Commentary Magazine


Topic: al-Qaeda

Cooperating with Assad

Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

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Imagine, during World War II, Western intelligence agencies meeting with representatives of Nazi Germany to gather information on Soviet spying. Pretty hard to imagine, no?

And yet it now emerges that European intelligence agencies, including those of Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, have met with representatives of the Assad regime to share information on European jihadists who have come to Syria to fight the regime. The spooks’ concerns are understandable since there is a very real danger that jihadists who travel to fight in Syria could return to stage acts of terrorism in their homeland.

Yet the fact that the intelligence representatives of these countries, which have broken diplomatic relations with Damascus, are willing to meet with Assad’s thugs is very telling–and what it tells us is that they have basically accommodated themselves to the perpetual existence of the Assad regime. And why shouldn’t they, when the U.S., which would have to lead any coalition to oust Assad, refuses to do so?

President Obama has even discontinued providing non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition for fear of it falling into the wrong hands. Instead he has struck a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, which essentially makes the U.S. a partner of the Syrian regime.

It is only a small step from where we are today toward tacit toleration for Assad’s atrocities, much as the West provided tacit support for Saddam Hussein’s regime in its war against Iran in the 1980s. Maybe there really is no other choice left in Syria–maybe the only alternative to Assad’s thuggery is the thuggery of al-Qaeda on the other side–but if so, that’s a pretty damning indictment of the moral and practical failure of Western (read: American) policy in Syria.

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Ringing a Fire Bell in the Night

This week’s issue of the Weekly Standard is devoted to foreign policy and national security–and specifically to explaining how dangerous the situation in the Middle East is and the fundamental misconceptions and multiplying overseas failures of President Obama.

The contributors include COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan, Steve Hayes, Jessica Lewis, Thomas Joscelyn, Thomas Donnelly, and Mary Habeck. Among the points the various authors make are these:

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This week’s issue of the Weekly Standard is devoted to foreign policy and national security–and specifically to explaining how dangerous the situation in the Middle East is and the fundamental misconceptions and multiplying overseas failures of President Obama.

The contributors include COMMENTARY’s own Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan, Steve Hayes, Jessica Lewis, Thomas Joscelyn, Thomas Donnelly, and Mary Habeck. Among the points the various authors make are these:

(a) President Obama is presiding over a substantial decline in defense spending that “has led to a readiness crisis that recalls the hollow army days of the 1970s.” (Boot)

(b) We are trying to convince ourselves that al-Qaeda franchises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and West Africa are not really a threat to us. “We may indeed convince ourselves, but that will not change the reality that they are a serious threat…. The tide of war – of this war, of al Qaeda’s war against us – is not receding, it is advancing.” (Kagan)

(c) When President Obama boasted repeatedly in the 2012 presidential campaign that “al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” he was “defining al Qaeda down. But redefining al Qaeda is quite different from killing it.” (Hayes)

(d) We are seeing the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “AQI is fighting in Iraq and Syria under its new banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Solutions to Iraq’s current crisis cannot be found uniquely in Iraq. The United States needs to take action to degrade al Qaeda affiliates in Syria while also acting to degrade [Bashar] Assad’s capabilities.” (Lewis)

(e) “Al Qaeda’s policy of aggressive geographic expansion has been largely successful of late… The war in Syria has been a boon for al Qaeda… If anything, Obama now defines al Qaeda more narrowly than ever before, even as al Qaeda’s many branches have become more virulent.” (Joscelyn)

(f) “The entire region – states and nonstate actors, ethnic and sectarian groups, militants of all stripes, and the ordinary people on the street – is engaged in a two-fold contest for power: over who will control the future of the region and who will control the future of Islam. We can pretend that the context does not affect us, but if the enemy wins, he has promised to bring the war home to us again. We may have lost interest in the Middle East, but the Middle East has not lost interest in us.” (Donnelly and Habeck)

I’ve quoted these authors at length because what they say not only seems right to me but urgent as well. The American people are “war weary,” to use a common phrase these days. Our commander in chief is diffident and irresolute. He does not understand the nature of the struggle. Our enemies, on the other hand, do. They are malevolent, determined, on the rise.  They once again view America as “the weak horse.”

These are dangerous days, and it’s important that at least some among us ring a fire bell in the night.

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Repeating the Iraq Mistake in Syria

No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

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No, this is not a post about the wisdom of using military force in either Iraq or Syria. Long before the decision to go to invade Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States was confronted with a decision about how to approach Kurdish autonomy.

Almost immediately after the George H.W. Bush administration decided to release Iraqi Republican Guards and other POWs captured during Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack both Shi’ite Iraqis in southern Iraq and the Kurds in northern Iraq. At the urging of Turkey, which did not want millions of Kurdish refugees flowing into its territory, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom created a no-fly zone which provided the space necessary for Iraqi Kurds to create their own administration.

I first visited the Iraqi Kurdish safe haven nine years later, spending about nine months there, writing in the New Republic at the time a few dispatches. Iraqi Kurdistan was stable and safe from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. Nevertheless, it remained a pariah, suffering not only under international sanctions because it was part of Iraq, but also under Saddam Hussein’s own blockade. While some U.S. diplomats privately encouraged me to go, the more officious ones–for example, a consular officer in Ankara–warned me that she would consider what I was doing illegal because I was using a U.S. passport to travel to what was technically Iraq; I went anyway.

Fast-forward almost 23 years since Iraqi Kurds established their de facto autonomy. Today, as Secretary of State John Kerry visits France to try to coddle and cajole various factions to come to the Geneva II conference later this month, one group is decidedly not invited to attend: The Democratic Union Party (PYD) which controls Rojava, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian and de facto autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. As I’ve noted here before, in Rojava, children go to school, the shops are open, and men and women go about their business. Christians worship freely, as do Muslims. Not everything is well in Rojava: The Nusra Front and more radical elements of the Syrian opposition have attacked the secular zone repeatedly, but Rojava’s own militia has successfully beat the al-Qaeda affiliates back.

U.S. diplomats say they blacklist the Syrian Kurds for a number of reasons:

  • They accuse the Syrian Kurds of not cooperating with the opposition.
  • They accuse the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim of cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militias.
  • They accuse Rojava of marginalizing other Kurdish groups.
  • And the State Department is wary of offending Turkey’s sensibilities by recognizing another Kurdish entity on Turkey’s borders.

None of these are good reasons and, indeed, in many cases, they are simply wrong.

The Syrian Kurds do cooperate with the opposition, although they also have warned the United States repeatedly about the growing radicalization of the opposition. This is a message that the State Department has not wanted to hear, and so they have effectively punished the messenger. They also demand that the opposition recognize their own right to autonomy, a demand Iraq’s Kurds long made.

Salih Muslim strongly denies cooperating with Bashar al-Assad’s militia, although he acknowledges talking to all groups. That is effectively what John Kerry has blessed by pushing for Geneva II. Given how the Syrian Kurds have suffered under Baathist rule, PYD officials take special umbrage at the notion that they favor Assad.

The Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq does not like Rojava because it does not like competition. Masud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has never been able to shed his tribal mindset. Many Syrian Kurds do not like the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq because its tribal policies are unattractive to the Syrian Kurdish mindset. In addition, many Syrian Kurds—indeed, the vast majority it seems—favor political groups closer to Turkey’s Kurds. Barzani has the State Department’s ear, however, and seems intent on having the United States take sides in what is effectively an internal Kurdish political dispute.

Turkey, of course, hates Rojava because it opposes Kurdish autonomy and because Rojava maintains close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party which for years waged an insurgency against Turkey. That insurgency is over, however, and Turkey itself has entered peace talks with the former insurgents. How ironic it is that the State Department bends over backwards for Turkey, a state which has supported al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, pursued policies that compromise NATO systems to China, and has helped Iran avoid sanctions.

The last thing the United States should do is undercut the only stable, secular, democratic, and functioning section of Syria. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seem intent on doing. Rather than treat Rojava like a pariah, it’s time the United States treats it like a model.

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Is America More Sectarian Than Iraq?

The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

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The seizure by al-Qaeda of the cities of Ramadi and Falluja in Iraq’s al-Anbar governorate has been pause for reflection around Washington and among many former officials, journalists, and other Iraq watchers. Many blame sectarianism, and that is not wrong. Al-Qaeda is a sectarian organization that sees Shi’ite interpretation of Islam as corrupt and profane.

Politico Magazine typified this when, on January 9, they asked various officials and analysts “Is Iraq’s Mess America’s Fault?” Here’s how Politico introduced the segment:

Sunni militants—provoked by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and abetted by extremist spillover from the Syrian civil war—have gained a foothold particularly in Iraq’s Anbar province, where last week members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed the city of Falluja.

Think about the implication of that: Blaming Maliki for provoking al-Qaeda is like blaming the United States for provoking Osama Bin Laden before 9/11. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s policies may have antagonized many Sunni Arabs in al-Anbar, but the root of al-Qaeda’s antagonism is not isolated toward Maliki but rather the fact that any Shi’ite holds power over Sunni Arabs.

The sectarian narrative is simple to grasp, and many do. Col. Peter Mansoor (ret.), John Nagl, and Emma Sky, all of whom served admirably in Iraq, blame Maliki for pursuing sectarian vendettas. While Sky is right to say that the prime minister has worked to remove and marginalize rivals, she continues:

The trumped up warrant against the former finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a Sunni, in December 2012 sparked widespread year-long protests by Sunnis aggrieved at their marginalization. A raid last April by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on a protest camp in Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis. Last month, in response to the deteriorating security situation in Iraq and horrific attacks against Shia civilians, Maliki ordered the ISF to raid an al Qaeda training camp in the deserts of western Anbar province. But when 24 Iraqi soldiers, including the commander of the Seventh Army Division, died in the raid, Maliki then ordered ISF into the city of Ramadi to arrest a Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed Alwani, and to close down the protest camps, which he accused of being occupied by al Qaeda.

While this creates a damning narrative, what she omits is also important: How trumped-up were the charges against Issawi when he himself has paid blood money to make settlement with the families of victims in whose murders he was complicit? Likewise, while the raid on Hawija led to the deaths of 50 Sunnis, Iraqi forces first went in with water cannons until they were fired upon with heavy weapons by the protestors. Only then did the raid turn violent. Hawija has for years been a hotbed of radicalism widely sympathetic to al-Qaeda and hostile to any Shi’ite or Kurd who might step foot in the town. It is true that the Iraqi government might have exaggerated the numbers of al-Qaeda present in the protest camps of Ramadi, but what is certain—at least according to YouTube videos of Friday sermons and rallies and Facebook declarations—is that al-Qaeda was present. That raises the question about how much al-Qaeda presence Maliki should tolerate and, just as important, how much al-Qaeda presence Sunni residents of Anbar should tolerate before being forced to react or expecting an Iraqi government reactions. To transpose that question to the United States, how much al-Qaeda presence should the United States tolerate in its midst before taking action?

Mansoor’s narrative is also one-sided:

Prime Minister Maliki, emboldened by the improvements in security, turned on his political enemies with a mailed fist. His first target was Tarik al-Hashemi, a Sunni vice president of Iraq and longtime political adversary. Hashemi escaped the country, but Maliki had the courts try him in absentia and sentence him to death. The prime minister didn’t stop there. Faced with non-violent Sunni resistance to his increasingly authoritarian leadership style, Maliki sent Iraqi security forces into protest camps last April and again a week ago.

The question Mansoor does not address is whether Hashemi was guilty of terrorism and, indeed, it seems overwhelmingly that he was. A follow-on question would then be whether Hashemi’s sectarian preference should be a mitigating factor. The answer to that is clearly no. More complicated would be the question whether Maliki or others should decline to pursue those engaging in terrorism if they know the result of that pursuit might be violence. That is tricky, but to fail to pursue terrorists out of fear of violence would, in effect, be succumbing to blackmail. Again, it is useful to transpose the question to the United States: Should American police refuse to pursue cases against extremist militias for fear that prosecuting them might encourage revenge? Again, the answer to that question is no.

The Baghdad government should take steps to ameliorate the grievances of al-Anbar, so long as those grievances are not the democratic system itself: Too many al-Anbar residents and their politicians—including those who participate in the Awakening Councils—seem unable to reconcile themselves to the fact that Sunnis are a minority in Iraq and that no amount of encouragement to their community from sectarian countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia will return Iraq to its pre-2003 order.

It seems, unfortunately, that too many Americans have bit into the sectarian narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Because Americans—especially those whose background is in CENTCOM, which has its own distinct culture and biases based on its operations and interactions with the militaries and governments of sectarian Sunni emirates, kingdoms, and republics—now wear sectarian blinders, many refuse to acknowledge the complexity of the situation in which Sunni victims complain to a Shi’ite government about abuses by Sunni politicians, as was the case with both Hashemi and Issawi. Likewise, that Sunnis displaced from Anbar choose to take refuge in predominantly Shi’ite Karbala rather than neighboring (and largely Sunni) Ninewah governorate or Jordan says a lot about the complexity of Iraq today.

Sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism do exist in Iraq, but it is dangerous for Americans to base analysis on a narrative that may have been truer during their service many years ago, when the situation has evolved significantly since. When Americans are more sectarian in their judgments than many Iraqis, they risk reigniting sectarianism rather than ameliorating it. The United States should not accept blindly the narrative whispered by Saudi, Jordanian, and Turkish diplomats and generals. More dangerous is the implication of such sectarianism in the Western narrative: to suggest that al-Qaeda has legitimate grievances in Iraq, as Politico’s introduction appears to have done, risks setting policy down a slippery slope that will nullify the war on terror not only in Iraq but far beyond.

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Isolationism on Syria Breeds Terror

Syria may be “somebody else’s civil war,” as President Obama has noted, but what happens directly implicates American security interests. Because on the current trajectory large tracts of Syria are turning into an ungoverned zone where jihadists can roam freely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11: a haven and training ground for foreign jihadists, some of whom undoubtedly will wind up staging attacks in Europe or the United States.

Indeed the process has already started. As the New York Times notes today: “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”

Of particular concern are the 70 or so Americans and more than 1,200 Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began: They all possess passports and language skills that would allow them to blend in easily in the West.

The fact that this is going on is hard to explain in the increasingly popular isolationist (excuse me, non-interventionist) paradigm which holds that the U.S. reaps what it sows–that the more we get involved in foreign lands, the more resentment we engender and hence the more attacks we invite. The U.S. has been almost entirely uninvolved in Syria yet it threatens to become another center of anti-American terrorism. I wonder how Rand Paul would explain this?

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Syria may be “somebody else’s civil war,” as President Obama has noted, but what happens directly implicates American security interests. Because on the current trajectory large tracts of Syria are turning into an ungoverned zone where jihadists can roam freely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what Afghanistan was prior to 9/11: a haven and training ground for foreign jihadists, some of whom undoubtedly will wind up staging attacks in Europe or the United States.

Indeed the process has already started. As the New York Times notes today: “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.”

Of particular concern are the 70 or so Americans and more than 1,200 Europeans who have traveled to Syria to fight since the civil war began: They all possess passports and language skills that would allow them to blend in easily in the West.

The fact that this is going on is hard to explain in the increasingly popular isolationist (excuse me, non-interventionist) paradigm which holds that the U.S. reaps what it sows–that the more we get involved in foreign lands, the more resentment we engender and hence the more attacks we invite. The U.S. has been almost entirely uninvolved in Syria yet it threatens to become another center of anti-American terrorism. I wonder how Rand Paul would explain this?

Perhaps he thinks we should simply exit the entire region, not just Syria. Well, President Obama appears to be trying to do just that and the result is not peace and stability breaking out–it is more violence which already threatens American interests in the region and which could easily someday threaten America’s physical security.

We shouldn’t wait until the first Syrian-trained suicide bombers show up in London or New York; we should act now (indeed, we should have been acting for the past two years) to bolster the more moderate opposition elements who are even now battling al-Qaeda militants for control of the parts of Syria that are outside the government’s grasp.

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The Middle East’s Disappearing Borders

“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

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“The last year was a good one for al Qaeda, and for jihadism more broadly,” wrote the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Daveed Gartenstein-Ross earlier this week. He continued: “Al Qaeda affiliates drove Iraq to its highest violence levels since 2007, capped off a year of increasingly sophisticated attacks in the Horn of Africa with a notorious assault on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall, and took control of entire cities in northern Syria while attracting large numbers of foreigners to that battlefield.”

The article is among a recent crop of stories that have taken the Obama administration’s triumphant declarations of success against al-Qaeda from the category of “wishful thinking” to “punch line.” Al-Qaeda does not seem to be on the run, and the wider world of jihadism seems to be thriving as well. In the Middle East and North Africa, terrorists are doing the chasing, not the retreating. But in fact there is reason to believe there is more happening here than the normal ebb and flow of terrorism in a region that is no stranger to it. The most damaging story to the Obama administration’s narrative came yesterday from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

From around Aleppo in western Syria to small areas of Falluja in central Iraq, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East, according to English and Arab language news accounts as well as accounts on jihadist websites.

Indeed, al Qaeda appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history.

The focus of al Qaeda’s leaders has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri acknowledged as much in his 2001 autobiography, “Knights Under the Banner of the Prophet,” when he explained that the most important strategic goal of al Qaeda was to seize control of a state, or part of a state, somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that, “without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.”

Now al-Zawahiri is closer to his goal than he has ever been. On Friday al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq seized control of parts of the city of Falluja and parts of the city of Ramadi, both of which are located in Iraq’s restive Anbar Province.

Believe it or not, this is actually worse than it looks. Al-Qaeda may be close to claiming control of key parts of a state, and since that state is Iraq it’s bad enough. But pair the chaos in Iraq with the bloodshed elsewhere in the region, and what’s at stake is the very system of nation-states in the Middle East and North Africa.

That may sound alarmist, and we’re certainly not there yet. But consider the ongoing disaster in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal’s significant story on the reality of Bashar al-Assad’s survival:

In many ways, Syria as it was known before simply doesn’t exist any longer, U.S. officials say. Its place has been taken by a shattered state riven into sectarian enclaves, radicalized by war and positioned to send worrisome ripples out across the Middle East for years to come, say current and former officials.

In fact, U.S. officials think the chances of steering the outcome have shrunk dramatically. The intelligence assessments that once showed Mr. Assad on the verge of defeat now say he could remain in power for the foreseeable future in key parts of the country bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. The U.S. doesn’t think he will be able to retake the whole country again, U.S. intelligence agencies believe. Areas outside his control are fracturing into warring enclaves along ethnic and sectarian lines, abutting a new al Qaeda-affiliated haven that sweeps from Syria into Iraq.

But of course it gets worse still. An al-Qaeda haven from Syria to Iraq doesn’t include Lebanon, but that state’s devolution began before the Syrian civil war and is only being exacerbated by it. Hezbollah already has its own state carved out in southern Lebanon (in addition to having a degree of control over the broader state’s politics), and Hezbollah seems to be upgrading its firepower, smuggling weapons in from Syria.

At the same time, Avi Issacharoff has noted that the violence spilling into Lebanon from Syria is also spilling into Hezbollah’s territory, threatening to engulf the state in a full-fledged civil war. With refugees, soldiers, and jihadists streaming across borders at will, the borders themselves have begun to fade. The Washington Post’s Liz Sly got the following, chilling quote from Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt:

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Sly went on to mention the upcoming centennial of World War I, after which many of these lines in the sand were drawn, as the backdrop to the Syria peace negotiations. But the days of redrawing maps at will are long gone. The more likely outcome is that these borders will mean less and less, as power devolves back to ethnic enclaves instead of centralized authority. The irony for al-Qaeda is that it is closest to its goal of controlling a state just when that goal is danger of becoming irrelevant.

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Never Force Concessions Under Fire

When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

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When North Korean agents killed several senior South Korean cabinet ministers in a 1983 bombing in Rangoon, Burma, the United States did not demand that South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan compromise with North Korean leader Kim Il-sung. And when, four years later, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air jetliner, the White House did not suggest Seoul accelerate reunification talks.

When Hamas or Hezbollah launches rockets into Israel, the reaction of most congressmen isn’t to suggest that Israelis deserve to live in bomb shelters, or pre-school children deserve to be hit. Rather, there’s an understanding that countries have a right to defend themselves against terrorism rather than simply appease it. Many U.S. officials would think twice about denying either Israel or South Korea the means to defend themselves against terror threats: that’s why the United States has, in the past, rushed Patriot Missile batteries to both countries and sometimes has even re-deployed carrier strike groups to signal that terrorists would not beat allies.

How unfortunate, then, it is that so many proponents of a strong U.S.-Iraq relationship appear more inclined to blame the Iraqi government for the current violence than the terrorists who have for several years sought to win through violence what they could not at the ballot box. Violence is worsening in Iraq: Visiting Basra last summer, I was within earshot of a couple car bombs, the first time that happened to me since the bad old days of 2004 and 2005. The fruit venders and restaurant patrons in Basra had done nothing to deserve the attack; they were targeted simply because they were Shi’ites. It is just as easy to correlate the growth in terror to the civil war in Syria and the radicalization of the opposition as it is arrest warrants against one, two, or three Iraqi politicians.

As I discussed in a recent post about the roots of the current crisis, Iraqi politics are far more complicated than sectarian narrative or the all-Shi’ites-are-Iranian-puppets narrative would allow. The last thing that the United States should do is accept that the grievances of some Sunnis justify any terrorism whatsoever. If the population of al-Anbar does not like the current government and if they feel they have been systematically discriminated against, then they have two good recourses:

  • First, Anbaris can document and publicize widely very specific instances of abuse and then seek diplomatic pressure to force those changes. Granted, if countries like Saudi Arabia normalized relations with Iraq, the people of Anbar might be able to seek to encourage their diplomatic leverage. So long as Saudis (and Qataris and many Jordanians) deny the legitimacy of the Iraqi government and remain unwilling to engage with Baghdad in the manner they once did under Saddam Hussein, then it is understandable that the Iraqi government will have reason to doubt their good will.
  • Second, Anbaris can focus on the forthcoming elections in Iraq in order to maximize turnout and their leverage in the post-election coalition building. If they dislike Prime Minister Maliki, they might reach out more to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Ammar al-Hakim, and they might also further their relationship with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the remains of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Noshirwan Mustafa’s Gorran Movement. That would, of course, mean dropping the notion expressed by some more extreme voices that the best course for Iraq would be to return to a pre-2003 system which blessed minority, strongman rule.

Hagiography regarding the surge also undercuts effective U.S. efforts to quell the violence. The surge was an important military and psychological strategy—it convinced allies and adversaries alike that the United States was committed to victory (at least until we announced our withdrawal)—but in an Iraqi context, it was politically short-sighted. Certainly, some Sunni tribesmen and political leaders put down their arms so long as the money flowed and they received outsized privileges. They did not change their ideology or convert to American or democratic values; they just made a short-term calculation that their own survival meant accepting American and Iraqi government terms.

The problem with those switching sides is they seldom do so only once. This was a lesson that Gen. David Petraeus should have learned when he commanded the 101st Airborne in Mosul: he achieved quiet so long as he empowered and subsidized Islamists and Baathists, no matter that as soon as the money dried up, his appointees flipped back to the insurgency.

Bribing groups and factions is seldom a long-term solution and, indeed, hampers peace by creating incentives not to compromise or accept the new reality of post-Saddam Iraq absent special privileges. Yes, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should crackdown on corruption, sectarianism, and incitement which blight some of his allies. He should also reach out to all Iraqis regardless of ethnicity and sect. That said, he and his Shi’ite competitors have reached out to Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Kurds as they recognize that they will need to build a coalition after the next elections if they want to hold onto power.

But Maliki should never ignore terrorism or take a softer approach because its perpetrators might be Sunni. If Tariq al-Hashemi was guilty of murder, then he should face the consequences regardless of which mosque he attends. It would be counter-productive to accept any system in which the best way to avoid accountability for violence is to engage in further terrorism. That is a lesson the United States should have learned when U.S. forces had Shi’ite firebrand cleric and death squad leader Muqtada al-Sadr in their sites but chose to let him walk for fear of what his supporters might do if he were captured or killed. That decision enabled Muqtada al-Sadr and his gang to murder hundreds more.

Anbari politicians also need to dispense with the sectarian populism and religious incitement in which they too often engage. All Iraqis need to stop playing double games with militias and abuses. Al-Qaeda did not seize Ramadi and Fallujah because of a spontaneous reaction to the raid on the protest camp; they seized those cities because they planned to for a long time, infiltrated them, and stockpiled arms.

No ally should have to live with al-Qaeda or be denied the means to eliminate them. Rather than hold Iraqis hostage by denying the Iraqi government the means to respond effectively, the United States should instead provide whatever assistance is necessary coupled with real attention to guaranteeing Iraq’s next elections are free, fair, and will enjoy maximum participation.

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No Blank Check for Maliki

President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

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President Obama and his top aides have criticized the militarization of American foreign policy and called for a “smart power” approach which utilizes all aspects of our national resources. Yet when it comes to fighting al-Qaeda, especially in Iraq, the administration is resorting to a purely military policy.

With al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters seizing control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, the administration has responded by rushing Hellfire missiles to Iraq. The administration would also like to sell lots of Apache attack helicopters to the Iraqi Security Forces, but is currently being blocked from doing so by Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Administration officials are frustrated with his hold on the Apaches. One of them told Foreign Policy, “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al Qaeda.”

If this were a Republican administration, such talk would lead to accusations that the administration is questioning Menendez’s patriotism. But in fact the Democratic senator has a good point–it will take a lot more than Apaches and Hellfires to stop AQI. It will take a political overture from Prime Minister Maliki to the Sunni tribes of Anbar, similar to the Awakening orchestrated in 2007-2008 by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

It is important to kill and capture al-Qaeda militants, to be sure, but absent political reconciliation with the Sunni population, AQI will have no trouble regenerating its losses. Indeed the indiscriminate application of firepower by Maliki, while it may play well among the prime minister’s Shiite constituents (which, with an election looming, may be the point), is likely to simply arouse more Sunni opposition.

Selling Maliki military hardware without preconditions is a bad idea. What’s needed is a more comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy centered on political outreach. If Maliki launches such an effort, the U.S. should support him–even flying armed Predators to directly target AQI if Maliki agrees. But unless and until Maliki ends his sectarian attacks on prominent Sunnis, giving him a military blank check, as the administration wants to do, would be counterproductive.

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Al-Qaeda and the Benghazi Question

The major New York Times story on the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three others has come under sustained criticism. The article was hyped when published but failed to live up to its billing, in part because the reporter got lost in the weeds of international terrorism and couldn’t quite find his way through the intricacies. This led some to allege that the article was part of the Times’s heavyhanded promotion of Hillary Clinton ahead of 2016, by attempting to portray Republicans as uninformed when tying the attack to al-Qaeda instead of an anti-Islam film.

The article’s glaring weaknesses also opened up an opportunity for another newspaper to get the story right, and the Washington Post appears to have done so. One issue that trips up some reporters is the interaction and fuzzy affiliation of terrorist groups. It’s something that has snared the Obama administration as well. I wrote about this in my November essay on the war on terror, with regard to the administration’s insistence that we were fighting a more limited war on al-Qaeda. But in Syria, for example, making those distinctions was a challenge:

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The major New York Times story on the Benghazi attack that killed the American ambassador and three others has come under sustained criticism. The article was hyped when published but failed to live up to its billing, in part because the reporter got lost in the weeds of international terrorism and couldn’t quite find his way through the intricacies. This led some to allege that the article was part of the Times’s heavyhanded promotion of Hillary Clinton ahead of 2016, by attempting to portray Republicans as uninformed when tying the attack to al-Qaeda instead of an anti-Islam film.

The article’s glaring weaknesses also opened up an opportunity for another newspaper to get the story right, and the Washington Post appears to have done so. One issue that trips up some reporters is the interaction and fuzzy affiliation of terrorist groups. It’s something that has snared the Obama administration as well. I wrote about this in my November essay on the war on terror, with regard to the administration’s insistence that we were fighting a more limited war on al-Qaeda. But in Syria, for example, making those distinctions was a challenge:

Some of these groups are working with al-Qaeda affiliates and some aren’t. How does that fit into the administration’s paradigm that our “enemy is al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates,” strictly speaking? Does the administration mean to say that jihadists coming from Afghanistan—where we are still fighting the “good war”—and joining in alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria, but not joining al-Qaeda de jure, are not our enemy?

The Post story shows why so many observers got the feeling the Times story started from a conclusion–Republicans must be wrong–and worked in reverse to reconstruct what happened based on that conclusion. The Post writes about a former Guantanamo prison inmate who was released to Libyan custody in 2007 and then released by the Libyan government the following year, named Abu Sufian bin Qumu. The Post reports on Qumu’s alleged role in the Benghazi attack and that American officials are expected to designate him and branches of his Ansar al-Sharia group as foreign terrorist organizations.

Then the Post adds the crucial context:

Qumu, 54, a Libyan from Darnah, is well known to U.S. intelligence officials. A former tank driver in the Libyan army, he served 10 years in prison in the country before fleeing to Egypt and then to Afghanistan.

According to U.S. military files disclosed by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Qumu trained in 1993 at one of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan and later worked for a bin Laden company in Sudan, where the al-Qaeda leader lived for three years.

Qumu fought alongside the Taliban against the United States in Afghanistan; he then fled to Pakistan and was later arrested in Peshawar. He was turned over to the United States and held at Guantanamo Bay.

He has a “long-term association with Islamic extremist jihad and members of al-Qaida and other extremist groups,” according to the military files. “Detainee’s alias is found on a list of probable al-Qaida personnel receiving monthly stipends.”

Qumu also had links to Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, known by his alias Abu Zubaida, a key al-Qaeda facilitator who is being held indefinitely at Guantanamo.

There are two aspects to this that illustrate why the Times piece was problematic, and they both revolve around Qumu’s role. The Times story was apparently written last summer and held, which could explain this sentence in the Times piece:

But neither Mr. Qumu nor anyone else in Derna appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission, officials briefed on the investigation and the intelligence said.

That’s not what American officials appear to believe now, if they ever did. But it undermines the Times’s account of the entire episode because it shows it to be either too dated to be trusted or based on unreliable sources, which when mixed with an ideological predisposition against the conservative assessment of the administration’s spin only elevates and justifies the paper’s critics.

But it’s also part of the ongoing discrediting of the administration’s confused approach to national security, trying to wish away or minimize those terrorists who are not part of “al-Qaeda Central.” The president’s desire to end wars is understandable. His habit of pretending they have ended because of his own impatience is reckless.

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Assessing Defense Officials’ Assessments

One reason Israel has struggled to muster international support for its demand for defensible borders is that one can always find some former senior Israeli defense official to proclaim this unnecessary. A typical example was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s statement this weekend that Israel no longer needs to retain the Jordan Valley for security purposes, because “there is no eastern front”: Israel is at peace with Jordan, and “there is no longer an Iraqi army.”

What made this statement truly remarkable was the timing: On the very same weekend that Dagan made this categorical pronouncement, al-Qaeda in Iraq largely completed its takeover of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. As the New York Times reported, this means that “Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar”–a province bordering directly on Jordan. Since Qaeda-linked groups also control large swathes of eastern Syria, Jordan now has al-Qaeda sitting on two of its borders: Syria to the north and Anbar to the east. Granted, al-Qaeda’s forces are currently busy fighting Syrian and Iraqi troops, but if they prevail in these battles, Jordan, which al-Qaeda has targeted in the past, will clearly be next in line.

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One reason Israel has struggled to muster international support for its demand for defensible borders is that one can always find some former senior Israeli defense official to proclaim this unnecessary. A typical example was former Mossad chief Meir Dagan’s statement this weekend that Israel no longer needs to retain the Jordan Valley for security purposes, because “there is no eastern front”: Israel is at peace with Jordan, and “there is no longer an Iraqi army.”

What made this statement truly remarkable was the timing: On the very same weekend that Dagan made this categorical pronouncement, al-Qaeda in Iraq largely completed its takeover of the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. As the New York Times reported, this means that “Sunni insurgents essentially control most of Anbar”–a province bordering directly on Jordan. Since Qaeda-linked groups also control large swathes of eastern Syria, Jordan now has al-Qaeda sitting on two of its borders: Syria to the north and Anbar to the east. Granted, al-Qaeda’s forces are currently busy fighting Syrian and Iraqi troops, but if they prevail in these battles, Jordan, which al-Qaeda has targeted in the past, will clearly be next in line.

In other words, Dagan is correct that “there is no eastern front” at this minute. But given the massive instability in the region and the marked gains that hostile forces like al-Qaeda have made just in the last few months, only a fool would be willing to gamble that the eastern front won’t reappear in another year, or two or three–especially given the likelihood (as I explained last week) that Israel’s withdrawal from the Jordan Valley would actively contribute to destabilizing Jordan, just as its withdrawal from Gaza destabilized Sinai. Yet this is precisely the gamble Dagan is advocating: Wager Israel’s security on the hope that even with the region in the midst of convulsive upheaval, the eastern front will nevertheless remain dormant for the foreseeable future.

All this speaks to a larger point about the validity of senior defense officials’ pronouncements: Their field of expertise is fairly narrow, and outside it, their assessments have no more validity than those of anyone else–and sometimes less. Dagan, a senior IDF officer before taking over the Mossad, certainly knows what’s needed to stop columns of tanks from invading Israel; had he said the Jordan Valley was unnecessary for this purpose, it would have to be taken seriously. But he didn’t; indeed, by saying it’s unnecessary specifically because the “eastern front” no longer exists, he clearly implied that the valley would be needed were the eastern front to reappear.

Rather, Dagan’s assertion rests on a political assessment: that nothing is likely to happen in the foreseeable future to turn either Jordan or Iraq into a threat. But when it comes to predicting future political developments, defense officials have no special expertise whatsoever. In fact, their track record is notoriously poor (think, for instance, of intelligence agencies’ failure to predict the intifadas, the Arab Spring, the Iranian revolution, etc.).

So when defense experts say that “defensible borders” aren’t necessary, consider whether their pronouncements are based on military or political assessments. And if it’s the latter, anything they say should be taken with whole buckets of salt.

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Iraq’s Squandered Opportunity

Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

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Veterans of the hard fighting in Fallujah in 2004 must be experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Once again masked al-Qaeda fighters are parading through the streets and proclaiming the establishment of a new Islamic emirate. And once again military forces are massing on the outskirts preparing to wage a bloody battle to liberate the city. The only difference this time is that those troops are Iraqi, not American.

It is easy to imagine veterans of the Iraq War asking themselves what the point was of their service and sacrifice if al-Qaeda is back, as strong as ever–and arguably stronger because its reach now extends into Syria. It is an understandable question, and one that veterans of Vietnam no doubt ask themselves too. It is never pleasant to fight in a losing cause, but that does not mean that one’s service was in vain.

Vets can still derive satisfaction from the commitment and heroism they exhibited, from the tactical results they achieved, and from the knowledge that they were fighting for a good cause. It is not their fault that the hard-won gains of their service were squandered by politicos in Baghdad and Washington.

There was nothing inevitable about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the U.S. had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and if Prime Minister Maliki had pursued more inclusive policies toward the Sunnis, AQI would have remained defeated, in all likelihood. Unfortunately, now that AQI has grown back, stronger than ever, it will have to be fought once again, and the battles that the Iraqi army will face in Anbar are likely to be bloodier than those fought by the U.S. Marine Corps.

It is a shame and a tragedy that President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki did not honor the sacrifices of so many troops in the past, both American and Iraqi, by doing more to build on the success of the surge. But that is not the fault of those troops, who fought magnificently to give Iraq an opportunity–now being squandered–for a better future.

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The Iranian Enemy of Our Enemy Is Also Our Enemy

Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

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Skeptics of President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran have long feared that the goal of his administration’s diplomatic efforts was a new détente with Tehran rather than bring an end to its nuclear program or to halt its support for terrorism. Even in the wake of the nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November that, astonishingly, granted tacit Western approval to Iran’s enrichment of uranium and loosened economic sanctions, the administration’s defenders scoffed at those concerned about the feckless new foreign-policy approach that seemed geared more toward warming relations with the Islamist regime than to isolating it. But Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to invite the Iranians to participate in discussions about the future of Syria—a nation which continues to be ruled by a murderous tyrant largely because of Iranian intervention on his behalf in the civil war there—in addition to the clear signals that Washington and Tehran will also be cooperating in Iraq have made it clear that détente with Iran is already a fait accompli, and not merely fodder for the speculation of pundits.

The justification for this policy is the notion that when facing a common enemy, countries otherwise at each other’s throats will prefer to cooperate. As the New York Times notes today in a front-page feature touting this new approach as reason enough to justify U.S.-Iranian amity, the renewed threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq has created a situation in which both the U.S. and Iran share a desire to see the existing governments in Iraq remain in place. To that end, it is certainly in the interests of U.S. policy to try to ensure that Iran does not destabilize the situation. But to assume that just because the ayatollahs dislike al-Qaeda the U.S. should embrace this new ally is a dangerous miscalculation. Iran may be the enemy of our enemy, but contrary to the adage now popular among the administration’s cheering section at the Times, that doesn’t make Tehran a friend. In this case, the Iranian enemy of America’s al-Qaeda enemy is also our enemy.

Before anyone hops on the bandwagon forming to welcome Iranian intervention in the widening conflict in Iraq, it’s important to remember that these same hopes were once widely expressed about Tehran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan. Though Iran has more at stake in any battle to preserve the government of fellow Shiites in Baghdad, anyone who believes Tehran’s goal is regional stability hasn’t been paying attention to Iranian foreign policy over the last 20 years.

Iran’s goals in the Middle East have been remarkably consistent for decades. It worked hard to forge an alliance with Syria to outflank Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime with which it fought a bloody war in the 1980s. Saddam’s fall and ultimate replacement by a majority-Shiite government gave Iran the opportunity to make Iraq an ally. Tehran did its best to hamper U.S. efforts to create stability–although it ultimately acquiesced in the creation of a majority-Shiite government. When President Obama left Iraq with no structure in place to maintain U.S. interests, that too worked to Iran’s advantage. Saddam—for all his massive, homicidal villainy—did serve as a check on Iran.

But the main battle that has interested Tehran in more recent years has been the one it has waged in Syria to preserve the murderous regime of Bashar Assad. When President Obama called for Assad to leave office but failed to do anything to bring about that result, the Iranians stepped into the vacuum, sending massive amounts of military aid and deploying their auxiliaries in the form of Hezbollah shock troops to shore up a tottering Damascus government. While the West dithered, Iran’s troops turned the tide.There is little doubt that Assad’s hold on power—despite murdering more than 100,000 Syrians—is secure.

Iran’s victory in Syria combined with Hezbollah’s grip on Lebanon have created a pro-Tehran axis that threatens the security of moderate Arab governments in the region, as well as that of Israel, as much as al-Qaeda’s resurgence. Rather than a solution to America’s problems, every effort to move closer to Iran is tantamount to placing a Western imprimatur on the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Just as the deal signed by Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva gives Iran’s nuclear program a Western seal of approval, additional cooperation with Tehran elsewhere creates a perilous situation in which the West, in its folly, is agreeing to the existence of an Iranian sphere of influence that fundamentally alters the balance of power in the region.

Every advantage the U.S. thinks it gains from détente with Iran in the present will be paid in the future as the Islamist regime consolidates its power, especially if the diplomatic shell game Tehran is playing with Kerry leads to the complete collapse of Western economic sanctions. That is the key for the Iranians, because once that happens there will be no reassembling the reluctant coalition that the U.S. spent the last decade cobbling together.

A wise U.S. foreign policy would be one that recognizes that common ground with Iran is a Western illusion. The gap that separates the U.S. from a radical Islamist, anti-Semitic and terror-sponsoring government in Tehran, one with an openly-stated goal of annihilating the State of Israel cannot be bridged by a misguided understanding of realpolitik or the perception of shared interests in either Syria or Iraq. Dreams of détente with Iran will only lead to a nightmare Middle East in which genuine U.S. allies are left alone to deal with a genocidal Islamist nuclear regional power. The enemy of our enemy in Iraq is still our enemy.

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What’s Really Happening in Iraq?

The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

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The situation in Iraq’s restive Western province of al-Anbar continues to deteriorate as al-Qaeda-affiliated radicals have now seized Fallujah and threaten to take more cities. Some analysts have been tempted to blame everyone from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad to President Obama in the White House—and certainly there is blame to go around—but ultimately that political blame should not cover the fact that sometimes the solution to terrorism rooted in ideology is not counterinsurgency strategy or winning hearts and minds, but rather killing those who embrace terror.

It would be wrong simply to blame Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the breakdown of security in Al-Anbar or Iraq more broadly. Prime Minister Maliki does not set off car bombs in Baghdad, and to blame the prime minister for the reaction of terrorism effectively legitimizes such terrorism.

It is true that the Iraqi government, perhaps on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki or some of those around him, has moved against prominent Sunni politicians in the past, men like former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi. Many Americans condemned such moves and said that they would fan sectarian tension. The most important question, however, is too often ignored: Were Hashemi and Issawi guilty? In both cases, the answer seems to be yes. After all, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of those his body guards allegedly murdered if those murders did not occur? That any politician is Sunni should not be a reason for immunity in Iraq. (That the initial complaints against these men often came from Sunnis as well is an inconvenient fact too often ignored.)

Perhaps Maliki should not have timed the raid on the Ramadi protest camp in the manner he did, and it is unfortunate that the timing appears to have been colored by partisan politics: With the elections forthcoming in April, the theory that Maliki ordered the raid to prove his “Shi’ite” credentials is believable among a wide segment of Iraqi society. It would also be good to reinforce the notion of blind justice by moving with similar seriousness against those Shi’ites and Kurds who engage in murder and terrorism. Again, the answer to that is not immunity for the perpetrators in al-Anbar, but rather greater action against Shi’ite abusers of Iraqi law.

The spark, however, was the raid on the Ramadi camp. According to residents of al-Anbar, most residents of the protest camp were unemployed youth who joined the camp both for the free food and the camaraderie. Residents do acknowledge supporters of al-Qaeda were present—and, indeed, their presence is undeniable and caught on YouTube videos—but locals dismiss the al-Qaeda presence as few and far between (somewhat akin to the way “International ANSWER” or “Code Pink” show up at random protests to try to hijack the press attention).

Perhaps, however, the al-Qaeda presence was underestimated: After all, al-Qaeda didn’t spontaneously organize to the point that they could seize Fallujah in just a week. The al-Qaeda presence was not created in the mind of the prime minister, as it is too easy to imagine from the safety of Washington or New York.

It is fashionable to blame Baghdad for the alleged discrimination which fuels the unrest in Al-Anbar but, once again, the situation is more complicated. There are huge differences in the proportion of allocated budgets actually spent from province to province. The way the Iraqi system works, some governors explain to me, is that the province has a budget, but only when a certain amount of money is spent will they receive the next infusion of cash. Kirkuk spends almost all of its budget, and has the results to show for it. In Ninewah and al-Anbar, the proportion spent is miniscule. What is unclear is whether the reason for that is a capacity issue in Mosul and Ramadi, or whether there is some bureaucratic blockage in Baghdad. Either way, if the protestors simply buy into the sectarian rhetoric, they will be no further to solving the very real problems which impact predominantly Sunni areas.

Political culture is also a problem. One of the most remarkable aspects of visiting and analyzing Iraq is meeting politicians of all backgrounds in their homes, offices, and in restaurants and hearing their assessments of the situation: They are down to earth, calm, and assess the situation rationally. Put the same politician in front of a television camera, however, and the personality shifts 100 percent: it’s fire and sectarian brimstone. Iraqi politicians all acknowledge the problem, but no one is willing to address the problem.

Within the United States, the surge colors analysis. The surge was a very successful military strategy in the short-term, but it created and exacerbated very real long-term political problems. General David Petraeus sometimes promised what he did not have the power to implement, and throughout his career seems to have prioritized short-term stability and security over the long-term viability of his strategies. If the situation went to heck after his departure, too often his successors would be blamed even if the seeds had been sown under his command. The unfortunate fact is that the surge rewarded violence and convinced some elements of Iraqi society that if they simply hold out longer or threaten (or even engage in violence), that they can win concessions through violence that they will never win through the ballot box. Proponents of the surge may not like to see the long-term consequence tarnish their legacy, but to pin the blame on the prime minister would be dishonest: the problem isn’t Maliki, but rather the absolutist vein which continues to course through Al-Anbar’s body politic.

So what can be done? A civil war in Iraq would be tragic, but offering concessions in the face of terrorism would simply pour fuel on the fire. If terrorism is motivated by ideology and, indeed, when facing al-Qaeda, both Iraq and the West are facing a corrosive ideology, then the only solution can be to kill the terrorists. Secretary of State John Kerry might be right when he says the United States no longer should be involved in the fight inside Iraq, but let us hope then that the United States will not get squeamish when Iraqi security forces do what must be done.

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What Was Human Rights Watch Thinking?

I blogged here last week regarding the failure of Human Rights Watch to rescind and reinvestigate reports for which it had relied on information contributed by al-Karama, whose president the U.S. Treasury Department recently designated as an al-Qaeda financier. When it comes to any reporting, regardless of subject, the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Human Rights Watch can certainly plead ignorance that it was not aware of al-Karama president Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaimi’s financial transfers. What Human Rights Watch should have been aware of, however, was Nuaimi’s other public activities.

Nuaimi was secretary-general of an organization called the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign (GAAC), an umbrella group which coordinated leading luminaries from al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Ummah Conference. Here is a statement from the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign explaining its mission:

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I blogged here last week regarding the failure of Human Rights Watch to rescind and reinvestigate reports for which it had relied on information contributed by al-Karama, whose president the U.S. Treasury Department recently designated as an al-Qaeda financier. When it comes to any reporting, regardless of subject, the old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies. Human Rights Watch can certainly plead ignorance that it was not aware of al-Karama president Abd al-Rahman bin Umayr al-Nuaimi’s financial transfers. What Human Rights Watch should have been aware of, however, was Nuaimi’s other public activities.

Nuaimi was secretary-general of an organization called the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign (GAAC), an umbrella group which coordinated leading luminaries from al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Ummah Conference. Here is a statement from the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign explaining its mission:

The Muslim ummah – in this era – is facing a vicious aggression from the powers of tyranny and injustice, from the Zionist power and the American administration led by the extreme right, which is working to achieve control over nations and peoples, and is stealing their wealth, and annihilating their will, and changing their educational curriculums and social orders.

 And this aggression of a totalitarian nature has been portrayed through falsifying truths about Islam’s teachings and in attacks against the Quran and the Prophet Mohammad may peace be upon him, as well as through misleading media campaigns and economic extortion. The worst of its examples is the armed occupation of countries and peaceful peoples, similar to what has happened in Iraq and in Afghanistan, which have destroyed the core and foundations of society and shed the blood of women, children, and elders, and destroyed cities upon the heads of its residents, insulting human dignity, which all creeds and religions have honored, and ignoring agreements and covenants. This is all in addition to what is carried out by the Zionists in occupying the lands of Palestine and killing and displacing its resilient people, and insulting their rights and desecrating their holy sites for more than half a century.

 This vicious aggression sets humanity back to the despised era of colonialism when colonizing countries attacked the dignity of weak peoples, stole their wealth, undermined their positions, and this legality of the villain was superior. And in resistance to this aggression, the signatories of this statement announce the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign as a vessel uniting the efforts of the children of the ummah, and to remind [the ummah] of its obligation for victory, and to raise [the ummah’s] awareness for its right of self-defense, and to combat the aggressor in a legal manner through effective tools.”

So, Human Rights Watch chose as its partner a man who accepted uncritically the most vile conspiracy theories and had dedicated himself to advancing the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, and similar groups. His vessel, in this mission, was not only the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign but also Human Rights Watch, utilizing the group to defend the Muslim Brotherhood and its adherents, and to castigate and tar those who sought to combat the group through legal means. Hence, when the United Arab Emirates in just one instance disrupted a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah group to stage a coup, al-Karama swung into action and, in partnership with Human Rights Watch, simply attacked the United Arab Emirates.

Human Rights Watch got used, plain and simple. It’s the biggest misstep by a human-rights advocacy group since the American Friends Service Committee shilled for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s. At least when the true ideology and actions of the Khmer Rouge were exposed, the American Friends Service Committee had the decency to acknowledge its error. As for Human Rights Watch, its researchers speak Arabic and so it was either aware of the activities of its partner’s president, or it was negligent in its most basic assessments. Either way, it should be deeply embarrassed. Withdrawing any report which al-Karama touched should only be the beginning. Perhaps it is time for Kenneth Roth, the organization’s executive director, to submit himself to the questioning of his board and to explain just how Human Rights Watch came to partner with a man whose views are outlined so starkly in the Global Anti-Aggression Campaign manifest.

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Human Rights Watch Should Rescind Reports

It should be terribly embarrassing that both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) partnered with al-Karama, a group whose Qatari leader now appears to have been an al-Qaeda financier. National-security reporter Eli Lake, who broke the story, wrote:

On Wednesday [December 18], the Treasury Department issued a designation of [Abdul Rahman Umayr ] al-Naimi that said he oversaw the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen over the last 11 years. In 2013, the designation says, al-Naimi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via the group’s representative in Syria. In the same notice, the Treasury Department also designated Abdulwahab Al-Humayqani, al-Karama’s representative in Yemen, as a financier and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen affiliate.

It’s bad enough that HRW and AI partnered with such groups, for if they cannot accurately assess their own partners, then it raises questions about how well they can assess others. It is possible that the leadership and analysts at HRW and AI were blinded by their own politics. After all, if al-Karama criticized the right targets, then why should HRW or AI criticize its motives?

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It should be terribly embarrassing that both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) partnered with al-Karama, a group whose Qatari leader now appears to have been an al-Qaeda financier. National-security reporter Eli Lake, who broke the story, wrote:

On Wednesday [December 18], the Treasury Department issued a designation of [Abdul Rahman Umayr ] al-Naimi that said he oversaw the transfer of hundreds of thousands of dollars to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen over the last 11 years. In 2013, the designation says, al-Naimi ordered the transfer of nearly $600,000 to al Qaeda via the group’s representative in Syria. In the same notice, the Treasury Department also designated Abdulwahab Al-Humayqani, al-Karama’s representative in Yemen, as a financier and member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s Yemen affiliate.

It’s bad enough that HRW and AI partnered with such groups, for if they cannot accurately assess their own partners, then it raises questions about how well they can assess others. It is possible that the leadership and analysts at HRW and AI were blinded by their own politics. After all, if al-Karama criticized the right targets, then why should HRW or AI criticize its motives?

What is truly reprehensible, however, is that given the questions now surfacing with regard to al-Karama, Human Rights Watch has not rescinded the reports in whose development it had partnered with al-Karama. Take the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which last year successfully busted a coup plot by al-Islah, the local affiliation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Human Rights Watch condemned the UAE and accused it of torture in a study that it conducted in conjunction with al-Karama. Now it seems that its partner’s leader was committed not only in rhetoric but also fact to advancing al-Qaeda’s goals. Can HRW really, in hindsight, take seriously the group’s work which castigated a government which has cracked down on al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood? Frankly, it seems plausible that al-Karama’s leadership wanted to use HRW’s mantle to castigate those it saw as ideological enemies.

Now, the UAE isn’t the only target of al-Karama/HRW partnership. And it is possible that human-rights violations did occur in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere. But, if HRW is a professional organization that wants to uphold the highest standards of analysis, it should begin 2014 with a recall of any and all reports to which al-Karama researchers or the organization contributed and, if necessary, apologies to governments like the United Arab Emirates. The sanctity and impartiality of human-rights research should trump political advocacy and the desire to avoid organizational embarrassment. What HRW and Amnesty International should not do, alas, is obfuscate and delay, the very strategy in which they now seek to engage.

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Cautious Optimism in Afghanistan

With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

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With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

Masses of Taliban foot soldiers attacked this spring and summer in a bid to take over Sangin district; government forces turned them back. Mohammad Rasoul Barakzai, the acting Sangin district governor, describes the year-end situation as “calm,” with only intermittent Taliban attacks.

What holds true in Sangin is true for Helmand Province more broadly: “the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand—a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future.”

This runs counter to recent reports of the Afghan army doing deals with the Taliban in Sangin. Phillips reports that this was a low-level accommodation reached by junior officers who have since been disciplined.

If his report is right, it is certainly good news, suggesting that Afghanistan has a fighting chance to survive the pullout of most Western forces at the end of this year.

There is, however, a big caveat that must be added. While U.S. troops mostly pulled out of ground combat last year, they continued to provide substantial support to their Afghan partners. As the Journal notes, “the U.S. continues to provide supplies, close air support and air evacuation of the badly wounded.” That’s less significant than the U.S. role in years past but it is still a major enabler of Afghan capability. If you take away that American support, no one knows what will happen.

But even under the best-case scenario–which is that President Karzai finally gets off his duff and signs the security accord he negotiated with Washington–it is unlikely that U.S. forces will continue to provide close air support or medevac. (Instead, U.S. forces are likely to be limited to a few major bases.) The worst-case scenario is that the bilateral security accord falls through and Afghanistan is left entirely on its own.

The Journal report shows that it would be foolish to write off Afghanistan–as long as it continues to receive substantial American assistance. If that assistance isn’t forthcoming, all bets are off and Afghanistan could regress back to the dark days of the 1990s, which led to the takeover of the Taliban and their Arab allies in al-Qaeda.

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The Ongoing Barbarism in Syria

It is becoming sad and tiresome to chronicle the continuing failure of President Obama’s policy in Syria, but notice must nevertheless be taken of a couple of recent developments. First, the bombing of Aleppo. More than 360 people have been killed in this large and historic city by the Assad regime’s indiscriminate bombardment. Government helicopters are dropping “barrel bombs” randomly in rebel-dominated neighborhoods, killing civilians wantonly.

This is a sign of how barbarically the Assad regime is acting, and it should be of interest to an administration which has touted its Atrocities Prevention Board to deal with gross human-rights abuses. The war in Syria is an ongoing atrocity, but it is one that the administration is politely ignoring while it concentrates on the very limited achievement of spiriting away Assad’s chemical weapons.

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It is becoming sad and tiresome to chronicle the continuing failure of President Obama’s policy in Syria, but notice must nevertheless be taken of a couple of recent developments. First, the bombing of Aleppo. More than 360 people have been killed in this large and historic city by the Assad regime’s indiscriminate bombardment. Government helicopters are dropping “barrel bombs” randomly in rebel-dominated neighborhoods, killing civilians wantonly.

This is a sign of how barbarically the Assad regime is acting, and it should be of interest to an administration which has touted its Atrocities Prevention Board to deal with gross human-rights abuses. The war in Syria is an ongoing atrocity, but it is one that the administration is politely ignoring while it concentrates on the very limited achievement of spiriting away Assad’s chemical weapons.

Nor are the atrocities limited to Syria. Just yesterday a powerful bomb exploded in Beirut killing Mohamad Chatah, a former finance minister and ambassador to Washington who was a prominent critic of Syria and a member of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s political bloc. The culprits are undoubtedly to be found among Hezbollah and the Syrian and Iranian intelligence services, which are so closely aligned as to be almost indistinguishable.

This is surely part of the spillover from the Syrian civil war, which has already resulted in bomb attacks on Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon. Another sign of the spillover can be seen in Iraq, where the Baghdad government is losing a war against a resurgent al-Qaeda in Iraq.

If the administration has a policy to deal with this ongoing catastrophe, I am not aware of it. The last we heard was that the moderate Syrian opposition was so weak that the administration was suspending delivery of nonlethal supplies. And the administration has always been hesitant to provide much in the way of arms and training to the rebel forces.

So we are left with a situation where two increasingly barbaric factions–the government and Hezbollah and the Quds force on one side, the Sunni Islamists on the other–are left to fight it out. Those who take grim satisfaction from this state of affairs should recall the human cost to innocent Syrians–and the strategic cost to the U.S. and its allies if these Sunni and Shiite extremists divide Syria’s soil between them, as appears increasingly likely. Syria is well on its way to becoming what pre-9/11 Afghanistan was–a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. There is nothing inevitable about this outcome–it has been made possible by an abdication of American power and responsibility.

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Turkey Scandal’s Al-Qaeda Angle

Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

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Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

Fast forward to the present day: According to Turkish interlocutors, there are consistent irregularities in 28 government tenders totaling in the tens of billions of dollars, in which kickbacks and other payments were made, a portion of which Turkish investigators believe ended up with al-Qadi’s funds and charities. These funds and charities were then used to support al-Qaeda affiliates and other radical Islamist groups operating in Syria like the Nusra Front. Erdoğan thought he had his plausible denial, but it seems that Turkish government funds supported the growth of these groups, which are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands and which subsumed the more moderate opposition.

President Obama has called Erdoğan one of the five foreign leaders he most trusted. Such trust was entirely undeserved and, given the snowballing revelations about just what Erdoğan and his close associates were doing, seems to increasingly symbolize the lack of Obama’s judgment in picking friends and confidants.

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The President Who Lost Iraq

The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

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The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

It’s unclear whether America’s “patchwork response,” in the words of the Times, will make any real differences when it comes to pacifying Iraq. And one gets the sense that the outcome doesn’t really matter to Mr. Obama. In his make-believe world, the president actually counts Iraq as a success on his watch. 

As we have seen in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, when the president loses interest in foreign events, he simply deems them to be successes. If they don’t interest him, they shouldn’t interest us. So civil wars, mass death, the collapse of central governments, the weakening of pro-American regimes, and the rise of militant Islamic forces are perfectly acceptable. As long as we avert our eyes from what’s happening, all will be right with the world. Or so Mr. Obama seems to believe.

He’s wrong about this, as he is wrong about so many other things. After hard-earned and heroic gains, Barack Obama is the president who lost Iraq.

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Algeria’s Aid Scam Threatens U.S. Security

Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.

In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.

The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.

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Humanitarian assistance always sounds like a great idea. Against the backdrop of a tsunami or an earthquake, it can be the difference between life and death. When abused, however, it can often do more harm than good. Wherever one stands on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, grassroots Palestinians would be the first to acknowledge that a lack of accountability has enabled leading Palestinian officials to siphon off vast quantities of international assistance. In Afghanistan, too, humanitarian and development assistance have turned into tremendous scams transforming many enterprising Afghans into millionaires. Living in both Yemen many years ago and pre-war Iraq, I would often come across bags and boxes of American assistance, funded by the American taxpayer, for sale in local markets. Graft is unfortunate, and more competent officials would move to end it just for the sake of fiscal responsibility. When such corruption impacts U.S. national security, however, the urgency becomes greater.

In several recent posts, I have touched upon the Polisario Front, a Cold War remnant that claims to be fighting for independence in the Western Sahara, a Moroccan territory once colonized by the Spanish and French on Africa’s northwestern coast. In reality, what remains of the Polisario Front is no longer relevant, little more than a puppet of the Algerian military.

The problem is that the Polisario runs several refugee camps in the Tindouf province of western Algeria. It claims upwards of 120,000 Sahrawi refugees languish in the camps, unable to return to the Western Sahara so long as Morocco remains the predominant power in the territory. The reality is quite different: Morocco welcomes back Sahrawi refugees stuck in Algeria since the end of the two countries hot war in 1991. When Sahwari refugees do escape from the Polisario camps, they get housing, stipends, and with so much Moroccan investment in the Sahara, often far more lucrative jobs then they would have access to in Tangiers, Casablanca, Rabat, or other northern Moroccan cities.

The reason why the Polisario doesn’t let the refugees in whose name it claims to speak go home is that holding them hostage is quite lucrative. The United Nations provides humanitarian aid for those refugees, which the Polisario effectively administers, as they control the camps when the UN officials retreat to their headquarters. Herein lays the scam: While the Polisario claims its camps hold 120,000 refugees, most diplomats and independent observers place the figure at closer to 40,000. And many of these residents are not even refugees, as they originate in Algeria and Mauritania. Back-of-the-napkin calculation based on informal surveying of escapees from the Polisario camps: maybe only 20,000 technically qualify as refugees. Both Algeria and the Polisario know this, and so they refuse to allow the United Nations to conduct any census. Rather than stand up for accountability or suspend relief operations until the Algerians enable such a census, the United Nations simply accepts the fiction of the Polisario claims, and supplies relief for perhaps five times the number of refugees who actually live in the Polisario’s camps.

This is where corruption crosses the line into a threat to security: Across North Africa and the Sahel, Polisario smugglers are taking relief supplies given by the international community and indirectly subsidized by U.S. donations to the United Nations and selling them for profit. Many security analysts have already pointed out the growing interplay between the Polisario Front and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which uses the Polisario camps for recruitment and may increasingly cooperate with the Islamist terrorist groups wreaking havoc across the Sahel. Like so many other regional countries, smuggling of international relief in response to the Polisario Front’s tenuous claims, therefore, has now crossed the line into a security problem as AQIM co-opts the smuggling routes enabled by fraudulent relief to expand its coffers and fund its operations. Algeria now seems to acquiesce to the bargain: turn a blind eye toward jihadists so long as they conduct their operations outside Algerian borders, no matter what the cost to Mali, Libya, Tunisia, or Morocco.

The solution is blindly obvious: If the Obama administration and Congress are truly committed to preventing an al-Qaeda resurgence in the post-bin Laden-era; if they also care about making sure taxpayer funds and foreign assistance are not wasted in an age of budget cutbacks and austerity; and if President Obama and Ambassador Samantha Power truly want to ensure the United Nations has credibility, then it behooves everyone to ensure that no money goes to the Polisario camps until there is basic accountability. Ignoring corruption is no longer a question of preventing waste; increasingly, it is a matter of national security.

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