Tag: Syria

Bipartisan Wishful Thinking on Syria

Despite bitter partisan controversies on foreign policy issues such as the Iran nuclear agreement and the normalization of relations with Cuba, there is one issue where liberals and conservatives share a common delusion.  That issue is policy toward Syria.  The Obama administration persists in wanting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and at the same time crush the ISIS insurgents.  Washington continues to flirt with establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect supposedly moderate rebels, and it is moving forward with its much- mocked scheme to train a moderate insurgent force that would oppose both Assad and ISIS.  The latter plan is hopelessly behind schedule and has thus far produced only a handful of graduates from the training program.

Conservatives are no more realistic than the Obama foreign policy team.  Presidential candidates and conservative pundits alike routinely talk of escalating the fight against ISIS, but then, in almost the same breath, stress the need to defeat Assad and his principal ally, Iran.  I had the “pleasure” of witnessing such illogic in two major broadcasts within the past week.  The first occurred in a September 5 segment on CNBC, in which Larry Kudlow, a prominent economist and possible candidate for the U.S. Senate, raged against the Obama administration’s alleged unwillingness to conduct a concerted campaign against the twin evils of ISIS and Iran.  On Labor Day, the Fox News program “The Five” featured a discussion in which nearly all of the participants adopted arguments that echoed Kudlow’s rant.

What is striking about all of these episodes—and many others like them—is that the advocates of decisive, simultaneous U.S. action against both ISIS and the Assad-Iran alliance are in denial that those two goals are hopelessly contradictory.  Like it or not, the principal forces arrayed against ISIS are Assad’s “coalition of religious minorities” in Syria together with Iran and its Shiite allies in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds have their own agenda, seeking to create a de facto independent Kurdish state in northeastern Syria akin to the self-governing Kurdish region next door in Iraq.  

Five Problems with the “Secret” Drone Campaign in Syria

Last week’s Washington Post report of the CIA/Special Forces “secret” drone campaign provided fresh evidence that the United States is heading in the wrong direction on the Middle East. Supporters of increased military action abound in Washington, of course, and lacking any better idea, the Obama administration has decided to double down on drones, despite no evidence that such an effort will have any measurable effect on the situation in Syria or Iraq. Instead, the new drone campaign is likely to have (at least) five negative consequences.

First, it will inflame anti-American sentiment in the region. Sadly, as survey after survey shows, anti-Americanism is rampant through the Middle East, even in countries the U.S. counts on as allies in the fight against terrorism and the Islamic State. A recent study shows that the Arab Twitterverse is awash in negative sentiment toward the U.S., illustrating that  And even more relevant, a recent Pew study documents the unsurprising fact that U.S. drone strikes are incredibly unpopular almost everywhere, prompting majorities in several Arab countries to say strikes against the United States for its behavior are justified. More drone strikes will move the U.S. backwards, not forwards.

Second, it will aid Islamic State recruiting and spur more terrorism. After 9/11 the United States went on the offensive, looking to destroy Al Qaeda and kill terrorists abroad before they could visit America to do more harm. What happened, however, was that by killing large numbers of Al Qaeda members and supporters, but also a large number of civilians, and thereby causing immense chaos, strife, and uncertainty, the United States managed to give fresh air to first Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts and now to the Islamic State’s. In 2001 there were 1878 terrorist attacks in addition to the 9/11 attacks. After 13 years of war on terror there were 16,818 terror attacks worldwide in 2014. In short, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy has been debunked. With every drone strike, the U.S. lends weight to jihadist claims that the U.S. is a malign presence in the Middle East.

With “Friends” Like Saudi Arabia, the United States Doesn’t Need Enemies

One striking feature of the first debate featuring the top tier GOP presidential candidates was how many of them described Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf as “friends” of the United States.  And clearly that is a bipartisan attitude.  Obama administration officials routinely refer to Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally, and one need only recall the infamous photo of President Obama bowing to Saudi King Abdullah to confirm Washington’s devotion to the relationship with Riyadh.

It is a spectacularly unwise attitude.  As Cato adjunct scholar Malou Innocent and I document in our new book, Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes, Saudi Arabia is not only an odious, totalitarian power, it has repeatedly undermined America’s security interests.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic behavior alone should probably disqualify the country as a friend of the United States.  Riyadh’s reputation as a chronic abuser of human rights is well deserved. Indeed, even as Americans and other civilized populations justifiably condemned ISIS for its barbaric practice of beheadings, America’s Saudi ally executed 83 people in 2014 by decapitation.

In addition to its awful domestic conduct, Riyadh has consistently worked to undermine America’s security.  As far back as the 1980s, when the United States and Saudi Arabia were supposedly on the same side, helping the Afghan mujahedeen resist the Soviet army of occupation, Saudi officials worked closely with Pakistan’s intelligence agency to direct the bulk of the aid to the most extreme Islamist forces.  Many of them became cadres in a variety of terrorist organizations around the world once the war in Afghanistan ended.

Saudi Arabia’s support for extremists in Afghanistan was consistent with its overall policy.  For decades, the Saudi government has funded the outreach program of the Wahhabi clergy and its fanatical message of hostility to secularism and Western values generally.  Training centers (madrassas) have sprouted like poisonous ideological mushrooms throughout much of the Muslim world, thanks to Saudi largesse.  That campaign of indoctrination has had an enormous impact on at least the last two generations of Muslim youth.  Given the pervasive program of Saudi-sponsored radicalism, it is no coincidence that 16 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi nationals.

Riyadh also has shown itself to be a disruptive, rather than a stabilizing, force in the Middle East.  Not only has Saudi Arabia conducted military interventions in Bahrain and Yemen, thereby eliminating the possibility of peaceful solutions to the bitter domestic divisions in those countries, the Saudi government helped fund and equip the factions in Syria and Iraq that eventually coalesced to form ISIS.  Although Saudi officials may now realize that they created an out-of-control Frankenstein monster, that realization does not diminish their responsibility for the tragedy.

In light of such a lengthy, dismal track record, one wonders why any sensible American would regard Saudi Arabia as a friend of the United States.  We do not need and should not want such repressive and untrustworthy “friends.”

Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

Fleeting American Public Support for Murky Wars

Calls are mounting in Congress (and among some influential opinion groups) for escalating Washington’s military intervention against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and for possible military action against Iran if the new nuclear agreement with that country falls apart.  Caution lights should be flashing about both the extent and durability of such sentiment for military action.  As I note in a recent article in the National Interest Online, this country has an unfortunate history of launching ill-considered armed crusades, often initially with enthusiastic public support.  But that support has a tendency to evaporate and turn to bitter recriminations unless certain conditions are met.  Policymakers need to appreciate that history as they consider intensifying U.S. involvement in the Middle East’s turbulent affairs.

Because most Americans believe that the United States embodies the values of individual liberty, human rights, and government integrity, a foreign policy that seems to ignore or violate those values is almost certain to lose the public’s allegiance sooner or later. That is what happened with such missions as the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and, more recently, the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan.  It is not merely that the ventures failed to achieve quick, decisive results, although that aspect clearly played a role.  It was also that the United States was increasingly seen as expending blood and treasure on behalf of odious clients and dubious causes that had little or nothing to do with the republic’s vital interests.  A disillusioned public turned against those missions, and that development created or intensified bitter domestic divisions.

To sustain adequate public support for military ventures, the objective must be widely perceived as both worthy and attainable.  Without those features, public support for a policy either proves insufficient from the outset or soon erodes, and either development is fatal in a democratic political system.

Preserving public support requires officials to make an honest assessment of the issues at stake.  Too often, both during the Cold War and the post–Cold War eras, U.S. policymakers have hyped threats to American interests.  The alleged dangers posed by such adversaries as North Vietnam, Serbia, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad bordered on being ludicrous.  At times, it appears that U.S. officials have deliberately engaged in distortions to gin-up public support for purely elective wars.  On other occasions, officials seem to have succumbed to their own propaganda.  In either case, public support dissipates rapidly when evidence mounts that the supposed security threat to America is exaggerated.

That troubling history should reinforce the need for caution as U.S. leaders consider new military interventions, especially in the Middle East.  None of the proposed missions is likely to produce quick, decisive results—much less results with modest financial outlays and minimal casualties.  Moreover, escalating America’s involvement in the region’s myriad troubles puts the United States in a close de facto partnership with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies—some of the most corrupt, brutal governments on the planet.  Publics in the Middle East and around the world are watching, and the potential for unpleasant blowback is extremely high.  And as we saw with the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the reaction of the American people to associations with sleazy foreign clients can become one of profound revulsion.  The conditions are in place for new foreign-policy debacles, if U.S. officials have not learned the appropriate historical lessons.

A Covert Escalation of U.S. Involvement in Syria?

Officials often try to implement dubious or controversial initiatives over weekends or holidays, when journalists and the public are likely to be less vigilant than normal.  Three-day holiday weekends are especially popular candidates for such maneuvers.  It is perhaps unsurprising that there were indications of a significant change regarding U.S. policy toward Syria on the Sunday before Memorial Day.  Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country and the United States had agreed in principle to provide air protection for some 15,000 Syrian rebels being trained by Ankara and Washington once those insurgents re-enter Syrian territory.

Granted, an agreement in principle could break down over the details of implementation, and the Obama administration has yet to confirm the Turkish account.  Nevertheless, there are hints of an impending escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s murky civil war.  A lobbying effort by proponents of U.S. aid to factions trying to unseat dictator Bashar al-Assad is definitely taking place.  The number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durban of Illinois, has openly endorsed establishing and protecting “safe zones” for insurgents, and he is hardly alone.  

In essence, the United States and its Turkish ally appear to be contemplating the imposition of a “no fly” zone over northern Syria to prevent Assad’s forces from suppressing the rebel fighters.  It is pertinent to recall that a fateful step in America’s disastrous entanglement in Iraq was the creation of such zones against Saddam Hussein to protect Kurdish and Shiite insurgents in the 1990s.  A similar measure should not be undertaken lightly in Syria.

In Search of a Syria Strategy: Event (April 30th)

On April 30th, Cato will host an event exploring the future of the Syrian conflict, with particular emphasis on the role of the United States. Fighting in Syria recently entered its fifth year, and there is no clear end in sight. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 191,000 deaths and has produced more than 9.5 million refugees.

The civil war is chaotic. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of rebel groups currently operating in Syria, many of whom have devoted more time to fighting each other than the regime. Foreign funding and weapons flow freely to all sides. The rise of ISIS and its spread to Iraq, along with the increasing prominence of other extremist groups like al Nusra has further complicated the situation. This map, recently released by the Department of Defense, illustrates some of the complexity:

DoD Map of Syria and Iraq

 

American involvement in Syria was minimal prior to September 2014, when the Obama administration initiated airstrikes to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This campaign is ongoing, and the United States is also funding and training Syrian rebels to fight against ISIS.