Bursting bubbles on the Syria war

“Getting Real: Facing Necessary Facts in Syria and Iraq” by Michael J. Brenner for The Globalist:

Washington only compounds its culpability while simultaneously reducing the chances of finding a tolerable way out of the jam if it remains addicted to fanciful thinking.

And yet it remains wedded to a set of totally unrealistic propositions. This results in the creation of a make-believe world that bears no relation to reality.

Bursting bubbles

Here are some of the biggest fictions that must be abandoned:

  • Jihadist Syrian frontrunners al-Nusra/al-Qaeda can be transmogrified into mere expressions of genuine Sunni grievances.
  • Nusra jihadists can be converted into the instrument for militarily crushing ISIS just because there is nobody else willing or able to a job America won’t take on.
  • Saudi Arabia and the Gulfies will give priority to defeating the various Salafist groups rather than to the removal the Alawite regime in Damascus.
  • ISIS’s financial lifeline can be cut without destroying the infrastructure of its oil trade and without getting Turkey to cease and desist its complicity in sustaining the oil trade.
  • The Russians can be “isolated” and denied a major role in determining Syria’s future by calling Putin dirty names and reciting the number of worthless partners in Obama’s ersatz coalition.
  • Phantom Syrian rebel armies devoted to tolerance and democracy – that don’t exist except in the escapist visions of Washington’s strategic non-thinkers – can be relied upon to win battlefield victories.
  • Establishing a no-fly buffer zone in northern Syria would do something other than satisfy Erdogan’s ambition to keep open his supply line to al-Nusra and his lucrative commercial dealings with ISIS.
  • Such a no-fly buffer zone would not contradict our purposes in Syria and would be tolerated by Russia.
  • It is within the power of the United States to shape the Middle East to its own specifications while contesting a legitimate place for Iran, Russia, Yemenese Houthis and anyone else who doesn’t hew the Saudi-Israeli-Erdogan line Washington has endorsed.


Flag of the Syrian government.

Flag of the Syrian government.

Arming ISIS accidentally

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.


Ever wondered how ISIS and the early insurgency in Iraq got so many decent weapons so fast? It wasn’t just by capturing them after big surrenders by the Iraq Army.

Here’s Al Jazeera English, quoting an Amnesty International report on how the United States carelessly created the conditions necessary to arm ISIS fully:

“From 2003 to 2007, the US and other coalition members transferred more than one million infantry weapons and pistols with millions of rounds of ammunition to the Iraqi armed forces, despite the fact that the army was poorly structured, corrupt and ill-disciplined”.
“Hundreds of thousands of those weapons went missing and are still unaccounted for. During this period, illicit markets flourished, as did covert supplies from Iran, making arms and ammunition readily available to armed groups operating in Iraq.”

Yet another reason to be so wary of Western efforts to arm various groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, or anywhere else in the world right now.

Op-Ed | France and the West: Inconvenient Questions

This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.

January 2013: French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)

January 2013: French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)

Nothing can ever justify or excuse an act of terrorism against civilians. But that does not absolve us from truly comprehending the links between the foreign and military policy approaches pursued by Western governments and the reactions this generates.

The aftermath of a terrorist attack is an especially difficult time to ask difficult questions about strategy. But just as the United States has faced a lot of (justified) criticism for refusing to acknowledge the direct linkages between misguided interventions and blowback incidents, we cannot apply a different yardstick to France.

Watch for the warmongers

This is all the more critical as, in the wake of the events in Paris, there are those pundits and policymakers who are trying to let slip the dogs of war or beat the drums by defining the scourge of “radical Islam” and “homegrown terrorism” as the root of all evil.

If we should have learned one thing by now, it is that tough talk is not the same as serious, strategic policymaking. It is irresponsible to undertake foreign policies without accurately representing to the public the likely risks to them that it will create.

As we assess the future approach, we must also take account of the role that Western governments have played in creating this catastrophe.

This applies especially to all those who glibly claim that ISIS “cannot be contained; it must be defeated,” as Hillary Clinton has just done.

Such an argument conveniently overlooks the fact that it was the U.S. government that inadvertently gave rise to this movement. Its decades of invasions and unpopular interference in the region ultimately culminated in the Pandora’s box war of choice in Iraq. Out of, and in reaction to, these policies grew al Qaeda and ISIS.

The advocates of such a strategy must also explain what can possibly be accomplished by responding with yet more force in an already war-torn region.

An eye for an eye strategy, while sounding principled, makes the whole world blind to the pitfalls such an approach has been triggering.

The French example

France can actually serve as Exhibit A of the pitfalls of a more “muscular” approach. The cruel attacks in Paris are demonstrably reactive in nature.

The unfortunate reality no one wants to discuss at the moment is that France’s Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012-present) have pushed the envelope for modern France on maintaining a highly aggressive and forcible military presence in majority Muslim countries.

Not since perhaps the Algerian War has France meddled with, sent troops to or bombed so many predominantly Muslim regions in such a short span.

President Sarkozy led regime change in Libya by air campaign in 2011 at the nadir of his domestic popularity. We know what that resulted in. He did it for oil and whatever it was that Iraq War apologist Bernard-Henry Lévy promised him would transpire.

But his successor, President Hollande, went way, way farther — claiming, almost George W. Bush style, that he was fighting ‘them’ over there to protect France from terrorist attacks at home. This approach painted a much bigger target on France’s back.

Hollande’s misadventures

The Hollande record is this: First, he invaded Mali in January 2013, after it collapsed as part of fallout from the Libya meltdown. He did so purportedly to stop terrorism and prevent the creation of a terrorism launching pad near Europe (despite Libya being much closer and truly festering).

In December 2013, he then invaded Central African Republic to ‘save’ Christians from Muslim militias that had already been disbanded. (It did not help that French troops now implicated in widespread child abuse stood by as Christian militias mutilated Muslim civilians’ corpses in front of them.)

In May 2014, Hollande announced a large, permanent rapid strike force deployment to five “Sahel-Sahara” West African nations, all of which were majority or plurality Muslim. He sent jets to bomb Iraq in September 2014. Finally, a year later in September 2015 he sent jets to bomb Syria.

It is difficult to understand Hollande’s declaration that the November 2015 Paris attacks are an “act of war” by ISIS, in view of the reality that France has already been at war with ISIS for more than a year.

Note, too, that the United States was barely involved in half of those misguided efforts.

Whether or not it can match U.S. capacity, France is no longer a junior partner or even hapless “sidekick” to the United States’ mayhem. In that sense, Hollande has gone much further than Tony Blair ever did during the Iraq War episode. Blair restrained himself to just being a sidekick.

France under Hollande has turned itself into an active cyclone by pursuing a militarized foreign policy – a strategy that may prove self-defeating. Read more

Which awful jihadists will be our new pretend friend in Syria?

Arsenal Bolt: Quick updates on the news stories we’re following.

Gareth Porter explains how the U.S. is about to be forced by its own allies to accept certain anti-democratic terrorist groups over other anti-democratic terrorist groups in Syria, unless it (sensibly) revises its policy there quite dramatically:

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has revealed that the next phase [of the Vienna talks] will turn on bargaining among the international sponsors of anti-Assad groups about who would be allowed to join a new government.

Those decisions, in turn, would depend on which of the groups are deemed by the foreign sponsors of those very groups to be “terrorists” and which are deemed acceptable.

As Hammond acknowledges, the Saudis are certainly not going to agree to call Ahrar al-Sham or other extremist jihadist groups allied with it – or perhaps even al-Nusra – “terrorists”.

They may have to give up al-Nusra Front, which has expressed support for the Islamic State terrorist assault on Paris. But they rest they are likely to continue to back.

Unless Obama is prepared to face a rupture in the U.S. alliance with the Sunni Gulf Sheikdoms over the issue, the result will be that the same anti-democratic groups committed to overthrowing the remnants of the old order by force will be invited by the United States and its Gulf allies to take key positions in the post-Assad government.


Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Pictured: Destroyed Syrian Army tanks, August 2012, after the Battle of Azaz. (Credit: Christiaan Triebert via Wikipedia)

Eritrea joins Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war after inducements

Sanction-laden Eritrea is expected to receive a huge cash and fuel payout from Saudi Arabia for the use of Eritrean air space, an air base, a seaport, and 400 troops in Yemen, according to a report by the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

The country is just a short hop away from southwestern Yemen. Neighboring (and opposing) Ethiopian media reacted very negatively to the report. The findings were summarized as follows:

Recent reports show that Eritrea is officially involved in the Yemeni crisis allowing the Saudi-led Arab coalition to use its Assab port, airspace and territorial waters in fighting the Houthi rebels.

Eritrea now joins fellow African states Sudan, Egypt, and Morocco in the Saudi quagmire in Yemen, along with several Gulf states.


Doomed to fail: The new Syria talks

If you want to know why the Syria conflict can’t be ended by willpower or the snap of a fingers, this is a good analysis by Gareth Porter. The latest peace talks don’t include any significant armed combatant party in Syria – not any stripe of rebels, not the government, and certainly not ISIS. Practically speaking, on the side of the anti-regime forces, there is nobody that the rest of the world is comfortable negotiating with who could actually control any armed fighters if a deal was reached. The Syrian government (or even just the Army) doesn’t want to negotiate a deal either because they have no interest in signing a deal that brings al Qaeda/Nusra to power, and they are currently the primary non-ISIS opponent.

Flag of the Syrian government.

Flag of the Syrian government.

Trench warfare comes to eastern Syria

Trench warfare largely fell out of favor when aerial bombing became more commonplace and it wasn’t so rare for one or both sides to possess aircraft with serious ground attack capabilities. (Paratroopers didn’t help matters either, if you were trying to defend a location via front-facing trenches.)

But in a conflict where neither side has its own air force, such as the war between Kurdish YPG fighters and ISIS in eastern Syria, extensive trench complexes still make sense for slowing offensives and for securing territory. The New York Times sent reporters to the Kurdish front lines and reported back on the scale and complexity of the earthworks there:

[Kurdish] fighters hold most of the more than 280-mile-long front line with the Islamic State. Parts of it have come to resemble an international border, with deep trenches and high berms running for miles, lined with bright lights to prevent jihadist infiltrators. The whole line is dotted with heavily sandbagged positions to protect against machine gun and mortar attacks by the jihadists.

The geo-ethnic divisions wracking Syria, Iraq, and Turkey today were largely drawn during World War I and the five or so years that followed it, so it’s interesting to see massive earthworks and trench networks like that war re-emerge a century later in the waging of this conflict.

Approximate front line of the southward push by Kurdish YPG forces against ISIS in eastern Syria, as of October 26, 2015. (Map via Wikimedia community.)

Approximate front line of the southward push by Kurdish YPG forces against ISIS in eastern Syria, as of October 26, 2015. (Map via Wikimedia community.)