Tag: Syria

Syria at the UN General Assembly

Presidents Putin and Obama presented two radically different worldviews at the UN yesterday morning, but both obliquely described the other as the key cause of global unrest. Putin took aim at the United States, implying that the Arab Spring was orchestrated by the United States and that sanctions on Russia are undermining global trade, while President Obama called for a return to the rule of law, and lambasted human rights violators. These disagreements reportedly carried on into the private meeting held by both leaders last night on Syria and Ukraine. 

But the root of the disagreement on Syria isn’t differing objectives: both Russia and the United States want to see ISIS contained and degraded, and an end brought to the terrible conflict in Syria and Iraq. The difference lies in the means both sides want to use to achieve this objective. The Russians want to protect the sovereignty and power of the Assad regime, while U.S. leaders insist that Assad must go, to be replaced with a government which includes representation from the Syrian opposition.

To Russia with Love: Why Obama Should Be Glad Russia Is Getting Involved in Syria

Russia’s push to support Assad in Syria and its agreement to share intelligence with Syria, Iran, and Iraq has evoked the predictable handwringing here in the United States. Some worry that Russian involvement will derail the U.S. fight against IS. Others worry that Russia’s engagement will weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East and further embolden Vladimir Putin in his various misadventures. Such concerns are misplaced. Even though Putin has no intention of helping the United States his maneuverings have in fact done just that. Rather than ramping up U.S. engagement to outdo the Russians, as hawks are calling for, Obama should instead take this opportunity to reassess and redirect U.S. policy.

Russian actions have improved Obama’s Middle East “strategy” in three ways.

First, Russian initiative in 2013 kept the United States from getting involved in Syria too early. As horrendous as the $500 million training initiative turned out to be, it was a drop in the bucket compared to what the United States would have spent by now had the United States engaged earlier and more aggressively. When Assad’s regime blew past Obama’s ill-advised “red line” on chemical weapons, it was Russia that came in to save the day, brokering an arrangement that led Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Had Obama instead launched a few meaningless missile strikes at the Assad regime the United States would have shouldered greater responsibility for the regime’s behavior. Both Republicans and liberal interventionists in his own party would have pushed Obama toward deeper and ultimately more costly intervention.

Second, Putin’s recent actions make clear that the United States does not have to carry the expanding burden of fighting IS alone. In the absence of any real partners on the ground and with no desire to go it alone, the United States has been reduced to half-measures in Syria. Had there ever been an identifiable group of moderate rebels then perhaps a U.S. training program would have made sense. Today, however, with IS pressing hard and moderates thin on the ground, such a strategy is clearly too little and too late. Without partners, the United States has no real ability to influence events on the ground. Airpower has many strengths, but even a much broader campaign of airstrikes could not win the day without the backing of U.S. ground troops. Russia is not the partner the United States would have chosen, of course, but the fact remains that Russia is willing and able to take the fight to IS in ways that benefit the United States.

On an Objective Indicator of the State of Play in Syria

The fog of war has removed any sense of certainty regarding developments on the Syrian battlefield. That said, we know that ISIS has captured several towns, and that waves of Syrian refugees are disembarking upon Europe’s shores. But, the picture remains chaotic and hazy.

However, there is one objective indicator of reality in Syria. It is the Syrian pound’s black-market (read: free-market) exchange rate. The Johns Hopkins-Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project (TCP) tracks and reports this important indicator on a daily basis. With the exception of a plunge in June 2013, the Syrian pound has witnessed an orderly, not chaotic, deterioration. 

From Syria’s black-market exchange, standard economic theory and reliable empirical techniques allow us to produce accurate inflation estimates. Indeed, with the free market exchange-rate data (usually black-market data) reported by the TCP, the inflation rate can be calculated. The principle of purchasing power parity (PPP), which links changes in exchange rates and changes in prices, allows for a reliable inflation estimate, when inflation rates are elevated. To calculate the inflation rate in Syria, all that is required is a rather straightforward application of a standard, time-tested economic theory (read:PPP).

Russia Raises the Stakes in Syria

What on earth is Russia doing in Syria? This question has no doubt crossed many minds in recent days, as Russia began to move substantial arms and troops into Syria. There are two possible scenarios: 1) with diplomatic ties at an all time low, and heavy sanctions already in place, Russia has decided it has nothing to lose in defying the West and backing the Assad regime militarily to the bitter end; or 2) Russia is maneuvering to give itself diplomatic leverage in any Syrian settlement by raising the stakes now. Though the latter is more likely, it’s difficult to know which scenario is accurate, further complicating already tortuous US policy towards Syria.

Over the last week, various news sources have reported an increase in Russian arms and troops flowing into Syria. On Monday, the Department of Defense confirmed that the Russians are setting up a Forward Operating Base at Latakia, including prefabricated housing and SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles. Open source researchers have found photos of Russian trucks and T-90 tanks near Latakia, increased shipments to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus, social media posts showing that Russian troops are headed to Syria, and even satellite photos showing massive expansion of the runways, hangers and housing at Latakia.

In short, it seems that Russia is preparing to substantially increase its military presence in Syria, ostensibly to aid the refugee crisis and fight ISIS, but practically in support of the Assad regime. This doesn’t necessarily indicate an intention to commit ground troops, but certainly raises the possibility of Russian air support for Assad. There is no way to prevent this buildup: though NATO members like Bulgaria have closed their airspace to Russian flights, Iranian and Iraqi airspace remains open.

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.”