that have killed upwards of 17,000 Syrians since the start of the fighting–undoubtedly deserved their fate, it is hard to take much satisfaction in the manner of their demise. For suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate. As a terrorist tactic it was occasionally utilized by the Socialist Revolutionary Combat Organization in early 20th-century Russia but really came into its own with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, before being picked up by al-Qaeda and its offshoots. While the willingness of ordinary soldiers to sacrifice their lives to win a battle is universally respected (think of the Spartans at Thermopylae) that is a very different thing from deliberately setting out to kill one’s self and take as many of the enemy with you as possible. Americans were appalled at the kamikaze tactics employed by the Japanese at the end of Word War II and rightly so: fighting in this way bespeaks a fanaticism that does not bode well for the future unless it is rooted out.

And then he makes a not-so-good point here:

So now in Syria there is a great danger that America’s hesitancy to get involved on the rebel side has ceded the momentum to jihadist suicide bombers. They by no means represent the mainstream of Syrian opposition. But they will increasingly gain the upper hand, quite possibly with Saudi and Qatari help, unless the U.S. does more to help the secularists and moderates. And that, in turn, means the Obama administration will have to stop waiting for the blessing of the UN and Moscow before getting more involved. Only greater American-led intervention can end the fighting and stop Syria’s descent into greater barbarism.

Really? Dropping U.S. troops into Syria would accomplish two things: 1. ensure the demise of the Assad regime; 2. ensure the rise of an anti-American insurgency. We saw this in Afghanistan and we saw it in Iraq.

Any intervention of a size sufficient to provide country-wide security in Syria after the Assad regime falls is going to provoke a backlash. The same Sunnis that flooded into Iraq to battle the U.S. occupation would flow into Syria (and many are already there) to battle U.S. forces. The U.S. has no better understanding of Syria than it did of Iraq and even fewer people to tap for a successor regime. The idea that we "ceded momentum" to the jihadis presumes that there was a well-organized but outgunned opposition composed of secular liberals just waiting for the U.S. cavalry. In truth, the opposition remains a mix of forces and naturally the most violent of those are going to come to the fore during an insurgency.

Syria appears poised to fall into disorder, or worse. The injection of U.S. troops would focus the coming whirlwind against American soldiers. Why on Earth would we want that to happen?

U.S. Public Opinion on Syria

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Foreign Policy and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans which options they prefer for Syria. The results, as shown above, highlight a pretty large disconnect between the general public and Washington's foreign policy establishment - at least on the question of sending arms to anti-government groups inside Syria.

Another disconnect is evident: the public favors "enforcing a no-fly zone" but not "bombing Syrian air defenses." You usually can't do one without the other.

In any event, it appears the Assad regime is reeling without an overt U.S. intervention.

July 16, 2012

Russia Condemns Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

The diplomatic wrangling over Syria is steadily escalating:

Russian Human Rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov had expressed “great concern” about the situation in eastern Saudi Arabia following what he described as clashes between law enforcement and peaceful demonstrators in which two people were killed and more than 20 were wounded, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry website.

The Saudi interior ministry has said there were no clashes but that two people were killed by unknown assailants last Sunday in the east, where the country’s minority Muslim Shi’ite population is concentrated.

“The Kingdom learned with strong astonishment and surprise about the comment by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative on human rights which represents a blatant and unjustified intervention … in the internal affairs of the kingdom,” SPA quoted a Foreign Ministry statement, attributed to an “official source”, as saying.

Mark Adomanis thinks the Russians are "concern trolling." Certainly, the hypocrisy here knows no bounds.

July 5, 2012

WikiLeaks Releases "Syria Files"

Though its founder is buttoned up in the Ecuadorean embassy in the UK, WikiLeaks has poached millions of emails from the Syrian regime. Stories derived from this material will be published in the coming weeks, according to WikiLeaks.

Russia: No Asylum for Assad

Despite some hopes to the contrary, it seems Russia isn't moving the West's way on Syria:

Moscow lashed out on Thursday at the Western position on Syria, saying it could aggravate the situation to the point of war. “Their [Western] position is most likely to exacerbate the situation, lead to further violence and ultimately a very big war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The West has also distorted the Russian position on Syria by suggesting Moscow should offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asylum, he said.

“This is either an unscrupulous attempt to mislead serious people who shape foreign policy or simply a misunderstanding of what is going on,” Lavrov said.

He also warned that Russia will reject any UN Security Council peace enforcement resolution on Syria, since that would be “nothing but intervention.”

When it comes to intervention in Syria, none of the great powers are in much of a position to decry it.

June 13, 2012

Saudi Arabia Arming Syrian Rebels

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Jonathan Schanzer laments the fact that the Saudis are arming the Syrian opposition:

The last time the Saudis decided they had a moral obligation to scuttle Russian policies, they gave birth to a generation of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan who are still wreaking havoc three decades later...

Of course, a Saudi-led insurgency would not be in the cards if the Obama administration were not so opposed to empowering the opposition. But the longer Obama waits and the deeper the humanitarian crisis worsens, the more likely it becomes that other actors will tip the balance in Syria. Using history as a guide, none would be more dangerous than Saudi Arabia.

The Iranians and Russians may yet pay a price for propping up Assad in Syria. But if the Saudis have their way, the world may pay a price too.

Certainly the precedent here is pretty worrisome, but this reasoning doesn't sound right to me. First, weapons are fungible. A U.S. decision to send weapons into Syria isn't suddenly going to deprive potential jihadists and radicals of arms - it's going to make weapons easier to procure. Second, is there really such a neat distinction in the opposition between radical forces of the kind the Saudis would promote and the opposition groups the U.S. wants to see empowered? It seems that, at a minimum, there is going to be some overlap between the two. Nor is it clear that the U.S. is going to be in a position to distinguish who gets weapons and who doesn't once the supply chain starts rolling (see point one).

Schanzer makes an even more debatable point here:

The Saudis know how to procure and move weapons, and they have no shortage of cash. If Riyadh wants to arm the opposition, armed it shall be. And those who receive the weapons will likely be at least amenable to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that has spawned dangerous Islamist movements worldwide.

So those who receive U.S. weapons would be amenable to Jeffersonian democracy? Really? To borrow a phrase, guns don't make jihadists. If someone is predisposed to radicalism, does it really matter where they're getting their weapons from?

(AP Photo)

June 11, 2012

Kissinger vs. Slaughter on Syria

Henry Kissinger's op-ed advising restraint in Syria has generated a fair amount of push-back. Anne Marie Slaughter took to the Washington Post to lambaste Kissinger's piece:

[Kissinger's] analysis was based on a straw man, one put forward by the Russian and Chinese governments, that outside intervention would seek to “bring about regime change.”

The point of an intervention in Syria would be to stop the killing — to force Bashar al-Assad and his government to meet the demands of the Syrian people with reforms rather than guns. If the killing stopped, it is not clear what shape the political process would adopt, how many millions would take to the streets or whom different factions would support.

No - the point of an intervention in Syria would be to facilitate the killing of Assad's forces in greater number to change the regime. How else would the killing be stopped but by applying lethal force against Assad's forces? And the goal of any U.S. intervention is abundantly clear. As Secretary Clinton said last week: "Assad has doubled down on his brutality and duplicity, and Syria will not, cannot be peaceful, stable, or certainly democratic until Assad goes."

Moreover, whatever the "point" of an intervention would be, the U.S. would be able to exercise very little control over how it actually plays out on the ground, particularly because Slaughter rules out the use of ground forces in any intervention. The U.S. utterly lost control of Iraq and it was an occupying power. Funneling guns and intel to shadowy insurgent forces inside Syria doesn't strike me as a recipe for post-war stability and the consolidation of a more benign regime.

Point: Kissinger.

Slaughter then goes onto to make a very curious argument:

Kissinger is right that in the end NATO’s operations in Libya looked like an effort to remove Moammar Gaddafi from office, not because NATO planes took out command-and-control facilities in Tripoli from which Gaddafi and his generals were ordering civilian massacres but because NATO planes never sought to protect civilians supporting the regime against opposition troops. The response to this concern, however, is not to oppose intervention in Syria but to support a U.N. Security Council resolution with clear parameters about a limited use of force.

The U.S. and NATO never sought to "protect civilians" in Libya because they were gunning for Gaddafi from the get-go and ignored UN language that limited the use of force to simply protecting civilians. The war in Libya "looked like an effort to remove Moammar Gaddafi" because it was an effort to remove Moammar Gaddafi (walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.). Are we supposed to be believe that "clear parameters" from the UN on Syria won't be similarly ignored when the consensus among the intervening powers is that the goal is toppling Assad? Of course not. You'd have to be incredibly naive to believe that, especially because the same organizations and states that ignored the UN mandate and pressed for regime change in Libya would be the very same ones orchestrating an intervention in Syria.

Point: Kissinger.

Then Slaughter finishes up with a plea for a new international order:

President Obama believes in sovereignty as responsibility. Standing up for that principle will result in a world that will be more stable, prosperous and consistent with universal values — the values Americans know as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It will be a far better world for the United States as well as for Syrians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and billions of others. But bringing it into being requires demonstrating firmly and quickly that when governments cross the line of genocide, or engage in crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or grave and systematic war crimes against their own people, the world will act — with force if necessary and with the approval only of a regional organization and a majority of the members of the U.N. Security Council. Only then will murderous dictators begin to think twice.

I actually agree that a U.S. intervention in Syria would demonstrate a U.S. commitment to "universal values" - just not the ones Slaughter thinks she's defending. An intervention would demonstrate once again that when regimes antagonistic to Washington engage in brutality, they can expect to be attacked or undermined. Other regimes, in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia for instance, are free to do whatever they want. There's certainly a very good case for directing U.S. efforts against regimes that are hostile and sparing those that are not, but it doesn't have much to do with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It's more like: looking out for your own interest, a universal value if ever there was one.

May 29, 2012

Syria War

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Jennifer Rubin is unhappy that the Obama administration has refrained from more fully intervening in Syria's insurgency:

The inaction of this administration is a disgrace. It may have no domestic political repercussions (foreign policy is not uppermost in voters’ minds), but it has horrendous ramifications for the Syrian people. And someday, a future president will perhaps go to the U.S. Holocaust museum to decry how “this evil was allowed to happen.” The answer: The United States had a president who couldn’t be bothered to do more than make self-serving speeches.

It's odd that U.S. presidents are expected to apologize and feel ashamed for the massacres they had somehow failed to prevent, yet apologizing for bona-fide instances of U.S. atrocities (or U.S.-assisted massacres) is a disgrace.

As for the matter at hand: Turning Syria into a proxy-war theater between the U.S. and Iran would also have horrendous ramifications for the Syrian people. So would a drawn-out civil or sectarian war. You could understand someone coming to the conclusion that aiding Syria's rebels would avoid the worst of these outcomes or that such bloodshed is the price to pay to hem in Iran if they would honestly grapple with these possibilities, but Rubin blithely ignores them altogether. Instead, the only route to salvation for the Syrian people is a period of intense civil war that topples the government, followed by the installation - as if by magic - of a new, more enlightened regime. Easy!

What certainly won't happen, in Rubin's mind, is a replay of Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, where the U.S. toppled a regime only to watch insurgency, civil war or institutional disarray take hold. I wish I were so optimistic.

(AP Photo)

May 22, 2012

Syria's Jihadis

Aaron Zelin documents the rise of jihadis in Syria:

Whether or not JN was involved in the Damascus attack, the organization has become a real force in recent weeks -- and one that threatens to undermine the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of defectors and local militia fighting the government. Its main goals are to awaken Muslims to the atrocities of the Assad regime, and eventually take control of the state and implement its narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law. To that end, in the past month alone, JN has perpetrated a series of suicide bombings and IED strikes -- and the pace of attacks seems to be growing.

JN originally announced its existence on Jan. 23 in a video released to global jihadi forums, featuring the group's spokesperson, al-Fatih ("The Conqueror") Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. In addition to repeating the usual jihadi platitudes, Jawlani accused the United States, the Arab League, Turkey, Iran, and the West in general for collaborating with the Assad regime against (Sunni) Muslims. The video shows tens of individuals training with AK-47s in unknown desert and wooded locations and posing with large flags similar to the banners used by Sunni fundamentalists across the Middle East, featuring the shahadah (the Muslim testament of faith).

While JN's attacks might pack punch, they represent a miniscule portion of the Syrian rebellion and have no known association to the FSA. But members of al Qaeda's premier online forums have been elated over the creation of a new jihadist organization in Syria. In addition to its online grassroots supporters, JN has gained the stamp of approval from key jihadi ideologues, including Shaykh Abu Sa'd al-‘Amili (a prominent online essayist), Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti (one of the most influential ideologues worldwide), Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi (a prominent Jordanian Salafi), and Shaykh Abu al-Zahra' al-Zubaydi (a popular Lebanese jihadi). All have called on Muslims to support JN's cause by aiding them financially or joining them on the battlefield.

This level of excitement, which has not been seen in jihadi circles since the height of the Iraq war, can partly be attributed to the sectarian nature of the struggle: Jihadis do not see the Assads as true Muslims because they are Alawites -- members of a heterodox version of Shiism. As such, jihadis view their role in repressing a Sunni Muslim majority as particularly reprehensible. "Oh Allah made it possible for our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusrah, and bless them and make the hearts of the people join them," one online jihadi enthused.

Sounds like just the place to pour a ton of weaponry into.

May 16, 2012

Syria: Plunging Ahead

What could go wrong:

Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.

Obama administration officials emphasized that the United States is neither supplying nor funding the lethal material, which includes antitank weaponry. Instead, they said, the administration has expanded contacts with opposition military forces to provide the gulf nations with assessments of rebel credibility and command-and-control infrastructure.

“We are increasing our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we continue to coordinate our efforts with friends and allies in the region and beyond in order to have the biggest impact on what we are collectively doing,” said a senior State Department official, one of several U.S. and foreign government officials who discussed the evolving effort on the condition of anonymity.

Ultimately, regional states are going to make their own decisions to arm whatever groups they want, independent of what Washington wants. But the idea that Washington is going to scurry around and "coordinate" an effective end to the Assad regime and be able to contain the aftermath seems to fly in the face of recent experience in both Iraq and Libya.

April 23, 2012

Yoo on Syria

As Iran closes in on its nuclear prize and props up Assad’s bloody regime in Syria, the United States has the opportunity to deal a crippling blow to its oldest, most dangerous enemy in the region. U.S. military strikes could topple Tehran’s close allies in Damascus and destroy the mullahs’ nuclear infrastructure, potentially ushering in more democratic regimes that would be at peace with their neighbors. - John Yoo

Seems like "potentially" is doing an awful lot of work in that formulation.

Rosy scenarios aside, the bulk of Yoo's piece is devoted to arguing that Mitt Romney can helpfully draw a contrast between an administration that defers military action to UN authorization or one that unilaterally starts a war with both Syria and Iran. I think it both overstates the extent to which Romney would start a war with Syria and understates the possibility that the Obama administration would take military force against Iran, should push come to shove. As a bit of political salesmanship though, "vote for me and I'll start not one, but two more wars in the Mideast" sounds like a tough sell.

April 19, 2012

Getting 'In This' with Syria

From the sounds of Josh Rogin's reporting it looks as if the Obama administration is edging closer toward a more forceful policy towards Syria. It is being driven, in part, from outside pressure:

Lieberman and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent their Senate recess on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, meeting with Turkish officials, FSA leaders, and refugees.

"What they want us to do is to lead. They want us to lead the Friends of Syria, who have given them increasingly sympathetic rhetoric but not the wherewithal to defend themselves," he said.

The Syrian internal opposition is buying weapons and ammunition on the black market at exorbitant prices and claims that large parts of the Syrian military are demoralized but are unwilling to break with the government until they see the opposition has real international support.

"They are all waiting for the U.S. to say ‘We're in this,'" Lieberman said.

It's nothing new, but this seemingly infinite desire to get Washington "in this" is something to behold. It would be one thing if the U.S. had a magnificent track record in this respect. But the record of mixed-to-poor outcomes following U.S. military intervention and/or armed assistance to rebel factions never seems to figure into the equation.

March 14, 2012

Bad Arguments for Syrian Intervention

An extraordinary amount of energy in Washington is expended these days looking for reasons to stay uninvolved in Syria. I understand every single impulse against deeper American involvement, but I also believe it is to America's discredit not to do something more than it is doing, for the obvious humanitarian reasons, and for some fairly obvious strategic reasons as well (the removal of Iran's only Arab ally from the scene obviously helps the American position in the nuclear debate, as would a perception in the Sunni Arab world that the U.S. will stand up to the slaughter of innocent people by the Assad-Khamenei-Nasrallah alliance.) - Jeffrey Goldberg

The problem is that these two sentiments - a desire to help the people of Syria and the desire to depose Assad and further isolate Iran - are almost certainly mutually exclusive. There is no way the U.S. can depose Assad that doesn't entail a sharp increase in short-term violence in Syria, which would result in more deaths and violence. There is also no way - none - that the U.S. can stabilize a post-Assad Syria should the rebels succeed in running him out. There is every possibility that toppling Assad will lead to even greater violence and lawlessness.

Proponents don't want to concede this. They insist that America's interests and values are served by "doing something" in Syria, but the reality is that - at best - only half of this statement is true.

As for U.S. interests in isolating Iran, it's true that losing Assad would be a blow but there's good news here: the Assad regime is already under stress - and the U.S. has done nothing but levy some sanctions and berate it publicly. If the Sunni Arab world is as concerned about Iran as we're told they are, they are far better positioned to offer material aid to Syria's rebels than the U.S. - and better placed to manage the fallout.

The U.S., on the other hand, has an abysmal track record of directing the internal development of Middle Eastern (and North African) states.

February 22, 2012

Who's Responsible for Solving Syria's Civil War?

Shadi Hamid makes the case for military intervention in Syria:

Military action, in any context, should not be taken lightly. But neither should standing by and proposing measures that have, in Syria, so far failed to work. Opponents of intervention need to explain how staying the current course—hoping that diplomacy might work when it has not for nearly a year—is likely to resolve an increasingly deadly civil war.

He then goes out to outline what he thinks would resolve the civil war - creating "safe zones" inside Syria and arming the rebels. This seems to me unlike to "resolve" the war so much as escalate it, but that aside I think a more fundamental question needs to be answered: why is it anyone's responsibility to end the Syrian civil war?

February 17, 2012

Don't Think - Act!

In sum, the contrast between the U.S. administration’s unwillingness to act in our best interest and the despotic regimes could not be more clear. This is how we lose influence — through lack of will, self-delusion and aversion to conflict. And when we do, other powers take our place, shifting the landscape against human rights, against democracy and against the West.

Contrast this with the preferred approach of Mitt Romney, who told me last week: “Where you have someone who is a brutal tyrant killing his people you call him out immediately. You support openly and aggressively the people [opposing him].” In other words, we lead and forestall other powers from gaining the upper hand in the region. - Jennifer Rubin

Indeed. And if some of the people opposing the brutal tyrant happen to be members of al-Qaeda well, at least we're leading!

February 15, 2012

In Syria: Go Big or Go Home?

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Daniel Byman argues that any intervention in Syria should actually accomplish something useful:

To be of any value, an intervention must end the bloodshed, or at least diminish it dramatically. Syria also must remain an intact state capable of policing its borders, stopping terrorism and providing services to its people. It should not fragment into a failed state, trade Assad for another dictator or become a pawn of foreign powers such as Iran.

Bernard Finel isn't convinced:

Byman’s argument is, essentially, if you can’t fix it completely and forever, then you shouldn’t do anything. I think this is precisely wrong. Byman’s argument is exactly the sort of logic that got us a massive escalation in Afghanistan. If you insist that any use of the military must achieve maximalist goals, then you inevitably end up with recommendations for massive interventions, state-building, and the like.

Instead, we need to be thinking about limited objectives and limited means. There are three reasons:

(1) While raising the bar on intervention may seem cautious, it really isn’t. It forces policy discussions into an all-or-nothing logic, when in the final analysis neither one is acceptable. The more we talk about massive intervention as the only option, the more likely that becomes because as the violence continues in Syria, pressure to “do something” will mount. Some people argue “all or nothing” because they think “all” is too much and so won’t happen, and the result will be “nothing.” That is a dangerous game.

I've been critical of the maximalist goals set in Afghanistan and I think there is something to Finel's analysis here. One immediate problem, however, is how the U.S. will justify an intervention. I think it's very difficult to argue - as Finel does - that a "limited" intervention is acceptable if the stated goal of U.S. policy is the protection of Syrian lives. That's because it's not remotely clear that arming Syrian rebels or bombing Syrian tanks will result, over the medium term, in fewer Syrians being killed. It's not a "maximalist" argument to say that an intervention staged on the grounds of saving human life should actually result in the saving of human lives.

You can argue for a limited intervention, however, on realpolitik grounds. It would go something like this: we don't particularly like the Syrian regime and think that toppling it, or tying it down in a bloody insurgency, would advance U.S. interests in isolating Iran. Therefore, irrespective of the harm done to the Syrian people, we will intervene to give the rebels a fighting chance.

There are problems with this course of action as well - particularly in creating an Afghanistan redux, where the forces we empower turn around and make big problems for us several years down the road. For instance, should we be encouraged that guns are flowing into Syria from Sunni strongholds in Iraq that were home to al-Qaeda in Iraq? There is something of a blase attitude about this in much of the "do something" talk about Syria, but it's worth thinking about.

(AP Photo)

February 13, 2012

Iraq's Democracy Transforms the Middle East

Like Iraq and Afghanistan before it, analysts say, Syria is likely to become the training ground for a new era of international conflict, and jihadists are already signing up. This weekend, Al Qaeda’s ideological leadership and, more troublingly, the more mainstream Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called for jihadists around the world to fight Mr. Assad’s government....

Tribal leaders and security officials describe a small but increasing flow of weapons to Syria from Anbar Province and areas around Mosul, the northern city that is a headquarters for Al Qaeda in Iraq. For some weapons smugglers the price of an automatic rifle has increased dramatically — to $2,000 from about $300, according to one account. [Emphasis mine] - New York Times

It's certainly encouraging to see Iraq serve as a model for the region.

Does a "Responsibility to Protect" Really Protect Anyone?

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Leslie Gelb does a nice job framing a question that's been on my mind amidst repeated calls for Western military intervention in Syria:

Faced with evil, Americans always want to be on the side of the angels. So American interventionists, hawks, and human-rights types are banding together, as they did in Libya, to stop President Bashar al-Assad from killing his people. But when interventionists become avenging angels, they blind themselves and the nation, and run dangerously amok. They plunge in with no plans, with half-baked plans, with demands to supply arms to rebels they know nothing about, with ideas for no-fly zones and bombing. Their good intentions could pave the road to hell for Syrians—preserving lives today, but sacrificing many more later.[Emphasis mine]
This is an important point that was overlooked in Libya and will probably be overlooked again with respect to Syria: what constitutes protecting people? If you spare 10,000 civilians in a Benghazi or Homs only to set in motion a series of events that winds up killing and displacing as many if not more people over a five or ten year period, have you actually done anything that's morally commendable? Do lives become less important if they're lost gradually instead of in one mass slaughter?

We have been told that the intervention in Libya was a vindication of the Responsibility to Protect - the doctrine that legitimizes military intervention against a state committing atrocities against its own people - but how can we render any moral judgment on what's occurred in Libya? It's not at all clear that the country can be responsibly governed and continued tribal in-fighting could claim as many lives - or more - than any Gaddafi crackdown.

It often looks like advocates of "Responsibility to Protect" want a pass on this, using the overwhelming humanitarian emergency to overwhelm (or brow-beat) those asking for restraint without tackling the broader issue of how their proposed remedy will save lives over the long term. But it won't go away. If the U.S. steps into Syria and starts arming factions and, perhaps, carving out safe havens and humanitarian enclaves with no-fly-zones it could set Syria up for a protracted civil war. If that civil war claims more lives than those lost to date in Assad's brutal crackdown, can we really be said to be "protecting" anyone?

(AP Photo)

February 9, 2012

Who Will Rule Syria?

Syria will have a post-Assad future. That future could be in the hands of Qatari backed Salafis, Saudi-backed Islamists, or the Western world could have a say. Sitting on the sidelines will ensure that we have as little as possible. - Danielle Pletka

I think this is a good way of putting it, but it also raises an important question. Let's suppose the Western world has its say - would it be loud and decisive enough to marginalize the Qatari-backed Salafis or the Saudi-backed Islamists? Isn't it reasonable to conclude that there is a larger constituency inside Syria for what Qatar and Saudi Arabia are peddling than what the U.S. would offer? The unfolding events in Egypt would make me very leery about basing any U.S. strategy on the presumption that there is a broad constituency in any Middle Eastern country that would be keen to take its cue from the U.S. or Western powers.

Intervening in Syria Won't Promote Democracy

I'm not sure how the U.S. should proceed with respect to the uprising in Syria, but I think the claim, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that those battling the Assad regime are democrats needs to be subjected to scrutiny. (See this, for example, which equates American reluctance to overthrow Assad with a reluctance to promote democracy, as if the two things are in anyway related.)

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Syria's rebel forces will be any less brutal than the regime they are seeking to overthrow. There is no way to know how they will govern (and there is obviously no reason to trust declarations made explicitly to court foreign assistance). Nor is there any way U.S. or NATO assistance can ensure a democratic outcome. The U.S. couldn't steer Iraqi politics to its liking while it was an occupying power - it would have even less leverage in a post-Assad Syria.

None of this is to say that a democratic Syria is impossible or that those risking their lives against the Assad regime do not genuinely desire a more representative government. It's also not to suggest that there are no good reasons to intervene (in some fashion) in Syria's uprising. But for the case to be made with a modicum of intellectual honesty, it has to acknowledge that the nature of a post-Assad regime is absolutely unknowable and could produce human carnage far in excess of anything we're currently witnessing.

Can the U.S. Bleed Iran Through Syria?

Dan Trombly thinks it's possible:

Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.

February 6, 2012

Would Turkey Intervene in Syria?

Emre Uslu doesn't think so:

Even if Turkey changes its position and is willing to intervene in Syria, Turkey would not form a collation with the Arab League to conduct such a military operation. There are two reasons for this. First, the Turkish political elite have a deep distrust of the West, especially since the EU abandoned Cyprus and left Turkey alone in many cases. Hence, Turkey would not intervene in Syria because the Turkish political elite think that such action would backfire and open new doors for other countries to intervene in Turkey’s domestic affairs if the Kurdish question gets out of control. For Turkey, there must be international recognition that international force is needed prior to intervention. It seems that US policy makers are trying to build a coalition that consists of the Arab League and Turkey, but this is not enough for Turkey to intervene.

Second, Turkey has its own fears. Especially Iranian influence over some proxy organizations in Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s influence on Turkey’s Alevi community make Turkey think twice when it comes to a military intervention in Syria. Pro-Iranian Turkish journalists, for instance, have threatened Turkey, stating Turkey’s Alevi community is unhappy with Turkey’s policies regarding Syria.

January 30, 2012

A Responsibility to Protect Everyone But Americans

To be sure, one should always look at Western intervention in Arab lands with some degree of skepticism. The United States has a tragic history in the region, supporting repressive dictatorships for over 50 years with rather remarkable consistency. But where there is sin there is also atonement. What made Libya a "pure" intervention was that we acted not because our vital interests were threatened but in spite of the fact that they were not. For me, this was yet one more reason to laud it. Libya provided us an opportunity to begin the difficult work of re-orienting U.S. foreign policy, to align ourselves, finally, with our own ideals. -- Shadi Hamid

Putting U.S. troops at risk, even if the risks are small, isn't something that should be done for the sake of our troubled consciences. If the U.S. has foreign policy sins to atone for, shouldn't the sinners be the ones subjected to punishment?

I would also be very hesitant about proclaiming a great moral victory in Libya. It's not just that the interim government has been accused of complicity in torture and reprisals (that much can be expected in any war), but that it's simply too soon to tell what a post-Gaddafi Libya will deliver.

December 29, 2011

About Those Arab League Monitors in Syria...

This would be bleakly funny if it wasn't so tragically absurd:

"I am going to Homs," insisted Sudanese Gen. Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League observer mission, telling reporters that so far the Assad regime had been "very cooperative."

But Dabi may be the unlikeliest leader of a humanitarian mission the world has ever seen. He is a staunch loyalist of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity for his government's policies in Darfur. And Dabi's own record in the restive Sudanese region, where he stands accused of presiding over the creation of the feared Arab militias known as the "janjaweed," is enough to make any human rights activist blanch.


November 21, 2011

As Iraq Went, So Goes Syria

The administration cannot imagine a post-Assad Syria because its vision is obscured by a post-Saddam Iraq. The Obama White House wants to avoid the sectarian bloodshed that split Baghdad. More than anything else, it wants to steer clear of anything that smacks of George W. Bush. Accordingly, the administration has petitioned the opposition to stay peaceful and include minorities in the Sunni-majority movement. A White House wary of Bush-style nation building has taken on the role of opposition building. - Lee Smith
A harrowing sectarian war has spread across the Syrian city of Homs this month, with supporters and opponents of the government blamed for beheadings, rival gangs carrying out tit-for-tat kidnappings, minorities fleeing for their native villages, and taxi drivers too fearful of drive-by shootings to ply the streets. - Anthony Shadid

I would say the Obama administration has this right.

November 18, 2011

The Case for Intervening in Syria

Matthew Brodsky makes it:

The goal of U.S. policy, therefore, should be an end to the violence, the fall of the Assad regime and the creation of conditions for a stable democratic system that protects the rights of the Christian, Kurdish and Alawite minorities. American strategy should aim to weaken those that support the regime within and outside of Syria while encouraging the opposition to demonstrate its goal of a nonsectarian and democratic country.

All nice things, to be sure, but how does the U.S. create those conditions? Brodsky doesn't say, but any U.S. strategy toward regime change in Syria should be able to spell out in concrete terms what levers the U.S. can pull to ensure that Washington ends up with something better on the other end of the effort.

November 15, 2011

Turkey Takes on Syria

Turkey on Tuesday canceled plans for oil exploration in Syria, while also threatening to cut electricity supplies after a spate of attacks by supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad on its diplomatic missions,

Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced that Turkey had shelved plans for Turkey's petroleum company, TPAO, to jointly explore oil with Syria's state oil company in six wells within Syria. Yildiz also threatened that Turkey could review supplies of electricity to the troubled country if tensions continue. - AP

There's been a lot of talk of late about how Turkey is becoming a defacto enemy of the United States, but the events unfolding in Syria are a good reminder of why Turkey is a useful partner. It's far better to have Turkey dealing with Syria than the U.S.

September 29, 2011

Torture in Syria

Laura Andary recounts the harrowing ordeal of one prisoner:

A few hours after his arrival at a secret police prison he was called to an interrogation cell, where an officer cuffed him to the chair and asked him where he got the money to come to Syria. “I did not answer but instead laughed a vicious laugh,” Baiazy said. As a result, the officer “brutally beat me on the face and then whipped me with a wooden stick.”...

“I was beaten and whipped for hours every day,” Baiazy said. “I was not allowed to close my eyes for eight days. Security guards were instructed to watch me every two minutes.” His physical condition started to deteriorate, and his feet became swollen. “I was screaming from pain and asked to be hospitalized, but I was denied medical treatment.”

“On the sixth day, I started hallucinating. On the eighth day, the interrogator asked me if I had ‘anything to add’ to my statements. I told him no.” After days of sleep deprivation, beatings and sitting in the dark isolation of his cell, the guard “ordered I be taken to rest.”

August 23, 2011

A Warning?

The imminent collapse of Qaddafi’s regime is a major milestone not simply for the long-suffering Libyan people, but for the broader Arab uprising of 2011. Qaddafi’s ability to cling to power through brutality and slaughter had cast a dark shadow over the region for the better part of six months. In stark counterpoint to the relatively peaceful and rapid departures of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi hoped to establish a much different model for the region’s dictators: Rather than succumb to the overwhelming will of the people for political change . . . crush them by whatever means necessary. The example was certainly not lost on the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad when confronted with its own popular upheaval just weeks after Qaddafi first unleashed his killing machine.

Now, with Qaddafi’s demise at hand, a major psychological blow has been struck against the region’s other tyrants who have sought to follow in his foot steps. The message has gone out: The effort to stand athwart history, and through blood and bullets deny the just demand of your people for a more decent, accountable government will, sooner or later, fail. The reverberations in Damascus will be loud and unsettling. You can bet that Assad’s head lies much uneasier today. - John Hannah

I'm not a psychologist so I can't offer any confident predictions about how various dictators thousands of miles away may feel. That said, we do have recent experience here. When Saddam Hussein fell we heard similar boasts and indeed there were some beneficial ripples - the Iranians sent feelers to the Bush administration about nuclear negotiations (which were ignored) and Gaddafi went ahead with his decision to surrender his nuclear weapons (although the work on that particular policy victory predated Saddam's overthrow). So it may indeed be the case that for the next few weeks Syria's dictator may be increasingly on edge. But then what?

In his article telling non-interventionists to shut up, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin assures us that the overthrow of Gaddafi is of course not a license to apply the same template to other dictators, but this is precisely what his fellow neoconservatives - such as Hannah - are implying when they talk about a possible demonstration effect.

August 11, 2011

Obama Embracing Regime Change in Syria?

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The Guardian reports that the Obama administration may publicly declare support for regime change in Syria:

Syrian opposition sources and western diplomats predicted that an unconditional call for his departure would have far-reaching implications, though it would likely be couched in terms of US support for the aspirations of the Syrian people.

The precise timing and content of a presidential statement was still under discussion — partly because the US wants a full account of Assad's six hours of talks on Tuesday with Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmed Davotoglu, officials said.

It's remarkable the extent to which moral preening has become a substitute for foreign policy. What good will it do to call for Assad's ouster without concrete steps to hasten his departure? In Libya, Gaddafi is still holding onto power in the face of sanctions, an armed uprising and a NATO bombing campaign aimed rather explicitly at assassinating him. It's unlikely Assad would face anything approaching that level of coercive force.

Paul Pillar argues that Syrian regime change is a minefield:

It's pretty easy to see why the Obama administration has been dancing around any explicit call for regime change in Syria. One, there does not appear to be a good path for accomplishing that goal. And two, Mr. Obama realizes that if he did explicitly adopt that goal, he would be criticized—by some of the same people who criticize him now for not being more explicit—for not accomplishing, or finding more active ways to pursue, a declared U.S. objective. The criticism would be rooted in the invalid but common idea that if there's something worth doing in the world, the United States ought to be the one to do it.

It's worth asking why President Obama feels it necessary to wade in deeper here. The U.S. has expressed its displeasure and is working with Turkey to exert pressure on Assad to end the violence. Escalating our rhetorical stake without an equal commitment to up our material stake is utterly feckless. It won't, as Pillar notes, pacify the neoconservative pundits baying for another ill-begotten intervention. It won't make the war in Libya proceed any smoother. It won't help in Iraq or Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

August 4, 2011

Blaming Obama for Syrian Violence

Considering Obama has pledged to support the Arab Spring, his failure to do more in Syria is shameful and puzzling. If Assad is overthrown, the entire power equation in the region changes in ways favorable to the West and unfavorable to the mullahs in Iran. Short of an invasion—which no one advocates—we cannot decisively alter the course of events in Syria. But we do have the ability to bring considerable influence to bear, if we take a strong stand along with regional allies such as Turkey. So far that hasn’t happened, and the people of Syria continue to pay a price for this president’s characteristic ambivalence. - Max Boot

Implicating President Obama in the slaughter of Syrian protesters by their murderous rulers strikes me as unfair, to put it mildly. Boot links to Elliott Abrams' piece outlining what the U.S. can do to thwart the Assad regime. His suggestions boil down to these six items:

1. Use "psychological warfare" against members of the military.
2. Ask Turkey for help.
3. Talk bad about Assad in public.
4. Sanction Syrian businesses.
5. Ask the Syrian opposition to say nice things.
6. Topple Gaddafi.

Given that a bona fide armed uprising and NATO bombing campaign has failed to dislodge Gaddafi (thus far), why would these measures do much to deter Assad and company much less staunch the immediate humanitarian crisis?

July 12, 2011

Getting Tough With Syria

Reuel Marc Gerecht offers a plan for regime change in Syria:

There are many things that the Obama administration should be doing that it isn’t: using the presidential bully pulpit against the Assad regime, deploying the American ambassador in Damascus as a shield and voice for the opposition (if Ford gets expelled, he gets expelled), organizing the Western diplomatic community in Damascus to do whatever it can to aid the opposition, offering substantial technical support to the Turks to extend a Wi-Fi-ed broadband as far over the Syrian border as possible, and working with Paris to implement energy sanctions that might severely impair the Assad regime. But the most important thing it could do now is encourage Turkey to stand firm against Syria.

Ideally, we should want to see the Turks establish a buffer zone or safe haven on the Syrian side of the border (Ankara sometimes did this in Iraq to counter nefarious Kurdish activity). Such a Turkish intervention, which would likely be backed by the French, would be convulsive inside Syria and would signal to the military that Ankara had irreversibly chosen sides. It would also signal to the Sunni elite of Aleppo, just 26 miles from the Turkish border, that their essential Turkish trading partner had drawn a line in the sand.

Daniel Drezner finds it wanting:

The only policy that would matter is if the Turks actually wanted to establish a buffer zone -- except in a later paragraph even Gerecht acknowledges that, "neither Erdogan nor Davutoglu would want to do this."

So, to sum up, Gerecht is really enthusiastic about Syrian regime change, and wants the U.S. to beat its breast a little more and ask "pretty pretty please" for the Turks to do something they view as against their self-interest. This will accomplish … nothing.

June 9, 2011

Syria: What Could Be Worse?

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Elliott Abrams argues that whatever follows the Assad regime won't be worse:

What kind of Syria might follow the fall of the Assad regime? For many years, a significant percentage of American and Israeli military officers thought things would get worse. A new regime would be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, many said—including some of the highest-ranking American generals.

I have always thought this was a foolish position, given what Assad’s Syria was actually doing. How much worse could things get than a regime that was Iran’s only Arab ally, gave Iran a port on the Mediterranean and a border with Israel (through Hezbollah in Lebanon), helped Iran arm Hezbollah to the teeth, built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help, brought jihadis to Iraq to kill American soldiers, and viciously repressed the Syrian people. Moreover, the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood would rule after Assad was just that, a notion, never supported with hard evidence about their level of internal support.

This seems a tad glib - things can always be worse! For instance, Syria could devolve into a civil war, with the potential for instability to spread to her neighbors and for another off-shoot of al-Qaeda to take root in the country. That said, there's no question that the current regime in Syria is loathsome and the U.S. shouldn't be going out of its way to prop them up or offer them support (as it is doing in Bahrain). At the same time, it's difficult to see what the U.S. could do to alter Syria's internal dynamics to bring forces we favor into power. Sanctions against the regime are fine - but I don't think they're likely to topple Assad.

(AP Photo)

August 19, 2010

Polling Syria

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In what's being called a first-of-its-kind survey of Syrian public opinion, Pepperdine University has unearthed Syrian attitudes about their government. As you might expect, Syrians don't appear to be thrilled:

* A majority of Syrians believe that the political and economic situation in Syria is poor, and worse than it was five years ago.
* A majority has little faith in the Assad government’s ability to confront the country’s problems.
* A substantial majority believes that corruption is widespread.
* A substantial majority believes that the State of Emergency in Syria should be lifted.

Asked to define the "most critical issue the country is facing today" 22.9 percent said "political freedom" followed by 20.3 percent said "corruption."

The full study can be found here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

April 15, 2010

Overthinking Assad

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What motivates Damascus? It may just be plain stupidity, argues Blake Hounshell:

The insane thing about all this is that Syria would be much better off by joining the pro-Western camp. It could get the Golan Heights back, get the sanctions lifted, and attract foreign assistance and investment -- while fending off pressure to open its deeply authoritarian system, just as Egypt has. It could reap billions in tourism revenue, thanks to its incredible archaeological and cultural riches. And it could finally bury the hatchet with other Arab states, which have long been frustrated by Syria's close ties to Iran, its support for militant groups, its meddling in Lebanon, and its intransigence on all things Israel.

But dictatorships are strange animals; they often make poor decisions for reasons that are inscrutable to all but the most informed observers.

(AP Photo)

April 6, 2010

A Qaddafi in Sheep's Clothing

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Michael Totten suggests that the West hit the brakes on embracing the Libyan president:

Libya, like Syria, is no longer ruled by one of the region’s “conservative” monarchies. Both are revolutionary regimes founded by leaders who came to power with ambitions beyond their own borders. Both are well-practiced in the art of using terrorism abroad as instruments of their foreign policies. Qaddafi formally renounced the practice to get back onto speaking terms with the West, but he and Assad together encouraged Palestinians to resume violent attacks against Israel just a few days ago. He hasn’t changed as much as he’d like us to think.

Totten also points us to an interesting Michael Moynihan dispatch from Libya.

(AP Photo)

March 28, 2010

Syria and Mideast Status Quo

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Joshua Landis is perplexed by America's Mideast priorities:

For some largely inexplicable reason, Washington has decided that Iran is its greatest foreign policy challenge and a risk to world peace that must be stopped. While the fear of Iran is being ginned up, the Arab-Israeli conflict, a problem that the US can actually do something about, will be set aside and ignored.

With this speech, Assad is recognizing this state of affairs. It means that his country will likely be pushed into greater conflict with Israel and the US. In a showdown, he will stand with Iran. The Arab League will be discussing the withdrawal of the Arab Peace Initiative during its meeting in Libya this weekend. What else can the Arabs do? The vast majority of Arabs are glad that Syria is keeping the pilot light of Arab resistance lit.

So is it the sixties all over again?

[h/t FP Watch]

(AP Photo)

March 24, 2010

Whitewashing Assad

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Totten scratches his head over the Obama administration's apparent Syria policy:

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

(AP Photo)