Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

‘The Situation Is Bad’

The New York Times has just published the most scathing indictment I have read of the Obama administration’s grossly inadequate train-and-assist program for the Syrian rebels. It didn’t appear on the editorial page but, rather, in the news columns. It contains no overt editorializing and is all the more damning for it.

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The New York Times has just published the most scathing indictment I have read of the Obama administration’s grossly inadequate train-and-assist program for the Syrian rebels. It didn’t appear on the editorial page but, rather, in the news columns. It contains no overt editorializing and is all the more damning for it.

The article, written by three Times reporters, is pegged to the embarrassing news that the commander and deputy commander and six other fighters of the only contingent of Syrian rebels so far trained by the Pentagon — a total of 54 men — have just been abducted by the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda offshoot which evidently has more money, personnel, and weapons than the American-backed groups. Before being kidnapped, the rebel commander, Nadeen Hassan, had spoken to the Times of the troubles he and his men faced. He initially applied to train 1,200 men. But that number was quickly whittled down:

After screening, just 125 of his recruits were invited to the first course. Of those, more than half were thrown out or quit.

The rest, he said, had deployed back to Syria, but had not been told whether American warplanes would defend them if Syrian forces attacked.

Mr. Hassan said the Americans, worried about the lack of recruits, were recalling men they had once rejected. Some, expelled on suspicion of embracing “Islamic State doctrine,” are unavailable: They have since died in Syria, he said — battling the Islamic State.

Other problems cited by Hassan include the following:

Mr. Hassan said the Pentagon program had not provided night vision goggles to counter the Islamic State’s expert night attacks. Yet, he said Tuesday, trainers had been pushing his men to quickly join front-line insurgent groups, “so they can get results to show their bosses.”…

Better-financed groups are luring recruits awaiting the next course; they make $225 a month, and with no budget, Mr. Hassan said, “I can’t buy them lunch.”

“The situation is bad,” he said.

And then we come to the little matter of who the insurgents are supposed to be fighting. It is commonly believed among the rebels that they are being asked by the Americans to fight only ISIS — not Bashar Assad. The U.S. claims they are not being made to sign formal pledges not to fight Assad but they might as well be:

Trainees must promise “to defend the Syrian people from Daesh” and to refrain from harming civilians and prisoners. An English translation of the pledge, circulated through American military channels, does not mention Mr. Assad or the government.

But the insurgents’ misperception is understandable, given official statements. Trainees will lose American support, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the United States Central Command said recently, if they “vector off and do things that we haven’t designed them to do initially.”

And while U.S. aircraft might bomb to protect the trainees from ISIS, they won’t bomb to protect anyone from Assad, even though his forces have killed far more people than ISIS has.

This is the most dysfunctional foreign assistance program ever. And it makes a mockery of recent administration claims that the U.S. and Turkey have agreed to set up an ISIS-free zone in northern Syria. As the Times notes: “Mr. Hassan’s trainees were mainly from villages within the 68-mile strip along the Turkish border that the moderate insurgents are supposed to seize, and had long been slated for deployment there. But, Mr. Hassan said, they are so few ‘they can barely cover 200 meters.’ “

Such shortcomings could be addressed if Turkey, the U.S., or other powers were willing to deploy their own troops to safeguard this safe zone. But there is no sign of that, which suggests that the safe-zone plan is DOA — just like so many of the rebels that the U.S. is counting on to fight for a Syria dominated neither by murderous Shiite nor by murderous Sunni extremists.

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To Save Syria from Assad, the U.S. Must Act

As I predicted, the ISIS suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc has motivated Turkey to take a much more active role in the anti-ISIS fight. Not only have Turkish aircraft been bombing ISIS (along with Kurdish) positions but Turkey is now said to have reached agreement with the U.S. on creating a 60-mile wide “safe zone” in northern Syria that would be ISIS-free. Read More

As I predicted, the ISIS suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc has motivated Turkey to take a much more active role in the anti-ISIS fight. Not only have Turkish aircraft been bombing ISIS (along with Kurdish) positions but Turkey is now said to have reached agreement with the U.S. on creating a 60-mile wide “safe zone” in northern Syria that would be ISIS-free.

This is something I and many others have long advocated: the creation of “safe zones” where neither Bashar Assad’s nor ISIS’s forces could penetrate, allowing the moderate Syrian opposition (which is newly united, at least on paper) to train its fighters and to gain the ability to govern. Refugees could also flock there to be safe from attack. Such zones, which should have been set up years ago, can be created not only in northern Syrian along the Turkish border but also in southern Syria along the Jordanian border. The idea is that eventually, when Assad falls, the safe zones could be expanded to encompass the entire country, thus creating a post-Assad future that is not ruled by ISIS or the Nusra Front.

But we are a long way yet from that vision, and many questions about the emerging safe zone in northern Syria remain to be answered before it can become a reality. Two questions, in particular, loom large: Will the U.S. be willing to fight Assad as well as ISIS? And will Turkey, the U.S., or some other outside power be willing to put in ground troops to protect this liberated land?

From what I have read so far, Turkey and the U.S. are talking about using their airpower exclusively against ISIS although Turkey would like to target Assad as well. Reports also indicate that neither country is willing to put troops on the ground to protect this safe zone. They are counting on Syrian opposition fighters to do all the fighting on the ground with support from allied airpower.

If that’s the case, I have serious doubts about whether this plan will work. As the New York Times notes:

That is an ambitious military goal, because it appears to include areas of great strategic and symbolic importance to the Islamic State, and it could encompass areas that Syrian helicopters regularly bomb. If the zone goes 25 miles deep into Syria, as Turkish news outlets have reported, it could encompass the town of Dabiq, a significant place in the group’s apocalyptic theology, and Manbij, another stronghold. It could also include the Islamic State-held town of Al Bab, where barrel bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft have killed scores, including civilians, in recent weeks.

Given (a) the threat posed by Assad’s air force and (b) the weakness of the moderate Syrian opposition (the Pentagon has trained only 60 Syrian fighters in the last year), it is hard to imagine this ambitious scheme working unless Turkey and the U.S. stop Assad’s air force from flying and unless they are willing to commit some troops, at least at first, to help call in air strikes and to generally buttress the Free Syrian Army’s efforts. On the American side, this would probably require some Special Operations Forces; on the Turkish side, probably a larger commitment, perhaps supported by forces from the Arab League. Kurdish fighters, who have wrested part of northern Syria away from ISIS with the help of American air strikes, could fill the gap in the ground, but these are not exclusively Kurdish areas and Turkey is unlikely to take any actions that could create a new Kurdish state.

I think stepping up to truly protect this safe zone on the ground and from the air would be very much in Western interests and could begin to nudge Syria–the most dangerous place on earth–in the right direction. But it is unlikely that President Obama will take these steps given his extreme reluctance to put any troops in harm’s way in the Middle East or to do anything that would undermine the Assad regime, which is a close ally of America’s new de facto partner in the Middle East–the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I sincerely hope my fears are unfounded. It would be good news indeed if, after having concluded a nuclear deal with Iran, Obama were to actually take steps to try to contain non-nuclear Iranian aggression. Syria would be the natural starting point for that effort. But I am skeptical that Obama will be willing to take this leap.

More likely, he is still focused on fighting only ISIS. Indeed, a large part of the reason why American training efforts of the moderate Syrian opposition have been so ineffectual is that the U.S. has demanded that they sign pledges that they will only fight ISIS, not Assad. Few Syrians are willing to make that commitment, understandably, because Assad’s forces have killed far more people than ISIS has.

Any solution to the problem of Syria must rid that country not only of ISIS but also of Assad. Until Obama reaches that realization, it is unlikely that this safe zone scheme will be effective. Indeed, the worst possible outcome would be to declare a safe zone and then allow Assad to bomb it: that is a tragedy we must avoid.

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What the Syrian Weapons Charade Says About the Iran Deal

The Wall Street Journal has an eye-opening expose today about how Syria failed to comply with its obligations under the agreement with the United States to get rid of all of its chemical weapons. Reporters David Entous and Naftali Bendavid write, “One year after the West celebrated the removal of Syria’s arsenal as a foreign-policy success, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the regime didn’t give up all of the chemical weapons it was supposed to.” Indeed, Bashar Assad continues to drop chemical weapons, specifically chlorine bombs. Read More

The Wall Street Journal has an eye-opening expose today about how Syria failed to comply with its obligations under the agreement with the United States to get rid of all of its chemical weapons. Reporters David Entous and Naftali Bendavid write, “One year after the West celebrated the removal of Syria’s arsenal as a foreign-policy success, U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the regime didn’t give up all of the chemical weapons it was supposed to.” Indeed, Bashar Assad continues to drop chemical weapons, specifically chlorine bombs.

How did this happen? The reasons are instructive in light of the administration’s argument that Iran will be forced to comply with the nuclear deal. The article notes:

The Syrians laid out the ground rules. Inspectors could visit only sites Syria had declared, and only with 48-hour notice. Anything else was off-limits, unless the regime extended an invitation.

“We had no choice but to cooperate with them,” said Mr. Cairns [the leader of the UN inspection team]. “The huge specter of security would have hampered us had we gone in there very aggressively or tried to do things unilaterally.”

The U.S. and other powers had the right to demand access to undeclared sites if they had evidence they were part of the chemical-weapons program. But that right was never exercised, in part, inspectors and Western officials say, because their governments didn’t want a standoff with the regime.

This is how inspections operate in reality — and it’s not the way that Secretary of State John Kerry claims in touting the effectiveness of sanctions. In reality, inspectors are at the mercy of their hosts who, after all, control the country and can use force if necessary to prevent the inspectors from going where they are not wanted. Advocates of the Iran deal suggest that it includes a way to force inspections of undeclared nuclear sites — but that will take a minimum of 24 days and probably longer. That’s a lot longer than the 48-hour inspections that the Syrians allowed and even those weren’t enough.

What happens if the Iranians block the inspectors? Advocates of the deal like to pretend this would lead to “snapback” sanctions. In the real world, however, neither the inspectors nor the U.S. government is going to blow up the accord — which is what would happen if sanctions were re-imposed — over what may or may not be a violation on the part of the Iranians. Both the inspectors and the U.S. government are far more likely to overlook supposedly minor violations, or to allow the Iranians to “rectify” them ex post facto, while telling themselves that it’s for the greater good because being overly confrontational will destroy the entire agreement.

The Syrian precedent clearly shows how Iran, Assad’s sponsor, can cheat on its arms control obligations. And even if it’s caught, as Syria has been caught, what will happen? The Syrian example suggests the answer is: Nothing. Even though the Obama administration is well aware that Assad has not gotten rid of all of his chemical weapons and that indeed he continues to use them, there have been no repercussions for Syria. Does anyone imagine that the U.S. will be any quicker to confront Iran, a far more powerful regime than Assad’s, and one that will get stronger still once the bans on conventional weapons and missile sales are lifted?

 

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The Implosion of Obama’s Syria Strategy

For President Barack Obama, the deteriorating situation in Syria has always been a political problem rather than a pressing national security challenge. When the president was faced with a regime that flouted international norms and precedents by using chemical weapons, he set a “red line” for action that failed to deter Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from continuing along his destabilizing course. Even while amassing international and domestic support for intervention in Syria, Obama was groping for a way out of the trap he had set for himself – a way that he was provided by Assad’s duplicitous patrons in Moscow. When the Islamic State militancy exploded out of its Syrian cradle, Obama only reluctantly began to address the threat to the region posed by the then fully metastatic Syrian crisis. By crafting two distinct international coalitions to fight the same war on two sides of an arbitrary Middle Eastern border that no longer existed, Obama signaled his lack of seriousness in combating the extremist threat in the Levant. But the core of Obama’s scheme to limit American involvement in the war on ISIS, his Rube Goldberg proposal for creating an indigenous Syrian army to fight ISIS, was the most laughable element of his strategic approach to avoiding a new entanglement. It should be abundantly clear today that this White House has no interest in prosecuting this war or achieving realistic and realizable goals.  Read More

For President Barack Obama, the deteriorating situation in Syria has always been a political problem rather than a pressing national security challenge. When the president was faced with a regime that flouted international norms and precedents by using chemical weapons, he set a “red line” for action that failed to deter Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from continuing along his destabilizing course. Even while amassing international and domestic support for intervention in Syria, Obama was groping for a way out of the trap he had set for himself – a way that he was provided by Assad’s duplicitous patrons in Moscow. When the Islamic State militancy exploded out of its Syrian cradle, Obama only reluctantly began to address the threat to the region posed by the then fully metastatic Syrian crisis. By crafting two distinct international coalitions to fight the same war on two sides of an arbitrary Middle Eastern border that no longer existed, Obama signaled his lack of seriousness in combating the extremist threat in the Levant. But the core of Obama’s scheme to limit American involvement in the war on ISIS, his Rube Goldberg proposal for creating an indigenous Syrian army to fight ISIS, was the most laughable element of his strategic approach to avoiding a new entanglement. It should be abundantly clear today that this White House has no interest in prosecuting this war or achieving realistic and realizable goals. 

“Those inside the administration advocating for going after ISIS in both Iraq and Syria were sorely disappointed – and lamented their boss’s lack of urgency in rooting out a threat that only days before was being described in near-apocalyptic terms,” The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin and Eli Lake reported in the summer of 2014, nearly a year after the president had accepted the terms of an arrangement that supposedly stripped Assad’s regime of chemical weaponry. “The meeting was the culmination of an intense week-long process that included series of lower level meetings and at last one Principals’ Committee that officials described as an effort to convince Obama to expand his air war against ISIS in Iraq to Syria as well. But before the meeting even started, the president seemed to have made up his mind.”

Inevitably, though, the president did lend America’s diplomatic weight to the mission of creating an international coalition dominated by Arab states. That coalition would lend legitimacy to the air war targeting ISIS positions inside Syria to which he reluctantly committed American military power. But in order to keep Western “boots” off of Syrian soil, the White House devised an absurdly complex process through which the West’s engagement in Syria could be reduced. That strategy consisted of identifying combat-ready rebel groups inside Syria that are willing to fight ISIS but were relatively secular and unlikely to turn on their Western backers once the Islamic State had been routed. From there, those fighters identified as good candidates would be transported out of Syria, sent to a third-party country in the region, trained, equipped, and reintroduced into the Syrian theater.

The Pentagon estimated in December of last year, two months after this strategy was approved by Congress, it would take up to one year from the beginning of the process and no fewer than 15,000 fighters to complete the job, although only 5,000 would be needed at the start. More than six months later, it should be abundantly clear that the administration has no interest in combating ISIS in Syria. Of those initial 5,000 Syrian rebels necessary to dislodge the Islamic State, Defense Sec. Ashton Carter confessed that only 60 individuals have so far been identified and are being trained.

“This number is much smaller than we’d hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards,” Carter conceded in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But we know this program is essential.”

“We need a partner on the ground in Syria to ensure ISIL’s lasting defeat,” he continued. “And as training progresses, we’re learning more about the opposition groups and building important relationships which increases our ability to attract recruits and provides valuable intelligence for counter-ISIL operations.”

This revelation comes on the heels of a press conference in which the president told Pentagon reporters that he would order an intensification of the anti-ISIS air campaign over Syria. In that press conference, Obama touted the fact that ISIS was losing some territory to assaults from indigenous groups, but nearly all that progress is due to the work of Kurdish forces inside Syria. They have grown increasingly suspicious of both this White House and the supposedly moderate Arab rebel militias that the administration has sought to elevate.

“In the lead-up to the mainly Kurdish capture of the Syrian border town of Tal Abayad last month, Islamic extremists panicked the town’s Arab population by warning that fighters with the YPG, People’s Protection Units, which are dominated by Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), would run amok,” read a recent Voice of America report. “This prompted thousands of Arab residents to flee to Turkey.”

“Some circles are trying to ignite a Kurdish-Arab military conflict,” one PYD leader told VOA reporters. These tensions are growing increasingly acute as Kurdish fighters expel ISIS from territory in Syria’s north and establish a proto-Kurdistan on Turkey’s border.

The administration has most likely allowed the window in which it would have been feasible to arm and train an effective, secular indigenous force that could combat ISIS. If it has not, the current rate at which rebel combatants are being readied for the fight is preposterously cautious. At present, the administration’s anti-ISIS strategy is maturing at a rate slow enough to instill mistrust in those forces that are supposed to be the West’s ally in this fight, and it is likely making the next president’s job in the Middle East that much harder.

 

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Why Flotillas Sail to Gaza, Not Syria

Today, the latest publicity stunt by pro-Palestinian activists ended harmlessly as the Israel Navy intercepted a ship off the coast of Gaza that was attempting to break the blockade of the strip in order to draw attention to what is passengers claim is a humanitarian crisis. But, like previous Gaza flotillas, the effort has little to do with the plight of the people of Gaza and everything to do with the long war being waged to end Israel’s existence. More to the point, the continued focus on Gaza by those calling themselves advocates for human rights at the very moment that a genuine human catastrophe is occurring inside Syria without much of response from the international community tells us all we need to know about the hypocrisy of Israel-bashers.

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Today, the latest publicity stunt by pro-Palestinian activists ended harmlessly as the Israel Navy intercepted a ship off the coast of Gaza that was attempting to break the blockade of the strip in order to draw attention to what is passengers claim is a humanitarian crisis. But, like previous Gaza flotillas, the effort has little to do with the plight of the people of Gaza and everything to do with the long war being waged to end Israel’s existence. More to the point, the continued focus on Gaza by those calling themselves advocates for human rights at the very moment that a genuine human catastrophe is occurring inside Syria without much of response from the international community tells us all we need to know about the hypocrisy of Israel-bashers.

The fact that it was Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who today pointed out the fact that flotillas aren’t sailing to Syria doesn’t make it any less valid. Hundreds of Syrians have been slaughtered by the Assad regime that is backed by Iran and Hezbollah terrorists with more being killed by its tacit ISIS allies. The carnage has created millions of refugees who are living in squalor inside the country or in camps in neighboring Jordan.

But as Netanyahu knows, there will be no peace activist flotilla to Syria to bring aid to people who really need it. Nor had those on the Swedish-registered Marianne that was diverted by the Israelis gotten lost on their way to help those truly in need. Instead, they were on the way to try and help the Hamas government of Gaza that has been rightly isolated by the international community since the bloody 2007 coup when the Islamist group seized power.

While the situation in Gaza isn’t pleasant, the popular notion of a humanitarian crisis there is a myth. That’s because there is no shortage of food or medicine in the strip since Israel allows daily convoys of such supplies into Gaza every day, including those when Hamas is shooting rockets over the border at cities and towns inside the Jewish state. It is true that there is a shortage of building materials inside Gaza. Given the scale of the destruction wrought by the war Hamas launched against Israel last year, that’s a problem. But the reason why such materials can’t be brought into the strip without restrictions was revealed anew when Hamas showcased a new terror tunnel that it claims reaches into Israel on Iranian TV on Sunday. Most of the concrete that is brought into Gaza is being used for such tunnels or for the construction of elaborate fortifications that will enable Hamas to shield its arsenal and other structures intended to make it harder for Israel to repress rocket fire aimed at civilians.

If Gaza is a mess, it is not because both Israel and Egypt understand that Hamas terrorism must be quarantined. Rather, it is because the international community stood by indifferently as Hamas transformed the congested strip into a terrorist state that believes it has the right to pursue its war on Israel by any means anytime it sees fit. Hamas not only commits war crimes by engaging in terrorism but by using the population of Gaza as human shields behind which its killers and their armaments find shelter.

Those who want to help Gazans need to think of ways to free them from the despotic control of Hamas, which executes its enemies without mercy and represses every kind of free expression as it enforces its ruthless Islamist ideas on the population. The independent Palestinian state in all but name that they govern is an experiment in tyranny that is particularly cruel. Yet somehow those who purport to care about the Palestinians think the real villain is an Israeli government that withdrew every single soldier, settler and settlement in 2005 and simply wishes in vain for quiet along the border.

Activists seek to go to Gaza, however, for one clear reason, and it has nothing to do with humanitarian concerns. Arabs who are engaged in conflicts with other Arabs don’t interest them no matter how many people are killed or how much suffering is caused. Even at the height of the fighting last year when hundreds of Palestinian civilians were unfortunately killed as they were caught in fighting provoked by Hamas, the casualties there were dwarfed by what is going on in Syria. But it is only when Jews are involved in defending their state that the human rights community discovers a crisis.

The double standard this sort of behavior illustrates has nothing to do with good works for a suffering people. It is nothing less than anti-Semitism, since it treats Israeli self-defense as inherently illegitimate and bolsters those who commit atrocities as valid forms of “resistance” against the presence of Jews inside the 1967 lines and not just in the West Bank. Those who seek to aid the efforts of Hamas to wage war on Israel and oppress their own people are not humanitarians. They are anti-Semites.

 

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Support Syrian Kurdish Forces Now

It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

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It is hard not to see the United States in willful strategic collapse. The Islamic Republic of Iran has made no secret of the fact that it sees the United States as the Great Satan. This isn’t mere rhetorical opprobrium: Over the past ten years, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating on the orders of Iran’s top leadership have killed hundreds of Americans. Current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also has blood on his hands, having served as chairman of the Supreme National Security Council at a time when Iranian-backed militias were targeting both American servicemen and civilians. And yet, when the Iranian public rose up in disgust at the Iranian leadership’s dishonesty in 2009, President Obama sided not with the Iranian people but with their oppressors.

China has stolen at least 14 million present and former government officials’ personal information, including mine, according to Office of Personal Management emails I received. And the consequences for Chinese actions? None. And, for that matter, the consequences for those within the U.S. government charged with keeping our personal information secure? Again, zero.

As the world approaches the 20th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnians might reflect at how much worse the massacre might have been had it been Obama rather than Bill Clinton at the helm. At least the U.S. under NATO auspices launched an air campaign later that summer to bring the horrific violence to an end. Obama would likely have found a reason not to enforce any humanitarian or strategic red lines whatsoever. And, as for the Ukraine? It’s easy to talk about helping a fledgling democracy counter naked aggression but when push comes to shove, Obama seems perfectly willing to sell Ukrainians down the river as well.

Of course, it gets worse. After having invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama is preparing to pull the plug on the former and has already largely done so on the latter.

It is increasingly clear that neither U.S. national security nor human rights are criteria upon which Obama bases decisions. Max Boot is absolutely right that the Obama administration is readily ceding Iraq to Iranian influence, all the more ironic since many of the Iraqi Shi‘ites hugely resent Iran’s ambitions: If a traveler ever wants to experience true anti-Iranian sentiment, forget Jerusalem or Riyadh and visit Fao, the southern-most fishing village in Iraq, or have hushed conversations in some of the hill villages of southern Lebanon. I have also had the opportunity to see Hayya Bina, the Lebanese group to which Max refers, in action during some of my trips to Beirut and southern Lebanon. The Obama administration has demanded the group stop working among Lebanese Shi‘ites to organize or support any work or opposition to Hezbollah.

Nowhere has the Obama administration been so cavalier toward freedom, liberty, and the fight against terrorism as in Syria. As secretary of State, Hillary Clinton continued to call Bashar al-Assad a “reformer” even after his murderous rampage began. And, as senator, John Kerry made his aides blanch when he repeatedly described Assad as “my good friend” after bonding during a motorcycle ride. Let’s just be glad that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t like yachting, as Kerry’s moral vacuity and poor character judgment might have led him to say something equally regrettable.

Whatever the hope for the Syrian opposition in the initial months, the group radicalized tremendously. Advocates for the opposition like Sen. John McCain have their hearts in the right place, but have allowed their tenaciousness to trump good judgment: Supporting the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition would, at this point, be akin to supporting Al Qaeda. McCain should not become Erdoğan with a better sense of humor. At the same time, though, the idea of reconciliation or even a hands-off approach to Assad is noxious. This is a man that not only uses chemical weapons against his own people, but also refused to order his air force to strike the Islamic State’s headquarters at Raqqa at any point during the pre-September 2014 period when he had uncontested dominance over Syrian airspace.

There is only one group that has had any modicum of success fighting radicals and counter Assad inside Syria, and that is the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (YPG), the People’s Protection Units or the Syrian Peshmerga. I was fortunate to meet the YPG last year during a trip to northeastern Syria. They have sacrificed tremendously: I visited both memorial shrines, spaces reserved for families of martyrs, and fresh graves, while also hanging out at YPG checkpoints and talking to YPG commanders. Aside from a few airdrops around Kobane and, in the last few days, some air support around Ayn Issa, a town north of Raqqa, they have received little from the United States. The Syrian opposition that the United States does support has little to show for its money.

The YPG – and the Syrian Kurdish administration to which they answer – has the added benefit of being largely tolerant. They host tens of thousands of Arab refugees from the Aleppo area, and churches, mosques and, for that matter, Yezidi temples. And yet, the Obama administration and Kerry specifically give the Syrian Kurds the cold shoulder. The State Department refuses Salih Muslim, the Syrian Kurdish leader, a visa and it is a rarity that U.S. diplomats will speak with him, even if in the same room. Kerry has welcomed Syrian militants with blood on their hands to join the international diplomatic process but continues to veto any real Kurdish participation, at least among the Kurds representative of the Rojava administration.

In the last few days, the YPG has captured a strategic town just 30 miles north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital. It’s an opportunity that should be supported. Clearly, the YPG fulfill Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s “will to fight” prerequisite. If Obama truly wishes to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, then working with the YPG should be the central pillar. It’s time to work in the realm of reality and seize every opportunity, rather than continue to embrace the fantasy of Assad’s responsibility or other Syrian opposition’s credibility and moderation.

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Obama’s Dithering on Assad Has Resulted in the Worst Case Scenario

In a wild tactical shift, Bashar al-Assad’s air force is reportedly conducting raids in support of ISIS. As the Islamic State’s forces advance on the anti-Assad rebel-held city of Aleppo, the New York Times reported this week that Assad’s air forces began to clear the way for their eventual assault on the city. Max Boot theorized that the maneuver is designed to ensure that Assad’s regime remains the only alternative to Islamist dominance of Syria that is palatable to the West. Institute for the Study of War analyst Christopher Kozak agreed. “The regime still feels that … at the end of the day, if it really comes down to [the Nusra Front], ISIS, and Assad in a room, you have to side with Assad,” he told Business Insider. But will the Assad regime survive long enough to present the West with that suboptimal choice? Is the Assad regime near collapse? It could be, according to a new report. Read More

In a wild tactical shift, Bashar al-Assad’s air force is reportedly conducting raids in support of ISIS. As the Islamic State’s forces advance on the anti-Assad rebel-held city of Aleppo, the New York Times reported this week that Assad’s air forces began to clear the way for their eventual assault on the city. Max Boot theorized that the maneuver is designed to ensure that Assad’s regime remains the only alternative to Islamist dominance of Syria that is palatable to the West. Institute for the Study of War analyst Christopher Kozak agreed. “The regime still feels that … at the end of the day, if it really comes down to [the Nusra Front], ISIS, and Assad in a room, you have to side with Assad,” he told Business Insider. But will the Assad regime survive long enough to present the West with that suboptimal choice? Is the Assad regime near collapse? It could be, according to a new report.

According to reporting from Washington Post opinion writer David Ignatius, it is increasingly likely that a post-Assad Syria will soon be a reality. What that reality will look like, however, remains uncertain. It is even less clear that this new normal will be one with which the United States is comfortable.

“Assad faces hard choices as battlefield losses mount,” an unnamed U.S. intelligence official recently said, according to Ignatius.  “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria.”

U.S. officials see mounting pressure on Assad from four directions. A potent new rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, seized the capital of Idlib province late last month. Fighting ferociously alongside this coalition is Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Moderate rebels known as the “Southern Front,” backed by the United States and Jordan, are finally gaining some ground in southern Syria. And the Islamic State, the most fearsome group of all, is rampaging across northern, central and eastern Syria.

If Assad’s goal is to create the impression that the world would be better off with him at the helm, however unsavory that proposition may be, the Syrian dictator’s would-be successors go a long way toward supporting that contention.

It didn’t have to be this way.

When President Barack Obama reluctantly attempted to shore up domestic support for the mission to follow up on his self-imposed “red line” for action in Syria, he was doing so in defense of the long-standing international norm prohibiting the battlefield use of chemical weapons — much less, the use of those weapons on civilian populations. By taking the easy way out provided to him by a duplicitous Moscow, Obama sanctioned the use of those weapons, and they remain a staple element of Syria’s counter-insurgency strategy.

But the cobbling together of two distinct international coalitions that are presently intervening over the skies of Syria and Iraq (as though they are different conflicts) indicates that a confederacy of some sort could have been cobbled together. Had America and its willing partners intervened in Syria in 2013 in order to punish the Assad government, it is likely that those nations would have eventually formulated a strategy to contain the remnants of the Assad regime and, by necessity, the Syrian Civil War in Syria.

Even if there were no ground component to that campaign, the weakening of the Syrian regime would have presented anti-Assad rebels a more urgent and tempting target in Damascus than that which lay helpless on the eastern side of the Syrian border with Iraq. For those who contend that the collapse of the Assad regime at Western hands would have resulted in Syria becoming an Islamist-dominated basket case, it appears as though that reality was merely forestalled by two years and Iraq has been lost in the interim.

“The United States refuses to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, regarding it as a band of unrepentant al-Qaeda followers, even though the group is said to receive indirect support from Turkey and Qatar,” Ignatius reported. “U.S. officials weren’t persuaded by an interview broadcast last week by Al Jazeera with al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, in which he offered conciliatory statements toward Syrian minority groups and said his fight isn’t with the United States.”

The catastrophic results of the West’s careless dithering should be evident to any neutral observer today. A suboptimal situation has, in the space of just two years, become a disastrous situation. This should be a lesson to all who gallingly present advocate for a policy of cowardice masquerading as prudence.

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America Needs a Commander-in-Chief, Not a Historian

In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

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In the months that precede the genuine open of a presidential race, it is inevitable that unserious candidates and frivolous issues will dominate the political discussion. The United States will be utterly unaltered if the next president would or would not attend a same-sex wedding or has a strong opinion about Bruce Jenner’s gender identity.  The passion with which these and other insignificant sensations are debated on Good Morning America is often inversely proportional to their relevance to policy makers. America is fortunate to have been privy to a happy exception to that rule in the last week in the form of a debate over the Iraq War, although the institutional press does not deserve much credit for this condition. Republicans would serve themselves and the public well if they were to usurp the media’s retrospective and self-serving debate over an old war in order to address the present conflict.

Over the course of the last week, political reporters have been consumed with re-litigating the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It would be unfair to blame this new myopia entirely on the media’s penchant for like-thinking tunnel vision. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s inexplicably poor footing on the legitimacy of the Iraq War invited a duplicative review of distant history in which the country is again engaged. But quite unlike the media’s fascination with parochial social matters, the GOP’s introspection on the issue of Iraq is of some value.

Bush’s stumbles over whether his brother’s signature achievement in office was justified have sparked a deluge of retrospection and self-criticism from the 2016 field of GOP candidates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has taken the opportunity to promote his peculiar brand of paleo-conservative detachment from global affairs. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) asserted that, today, “everyone accepts” that the invasion was imprudent. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) have made note of the fact that Congress would never have authorized the Iraq War if the pre-war intelligence had not mistakenly augmented Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities. “A dozen years later,” the Associated Press averred, “American politics has reached a rough consensus about the Iraq War: It was a mistake.”

But Republicans are wandering into a trap by attempting to assuage the journalistic establishment’s insatiable desire to see Republicans repent for the last GOP president’s nation-building exercise in Iraq. It is a fortunate accident of fate that the media has decided to review the legacy of the Iraq War and the Republican Party’s prosecution of that conflict at precisely the same moment that Middle Eastern country is coming apart. After more than nine months of U.S-led coalition airstrikes targeting the virulent Islamic State militia, the culmination of that effort has been the fall of a second great Iraqi city. Just 70 miles from Baghdad, the American servicemen and women who bled over Ramadi appear to have fought and fallen in vain.

Despite the protestations of self-satisfied scolds for whom no metric could satisfy their desire to see the American project in Iraq fail, uniting Iraq’s political and tribal leaders against Islamist insurgents in their midst was a historic victory. The West’s hard-won achievement in Iraq has been sacrificed by President Barak Obama’s eternal pursuit of the path of least resistance.

The Republican Party’s presidential aspirants now have a political opportunity that they would be careless not to exploit. For the better part of a week, the press has been reviewing the Iraq War’s legacy. As the Iraq Security Forces retreat to defensible positions around Baghdad and Iran consolidates its grip on the Iraqi capital and the nation’s Shia-dominated regions, Republicans would do well to make a compelling case for their approach to warfighting as commander-in-chief.

Contrary to all his fatuous self-pity, President Obama inherited a relatively pacified Iraq when he took the oath. His successor will not be so lucky. The 45th President of the United States will prosecute a brutal conflict against the richest terrorist organization in human history. The next commander-in-chief must convince the American public to back the prosecution of a war against an unimaginably brutish entity with an unbroken hold on territory ranging from Aleppo to the suburbs of Baghdad. The war in which the public must invest is one that is characterized by the battlefield use of chemical weapons, has become yet another proxy conflict between the region’s great Sunni and Shiite powers, and is typified by genocide and the deliberate destruction of humanity’s collective heritage.

The present spate of collective handwringing over how the events of the last decade might have been better managed is the historian’s prerogative. The United States is not electing a lecturer; the public will not make that mistake again. America will need a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who will effectively and efficiently prosecute this conflict to which the country is already committed.

It is not merely in Iraq but in Eastern Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Southeast Pacific that challenges to global security are proliferating. Both state and non-state actors threaten the international order that replaced retreating Soviet-style communism not a quarter-century ago. The press will be satisfied with nothing less than a denunciation of a robust defense of American interests overseas from the GOP’s presidential aspirants, if only to retroactively validate Obama’s vacillating and diffident approach to the application of American hard power. Republican presidential candidates would be well advised to turn the tables on their duplicitous interlocutors.

Rather than issue obsequious mea culpas for the imagined sins of their long-retired fellow party members, Republicans should be using this renewed media interest in the last war in Iraq to remind the public we are busily losing the present one. President Obama will bequeath the next president a Middle East in tatters. The media isn’t interested in that inconvenient subject; it will be up to the GOP to comprehensively outline what is at stake in Iraq.

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Obama Gives Syria a Pass on Chemical Weapons. Will He Stop Iran’s Nukes?

President Obama would have us believe he would be stalwart in applying “snap back” sanctions on Iran should it violate its nuclear commitments. That would be nice but hardly realistic given the administration’s non-response to growing evidence that Syria’s Bashar Assad has violated the agreement to give up his chemical weapons. Not only has Assad been using chlorine gas (which was not formally covered by the accord negotiated in 2013 between Washington and Moscow) but United Nations inspectors have also found evidence of sarin and VX during to the Scientific Studies and Research Center outside Damascus.

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President Obama would have us believe he would be stalwart in applying “snap back” sanctions on Iran should it violate its nuclear commitments. That would be nice but hardly realistic given the administration’s non-response to growing evidence that Syria’s Bashar Assad has violated the agreement to give up his chemical weapons. Not only has Assad been using chlorine gas (which was not formally covered by the accord negotiated in 2013 between Washington and Moscow) but United Nations inspectors have also found evidence of sarin and VX during to the Scientific Studies and Research Center outside Damascus.

So what is Obama doing to enforce the chemical weapons accord? Bombing Damascus? Stepping up support for the Syrian resistance? He’s not even passing a stiffly worded resolution at the UN, where its friends from Moscow and Beijing protect the Assad regime.

Josh Rogin and Eli Lake of Bloomberg report that the administration was informed months ago by UN inspectors of their findings. Since then the White House has basically been sitting on the issue, no doubt for fear that any action would offend Assad’s patrons in Tehran and disrupt hopes of negotiating a nuclear deal. “The discovery set off a months-long debate inside the administration about how to respond. President Obama is said to have not yet decided,” Rogin and Lake write. “Meanwhile, a coalition of rebel groups on the ground has been attacking the area around the facility, raising the danger that the chemical weapons could fall into the hands of the rebels, many of whom are linked to Islamic extremists.”

If this is how the administration reacts to blatant violations of an arms control agreement by a weak regime such as Assad’s, just imagine how it would react to violations by the much stronger Iranian regime. Unfortunately Iran’s leaders can read the tea leaves as well as anyone else—and they know that they will get a pass, at least while Obama is still in office, no matter how much they cheat on a nuclear deal.

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The Syrian Precedent for the Iran Deal

The Iranian nuclear accord would hardly be the first major arms control agreement that President Obama has negotiated. An important precedent was the agreement reached in 2013 for Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons in return for not being bombed and for receiving de facto American support to stay in power. Assad ostensibly delivered on the agreement by June 2014 when the last of his chemical weapons stockpile was supposed to be turned over to international inspectors for destruction.

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The Iranian nuclear accord would hardly be the first major arms control agreement that President Obama has negotiated. An important precedent was the agreement reached in 2013 for Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons in return for not being bombed and for receiving de facto American support to stay in power. Assad ostensibly delivered on the agreement by June 2014 when the last of his chemical weapons stockpile was supposed to be turned over to international inspectors for destruction.

Or did he? The New York Times reports: “Two years after President Bashar al-Assad agreed to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, there is mounting evidence that his government is flouting international law to drop cheap, jerry-built chlorine bombs on insurgent-held areas. Lately, the pace of the bombardments in contested areas like Idlib Province has picked up, rescue workers say, as government forces have faced new threats from insurgents.”

So you would think that Assad would suffer quick and certain retribution for flouting the chemical weapons accord, right? Err, not quite. As the Times further notes: “Yet, the Assad government has so far evaded more formal scrutiny because of a thicket of political, legal and technical obstacles to assigning blame for the attacks — a situation that feels surreal to many Syrians under the bombs, who say it is patently clear the government drops them.”

The U.S. can’t even get the United Nations to act against Assad and of course Obama isn’t willing to do anything himself, notwithstanding all of his pious talk about preventing “atrocities” on his watch. No doubt the president doesn’t want to offend Iran by acting against its Syrian proxy, not when nuclear negotiations are so close to being finished.

This is a sign of what happens to major arms control agreements in practice—not in the fantasy world constructed by the Obama administration where the only choice is either to sign on the bottom line or to start a war with Iran. In reality signing up for an agreement is often an invitation to cheat—and as the Syria case (along with those of North Korea, Russia, and many others show) the U.S. has a terrible track record of holding other nations to account for arms control violations. There is always some compelling reason not to act against the cheaters, to look the other way and hope for the best.

It’s bad enough that Assad is ignoring an accord to drop chemical weapons on his own people—arguably a weapon no more destructive than the barrel bombs he favors (and about whose use this White House apparently could not care less). It would be far worse if Iran were to violate a nuclear accord and start stockpiling nuclear weapons. Yet is there any reason to believe that Assad’s masters in Tehran will be any more scrupulous about observing international obligations than he has been?

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It’s Still Too Late to Save Syria

It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

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It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.

The deterioration of the Syrian government’s command was fully apparent earlier this week, when General Rustom Ghazali, a powerful intelligence official, died of wounds reportedly sustained at the hands of the guards of a rival general. Both men, according to the New York Times, were then fired. (It wouldn’t matter for Ghazali, who eventually succumbed to his injuries.) The Syrian command appeared to be splintering.

Then rebels took a strategic town and a military base in Idlib province, near Turkey. “The rebel gains in Idlib have put the opposition on a path to advance into the neighboring provinces of Hama and Latakia, bastions of support for Mr. Assad and key to his grip on power,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Most of Idlib province is now under opposition control, giving rebels a firm foothold to advance on regime forces elsewhere in the country.” And as Max noted yesterday, some observers are starting to talk again about a Syria after Assad.

In light of all this, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai offer some reason to temper the rebels’ confidence: “Yet if the regime is able to hold on, prevent further serious losses, and retake more lost positions, the final outcome would represent something of a setback for the rebels. It would be an opportunity lost, and it would make the regime’s position in Idlib secure for the time being, albeit reduced — at least until the rebels could mount another major effort.”

But, they add, the Idlib campaign could turn out to change the entire trajectory of the war. And they suggest helping nudge that outcome along:

As of this writing, the Idlib campaign looks to be one of the more important developments of the war, possibly even the elusive turning point that signals a clear shift in momentum against the regime after four years of inconclusive fighting. For those seeking a positive outcome in Syria, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on the regime, either forcing it to genuinely negotiate a transition or causing its military failure.

It must be tempting to see the possibility that Assad could fall as an opportunity for the West. But in fact some of the appearance of weakness on the part of Assad’s government is actually evidence of its strength–or at least durability and resilience–in the military realm.

To understand why, it’s instructive to go back to a quote from a Washington Post report on Ghazali that Max quoted in his post: “Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Assad is not just a nudge away from falling. It’s no wonder Assad’s high command are bickering: they’re increasingly irrelevant, and have been for some time. Not entirely irrelevant, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is that the Syrian civil war has completed Assad’s turn to becoming a traditional Iranian proxy. And Iran is not going to let its proxy fall in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere.

Assad created a monster, not only in unleashing his family’s characteristic oppression and bloodlust on the opposition but also in deliberately allowing ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups to thrive at the expense of more moderate rebel groups. This not only ensured that the more moderate rebels, which had the West’s backing as an alternative government to Assad, would never get strong enough on their own to take power. It also meant that the only groups who could possibly finish Assad off were the ones the West was invested in defeating.

Those groups, like ISIS, were destabilizing Iraq next door. This drew the U.S. into a de facto alliance with Assad because it brought them into an alliance with Iran. The rise of ISIS–which, again, Assad facilitated–also ensured Iran would do whatever it took to keep Assad in power.

The internal turf wars in the Syrian command are not evidence that Assad is on his way out. They’re evidence that what remains of the Assad power base has become almost a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.

Not only is the West fooling itself if it thinks it can push Assad out at this point with minimal military involvement, but it’s still in partnership with Assad through the Iranians.

From a military perspective, there is no “Syria.” There are three “Syrias,” which amount essentially to competing factions fighting for territory. We are currently aligned with the strongest of these, Iran, against the second-most powerful group. What we are not going to do is somehow throw in our lot now with the weakest of the factions, especially since we’ve constructed our management of Iraq by allowing Iran a significant role.

Syria can’t be saved. It’s a terrible tragedy, and there’s an argument to be made that it didn’t have to be this way. And certainly, the world should not ignore it. But those who dream of a Western military effort against Assad will keep dreaming.

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Why Are We Giving F-16s to an Iranian-Infiltrated Government?

The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

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The summit meeting between President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Tuesday went about as well as expected. That is to say, it was, like most high-level summits, full of affirmations of friendship and good will but few if any concrete achievements. Obama was predictably effusive about Abadi, whom he called a “strong partner”: “Although there is the natural back-and-forth that exists in any democracy, Prime Minister Abadi has kept true to his commitments to reach out to them and to respond to their concerns and to make sure that power is not solely concentrated within Baghdad.”

In reality, while Abadi seems well intentioned, he is also fairly ineffectual. He may not actively be victimizing Sunnis, as his predecessor and rival, Nouri al-Maliki, did, but he has not succeeded in creating a government-supported Sunni militia to fight ISIS. Nor has he been able to stop Shiite militias from rampaging through Sunni towns. The reality is that Abadi is far from the most powerful man in Iraq, a title that probably belongs rightfully to Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who is the puppet-master pulling the strings of the Shiite militias. Nevertheless, it is in America’s interest to buttress Abadi’s power, and having the president of the United States effusively compliment him in public makes sense, even if those compliments are not, strictly speaking, truthful.

While I wasn’t troubled by this fulsome praise of the Iraqi prime, I was troubled by something I read in the very last paragraph of the New York Times article reporting on his visit: “On Tuesday, Mr. Abadi was scheduled to meet with Iraqi pilots who are being trained in the United States to fly F-16s. Iraqi officials said that 14 pilots were scheduled to be trained by September, when the Iraqi military hopes to start flying the planes in Iraq.”

Huh? I remembered that the delivery of the F-16s had been delayed last year after ISIS fighters imperiled the Balad air base where they were supposed to be based. I didn’t realize that the F-16 delivery was on again. But apparently it is. Googling around, I quickly found a Reuters dispatch which said that Iraq is scheduled to take its first delivery of the fighter aircraft this summer. In all, 36 F-16s are eventually to be delivered.

Hold on a minute. Is this really a wise move? As noted above, the government of Iraq is heavily infiltrated by Iranian agents. Does it really make safe under those circumstances to deliver to Iraq three dozen high-performance fighter aircraft? I, for one, am worried that the fighters could eventually wind up in Iranian hands, buttressing an Iranian Air Force that until now has had to rely on aging F-14 fighters from the 1970s and even F-4s and F-5s from the 1960s. Granted, F-16s aren’t top of the line aircraft anymore—they are outclassed by F-22s and F-35s—but as a matter of policy and law the U.S. does not sell arms to hostile states or to states that might transfer them to hostile states.

Paging the House and Senate Armed Services Committees! Congress needs to get involved in this issue urgently to assess whether it makes sense to continue with the F-16 transfer to Iraq—and, if it doesn’t, to block the sale before Gen. Suleimani’s boys are using F-16s to drop bombs on the heads of American or Israeli soldiers.

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ISIS and the Stalingradization of Yarmouk

In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

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In 2009, Jeffrey Goldberg recounted a conversation he had with a Kurdish leader who told him that his fellow Kurds had been cursed. Goldberg asked him to be more specific. Goldberg relates the response: “He said the Kurds were cursed because they didn’t have Jewish enemies. Only with Jewish enemies would the world pay attention to their plight.” It’s a principle proved over and over again, and the plight of the Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp is yet our latest example.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, not far from Damascus. The refugees, already struggling through Syria’s civil war, found themselves in an almost Stalingrad-like state this month when ISIS laid siege to the camp. CNN describes what happened next:

Besieged and bombed by Syrian forces for more than two years, the desperate residents of this Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus awoke in early April to a new, even more terrifying reality — ISIS militants seizing Yarmouk after defeating several militia groups operating in the area.

“They slaughtered them in the streets,” one Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, told CNN. “They (caught) three people and killed them in the street, in front of people. The Islamic State is now in control of almost all the camp.”

An estimated 18,000 refugees are now trapped inside Yarmouk, stuck between ISIS and Syrian regime forces in “the deepest circle of hell,” in the words of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. …

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front control about 90% of the camp. The organization also claims that the Syrian government has dropped barrel bombs on the camp in an effort to drive out armed groups.

The plight of the Yarmouk camp isn’t exactly capturing the world’s attention. And a big reason for that, as even Israel’s critics are now acknowledging, mirrors the Kurdish complaint to Goldberg. The Palestinians of Yarmouk are cursed with three barbaric enemies, none of them Jews. And so the world yawns.

Mehdi Hasan, who would never be mistaken for a Zionist shill, takes to the pages of the Guardian, which would never be mistaken for a pro-Israel bullhorn, to call out the hypocrisy. He explains the terrible condition of the camp and the horrors endured by its residents throughout the civil war. Then he (of course) engages in the requisite throat-clearing about Israel’s “crimes” and the “occupation of Palestine.”

But he finally gets around to his point:

Can we afford to stay in our deep slumber, occasionally awakening to lavishly condemn only Israel? Let’s be honest: how different, how vocal and passionate, would our reaction be if the people besieging Yarmouk were wearing the uniforms of the IDF?

Our selective outrage is morally unsustainable.

That is the first of three lessons of the story of Yarmouk: that the world cares about Palestinian suffering when it can be blamed on the Jews. For the sake of posterity, Hasan even runs down a list of atrocities perpetrated on the Palestinians by other Arabs. It’s not a new phenomenon, nor would anybody in his right mind try to deny it. At least Hasan wants to change it.

The second lesson is that the Palestinians and their advocates often have unexpected allies, and rather than embrace even a temporary alliance they live in denial. Hasan illustrates this as well when he writes:

So what, if anything, can be done? The usual coalition of neoconservative hawks and so-called liberal interventionists in the west want to bomb first and ask questions later, while the rest of us resort to a collective shrug: a mixture of indifference and despair. Few are willing to make the tough and unpopular case for a negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict or, at least, a truce and a ceasefire, a temporary cessation of hostilities.

That is an Obama-level false choice hand in hand with a straw man. And it shows just how unwilling Hasan is to make common cause with people he dislikes politically. Neoconservatives are not nearly so pro-intervention in Syria as Hasan suggests (this is a common mistake that virtually every non-neoconservative who talks about the Syria conflict makes). But notice how quickly Hasan seems to change key: it’s a crisis, and has been a burgeoning disaster for years, and yet those who want to intervene are slammed as wanting to “ask questions later.”

Meanwhile, the negotiated track has failed. This is the reality: Assad has the upper hand, and ISIS has had success with their brutality, and neither one is ready to sit down at the table with representatives of Palestinian refugees to shake hands and end the war.

And that brings us to the third lesson, related to the second. Just as the Palestinians’ opponents are sometimes their best allies, the Palestinians’ friends often turn out to be anything but. There is no negotiated solution for the Palestinians of Yarmouk on the horizon because President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have already thrown them to the wolves.

The Obama administration, which happily hammers Israel for every perceived violation of Palestinian rights, has struck a bargain to reorder the Middle East by elevating Iran and its proxies, such as Assad. The plight of the Palestinians in Yarmouk does not interest this president and his team in the least. After all, it can’t be blamed on Israel.

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Where Terrorists Thrive and Why

Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

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Amid the big news of the last week regarding the “framework” agreement with Iran and the ouster of ISIS forces from Tikrit, it’s easy to lose sight of another piece of big news—the terrible slaughter carried out by Shabab militants at a university in Kenya. A small team of just four gunmen armed with nothing more than assault rifles systematically slaughtered 146 students after trying to separate out the Christians from the Muslims. As the New York Times notes, this is but the latest slaughter carried out by the Somali-based Islamist terror group in next-door Kenya: Since 2012, Shabab’s terrorists have killed more than 600 people on Kenyan soil, including a mass murder in 2013 in Nairobi’s posh Westgate mall.

This increase in attacks is not a sign that Shabab is growing in power—rather, the reverse. But even though Shabab has been steadily losing ground on its home turf of Somalia, where it has been pushed back by an African Union military force supported by the U.S., it is far from finished as a fighting force. Essentially, Shabab is going back down Mao Zedong’s ladder of guerrilla warfare: from having fielded a quasi-conventional army that could control a Denmark-sized portion of Somalia, it is now reverting back to being primarily a terrorist and guerrilla force that is kept on the run by its better-armed enemies.

Staging attacks in Kenya, one of the nations that has committed military forces to fight Shabab in Somalia, is an easy way for the terrorists to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and to garner the media attention that all terrorist groups covet. By terrorizing Kenya, Shabab risks destabilizing the economic and political powerhouse of East Africa—a country that the U.S. counts upon in the region and that President Obama (whose father was born there) is due to visit this summer.

Shabab’s latest atrocities demonstrate, if nothing else, the staying power, resilience, and attraction of Islamist insurgent groups—and the difficulty that corrupt and ramshackle states in the Third World have in stamping them out. The fundamental problem is that even with African Union help, the government of Somalia barely functions and cannot control all of its soil. The Kenyan state is more robust but also mired in problems of corruption, ineffectiveness, and poverty, which prevent it from effectively policing its 424-mile border with Somalia. Moreover, Kenya has a substantial Muslim minority (roughly 5.5 million people, or almost 9 percent of the population) that is not entirely immune to the siren song of radical Islam. Indeed one of the gunmen who carried out the university massacre last week turns out to have been a Kenyan who was the son of a local government official.

All of these problems are even more severe in Nigeria, which has a bigger Muslim population (almost half of the entire population) and a more corrupt and dysfunctional government than Kenya—which helps to explain why Boko Haram is on a rampage. Many of the same afflictions are evident in Yemen, which is why that country’s territory is being divided between two extremist groups—the Houthis, who are aligned with Shiite Iran, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is, like Shabab and Boko Haram, a Sunni jihadist organization.

There is not, to put it mildly, an obvious fix that the U.S. can administer to any of these problems. But as a general matter the lesson I would draw is that U.S. aid should be focused on improving the effectiveness of local government—not merely on hunting down individual terrorists who can be replaced all too easily if the territory in which they operate remains ungoverned. This is a lesson that runs counter to the preferred Obama strategy of sending drones and occasionally Special Operations Forces to take out bad guys, including Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Shabab, who was killed in an American airstrike last fall. Unfortunately his death has not eliminated the Shabab threat, any more than the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi eliminated al-Qaeda in Iraq (now renamed ISIS) or the death of Osama bin Laden eliminated al-Qaeda.

These terrorist groups are tough and tenacious and to truly defeat them the U.S. needs to work with local partners to implement comprehensive “population-centric” counterinsurgency plans of the kind that have succeeded in the past in countries as disparate as Iraq, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Colombia, and El Salvador. But that runs counter to the usual White House preference—especially pronounced in this White House, which resists putting any “boots on the ground”—to opt for quick and flashy technological fixes instead.

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America’s Cooperation with Iran in Iraq Has Consequences

The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

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The Obama administration seems to be taking a victory lap after ISIS fighters were pushed from Tikrit, but the aftermath of the town’s fall has not been pretty. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias, which the administration disingenuously claimed had left the scene prior to the start of U.S. bombing, rushed into the Sunni town and launched a wave of looting, murder, arson, and general mayhem.

Reuters reports: “Near the charred, bullet-scarred government headquarters, two federal policemen flanked a suspected Islamic State fighter. Urged on by a furious mob, the two officers took out knives and repeatedly stabbed the man in the neck and slit his throat….In addition to the killing of the extremist combatant, Reuters correspondents also saw a convoy of Shi’ite paramilitary fighters – the government’s partners in liberating the city – drag a corpse through the streets behind their car.”

Some might say “good riddance” to the supposed ISIS fighters who are receiving what might be seen as rough justice. But of course there is no impartial court to judge guilt or innocence. Those being tortured could have been chosen simply because they are Sunnis, not because they were members of ISIS. Certainly the stores being looted and the homes being burned did not belong to ISIS but to local Sunnis. The abuse they have suffered at the hands of Shiite militias will make Sunnis resist all the harder in places like Mosul when the Shiite hordes appear before their gates.

And who is responsible for this undisciplined mob violence? The primary perpetrators are of course the Shiite militias themselves, but their enablers are both Iran and the United States. In a remarkably candid account, the New York Times disposes of administration claims that it is not cooperating with Iran.

Writes the Times: “In the battle to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, from the Islamic State, the United States and Iran have found a template for fighting the Sunni militancy in other parts of Iraq: American airstrikes and Iranian-backed ground assaults, with the Iraqi military serving as the go-between for two global adversaries that do not want to publicly acknowledge that they are working together.”

Further, the Times quotes a “senior administration official” disavowing the comments made by Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command, who told Congress: “I will not — and I hope we will never — coordinate or cooperate with Shiite militias,” which of course  were responsible for killing hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. The administration official told the Times that Austin’s comments  “may have gone a little far.” “What we’ve been trying to say is that we are not coordinating directly with Iran,” said the official, suggesting that indirect cooperation is just fine.

The administration may be proud of its Machiavellian machinations, but it should own up to the consequences of its indirect cooperation with Iran: The U.S. is enabling an Iranian power grab in Iraq that is not only enhancing Iran’s regional power but also marginalizing the Sunni community and driving them further into the arms of ISIS. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating or ill-advised policy.

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America’s Doing More Harm Than Good at the UN Human Rights Council

Not much attention is paid to the activities of United Nations agencies. To the extent that some of the world body’s work is on behalf of the world’s disadvantaged populations or children, that’s too bad. But the fact that the arm of the UN that is tasked with monitoring human rights around the world remains a cesspool of anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel and Jews is something that also deserves more attention than it gets. As UN Watch reports, the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council wrapped up last week by passing four resolutions condemning Israel for alleged violations while largely ignoring much of what goes on in countries that actually trash the rights of their people. This isn’t surprising since that’s what the UNHRC has been doing throughout its history. But this latest instance of bias and lack of concern for its actual responsibilities on the issue does raise an important question: what the heck are representatives of the United States still doing there dignifying the HRC’s proceedings with its ineffectual presence at their deliberations in Geneva?

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Not much attention is paid to the activities of United Nations agencies. To the extent that some of the world body’s work is on behalf of the world’s disadvantaged populations or children, that’s too bad. But the fact that the arm of the UN that is tasked with monitoring human rights around the world remains a cesspool of anti-Semitism and hatred against Israel and Jews is something that also deserves more attention than it gets. As UN Watch reports, the 28th session of the UN Human Rights Council wrapped up last week by passing four resolutions condemning Israel for alleged violations while largely ignoring much of what goes on in countries that actually trash the rights of their people. This isn’t surprising since that’s what the UNHRC has been doing throughout its history. But this latest instance of bias and lack of concern for its actual responsibilities on the issue does raise an important question: what the heck are representatives of the United States still doing there dignifying the HRC’s proceedings with its ineffectual presence at their deliberations in Geneva?

The good news about the UNHRC votes is that in each of the four condemnations of Israel, the United States provided the sole no vote. President Obama’s defenders cite this as proof that he is not hostile to the Jewish state. Though the claim would be a little easier to accept if the president did not seek applause for doing something that any American leader ought to take as a matter of course, nevertheless the U.S. did the right thing. It would also be a little easier to cheer these stands if the president and various senior administration officials were not threatening to abandon Israel at the UN in the future because Prime Minister Netanyahu does not always follow Obama’s orders, but that is an argument for a different day.

But however much we might be glad that the U.S. is there to be a sole voice of sanity at the HRC, it’s arguable that even if the president doesn’t decide to stab Israel in the back to vent his pique about the results of the recent election there, America is doing more harm than good by legitimizing this farce by its continuing membership on the council.

It should be pointed out that the UN HRC managed to pass eight resolutions condemning alleged human-rights abuses at its recent sessions. That meant that half of its output was pro-forma attacks on Israel. One of the four resolutions condemned Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights, which it claims harms rights of the inhabitants. Another did the same for its presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem. One demanded “self-determination” for the Palestinians and another treated the existence of Jews living in these areas as an offense against their Arab neighbors.

One may debate the wisdom of Jewish settlements as well as the virtues of a two-state solution, even if the Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated that they have no interest in such a scheme but prefer to hold onto their desire for destroying the one Jewish state no matter where its borders may be drawn. But to represent the situation in the territories, where the greatest threat to human life remains Palestinian terrorism and the efforts of groups like Hamas to rain down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities last year, as the worst thing happening in the region, let alone the world, illustrates how the HRC remains a theater of the absurd.

As scholar and activist Anne Bayefsky writes on the Fox News website, China, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are all members of the HRC, because “protecting human rights is not a condition of being elected to the Council.” The Council ignores or dismisses other more pressing concerns (one resolution about a human-rights catastrophe in Syria where hundreds of thousands have died in the last four years and one non-condemnatory procedural measure about the Islamist tyranny in Iran) while devoting the lion’s share of its time to the campaign to delegitimize Israel.

In doing so, the HRC isn’t merely being unfair or disproportionate but is doing something far more insidious. As Bayefsky writes, “Subverting human rights principles for all turns out to be the other side of the coin of subverting human rights for Jews.” She’s right. Instead of treating the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel as one in which the two sides must try to reconcile competing rights, the HRC renders Jewish rights to self-determination and self-defense as unworthy of respect. That is to say, the HRC refuses to grant the one Jewish state in the world the same rights granted without argument to every other people. The term for such discriminatory treatment meted out to Jews is anti-Semitism.

As such, this is a forum that no self-respecting democracy ought to dignify with their presence. The lonely U.S. votes against this madness are not so much principled as they are granting the HRC an undeserved legitimacy. Past presidents have at times tried to step back from this disreputable body but President Obama’s obsessive affection for the UN has taken such a step off the table. Indeed, by staying on there, he seems to be using America’s votes as leverage to pressure Israel’s governments into taking steps its electorate has already specifically rejected at the polls.

Whoever it is that replaces President Obama in the White House will have a full plate of inherited foreign-policy crises to untangle in January 2017. But last week’s votes serve as a reminder that one of the items on the 45th president’s “to do list” ought to be pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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What If There’s No Iran Deal?

Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

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Each week seems to bring a new damning portrait of President Obama’s foreign policy from a different major news outlet. They say essentially the same thing but, like fingerprints, aren’t exactly the same. And Politico’s piece on Thursday by Michael Crowley stood out for providing a quote from the Obama administration that may rise above even the infamous “leading from behind” slogan the White House has rued since the words were spoken. What it lacks in bumper-sticker brevity it more than makes up for in stunning honesty.

Here’s how the Politico article closes, with a quote from an administration official:

“The truth is, you can dwell on Yemen, or you can recognize that we’re one agreement away from a game-changing, legacy-setting nuclear accord on Iran that tackles what every one agrees is the biggest threat to the region,” the official said.

The Obama administration’s official perspective on the Middle East currently engulfed in brutal sectarian conflict, civil war, and the collapse of state authority is: Let it burn. Nothing matters but a piece of paper affirming a partnership with the region’s key source of instability and terror in the name of a presidential legacy.

But there’s another question that’s easy to miss in the frenetic, desperate attempt to reach a deal with Iran: What if there’s no deal?

Obviously the president wants a deal, and he’s willing to do just about anything for it. The Obama administration long ago abandoned the idea that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and only recently began hinting at this shift in public. Officials have no interest in even talking about Yemen while they’re negotiating the Iran deal. It’s a singleminded pursuit; obsessive, irrational, ideologically extreme. But it’s possible the pursuit will fail: witness today’s New York Times story demonstrating that the Iranians are still playing hardball. (Why wouldn’t they? Their demands keep getting met.)

Surely it’s appalling for the administration to be so dismissive of the failure of a state, such as Yemen, in which we’ve invested our counterterrorism efforts. But it also shifts the power structure in the region. Take this piece in the Wall Street Journal: “Uncertain of Obama, Arab States Gear Up for War.” In it, David Schenker and Gilad Wenig explain that “The willingness of Arab states to finally sacrifice blood and treasure to defend the region from terrorism and Iranian encroachment is a positive development. But it also represents a growing desperation in the shadow of Washington’s shrinking security role in the Middle East.”

They also note the Arab League’s record isn’t exactly a monument to competent organization, so it’s not a great stand-in for an American government looking to unburden itself as a security guarantor for nervous Sunni allies. And it adds yet another note of instability.

Yemen’s only the latest example of the realignment, of course. The death toll in Syria’s civil war long ago hit six digits, and it’s still raging. Bashar al-Assad, thanks to his patron Iran and Tehran’s complacent hopeful partner in Washington, appears to have turned a corner and is headed to eventual, bloody victory.

The Saudis are toying with joining the nuclear arms race furthered by the Obama administration’s paving the Iranian road to a bomb. In Iraq, as Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent report, our decision to serve as Iran’s air force against ISIS has grotesque consequences, including that our military is now “providing air cover for ethnic cleansing.” Iran’s proxies, such as those in Lebanon and on Israel’s borders, will only be further emboldened.

And the lengths the administration has gone to elbow Israel out of the way–from leaking Israel’s nuclear secrets to intervening in its elections to try to oust those critical of Obama’s nuclear diplomacy–only cement the impression that to this president, there is room for every erstwhile ally under the bus, if that’s what it takes to get right with Iran. The view from France, meanwhile, “is of a Washington that seems to lack empathy and trust for its long-time friends and partners — more interested in making nice with Iran than looking out for its old allies.”

The ramifications to domestic politics are becoming clear as well. The point of Obama portraying foreign-government critics as Republicans abroad is that he sees everything in binary, hyperpartisan fashion. The latest dispatch from the Wall Street Journal on the issue includes this sentence:

In recent days, officials have tried to neutralize skeptical Democrats by arguing that opposing President Barack Obama would empower the new Republican majority, according to people familiar with the discussions.

Taking a tough line on Iranian nukes is bad, according to Obama, because it could help Republicans. It’s a rather amazing bit of myopia and partisan mania from the president.

And yet all this damage Obama is doing is for an Iran deal that might, in the end, not happen. And what if that’s the case? We can’t stitch Yemen, Syria, and Iraq back together. The failure of the negotiations won’t make the Saudis or the Israelis or the French trust Obama any more.

Obama’s clout on the Hill will plummet. And his legacy will be in ruins. After all, though he has been on pace to sign a bad Iran deal, it would at least buy him time for his devotees to spin the deal before its worst consequences happen (which would be after Obama leaves office, as designed). In other words, signing a bad deal for Obama allows him to say that at least from a narrow antiwar standpoint, all the costs we and our allies have incurred were for a purpose.

Of course, the grand realignment Obama has been seeking with Iran can’t and won’t be undone. That’s happening whether a deal is signed or not. And while Obama will have spent much of his own political capital, the president’s wasted time will pale in comparison to the smoldering ruins of American influence he leaves behind.

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Iran Tests Obama’s Desperation Again

As the last weekend before the deadline for its nuclear talks with Iran wound down, administration sources were talking as if a deal was a foregone conclusion. But as they have throughout this process, Tehran’s agents decided to test President Obama’s desperation one more time. On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi let slip that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Islamist regime had no intention of agreeing to anything that would commit them to shipping their growing stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country. Reneging at the last minute on something they have previously committed to doing is a standard Iranian negotiating tactic. Though American officials are insisting that negotiations about this crucial point are continuing, the last-second switch was yet another telling moment in a dispiriting display of weak American diplomacy. Along with Iran’s ongoing refusal to reveal its military research program and reports about nuclear work in Syria and North Korea that may be conducted on behalf of the regime once sanctions are lifted, this news raises the question of just how much more will the U.S. have to concede to get Iran to sign on to anything?

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As the last weekend before the deadline for its nuclear talks with Iran wound down, administration sources were talking as if a deal was a foregone conclusion. But as they have throughout this process, Tehran’s agents decided to test President Obama’s desperation one more time. On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi let slip that, contrary to the West’s expectations, the Islamist regime had no intention of agreeing to anything that would commit them to shipping their growing stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country. Reneging at the last minute on something they have previously committed to doing is a standard Iranian negotiating tactic. Though American officials are insisting that negotiations about this crucial point are continuing, the last-second switch was yet another telling moment in a dispiriting display of weak American diplomacy. Along with Iran’s ongoing refusal to reveal its military research program and reports about nuclear work in Syria and North Korea that may be conducted on behalf of the regime once sanctions are lifted, this news raises the question of just how much more will the U.S. have to concede to get Iran to sign on to anything?

The official U.S. response to the New York Times report about Iran reneging on exporting its nuclear fuel was hardly encouraging. Virtually all observers were under the impression that the West had secured Iran’s agreement on this point. Though there would still be plenty of room to cheat on a deal with such a provision in place, without it, the entire shaky edifice of the negotiations would collapse. Thus, when a “senior State Department official” said that, “Contrary to the report in The New York Times, the issue of how Iran’s stockpile would be disposed of had not yet been decided in the negotiating room, even tentatively,” that is hardly a sign that the situation is in hand. If Iran is still holding onto that crucial card with only hours before a deadline is supposed to expire, that’s a sign of enormous confidence on the part of Tehran’s negotiators that they have President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry just where they want them.

If Iran is planning on insisting on retaining their enriched uranium, all the confident talk coming out of the administration in recent months about a deal being the best way to ensure that the regime doesn’t get a bomb is exposed as patent falsehood. The Times hints, no doubt at the prompting of its helpful State Department sources, that a possible solution would be for the fuel remaining in Iran being kept in a diluted form. But we know that so long as it remains on Iranian soil and under its control, that stockpile could be easily converted back into material that can be used for a bomb.

As we noted last week, Iran’s refusal to fess up to its progress on possible military dimensions of its nuclear program is, in and of itself, a glaring weakness in any agreement since it means negotiators are operating in the blind about how close it may already be to a bomb. If that point is now apparently off the table as the West scrambles to try and persuade the Iranians not to gut what is left of an agreement that also doesn’t touch on their support for terror and missile program, there seems little hope that this agreement can be verified even in its weakened state. The West’s acquiescence to Iran continuing to operate centrifuges in its mountainside bunker at Fordow reduces even further the already slim chances that the deal can stand up to scrutiny.

It’s in that context that yesterday’s Washington Post article by Ali Alfoneh and Marc Ruel Gerecht about Iran hiding some of its nuclear work in North Korea and Syria must be viewed. Israel’s 2007 destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor that was designed in North Korea and almost certainly an Iranian project eliminated one threat, but it did not foreclose the possibility that Tehran would continue to use this tripartite alliance of rogue regimes to further its nuclear ambitions. With the Assad regime now totally dependent on Iranian aid to survive in the current civil war, the prospect that Iran will use its Syrian ally to hide or store some of its nuclear work can’t be ignored. That’s especially true since U.S. intelligence—a vital aspect of compliance with any nuclear agreement—in both countries appears to be so poor.

But these obvious holes in the arguments buttressing support for the proposed deal are even more important when set beside Iran’s confidence that it can force Obama and Kerry to make even more concessions in the last hours of the talks rather than be forced to walk away with nothing. Indeed, the Islamist regime seems to be certain that there is almost nothing it could do or threaten that would be enough to scare off a U.S. negotiating team that cannot go home empty-handed.

If the Americans are not going to be tough about verification measures or the location of Iran’s nuclear stockpile now while the sanctions are still in place and there is yet a chance that the West might realize the current deal won’t actually stop Iran from getting a bomb, how much less likely will it be that the U.S. or its European allies will reimpose those economic restrictions once a nuclear pact is signed?

Iran knows this is the moment to pressure Obama to give up even more than the staggering concessions he has already made in the last two years. Having already failed to stand up to call Iran’s bluffs when all the leverage was on his side, what possible hope is there that he will do so when it is the ayatollahs that have him at a disadvantage?

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What Does Current Morass Say About Middle East Studies?

The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

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The Middle East is in chaos. And while the sectarian and ideological forces which tear the region apart would exist regardless of U.S. policy, decisions made by President Barack Obama and his team of advisors have effectively thrown fuel on the fire. While history might be critical of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussein, and seek to establish a democracy in the heart of the Arab Middle East, historians will likely be far more critical of Obama’s decisions or, in some cases, failure to make decisions, and the impact of that action and inaction on countries like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Turkey, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Egypt.

For more than a half century U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East has been largely consistent and bipartisan. President Dwight Eisenhower briefly tried to reorient the basis of American policy away from close ties with Israel to a broader alliance favoring Arab states and the Arab narrative—hence the Suez debacle—but he quickly discovered that Israel simply made a better and more consistent ally than the likes of Gamal Abdul Nasser or the myriad Arab leaders, many of whom were simply the latest coup leaders.

It’s worth considering why Obama is such an outlier. While, on paper, Obama might be expected to be the most international president—with Kenyan family and a boyhood in Indonesia—when it comes to the Middle East, he had little practical background. His introduction to the region appears to have occurred in American universities, if not directly in Middle East Studies courses, than through his friendship and close association with Middle East Studies luminaries like Rashid Khalidi and perhaps Edward Said as well.

Martin Kramer, currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, penned in 2001 one of the best researched, careful, and damning assessments of Middle Eastern Studies, in which he traced the inverse relationship between its polemics and relevance. Much of this can be traced back to Edward Said. Said, is of course, famous for penning Orientalism, perhaps the most influential book in Middle East Studies in the last half century. Few people who cite Orientalism, however, have ever read it. If they had, they would readily see the emperor had no clothes, for Said’s essay is so full of errors of both fact and logic as to suggest scholarly incompetence if not academic fraud. Quite simply, the reason why Said is so popular on campus today is because his argument became a blessing to prioritize polemic and politics above fact and scholarly rigor. For Said, up was down, wrong was right, and power was original sin.

Rashid Khalidi, a close friend of Obama from their mutual University of Chicago days, now holds a chair named in Said’s honor at Columbia University. He has consistently argued that politicians and diplomats do not listen to those like himself who claim expertise in the Middle East. This was a complaint which permeated his 2004 book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East, which I reviewed here. The irony here, of course, is that Khalidi, who was previously the PLO spokesman in Beirut, had never been to Iraq but nevertheless castigated policymakers for ignoring his advice on the subject.

Khalidi, as with many others in his field, both sought to prioritize and amplify the importance of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At the same time, he appears obsessed with post-colonial theory. American power is corrosive, and the road to Middle East peace runs through Jerusalem. Likewise, cultural equivalence predominates: what the West calls terrorism is not so black and white. Hateful ideologies? They are simply the result of grievance. America should apologize and understand and accommodate to the position of the other if it is committed truly to peace.

Obama entered office internalizing such beliefs. Rather than act as leader of the free world, he approached the Middle East as a zoning commissioner. What he lacked in understanding, he compensated for with arrogance—dispensing with decades of accumulated wisdom and experience of predecessors both Democrat and Republican. Rather than jump start the peace process, Obama succeeded in setting it back decades.

When it comes to the U.S. military, there are few places with less trust and understanding than the university campus. Generations have now passed through the Ivory Tower since the end of conscription and, especially at elite universities, few professors or students have any experience in or with the military. The U.S. military is treated in an almost cartoonish, condescending fashion. Rather than see its projection as the enabler of peace, Obama—like many of his university colleagues—saw it as an arrow in the U.S. policy quiver with which past American presidents engaged in wars of choice and unjust gunboat diplomacy. Sovereignty and nationalism were enablers of evil; it was the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that held the key to peace and justice, if only they might operate unimpeded by the United States.

Of course, when put to the test, these assumptions failed completely. Obama’s promise to withdraw from Iraq did not win that country peace and stability, but condemned it to a return to terror and war. His failure to intervene in Syria early transferred a situation that might have been resolved with minimum force into a cancer which now spreads throughout the region. His outreach to Iran has shaken decades-long alliances with Arab allies to the core, and broken a trust in the United States and its red lines which will take decades to restore. Never before—not in 1979, not in 1967—has the Middle East been so torn asunder.

And yet, all Obama did was follow the prescriptions taught at so many American universities today: reconcile with Iran, condemn Israel, rationalize terror, trust Islamist movements, and refuse military solutions. The Middle East will test whoever succeeds Obama. It is doubtful that either a Democrat or a Republican will follow Obama’s path. History will treat him as an outlier. Still, it is worth considering whether Obama represents academe’s first grand experiment, enabling area studies professors to see their ideas put into action on the world stage. If so, perhaps it is worth considering whether many Middle Eastern studies programs are repositories of expertise, or rather have transformed themselves because of their own ideological conformity and blinders into a dustbin of wasted potential.

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Shi’ite Militias Don’t Cause Iraqi Sunni Extremism

The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

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The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.

Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.

There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.

The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.

The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.

Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.

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