Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syrian civil war

Ignoring Real Syrian Refugees to Support Fake Palestinian Ones

I realize it’s been a busy week, what with ISIS beheading journalists, Russia invading Ukraine, and deadliest of all (to quote the inimitable Sultan Knish), Israel threatening to build new houses. But it’s nevertheless shocking that one UN announcement last week should have attracted so little international attention: Last Friday, the number of registered Syrian refugees topped the 3 million mark. And those are just the ones who have made it out of Syria and registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency estimates that another 6.5 million are internally displaced, bringing the total number of displaced Syrians to almost half the country’s population.

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I realize it’s been a busy week, what with ISIS beheading journalists, Russia invading Ukraine, and deadliest of all (to quote the inimitable Sultan Knish), Israel threatening to build new houses. But it’s nevertheless shocking that one UN announcement last week should have attracted so little international attention: Last Friday, the number of registered Syrian refugees topped the 3 million mark. And those are just the ones who have made it out of Syria and registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency estimates that another 6.5 million are internally displaced, bringing the total number of displaced Syrians to almost half the country’s population.

But buried about halfway through the announcement is a sentence that goes a long way toward explaining the international apathy: “Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population under UNHCR care, second only in number to the decades-long Palestinian crisis.” In other words, even as it tries to solicit aid for distressed Syrians, the UN itself is telling people that another refugee crisis is even greater, and hence presumably more deserving of their money and attention. And it has peddled this nonsensical claim so successfully, for so long, that it now finds itself unable to meet the needs of a real crisis: The $2 billion it’s desperately seeking to keep Syrian refugees alive through the upcoming winter has already been squandered on five million faux refugees, most of whom don’t need it at all.

Of course, there are real Palestinian refugees–primarily the 500,000 in Syria, whose plight, like that of other Syrians, is dire. Moreover, though most of the Palestinians temporarily displaced by the Hamas-Israel war are now returning home, Gaza will need reconstruction aid.

But of the 5 million Palestinians registered as “refugees” with their own private UN agency, UNRWA, most aren’t displaced in any fashion: They have lived in the same places for decades, and have houses, jobs, extended families, friends, schools, health care, and all the other accoutrements of normal life. Moreover, most live in places that, by Mideast standards, are exceptionally safe and stable, including 2.1 million in Jordan and 750,000 in the West Bank.

Nevertheless, UNRWA’s staff and budget dwarfs that of UNHCR. It has 30,000 employees to deal with 5 million “refugees,” while UNHCR has 8,600 to handle 10.5 million refugees plus more than twice as many other “people of concern,” including 17.7 million internally displaced. UNRWA’s regular budget is $1 billion a year, bolstered by periodic emergency appeals ($300 million in 2013); UNHCR had a regular budget of $4 billion plus $1.3 billion in emergency appeals as of mid-2013, but for a population seven times as large–35.8 million “people of concern.”

Thus UNRWA has one staffer for every 167 Palestinians while UNHCR has one for every 4,163 non-Palestinians, and UNRWA has $260 for every Palestinian while UNHCR has $148 for every non-Palestinian. Yet the needs of the people UNHCR cares for–who have lost their homes, their jobs and their entire lives–are incomparably greater than those of the Palestinians, most of whom lead completely normal lives.

Much has been written, correctly, about how UNRWA helps perpetuate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But to my mind, the greater outrage is the degree to which UNRWA diverts international money and attention from those who need it desperately–like the Syrian refugees–to those who don’t need it at all, like the many Palestinian “refugees” who became Jordanian citizens decades ago.

And unlike the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this is a problem the West can easily solve. Western nations provide most of UNRWA’s budget, so all they have to do is reallocate this money–some to UNHCR, and some, at least initially, to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and perhaps Lebanon, to cushion the shock of suddenly having to provide health, education, and welfare services to millions of people who currently receive those services from UNRWA.

Then, with five million faux refugees out of the picture, perhaps the real ones will finally get the attention they deserve.

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Time to Eliminate Visa Waivers?

I’ve written here before about some of the far-flung ramifications of the civil war in Syria spinning out of control. For example, Poles last month speculated that terrorists and militants holding European passports returning from Syria could strike soft targets across the Schengen Zone, those countries in Europe who have dismantled their customs and border checks effectively meaning entrance to one is entrance to them all. The result of that, of course, would be the end of the Schengen agreement and the return of passport checks at national borders.

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I’ve written here before about some of the far-flung ramifications of the civil war in Syria spinning out of control. For example, Poles last month speculated that terrorists and militants holding European passports returning from Syria could strike soft targets across the Schengen Zone, those countries in Europe who have dismantled their customs and border checks effectively meaning entrance to one is entrance to them all. The result of that, of course, would be the end of the Schengen agreement and the return of passport checks at national borders.

Alas, the threat of European citizen terrorists will not be limited to Europe. Today, security has been ramped up for international flights heading to the United States because of credible threats of new terrorism using explosives not readily detectable by current screening technologies. The Syrian conflict is exacerbating the problem: Recently, a British citizen who has joined the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has posted a video bragging about the explosives training he has received in Syria and boasted that he would soon bring that know-how home.

Airlines are doing the usual ramping up of screenings and interviewing passengers, and press reports also suggest that American officials will fly to European airports to supervise screening of passengers and baggage.

If the threat is increasingly not only the potential for harder-to-detect explosives, but also the passport holders who might carry them, perhaps it’s time to bite the bullet and eliminate visa waivers. That would result in reciprocal action by mainly European countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

That does not mean that all embassies need to be flooded with applicants, but rather that the United States can begin applying more of an Australian model in which everyone must apply for a visa electronically so that their names and information can be passed through applicable databases. True, the State Department and Department of Homeland Security have the Electronic System of Travel Authorization, but that is simply a preliminary system to confirm visa waiver applicability. While it reserves the right to deny anyone entrance at the U.S. border, if anyone has malicious intent when boarding an airplane, waiting until they land is too late to offset a “man-made disaster.”

The visa system isn’t sacrosanct. There is much that is wrong with it and almost everyone, inside or out, sees the need for reform. That may be too much a job to do for a secretary of state who believes effectiveness is measured in frequent flyer miles and, like former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, ignore their executive responsibility to manage and reform the bureaucracies over which they preside. Rather than uphold the blanket right for countries with shifting demographics and a growing radicalism problem to have their citizens have the right to visa waivers, perhaps it’s time for increased preliminary screenings. It’s not too much of a hurdle for non-American travelers to apply directly online for a visa (so long as the interface isn’t designed by the good folks who brought us healthcare.gov) and potentially be informed of the need for a follow-up interview. It’s also not too much of a hurdle for Americans to then deal with applying for visas ahead of time should those countries insist on reciprocity.

Once again, the ramifications and reverberations of President Obama’s indecisiveness three years ago regarding the crisis in Syria grow. But given the impact of the president’s decisions—or lack thereof—countering the growing terror threat by Syrian-trained European passport holders is worth the price.

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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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The U.N.’s Parallel Universe

In the midst of the greatest threat to European stability since the Balkans war of the 1990s, and perhaps back to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just announced that the European Union’s primary focus should be on fighting climate change. Ban, who has been singularly unsuccessful in having any positive impact on the Syrian civil war, Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the like, now sees a Europe in which climate change is more of a threat than Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to Ukraine and possibly other parts of Eastern Europe.

While the pillars of the post-World War II international order tremble in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the secretary general’s statements could be mistaken for parody, but they are manifestly in earnest. The unilateral redrawing of borders in Europe, along with Putin’s deeply paranoid, grievance-driven, and aggressive speech of March 18, might spark a level of personal commitment and concern on the part of the U.N.’s leader commensurate with the threat. Instead, Ban reveals the deeply irrelevant nature and unshakeable ideology of the world’s leading multilateral organization. The only worse news would be if the EU itself, facing violent transformation of its continent, were to endorse such folly as its primary goal.

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In the midst of the greatest threat to European stability since the Balkans war of the 1990s, and perhaps back to the Berlin Crisis of 1961, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon just announced that the European Union’s primary focus should be on fighting climate change. Ban, who has been singularly unsuccessful in having any positive impact on the Syrian civil war, Chinese coercion in the East and South China Seas, North Korea’s nuclear program, and the like, now sees a Europe in which climate change is more of a threat than Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to Ukraine and possibly other parts of Eastern Europe.

While the pillars of the post-World War II international order tremble in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, the secretary general’s statements could be mistaken for parody, but they are manifestly in earnest. The unilateral redrawing of borders in Europe, along with Putin’s deeply paranoid, grievance-driven, and aggressive speech of March 18, might spark a level of personal commitment and concern on the part of the U.N.’s leader commensurate with the threat. Instead, Ban reveals the deeply irrelevant nature and unshakeable ideology of the world’s leading multilateral organization. The only worse news would be if the EU itself, facing violent transformation of its continent, were to endorse such folly as its primary goal.

To functionaries such as Ban, process is everything, thus, he calls for a European action plan on climate change to come into effect no later than 2030. By then, of course, no one can any longer be certain what Europe’s borders will look like, whether there will have been actual conflict, or how many other depredations on territorial sovereignty there will have been in Europe and elsewhere.

Perhaps, though, Ban is actually providing a useful vision of the future of multilateralism. Were Washington and its liberal allies to accept that the U.N., and many organizations like it, is fit only to focus on soft issues such as food relief, health care, and environmentalism (regardless of its actual ability to make a meaningful impact), then we can move beyond the fiction that it has any real role to play in responding to global threats. If Washington can free itself from bondage to the “legitimacy” of the U.N. Security Council, then perhaps we can more creatively respond to Russia’s aggression, North Korea’s threat, and Syria’s bloodbath. That might prevent, or at least delay, the continued erosion in international norms. Call it the Ban Doctrine.

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Iran’s Gaza Arms Shipment and Obama’s Middle East Diplomacy

The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

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The news that Israel has intercepted an Iranian shipment of arms headed for Gaza has been overshadowed, along with just about every other foreign policy story, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. But this is more than just a routine terror bulletin that will be noted, filed and then forgotten. The decision by Iran to ship missiles from Syria to the Hamas-run strip raises serious questions about a number of Obama administration assumptions about both Iran and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If, as now appears to be the case, Iran is back in the business of arming Hamas, then that does more than undermine the administration’s narrative about President Hassan Rouhani’s government being more moderate than his predecessors. It demonstrates that Iran is, as it always has been, up to its neck in the business of arming and funding international terrorism. That should make President Obama think twice about his belief that the regime can be trusted to abide by any nuclear accord. Just as important is the very real possibility that the captured arms were part of a rapprochement between Iran and its former close ally Hamas. If Iran is now seeking to strengthen the Islamist terrorist group’s ability to wage war on Israel, that could mean it is using the Gaza enclave as leverage against the possibility of an Israeli or Western attack on its nuclear facilities. But it is also possible that the attempt to create a Gaza arms buildup is aimed at reminding the Palestinian Authority that Hamas and other Islamist forces retain a veto over any peace deal with Israel. The seized arms are a signal to the U.S. and Israel not only of the essentially violent character of Iran but of its ability to create havoc throughout the region to serve its own interests.

Since 2011 Hamas and Iran have been at odds, as they have backed different sides in the Syrian civil war. In addition to pouring arms, money and some of its own forces into Damascus, Iran has deployed its Hezbollah terrorist proxies to back up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. But Hamas sided with Islamist rebels and broke with Tehran over the dispute. But prior to that Hamas looked to Iran as its principal supplier of arms and cash during the second intifada fighting with Israel. Though Hamas is Sunni and Iran is Shi’ite, the two bonded over their mutual hatred for Israel and Jews.

Proof of the sophisticated nature of the arms pipeline between Tehran and Gaza came in 2002 when the Israeli Navy seized the Karine A, a ship that was loaded with Iranian missiles and various other types of military hardware intended for use by Hamas. Iran’s intentions were clear. They were prepared to back any force willing to fight Israel and to kill Jews in any manner possible.

The breakup of that alliance demonstrated Hamas’ belief that they no longer needed Iran’s assistance. But things have changed since the start of the Arab Spring when the Islamist group thought it could count on support from Egypt and Turkey to make up for the money and arms it got from Iran. The ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and its replacement by a military regime that seems determined to shut down the smuggling tunnels into Gaza has placed Hamas under tremendous financial pressure. It has also been disappointed by Turkey whose Islamist government talked big about backing Hamas but now seems too preoccupied with its own domestic troubles to do much to prop up Gaza. That leaves Iran, which seems to have prevailed in Syria and is ready and willing to step back into its old role as Hamas’ funder and arms supplier as well as being the chief instigator of mayhem along Israel’s southern border.

Iran’s re-entry into the Israel-Palestinian conflict is just one more reason why Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative is bound to fail. He and President Obama continue to act as if Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas not only is ready to make peace but has the ability to withstand pressure from Hamas and the rejectionists in his own Fatah to make a deal stick. This is clearly untrue. But now that Hamas has Iran in its corner again, Abbas must understand that any hopes that his rivals in Gaza will collapse are mere pipe dreams. Iran’s backing for Hamas not only makes Kerry’s peace talks look like a fool’s errand, their money and munitions may also be a down payment on the launch of a third intifada.

The standard refrain of Israel-bashers is that more violence will be the fault of the Jewish state’s alleged intransigence. But the real reason for another intifada may have more to do with Iran’s geo-strategic ambitions than West Bank settlements. With Syria and Lebanon still firmly in Tehran’s grasp, adding Hamas to the list of its allies gives the ayatollahs one more weapon to wield in its quest for regional hegemony. Stopping the already remote chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is one of their goals. But Iran also sees this as a chance to further complicate Western efforts to exert pressure on their nuclear program.

President Obama may believe he is embarked on a diplomatic quest with Iran that will result in a new détente that will lessen the chances of conflict and allow the United States to ease out of a strategic role in which it stands beside both Israel and moderate Arab states. But Iran has very different goals. The seizure of the arms shipment is a wake-up call for Washington. But it is an open question as to whether President Obama and Secretary Kerry are too besotted with their hopes for détente with Iran to listen to reason.

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It’s Not Just Regime vs. Al-Qaeda in Syria

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

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A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Other changes provide new opportunities not recognized in a policy debate that seems stuck on repeat. Last month, I spent several days in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, home to Syria’s Kurdish minority, thousands of Syriac Christians, and many Arabs as well. While the United States refuses to deal with the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian administration set up in this region largely out of deference to Turkey, which does not like the idea of another federal Kurdish region on its borders, the Kurds, Arabs, and Christians of Rojava have done a remarkable job ousting al-Qaeda-affiliated elements and other radicals, and putting in place a functioning administration. I described some of this in a Wall Street Journal piece last Friday.

It seems remarkable that with the disaster that is Syria today, the White House would not jump at a chance to support a stable, secular, and secure region that is relative pro-American. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have decided to do. The residents of Hasakah, or Rojava as Kurds call the region, don’t ask for much: just an end to the blockade imposed not only by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose president, Masud Barzani, sees Rojava as potential political competition) so that they can received donated medicine and rice. The region’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) and their Syriac Christian and Arab corollaries have successfully neutralized the regime and pushed by radical Islamist elements without international assistance. Should the West decide to support Syria’s secular elements even further, they might stabilize portions of Syria under a federal model, much like in Iraq. That isn’t a magic formula but, as in Iraq, perhaps embracing stability in some provinces can be a useful first step if achieving stability in all provinces is not immediately possible. Rather than simply regurgitate three-year-old talking points about arming the opposition, perhaps it would be more productive to look at the current situation on the ground and support Rojava.

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The Costs of Obama’s Syrian Disaster

When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

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When President Obama made the case for U.S. strikes on Syria last year and then ignominiously retreated in the face of congressional opposition and wound up agreeing to a deal that handed Russia responsibility for cleaning up that country’s chemical arms, it marked a new low for U.S. Middle East policy. But a war-weary America that wanted no part of yet another foreign war merely shrugged. Most acknowledged, however, that Obama’s retreat was humiliating. But the rise of a new isolationism has muted any potential public outcry over Obama’s irresponsibility in demanding the ouster of Bashar Assad or the hollow bravado of his talk of “red lines,” let alone any concern for the slaughter of more than 100,000. Even those initially inclined to support military action in Syria came to believe that it might now be too late to act since Obama’s dithering may have squandered the chance to replace Assad with pro-democracy rebels instead of al-Qaeda-related terrorists. When Obama punted the Syrian question to Russia, some observers hoped that the deal for the removal of the regime’s chemical weapons would, at least, limit the damage.

But several months later, the problem has not just disappeared as the president hoped it would. The American people may be no more interested in dealing with Syria today than they were last August, but at least Secretary of State John Kerry seems willing to admit, albeit privately, that the administration has been party to a complete disaster that may well come back to haunt the U.S. in a catastrophic way. Speaking with at least 15 members of Congress in an off-the-record meeting, as the Daily Beast reports, Kerry told them that the talks with the Russians have not succeeded in dealing with the chemical-weapons issue, let alone in ending the Syrian civil war. Even worse, he admitted that al-Qaeda-connected opposition groups are now entrenched in the country and may well be planning to attack the American homeland. But comments such as these weren’t likely to stay private for long, as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham leaked them yesterday, provoking the usual denials from both the White House and the State Department.

While McCain and Graham may hope to use this information to gain more support for their proposals to arm moderate Syrian rebels, there appears little appetite in either the Congress or the country for any intervention in Syria. But as much as administration officials may be counting on public apathy to shield them from being held accountable for their Syrian fiasco, Kerry’s admission about the strengthening of al-Qaeda should shock the nation. Just as importantly, these revelations shed new light on the utter bankruptcy of the administration’s groundless faith in the nuclear talks with the other major player in Syria: Iran. Although the administration has worked tirelessly to shout down the bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate that wants to pass more sanctions on Iran with the administration’s spurious claim that the alternative to the current diplomatic track is war, the tragic outcome in Syria illustrates that there is something even worse than a conflict with Iran.

While granting Russia pre-eminence in Syria diplomacy was a matter of concern, many in Washington believed that doing so would at least contain the Syrian war and allow the administration to stay out of the conflict without paying any tangible penalty for its humiliation. But punting on Syria has left the country in the hands of two horrible forces: Assad and his Iran/Hezbollah allies and the potent Islamist forces that seem to have superseded moderates as the principal alternative to the ruling regime.

Just as Obama’s two years of fatal indecision on Syrian action left him with few good options by the time he woke up to the fact that he had to make some decision last summer, it appears that several more months of delay have only served to make the situation look even more grim. If Kerry has now conceded that the Russians can’t be trusted and has disclosed to Congress the potentially lethal nature of the threat from al-Qaeda, it is obvious that Obama’s diplomacy has succeeded only in creating new problems that may not be contained within Syria’s borders.

Much as the administration would prefer to stifle any efforts to use Kerry’s remarks as a way to initiate a new examination of its Syria policy, the U.S. failure must also unquestionably influence all present and future discussions of the president’s efforts to foster détente with Iran.

Armed conflict should always be the policy of last resort, but this administration’s avoidance of force has become its single, guiding principle. This does not go unnoticed by our foes, be they al-Qaeda or Iran. In Syria we have seen what happens when the West is unwilling and/or unable to muster forces to back its own threats of the use of force to end a brutal regime that murders its people by the tens of thousands. Rather than containing the problem to a small Middle Eastern country about which few Americans care, the implosion within Syria now threatens to mushroom into a conflict that could, if Kerry and intelligence director James Clapper are to be believed, eventually pose a threat to the United States. That is a problem that won’t be solved by U.S. reliance on the Russians or their Iranian partners in the Syrian catastrophe.

The connection to the Iran nuclear talks  can’t be denied. Syria did far more than highlight the irresolution of Obama’s foreign policy. It gave a textbook illustration of the mortal dangers of weakness on the international stage. That weakness was not lost on Iran when it negotiated an interim nuclear deal in which the U.S. discarded its economic and military leverage and tacitly recognized Tehran’s “right” to enrich uranium. Just as Assad believes the current diplomatic track in Syria will not undermine his rule, so, too, his Iranian backers are understandably confident of their ability to negotiate and achieve Western recognition for their nuclear program. And just as America’s inability to act in Syria may have engendered a powerful al-Qaeda enclave there, blind faith in diplomacy is setting in motion a train of events that could lead directly to an Iranian bomb. The result of all this is not only a more dangerous Middle East but also an American homeland that is demonstrably less secure because of Obama’s continuing and uncomprehending failures.

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Syrian Opposition Pillages Heritage

I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.

Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.

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I spent several days last month in northeastern Syria, an area controlled neither by the regime nor the increasingly radicalized Sunni Arab opposition, but rather by Syrian Kurds who seek a third option. Just as in Iraq, the rest of Syria, and Israel, it’s hard to drive far without seeing historical mounds and remnants of un-excavated historical sites. Alas, even in the unlikely event peace comes to Syria, archaeologists never will be able to survey many of these sites because of rampant looting against the backdrop of the civil war.

Local authorities in northeastern Syria have fenced and posted guards at some of the sites, but the reports from displaced Arab about the Syrian opposition’s looting of archaeological museums in Aleppo, Homs, and elsewhere are cause for concern: According to various Syrians—none of whom are tied into the regime—some groups among the Syrian opposition and individual jihadis have systematically looted museums to sell artifacts for profit and to finance their jihad.

How different the reaction of so many in the American and European academic communities to the very real looting of Syria’s heritage, versus the inflated tales of the decimation of the Baghdad Museum and various archaeological and heritage sites around Iraq. On April 16, 2003, the American Schools of Oriental Research, a professional organization for U.S. archaeologists working in the Middle East, declared the Baghdad Museum looting to be “the most severe blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors,” never mind that much of the theft at the Baghdad Museum turned out to be an inside job, and that most of the artifacts there were recovered.

Regardless, condemnation for the looting at the Baghdad Museum was warranted, even if marred by hyperbole. But the relative silence for the far greater damage currently being done to Syria’s heritage suggests political agendas among America’s academics trump objective concern for preservation of the past. And that is tragic.

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Syrian Deal Missing Deadlines

In the State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated” because of “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force.” Not so fast. Like his claim that by the end of the year “America’s longest war,” the one in Afghanistan, “will finally be over” (tell that to the Taliban), this is a soaring goal which is at odds with reality.

Even Obama’s own secretary of defense now has to admit that “the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to.” Far behind, to be exact.

The New York Times notes:

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In the State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated” because of “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force.” Not so fast. Like his claim that by the end of the year “America’s longest war,” the one in Afghanistan, “will finally be over” (tell that to the Taliban), this is a soaring goal which is at odds with reality.

Even Obama’s own secretary of defense now has to admit that “the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to.” Far behind, to be exact.

The New York Times notes:

Two small shipments representing only a tiny percentage of the 600 tons of the most dangerous chemicals have been exported so far, one shipment on Jan. 7 and the other on Monday.

The deadline for exporting all 600 tons of the most dangerous chemicals passed on Dec. 31, and the deadline for exporting the total amount of all chemical materials, an estimated 1,200 tons, is Feb. 6. There is a widespread expectation that deadline will be missed as well.

The Syrian regime blames the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, for not providing all the tools that it needs to dismantle and export its chemical weapons, but the UN body reports that it has given the Syrian government everything it needs. No doubt the heavy fighting going on in Syria is a contributing element to the delay as well–as is the Assad regime’s reluctance to part with these fearful weapons.

That’s why many of us were skeptical that the deal brokered by Russia would be carried out. The skeptics may still be proven wrong; Syria has until June 30 to destroy its entire chemical-weapons stockpile. But on the current trajectory the odds of success appear to be diminishing–which should, but almost certainly won’t, make the administration question whether any deal it can reach with Assad’s sponsors in Tehran will be worth the paper it is printed on.

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Atrocities Prevention Board: Just Words

International human rights investigators have discovered evidence that “Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising.” The details are horrifying, with respected experts funded by Qatar having obtained photos which showed bodies with evidence of “starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.” A news account reports: “One of the three lawyers who authored the report — Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone — likened the images to those of Holocaust survivors.”

Seems like a perfect case for the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed Atrocities Prevention Board, announced by the president in 2012 at the Holocaust Museum. Only the administration is largely silent in the face of these atrocities beyond ritual words of condemnation.

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International human rights investigators have discovered evidence that “Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees since the start of the uprising.” The details are horrifying, with respected experts funded by Qatar having obtained photos which showed bodies with evidence of “starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing.” A news account reports: “One of the three lawyers who authored the report — Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone — likened the images to those of Holocaust survivors.”

Seems like a perfect case for the Obama administration’s much ballyhooed Atrocities Prevention Board, announced by the president in 2012 at the Holocaust Museum. Only the administration is largely silent in the face of these atrocities beyond ritual words of condemnation.

If there has been any attempt to indict Bashar Assad and his goons for war crimes, I’ve missed it. If, in fact, the administration has done anything substantive to overthrow Assad and bring the fighting to an end, I’m not aware of it.

If you want a good laugh you can read this press release put out by the White House last year to mark the one-year anniversary of the Atrocities Prevention Board. It claims grandiosely:

One year later, the U.S. Government has done much to keep faith with this commitment. At the President’s direction, we have stood up an interagency Atrocities Prevention Board, which monitors emerging threats, focuses U.S. Government efforts, and develops new tools and capabilities. In January 2013, the President signed expanded war crimes rewards legislation, giving the State Department a new tool to promote accountability for the worst crimes known to humankind. Earlier this month, the United States supported the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of an Arms Trade Treaty with robust safeguards against export of weapons for use in genocide, crimes against humanity, and other enumerated atrocities.

Yup, if windy speeches and high-minded resolutions and endless meetings are sufficient to stop atrocities, then the administration has done all that anyone can expect. But if measured by real-world results in Syria, the administration has singularly failed to live up to its commitment. The only wonder is that there is not more outrage at this abysmal failure, which recalls the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica. Once again, Obama seems to be getting a pass because he talks a good game even if he does little to back it up.

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Are There Any Winners in Syria?

Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”

The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.

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Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”

The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.

A pair of stories in the UK Telegraph draw attention to the strategy gap. The paper reports that Bashar al-Assad accurately gauged the West’s (understandable) hesitation to do anything that could inadvertently empower Islamist terrorists in Syria:

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels and al-Qaeda defectors.

Jabhat al-Nusra, and the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), the two al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, have both been financed by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime, intelligence sources have told The Daily Telegraph.

Rebels and defectors say the regime also deliberately released militant prisoners to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. The aim was to persuade the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants including al-Qaeda as a way of stopping Western support for it.

The allegations by Western intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are in part a public response to demands by Assad that the focus of peace talks due to begin in Switzerland tomorrow be switched from replacing his government to co-operating against al-Qaeda in the “war on terrorism”.

If true—and a follow-up story lends credence to it—Assad has very skillfully played the West. But the headline of that follow-up story might give the West too much credit, failing to learn the lesson of its own revelations: “Syria’s duplicity over al-Qaeda means West will not trust Assad.” Syria’s duplicity means the West should not trust Assad. But Western leaders, in agreeing to the Russian chemical-weapons proposal to partner with Assad, may not have given themselves much of a choice at this point.

Which means ultimately they—the West—will lose by being made to look feckless in pronouncing that Assad must go and also having Islamist terror networks thrive in place of moderate rebels partially because of—not in spite of—the West’s decision to sit this one out. Assad will lose too, because terrorist groups will not willingly give up lucrative real estate in Syria, instigating a war of attrition against Assad. If Assad ultimately loses, so does Russia. The moderate rebels will lose for all the obvious reasons, including that they basically already have lost. Come to think of it, perhaps there will be a winner after all: thus far, everything’s coming up al-Qaeda.

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Europe’s Jihadis in Syria Will Come Home to Roost

As world leaders gather in Switzerland for the Syrian peace summit, there are still ever more horrific stories of atrocities emerging daily from Syria. The cost of Syria’s ongoing civil war has, of course, first and foremost been paid by Syrians. Thus far Western countries have experienced little in the way of repercussions from their policy of non-intervention and inaction.

However, increasingly Western intelligence agencies are growing concerned about the phenomenon of Muslims from their own countries traveling to Syria to join Islamist militants fighting there. The concern being that with tens of thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, including from Europe and even the United States, the day will come when these men will seek to return to their home countries, highly radicalized and well trained for terrorist activities.

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As world leaders gather in Switzerland for the Syrian peace summit, there are still ever more horrific stories of atrocities emerging daily from Syria. The cost of Syria’s ongoing civil war has, of course, first and foremost been paid by Syrians. Thus far Western countries have experienced little in the way of repercussions from their policy of non-intervention and inaction.

However, increasingly Western intelligence agencies are growing concerned about the phenomenon of Muslims from their own countries traveling to Syria to join Islamist militants fighting there. The concern being that with tens of thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, including from Europe and even the United States, the day will come when these men will seek to return to their home countries, highly radicalized and well trained for terrorist activities.

Indeed, the Daily Telegraph has recently reported on this subject after having received information from a militant insider who defected from the Islamist faction ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). The defector confirmed that al-Qaeda in Syria is indoctrinating and training young men from European countries and encouraging them to travel back to their countries of origin to establish terror cells there.

Currently it is thought that among the foreign fighters in Syria there are, for instance, as many as 700 from France alone. Estimates put Britain close behind with around 500 Muslims from there believed to have joined jihadists in Syria. MI5 is reported to be continually increasing the resources it allocates to confronting this security threat, while French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has said that this phenomenon is the biggest threat that his country faces in coming years.   

Indeed, the Telegraph’s informant told the paper of the extent to which young European Muslims coming to Syria are being initiated into a hardline anti-Western ideology, with many of the foreign fighters expressing that they are “proud of 9/11 and the London bombings.”

On the one hand this growing threat is a reminder that non-intervention can have its own unforeseen consequences and that refusing to take responsibility for problems around the world, under the attitude that the West always makes matters worse, comes with a price. Allowing this kind of instability to ferment in one place only opens the way for it to spread to others.

Yet, the threat to European countries from al-Qaeda-trained jihadis returning from Syria has also grown out of an irresponsible policy at home. Many European countries have taken a laissez faire attitude to integrating their immigrant communities and this, coupled with bouts of an active policy of multiculturalism, has allowed for the development of a sizable minority that not only feels no loyalty to their host country, but that can also be all-too-easily persuaded to become thoroughly hostile the values of that host society.  

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When the Syrian Rebels Return…

While Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backwards to find any sign of moderation among the Syrian opposition, regional authorities are confronting reality. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is not a friend, but rather simply a partisan of al-Qaeda. Now, to be fair to Kerry (and to Sen. John McCain who has long advocated for support to the Syrian opposition), it hasn’t always been this way. Many Syrians left to their own devices would like nothing better than to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with something more moderate and representative. But President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disinterested approach to the initial rebellion left the door open to the conflict’s internationalization. What Afghanistan was to the 1980s, Chechnya was to the 1990s, and Iraq became in the 2000s, Syria is today. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help prop up the Assad regime, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and a host of international jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates from across the globe now fight for if not lead the opposition. Increasingly, Syrians play second fiddle in their own struggle.

I am a frequent visitor to Iraq and, as I have written before, what once seemed a sectarian complaint leveled by the Iraqi government against the Syrian opposition is no longer: In my last visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians all described the Syrian opposition as hopelessly radicalized and sympathetic to al-Qaeda. I spent much of last week in Morocco and, in Rabat, had the opportunity to speak to a number of senior security officials. They have identified several hundred Moroccans who have gone to Syria to “wage jihad.” (One of the ironies of the political correctness of American universities and military institutions is the prohibition on using the term jihadist as somehow demeaning to Islam when that is the term Muslims across the Middle East use to describe the phenomenon).

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While Secretary of State John Kerry is bending over backwards to find any sign of moderation among the Syrian opposition, regional authorities are confronting reality. Sometimes the enemy of our enemy is not a friend, but rather simply a partisan of al-Qaeda. Now, to be fair to Kerry (and to Sen. John McCain who has long advocated for support to the Syrian opposition), it hasn’t always been this way. Many Syrians left to their own devices would like nothing better than to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replace his regime with something more moderate and representative. But President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s disinterested approach to the initial rebellion left the door open to the conflict’s internationalization. What Afghanistan was to the 1980s, Chechnya was to the 1990s, and Iraq became in the 2000s, Syria is today. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah help prop up the Assad regime, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and a host of international jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates from across the globe now fight for if not lead the opposition. Increasingly, Syrians play second fiddle in their own struggle.

I am a frequent visitor to Iraq and, as I have written before, what once seemed a sectarian complaint leveled by the Iraqi government against the Syrian opposition is no longer: In my last visit to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, not only Iraqi Shi’ites, but also Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians all described the Syrian opposition as hopelessly radicalized and sympathetic to al-Qaeda. I spent much of last week in Morocco and, in Rabat, had the opportunity to speak to a number of senior security officials. They have identified several hundred Moroccans who have gone to Syria to “wage jihad.” (One of the ironies of the political correctness of American universities and military institutions is the prohibition on using the term jihadist as somehow demeaning to Islam when that is the term Muslims across the Middle East use to describe the phenomenon).

The Moroccans—like those flocking to Syria from other nationalities—travel by airline into Turkey, and then take the Turkish Air flight to Gaziantep, or some other town near the Syrian border. Rather than raise their eyebrows at flights packed with Moroccans, Mauritanians, Uighurs, Pakistanis, and Yemenis to towns where once none cared to go, Turkish police are happy simply to take their standard $40 bribe and wave them across the border into Syria. Just last week, according to SITE Monitoring, the Sham al-Islam Movement, a Moroccan-manned jihadi group fighting in Syria, released a video depicting the role of Moroccan jihadists participating on a raid on the prison complex in Aleppo.

The question states across the region are now considering is what happens when the veterans of the Syrian fighting return. The Moroccan jihadists did not buy return Turkish Air tickets, but instead will fly to Libya and then make their way overland through Algeria and re-enter Morocco through the permeable mountainous border in the northern region of both countries (the same route African migrants hoping to make it to Europe take). Tunisian jihadists likewise will return to Tunisia, Saudis to Saudi Arabia, and so on. What we are seeing in Syria is really just the first act. Act II will be how these battle-hardened jihadis conduct terrorism and destabilize the region upon their return. Perhaps rather than debate how to aid the foreign jihadis aiding the Syrian rebels, the time has come to have an uncomfortable discussion about how to intercept, neutralize, and, if necessary, eliminate them.

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Kerry’s Self-Defeat Ahead of Syria Conference

Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

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Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), led by Salih Muslim, is Kurdish and runs its own autonomous government in and around Qamishli, the largest town in northeastern Syria. In its effectively autonomous zone, children attend school, businesses remain open, and women can go shopping or walk in the street without fear of kidnapping, rape, or murder. The PYD’s sin, it seems, is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which once waged an insurgency against the Turkish army and which the United States continues to designate a terrorist group, less on its merits and more out of deference to Turkey. Herein is the irony: the Turkish political leadership has for years engaged with the PKK, and the two sides have negotiated a ceasefire. The PYD is to Syria what the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are to Iraq. Of course, both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged with the KDP and PUK; they recognized it was in the United States’s interest to do so.

How sad it is that terror sponsors receive the enthusiastic embrace of the Obama administration, but those groups which not only talk about peace and stability, but also achieve it are given the cold shoulder. The PYD’s sin seems to be its neutrality: It has long claimed that the Syrian opposition is too radical, a position for which the United States has sought to punish it, even as most in Congress come to recognize the truth of that position. The State Department also claims that the PYD is pro-Assad. This is a misreading: The PYD has sought to be neutral in the conflict; that neutrality has meant keeping lines open to Assad, which is exactly what Kerry is doing at Geneva II. That Kerry and crew seek to ban the PYD and undo its success demonstrates once again the administration’s skewed values and strategic incompetence. It’s time to give the PYD a seat at the table.

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Desperate Syrian Rebels Turn to Al-Qaeda

Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.

The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”

The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

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Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.

The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”

The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that jihadist extremists are coming to the fore is utterly predictable. In fact, Saleh predicted it himself: “a Syrian insurgency with nowhere else to turn, he said nearly a year ago, would tilt toward foreign fighters and Al Qaeda.”

And why does the Syrian insurgency have nowhere else to turn? In large part because the U.S., the only country with commensurate resources, has refused to step into the vacuum and provide a counter-balance to the copious aid being provided to Bashar Assad’s odious regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Sure, President Obama has allowed the CIA to provide some arms and training, but not very much. He has refused to provide, in particular, the antitank weapons the rebels need. Nor has he been willing to use American airpower to ground Assad’s air force and to hit regime targets–as he did previously in Libya and as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo and Bosnia.

If the U.S. had not done more in those previous conflicts, undoubtedly jihadists would have gained more of a foothold in those Muslim lands. Now that the U.S. is doing so little in Syria, the jihadists are predictably ascendant on the rebel side while Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force are growing increasingly powerful on the government side.

This grim outcome was not inevitable–it is the direct result of American inaction.

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How Did Pakistani Polio Enter Syria?

News that Syria now faces its first polio outbreak since the virus was eradicated there back in 1999 highlights the public health side of the tragedy. Syrians face not only horrific violence perpetrated by both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition but also a lack of clean water and a resurgence of preventable diseases.

Disease does not simply erupt spontaneously. There is always a patient zero or a catalyst. Disease is evidence that is often illuminating. Historians of China have used medical records relating to the spread of syphilis to document early modern European trade routes.

When I was in Yemen in 1995, locals warned me (superfluously) that I should not drink the mountain well water without first boiling it. The problem? Egyptian troops intervening in Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war found it funny to relieve themselves in wells. The result? A giardia outbreak which continues to this day.

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News that Syria now faces its first polio outbreak since the virus was eradicated there back in 1999 highlights the public health side of the tragedy. Syrians face not only horrific violence perpetrated by both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition but also a lack of clean water and a resurgence of preventable diseases.

Disease does not simply erupt spontaneously. There is always a patient zero or a catalyst. Disease is evidence that is often illuminating. Historians of China have used medical records relating to the spread of syphilis to document early modern European trade routes.

When I was in Yemen in 1995, locals warned me (superfluously) that I should not drink the mountain well water without first boiling it. The problem? Egyptian troops intervening in Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war found it funny to relieve themselves in wells. The result? A giardia outbreak which continues to this day.

The Syrian polio outbreak now seems not simply to be the result of the collapse of state infrastructure, but also the inflow of jihadis from polio-prone areas. According to news reports:

Polio that has crippled at least 13 children in Syria has been confirmed as being caused by a strain of the virus that originated in Pakistan and is spreading across the Middle East, the World Health Organization said. Genetic sequencing shows the strain found in Syrian children in Deir al-Zor, where an outbreak was detected last month, is linked to the strain of Pakistani origin found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in the past year.

While the World Health Organization has moved to quash speculation that Pakistani jihadists unwittingly carried the Pakistani polio strain into Syria, there are no other likely alternate explanations. Certainly, there has been no influx of Pakistani 2-year-olds into a region of Syria so engulfed in civil war. The Syrian government has jumped at that theory that Pakistani jihadis introduced the virus. And while the Syrian regime may be noxious, that does not mean they are wrong. Because scientists have also detected the Pakistani strain in Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, transmission into the Syrian outbreak zones might have as easily been transmitted via Egyptians or Palestinians fighting in Syria.

While the World Health Organization has redoubled its vaccination efforts in Syria, the Syrian outbreak originated outside. It is not easy to enter Syria, even as a jihadist joining the Syrian resistance. Fortunately, these fighters are helped by officials in neighboring countries turning a blind eye at airports alongside Syria’s borders. Perhaps it’s time for Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to end their willingness to look the other way as unvaccinated third-world jihadis transit their countries on their way to cause mayhem in Syria.

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Assad’s Ploy

So far the news from Syria on the chemical-disarmament front has been mostly positive, even as the news in general has been glum, with fighting as heavy as ever and civilians suffering as much as ever. The Nobel-winning UN inspectors recently touted their success in rendering “inoperable” all of Bashar Assad’s chemical production facilities and in visiting 21 out of 23 declared chemical-weapons sites. But there is good cause to wonder whether Assad has declared all of his sites.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports: “The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.”

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So far the news from Syria on the chemical-disarmament front has been mostly positive, even as the news in general has been glum, with fighting as heavy as ever and civilians suffering as much as ever. The Nobel-winning UN inspectors recently touted their success in rendering “inoperable” all of Bashar Assad’s chemical production facilities and in visiting 21 out of 23 declared chemical-weapons sites. But there is good cause to wonder whether Assad has declared all of his sites.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports: “The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.”

Whether Assad has fully complied or not with his disarmament obligations remains to be seen, but there is real cause for concern that the Obama administration has such a major stake in the success of this accord–and no clear alternative, because Congress made clear it will not authorize military action–that it is in effect locked in a partnership with Assad and dare not accuse him too loudly of noncompliance.

Assad certainly seems to have gotten that message, because he is trying to leverage the chemical-weapons accord for all it is worth to enhance his own authority. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports: “President Bashar al-Assad’s government has presented the United Nation’s chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Assad’s ploy is transparent–to get the West to give him more military materiel to aid the supposed process of chemical disarmament so that he can then turn around and used this enhanced capacity against the rebels. Beyond the actual war-making capacity such equipment will give Assad, the moral effect is even more important, because, if granted, his request would represent another example of the West supporting this Iranian-backed tyrant who makes war on his own people.

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The PA’s Revealing Silence on Syria

Jonathan correctly pointed yesterday to Palestinian lionization of vicious killers as an indication of cultural attitudes that make peace impossible. But there’s another indicator that I find even more revealing–the Palestinian Authority’s deafening silence about the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of its countrymen in Syria.

As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported earlier this month, of the approximately 600,000 Palestinians in Syria, a whopping 250,000 have been displaced, according to no less a source than senior PA official Mohamed Shtayyeh. Additionally, over 1,600 have been killed and thousands more injured. Of the displaced, most remain in Syria, but some 93,000 have fled to neighboring countries, where they are uniquely unwelcome: Palestinians have been denied entry into both Jordan and Lebanon, and even when admitted, they face discriminatory treatment. In Jordan, for instance, they are strictly confined to camps, though other Syrian refugees are allowed to move about the country freely; in Lebanon, they are subject to numerous restrictions on employment, and often live in hiding for fear of being deported.

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Jonathan correctly pointed yesterday to Palestinian lionization of vicious killers as an indication of cultural attitudes that make peace impossible. But there’s another indicator that I find even more revealing–the Palestinian Authority’s deafening silence about the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of its countrymen in Syria.

As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported earlier this month, of the approximately 600,000 Palestinians in Syria, a whopping 250,000 have been displaced, according to no less a source than senior PA official Mohamed Shtayyeh. Additionally, over 1,600 have been killed and thousands more injured. Of the displaced, most remain in Syria, but some 93,000 have fled to neighboring countries, where they are uniquely unwelcome: Palestinians have been denied entry into both Jordan and Lebanon, and even when admitted, they face discriminatory treatment. In Jordan, for instance, they are strictly confined to camps, though other Syrian refugees are allowed to move about the country freely; in Lebanon, they are subject to numerous restrictions on employment, and often live in hiding for fear of being deported.

Ostensibly, this is an unbeatable argument for the urgency of creating a Palestinian state: Palestinians need a country to succor their refugees from Syria. Indeed, Jews used a similar argument to great effect in persuading the world of the need for a Jewish state after the Holocaust. Even today, Israelis routinely cite the world’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees, thereby abandoning them to the Nazi killing machine, as one of many arguments for why a Jewish state remains essential: There must be one country whose doors will always be open to persecuted Jews.

Yet rather than making this argument, the PA has gone to great lengths to ignore the Syrian crisis. As Abu Toameh noted, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s UN address in September devoted a mere two sentences to the subject, without ever even mentioning Syria by name (“This year and in the last few years, Palestine refugees continue to pay – despite their neutrality – the price of conflict and instability in our region. Tens of thousands are forced to abandon their camps and to flee in another exodus searching for new places of exile”). The rest of the speech was devoted to attacking Israel. Hence Abbas deplored the 27 Palestinians killed “by the bullets of the occupation,” but never mentioned the hundreds killed in Syria during this period; he excoriated the construction of new Jewish homes in Jerusalem, but never mentioned the wholesale destruction of Palestinian homes in Syria.

Nor are these omissions accidental–because in fact, the PA leadership doesn’t want a state to succor its refugees. If it did, it wouldn’t still be demanding that any deal allow Palestinian refugees to relocate to Israel instead of Palestine, nor would senior PA officials be publicly declaring that the refugees will be denied citizenship in a future Palestinian state. It also wouldn’t still be insisting on land swaps of no more than 1.9 percent, rather than the 4 to 6 percent needed to accommodate the major settlement blocs; it would view this minor compromise, which wouldn’t even reduce the Palestinian state’s total area, as well worth making to get a state quickly and start absorbing its refugees–just as the Jews were willing to make much larger territorial concessions in the 1930s and 1940s due to the urgent need for a state to absorb their refugees.

The Syrian crisis remains absent from Palestinian talking points because Palestinians are still far more intent on destroying the Jewish state–inter alia by flooding it with millions of Palestinian refugees–than in making the compromises needed to get a state of their own and absorb those refugees themselves. And that’s also precisely why peace remains impossible.

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Overestimating Putin

Forbes is out with its annual list of the world’s most powerful people, and the introduction leaves no doubt who tops the list this year: “Who’s more powerful: the autocratic leader of a former superpower or the handcuffed commander in chief of the most dominant country in the world?” The unsurprising list that follows puts Vladimir Putin at No. 1, with Barack Obama in second place.

But that description of the two leaders is a bit misleading. Putin is not, actually, the leader of a “former superpower.” He is the leader of one–albeit by far the most powerful–of the fifteen states that came into being with the dissolution of the former superpower, the Soviet Union. The Russian republic itself was not a superpower. It’s why stories like this New York Times piece from earlier this week even exist:

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Forbes is out with its annual list of the world’s most powerful people, and the introduction leaves no doubt who tops the list this year: “Who’s more powerful: the autocratic leader of a former superpower or the handcuffed commander in chief of the most dominant country in the world?” The unsurprising list that follows puts Vladimir Putin at No. 1, with Barack Obama in second place.

But that description of the two leaders is a bit misleading. Putin is not, actually, the leader of a “former superpower.” He is the leader of one–albeit by far the most powerful–of the fifteen states that came into being with the dissolution of the former superpower, the Soviet Union. The Russian republic itself was not a superpower. It’s why stories like this New York Times piece from earlier this week even exist:

Mr. Rogozin, wrapping up a visit [to Moldova] last month, let fly a threat about the coming winter in this impoverished former Soviet republic, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas for heat. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.

The squeeze was just beginning. … Russian officials, citing vague health concerns, banned Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports.

The bullying, which the Kremlin denies, is not directed at Moldova alone. Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats, bluntly telling smaller neighbors that they would be better off joining Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The frantic push to retain influence, with its echoes of cold war jousting, reflects the still-palpable fury among Russian officials over NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere and a desire to halt a similar, eastward extension of European economic power. The heavy-handed tactics have wreaked economic chaos throughout the region in recent months.

Whatever influence Putin projects over the post-Soviet sphere, he has already lost some of the countries to NATO. And even among the nations on which he can still exert pressure, it’s doubtful Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, even in reduced form. What he wants is likely much smarter than that: as the CEO of “Russia, Inc.” Putin would love to have his cake and eat it too by lording over countries without having to govern them.

Because Putin’s quest is non-ideological–he has no interest in spreading some kind of Communist revolution abroad–it is also limited. Gone are the days when far-off governments install an ideological carbon copy of their Russian paymasters and take orders directly from Moscow. Yet it’s also difficult to argue with the proposition that the American president, too, has seen his influence deteriorate.

That’s the gist of Steve Forbes’s piece at the magazine’s website defending the list. Forbes has received plenty of criticism for ranking Putin over Obama. Steve Forbes has responded by accusing his critics of conflating these presidents with the countries they lead. Russia could not plausibly top a list of the most powerful nations in the world, and certainly wouldn’t be ranked above the United States, he noted. But that doesn’t mean Obama necessarily has to be ranked above Putin. After all, the American president doesn’t always top this list: in 2010, it was China’s Hu Jintao.

Though Forbes’s argument is not quite convincing enough on the matter of Putin v. Obama, he is on more solid ground when he writes:

Internationally, however, Obama is the weakest President of the post-World War II years. Even the in-over-his-head Jimmy Carter was more of a factor in foreign affairs than Barack Obama. Diplomats are still astonished, for instance, at how little prep work Obama engages in before international conferences. He doesn’t arrive with much of an agenda, nor does he interact with other leaders in advance to line up support. He more or less just shows up.

This is deliberate. …

And this gets to the real danger in President Obama’s deliberately weak overseas-power posture. He may wish he could take the U.S. off the world stage, but the world won’t let him; events will erupt that will force U.S. action. One such possibility is Iran reaching nuclear-bomb capability. Do you think Israel today, after Obama’s red line to Syria and his groveling before Iran, really believes that this White House has its back?

Even if Putin is not more powerful than Obama, the illusion that he is stems from Putin filling a vacuum in world affairs. Obama has made a choice about the proper role of the United States in the world. He has chosen the perception of weakness over the projection of power.

But I also think Forbes understates the degree to which we really can conflate presidents with their countries. When Putin protects and enables Iran’s nuclear program, it’s by using his country’s seat on the Security Council or exporting nuclear experts. Likewise, Putin isn’t personally fighting in the streets of Aleppo; he is aiding the Syrian regime’s war effort by mobilizing his country’s resources, not testing out his judo skills on the al-Nusra Front.

And that, in turn, should take Putin down a peg. In many ways the West has more to fear from a weak Russia than a strong one. The festering Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus; the vast swaths of abandoned or mostly ungoverned territory; the vulnerable borders; the astonishing corruption; the widespread health crises and epidemics; and of course the paranoid autocrat steering the ship. Putin doesn’t belong at the top of the list of the world’s most powerful people. But he does serve as a reminder of who steps forward when the American president steps back from the world stage.

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Kerry’s Syria Conference Is Falling Apart

The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

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The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.

Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry’s top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.

“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”

Here is a helpful hint for Kerry: if the State Department thinks a conference is useless, it’s probably useless. As the article notes, this isn’t Kerry’s fault: the splintering of the Syrian rebel factions has made it nearly impossible to provide realistic representation for the rebels at such a conference.

Even if the interests of those rebels could be represented, they would likely choose not to participate. That’s because they want Bashar al-Assad to facilitate a transitional government and then step aside. Assad won’t do that, so the rebels are being realistic: if Assad won’t give up power, what could possibly be accomplished at a conference intended to get him to voluntarily agree to give up power?

Additionally, recent events have only encouraged Assad to hold on. The American threat of force was exposed as empty: President Obama’s one-eighty on striking Syria revealed a president desperate for a way out of his own bluff. It also put Assad in control and enabled him to buy time by making the bloodthirsty tyrant a partner in ridding Syria of chemical weapons.

The rebels, then, can be forgiven for thinking the U.S. is only exacerbating their disadvantage by making Assad suddenly indispensable–or close to it. Hence the rebels’ increasing support for making a commitment to Assad’s departure a precondition for talks. If the West isn’t committed to removing Assad, what hope could the rebels possibly have for Kerry’s negotiations? It was hoped by some in the administration that Obama’s threat of force would better enable a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. But his hasty retreat from that threat had the opposite effect:

The disarray among the Syrian opposition leaves Kerry in a bind. The Obama administration has decided not to intervene militarily in Syria or make much of an effort to train or equip the rebels. U.S. backing in the peace talks is about all Washington is willing to provide. The rebel groups have to decide whether that’s enough.

Kerry’s best hope is that when presented with only one option, the rebels will take it. Officials at the State Department are being surprisingly clear-eyed about the chances the rebels will grasp at that straw, even if Kerry isn’t.

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