Hillary Clinton has a plan for defeating Islamic State in Syria. Donald Trump has one, too. With the conflict in Syria spreading beyond its borders, it’s essential to understand the new president’s strategies – and how they may need to be adjusted over the next four years.
Trump: Safe Zones
Trump has advocated for a “safe zone” for Syrians to ride out the conflict. Such a zone would be a swath of territory inside the country, where today’s refugees would reside instead of fleeing to Europe and elsewhere. Trump has offered no details on how such a zone would be created, or by whom. American support for this initiative, Trump has made clear, would be limited to some economic assistance, with the bulk of the costs borne by the Gulf States. Though Trump does not support a no-fly zone per se, it seems difficult anyone could create and protect a safe zone without a no-fly-zone.
Clinton: No Fly Zones
Clinton has also made the case for safe zones, as well as consistently proposing a no-fly zone. America, under Clinton’s plan, would make a portion of Syrian national airspace inaccessible to any but potentially its own planes. Russian strike aircraft and Syrian government helicopters would risk being shot down.
Clinton has said the no-fly zone would “create those safe refuges within Syria, to try to protect people on the ground both from Assad’s forces, who continue to drop barrel bombs, and from ISIS. And of course, it has to be de-conflicted with the Russians, who are also flying in that space.” She has also stated that “A no-fly zone would prevent the outflow of refugees and give us a chance to have some safe spaces.”
Clinton’s no-fly zone, and in practical terms, Trump’s safe zone, both open the same door to a greatly enlarged conflict.
General Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in 2012 imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American servicepeople to dismantle Syria’s air defense system, as a no-fly zone could not coexist alongside the possibility Assad might shoot down American aircraft. An attack on Assad of that magnitude would almost certainly demand a response; how would Russia come to the defense of its ally?
In addition, any no-fly zone (or safe zone for that matter) must address the near-certainty it will be challenged by the Russians; it almost has to be, given the struggle for dominance in the region. Shooting down a Russian plane would enlarge the conflict in Syria while at the same time risking a retaliatory move that could take place anywhere in the world, perhaps even in cyberspace.
The possible juice from a no-fly or safe zone just isn’t worth the squeeze of an enlarged conflict with nation-state level, global implications. President Barack Obama has rejected the idea of a no-fly/safe zone in Syria for years. Would President Clinton, or Trump, really roll the dice on possible direct military conflict with Russia when their predecessor did not?
Boots on the Ground
Another Syrian strategy option, sending in American ground forces, will also be on the table for the next president to weigh.
Trump appears to have split with running mate Mike Pence over Syria; Pence says the United States should meet Russian “provocations” with strength, backing the use of military force to do so. Trump, when asked about that statement, claimed “He and I disagree.” Though the notion of a disagreement has been walked back, the nature of a Trump administration policy towards American forces deployed in Syria remains unclear.
Despite Clinton’s assertions that her plan for Syria does not include boots on the ground, and Trump’s apparent interest in not introducing troops, the new president will inherit an evolving situation: the boots are not only already firmly on the ground, their numbers are growing. Since April President Barack Obama has overseen the largest expansion of ground forces in Syria since its civil war began, bringing the number of Special Forces deployed to about 1,500. A year ago the United States had only 50 soldiers in Syria.
Experience suggests mission creep in both scale and headcount is likely. The current fight against Islamic State in Iraq has seen American ground forces grow to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total. The mission has also expanded, from advising to direct action, including artillery and helicopter gunship ground attacks.
In Syria, the tactical picture is even tougher than in Iraq. The United States faces not only Islamic State, but also potentially troops from Russia and Syria, Iranian special forces, and/or militias professionally armed and trained by Russia, Syria, and Iran. The American side of the equation sweeps in an ad hoc collection of Syrian groups of questionable loyalty and radical ideology, Kurds who oppose Turks, Turks who oppose Kurds, and perhaps third party Arab fighters.
Any new strategy for Syria will unfold on a complex game board.
As long as Assad stays in power, even without Islamic State, the bloody civil war will continue. If Assad goes, who could replace him and not trigger a new round of civil war? Who will pay for Syria to rebuild at some point?
Enlarging the picture, how will the Kurd-Turk struggle be managed now that the genie of Kurdish independence is out of the lamp? How will the next phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite relationship in Iraq affect Syria? How will growing Iranian influence in Iraq, a likely consequence of any defeat of Islamic State there, factor in? The Russians are now on the ground again in the Middle East. What effect will that have on the broader regional and global strategic balance?
The task facing the next president is not just defeating Islamic State inside Syria, but doing so even as the local problems there have metastasized into broad issues with global consequences. President Clinton or President Trump may find their current proposed plans will run into the same vexing realities the Obama administration has struggled with for years. The candidates’ current proposed plans do not seem up to the task. The new administration will have to quickly devise strategies that have otherwise eluded America’s best strategic thinkers since the earliest days of the Syrian civil war.
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
When Islamic State beheads someone it is terrorism. When an Iraqi housewife beheads an ISIS fighter and cooks his skull, it is freedom. That is the CNN doctrine.
CNN reports the story of 39-year-old Wahida Mohamed aka Um Hanadi, an Iraqi woman who supposedly leads a tribal militia force of around 70 men south of Mosul. She and her band allegedly helped “government forces” drive Islamic State out of a small town.
“I began fighting the terrorists in 2004, working with Iraqi security forces and the coalition,” she told CNN. CNN cites no other source other than Um Hanadi herself and Facebook in its coverage.
As a result, Um Hanadi said, she attracted the wrath of what eventually became al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which later morphed into ISIS. “I received threats from the top leadership of ISIS, including from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself,” she says. “I’m at the top of their most wanted list, even more than the [Iraqi] Prime Minister.”
Um Hanadi stated al Qaeda/AQI/ISIS planted car bombs outside her home in 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014.
Along the way, her first husband was killed in action. She remarried, but ISIS killed her second husband. ISIS also killed her father and three brothers. They also killed, she added, her sheep, her dogs and her birds, and tried to otherwise assassinate her six times.
Where Has Um Hanadi Been Hiding All These Years?
Despite her claim to have worked with the U.S. coalition, to be higher on the ISIS hit list than the Prime Minister, to have been the target of multiple bombing attempts, and to be a very, very, very rare example of a Muslim woman leading Muslim men in combat, I could not find any references to Um Hanadi that predate the CNN report. Um Hanadi does have a self-created social media presence which she updates between battles.
In addition, Um Hanadi may be the luckiest person in Iraq, apparently cheating death on a near-daily basis.
CNN did not explain in its coverage how it came to locate and interview Um Hanadi amid the chaos of present-day Iraq.
Now, on to the beheadings.
CNN quotes Um Hanadi as saying of ISIS “I fought them. I beheaded them. I cooked their heads, I burned their bodies.” CNN states “She made no excuses, nor attempted to rationalize this. It was delivered as a boast, not a confession.”
“This is all documented,” she said. “You can see it on my Facebook page.”
The CNN reporter wrote that he indeed checked her Facebook page and saw photos, and though he could not verify them, still “got the point.”
This is propaganda of the worst, and most infantile, kind. In addition to the broad question of whether or not any of this is even true, the question of who set CNN up to meet with Um Hanadi is left unanswered. That CNN would run this story on its television news, and website, is a shameful descent into the decaying corpse of the First Amendment. Media around the globe, including the once venerable New York Times, have reprinted the story.
Lastly is the horrific idea that atrocities such as beheading people are somehow right when an anti-ISIS person does it, and justification for an entire undeclared war by the U.S. when ISIS does it.
CNN have you no shame? Hah, trick question, you bast*rds really don’t, do you?
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Checking out the news these days, it might seem pretty clear why the U.S. is at war in Syria: destroy ISIS. That is almost certainly the way the two main presidential candidates will see it during their upcoming first debate, in a rare point of agreement.
The funny thing is that ISIS did not become the reason for what now is a major regional war until late in the game.
If we rewind about three years, the original justification was to “rid the world of the dictator,” Syrian president Bashar Assad. The U.S. involvement was started under the pretext that Assad was using chemical weapons against the other side in what was once confined to a civil war. American declared Assad thus had to go to avoid a genocide and humanitarian disaster.
FYI: If you read no further, remember anytime a politician uses the word “genocide” these days we’re about to be dragged into another conflict that will morph into a quagmire.
So here’s a reprise of something I wrote three years ago. Let’s revisit it and see whether or not any of the current disaster, political and humanitarian, could have been anticipated.
From Three Years Ago:
As for intervening in Syria, the United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the UK has not supported U.S. military action [the UK later changed it’s policy and is now involved across the Middle East again]. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect the women and children of Syria? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
— The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
— The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
— Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date [in 2013; the death toll is now likely in the millions].
— The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
— Is it Iraq again? That went well.
— Does it have oil?
— Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
— Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)?
— Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators? [Trick question; it does not.]
— Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
— Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
— Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
— Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda [Now ISIS], won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
— Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
— With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
— Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
— What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
NOTE: Obama did intervene, and golly, who could have thought it, look what happened!
Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
When I was a kid, successive presidents told us we had to fight in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, because if we didn’t fight them over there, we’d have to fight them on the beaches of California. We believed. It was a lie.
I was a teenager during the Cold War, several presidents told us we needed to create massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, garrison the world, maybe invade Cuba, fight covert wars and use the CIA to overthrow democratically elected governments and replace them with dictators, or the Russians would destroy us. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was in college our president told us that we needed to fight in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua or the Sandinistas would come to the United States. He told us Managua was closer to Washington DC than LA was. He told us we needed to fight in Lebanon, Grenada and Libya to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
When I was a little older our president told us how evil Saddam Hussein was, how his soldiers bayoneted babies in Kuwait. He told us Saddam was a threat to America. He told us we needed to invade Panama to oust a dictator to protect America. We believed. It was a lie.
Another president told us we had to fight terrorists in Somalia, as well as bomb Iraq, to protect ourselves. We believed. It was a lie.
The one after him told us that because a bunch of Saudis from a group loosely tied to Afghanistan attacked us on 9/11, we needed to occupy that country and destroy the Taliban, who had not attacked us, for our own safety. The Taliban are still there 15 years later, and so is the American army. We believed. It was a lie.
After that the same President told us Saddam Hussein threatened every one of our children with weapons of mass destruction, that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, that Saddam was in league with al Qaeda. We believed. It was a lie.
In 2011 the president and his secretary of state, now running for president herself, told us we needed regime change in Libya, to protect us from an evil dictator. We believed. It was a lie.
In August 2014 the same president told us we needed to intervene again in Iraq, on a humanitarian mission to save the Yazidis. No boots on the ground, a simple, limited act only the United States could conduct, and then we’d leave. We believed. It was a lie.
That same president later told us Americans will need to fight and die in Syria. He says this is necessary to protect us, because if we do not defeat Islamic State over there, they will come here, to what we now call without shame or irony The Homeland. We believe. We’ll let history roll around again to tell it is again a lie.
The two main candidates for president both tell us they will expand the war in Syria, maybe Libya. Too many of our fellow citizens still want to believe it is necessary to protect America more. They want to know it is not a lie.
So candidates, please explain why what you plan is different than everything listed above. Tell us why we should believe you — this time.
(This article is a reimagining of a piece I wrote about a year ago, when the war in Syria was less so, and the U.S. has not re-entered the fight overtly in Libya. I’ll update it from time to time as new wars happen.)
It was about two years ago to the day I was blacklisted at CNN.
I don’t want to remind them they were sadly wrong, but they were. So write this off however you prefer, but understand that we were lied to again to drag us again into an open-ended war in Iraq-Syria. Last time it was Bush and those missing Weapons of Mass Destruction. This time is was Obama and saving the Yazidi people from genocide.
Wait, what? Who are the Yazidis? How they get us back into Iraq?
Ah, how fast time flies.
Two years ago a group of Yazidis, a minority spread across Iran, Iraq and Turkey, were being threatened by a group called ISIS few American were focused on. Obama declared a genocide was about to happen, and the U.S. had to act. U.S. officials said they believed that some type of ground force would be necessary to secure the safety of the stranded members of the Yazidi group. The military drew up plans for limited airstrikes and the deployment of 150 ground troops.
No Congressional authorization was sought, no attempt was made to secure UN sanction, no effort was made to seek Iraqi military help to save their own people inside their own country. However, promises were made by the White House of having no American “boots on the ground” and that the airstrikes to kill people were for a humanitarian purpose.
Two years later the U.S. has some 6,000 troops on the ground, including artillery units and aircraft based inside Iraq and Syria. The limited airstrikes have expanded to a 24 month broad-based bombing campaign, which has spread into Syria, with the sideshows of complete collapse of democracy in Turkey, a Russian military presence in Syria, and an Iranian military presence in Iraq. For the record, the Yazidis are pretty much fine, as are ISIS and Syrian president Assad. The Yazadis do occasionally show up in fear-mongering, unsourced stories about ISIS sex slaves, usually spoon-fed to American media, and only American media, by pro-Yazidi ethnic groups safely in the west.
In fact, other than a massive regional death toll and no progress toward whatever the actual goal for the United States is (um, whatever, “destroy” ISIS), things are pretty much the same after two years, +chaos. And whomever is elected this November will be the fifth U.S. president to make war in Iraq.
Back to CNN.
As the Yazidi situation was unfolding, I was invited to tape a discussion there alongside the usual retired U.S. military colonel. I was asked a single question, explained in my answer that the U.S. was in fact using the Yazidi “humanitarian crisis/faux genocide” as an excuse to re-enter the Iraq quagmire, and equated it to George W. Bush’s flim-flam about weapons of mass destruction in 2003.
The host literally said I was wrong. I was not asked another question, though the colonel was given several minutes to explain the urgency of the situation, demand America act where no one else would, and assure the public that Obama planned only limited, surgical strikes and that was it, one and done.
My question was edited out, the colonel’s lengthy answer was played on air, and my very brief moment in the glow of CNN was ended even though I wore a nice suit and a tie. Oh well, we still have each other here, and hey, CNN, my number’s still the same if you wanna call.
Why, it is almost as if someone is creating them, and then calling the mass media’s attention to them on obscure sources, for anti-ISIS propaganda purposes. Hmm.
Well, don’t be shocked, but…
“To all the bros thinking about buying a slave, this one is $8,000,” began the Facebook posting attributed to an Islamic State fighter who calls himself Abu Assad Almani. The same man posted a second image a few hours later, this one a pale young woman’s face with weepy red eyes.
“Another sabiyah [slave], also about $8,000,” the posting reads. “Yay, or nay?”
The photos were taken down within hours by Facebook but of course still were coincidentally captured by the Middle East Media Research Institute, a Washington nonprofit group with unclear funding sources that monitors jihadists’ social media accounts. That Institute then pumped the story out across the web.
“We have seen a great deal of brutality, but the content that ISIS has been disseminating over the past two years has surpassed it all for sheer evil,” said a researcher for the Institute. “Sales of slave girls on social media is just one more example of this.”
Uh huh. It must all be true.
Ho, ho, ho, here’s a scenario no one could have possibly anticipated: some complex thing in the Middle East as a temporary patch to some previous complicated thing in the Middle East turned out to backfire for the U.S. because of a lack of any semblance of an actual policy as opposed to a series of random actions linked only in temporal order. Soon a new thing will be needed to counteract the lastest old thing, but that’s for next week.
The most current thing is that Russia deployed bomber and fighter aircraft to Iran for air strikes on rebels in Syria, the first time in 37 years that Iran allowed foreign forces to base and deploy from its territory. The new basing dramatically cuts into the number of frequent flyer miles the Russian air forces needs to bomb Syria. Flying out of Iran instead of from inside Russia means more sorties a day, maybe lower maintenance burdens, maybe heavier payloads.
Iran has, for now, walked back the arrangement, apparently embarrassed at the publicity. The larger issues still remain.
So a review, to put things in context. We’ll go quick here, kind of like the opening song of the Big Bang Theory, where they cover the history of the whole universe in 30 seconds of jaunty song:
— About 13 years ago Iraq was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same dictator it had been for decades. U.S. invades to “free Iraq,” chaos ensues through two presidencies with a third teed up. The more or less stable Iraqi-Syrian border became a porous sore for Sunni baddies to enter and leave the fight, precursor foot soldiers to ISIS. The Sunni collaboration with (then) al Qaeda to protect themselves from Shiite militias spread into Syria.
— Five years ago Syria was a stable place, just another crappy Mideast stinkhole run by the same family of dictators it has been since the 1960s. The U.S. had tolerated, dealt with and cooperated with the Assad family during much of that time. Why, post-9/11, the U.S. even outsourced some torture to them. There were no Syrian aid agencies, no orphaned kids of Aleppo, no global refugee crisis.
— The Arab Spring starts in 2011, U.S. sees an opening, fans the flames in what started as a legitimate people’s revolt in Syria. Assad fights back, U.S. keeps intervening just enough to keep the fires burning but not much else, chaos ensues. Hillary and David Petraeus demand more U.S. war in Syria, end up instead getting a new U.S. invasion of Libya as a consolation prize from Obama and another failed state is created in another crappy Mideast stinkhole that had been run stably by the same dictator for decades. But we digress.
— Blah blah, time passes, people die, U.S. declares Assad an evil dictator who “must go,” thinks it negotiates the Russians into the new war to help “free Syria.” Russians grin wildly as they establish new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Syria without a shot fired. They’re back into the game in the Middle East, half-invited by the U.S.!
— The oops! It turns out the sneaky Russians support Assad (who knew???), as America used to, and aren’t fighting him, like America wants them to. Bad, bad. John Kerry flies around Europe ignored by the White House (“sure, John, off you go, don’t forget to write and let us know how it’s going”) with his trademark Muppety “cautious but optimistic” face.
— But oops! Things change; the U.S. doesn’t like Assad, no sir, evil dictator kills his own people genocide barrel bombs poison gas save children, but isn’t going to attack him either like the Russians won’t attack him, because the war isn’t about “taking him out” per se except when asked to say that on TV news in America, it is about
defeatingdestroying ISIS. So, the U.S., Russia and hey, sure, why not, Iran, are all on the same side, fighting ISIS.
— BONUS: The U.S. and Iran are also “fighting ISIS” in Iraq. Iran, the big winner of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is grinning wildly as it establishes a new full-force, on-the-ground military footprint inside Iraq without a shot fired. They’re back in the game, half-invited by the U.S. Iran had been training and equipping the people who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011. Now they are helping U.S.-supported Iraqi Shiite militias who had been fighting the U.S. in Iraq 2003-2011 retake the same cities U.S. soldiers died taking 2003-2011.
And that brings us to this week, where Assad is still around, ISIS is still around, Iraq is still a sectarian mess, Iran more or less controls the Iraqi government and the powerful Shiite militias except for the ones who might just rebel and/or slaughter Sunnis to complete a slow-burn civil war, Turkey a newly-collapsing crappy Mideast-ish stinkhole run by a new dictator and Russia and Iran, always a bit wary of one another, are cooperating militarily to attack ISIS (U.S. thumbs up!) in support of Assad (U.S. thumbs down!)
And that’s all before we get to the Kurds, who are well on their way to creating a confederacy of Kurdistan carved out of parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. That will be the impetus behind the next war inside the Middle East, with most of the same players now in Syria joining in. Figure maybe a year from now or so.
As terrorism struck again in Nice and Germany and… Donald Trump outlined his policy against Islamic State: as president, he will seek a full declaration of war from Congress, the first such formal invocation since Pearl Harbor.
Trump was short on specifics but very clear he would take the strategies of the post-9/11 era into a presidency. Clinton, for her part, intends on “intensifying the current air campaign [and] stepping up support for local forces on the ground.” Their French counterpart, President Francois Hollande, declared “We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil.”
The problem is that none of that will work. While perhaps necessary at times, military force is far from sufficient in defeating Islamic terrorism.
Post-Germany, Post-Nice, post-Brussels, post-Turkey, post-Paris… it is clear the last 15 years of the war on terror in general, and the last two against Islamic State in particular, have not worked. No society can defend itself fully when any truck can be turned into a weapon. No amount of curating social media will prevent disenfranchised people from becoming radicalized. Ramadi fell, Fallujah fell, Mosul will likely fall, and Nice still happened.
“The effect that’s going to happen now is like stepping on a ball of mercury,” stated one American intelligence analyst. “You step on a ball of mercury, all the pieces break up and spread around the world.”
A new way of thinking is needed.
The west must be willing to understand Islamic terror beyond scary search engine terms and decide if we wish to tackle the problem at its core, or simply choose to live with a new normal where incidents like Nice will just happen. Here is what might be considered. It will be hard, and will be unpopular.
— Admit the current strategy has not worked. Agree, in the U.S. and abroad, that something new is needed. Statements such as those from Trump and Clinton block anything beyond more of the same.
— Understand that the roots of Islamic terror rest in part in the Sunni-Shia divide, which the west helped fuel in arming jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and whose fuse the west lit in 2003 when it invaded once-stable Iraq. A significant amount of terror takes place insider the Muslim world, and sectarianism is a steady fuel for recruitment.
At the same time, both sides of the divide recruit well off of horror stories of CIA torture, the continued existence of Guantanamo, the fits of Islamophobia played out in western refugee policy, French and American militarization of Islamic Africa, and a core belief that the actual goal of the western powers is not to “defeat Islamic State,” but to create a permanent state of war against Muslims while garrisoning the Middle East (it used to be more about taking Arab oil, but the point is the same.) More war, more troops, and more draconian security measures are just gas on those fires.
— Another driver of Islamic terror is the unhappiness of many Muslim youth with the autocratic, secular governments in most of their Arab nations. The west must pull back its support for such governments and lessen its fear of non-secular governments. What Washington sees, for example as expedient, realpolitik decisions to support the repressive Saudi government, Bahrain where the United States turns a blind eye to human rights in return for an important naval base, or allowing the Arab Spring to be crushed in Egypt as a military coup unseated the only democratically elected president in the nation’s history, have not worked well in even the medium term. Same for supporting the corrupt government in Baghdad.
The west must find rapprochement with Muslim leadership (Iran, with a robust participatory component inside a fundamentalist theocracy, is an interesting example.) Much of radical jihadism is less about destroying the west than it is about changing the Middle East; even 9/11, the worst of the terror attacks, had as its extended purpose pulling the United States into Afghanistan in hopes of triggering a broader Muslim uprising across the region.
— Immigration out of the Middle East is toothpaste out of the tube. It can’t be snaked back in by tough policies against refugees or stopping Muslims from entering the United States. Western nations must assimilate their Islamic immigrants.
Islamophobia, law enforcement discriminatory targeting of Muslims, hot-headed rhetoric and the rise of right wing governments pleasing citizens enamored anxious to trade their freedom for security, fuel the anger and sense of displacement of so-called lone wolves, and send them to the solutions offered by groups such as Islamic State. It is not about cleaning up Twitter. It is about chipping away at the mindset that makes those 140 character messages so attractive.
This is, in the end, a long war of ideas. Success must include difficult decisions to acknowledge the tides of history moving across the Middle East. Because you can’t stop the next truck. You do have a chance at making it so a man won’t choose to get behind the wheel.
Syria passed a grim milestone this week. The country now has more displaced people/refugees without homes than people still living in their homes.
The only significant response to this humanitarian crisis, a slow motion genocide, from the West has been more war, both from foreign aircraft and special forces directly, and via more support for the militias on the ground. The Syrian people are treated as simply part of the landscape being fought over. Destroying them seems as consequential as blowing up the buildings they used to live in.
That serves as background — literally — to the striking Pokemon Go images (above) created by Syrian artist Khaled Akil and others. They are trying to use the international frenzy over the game to keep attention on the plight of their people.
Here, they say, is what politicians’ claims to “destroy ISIS!” really mean.
The war in Syria, now in its sixth year with no end in sight, has killed more than 280,000 people. It is as if the only real question to be decided is if the West will run out of ammunition, or Syria out of people, first
Another artist, Syrian Saif Aldeen Tahhan, posted showing Pokemon Go players holding smartphones and seeking not Pokemons but medical care, school books, or undamaged homes. One image depicts a smartphone in front of a rubber dinghy of refugees at sea, with the user trying to capture a life ring.
“I am in Kafr Nabal in Idlib province, come and save me,” reads text underneath a Pikachu on a poster held by a young boy.
A friend of the blog passes on these comments:
I have just been watching the “Breaking News” about the military coup in Turkey and have been appalled at the historical ignorance of what all of these talking heads, Wolf Blitzer, et al are telling the American people.
Not a single anchorperson has referred to the Turkish military’s traditional role as the protector of Kemal Ataturk’s original 1920’s military coup to make Turkey a modern sectarian state rather than an Islamist Ottoman oligarchy. This was just following Turkey’s defeat in WWI and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which was aligned with Germany during the war.
All of the anchors keep referring to the coup using the phrase “the coup is attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of Erdogan.” Not a single one has appended that statement with the explanatory note that Erdogan, whose Party is the Islamist Party in Turkey, has used his term in office to slowly restrict free speech, crackdown on a free press, suppress opposition parties, and wage endless wars against the Kurds while tacitly supporting Jihadist groups in Syria who are aligned with ISIS. His aim was to become a permanent ruler in an Islamist state.
Another interesting sideline that our MSM carefully stays away from is analyzing the potential conflicts within the U.S. government which this coup presents.
On one hand there must exist very close ties between the U.S. military and Turkish military, since we jointly use Incirlik air base for operations. Then there is the State Department, who is probably having kiniptions over the deal that we signed with Erdogan for Turkey to hold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi-Syrian refugees from entering Europe.
There still is very testy question of how we can do any business with a coup government that has overthrown a NATO member government. Of course our morals on that are very loose since we helped the Egyptian military overthrow their government, but they didn’t belong to NATO.
My feeling is that this coup is long overdue and the outcome can be positive for returning Turkey to a more open society. Turkey, under Erdogan and his party, were aligned with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regressive kingdoms so a sectarian Turkey may cut that tie. A little light in an otherwise dismal outlook.
Despite over 400,000 dead and ongoing ground and air campaigns inside the country by the U.S., Russia and several others, 51 U.S. diplomats are publicly demanding the Obama administration launch strikes directly against Bashir Assad in Syria.
The Assad family has ruled Syria since the 1970s with an iron hand, employing secret police and other standard dictator tricks to suppress dissent. Things got so cozy between Syria and the U.S. that in the early days of the war on terror the CIA was sending “suspects” to Syria for some outsourced torture, as nobody can run a secret prison better than Arabs.
Papa Assad passed away and his son Bashir assumed the presidency in 2000. Some ten years later Assad did the same thing most Arab dictators did, including U.S. allies like Egypt, and ordered crackdowns on Arab Spring protesters. The U.S. then decided in an on-again, off-again fashion to “remove” Assad. When no one in the U.S. really liked the sound of that following the disastrous regime changes in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the U.S. attacked Syria anyway in the name of smiting Islamic State [ISIS]. Assad, whatever else he is and he is no doubt a real bastard, is also at war with ISIS. Some 400,000 Syrians have died so far in the civil war.
And there’s a photo above of Secretary of State and Bashir Assad hanging out in better days. Times change, man.
With that as background, 51 mid-level American diplomats took the brave stand of writing a memo (technically known as using the State Department dissent channel.) The memo was promptly leaked to the press.
Oh, a memo calling for more war written by people who wear suits and ties to work (technically known as chickenhawks.)
The memo says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of standoff and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.”
Robert Ford, former ambassador to Syria, said, “Many people working on Syria for the State Department have long urged a tougher policy with the Assad government as a means of facilitating arrival at a negotiated political deal to set up a new Syrian government.”
Regime change. Bloody change, as it seems odd to imagine Assad would negotiate his own ouster.
What the Memo Left Out
The dissent memo makes no suggestions, actually no mention at all, about who would succeed Assad, or how this regime change would be any different than the failed tries in Iraq, Libya or Yemen, or how ISIS, who also seeks the end of the Assad regime through violence, would not be further empowered, or how the U.S. would get away with airstrikes given the overt Russian support for the Assad regime. Everyone except for those brave memo-ists has seen this movie before.
Also missing from the memo are any notes on what if any military service the 51 signatories have amongst them, or why this call for more blood comes from the State Department and not from the military, whose commanders have raised questions about what would happen in the event that Assad was forced from power. Their questions are likely motivated by the fact that they would be asked to risk their lives to clean the mess.
Finally, no one seems to remember anymore why “we” need to “take out” Assad. He is no doubt a terrible person who kills to protect his power. But leaders like that are not in short supply across the Middle East, in Africa and places like North Korea. It seems a more specific rationale, tied directly to some clear U.S. strategic interest, is needed (remember, Assad is fighting ISIS and has never sought to export terror to the U.S.) Assad also enjoys support inside his country by some minority, who will not go away quietly if he is changed out. See what happened to the Baathists in Iraq, who organized some of the first resistance to the U.S., and went on to help staff up ISIS.
That said, it sure is a nicely-typed memo. Luckily no one in Washington pays much attention anymore to the State Department. So, State, go back to what you do best: hiding emails, and leave this stuff to the adults.
BONUS: Funny thing about that “dissent” memo. It seems that the dissent expressed in fact parallels the feelings of Secretary of State John Kerry, and possible next-president Hillary Clinton, that the U.S. should attack Assad directly. Leave it to State t find a way to change dissent into ass kissing.
One of the most popular apps these days is Snapchat. It allows the sender to set a timer for any photo dispatched via the app, so that a few seconds after the recipient opens the message, the photo is automatically deleted.
The evidence of what you did at that party last night is seen and then disappears. POOF!
I hope you’ll forgive me if I suggest that the Iraq-Syria War against the Islamic State (ISIS) is being conveyed to us via Snapchat. Important things happen, they appear in front of us, and then… POOF!… they’re gone. No one seems to remember them. Who cares that they’ve happened at all, when there’s a new snap already arriving for your attention? As with most of what flows through the real Snapchat, what’s of some interest at first makes no difference in the long run.
Just because we now have terrifyingly short memories does not, however, mean that things did not happen. Despite the POOF! effect, events that genuinely mattered when it comes to the region in which Washington has, since the 1980s, been embroiled in four wars, actually did occur last week, last month, a war or two ago, or, in some cases, more than half a century in the past. What follows are just some of the things we’ve forgotten that couldn’t matter more.
It’s a Limited Mission — POOF!
Perhaps General David Petraeus’s all-time sharpest comment came in the earliest days of Iraq War 2.0. “Tell me how this ends,” he said, referring to the Bush administration’s invasion. At the time, he was already worried that there was no endgame.
That question should be asked daily in Washington. It and the underlying assumption that there must be a clear scope and duration to America’s wars are too easily forgotten. It took eight long years until the last American combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq. Though there were no ticker tape parades or iconic photos of sailors smooching their gals in Times Square in 2011, the war was indeed finally over and Barack Obama’s campaign promise fulfilled…
Until, of course, it wasn’t, and in 2014 the same president restarted the war, claiming that a genocide against the Yazidis, a group hitherto unknown to most of us and since largely forgotten, was in process. Air strikes were authorized to support a “limited” rescue mission. Then, more — limited — American military power was needed to stop the Islamic State from conquering Iraq. Then more air strikes, along with limited numbers of military advisers and trainers, were sure to wrap things up, and somehow, by May 2016, the U.S. has 5,400 military personnel, including Special Operations forces, on the ground across Iraq and Syria, with expectations that more would soon be needed, even as a massive regional air campaign drags on. That’s how Washington’s wars seem to go these days, with no real debate, no Congressional declaration, just, if we’re lucky, a news item announcing what’s happened.
Starting wars under murky circumstances and then watching limited commitments expand exponentially is by now so ingrained in America’s global strategy that it’s barely noticed. Recall, for instance, those weapons of mass destruction that justified George W. Bush’s initial invasion of Iraq, the one that turned into eight years of occupation and “nation-building”? Or to step a couple of no-less-forgettable years further into the past, bring to mind the 2001 U.S. mission that was to quickly defeat the ragged Taliban and kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. That’s now heading into its 16th year as the situation there only continues to disintegrate.
For those who prefer an even more forgotten view of history, America’s war in Vietnam kicked into high gear thanks to then-President Lyndon Johnson’s false claim about an attack on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The early stages of that war followed a path somewhat similar to the one on which we now seem to be staggering along in Iraq War 3.0 — from a limited number of advisers to the full deployment of almost all the available tools of war.
Or for those who like to look ahead, the U.S. has just put troops back on the ground in Yemen, part of what the Pentagon is describing as “limited support” for the U.S.-backed war the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates launched in that country.
The new story is also the old story: just as you can’t be a little pregnant, the mission never really turns out to be “limited,” and if Washington doesn’t know where the exit is, it’s going to be trapped yet again inside its own war, spinning in unpredictable and disturbing directions.
No Boots on the Ground — POOF!
Having steadfastly maintained since the beginning of Iraq War 3.0 that it would never put “American boots on the ground,” the Obama administration has deepened its military campaign against the Islamic State by increasing the number of Special Operations forces in Syria from 50 to 300. The administration also recently authorized the use of Apache attack helicopters, long stationed in Iraq to protect U.S. troops, as offensive weapons.
American advisers are increasingly involved in actual fighting in Iraq, even as the U.S. deployed B-52 bombers to an air base in Qatar before promptly sending them into combat over Iraq and Syria. Another group of Marines was dispatched to help defend the American Embassy in Baghdad after the Green Zone, in the heart of that city, was recently breached by masses of protesters. Of all those moves, at least some have to qualify as “boots on the ground.”
The word play involved in maintaining the official no-boots fiction has been a high-wire act. Following the loss of an American in Iraqi Kurdistan recently, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter labeled it a “combat death.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest then tried to explain how an American who was not on a combat mission could be killed in combat. “He was killed, and he was killed in combat. But that was not part of his mission,” Earnest told reporters.
Much more quietly, the U.S. surged — “surge” being the replacement word for the Vietnam-era “escalate” — the number of private contractors working in Iraq; their ranks have grown eight-fold over the past year, to the point where there are an estimated 2,000 of them working directly for the Department of Defense and 5,800 working for the Department of State inside Iraq. And don’t be too sanguine about those State Department contractors. While some of them are undoubtedly cleaning diplomatic toilets and preparing elegant receptions, many are working as military trainers, paramilitary police advisers, and force protection personnel. Even some aircraft maintenance crews and CIA paramilitaries fall under the State Department’s organizational chart.
The new story in Iraq and Syria when it comes to boots on the ground is the old story: air power alone has never won wars, advisers and trainers never turn out to be just that, and for every soldier in the fight you need five or more support people behind him.
We’re Winning — POOF!
We’ve been winning in Iraq for some time now — a quarter-century of successes, from 1991’s triumphant Operation Desert Storm to 2003’s soaring Mission Accomplished moment to just about right now in the upbeat third iteration of America’s Iraq wars. But in each case, in a Snapchat version of victory, success has never seemed to catch on.
At the end of April, for instance, Army Colonel Steve Warren, a U.S. military spokesperson, hailed the way American air power had set fire to $500 million of ISIS’s money, actual cash that its militants had apparently forgotten to disperse or hide in some reasonable place. He was similarly positive about other recent gains, including the taking of the Iraqi city of Hit, which, he swore, was “a linchpin for ISIL.” In this, he echoed the language used when ISIS-occupied Ramadi (and Baiji and Sinjar and…) fell, language undoubtedly no less useful when the next town is liberated. In the same fashion, USA Today quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying that American actions had cut ISIS’s oil revenues by an estimated 50%, forcing them to ration fuel in some areas, while cutting pay to its fighters and support staff.
Only a month ago, National Security Adviser Susan Rice let us know that, “day by day, mile by mile, strike by strike, we are making substantial progress. Every few days, we’re taking out another key ISIL leader, hampering ISIL’s ability to plan attacks or launch new offensives.” She even cited a poll indicating that nearly 80% of young Muslims across the Middle East are strongly opposed to that group and its caliphate.
In the early spring, Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State, took to Twitter to assure everyone that “terrorists are now trapped and desperate on Mosul fronts.” Speaking at a security forum I attended, retired general Chuck Jacoby, the last multinational force commander for Iraq 2.0, described another sign of progress, insisting that Iraq today is a “maturing state.” On the same panel, Douglas Ollivant, a member of former Iraq commander General David Petraeus’s “brain trust of warrior-intellectuals,” talked about “streams of hope” in Iraq.
Above all, however, there is one sign of success often invoked in relation to the war in Iraq and Syria: the body count, an infamous supposed measure of success in the Vietnam War. Washington spokespeople regularly offer stunning figures on the deaths of ISIS members, claiming that 10,000 to 25,000 Islamic State fighters have been wiped out via air strikes. The CIA has estimated that, in 2014, the Islamic State had only perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms. If such victory statistics are accurate, somewhere between a third and all of them should now be gone.
Other U.S. intelligence reports, clearly working off a different set of data, suggest that there once were more than 30,000 foreign fighters in the Islamic State’s ranks. Now, the Pentagon tells us, the flow of new foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has been staunched, dropping over the past year from roughly 2,000 to 200 a month, further incontrovertible proof of the Islamic State’s declining stature. One anonymous American official typically insisted: “We’re actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be.”
Yet despite success after American success, ISIS evidently isn’t broke, or running out of fighters, or too desperate to stay in the fray, and despite all the upbeat news there are few signs of hope in the Iraqi body politic or its military.
The new story is again a very old story: when you have to repeatedly explain how much you’re winning, you’re likely not winning much of anything at all.
It’s Up to the Iraqis — POOF!
From the early days of Iraq War 2.0, one key to success for Washington has been assigning the Iraqis a to-do list based on America’s foreign policy goals. They were to hold decisive elections, write a unifying Constitution, take charge of their future, share their oil with each other, share their government with each other, and then defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later, the Islamic State.
As each item failed to get done properly, it became the Iraqis’ fault that Washington hadn’t achieved its goals. A classic example was “the surge” of 2007, when the Bush administration sent in a significant number of additional troops to whip the Iraqis into shape and just plain whip al-Qaeda, and so open up the space for Shiites and Sunnis to come together in an American-sponsored state of national unity. The Iraqis, of course, screwed up the works with their sectarian politics and so lost the stunning potential gains in freedom we had won them, leaving the Americans heading for the exit.
In Iraq War 3.0, the Obama administration again began shuffling leaders in Baghdad to suit its purposes, helping force aside once-golden boy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and pushing forward new golden boy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to — you guessed it — unify Iraq. “Today, Iraqis took another major step forward in uniting their country,” National Security Adviser Susan Rice said as Abadi took office.
Of course, unity did not transpire, thanks to Abadi, not us. “It would be disastrous,” editorialized the New York Times, “if Americans, Iraqis, and their partners were to succeed in the military campaign against the Islamic State only to have the politicians in Baghdad squander another chance to build a better future.” The Times added: “More than 13 years since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, there’s less and less reason to be optimistic.”
The latest Iraqi “screw-up” came on April 30th, when dissident Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters broke into the previously sacrosanct Green Zone established by the Americans in Iraq War 2.0 and stormed Iraq’s parliament. Sadr clearly remembers his history better than most Americans. In 2004, he emboldened his militias, then fighting the U.S. military, by reminding them of how irregular forces had defeated the Americans in Vietnam. This time, he was apparently diplomatic enough not to mention that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese 41 years ago on the day of the Green Zone incursion.
Sadr’s supporters crossed into the enclave to protest Prime Minister Abadi’s failure to reform a disastrous government, rein in corruption (you can buy command of an entire army division and plunder its budget indefinitely for about $2 million), and provide basic services like water and electricity to Baghdadis. The tens of billions of dollars that U.S. officials spent “reconstructing” Iraq during the American occupation of 2003 to 2011 were supposed to make such services effective, but did not.
And anything said about Iraqi governmental failures might be applied no less accurately to the Iraqi army.
Despite the estimated $26 billion the U.S. spent training and equipping that military between 2003 and 2011, whole units broke, shed their uniforms, ditched their American equipment, and fled when faced with relatively small numbers of ISIS militants in June 2014, abandoning four northern cities, including Mosul. This, of course, created the need for yet more training, the ostensible role of many of the U.S. troops now in Iraq. Since most of the new Iraqi units are still only almost ready to fight, however, those American ground troops and generals and Special Operations forces and forward air controllers and planners and logistics personnel and close air support pilots are still needed for the fight to come.
The inability of the U.S. to midwife a popularly supported government or a confident citizen’s army, Washington’s twin critical failures of Iraq War 2.0, may once again ensure that its latest efforts implode. Few Iraqis are left who imagine that the U.S. can be an honest broker in their country. A recent State Department report found that one-third of Iraqis believe the United States is actually supporting ISIS, while 40% are convinced that the United States is trying to destabilize Iraq for its own purposes.
The new story is again the old story: corrupt governments imposed by an outside power fail. And in the Iraq case, every problem that can’t be remedied by aerial bombardment and Special Forces must be the Iraqis’ fault.
Same Leadership, Same Results — POOF!
With the last four presidents all having made war in Iraq, and little doubt that the next president will dive in, keep another forgotten aspect of Washington’s Iraq in mind: some of the same American leadership figures have been in place under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and they will initially still be in place when Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump enters the Oval Office.
Start with Brett McGurk, the current special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS. His résumé is practically a Wikipedia page for America’s Iraq, 2003-2016: Deputy Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran from August 2013 until his current appointment. Before that, Senior Advisor in the State Department for Iraq, a special advisor to the National Security Staff, Senior Advisor to Ambassadors to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Christopher Hill, and James Jeffrey. McGurk participated in President Obama’s 2009 review of Iraq policy and the transition following the U.S. military departure from Iraq. During the Bush administration, McGurk served as Director for Iraq, then as Special Assistant to the President, and also Senior Director for Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 McGurk was the lead negotiator with the Iraqi Government on both a long-term Strategic Framework Agreement and a Security Agreement to govern the presence of U.S. forces. He was also one of the chief Washington-based architects of The Surge, having earlier served as a legal advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority from nearly the first shots of 2003.
A little lower down the chain of command is Lieutenant General Sean MacFarland. He is now leading Sunni “tribal coordination” to help defeat ISIS, as well as serving as commanding general of the Combined Joint Task Force. As a colonel back in 2006, MacFarland similarly helped organize the surge’s Anbar Sunni Awakening movement against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
And on the ground level, you can be sure that some of the current colonels were majors in Iraq War 2.0, and some of their subordinates put their boots on the same ground they’re on now.
In other words, the new story is the old story: some of the same people have been losing this war for Washington since 2003, with neither accountability nor culpability in play.
What If They Gave a War and No One Remembered?
All those American memories lost to oblivion. Such forgetfulness only allows our war makers to do yet more of the same things in Iraq and Syria, acts that someone on the ground will be forced to remember forever, perhaps under the shadow of a drone overhead.
Placing our service people in harm’s way, spending our money in prodigious amounts, and laying the country’s credibility on the line once required at least the pretext that some national interest was at stake. Not any more. Anytime some group we don’t like threatens a group we care not so much about, the United States must act to save a proud people, stop a humanitarian crisis, take down a brutal leader, put an end to genocide, whatever will briefly engage the public and spin up some vague facsimile of war fever.
But back to Snapchat. It turns out that while the app was carefully designed to make whatever is transmitted quickly disappear, some clever folks have since found ways to preserve the information. If only the same could be said of our Snapchat wars. How soon we forget. Until the next time…
It is perhaps the most vexing of questions: why is it that whenever you see photos or video of ISIS driving around in their Mad Max-esque technicals with black flags, the vehicle seems to always be a Toyota?
Does Uber require its drivers moonlighting for ISIS to use Toyotas instead of black town cars? Does Toyota pay ISIS a promotional/product placement fee? Does Craigslist Iraq (no freaking way, there is a Craigslist for Iraq) just have a huge Toyota subsection? Is Toyota secretly supporting ISIS?
Those very questions are on the minds of America’s crack anti-terror warriors.
U.S. officials are indeed inquiring why ISIS has acquired a large number of Toyota vehicles, ABC News reports on a slow day when no one on TV at least is calling the president the N-word. Toyota-made pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles have been featured prominently in a number of ISIS propaganda videos used in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, according to ABC. Vehicles shown include the Hilux and the Land Cruiser.
“ISIS has used these vehicles in order to engage in military-type activities, terror activities, and the like,” former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, apparently the only ex-government official who picked up over the weekend for a quote, told ABC News. “But in nearly every ISIS video, they show a fleet – a convoy of Toyota vehicles and that’s very concerning to us.”
Is Wallace saying to ISIS they better “buy American?” Is Wallace in the tank for ISIS? I don’t know.
Anyway, Toyota said in a statement to Autoblog that it has a strict policy not to sell vehicles to groups who may use them for terrorism, but notes that it can’t control if its vehicles are re-sold, stolen, or repurposed after they leave dealerships.
So, jot that down, ISIS people reading this. If you roll into your local Toyota dealership and, along with the rustproofing, extended warranty and upgraded sound system, you also ask for a 20mm cannon to be mounted in the back, the dealer may balk, or at least try and talk you into the Bitcoin payment plan.
“We are committed to complying fully with the laws and regulations of each country or region where we operate, and require our dealers and distributors to do the same,” Toyota’s statement says. “We are supporting the U.S. Treasury Department’s broader inquiry into international supply chains and the flow of capital and goods in the Middle East.”
BONUS: The actual answer is there are just a whole lot of Japanese vehicles in the Middle East. The Japanese have opened a bunch of dealerships there for one. The other reason is that people in Japan trade-in vehicles regularly on newer models, and the used car market there is weak. So, Japanese cars are exported en masse to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, even North Korea, to basically dump them for at least some profit. And so now you know…
Like about 90% of the news today, this would be terrific satire, if it wasn’t true.
America is dropping so many bombs on ISIS that the country is in danger of running out.
“We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” said Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked Congress to include funding for 45,000 “smart bombs” in the Defense Department’s 2017 budget. But it could take a while to rebuild the stockpile.
“The U.S. maintains a pretty steady inventory of bombs and missiles,” says one aerospace and defense policy analyst. “But 2.5 years of fighting ISIS and continued bombing in Afghanistan have exceeded weapons-use projections.”
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.’ military intervention against Islamic State, strikes ISIS targets with laser- and GPS-guided bombs, Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs, Joint Standoff Weapons, and air-to-ground missiles, such as the Hellfire. Per unit price tags on these munitions range from around $25,000 to close to $400,000. In the early days of the Syrian campaign the Navy fired multiple Tomahawk cruise missiles, which go for about $1 million a piece.
But bombs away, the overall cost of the fight against Islamic State in dollars is staggering; more than $2.7 billion so far, with the average daily cost around $11 million.
Since the June 2014 start of Inherent Resolve, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run.
Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.”
The CIA estimated Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 began.
Somebody in Washington better do the math on this one.
Candidates, one of you will be the fifth consecutive American president to make war inside Iraq. What will you face on day one of your administration?
You learned with us recently of the death of a Marine in Iraq, which exposed that the United States set up a fire base in that country, which exposed that the Pentagon used a twist of words to misrepresent the number of personnel in Iraq by as many as 2,000. It appears a second fire base exists, set up on the grounds of one of America’s largest installations from the last Iraq war. Special forces range across the landscape. The Pentagon is planning for even more troops. There can be no more wordplay — America now has boots on the ground in Iraq.
The regional picture is dismal. In Syria, militias backed by the Central Intelligence Agency are fighting those backed by the Pentagon. British, Jordanian and American special forces are fighting various enemies in Libya; that failed state is little more than a latent Iraq, likely to metastasize into its neighbors. There may be a worrisome note about Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon waiting for you under the Oval Office desk blotter.
But candidates, your focus must remain on Iraq; that is where what the Jordanian king now refers to as the Third World War began, and where Islamic State was birthed, and where the United States seems to be digging in for the long run.
Though arguably the story of Islamic State, Iraq and the United States can be traced to the lazy division of the Ottoman Empire after the Second World War, for your purposes candidates, things popped out of place in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq unleashed the forces now playing out across the Middle East. The garbled post-invasion strategy installed a Shi’ite-dominated, Iranian-supported government in Baghdad, with limited Sunni buy-in.
Sectarian fighting and central government corruption which favored the Shi’ites drove non-ideologues without jobs, and religious zealots with an agenda, together. Clumsy policy cemented the relationship – a senior Islamic State commander explained the prison at Camp Bucca operated by the United States was directly responsible for the rise of the violent, theocratic state inside the divided, but then still largely secular, Iraq. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he said. “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else.” So first came al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by its successor, Islamic State.
Fast-forward through about a year and half of Washington’s fear-mongering and wagging the dog, and America’s re-entry into Iraq moved quickly from a Yazidi rescue mission, to advisors, to air power, to special forces, to today’s boots on the ground. That is your starting point on day one in office.
As your strategy, every one of you candidates has promised to destroy Islamic State.
Even if that destruction comes to be, the problems in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere (space precludes drawing the Turk-Kurd conflict into this article, though the war itself has no such restrictions) would still be there. Islamic State is a response, and its absence will only leave a void to be filled by something else. Your root problem is the disruption of the balance of power in the Middle East, brought on by a couple of regime changes too many.
The primary forces the United States are supporting to attack Islamic State in Iraq Sunni territories are Shi’ite militias. Though they have been given a new name in Washington, Popular Mobilization Units, that does not change what they are; have a look at a popular Instagram, where a Shi’ite fighter asked for viewers to vote on whether or not he should execute a Sunni prisoner. Washington clings to the hope that the militias and it are united against a common foe – the bad Sunnis in Islamic State – while what the Iranians and their allies in Baghdad also supporting the militias more likely see is a war against the Sunnis in general.
Oh, and candidates, that Iraqi national army, trained at great cost until 2011, then re-trained for the past 18 months, is still little more than a sinkhole of corruption, cowardice and lethargy.
As for any sort of brokered settlement among the non-Islamic State actors in Iraq, if 170,000 American troops could not accomplish that over almost nine years of trying, re-trying it on a tighter timetable with fewer resources is highly unlikely to work. It is unclear what solutions the United States has left to peddle anyway, or with what credibility it would sell them, but many groups will play along to gain access to American military power for their own ends.
What you will be inheriting, in the words of one commentator, is a “bold new decade-old strategy” that relies on enormous expenditures for minimal gains. The question for you is: if war in Iraq didn’t work last time, why will it work this time?
The hole is deep and being dug deeper as we speak.
Perhaps the most fundamental flaw in the flailing U.S. anti-ISIS strategy is the belief that any group willing to fight ISIS must support at least some U.S. goals, and that any group not ISIS is better in the long run than ISIS.
Such a viewpoint ignores the near-infinite complexities of Middle East alliances and politics, ignores the well-known reality that any group that does, in part, support the U.S. also needs to simultaneously prepare for when the U.S. one day suddenly picks up and leaves, and allows very dangerous weapons to exfiltrate out of the semi-right hands into the really wrong hands.
The video below shows the Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuda (KSS), which is also known as the Battalion of the Sayyid’s Martyrs, cruising around in an American-made M1 Abrams tank (at around the 16-second mark of the video). The video surfaced on SOFREP, a very pro-U.S. military website that states it is run by Special Ops veterans.
About those KSS guys with our tank.
Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS) are an Iraqi Shia militia formed in 2013 to protect “Shia shrines across the globe” among other fun things. It militarily supports the Assad Government in Syria, and has close ties to the Badr Organization. The Badr’s are some nasty people who excelled at killing Americans, with Iranian help, during the 2003-2010 Iraq War 2.0.
The U.S. has since 2010 been supplying the government of Iraq with M-1 tanks. The Iraqi government is denying their involvement with KSS, and claims “not to know” how they obtained the U.S.-made tank. Tanks, of course, are just darned hard things to keep track of.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, “We have received assurances from the Government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces that they will use U.S. equipment in accordance with U.S. law and our bilateral agreements. If we receive reports that U.S.-origin equipment is being misused or provided to unauthorized users, we engage the Iraqi government in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy to address any confirmed issues — up to the highest levels, if necessary.”
The best news of all (it is not the best news) is that if Iranian-connected militia loyal to Assad have M-1 tanks, that means the Iranians, the Syrians and the Russians, at a minimum, have access to any M-1 technology they might wish to inspect or reverse engineer, or sell on the global black market.
This war just keeps getting better (it is not getting better.)
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…
And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.
The Obama Doctrine
That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.
Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.
Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”
While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.
Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”
But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.
Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”
As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”
And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?
“Free riders,” he said.
The Audacity of Ignorance
What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.
The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.
Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.
Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.
History is Not Generous
If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.
But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.
Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.
Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.
One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”
That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.
It’s time to renegotiate the contract that put this whole thing together.
The “whole thing” is the Middle East, and the “contract” is the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The world those documents created no longer exists except on yellowed maps, and the issues left unsettled, primarily the Sunni-Shi’ite divide and a Kurdish homeland, have now come home begging. War is not fixing this; diplomacy might.
In November 2014, I wrote the only solution to Islamic State, and mess of greater Iraq, was to use American/Coalition peacekeepers to create a stable, tri-state solution to the Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd divide.
However, in the intervening 15 months the problems swept in Turkey and Russia, and perhaps soon the Saudis. The United States, Iraq, Islamic State, and Iran never left. Only a massive diplomatic effort, involving all parties now on the playing field, including Islamic State, has any potential of ending the bloodshed and refugee crisis. That means a redivision of the region along current ethnic, tribal, religious and political lines.
A new Sykes-Picot Agreement if you will.
The old Sykes-Picot divided up most of the Arab lands that had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The Agreement was enforced by the superpowers of that moment, Britain and France with buy-in from the Russians. The immediate goal was colonialism, not independent states, but the unspoken end point was a form of stability. Following the massive realignment of the balance of power that was World War I, the lines were literally drawn for the next eight decades. The lines themselves did not cause all the problems per se; the lines codified the problems on the ground.
The other important event of the era was that the idea of creating a “Kurdistan” was crossed off the post-World War I “to do” list. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres at first left an opening for a referendum on whether the Kurds wanted to remain part of what remained of the Ottoman Empire or become independent. Problem one: the referendum did not include plans for the Kurds in what became Syria and Iraq. Problem two: the referendum never happened, a victim of the so-called Turkish War of Independence. The result: some 20 million Kurds scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.
Zoom to some more modern history. In March 2003, when the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq, Libya was stable, ruled by the same strongman for 42 years; in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had been in power since 1983; Syria had been run by the Assad family since 1971; Saddam Hussein had essentially been in charge of Iraq since 1969, and the Turks and Kurds had an uneasy but functional ceasefire.
From a geopolitical perspective, here’s what you have right now: The invasion of Iraq blew open the power struggle among the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds. Forces unleashed led to some of the Arab Spring-driven chaos in Syria, and drew Iran into the Iraqi conflict.
Shi’ite militia and Iraqi government threats and attacks on Iraqi Sunnis opened the door for Islamic State to step in as a protector. The struggle metastasized into Syria. The Kurds, aided by the U.S. military, are seeking to create new transnational borders out of their current confederacy by displacing Islamic State and Turkish forces. The Turks are looking to repel that, and perhaps seize some territory to tidy up their own borders. Russia has re-entered the region as a military force. The Saudis may yet send troops into Syria. Iran is already there via proxy forces. Assad still holds territory in Syria, as does Islamic State. There are many local players as well.
In short, many forces are redrawing the borders, as violently as their weapons allow, creating massive human suffering, to include refugee flows into Europe that no one seem sure how to handle.
A New Struggle
The struggle has shifted from a semi-ideological one (Islamic extremism) that could not be bombed away to one of seizing and holding territory. The effort now ongoing to bomb that problem away has resulted primarily in repeatedly destroying cities like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs and soon Mosul in order to save them.
With the realignment of borders a process that can only be delayed — at great cost in every definition of that word — the answer is only to negotiate a conclusion. That conclusion will be ugly and distasteful, though if it is any help, it will be distasteful to everyone participated. It will need to be enforced by military power (we’ll call them peacekeepers) that is coordinated by the U.S., Russia and Iran, with each speaking for, and controlling, its proxies. The U.S. is basically doing something like that with Jordan, forming a military dam against the mess in Syria, and Israel has done it for years.
It will mean giving Islamic State a seat at the table, as the British were forced to do with the Irish Republican Army, to resolve “troubles.”
Out of the negotiations will have to emerge a Kurdistan, with some land from Turkey and the former-Syria. Assad will stay in power as a Russian proxy. Iran’s hold on Shi’ite Iraq will be stronger. A Sunni homeland state, to include what Islamic State will morph into, will need to be assured, with a strict hands-off policy by Baghdad. At the same time, that Sunni homeland offers the first real framework to contain Islamic State.
The World’s Policeman
American efforts will shift from fanning the flames (purloined HUMVEES are as ubiquitous as iPads in the region) to putting out fires. You want to be the world’s policeman? This is the neighborhood to prove it, because this now needs cops of a sort, not warfighters. There is no quick fix. There isn’t really a medium-term fix. Four America presidents have bombed the region, and Obama‘s successor will be number five.
Yes, I hate it too. And of course I understand the difficulties of an imperfect resolution. But solution is no longer a viable term I am afraid.
After you’ve soiled the bed, you do your best to clean it up. The process will be messy. But it is too late for elegant solutions. So with the Middle East.
Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.
You enjoy some trade, groove on uber-Americanos like Beyonce and Brad Pitt, and visit Disneyland. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something…
And so it is with Canada, that big snowy place near the U.S. that is not Mexico (why doesn’t Mexico have to join these coalitions anyway?)
New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fulfilled one of his most contentious election campaign promises, as Canadian military airstrikes on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ceased in mid-February. Canada is still indirectly involved in the aerial campaign, and in training Iraqi security forces.
“I’m very happy that the government has decided that there may be more productive things that they can focus on than bombing,” said one independent research and advocacy group based in Ottawa. “They’re indirectly continuing to participate in the air campaign, but at least they’re not directly participating and I think that’s an important step forward.”
Canada formally announced it had stopped all air strikes in Iraq and Syria on 15 February. They will continue to fly aerial refueling missions, and conduct reconnaissance from the air. More significantly, Canada will up its small ground forces, who are engaged in what has to be the longest and most thorough training mission in human history, inside Iraq.
As a side note, somebody from the West has been training Iraqi and Kurdish troops since around 2005. After 11 years, you’d think they would be the best-trained soldiers in the world (HINT: They are not.)
The motion presented to the House of Commons about changing the Iraq mission stipulates that Canada will work to engage with political leaders in the Middle East in the aim of “finding political solutions” in the region. No one in Canada has elaborated on how it plans to aid Iraq establish good governance. That process, too, has been ongoing since 2003, without much to show for it.
Is there a better way to ensure no troublesome violations of John Kerry’s signature ceasefire in Syria get reported than by staffing the hotline where violations are to be reported by Syrians with non-Arabic speakers?
Gotta love those clever gals and guys over at the State Department. The Department is all a twitter, high-fiving each other and sending congratulatory emails to Secretary of State John Kerry over his negotiating a ceasefire in Syria. And, in order to monitor compliance with the terms of the ceasefire, State set up a hotline. Ordinary Syrians, out there on the ground, could call in to report violations.
Now remember, violations by anyone other than the naughty Russkies might make the State Department look bad, as if the ceasefire was only smoke, mirrors and a PR stunt, violated in part by forces to include the U.S.-supported militias.
So, by some wacky Washington coincidence, the State Department admitted Wednesday it used only volunteers with limited Arabic language abilities to staff that hotline it set up to take calls about ongoing violence in Syria.
That move led to confusion, as people who speak Arabic, which perhaps unknown to State is Syria’s official language, tried to call with information about violations of the cease-fire, only to get hung up by volunteers who didn’t understand the language.
See, that volunteer part is another funny. Something as important as a hotline into Syria is staffed only by volunteers at State. No one could be bothered to assign personnel full-time to such a task.
“In order to help monitor the cessation of hostilities in Syria, we did set up an information hotline that was staffed 24/7, where violations could be reported, I think via a number of different apps,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “There were some language issues among some of the volunteers. Granted, these again are State Department employees who are doing this in addition to their usual jobs.”
“We are aware that there were language issues, as you note, and we’re working to correct those, obviously, because it’s important that we have Arabic speakers who are able to field incoming calls,” Toner said.
Toner was asked whether proficiency in Arabic was a requirement for volunteering to work the hotline.
“It was, just but, you know, given the time limits on setting this up, probably some of the language skills weren’t properly vetted,” he said. “So, we’re working to address that.”
When asked for the phone number of the Syrian hotline, Toner said he didn’t have it on him. “I don’t have it in front of me, sorry,” he said.
UPDATE: Apparently State is now redirecting calls from the Washington-based hotline to the American Embassy in Kuwait, where presumably they have someone who speaks Arabic.
While Secretary of State John Kerry (personal slogan: “Did you know I was still Secretary of State?”) bleats about reaching some sort of imaginary ceasefire with the Russians during negotiations in Munich (optics, John, optics: you don’t negotiate a peace thing in Munich), what is basically a small version of world war continues unabated in Syria.
Because the war, entering its sixth year, is so confusing, and the on-the-ground situation so complex, let’s look at it in simple digest form:
Russian warplanes are bombing away, primarily in support of Syrian president Assad against a plethora of militias including ISIS, but also against Turkish proxy forces likely trying to slice off some tasty Syrian border territory.
Iraqi and Lebanese militias aided by Iranian special forces are on the ground. An assortment of Syrian rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are fighting to hold them back.
Various Kurdish forces working with Washington and/or Moscow are taking advantage of the chaos to extend Kurdish territories, in Syria, Iraq and odd bits of Turkey. The Islamic State has snatched land while all the focus was on the other groups, and still holds substantial territory in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis have threatened to invade Syria with ground troops, which the Iranians say they will respond to militarily.
Ahead of Kerry’s supposed ceasefire, the conflict is escalating. Turkey joined in over the weekend, firing artillery across its border at Kurdish positions, prompting appeals from the Obama administration to both Turks and Kurds to back down.
The U.S. is supporting both sides as part of its anti-ISIS clusterfutz campaign.
The current locus of the struggle is around the city of Aleppo, in Syria. As the Washington Post’s most excellent reporter Liz Sly describes it, “The Aleppo offensive is affirming Moscow’s stature as a dominant regional power across the heart of the Middle East. The advances by Shiite Iraqi and Lebanese militias are extending the sway of Iran far beyond the traditional Shiite axis of influence into Sunni areas of northern Syria. Although Syria’s army is claiming the victories, rebels, military experts and videos by the fighters themselves say almost all of the advances are being made by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Iraqi Badr Brigade, Harakat al-Nujaba and other Iraqi Shiite militias that are sponsored by Iran.”
Back to those Russian airstrikes. With that help, Syrian government forces and Iran-backed militias are trying to besiege the rebel-held section of Aleppo to starve the rebels into submission. Using starvation as a weapon is a war crime, but it has been widely used in the Syrian war. Government-aligned forces have also severed the main supply route to Turkey that delivered food, weapons and aid to rebel-held areas, leaving one remaining route. The United Nations is warning that about 300,000 people in the rebel-held part of Aleppo could be at risk of starvation.
Got it? If you think you do, please drop the White House a line and explain it to them.
What job could be worse these days than having to be the foreign ministry official from some so-called American ally who has to listen to the latest American begging effort for them to join up with the “coalition” to defeat ISIS.
Those poor diplomatic bastards have been suffering through American pleas to join various failed coalitions for more than a decade, as evil bad guys intent on world domination come and go. Think back — the Taliban, al Qaeda, Saddam, Gaddafi and now ISIS. There’s almost a sort of pattern there.
So this week U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter (above) offered a glimpse of his own apparent frustration at all this coalition fun last week when he referred to “our so-called coalition” and suggested the slackers need to step up and support the American Empire Project.
“We need everybody, and that’s all the Europeans, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, which is right there on the border. So there are a lot that need to make more contributions,” he said. Carter appeared totally ignorant of why nobody wants to hop in and help fight America’s wars.
Carter left Tuesday for Brussels, where he will convene a meeting of defense chiefs from about two dozen countries, including most NATO members, Iraq and the Gulf states.
“What I’m going to do is sit down and say, here is the campaign plan. If you’re thinking World War II newsreel pictures, you think of an arrow going north to take Mosul and another arrow coming south to take Raqqa,” he said, as if the organized nation state ground combat of WWII had anything at all to do with the current multi-dimensional firestorm in the Middle East.
“And I’m going to say, ‘OK, guys. Let’s match up what is needed to win with what you have, and kind of give everybody the opportunity to make an assignment for themselves,'” Carter said. “The United States will lead this and we’re determined, but other people have to do their part because civilization has to fight for itself.”
Sure thing boss, will say the would-be coalition members before doing nothing of substance.
A few coalition countries have made promises of increased support in recent days. The Netherlands, also known as Sparta, which has been carrying out very, very limited airstrikes in Iraq, said it would expand its efforts to Syria. Saudi Arabia indicated last week it could send ground troops into Syria. Canada announced it will quit conducting airstrikes in Syria and Iraq but will expand its contributions to training Kurdish and other local forces and provide more humanitarian and developmental aid.
Over the course of a decade and a half of coalition warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. officials have frequently found themselves pleading and cajoling with the Europeans to contribute more, and they generally have responded with pledges to do just a little bit more. The pattern may be repeated in Brussels.
Another day, another faux-terrorism arrest by the FBI. Who do we really need to be protected from anyway?
Now watch the italics:
The Justice Department charged two Virginia men with terrorism-related offenses, a day after FBI agents arrested one of them at an airport where officials believe he was planning to begin a journey to Syria to fight with the Islamic State.
Both men, Joseph Hassan Farrokh and Mahmoud Amin Mohamed Elhassan, are in FBI custody and face up to 20 years in prison if they are convicted.
The department did not cite any evidence that the two men had direct contact with operatives for Islamic State, and based the terrorism charges on conversations they had with three informants.
Farrokh, a 28-year-old native of Pennsylvania, was arrested at the airport in Richmond, Virginia, where he was planning to fly to Chicago and on to Amman, Jordan, according to a criminal complaint released on Saturday. During wiretapped conversations with an FBI informant, Farrokh discussed beginning his journey from a smaller airport to evade scrutiny.
The complaint said that Elhassan, a 25-year-old permanent resident of the United States originally from Sudan, drove Farrokh to within a mile of the airport, and that Farrokh took a taxi the rest of the way. Elhassan is being charged with aiding and abetting Farrokh’s attempts to provide material support to a terrorist organization.
The complaint said that Farrokh did not appear to want to return to the United States.
— No terrorism committed, or even planned, inside America.
— One guy arrested for trying to fly to Chicago.
— Other guy arrested for driving Guy I to the airport.
— 100% of “evidence” are conversations with informants.
— No information on how the two arrested men came together with informants, or what the informants said that might have spurred the conversations.
There are two ways to look at the video below, and they are both right. It shows the remains of a soldier and his K-9 coming home for the last time from Afghanistan. The circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
If you can get through the video with dry eyes, you may not be human, or may not at least deserve the title. Someone replaced your heart with dry meat. Despite the sappy music, the expression of utter emotion packed into a mundane activity — unloading “cargo” from an airplane — is raw and undeniable and good. Each set of remains is brought from overseas into Dover, Delaware, where the U.S. military operates its largest mortuary and receiving facility. Each container is flag-draped and accompanied by military members, so the soldier is never alone on the long trip off the battlefield.
At Dover, s/he is cleaned up if possible for an open casket viewing by the family, and the body dressed in uniform with all decorations displayed. At that point, commercial air transport brings the deceased back to his or her home, in this case, Atlanta. Each serviceperson is escorted on the last flight by uniformed military personnel. The process is designed to show respect, and it does. It is only fitting and appropriate that it does so.
Delta Airlines’ staff at Atlanta have taken things further, organizing their own an honor guard, to add that much more to a final step.
No. no, the other way has nothing to do with not having this ceremony, or not honoring those who lost their lives.
This “other way” of looking at all this is to stop turning healthy young men and women into “remains” for causes of unclear purposes. After coming into office promising to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as begun with the darkest of hearts by his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama will leave eight years later having accomplished neither task. After overseeing an “end” to what some now call Iraq War 2.0 in 2011, Obama reinserted American forces back into that country in 2014 for Iraq War 3.0. There is no end in sight.
Now, in Afghanistan, conditions are such that top U.S. military commanders, who only a few months ago were planning to pull the last American troops out of Afghanistan by year’s end, are now discussing a commitment that could keep thousands of troops in the country for decades, an “enduring presence.”
Bring them home, Mr. President. Alive.
How can we stop the Islamic State?
Imagine yourself shaken awake, rushed off to a strategy meeting with your presidential candidate of choice, and told: “Come up with a plan for me to do something about ISIS!” What would you say?
What Hasn’t Worked
You’d need to start with a persuasive review of what hasn’t worked over the past 14-plus years. American actions against terrorism — the Islamic State being just the latest flavor — have flopped on a remarkable scale, yet remain remarkably attractive to our present crew of candidates. (Bernie Sanders might be the only exception, though he supports forming yet another coalition to defeat ISIS.)
Why are the failed options still so attractive? In part, because bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground (after the U.S. military provides the necessary training and weapons). A handful of Special Forces troops, boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will also help turn the tide. By carrot or stick, Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” of “allies” to aid and abet the task at hand. And success will be ours, even though versions of this formula have fallen flat time and again in the Greater Middle East.
Since the June 2014 start of Operation Inherent Resolve against the Islamic State, the U.S. and its coalition partners have flown 9,041 sorties, 5,959 in Iraq and 3,082 in Syria. More are launched every day. The U.S. claims it has killed between 10,000 and 25,000 Islamic State fighters, quite a spread, but still, if accurate (which is doubtful), at best only a couple of bad guys per bombing run. Not particularly efficient on the face of it, but — as Obama administration officials often emphasize — this is a “long war.” The CIA estimates that the Islamic State had perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters under arms in 2014. So somewhere between a third of them and all of them should now be gone. Evidently not, since recent estimates of Islamic State militants remain in that 20,000 to 30,000 range as 2016 begins.
How about the capture of cities then? Well, the U.S. and its partners have already gone a few rounds when it comes to taking cities. After all, U.S. troops claimed Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s al-Anbar Province, in 2003, only to see the American-trained Iraqi army lose it to ISIS in May 2015, and U.S-trained Iraqi special operations troops backed by U.S. air power retake it (in almost completely destroyed condition) as 2015 ended. As one pundit put it, the destruction and the cost of rebuilding make Ramadi “a victory in the worst possible sense.” Yet the battle cry in Washington and Baghdad remains “On to Mosul!”
Similar “successes” have regularly been invoked when it came to ridding the world of evil tyrants, whether Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, only to see years of blowback follow. Same for terrorist masterminds, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as minor-minds (Jihadi John in Syria), only to see others pop up and terror outfits spread. The sum of all this activity, 14-plus years of it, has been ever more failed states and ungoverned spaces.
If your candidate needs a what-hasn’t-worked summary statement, it’s simple: everything.
How Dangerous Is Islamic Terrorism for Americans?
To any argument you make to your preferred presidential candidate about what did not “work,” you need to add a sober assessment of the real impact of terrorism on the United States in order to ask the question: Why exactly are we engaged in this war on this scale?
Hard as it is to persuade a constantly re-terrorized American public of the actual situation we face, there have been only 38 Americans killed in the U.S. by Islamic terrorists, lone wolves, or whacked-out individuals professing allegiance to Islamic extremism, or ISIS, or al-Qaeda, since 9/11. Argue about the number if you want. In fact, double or triple it and it still adds up to a tragic but undeniable drop in the bucket. To gain some perspective, pick your favorite comparison: number of Americans killed since 9/11 by guns (more than 400,000) or by drunk drivers in 2012 alone (more than 10,000).
And spare us the tired trope about how security measures at our airports and elsewhere have saved us from who knows how many attacks. A recent test by the Department of Homeland’s own Inspector General’s Office showed that 95% of contraband, including weapons and explosives, got through airport screening without being detected. Could it be that there just aren’t as many bad guys out there aiming to take down our country as candidates on the campaign trail would like to imagine?
Or take a look at the National Security Agency’s Fourth Amendment-smothering blanket surveillance. How’d that do against the Boston bombing or the attacks in San Bernardino? There’s no evidence it has ever uncovered a real terror plot against this country.
Islamic terrorism in the United States is less a serious danger than a carefully curated fear.
Introduce Your Candidate to the Real World
You should have your candidate’s attention by now. Time to remind him or her that Washington’s war on terror strategy has already sent at least $1.6 trillion down the drain, left thousands of American troops and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Muslims dead. Along the way we lost precious freedoms to the ever-expanding national security state.
So start advising your candidate that a proper response to the Islamic State has to be proportional to the real threat. After all, we have fire departments always on call, but they don’t ride around spraying water on homes 24/7 out of “an abundance of caution.”
We Have to Do Something
So here’s what you might suggest that your candidate do, because you know that s/he will demand to “do something.”
Start by suggesting that, as a society, we take a deep look at ourselves, our leaders, and our media, and stop fanning everyone’s flames. It’s time, among other things, to stop harassing and discriminating against our own Muslim population, only to stand by slack-jawed as a few of them become radicalized, and Washington then blames Twitter. As president, you need to opt out of all this, and dissuade others from buying into it.
As for the Islamic State itself, it can’t survive, never mind fight, without funds. So candidate, it’s time to man/woman up, and go after the real sources of funding.
As long as the U.S. insists on flying air attack sorties (and your candidate may unfortunately need to do so to cover his/her right flank), direct them far more intensely than at present against one of ISIS’s main sources of cash: oil exports. Blow up trucks moving oil. Blow up wellheads in ISIS-dominated areas. Finding targets is not hard. The Russians released reconnaissance photos showing what they claimed were 12,000 trucks loaded with smuggled oil, backed up near the Turkish border.
But remind your candidate that this would not be an expansion of the air war or a shifting from one bombing campaign to a new one. It would be a short-term move, with a defined end point of shutting down the flow of oil. It would only be one part of a far larger effort to shut down ISIS’s sources of funds.
Next, use whatever diplomatic and economic pressure is available to make it clear to whomever in Turkey that it’s time to stop facilitating the flow of that ISIS oil onto the black market. Then wield that same diplomatic and economic pressure to force buyers to stop purchasing it. Some reports suggest that Israel, cut off from most Arab sources of oil, has become a major buyer of ISIS’s supplies. If so, step on some allied toes. C’mon, someone is buying all that black-market black gold.
The same should go for Turkey’s behavior toward ISIS. That would extend from its determination to fight Kurdish forces fighting ISIS to the way it’s allowed jihadis to enter Syria through its territory to the way it’s funneled arms to various extreme Islamic groups in that country. Engage Turkey’s fellow NATO members. Let them do some of the heavy lifting. They have a dog in this fight, too.
And speaking of stepping on allied toes, make it clear to the Saudis and other Sunni Persian Gulf states that they must stop sending money to ISIS. Yes, we’re told that this flow of “donations” comes from private citizens, not the Saudi government or those of its neighbors. Even so, they should be capable of exerting pressure to close the valve. Forget a “no-fly zone” over northern Syria — another fruitless “solution” to the problem of the Islamic State that various presidential candidates are now plugging — and use the international banking system to create a no-flow zone.
You may not be able to stop every buck from reaching ISIS, but most of it will do in a situation where every dollar counts.
Your candidate will obviously then ask you, “What else? There must be more we can do, mustn’t there?”
To this, your answer should be blunt: Get out. Land the planes, ground the drones, and withdraw. Pull out the boots, the trainers, the American combatants and near combatants (whatever the euphemism of the moment for them may be). Anybody who has ever listened to a country and western song knows that there’s always a time to step away from the table and cut your losses. Throwing more money (lives, global prestige…) into the pot won’t alter the cards you’re holding. All you’re doing is postponing the inevitable at great cost.
In the end, there is nothing the United States can do about the processes now underway in the Middle East except stand on the beach trying to push back the waves.
This is history talking to us.
That Darn History Thing
Sometimes things change visibly at a specific moment: December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, or the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometimes the change is harder to pinpoint, like the start of the social upheaval that, in the U.S., came to be known as “the Sixties.”
In the Middle East after World War I, representatives of the victorious British and French drew up national boundaries without regard for ethnic, sectarian, religious, tribal, resource, or other realities. Their goal was to divvy up the defeated Ottoman Empire. Later, as their imperial systems collapsed, Washington moved in (though rejecting outright colonies for empire by proxy). Secular dictatorships were imposed on the region and supported by the West past their due dates. Any urge toward popular self-government was undermined or destroyed, as with the coup against elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or the way the Obama administration manipulated the Arab Spring in Egypt, leading to the displacement of a democratically chosen government by a military coup in 2013.
In this larger context, the Islamic State is only a symptom, not the disease. Washington’s problem has been its desire to preserve a collapsing nation-state system at the heart of the Middle East. The Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly sped up the process in a particularly disastrous fashion. Twelve years later, there can’t be any question that the tide has turned in the Middle East — forever.
It’s time for the U.S. to stand back and let local actors deal with the present situation. ISIS’s threat to us is actually minimal. Its threat to those in the region is another matter entirely. Without Washington further roiling the situation, it’s a movement whose limits will quickly enough become apparent.
The war with ISIS is, in fact, a struggle of ideas, anti-western and anti-imperialist, suffused with religious feeling. You can’t bomb an idea or a religion away. Whatever Washington may want, much of the Middle East is heading toward non-secular governments, and toward the destruction of the monarchies and the military thugs still trying to preserve updated versions of the post-World War I system. In the process, borders, already dissolving, will sooner or later be redrawn in ways that reflect how people on the ground actually see themselves.
There is little use in questioning whether this is the right or wrong thing because there is little Washington can do to stop it. However, as we should have learned in these last 14 years, there is much it can do to make things far worse than they ever needed to be. The grim question today is simply how long this painful process takes and how high a cost it extracts. To take former President George W. Bush’s phrase and twist it a bit, you’re either with the flow of history or against it.
Initially, Washington’s military withdrawal from the heart of the Middle East will undoubtedly further upset the current precarious balances of power in the region. New vacuums will develop and unsavory characters will rush in. But the U.S. has a long history of either working pragmatically with less than charming figures (think: the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, or Saddam Hussein before he became an enemy) or isolating them. Iran, currently the up-and-coming power in the area absent the United States, will no doubt benefit, but its reentry into the global system is equally inevitable.
And the oil will keep flowing; it has to. The countries of the Middle East have only one mighty export and need to import nearly everything else. You can’t eat oil, so you must sell it, and a large percentage of that oil is already sold to the highest bidder on world markets.
It’s true that, even in the wake of an American withdrawal, the Islamic State might still try to launch Paris-style attacks or encourage San Bernardino-style rampages because, from a recruitment and propaganda point of view, it’s advantageous to have the U.S. and the former colonial powers as your number one enemies. This was something Osama bin Laden realized early on vis-à-vis Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in drawing the U.S. deeply into the quagmire and tricking Washington into doing much of his work for him. But the dangers of such attacks remain limited and can be lived with. As a nation, we survived World War II, decades of potential nuclear annihilation, and scores of threats larger than ISIS. It’s disingenuous to believe terrorism is a greater threat to our survival.
And here’s a simple reality to explain to your candidate: we can’t defend everything, not without losing everything in the process. We can try to lock down airports and federal buildings, but there is no way, nor should there be, to secure every San Bernardino holiday party, every school, and every bus stop. We should, in fact, be ashamed to be such a fear-based society here in the home of the brave. Today, sadly enough, the most salient example of American exceptionalism is being the world’s most scared country. Only in that sense could it be said that the terrorists are “winning” in America.
At this point, your candidate will undoubtedly say: “Wait! Won’t these ideas be hard to sell to the American people? Won’t our allies object?”
And the reply to that, at least for a candidate not convinced that more of the same is the only way to go, might be: “After more than 14 years of the wrong answers and the disasters that followed, do you have anything better to suggest?”
In an Op-Ed printed in the Washington Post, former General David Petraeus says it is time to “unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.”
Petraeus went on to claim:
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances.
The former general, who lead the failed Surge in Iraq, and former head of the CIA, who was thrown out of the job after his extra-marital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and after his being convicted of exposing classified information, went on to say:
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power.
So at this point one must ask the key question: has Petraeus had a stroke or is he on Acid, because otherwise his statements ignore reality, perhaps the laws of time and space themselves.
To begin, Petraeus’ statement that airpower in 2001 “ousted the Taliban,” a statement made without apparent irony, would be hilarious if it was not utterly tragic. Petraeus seems to have missed a few meetings, at which he would have learned that since those victories in 2001 the Taliban has been doing just fine, thanks. The U.S. has remained inside the Afghan quagmire for more than 14 more years, and currently has no end game planned for the war. Air power, with or without “a motivated and competent ground force” (as if such a thing can ever exist in Afghanistan, we’ve been training and equipping there for 14 years), never is enough. There are examples to draw from going back into WWI.
It is also unclear on what information Petraeus is basing his statements that the U.S. is broadly “not allowed to attack Taliban targets.” Petraeus only refers to “leaders on the ground” as his source. We’d sure like to hear more about that.
And, David, how the hell did ISIS come into existence anyway, and how did they get into Afghanistan? U.S. have anything to do with that?
I get it. I get why the failed options are still so attractive. Bombing and drones are believed by the majority of Americans to be surgical procedures that kill lots of bad guys, not too many innocents, and no Americans at all. As Washington regularly imagines it, once air power is in play, someone else’s boots will eventually hit the ground. A handful of Special Forces troops, American boots-sorta-on-the-ground, will turn the tide. Washington will collect and hold together some now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t “coalition” to abet the task at hand. It all sounds good, even though it is not.
Petraeus failed in Iraq (that war is still going on and on) and he failed at CIA. Oh, and yes, in 2010 Petraeus served as the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a period in which insurgent attacks on coalition forces spiked to record levels, and violence metastasized to previously stable areas.
So the most important question of all is why anyone is still listening to David Petraeus?
It appears America’s military fear-mongers have just about run out of new ways to try to frighten us into submission. So the best they are able to come up with now is to say the boogie men are heading south, to the blue waters and delightful beaches of the very un-Muslim Caribbean.
Seriously. And the photo above is of an ISIS landing craft.
The number of ISIS devotees living in or coming from the Caribbean is on the rise, according to U.S. Southern Command chief General John Kelly, who oversees “security” (and paranoia) throughout South America.
Kelly said he has seen a shift in rhetoric by top ISIS leaders geared toward a “few very, very radical mosques” in the Caribbean, essentially directing would-be disciples to conduct attacks from their islands (a sort of “work from home” scheme) rather than trek to the Middle East and risk capture by law enforcement. Nonetheless, Kelly estimates that the number of radicals who left the region anyway to join ISIS has risen from 100 to 150 over the last year.
“It seems like the Islamic extremists and terrorists have shifted a lot of their message, and that is, ‘Hey, rather than come to Syria, why don’t you stay at home and do San Bernardino, or do Boston, or do Fort Hood?’” Kelly said Friday at a Pentagon press briefing, reciting just about the only real terror actions in the Homeland over the past 14 years. Also, the Fort Hood shooter was motivated by al Qaeda; ISIS didn’t exist outside of Iraq at that time. Maybe a lesson in there, eh General?
The Marine Corps four-star general said he was particularly worried that “nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean” because small island nations like Jamaica lack law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI or the Transportation Security Administration, and many of them have “very, very small militaries, if they have militaries at all.” Oh, if only they could be more like us…
Now of course the question might be how will these new Islamic pirates of the caribbean infiltrate the United States? Perhaps by disguising themselves as bales of marijuana?
The execution of Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 convicted al-Qaeda members by the Saudis triggered a still-unfolding crisis between the Kingdom and Iran. Protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, and the Iranian government threatened that the Saudis will face “divine” revenge.
Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations and ordering Iran’s ambassador to depart the Kingdom, followed by the cutting off of all commercial ties with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates made formal diplomatic protests to Iran. Additional acts of retaliation in a region that embraces the concept will no doubt follow, likely inside the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or Syria. There will be blood.
But why execute al-Nimr now?
The cleric has been a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family for some years. In 2009 he went as far as threatening Shi’ite secession, provoking a government crackdown in the minority’s eastern heartland. The Saudis have had al-Nimr in custody since 2012, and he was sentenced to death in 2014.
While there are external factors, particularly the broader Saudi-Iranian struggle for power in the Persian Gulf, those are secondary. The execution of al-Nimr was a signal sent by the new King to his supporters and adversaries at home.
The crucial point in understanding any part of Saudi politics is that the Kingdom has not had its Islamic revolution, a transition from a largely secular rule to a theocratic one, as in Iran in 1979 and as is fumbling forward in other nearby locations, such as Syria. Saudi has also not seen the unpredictable upheaval of an Arab Spring. It instead has been ruled by the al-Saud family for decades. The family’s rule has been made possible in part by fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabi clerics, who provide religious legitimacy to the al-Saud family. Alongside all this were a series of strong, patriarchal Saudi kings to keep control of the military and security forces.
Times have changed.
Shi’ite Islam is on the move regionally, perhaps most significantly in Iraq. Following the American invasion of 2003, Iraq changed from a secular regime under Saddam that waged open war against Shi’ite Iran, to the largely Shi’ite regime now in power in Baghdad that openly welcomes Iranian special forces. Saudi Arabia’s steadiest partner, the United States, has become prone to erratic acts, naively bumbling into Iraq in 2003, demanding regime changes here and there, and unofficially partnering with the Iranians to defeat Islamic State.
The U.S. is also far more energy independent than a decade ago and is slowly moving toward some form of new diplomatic relationship with Iran. Oil prices have also been falling. Many disgruntled Saudi Sunnis support Islamic State, an organization that has sworn to take down the al-Saud monarchy. These are all potentially destabilizing factors for the Saudis.
But perhaps most significantly, the al-Saud family’s rule is facing succession issues in the form of the deceased King Salman’s newly empowered 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman. It is the first time since the country’s modern founder, King Abdulaziz, died in 1953 that power has been concentrated in the hands of just one branch of the family. This was done by the deceased King’s decision to bypass one of his brothers, the traditional successor, in favor of a nephew, who has set up his son as successor. There have been thus not surprisingly rumors of opposition to the son, even of a coup.
It was also the son, who, as defense minister, oversaw the decision to go to war in Yemen, launching his country into an open-ended struggle he may sometime face the need to defend.
The execution of al-Nimr send multiple signals. The most significant is a get-tough message to all inside the Kingdom, coupled with an assurance to the Iranians that Salman is firmly in charge and able to further prosecute the war in Yemen. The execution appeases the Wahhabists, and gives the government a chance to crackdown on Shi’ite dissent.
Al-Nimr’s crime was described using terms normally reserved for jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to include plotting to overthrow the Saudi government. In a region that pays particular attention to symbolism, executing al-Nimr as a terrorist, alongside 46 al-Qaeda members, is a crystalline example of how the Saudi authorities view a man seen by many Shi’ites inside the Kingdom as a freedom fighter of sorts, and as a religious figure in greater the Shi’ite world.
And in case anyone still did not get the message, the Saudi government did not give al-Nimr’s body to his family, saying that they already buried all of the corpses.
The burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran plays right into this, though was unlikely to have been anticipated. But what better way to wag the dog for the war in Yemen and perhaps beyond then another example of the “out of control” Iranians, and the threat Shi’ites pose. It doesn’t hurt Saudi relations vis-a-vis the United States to see an embassy burn once again in the heart of Tehran, or for local Saudis angered by a 40 percent rise in gas prices to have an external enemy to distract them.
Events set in motion are difficult to control, and things may yet spin out of Salman’s control, and the ploy backfire; for example, al-Nimr is now a martyr with an international profile.
But for the time being, it appears Salman has moved ahead a few spaces in a real-life Game of Thrones.
For those who still don’t get why the War of Terror continues to fail after 14+ years, here is another lesson.
We all remember “Jihadi John,” who of course was never called that except in the western media. John (real name: Mohammed Emwazi) was a British citizen who became radicalized, joined ISIS and went on to do horrible things, including beheadings. The media, in hand with the White House and Downing Street, fluffed this one loser guy up into an international super villain. So, when eventually the world’s most powerful nation finally killed him in November 2015 with million-dollars air sorties and drones, we were all supposed to go full-out-bin-Laden-celebration, on the road to victory over Islamic State, with a little old fashioned Wild West vengeance thrown in for the feel good.
And so now guess what?
There’s a new guy to replace Jihadi John. He doesn’t have a stupid nickname yet, so let’s be the first and call him Haji Hank. He executed five persons claimed to be British spies, creating the video you see above in the process.
The U.S. strategy is called whack-a-mole. You smite bin Laden and someone takes over — al Qaeda is still around, people. You suppress al Qaeda to a certain extent, and ISIS pops up. There are lots and lots of Jihadi Johns and Haji Hanks out there, waiting in line. Even the world’s most powerful nation can’t kill them all. They do more than reproduce; they recruit.
The video I could locate cuts off before the shooting. Those who have seen the whole thing say the five men are then all shot at point blank range. The video ends with a young child wearing military fatigues and speaking in English: “We are going to go kill the kafir [non-believers] over there.”
U.K. security agencies immediately started to try to identify the man in the video and are working on the assumption that it is a real message from ISIS. “British investigators will have to rely on voice analysis to try to establish his identity and by monitoring chatter on Twitter and other social media as well as other electronic communication to see if there are any clues,” reports the Guardian.
Twitter chatter. That’ll show them.
So while we huddled in drunken fear here in The Homeland, Germans in Das Homeland played out a similar game.
You may have missed it among updates of our impending doom from terror attacks on New Year’s Eve, but in Munich two train stations were evacuated and closed after German officials had received a “very concrete” tip that suicide attacks were planned there. Everything got locked down and even the American Embassy in Germany Tweeted out an urgent bulletin to Americans.
And yeah, I buried the lede: Nothing happened.
Now, in the clearer light of morning, we learn more about that “very concrete” tip that set all this off.
According to Reuters, a German policespokesperson said “We received names. We can’t say if they were in Munich or in fact in Germany. At this point we don’t know if these names are correct, if these people even exist, or where they might be. We have no information that these people are in Munich or in Germany.”
Germany’s interior minister added “Security forces anticipate the high threat of international terrorism to persist.” Who knew?
The train stations were reopened by morning and the police presence significantly reduced, apparently because the vague tip from the night before was seen as even more vague a little while later. I guess “very concrete” tips have limited life spans, or Germany is really sure terrorists are always right on time with their suicide bombs. Heck, maybe they missed their bus or something, or their watches were still set to Syrian time.
Elsewhere in Europe, police in the Austrian capital Vienna said a “friendly” intelligence service had warned European capitals of the possibility of a shooting or bomb attack before New Year. Nothing happened.
In Belgium, authorities off the usual New Year’s Eve fireworks display in the capital, citing fears of a possible militant attack. Nothing happened.
Throughout the Munich alert, police kept up a stream of messages in several languages on Twitter, at times alternating incongruously between security warnings and New Year greetings. Reminder: Nothing happened.
Time to get a new catchphrase Mr. War of Terror — “out of an abundance of caution” has worn out its welcome and means little more than over reaction. Yes, yes, of course something could always happen somewhere. But that’s the point, and panic, overreacting and crying wolf does nothing to protect against that.