Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bashar al-Assad

What Obama Left Unsaid

A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

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A year ago President Obama was contemplating bombing Syria in order to punish Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons. Now U.S. warplanes are actually bombing Syria–but not Assad’s forces. This week’s air strikes targeted only ISIS and the Khorasan group, a subset of the Nusra Front, which is fighting against Assad’s regime. There are credible reports that the U.S. gave a heads-up about the airstrikes to the Iranian and Syrian regimes but not to the Free Syrian Army, our ostensible allies on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army forces have no love lost for ISIS and they have fought against its fanatical fighters whose activities have been largely focused not on resisting the Assad regime but on consolidating control of rebel-held areas. But the Free Syrian Army has worked with Nusra against the Assad regime and its leaders are understandably perplexed by the U.S. failure to target Assad.

McClatchy reports from Turkey: “By focusing exclusively on Islamic State insurgents and al Qaida figures associated with the Khorasan unit of the Nusra Front, and bypassing installations associated with the government of President Bashar Assad, the airstrikes infuriated anti-regime Syrians and hurt the standing of moderate rebel groups that are receiving arms and cash as part of a covert CIA operation based in the Turkish border city of Reyhanli.”

It is hard to figure out if Obama, who has publicly been on record as demanding Assad’s departure from power since 2011, is even interested in hastening regime change anymore. Anyone listening to his United Nations speech today would have been left perplexed. While Obama had a long and fiery denunciation of ISIS’s “network of death,” he mentioned Assad only once: “Together with our partners, America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime,” he said. “But the only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political – an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity or creed.”

That’s a long way from Obama’s statement in August 2011: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Nor, it should be noted, did Obama have any harsh words for Iran, which is sponsoring Assad’s murderous attacks on his own people. Rather than denouncing Iran (whose support for terrorism went unmentioned), he offered the mullahs yet another olive branch: “My message to Iran’s leaders and people is simple: do not let this opportunity pass. We can reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.”

The fact that Obama is no longer demanding Assad’s resignation and that U.S. aircraft are not targeting any regime installations suggests that Obama may view Assad and his Iranian patrons as de facto allies against ISIS. This, sadly, is more evidence of the theory that Michael Doran and I have previously advanced that Obama is trying to engineer an entente with Tehran that would turn Iran into America’s partner in the Middle East. He may even be going easy on Assad to win Iranian support for a nuclear deal.

If so, this is a tragically misguided policy that will make the U.S. complicit in Iranian-sponsored war crimes while actually undermining our goal of turning Sunni tribes in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS: The Sunnis will not fight if they perceive the opposition to ISIS as being dominated by Iran and Assad. The president would be better advised to pursue a more evenhanded strategy of bombing both ISIS and the Assad regime. Otherwise we risk “degrading” one group of violent, anti-American fanatics while empowering a competing group of violent, anti-American fanatics.

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A Haunting Feeling About Obama

For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

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For those who believe that the air strikes we’re conducting against Syria will achieve President Obama’s goal of defeating ISIS, consider this story in yesterday’s New York Times, which begins this way:

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

This news comes as we learned over the weekend that ISIS attacked an Iraqi army base, killing upwards of 300-500 Iraqi soldiers. “If the survivors’ accounts are correct,” the Washington Post reports, “it would make Sunday the most disastrous day for the Iraqi army since several divisions collapsed in the wake of the Islamic State’s capture of the northern city of Mosul amid its cross-country sweep in June.”

So while in Iraq we’ve been pounding ISIS from the air for a month and a half, we haven’t begun to fundamentally alter the facts on the ground.

Now keep this in mind: the situation in Iraq, while certainly challenging, is many times less complicated for us than the situation in Syria, which is (a) ruled by an enemy of America; (b) a client state of Iran; and (c) engaged in a ferocious, multi-sided civil war involving forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Free Syrian Army.

In addition, in Iraq there are Iraqi Security Forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga who are willing to fight ISIS, albeit imperfectly. (Both have suffered serious military reversal this past summer.) Success in Iraq depends on working with Iraq’s Sunni tribes, which happened during the counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-08.

In atomized, hellish Syria we have no such advantages. Which is why if President Obama persists in refusing to allow U.S. “boots on the ground”–if he doesn’t allow American troops to coordinate on the front lines with forces opposing ISIS–we can’t defeat ISIS. That doesn’t mean we can’t inflict damage on it, of course; but inflicting damage is one thing, defeating ISIS is quite another.

The president, in ordering air strikes in Syria, has dramatically escalated our involvement in this war. But one cannot shake the haunting feeling that he’s simply going through the motions; that Mr. Obama is stunned to find himself in this predicament, that his heart and will are not in this war, and that he’s not really committed to winning it.

ISIS, on the other hand, is.

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Obama Discovers the Value of Credibility

Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

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Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

There are also questions at play about the credibility of the U.N. Since Obama and the Arab countries involved acted without U.N. approval, some may again express doubts about the relevance of the global body, particularly when some countries with veto power are intent on blocking concerted action.

Right–on a fundamental level, it doesn’t much matter what happens to Obama’s UN diplomacy. The president will lead a Security Council session tomorrow intended to gain a broad commitment from countries to “stem the flow of foreign fighters to extremist groups” such as ISIS. And that’s not unimportant. Any commitment, especially from Western Europe or the Arab world, helps.

And that is what tells us that Obama’s decision to strike before the UN gathering, instead of after it, was a strategically smart call. Those who oppose the strikes altogether don’t much care about the timing, unless a delay allows for a congressional vote, of course. But if Obama was planning to go it alone anyway, the timing was shrewd.

After Obama balked on attacking Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the dictator crossing Obama’s not-so-red line on chemical weapons, Obama’s defenders made a very silly attempt at spinning that foreign-policy disaster. They said it was the threat of military force from Obama that made Assad willing to strike a deal to turn over his chemical weapons.

Few bought it. And the deal was a joke: not all chemical weapons were listed, and Assad seems to have fooled Obama and cheated the deal anyway (as many assumed would be the case from the beginning). But now he can actually test the effect that a credible threat of force would have since he’ll have backed up his words with actions. Now when Obama says he might attack, he really might.

But what if his willingness to use force doesn’t rally the UN to America’s cause? That’s OK too, since having attacked without the UN in the first place shows that when he believes American interests are truly at stake, Obama will go around the UN. The lack of UN authorization should never be mistaken for a per se “unjust” war. But had he put the Syria strikes on hold until he could rally the UN, Obama would have left just such an impression, and it would have been more complicated to go it alone and more onerous to get the Arab states on board. Now the U.S. is quite clearly not hostage to the whims of the dictator protection racket that is the United Nations.

In other words, in choosing the timing of his Syria strikes wisely, Obama may have learned a lesson about strategic calculation that his critics, especially on the right, have been imploring him to learn. Obama has, thus far, learned this lesson through failure rather than success.

And it’s not just about largely discredited authoritarian creep mobs like the UN. Obama’s faddish fixation on retrenchment chic and Western Europe’s schizophrenic appetite for confrontation have left NATO countries in Russia’s neighborhood unsure their allies will fulfill their obligations of mutual defense. And so they’ve taken matters, however modestly, into their own hands. As Reuters reported last week:

Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania launched a joint military force on Friday that Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said could start its first exercises in the tense region in the next year.

The three countries and other states in the area have been on high alert since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March – and Western powers accused Moscow of sending troops to back rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Polish defense officials said the new joint unit could take part in peacekeeping operations, or form the basis of a NATO battle group if one was needed in the future.

NATO, being an alliance of democratic-minded free countries, is far more effective at its tasks than the UN generally is at its own, and there’s no comparison when the matter is the defense of the free world. But NATO isn’t exactly in its prime at the moment. Obama is ambivalent about the organization, democracy is in retreat in Western Europe, and Turkey has become an example of a country that could never be admitted to NATO in its current form were it not already in the alliance.

Going through international organizations can be a great way to give any coalition a sense of legitimacy. But countries have interests, and they protect those interests whether the UN approves or not. Barack Obama is going to address the UN with a simple message: he’s not bluffing. For once, they’ll believe him.

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Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

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In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

The strongest part of Khalidi’s argument is the assertion that in Syria “the most effective forces on the ground today–and for the foreseeable future–are decidedly nonmoderate.” That’s true, in large part I would argue (contrary to his view) because the West did let down the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Having failed to arm and train it three years ago, as some of us advocated at the time, we have watched the more nationalist resistance be sidelined by jihadists. Now it will be much more difficult than in the past to try to create an effective opposition that will fight both the jihadists (of ISIS and Al Nusra, primarily) and the Assad regime.

But allying with the Assad regime, however alluring, is not an effective alternative. In the first place Assad has shown minimal interest in fighting ISIS. There is, in fact, plentiful evidence that Assad has tacitly cooperated with ISIS in order to buttress his argument that all of his opponents are Salafist fanatics. Even if Assad were truly interested in fighting ISIS, the U.S. should have nothing to do with his way of warfare which involves dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on innocent civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods with artillery and airpower. This is a monstrous way of fighting which has driven the death toll above 200,000.

Aside from its immorality, Assad’s way of war–conducted with advice and support from the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah–is not effective. For all of Assad’s brutality, he has not succeeded in defeating the opposition, because his indiscriminate attacks only drive more Sunnis into opposition against his minority Alawite regime.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, another place where many argue the U.S. should ally with Shiite extremists under Iran’s direction. There, too, Shiite atrocities only reinforce ISIS’s appeal among Sunnis as their defenders. The way to beat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is to ally with the Sunni tribes: if they flip against ISIS the group will be defeated in short order, as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in Anbar Province during the Awakening in 2007-2008.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s suppose that Assad can in fact kill enough people to regain control of all of Syria’s territory and to defeat ISIS. And let’s say the Shiite militias in Iraq are equally successful. What would be the upshot? The result would be Iranian domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon–at a minimum. Let’s recall that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world–a regime that has been waging war through terrorism against the U.S. from the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 to the days of Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) in Iraq as recently as 2011.

Khalidi claims that Iran is preferable to ISIS: “It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon,” he writes, “nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.” You could have fooled me. Certainly Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for heinous acts of terrorism abroad such as the 1992 and 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria which killed five Israeli citizens, and numerous other attacks, actual and attempted. All such attacks have undoubtedly had a large element of Quds Force involvement. The Quds Force has also carried out other attacks on its own, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011.

In short the U.S. would be foolhardy in the extreme if it were to take actions that would result in expanding the Iranian sphere of influence. That would simply be promoting one group of anti-American terrorists at the expense of another group of anti-American terrorists. Because we must avoid that outcome, we have to tread carefully in Iraq and Syria, mobilizing more moderate Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites against the extremists of both sides–both the Quds Force and ISIS. That may not be easy to do but there is no realistic alternative.

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Obama Tripped Up By His Own False Choice

So it now appears that President Obama is ready after all to authorize air strikes in Syria. Let us hope he does not lose his nerve at the last moment as he did exactly a year ago when he last seriously contemplated employing American air power in Syria–on that occasion not to target ISIS but rather the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons.

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So it now appears that President Obama is ready after all to authorize air strikes in Syria. Let us hope he does not lose his nerve at the last moment as he did exactly a year ago when he last seriously contemplated employing American air power in Syria–on that occasion not to target ISIS but rather the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons.

It would have been even better if the president had unleashed American air power, in conjunction with aid to the Free Syrian Army, much earlier in the conflict–all the way back in 2011 as some of us urged at the time. By waiting so long Obama now has to grapple with a much tougher situation not only in Syria but also regionally. In December 2011, for example, I wrote: “If parts of Syria slip outside anyone’s control (as occurred in Iraq from 2003 to 2007), they could become havens for Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda.” Sadly that prediction has been vindicated–not only in Syria but also in Iraq.

The point of recalling what I and others said at the time isn’t to engage in a game of “I told you so.” Like every other foreign-policy analyst out there, I have made my share of mistakes that others can second-guess. No one gets it right every time and Obama had legitimate concerns that led him to avoid getting more deeply involved in Syria in 2011.

But there is a broader point here that is well worth keeping in mind. When I or others advocated robust action in Syria (stopping short of using U.S. ground troops), many noninterventionists including the president himself implicitly or explicitly accused us of being warmongers. As recently as late May at West Point, Obama was defending his conduct of foreign policy by attacking supposed hawks: “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” he said. And: “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

In that speech Obama set up a false dichotomy by suggesting that the only choices confronting a U.S. president are isolationism or extreme interventionism–by which he meant of course waging the Iraq War as George W. Bush did. The reality, however, is that in many circumstances a willingness to use a little force early on can avert the need for a bigger, messier involvement with lower chances of success later on. That is exactly the situation we face today in Syria and Iraq where it is much harder to make progress now than it was in 2011 when no one had ever heard of ISIS. Let us hope that President Obama and others who share his noninterventionist inclinations learn a lesson about the costs of inaction–just as those of us who favor a tougher approach to foreign policy should have learned some lessons about the cost of interventionism in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

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The Media’s Mindless Iraq War Comparison

There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

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There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

Stelter used yesterday’s show to ask if the media are replaying Iraq by cheerleading for war against ISIS. But after claiming that media personalities are letting themselves be governed not by the facts on ISIS and terrorism but by “their ideological agendas,” Stelter then seemingly demonstrated what he was criticizing by allowing his show to descend into an ideological echo chamber.

Here are the sources around which Stelter constructed his argument.

He began by quoting that most sober of publications, the Huffington Post home-page banner:

Here’s the banner headline on the “The Huffington Post” earlier this week — “Media War Frenzy Like 2003,” now that’s a frightening concept right there.

Frightening indeed. (Though not as frightening as a media critic using a HuffPo banner as the jumping-off point of his analysis.)

Then there’s this bit of overt partisanship and professional score-settling:

One big difference in 2003 is that we had red news on TV – we had Fox – but we didn’t have solidly blue news from MSNBC. It wasn’t a liberal news channel back then. But now it is. Here’s what Rachel Maddow reminded her viewers this week.

Does Stelter, who works for CNN, know CNN exists? It’s unclear. This one’s a two-fer though, as he first pretends broadcast news leaned right–during the Bush administration–and then tosses it over to Rachel Maddow for her take.

And then the closing flourish–here’s how he introduced the last segment on ISIS:

I myself am very concerned about the press provoking panic about ISIS. But I’m keeping an open mind. And earlier when I was in D.C., I asked Ron Fournier what he thought as well as Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the proudly liberal magazine “The Nation.” Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Stelter’s “keeping an open mind,” so he’d like to get some input on whether America is too warmongering from vanden Heuvel, the Kremlin’s American mouthpiece. Fournier, of National Journal, provided the only serious, levelheaded commentary of the show:

I don’t know – that’s a false choice. What’s bad, what’s wrong for journalists to do is at this early stage to conclude anything. To be able to say that we need to go to war now is irresponsible. To say that we can’t go to war now is irresponsible. Because the fact is – one thing Katrina’s right about is – we haven’t asked all the questions yet. And even the President I don’t think has all the answers yet. So, yes, media is clicked to revving (ph) right now, media sensationalize right now, media is – tends to hype any shiny object that comes along right now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ISIS is not a threat.

Just because you’re tired of war doesn’t mean there aren’t threats. Stelter at least closed the segment with Fournier, so the show ended on a note of rationality. Otherwise, the segment was a fairly embarrassing display of life in a liberal media bubble.

But there’s another point worth making here about this debate. Stelter seems to think the main difference between today’s ISIS threat and the Iraq war is that now Americans have Rachel Maddow to not watch. But there’s another difference, aside from the mainstreaming of cable leftist thoughtlessness.

The run-up to the Iraq war was consumed by a debate over intelligence. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? What was the evidence? Was it enough to support launching a ground invasion? Of course there were other issues at play, including Saddam breaking the conditions of the original ceasefire and also the regular firing at American pilots patrolling the restricted airspace. But certainly the urgency of the case rested to a great degree on whether the intelligence had it right on WMD.

You could even make the case that that was a factor last year, the last time President Obama wanted to bomb Syria (albeit aiming at the other side). Although the case appeared fairly clear that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on the rebels, the evidence still had to be tallied and analyzed.

That’s not the case here. What media personalities are reacting to is not a hyped future threat but the fact that ISIS terrorists are beheading Americans and sending out the videos of the acts. And the response from commentators has been revulsion–entirely appropriate–not supposed water carrying for intel sources. The comparison is irresponsible and false. If anyone’s allowing their ideology to overtake their news judgment it’s those, like Stelter, brandishing the comparison to the Iraq war.

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What the Syria Fiasco Means for Iran, Gaza

To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

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To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who rose to prominence accusing lots of American officials of inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on their watch and then joined the Obama Cabinet where she has practiced inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on her watch, says Assad may still have chemical weapons. And he has a record of using them. Oh, and the brutal butchers of ISIS may get their hands on them too. So the administration’s one success in the Middle East was less “mission accomplished” and more “hey, we gave it a shot.”

There is much to be concerned about in this report, but even the minor details are problematic:

Samantha Power spoke to reporters after the Security Council received a briefing from Sigrid Kaag, who heads the international effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile. But Kaag said the OPCW is still working with Syria to resolve discrepancies in its declaration, which she said range from outdated records to discrepancies on the volume of materials.

Power said the U.S. is concerned not only that President Bashar Assad’s regime still has chemical weapons but that any stockpiles left behind could end up in the hands of the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.

The Easter egg of disaster buried in that excerpt was the following sentence, if you missed it: “The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile.” It’s actually quite amazing. The job isn’t finished, and they know it’s not, but they’re ending the crux of the mission anyway because … well they just are.

So what are the lessons from yet another Obama team failure? Firstly, we knew this was a failure even before the mission came to an end, because the list of banned chemicals was not exhaustive and Assad’s regime was still using other chemical weapons during this process.

But more importantly, it continues to hammer away at whatever is left of Obama’s credibility. Ending the mission to follow through on the chemical-weapons deal before it’s done tells us much about why the world would be foolish to trust Obama on any Iran deal. Deadlines get extended, but at some point they don’t even do that anymore; the administration just gives up and pivots to trying to contain the damage from their failure.

In Syria, that damage means the possibility that not one but two actors in the conflict will use chemical weapons: the original offender, Assad, and the murderous Islamists of ISIS. In Iran, the damage from such a failure would be orders of magnitude worse, because it would mean nuclear weapons in the hands of a terroristic state actor and possibly murderous Islamist groups as well. It could be Syria, in other words, minus the state failure but plus nukes.

And it’s not just Iran, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that in order to preserve a cessation of hostilities emanating from Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave should be demilitarized with Obama’s Syria disarmament in mind. As the Jerusalem Post reported during the recent war:

The idea of demilitarizing Gaza has its roots in the Syrian precedent, and the fact that the US and Russia managed to successfully dismantle Syria of the vast majority of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Netanyahu likes that model, and has repeatedly praised US President Barack Obama for it.

Indeed, he has called for the same paradigm to be used with Iran: dismantling their nuclear infrastructure.

That may have once sounded like a recipe for progress. It’s now clearly a recipe for disaster. The Obama administration has taken to making promises in lieu of action. The Syrian precedent suggests those promises are, as always, just words.

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The Imperial Age of Terrorism

President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

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President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

The Times writes of a new video message released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, in which he attempts to recruit fighters in the Indian subcontinent, “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir.” The call to establish this branch of al-Qaeda was, according to the report, two years in the making, meaning even when al-Qaeda appeared to be splintering it was still expanding. The Times explains the relevance of al-Qaeda’s competitor, ISIS, to Zawahri’s message:

Al Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks on Hindus. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a “far enemy” — the United States and its allies — from the Middle East. Analysts say its leaders may be wary of provoking conflict with this region’s huge Hindu population.

This summer, however, has seen recruiting of Indian Muslims by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni network that split rancorously from Al Qaeda last year and has rapidly expanded, threatening to eclipse its forerunner. Many analysts in India saw Al Qaeda’s announcement Wednesday as an effort by the older organization to confront a rising challenge to its leadership of the Islamic militancy in the region.

In his videotaped address, Mr. Zawahri does not make specific reference to ISIS, but he does call for unity among jihadists, saying “discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers.”

The idea that ISIS is a threat that can be contained to Syria and Iraq is thus false not only because ISIS is already attracting adherents outside those countries but also because ISIS is an element of a global Islamist terror threat whose success breeds expansion, competition, and imitation. If Islamist terrorists are seen to be on the run, as American officials like to believe, they are often on the run to other, stronger terror networks or on the run to scout new locations to expand their reach. This globalized, networked nature of the threat is something Obama has never understood, and it’s hampered American security policy on his watch.

It also undermines Obama’s “realist” desire to see America’s enemies, especially in Syria, destroy each other. What happens when competition fosters not bloody turf wars but competition for new markets? You have a sort of imperial rivalry superimposed on top of the existing world order.

Take the idea of the nation-state, for example, which has been the basis of the quest for a stable global order. Yesterday, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney wrote a smart post on how ISIS and its self-declared sovereignty complicate our preferred understanding of what a state is. Using a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about how ISIS controls its local economy and polices its territory as a jumping-off point, Carney writes:

Many states — including my favorites — gained their territory through violence against pre-existing states.

Is it that ISIS lacks consent of the governed? ISIS has consent of some of the governed, it seems. No state has approval from all of the governed. Many states lack consent of the governed (think, China).

We don’t want to call ISIS a state, because it is evil, murderous and oppressive. But that way of thinking might impart more virtue to the idea of statehood than it deserves.

There is a lot to this, though I don’t think it undermines the case for the nation-state as the preferable currency of international order. My immediate reaction to Carney’s post is to ask the following question, however: if ISIS is a state, is Iraq? Both claim defined borders–but those borders conflict.

The same goes for Syria. The West recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime” almost two years ago. Now we’re contemplating airstrikes that would help Assad at the expense of the rebels because the rebels have been eclipsed by groups like ISIS. So who, or what, is Syria?

And this brings us back to the threat of global terrorism. The expansion not just of ISIS but of al-Qaeda and their competitors threatens to destabilize countries across the globe. If they are going to set up statelets–similar, I suppose, to what the Caucasus Emirate tried to do in Russia–they are not doing so on frontierland. They are doing so in existing states, erasing borders and collapsing authority. Yes, rogue states like Putin’s Russia are a prominent threat to the international regime of state sovereignty. But so is ISIS and its ilk, and it’s time to treat it as such.

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Congress’s Cynical Syria Game

The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

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The New York Times headline on the debate over taking action against ISIS today is: “Lawmakers Want Congress to Decide on Military Action Against ISIS.” The headline, while accurate, overpromises a bit. The story that follows explains that it’s only three lawmakers, none of whom has demonstrated much influence on the broader contours of American foreign policy. When the story gets to someone who does have that influence–Rep. Adam Smith of Washington State, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee–we get the answer: “it’s just not going to happen.”

Conservatives have repeatedly accused President Obama of plotting to go around Congress and abusing executive authority. They are usually correct, most recently with the astoundingly amoral and economically illiterate plan to ignore the Senate on an international climate agreement, pay off authoritarians to keep their suffering citizens mired in poverty, and singlehandedly incentivize a whole new market in global corruption. But on the issue of the use of force in Syria, conservatives should hold their fire: if Obama goes around Congress on this, it’s because Congress wants him to.

There are three factors working against a full congressional vote on the authorization for the use of force against ISIS in Syria (it’s doubtful one would be needed either way in Iraq, since there is an extant authorization there). The first is that President Obama doesn’t want one, because he doesn’t want to lose such a vote.

If it were clear he’d get the authorization he wants, the president would probably go ahead with it. It’s not at all clear such authorization would even pass. Usually, this president is happy to find any reason not to go to war. But in the case of Syria, his credibility, already at a low ebb, would take an irreparable hit if he did a second one-eighty on attacking the country in as many years. He’s already authorized surveillance overflights and there are reports his administration is sharing intel with Bashar al-Assad’s regime–a fact not widely confirmed but not shocking either, considering Obama’s desire for pinpoint operations.

If he lost an authorization vote now, he would probably have to stand down, since asking for the authorization would publicly acknowledge he believes he needs it to proceed. He would like a consensus and bipartisan ownership of a new front in the war on terror. But he might not get it, and thus is unlikely to ask for it.

On why Congress doesn’t want to vote no matter the result–the second factor working against authorization–the Times hits the nail on the head:

Members of both parties have long been reluctant to cast votes on matters of war, and most showed little appetite this month to do so on the airstrikes in Iraq, with midterm elections just months away and Mr. Obama promising the mission would be limited.

Congress doesn’t want to toss a war vote into the chaos of the midterms. Congressional leaders tend to protect their caucus from taking risky votes, and there are few if any votes tougher than authorizing war.

Another issue is that it wouldn’t be easy for this divided Congress to even come to an agreement on what the authorization should say:

“It would be wise for Congress to come together and draft a grant of some authority for the president to confront that challenge,” said Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. At the same time, he said he could not imagine “in a million years” that would happen.

“There is simply no way on earth that members of Congress are going to come together and agree on what the language for an authorization for the use of force in Syria is — it’s just not going to happen,” Mr. Smith said.

And the third factor working against a full vote is that members of Congress want to have their cake and eat it too. The Times hints at this, but I think jumps to the wrong conclusion:

But some lawmakers have grown increasingly uncomfortable with that hands-off approach, especially after ISIS beheaded the American journalist James Foley and released a video showing the execution. The White House announced last week that United States forces had tried and failed to rescue Mr. Foley and other hostages this summer.

In other words, they want the U.S. to strike ISIS. The Times seems to suggest this would help momentum toward a full vote on authorization. I would imagine the opposite is true.

If the approval would be far from assured (and it’s possible it might even be a long shot, depending on who you ask), and that Congress would bicker endlessly over just what it is they were trying to authorize, what would a lawmaker who supports the use of force want to happen? They would prefer the president strike without Congress.

This is practical, because time is of the essence. But it is also cynical, because it enables them to get their way while someone else takes responsibility for it. That’s true for Democrats who want to press a left-wing challenger in 2016 and would love an issue that has more traction than inequality or global warming, and it’s certainly true above all else for Republicans, who can get a policy they support while a president of the other party takes the flak for it.

None of this is to argue against the authorization or to dismiss the importance of an honest public debate and full accountability for a decision as serious as the use of force. It’s just to note that an Obama strike without that authorization would hardly be an example of an imperial presidency. It would be carrying out the wishes, however opportunistic, of both parties’ congressional delegations.

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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

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With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

After forces aligned with Assad apparently used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, a humanitarian tragedy and a challenge to President Obama’s blunt red line, Putin scrambled to prevent any America military strikes. In a New York Times op-ed almost a year ago, Putin offered this advice:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.

Sounds prescient, but was it? Assad is a terror sponsor who has worked closely not only with Hezbollah and, in the past, Hamas, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked extremists he now fights, whose passage through Syria and into Iraq he enabled. Russia likewise criticized and, at times, sought to undercut American action against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in Afghanistan. Over at The Hill, the European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure, my wife, who was a refugee from Russia and also spent much time in Syria and who, alas, sometimes also considers me her Medvedev), points out how curious it is that so many of those who point to this op-ed ignore Putin’s earlier New York Times op-ed which said quite the opposite when it came to battling extremism: “No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept… But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.”

When it comes to the use of military power—or reticence against its role in the fight against terror—Putin may seem inconsistent. Actually, though, he is not, so long as it is understood that his advice is not meant to actually illuminate the best way to counter terror in places like Syria. Rather, he is motivated by a singular desire to pursue Russia’s interests and check those of America. As Borshchevskaya rightly concludes, “Looking back to Putin’s two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.”

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Assad’s American Reinforcements and Obama’s Plunging Credibility

The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

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The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

And then John Kerry stumbled into revealing that, from the administration’s perspective, the “last resort” argument was false. Obama accepted the proposal to get rid of certain types of chemical weapons instead. Administration officials had gone, in a matter of minutes, from telling the American people why we must bomb Assad to telling the American people why we must partner with Assad. It became clear that when it came to matters of war and peace, Obama was winging it, overwhelmed by the complexity of the world.

And yet, partnering with Assad to get rid of certain chemical weapons, while an obvious scam that still snared the naïve American president, is conceptually quite different from what we’re about to do–and, according to AFP, what we’re already doing: partnering with Assad and acting as his air force. That’s a somewhat crude description, of course; we’re not allying ourselves with Assad’s Syria in the way we are allied with numerous non-monsters of the world. But we’re cooperating out of convenience:

The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP on Tuesday.

“The cooperation has already begun and the United States is giving Damascus information via Baghdad and Moscow,” one source close to the issue said on condition of anonymity.

The comments came a day after Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Syria was willing to work with the international community against the jihadist Islamic State group, and US officials said they were poised to carry out surveillance flights over Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said foreign drones had been seen over the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Monday.

Though it hasn’t been widely confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first such report of the U.S. sharing intel with Assad to appear in recent days. And of course, several news organizations reported in January that European intelligence officials were meeting with representatives of the Syrian regime to share information on Islamist groups:

Mekdad’s remarks followed a report in The Wall Street Journal claiming that European intelligence agencies have met covertly with Assad delegates to share information on European jihadists operating in Syria, in the first such meeting since withdrawing their ambassadors when the crisis began.

The report indicated that a retired official from the British MI6 made a trip to Damascus over the summer, and that the French, German and Spanish intelligence agencies followed suit, making contact with regime officials in November and traveling to Syria from Lebanon to carry out their meeting.

President Obama appears to grasp just how silly this all sounds, but is prepared to match it with other silliness. In the New York Times’s report on Obama’s approval of surveillance drones over Syria, which seems to be a precursor to American strikes against ISIS targets there, the story mentions early on the fact that if the U.S. is to have any real effect on ISIS, it would also change the strategic equation in Syria.

In other words, it would benefit Assad. The Times explains that Obama has yet to accept that reality: “a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.” How could the U.S. help Assad win the war without helping Assad win the war? That’s a tough one.

Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility continues to plummet. The argument for staying out of Syria was that, well, we should stay out of Syria. Advocates of involvement in the Syrian war, especially early on when there appeared to be a window of opportunity, argued that staying neutral at the time might very well mean getting involved anyway at a later date, on someone else’s terms, with America’s strategic position weakened.

The idea that the U.S. could get dragged kicking and screaming into Syria was generally dismissed as warmongering. Yet now the conflict-averse president is doing just that. A year ago Obama began the preliminary process of building up to a strike on Syria. Now he is doing the same. The difference is that a year ago Assad was the target. Now he’s the beneficiary.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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Obama’s Syria Shift

President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

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President Obama’s decision to provide $500 million to train and equip the Syrian opposition, like his decision to send 300 Special Operations soldiers to Iraq, can best be understood as a halting half-step away from his preferred policy on non-involvement in the Middle East.

If only he had acted sooner. The Syrian civil war began in March 2011. At one time it looked as if Bashar Assad would fall as quickly and easily as Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak. Obama was so certain of this that in August 2011 he declared, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

That time quickly passed, however, because Obama refused to do much to bring Assad down, treating his demise as a historical inevitability. Not even when Assad brazenly violated Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons did the U.S. ramp up its efforts to topple him.

U.S. inaction, which held back American allies as well, allowed Assad to recover from his early stumbles. With the aid of the Iranian Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah, he launched a murderous counterattack that resulted in the deaths of over 150,000 Syrians and that produced a stalemate which endures to this day. Out of this hellish civil war have arisen extremists on both sides–the Quds Force/Hezbollah on the pro-government side and the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on the rebel side. The Free Syrian Army, the military arm of the more moderate nationalist opposition, has gotten weaker and weaker. In fact it’s not clear if they have sufficient strength left to benefit from Obama’s delayed offer of aid.

Meanwhile the extremists have gotten so strong that ISIS has surged across the border to take most of the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, from Fallujah and Al Qaim in the west to Mosul in the north.

At this point it is far from clear that extra U.S. aid and training will be sufficient to turn the tide. American airpower and raids by the US Special Operations Command seem to be called for as well before the divisions of Iraq and Syria harden into the permanent establishment of Shiite and Sunni terrorist states. But that would require an even greater acknowledgement on Obama’s part that the “tide of war” is not “receding” and that the U.S. does not have the luxury of “pivoting” away from the Middle East. The best that can be said for his small, half-hearted moves in Syria and Iraq are that they may be the prelude to a wider reconsideration of his disastrous policy in the Middle East.

Or at least so we can hope. Obviously no one wants to get more deeply enmeshed in the region’s violent politics, but the only thing worse than American involvement, we are now learning, is American non-involvement.

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Why Hillary Complained About America’s “Brutal” Politics

In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

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In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

Ed Morrissey notes at the link that “there was never going to be a good time for a gaffe of this scale, but it’s hard to think of a worse time for it,” considering the raging sectarian conflict in Iraq that has ISIS marching toward Baghdad, the bloody election season in Afghanistan, the setbacks in Burma, and the Assad “election” in Syria, where the body count has been in the six digits for some time now. He adds:

Hillary wants to run on her record as Secretary of State, in part based on the amount of travel she undertook in that role. It’s indisputable that she traveled around the world, but she doesn’t appear to have learned anything from her travels. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might have a different perspective on brutal in relation to political systems, or perhaps the anti-Chavistas in Venezuela could have informed Hillary of what the word actually means. For that matter, nearly everyone in Syria could have explained it to her back in 2011.

That’s an important point. She went into her job at State with an eye toward 2016. So she studiously avoided the kinds of issues that would bog her down, risk adding major failures to her resume, or prejudice the sides in a dispute she would want to take up later on if she won the presidency. That left traveling. A lot. When asked to name her accomplishments at State, she can’t. Neither can her defenders (try as they might). It always comes down to traveling. She’s been everywhere, man.

But what did she learn? Not enough, apparently. Not that anyone really takes this comment at face value. Rather, this is another instance of Clinton’s overly defensive reflex to work the refs. American politics ain’t beanbag, it’s true. But it’s closer to it than much of the world’s politics.

Clinton has been subject to some unfair attacks–just like other would-be presidents–but she has always taken a conspiratorial view of the world bordering on paranoia. She will be treated far better on the campaign trail than any Republican, and if she wins her party’s nomination she’ll see that right away. She will persist, however, in treating all criticism of her as part of the battle progress (represented by Clinton) must fight against bias, bigotry, and regression (represented chiefly by Republicans, but also journalists who ask her questions).

Clinton was secretary of state at a momentous time (isn’t it always?) for the world, with revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and all the way to Russia’s borders. But in Russia, as in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, those looking to overthrow their rulers could only have dreamed of the task that faces Hillary: a free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power. She does the many brave and brutalized dissidents around the world a disservice by putting herself in their company.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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Assad’s Chemical War Continues

Human Rights Watch–not exactly an organization that has ever been accused of neocon warmongering–has just released a report concluding that there is strong evidence “that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.” 

The organization reached this conclusion after “interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel,” and reviewing “video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants.” HRW finds that “these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.”

Now in the greater scheme of things, 11 more dead people in Syria is hardly a shocking development–not when more than 150,000 people have already been killed in the awful civil war. But these 11 deaths are particularly inconvenient for the Obama administration which made such a big deal of its “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and which is hoping to tout the success of an agreement that has resulted in the removal of some 92 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons so far.

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Human Rights Watch–not exactly an organization that has ever been accused of neocon warmongering–has just released a report concluding that there is strong evidence “that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.” 

The organization reached this conclusion after “interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel,” and reviewing “video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants.” HRW finds that “these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.”

Now in the greater scheme of things, 11 more dead people in Syria is hardly a shocking development–not when more than 150,000 people have already been killed in the awful civil war. But these 11 deaths are particularly inconvenient for the Obama administration which made such a big deal of its “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and which is hoping to tout the success of an agreement that has resulted in the removal of some 92 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons so far.

What to do about the fact that Assad seems to be using chemicals again? My guess is nothing. The administration seems to be rather embarrassed about this gruesome development and is no doubt hoping it will go away. But it won’t. And if the U.S. does absolutely nothing about it, this will be only the latest sign of American prestige falling precipitously in ways that can only cheer our enemies and rivals in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea–and discourage our allies around the world who must be wondering what American security guarantees are worth anymore. 

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Assad Misses Chemical-Weapons Deadline

The deadline has come and gone for Bashar Assad to turn over all of his chemical weapons. Naturally, he did not fully comply with his obligations, turning over some 93 percent while holding onto a substantial stockpile. The Washington Post reports that “Syria is holding on to 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents.”

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction of the Syrian arsenal, insists that the tunnels and buildings used to hold the weapons should be destroyed. Assad wants to keep them intact and he is holding onto the remaining 27 tons of precursors until he gets his way–in violation, of course, of the agreement reached between Russia and the U.S. back in September.

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The deadline has come and gone for Bashar Assad to turn over all of his chemical weapons. Naturally, he did not fully comply with his obligations, turning over some 93 percent while holding onto a substantial stockpile. The Washington Post reports that “Syria is holding on to 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents.”

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction of the Syrian arsenal, insists that the tunnels and buildings used to hold the weapons should be destroyed. Assad wants to keep them intact and he is holding onto the remaining 27 tons of precursors until he gets his way–in violation, of course, of the agreement reached between Russia and the U.S. back in September.

Nor is this Assad’s only apparent violation. There have also been widespread reports of the Syrian government dropping bombs filled with chlorine on residential areas. “The use of the widely available industrial chemical in munitions known as barrel bombs,” the Post notes, “would constitute a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Damascus joined last fall under the threat of U.S. cruise missile strikes.” 

There is no sign of Assad being willing to give up his use of chlorine; indeed there are reports that Iran is replenishing his arsenal with Chinese-made chlorine bombs.

Why would Assad be flouting international norms in this way? Why not? The passing of the American red line on the use of chemical weapons last fall, without any military action on the part of the U.S., signaled clearly that Assad will not face any serious consequences no matter what he does. As long as he sort of–but not really–complies with the international agreement, he knows that President Obama will not launch air strikes. 

Indeed the U.S. has a strong incentive not to kick up too much of a fuss about Assad’s violations because everyone knows that last thing in the world that Obama wants is to get involved in another war. As Obama’s foreign policy goes from failure to failure, pretty much the only thing the president can boast of anymore is that he hasn’t gotten us involved in any fresh wars.

Of course Assad knows this. So does Putin. So does Khamenei. So does Xi Jinping. And Kim Jong-un. And pretty much everyone else who counts. They all know that they can get away with pretty much anything these days–and they are taking advantage of the opportunity.

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Hagel and Dempsey vs. the Straw Men

The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.

The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.

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The Wall Street Journal has a story today on the division in the administration over greater intervention in Syria. The internal divide, we are told, pits Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, who want to do more to train and arm the Syrian opposition and possibly support them with air strikes, against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argue, in essence, for inaction.

The most significant sentence in the article? “It isn’t clear where Mr. Obama stands.” That, in fact, is the nub of the problem. The fact that the Pentagon is opposed to intervention isn’t terribly surprising–the Pentagon has either been opposed to, or skeptical of, just about every foreign military intervention since Vietnam with the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11. And sometimes more caution has been warranted–something, alas, that Pentagon leaders, both civilian and military, lost sight of during the planning for the Iraq invasion. But at other times–e.g., the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s–the Pentagon has been overly cautious and civilian leaders were right to override military objections.

But that’s only possible when you have leadership from the president. In this case you don’t. Which is why the Defense Department has been able to get away with shoddy arguments such as this one: “If it weren’t for the chairman, you would be right back in Iraq or Afghanistan,” a senior defense official told the Journal. Huh? Is anyone–anyone–proposing sending 100,000-plus ground troops to Syria? Or any ground troops at all? Not that I’ve heard. This is a totally bogus argument but one that no doubt resonates with a president who won office in no small part on the strength of his opposition to the conflict in Iraq.

What the cautious leadership of the Pentagon is losing sight of is a point that has been made to me by a number of active-duty military officers: namely, that there is not only danger but a great opportunity in Syria. We have the potential to do great damage Hezbollah, the Quds Force, and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, three of the most potent anti-American terrorist organizations in the world. The Free Syrian Army is eager to fight all three groups if we would only provide them the arms and training to do so. If the U.S. were to use its airpower, that would truly provide an opportunity to wreak havoc among our enemies while running scant risks ourselves: Syrian air defense could be quickly disabled and as long as we don’t put troops on the ground (aside from a few Special Operators and intelligence operatives) we would be unlikely to suffer any casualties.

But that is a course of action that would require more boldness and decisiveness than we have seen from the Oval Office at any time since the Osama bin Laden raid nearly three years ago.

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Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

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Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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Victory Is the Only Legitimacy Assad Needs

Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

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Consumers of news are well aware that the old saw “if it bleeds, it leads” comes with an unstated qualification: it depends who else is bleeding. This isn’t the only variable, but it’s a potent one. And so the current age of global instability–the Arab Spring, European protest movements, etc.–has meant that no matter how much Syria bleeds, it rarely leads. While the conflict has not experienced any major transformations recently, the lack of interest in Syria compared to, say, Egypt or Ukraine or the perennial newsmakers in Israel and the Palestinian territories means it’s possible, even likely, we’ll miss subtle shifts.

And Syria has undergone such a shift. The New York Times reports that Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, believes Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. This isn’t breaking news. But it’s a significant story because it’s not breaking news. We’ve written here over the last year or so that Assad’s survival has gone from unlikely to tenuous to probable, culminating in the Russian-brokered deal to pretend to eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, a deal which (as the Times notes) did more to solidify Assad’s hold on power than virtually any other development there since the beginning of the uprising.

Assad’s survival, then, has become the new conventional wisdom, ushering Syria into an era of status quo chaos. The Times adds that this story appears in today’s print edition of the paper on page A10. Assad’s survival means Syria will continue to bleed, but won’t come close to leading.

The Times mentions that Ford’s “assessment was starkly different from one the Obama administration presented as recently as last year, when it insisted that Mr. Assad’s days were numbered and that he was losing a battle of attrition with the moderate opposition.” Syria was always a prime example of the president’s belief that he could make something so by simply saying it. Obama declared Assad’s days to be numbered; what else could possibly have been needed?

The Times asks Ford why Assad is now expected to stay in power–that is, why Assad might have won. Here’s his response:

Mr. Ford said there were three reasons Mr. Assad had been able to hang on to power. First, Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition had been unable to assure the Alawite minority that it would not be threatened by Mr. Assad’s overthrow. “First and foremost,” Mr. Ford said, the Syrian opposition “has been very unsuccessful at explaining an agenda that would not threaten the communities that are the pillars of support for the regime, first and foremost the Alawite community.” Mr. Assad himself is an Alawite.

Another factor that has helped Mr. Assad’s prospects has been “Iranian and Russian financing and huge amounts of arms coming from both Russia and Iran.” Tehran’s decision to encourage Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, and Iraqi Shiite fighters to join the fray has also provided the Syrian government with badly needed manpower, Mr. Ford said.

The third factor is that the Assad government has had a “certain unity and coherence, which is lacking on the opposition side,” he said.

Mr. Ford appeared to hold out little hope that diplomacy could resolve the crisis anytime soon. He said the Syrian government was not interested in negotiating the establishment of a transitional administration that could govern the country if Mr. Assad yielded power. Nor, he added, has the United States had any serious negotiations over the Syria crisis with Tehran.

In other words, Assad had received significant help from his backers, while the Obama administration has neither given such help to Assad’s opposition nor seriously engaged in diplomacy with Assad’s benefactors. Of course, the window for significant material support to the rebels has probably closed, and been closed for some time. At the outset of the uprising, there seemed to be an opportunity to try and pick winners and losers among the rebel groups. The ever-contemplative Obama just had to think about it for a while, say, several years.

It’s not just Ford or U.S. intelligence officials who admit the odds in favor of Assad’s continued reign. Wherever there is a foreign-policy crisis, you are likely to find an insipid and dismissive quote from this nation’s chief diplomat, the blundering John Kerry. And Syria is no different. Here is Kerry’s acknowledgement of the current state of the conflict:

On Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to recognize Mr. Assad’s tenacity on the battlefield in remarks to a group of university students.

“Whether they win, don’t win, they can’t regain legitimacy,” said Mr. Kerry, who argued that the Syrian leader would face armed opposition as long as he sought to hold power.

The most charitable explanation is that Kerry simply doesn’t understand how offensive and callous his statements are to the many, many, many victims and their families of this incredibly bloody civil war. Is that their consolation prize from the leader of the free world? The Obama administration may not lift a finger to stem the barbarous mass murder they are subjected to, but rest assured the president has resolutely extracted from Assad his international legitimacy.

What the president and his embarrassing secretary of state don’t say is that such legitimacy may not be theirs to bestow anyway. Victors tend to accrue legitimacy in the real world. And Assad is on pace to claim a costly, but no less real, victory.

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