Troubling double standard on besieged Iraqi town of Amirli

The UN is trying to draw attention to Amirli, Iraq, which ISIS has laid siege to for the past two months. The town, located several dozen miles east of Tikrit or south of Kirkuk, is home to 20,000 Shia Iraqi Turkmen living at the nexus of the Sunni Arab heartland and greater Iraqi Kurdistan — and ISIS plans to wipe them out. No Iraqi, Kurdish, or Western military force has stepped in to help. [Update: On Saturday, August 30, 2014, U.S. airstrikes began, while relief aircraft from Australia, Britain, and France dropped in supplies. Iraqi ground offensives began several days earlier.]

Though surrounded by more than 30 villages (presumably Sunni Arab) that have defected to ISIS, the town was able to seal itself off and maintains a tenuous lifeline to the outside via periodic helicopters. So far they’ve held out without much help since June — essentially just a small number of Iraqi soldiers and any weapons they had on hand — but they are now running out of food. Children are reportedly eating only once every three days.

Click on the map above to zoom out to the wider region.

Here’s one eyewitness report:

No Kurdish peshmerga, who have been fighting the Islamic State, have reached Amerli. There are only a few Iraqi soldiers who have remained after the retreat of the armed forces in June.

Haider al-Bayati, an Amerli resident, said the town is sealed off in all directions, with the nearest Islamic State position only 500 meters. With only helicopters able to bring in food, residents face starvation. Electricity has been cut off. The town has no hospital — the sick and injured must either be treated at a clinic staffed by nurses or evacuated by air.

With the helicopters only able to carry about 30 people per day, women have died in childbirth because of the lack of doctors, and according to residents, “People are dying from simple wounds because we don’t have the means to care for them.”

Dr Ali al-Bayati, who works for a humanitarian foundation has been moving in and out of the town by helicopter, added, “We are depending on salty water, which gives people diarrhoea and other diseases. Since the siege started, more than 50 sick or elderly people have died. Children have also died because of dehydration and disease.”

Former MP Mohammed Al-Bayati claimed that the town was being targeted by the Islamic State because of its Turkmen population. Noting the high-profile international effort to help the refugees of Sinjar after that town was overrun by the jihadists, he asserted, “Unfortunately, the situations are treated with two different standards”.

The question, then, is why the United States and the international community has not rallied to relieve the besieged town as they have done for the 40,000 starving Yazidis who were encircled for a week or so on Mount Sinjar.
Read more

Those who intervened

It is the 20th anniversary right now of the start of the Rwandan Genocide. In Yugoslavia, in the same time span, there were many massacres and ethnic purges occurring as well, as the country continued to disintegrate over the the 1990s. (Next year will be the anniversary of the worst European massacre in postwar history.) There have been a number of compelling and important perspectives and accounts surfacing now, two decades later, from both episodes.

In Rwanda, there was very little outside intervention until the very end, when it was already over. In Bosnia and the wider Yugoslav conflict, there was some intervention off and on by outside powers to try to halt the violence, but it was generally too little too late. Certainly much of the external narrative focuses on those who failed to stand up — inside and outside the countries — to protect the innocent civilians. I think that’s important and justified, in that we should not forget and must do better. But it’s also important to remember and honor those who did intervene in these crises, at great personal risk — because their stories are the ones that remind us we could have and should have helped.

Here are two accounts I’ve read this week that I wanted to highlight. I’ve pulled just one paragraph from each, to encourage you to read the full articles.


Background: As the cowardly UN Security Council voted to start pulling hundreds of peacekeepers out of Rwanda during the genocide, a Ghanaian general decided on his own (for which he would be scolded by his president later) that he would not withdraw his last 454 troops from the country. They were young, inexperienced, and barely armed. The militias had already brazenly executed Belgian peacekeeping troops with impunity. And still the Ghanaians stayed. They are credited with saving as many as 30,000 lives, often simply by refusing to move out of the way and talking and talking until the militiamen left in frustration. There were only 5 casualties.

Excerpt from “Ghana peacekeepers remember Rwanda’s genocide” by Chris Stein for Al Jazeera:

The colonel demanded that they call their commanders, going back and forth with the leaders of the assembled mob for hours. The militiamen would threaten him with grenades, going so far as to pull out their pins in front of his face. [Col.] Yaache would pick the pins up off the ground and put them back in the grenades himself.


“I Found the Man Who Saved My Family From a Balkan Death Camp” by Kenan Trebinčević for Slate.


I realized that Pero never had the power to stop the massacres. Yet he’d carry our murdered citizens on his conscience. I could never forget: He saved my family. I decided he was a noble man trapped in a depravity he didn’t ask for. While I was a bilingual world traveler nearly able to move on, history held him hostage, keeping him from rest. I wondered for the first time if he’d suffered more than I did.

France: Back to Africa

From the BBC’s West Africa analyst, Paul Melly, today:

Central African Republic crisis: Another French intervention?
A fresh crisis in Africa – and once again French troops are on their way. This time around 1,000 extra soldiers are heading to the Central African Republic (CAR) to restore order after a rebel takeover. They will supplement the 400 odd French troops already on the ground in the country.

So what’s new? Is this just a case of Paris once again acting as gendarme in a former sub-Saharan colony?

Are we back to the days when the famously influential Jacques Foccart acted as Africa adviser in the Elysee Palace and French paratroops made and unmade governments, protecting allies – some of them deeply unsavoury – and displacing supposed troublemakers?


But the temptation to reach for old history should be resisted. We are not in the 1970s. Africa has changed. And so has France.

This piece is a very solid and detailed look at the major shift in Africa policy undertaken by the Socialists during the 1990s and then again since 2012. Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative from the UMP, also made contributions in the same direction — but his less diplomatic approach toward interventions angered many African leaders, whereas François Hollande works closely with regional leaders to get their approval prior to going into Mali, earlier this year.

Sarkozy’s biggest achievement, however, was crucial: ending France’s official support for “incumbent regimes” in Africa friendly toward France. Now, bad is bad and no dictators are automatically safe.

Further background on the situation in the Central African Republic: AFD Episode 65 and Episode 60.

U.S. still shouldn’t intervene in Syria

Stephen Walt provides a key comment on Syria (in an interesting NYT discussion):

“The brutal nature of the Assad regime has been apparent for decades, and its forces have already killed thousands with conventional means. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks or sarin gas? Dead is dead, no matter how it is done.”

tomahawk-missile-launch-200I agree with that. There are international norms and laws against using chemical weapons, but unfortunately the calculus still shouldn’t change because the consequences of a U.S. intervention and the ability to execute the goal of the intervention haven’t changed just because chemical weapons are in use now. Intervention will either fail to achieve anything or it will drag the U.S. into a fresh catastrophe we can ill afford by any measurement. Or both. And without UN authorization (or a provocation against a NATO member such as Turkey), a Western military operation would be illegal.

Pick your crises

I still don’t understand why people are demanding the United States “do something” about the Syrian Civil War and “show leadership” when there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for our ability to do anything positive (if at all) about the situation.

And as an interventionist in general, I offer this observation:
An America that intervenes everywhere will soon be able to intervene nowhere.

If we go in there, we won’t be able to help anyone else for at least a decade. Or maybe ever. 

Two-Prong Test for a Syria Intervention

I just quickly wrote this out in the past hour based on a half dozen papers and radio segments I’ve done in the past, but I hope it is illuminating in some way to readers.

When considering a U.S. humanitarian military intervention — i.e. an intervention premised upon the notion that it will stop some atrocity in progress, as opposed to one premised upon a direct national security interest — I have a very simple two-pronged assessment system:

1. Does the United States have the capacity to execute the intervention successfully?
2. Will the intervention create a net positive outcome for the involved civilians while not worsening the position of the United States?

Those two clear points address myriad potential problems. And both must be satisfied to justify intervening.

The first one tells you not to do it if the U.S. can’t militarily execute a strategy successfully (for example if the topography, geography, or type of war prevent the successful use of the primary tactic such as airstrikes — or if a strike/invasion won’t actually stop the atrocity or accomplish its goals). And it tells you not to do it if the U.S. military is stretched too thin for a successful operation at necessary levels due to other engagements. Finally, it tells you not to do it if it brings reasonably likely chance of getting sucked in and failing after an initially successful entrance (a quagmire isn’t a win and avoiding one falls under capacity to succeed).

The second one tells you not to do it if intervening will make the situation worse for the affected civilians (total anarchy and brutal civil war with mass civilian slaughter *resulting from* an intervention is not better than “liberating” an oppressed population — see Iraq). And it also tells you again not to intervene to save a population if the goal is totally open-ended and will make the U.S. more precarious. If the presence of U.S. troops helps stabilize a situation and establish a workable transition to a permanent replacement, that’s fine. If the U.S. troops exacerbate a situation or are the ONLY thing preventing genocide permanently, that doesn’t help either. There has to be a better plan and a way out/forward for both the affected civilians and for the U.S. Why? Because even setting aside U.S. interests and costs, every quagmire intervention makes it less possible to help the next place. Thus it’s against global humanitarian interests to have a failed mess of an intervention in any one place.

I actually highly support the principle of military interventions for humanitarian reasons that don’t directly affect U.S. interests. But only if they satisfy those 2 criteria.

Syria doesn’t meet that 2-pronged test. Due to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. isn’t prepared for a short or long intervention in a large(ish), mountainous nation like Syria that’s in the middle of a big civil war with no clear end in sight (or even a winner to back that won’t screw over the population later or stab the U.S. in the back). There’s almost not even a concrete goal the United States could successfully “achieve” in such an intervention. No easy way to take out the regime, no plan to deal with the resulting mess if the regime does fall (which won’t end the conflict), and no legitimate group to empower to lead a transition successfully to reunite the nation. So the first one fails. And it’s not at all clear (unlike say Libya or Kosovo) that the U.S. can even actually help the civilian population and could even make it worse. While harming U.S. strength. So the second definitely fails.

Thus, the U.S. shouldn’t intervene in Syria as the situation currently stands. If the scale of chemical weapons attacks — if they are indeed being used on civilians — increases dramatically, the benefits of an intervention may rise above the costs. And if they were being used in a different country even once, that might be another story. But right now, right there, it’s a no go. Everybody would lose.

What should the longer objectives be in Mali?

French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)The Economist ran what I believe to be a fairly reasonable editorial on the French & African-led UN interventions in Mali. They argue that the intervention should be limited to driving the jihadist groups out of the northern cities (but not getting dragged into a quagmire by trying in vain to stomp out an insurgency in the semi-desert “wastelands” through force) and to stabilizing the interim government in the south and freeing it from the shadow of the military officials who overthrew the elected government last spring.

If the Islamist rebels are prevented from seizing the south and forced out of the northern cities, and if serious efforts are made to improve governance (and hopefully provide economic redress to longtime northern grievances that allowed a window for the jihadists to outflank the secular rebels), then Mali will be on a safer footing and the West will be less fearful of it becoming a terrorist safe-haven in West Africa, which in turn means less future interference. The total incompetence and lust for power of the Malian Army is largely to blame for the current situation and the need for an intervention; had the Army not tried to overthrow a twenty-year-old democracy during a tantrum over their own inability to beat back a poorly organized rebellion despite American counterinsurgency training and funding, the northern rebels (first secular, then Islamist) would not have been able to take sweeping control over extensive territory, and the Islamist threat would have been more imagined than real. That said, the United States and the other Western powers should never have let the situation get this far by ignoring the poverty and real tensions that provoked the latest of many northern rebellions, and they should not have relied so heavily on a southern government that was unprepared for any real military response let alone a multifaceted engagement strategy to prevent rebellion at all.

In the future, I hope we consider providing more humanitarian aid to the region, but I fear the rise of the real Islamists there will preclude that even more so now than when the alleged Islamists who were actually secular separatists were the dominant regional faction against the government. During the Cold War, we used the Marshall Plan to rapidly alleviate poverty and strengthen moderate socialist and Social Democratic parties in Western and Central Europe — to prevent the spread of communism — by providing humanitarian aid and institution-building aid in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviets tried to do the same in reverse, but this was trickier for them given their own economic problems. Islamic political parties in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia have built supporter networks rapidly in impoverish regions not with talk of waging war on infidels but by providing humanitarian services, non-governmental shadow institutions, and jobs to people who are ignored, unemployed, and hungry. In Europe, we were willing to buy out reasonable Socialists and their constituents to halt the spread of communism and advertise American/capitalist economic benefits. Instead of replicating this extremely successful policy in the Middle East and Africa, we have opted nine times out of ten to isolate, ignore, or repress political Islam, even when it is relatively moderate, yet we do not offer any comparable alternative humanitarian aid, institutional aid, or employment, let alone offer any loyalty buyouts of these parties.

Ultimately, I suppose the Western powers pay for this strategy choice in lost troops, terrorist attacks, and fighter planes that cost far more (and do so for a longer period) than aid and investments would. It’s also too bad that voters don’t see the merits and payoff of an alternative strategy and keep saying they want to reduce foreign aid even further. But at the end of the day, we need our leaders to lead, advocate, and educate the public. That’s something most of them just aren’t doing.