Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syrian civil war

Assad Crosses Obama’s ‘Red Line’ Again

The Syrian civil war has been a nonstop horror show not only for the people of Syria and their neighbors but also for the United States. After setting up an Atrocities Prevention Board and vowing to stop crimes against humanity, President Obama has done essentially nothing even as the civil war has consumed more than 200,000 lives and displaced more than half of the population. American neglect has allowed the country to be divided between Iranian-backed Shiite extremists such as Hezbollah and Sunni extremists such as the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Amid this parade of atrocities, virtually the only thing that Obama could boast of was that he had engineered, along with Vladimir Putin, a deal to take away Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons.

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The Syrian civil war has been a nonstop horror show not only for the people of Syria and their neighbors but also for the United States. After setting up an Atrocities Prevention Board and vowing to stop crimes against humanity, President Obama has done essentially nothing even as the civil war has consumed more than 200,000 lives and displaced more than half of the population. American neglect has allowed the country to be divided between Iranian-backed Shiite extremists such as Hezbollah and Sunni extremists such as the Al Nusra Front and ISIS. Amid this parade of atrocities, virtually the only thing that Obama could boast of was that he had engineered, along with Vladimir Putin, a deal to take away Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons.

If so, then why is there credible evidence that the Assad regime has been dropping chlorine gas on civilians in recent days? As Josh Rogin of Bloomberg notes, “Unfortunately, chlorine, which has non-military uses, was not part of that deal. Assad has flaunted the loophole.” The fact that chlorine was not included was bizarre; it is the original chemical weapon, having first been used at the Battle of Ypres in 1915.

But the UN Security Council has acted to erase the loophole. On March 6, the Security Council passed a resolution condemning the regime’s use of chlorine gas after concluding “with a high degree of confidence that chlorine has been used repeatedly and systematically as a weapon in the Syrian Arab Republic.” The Security Council members stressed “that those individuals responsible for any use of chemicals as weapons, including chlorine or any other toxic chemical, must be held accountable.”

That would seem to present yet another “red line” that the administration can either enforce or ignore. Opposition activists believe that Assad is once again testing the international community with a series of small attacks utilizing chlorine gas to see how they react. He did the same thing with sarin gas, and when he found little resistance in the world, he unleashed an attack in August 2013 that killed 1,400 people. If left unchecked, we can expect to see chlorine gas employed on an even bigger and deadlier scale, along of course with barrel bombs and other favored instruments of mass destruction employed by the Assad regime and its Iranian patrons.

It will be fascinating to know what if anything the administration will do about this—just as it would be fascinating to know what the administration plans to do to dislodge either ISIS (which it has pledged to defeat) or Assad (whose downfall it once advocated). Secretary of State Kerry who called this week on Assad to get involved in negotiations with the U.S. probably delivered the answer. If only hot air could somehow be utilized as an effective antidote to poison gas.

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The Cost of Obama’s Syria Disgrace

Four years ago, civil unrest began in Syria against the despotic rule of Bashar Assad. After more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and in the wake of Arab Spring protests happening elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria’s people began to make their voices heard. The brutal and corrupt regime responded with violence and what followed was a civil war that has, to date, cost the lives of more than 200,000 persons and made millions homeless. The toll of this catastrophe was aptly illustrated in a New York Times graphic feature, “Syria After Four Years of Mayhem.” But what isn’t noted there is that much of this heartbreak might have been averted had the West done something to stop Assad from making war on his own people before the war escalated to the current level of chaos. Though President Obama condemned the violence in Syria, called on Assad to go, and even warned that his use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would force the United States to act, the administration did nothing. As much as this anniversary should cause us to mourn the dead, it should also be noted as a disgrace that stands as an apt symbol of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

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Four years ago, civil unrest began in Syria against the despotic rule of Bashar Assad. After more than 40 years of rule by the Assad clan and in the wake of Arab Spring protests happening elsewhere in the Middle East, Syria’s people began to make their voices heard. The brutal and corrupt regime responded with violence and what followed was a civil war that has, to date, cost the lives of more than 200,000 persons and made millions homeless. The toll of this catastrophe was aptly illustrated in a New York Times graphic feature, “Syria After Four Years of Mayhem.” But what isn’t noted there is that much of this heartbreak might have been averted had the West done something to stop Assad from making war on his own people before the war escalated to the current level of chaos. Though President Obama condemned the violence in Syria, called on Assad to go, and even warned that his use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would force the United States to act, the administration did nothing. As much as this anniversary should cause us to mourn the dead, it should also be noted as a disgrace that stands as an apt symbol of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy.

The graphic illustrates the toll the war has taken on that tortured country. Most dramatic is its depiction of satellite photos that illustrate the collapse of Syria’s population centers. The photos show that Syria is 83 percent darker at night than it was before the start of the war. Sir Edward Gray’s famous comment at the start of World War One that, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” seems apt for Syria as well. The war has caused an exodus of epic proportions. Approximately 7.6 million people have been displaced inside of Syria as a result of the fight. But 3.9 million, approximately half of them children, have been forced out of the country and are living as refugees elsewhere in great squalor and suffering.

Also depicted is the current division of the country between armed forces loyal to the government, ISIS, and moderate rebels. But those maps don’t tell the full story either of how the current situation came to be or what is really going on today.

The weakest of the three sides in this civil war are the non-ISIS rebels. Some are genuine moderates. Others are connected to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile the pro-government areas are as likely to contain Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists with a sprinkling of Iranian volunteers as they are Assad’s Alawite base of support within the pre-war Syrian army.

But that current division couldn’t have come about had President Obama not played Hamlet on Syria for two years as the original more moderate rebel forces came to be either dominated or pushed aside by more radical elements tied to al-Qaeda. Even more to the point, it was the vacuum created by the West’s indecision as well as the administration’s fateful decision to pull completely out of Iraq that allowed ISIS to arise while Obama was trying to decide what to do.

Four years later, it’s probably too late to expect Syrian moderates now getting some minimal Western aid to do much about an Assad regime that was backed to the hilt by its Iranian ally and their Lebanese auxiliaries. Even worse, the real explanation for American hesitancy to do something about Syria might have been the president’s desire for a rapprochement with Iran.

It is true that any decision to act on Syria would have been fraught with danger. Intervention in Iraq created a host of unintended consequences—such as the strengthening of Iran—which Americans now regret. There was no guarantee that action would not have created other problems and exposed American forces to terror attacks. But we do know what happened because President Obama either couldn’t make up his mind or was too intent on making nice with Iran to act decisively. Could the fallout from a decision to oust Assad before Iran could rescue him or ISIS arose have resulted in more casualties or refugees? Could the strategic situation have been any worse than the one in which ISIS now controls much of the country while the U.S. has been forced into a tacit alliance with the Islamist despots of Tehran and the butcher of Damascus in order to hold them back?

The debate about the answers to these questions will interest historians in future generations. But for now, all we need to know is that the greatest human-rights catastrophe since Barack Obama became president might well have been averted or at least lessened by decisive American leadership. Along with his many other failures and mistakes, this horror should never be forgotten or be allowed to be obscured as the president’s fans seek to celebrate him. Such a disgrace isn’t merely a bad political choice; it’s a permanent commitment to infamy.

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Obama’s White Flag On Assad a Gift for Iran

As anyone who has heard President Obama discuss his opposition to more sanctions being placed on Iran knows, the White House is deeply disturbed at the notion of the United States doing anything to disturb those who run the Islamist regime. Thus, the news that the United States is signaling what may be the formal end of its opposition to Bashar Assad’s rule over Syria must be seen in the context of a general American push for détente with that dictator’s allies in Tehran. This is bad news for the people of Syria who are seeking an alternative to Assad’s murderous rule–other, that is, than the ISIS terrorists. But it is very good news for the Iranians who are pleased about the way the rise of ISIS has led to a de facto alliance on the ground between the U.S. and Iran’s allies Assad and Hezbollah in the effort to fight ISIS. This has led not only to a tacit green light for Assad to go on killing Syrians but also for negotiations that seemed fated to grant a Western seal of approval for Iran’s aspiration to become a threshold nuclear power.

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As anyone who has heard President Obama discuss his opposition to more sanctions being placed on Iran knows, the White House is deeply disturbed at the notion of the United States doing anything to disturb those who run the Islamist regime. Thus, the news that the United States is signaling what may be the formal end of its opposition to Bashar Assad’s rule over Syria must be seen in the context of a general American push for détente with that dictator’s allies in Tehran. This is bad news for the people of Syria who are seeking an alternative to Assad’s murderous rule–other, that is, than the ISIS terrorists. But it is very good news for the Iranians who are pleased about the way the rise of ISIS has led to a de facto alliance on the ground between the U.S. and Iran’s allies Assad and Hezbollah in the effort to fight ISIS. This has led not only to a tacit green light for Assad to go on killing Syrians but also for negotiations that seemed fated to grant a Western seal of approval for Iran’s aspiration to become a threshold nuclear power.

It must be acknowledged that at this point the United States has no good options open to it on Syria. If the U.S. had acted swiftly to aid moderate opponents to the Assad regime after the Arab Spring protests began, it might have been possible to topple Assad, something that would have been a telling blow to Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. But President Obama was characteristically unable to make a decision about what to do about it for years despite continually running his mouth about how Assad had to go. By the time he was ready to strike—after Assad crossed a “red line” enunciated by the president about his use of chemical weapons against his own people—the moderate option looked less attractive. The president quickly backed down and punted the task of cleaning up the chemical weapons to Assad’s Russian ally.

Even worse, after Obama’s precipitate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and inaction on Syria led to the rise of ISIS terrorists, Washington seemed more interested in using this crisis as an excuse to make common cause with Iran than in actually fighting the Islamist group. Thus, while U.S. air attacks on ISIS have barely made a dent in the terrorists’ grip on control of much of Syria and Iraq, the administration is signaling enthusiasm for Russian and United Nations-sponsored diplomatic events that will effectively doom a framework agreed to by the West last year in Geneva by which Assad would be forced to yield power.

The administration will defend this switch as something that will aid the effort to end a war that has killed hundreds of thousands. They also justify the tacit alliance with Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah on the Syrian battlefield as the only possible option available to those who wish to combat ISIS. At this point with non-Islamist Syrian rebels effectively marginalized and the battlefield dominated by the Iran/Hezbollah/Assad alliance and their ISIS foes, forcing Assad out may no longer be an option.

But the chain of events that led to this American move to allow Assad to survive despite his crimes must now be viewed from a different perspective than merely one of Obama’s Hamlet routine on difficult issues.

The decision to gradually back away from the president’s campaign pledge to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program and to engage in negotiations aimed at granting Tehran absolution for its ambitions will, if it results in an agreement, at best make Iran a threshold nuclear power. A weak nuclear deal will further buttress Iran’s hopes for regional hegemony by which it will further threaten moderate regimes and strengthen its Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist allies.

It’s not clear yet whether the Iranians will ever sign a nuclear agreement with the U.S. or if, instead, it will continue to run out the clock on the talks. That’s something that the president’s zeal for a deal may permit because he refuses to admit failure or pressure the Iranians as Congress would like him to do by toughening sanctions in the event the talks collapse.

But what we do know now is that this administration’s Syria policy must now be viewed through the prism of its infatuation with the idea of, as the president put it last month, letting “Iran get right with the world.”

Options for getting rid of the butcher Assad may be few these days. But the American white flag acknowledging his continued reign of terror is more than merely an admission that he can’t be pushed out of Damascus. It must now be understood as part of a comprehensive policy that is aimed at appeasing Iran. That presents a danger not only to the oppressed people of Syria but to every other nation in the region, including both moderate Arabs and Israel, who are targets of Iran’s predatory ambition.

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New Syria Threat Requires U.S. Action

As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.

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As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the only thing to worry about in Syria these days is the still potent ISIS terrorist movement that has occupied a large section of the country as well as one in Iraq. U.S. efforts to roll back ISIS’s enormous gains in the last year have fallen flat, but that failure has been accompanied by a tacit alliance with the Assad regime and its Iranian ally that has led Washington to forget that only a year and a half ago it was prepared to use force to compel Syria’s government to give up the chemical weapons it had used against civilians. But according to Germany’s Der Spiegel, Obama’s sleight-of-hand diplomacy may eventually blow up in our faces. According to the paper, the Syrians have, with help from Iran and North Korea, begun to reconstitute their WMD program. In particular, they are seeking rebuild the same nuclear program the Israelis took out with a pre-emptive strike in 2007. If so, instead of helping to rid the region of nukes, the administration may be acquiescing to a profoundly dangerous instance of proliferation.

The Syrians are denying the Der Spiegel report but their claim that it is all lies is no more to be trusted than anything else that emanates from that despotic and murderous regime. Far more credible are the allegations that Syria has used the cover of the civil war to begin the work of reassembling a WMD threat even as Assad claimed to be getting rid of his chemical weapons under the supervision of his Russian ally. This is shocking because Israel had thought it had put to rest the nuclear threat with a daring raid that took out the Syrians’ reactor. According to the German paper:

Analysts say that the Syrian atomic weapon program has continued in a secret, underground location. According to information they have obtained, approximately 8,000 fuel rods are stored there. Furthermore, a new reactor or an enrichment facility has very likely been built at the site — a development of incalculable geopolitical consequences.

Some of the uranium was apparently hidden for an extended period at Marj as-Sultan near Damascus, a site that the IAEA likewise views with suspicion. Satellite images from December 2012 and February 2013 show suspicious activity at Marj as-Sultan. The facility, located not far from a Syrian army base, had become the focal point of heavy fighting with rebels. Government troops had to quickly move everything of value. They did so, as intelligence officials have been able to reconstruct, with the help of Hezbollah, the radical Shiite “Party of God” based in Lebanon. The well-armed militia, which is largely financed by Iran, is fighting alongside Assad’s troops.

The report goes on to describe the effort as being largely the work of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and has been aided by North Korean advisers.

It should be conceded that no matter how much progress they’ve made in the last year, Syria is probably a long way from a bomb. But given Iranian involvement, the creation of this facility raises doubts about the efficacy of any nuclear deal with Tehran struck by an Obama administration eager for any agreement that could foster détente with the Islamist regime.

Just as dangerous is the thought that Assad, who is winning his civil war due as much to American indifference as to aid from Iran and Hezbollah, will not only survive but also emerge even more dangerous and powerful than he was before the rebellion against him began.

A Syria that is either on its way to becoming a nuclear threshold state or which will serve as a depository for an Iranian nuclear program that is forced to go partially underground by a sham deal with the West would, at best, be a destabilizing force in an already volatile region. At worst, it would be a standing invitation to a new war involving Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas that sets the Middle East aflame.

The answer to this threat should be clear. The U.S. and its allies must either insist that this facility be shut down and destroyed or it must be taken out by air strikes either by Western forces or the Israelis, who continue to be available to do America’s dirty work in this regard.

But the most worrisome aspect of this issue is not only Assad’s determination to get back to the position of strength he occupied before the civil war. It’s that the U.S. policy in Syria is so deeply entwined with that of Iran and the Syrian government that it may not be possible to persuade Obama to act no matter what Damascus does. The administration seems intent on empowering Tehran and allowing it to keep its nuclear toys in the hope that this will cause it to abandon the pursuit of a weapon as well as allowing it to, in the president’s foolish phrase, “get right with the world.” But it appears détente with Iran may also mean a set of policies that causes the U.S. to acquiesce to a Syrian regime that is a danger to its own people and its neighbors. If there were ever a reason for the president to reevaluate a course that seems set for disaster, the news about Syria would seem to be it.

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2014: Bashar al-Assad’s Comeback Year

The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

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The idea that there are no winners in war has long been a rallying cry for peace. But right now in the Middle East, what should concern American policymakers most is that the reverse is never true: whether or not there are winners, there’s always a loser. And in Syria at the moment, every side seems to be winning except ours.

NPR tempers the holiday spirit today with an important reminder of just how much has changed, for the worse, in the Syrian civil war and the cross-border ISIS insurgency in Syria and Iraq. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, NPR notes, is ending the year in a far better place than he started it. Although that seems obvious, it’s disturbing to think back what a difference a year makes:

At the beginning of 2014, Syrian President Bashar Assad had agreed to send his ministers to take part in negotiations in Switzerland, and his future as Syria’s ruler was not looking very bright.

He was accused of killing tens of thousands of his own people in a civil war that was nearly three years old. The opposition was demanding Assad’s ouster. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Switzerland and called loudly for a political transition in Syria. He was clear about who would not be involved.

“Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way — no way possible in the imagination — that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern,” he said.

Fast-forward to the present. Those talks were abandoned. Assad is still in the presidential palace in Damascus. And although the United States is bombing Syria, it’s not targeting Assad’s army but the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

The key quote comes next from Joshua Landis. “I think Assad is in a stronger position today in many respects, certainly on the battlefield, and he has the United States as a strategic ally,” he told NPR.

Think about that. It was less than a year ago that the American secretary of state was asserting unequivocally that Assad was done and that certainly his days of being treated as a legitimate head of state were over. Now “he has the United States as a strategic ally.”

This isn’t some random simple twist of fate. Assad’s survival depended on his playing his cards just right. In the preceding years of the civil war that still rages in his country, Assad was facing a collection of rebels, a disorganized circus of armed opposition. Assad knew how to prioritize his defense.

In August, the New York Times’s Room for Debate feature asked the following question: “Should the U.S. Work With Assad to Fight ISIS?” One of the panel contributors, The National columnist Hassan Hassan, pointed out the absurdity of relying on Assad as a partner against ISIS:

The idea that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be a partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, ignores a basic fact: Assad has been key to its rise in Syria and beyond. When Islamic radicals took over Raqqa, the first province to fall under rebels’ control in its entirety, it was remarkable that the regime did not follow the same policy it had consistently employed elsewhere, which is to shower liberated territories with bombs, day and night.

Raqqa was saved the fate of Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Homs and Deraa. ISIS soon controlled the province, painted government buildings in black and turned them into bases. The group’s bases were easy to spot, for about a year and a half. Elsewhere, too, Assad allowed ISIS to grow and fester. The regime has been buying oil from it and other extremist groups after it lost control of most of the country’s oilfields and gas plants.

Assad has gone from dead man walking to the once and future king in the space of a year because he made many enemies but then outmaneuvered them all. Earlier in the conflict, Assad was losing. He’s not anymore.

And neither is ISIS. After Assad allowed the terrorist group to fester and hold territory, it has been controlling areas of Syria and Iraq while using the resources of those territories to fund its terror state. Since the Obama administration’s plan has been to delay sending troops and then sending too few to defeat ISIS, disrupting the group’s revenue streams would be the next obvious step.

Unfortunately, the two can’t be so easily separated. As Foreign Policy reports, the anti-ISIS alliance has had some success in stemming oil revenue. But they haven’t stopped it. And disrupting other streams of terrorists’ revenue requires–you guessed it–boots on the ground: “But cutting off the group’s proceeds from other illegal activities like kidnapping and extortion is harder to do without first reconquering the territory where the militants operate what are effectively mafia-style criminal enterprises.”

So for now, ISIS isn’t losing either. We had two enemies in Syria, and they’re both doing OK for themselves at the moment. But someone has to be losing, and by process of elimination you can pretty much guess who it is. The “moderate” rebels–our previous strategic ally, before Assad supplanted them–have found themselves in a vicious cycle. They struggle because we aren’t helping them enough to succeed, which we then use as an excuse to help them less, which in turn leads to them struggling even more:

Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

And there’s one more loser in all this: America’s strategic interests. ISIS is undermining our attempts to leave behind a stable Iraq and splitting territory next door in Syria with Assad, Iran’s proxy. It’s true that Assad had a pretty good year considering where he was heading into 2014. But that’s another way of saying America’s enemies had a pretty good year.

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Syrian Refugees Get Resettled But Not Palestinians

The civil war in Syria has produced more than 3.2 million refugees creating an intolerable burden for neighboring countries. With so many languishing in camps, the refugees are beginning to voice frustration with their plight with some seeking to flee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and head to Europe as illegal immigrants. Stepping into the breach is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It is seeking to extract pledges from Western nations to accept some of the Syrians for resettlement. Its initial goal is to have these nations permanently take in at least 130,000 Syrians in the next two years. But what is missing from accounts of this effort is the obvious contrast with the other famous refugees in the region, the Palestinians. Unlike the Syrians they won’t be resettled.

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The civil war in Syria has produced more than 3.2 million refugees creating an intolerable burden for neighboring countries. With so many languishing in camps, the refugees are beginning to voice frustration with their plight with some seeking to flee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and head to Europe as illegal immigrants. Stepping into the breach is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It is seeking to extract pledges from Western nations to accept some of the Syrians for resettlement. Its initial goal is to have these nations permanently take in at least 130,000 Syrians in the next two years. But what is missing from accounts of this effort is the obvious contrast with the other famous refugees in the region, the Palestinians. Unlike the Syrians they won’t be resettled.

That the UNHCR is seeking to find permanent new homes for as many Syrians as they can is unsurprising. That is what this agency has been doing for refugees since its inception in 1950 as it has helped tens of millions of people survive the ordeal of homelessness and then seeks to find new places for them to live and put down roots. While some Syrians are just waiting out the war hoping to return to what’s left of their homes after the fighting eventually stops, many are logically thinking that their best option is to look elsewhere for safety and sustenance. This is normal behavior for any refugee population, but as the world struggles to deal with the human tragedy that is the byproduct of the war that is being fought between the Assad regime, ISIS, and rebel groups, it’s worth comparing the halting and by no means sufficient efforts to help the Syrians with the utter lack of interest in resettling a single Palestinian during the same period that UNHCR has been operating.

Blame for this does not belong to UNHCR, the agency that is responsible for aiding all refugee populations in the world save one: the Palestinians. The Palestinians have their very own UN refugee agency to help them, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. But UNRWA doesn’t resettle anyone. Its purpose is not to solve the Palestinian refugee problem but to perpetuate it.

Though UNRWA operates as if it is a humanitarian agency, its purpose has always been primarily political. The population of Arab refugees from the former Mandate of Palestine was created by the war waged by those acting in the name of those Arabs to strangle the State of Israel at its birth. Rather than accepting the UN partition of the land into what were explicitly called Jewish and Arab states, the Arab and Muslim world chose to wage war to prevent the creation of any Jewish state, no matter how small its territory. With a few exceptions, several hundred thousand refugees fled because of the spread of the war as well as the explicit instructions from some Arab leaders that they flee in order to ease the path of invading Arab armies. When the War of Independence ended with the new Jewish state alive, albeit existing in truncated and unsafe borders, the tactics of Israel’s opponents shifted. From that point on, their efforts sought to highlight the plight of Arabs who had fled in order to promote a military or diplomatic attempt to continue the war. Indeed, even as Syrian refugees in camps in neighboring nations are allowed to resettle elsewhere, Palestinians still stuck in Syrian refugee camps remain in place unable and unwilling to budge from the site of their misery.

The result of this policy was not merely to render all efforts to make peace between Israel and the Arab world impossible; it also ensured that the Palestinians would live in misery in increasing numbers and growing squalor. At the same time, a nearly equal number of Jews were forced to flee their homes in the Arab world as pogroms and discrimination made their plight intolerable. But while UNRWA kept the Palestinians in place to suffer, Jewish groups ensured that their refugees would not suffer in this manner and all were resettled in Israel or the West.

This is a familiar story. The world ignores the legacy of the Jewish refugees who deserve compensation for their losses every bit as much as the descendants of those Arabs who were displaced in 1948. At the same time the Palestinian refugees remain an immovable obstacle to any peace settlement since they have been told endlessly that they will go back to their old homes (or those of their parents and grandparents) in what was once Palestine. Palestinian Authority Leader Mahmoud Abbas’s recent embrace of the right of return makes it clear that no Palestinian leader will dare make peace with Israel since they are wedded to a “right of return” which is synonymous with the destruction of a Jewish state.

While we wish good luck to the UNHCR in their gargantuan task of aiding and resettling Syrian refugees, the lesson here is that treating the Palestinians differently from other such populations has come at a perilously high price in suffering to those involved.

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Israel and the Unasked Question on Syria

The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

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The unleashing of the campaign of U.S. air strikes on terrorist targets throughout Syria last night may be the beginning of an offensive that will, as President Obama claimed this morning, “take the fight” to ISIS. If so, the bombings must be judged to be a commendable, if belated instance of presidential leadership. But as even the president’s cheering section at MSNBC and other liberal strongholds suddenly take on the appearance of being “war lovers,” it’s fair to wonder about one question that was uppermost on the minds of most of the media this past summer when other terrorists were being pounded from the air: what about the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage?

Accounts of the attacks on ISIS targets as well as those on the Khorasan group speak of strikes on bases, training camps, and checkpoints as well as command-and-control centers in four provinces and having been in the vicinity of several Syrian cities. Many terrorists may have been killed and severe damage done to the ability of both ISIS and the Khorasan group to conduct operations. The first videos of the aftermath of the bombings show members of the groups digging out the rubble and seeking survivors of the attacks. The surrounding area appears to be one of built-up structures. While some of these bases and command-and-control centers may well have been in isolated places, it is likely that many, if not most, were in the vicinity of civilian residences. All of which leads to the question that almost no one, at least in the American media, is asking today: what about civilian casualties or damage to infrastructure facilities that might severely impact the quality of life of those who live in these areas?

If we are being honest, the answer to such queries is clear: we don’t know. American forces conduct such operations under rules of engagement that seek to limit if not totally eliminate non-military casualties. But even under the strictest limits, civilians are killed in war. It is also to be hoped that all of the strikes were conducted with perfect accuracy, but that is the sort of thing that generally only happens in movies. In real life, war is conducted in an environment in which a host of factors make perfection as unattainable as it is in every other aspect of life. Which means it is almost certain that at least some Syrian civilians (a population that may include supporters of the terrorists and some who are essentially their hostages) were killed and wounded last night.

If anyone were thinking about that fact today, you wouldn’t know it from watching any of the cable news networks. The impact of the strikes on individuals in Syria or any potential damage to civilian infrastructure is of no interest to the commentators or the anchors. Instead, the conversation about the attacks on terror targets focuses solely on how effective the strikes have been, the role of U.S. allies, and whether these actions will be followed up with sufficient ground force actions that will make it possible to truly defeat ISIS or any al-Qaeda affiliates currently running riot in the region. The only criticisms being voiced are those about the president’s lack of a specific authorization from Congress for these actions, whether U.S. forces will have to fight on the ground there, or if the attacks have gone far enough.

All this is in stark contrast to the reaction to Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza this past summer.

Almost all of the targets struck by the Israelis were similar to those in Syria that were hit by the Americans. Moreover, unlike the case with ISIS and Khorasan, the Israeli efforts were not primarily preemptive in nature. After all, the U.S. is attacking ISIS in part because of its depredations in the region but also because of the very real likelihood that if they are left unmolested, they will eventually turn their barbaric attentions to attacks on the United States. Israel struck back at Hamas because the terror group doesn’t merely intend to destroy the State of Israel and slaughter its Jewish population but because it was launching thousands of rockets at Israeli cities and towns and seeking to use terror tunnels to kidnap and kill even more Jews.

But rather than give the Israelis the same benefit of the doubt about their good intentions and efforts to limit collateral damage, the international community denounced the Israeli counter-attacks. News coverage focused almost completely on civilian casualties and the impact of the war on ordinary Palestinians rather than, as is the case today with U.S. efforts, on the military question of how best Hamas might be defeated.

Why aren’t we talking about civilian casualties in Syria? There are a number of reasons.

The Western media has more or less ignored the horrific nature of the Syrian Civil War since its inception three years ago. Hundreds of thousands have already died but apparently the media sees little reason to start caring about it now just because Americans are involved.

Another is the lack of Western media on the ground in Syria. That is understandable given what has happened to some of the Western freelance journalists who were kidnapped and beheaded by ISIS. By contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists welcomed Western journalists into Gaza and allowed them to do their jobs in safety provided, of course, that they concentrated their efforts on reinforcing the narrative about the conflict that told only of civilian casualties while largely ignoring the presence of armed fighters and their attacks on Israelis. That the entire Western press corps adhered to these restrictions is a testament to both the ability of Hamas to intimidate journalists and to the fact that many in the press were all too happy to follow these instructions since they were compatible with their own views of the conflict.

Let’s concede that the circumstances of these conflicts are not identical. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is more specific and related to the desire of the Arabs to refuse to share the region with a sovereign Jewish state rather than the more amorphous desire of the Syrian and Iraqi Islamists to set up a new caliphate. Hamas is also a bit more media savvy and has more experience in manipulating its message to appeal to Westerners who are willing to be fooled by terrorists.

But the real difference between the ways these two conflicts are covered has a lot more to do with the identity of the foes of the Islamists than to any of those distinctions. Muslims may slaughter Muslims by the hundreds of thousands, as they have done in Syria, without the world paying much notice. But if a fraction of that number are killed by Israeli Jews, even in a war of self-defense, that is considered intolerable by a world that has always judged Jews and their state by a double standard that has never been applied to anyone else, including the United States. Israelis, who have watched as their efforts to defend themselves have been answered by a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the globe, may be forgiven for no longer giving a damn about international opinion.

The media should continue to focus its coverage on Syria on the question of whether the president’s actions are effective, not whether some accidents or mistakes by U.S. personnel resulted in civilian losses. But you can bet that the same sources will revert to the same stances they took this past summer when Hamas resumes its fight against Israel, as it will sooner or later. When it does, don’t expect any admissions by journalists that they are applying different standards to Israel than they did to U.S. forces. But that is exactly what they will be doing. The term by which such prejudice is usually called is anti-Semitism.

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Ignoring Real Syrian Refugees to Support Fake Palestinian Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time to Eliminate Visa Waivers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hagel and Dempsey vs. the Straw Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The U.N.’s Parallel Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Costs of Obama’s Syrian Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syrian Opposition Pillages Heritage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syrian Deal Missing Deadlines

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

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

The New York Times notes:

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

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

The New York Times notes:

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

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

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

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

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Atrocities Prevention Board: Just Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Are There Any Winners in Syria?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Europe’s Jihadis in Syria Will Come Home to Roost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When the Syrian Rebels Return…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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