Tag: ISIS

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

GAO Weighs In On “Countering Violent Extremism”

The ongoing controversy and litigation over the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban” has reignited a debate that has raged since the 9/11 attacks: Who commits more domestic terrorism–violent Salafists or traditional “right wing” extremists? According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, it’s the latter and by a very wide margin. From p. 4 of GAO’s report:

Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent). 

But as researchers at the Georgia State recently reported, media coverage of terrorist incidents makes it seem as if terrorism is almost exclusively perpetrated by Muslims:

We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

That incident-media reporting disconnect is matched by another: the notion that Arab/Muslim-Americans are more susceptible to radicalization, and thus to becoming terrorists, and that there are a discreet set of reliable indicators that will tell authorities who is or is not more likely to become a terrorist. 

The same month the Georgia State researchers released their terrorism-media bias findings, the Brennan Center released a report on the state of the debate and federal “countering violent extremism” (CVE) programs. Citing dozens of empirical studies and recognized experts in the fields of criminology, psychology, and intelligence, the report states “Extreme or radical views are often assumed to lie at the heart of terrorism. But evidence shows that the overwhelming majority of people who hold radical beliefs do not engage in, nor support, violence.”

Trump Towers or Trump Targets?

Donald Trump’s election ushers in a new challenge for homeland security and counterterrorism both at home and abroad. Trump owns, has a stake in, or has lent his name to scores of properties all over the United States and the world. A terrorist could decide to target a Trump Tower in Stuttgart, a Trump hotel in South Korea, or a Trump golf resort in Dubai. A terrorist might even decide to target the famous carousel in Central Park, which Trump also owns. The attraction to the terrorist is obvious: Trump’s hotels, resorts, and condominiums are vulnerable “soft targets,” without any of the serious security measures surrounding American embassies or other government buildings. Even better, most of these targets have the president’s name on them in huge letters. Clearly the symbolic damage of such an attack would be immense.

What is not clear, however, is just how great a threat this exposure represents and how the United States should deal with it.

A quick look at the list of Trump’s properties reveals that several of them are located in countries with significant serious civil unrest and instability. Trump Tower in Istanbul, for example, probably seemed like a pretty safe bet five or ten years ago as Turkey was working towards membership of the European Union. But today, thanks to spillover from the Syrian civil war, the failed military coup, and the recent assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, the neighborhood seems much less secure than it used to.

Trump properties in Muslim-majority nations may present the greatest risk of attack, given Trump’s hardline rhetoric towards the Islamic State and towards Muslims and Islam more generally. Trump Tower Manila, for example, sits within easy striking distance of Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and has a history of bombing attacks. Trump also owns high-visibility properties in Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates, and India, all of which house one or more jihadist groups. Even Trump Tower in Seoul might not be safe: ISIS has recently labeled South Korea an enemy of the caliphate, attempting to incite attacks on U.S. installations in South Korea. In all of these locales, Trump Towers might prove to be an irresistible target.

Trump’s properties clearly present a new kind of Achilles heel for the United States, but what exactly should be done about the potential threat? One position might be to argue that the United States should do nothing. After all, the United States government bears no legal responsibility for providing security at these private establishments. But practically speaking it seems obvious that a major terrorist attack on one of Trump’s towers would have political and security implications that go well beyond the legal question. Attacks on American embassies from Tehran to Benghazi, for example, have always provoked anger and support for retaliation among U.S. citizens. Aware of the symbolism of an attack on a Trump Tower, Americans would likely feel similarly, putting pressure on the U.S. government to respond.

Perhaps one of the most critical aspects to consider along these lines is the reaction of the president himself. How would Trump respond if Trump Tower in Istanbul went up in smoke, killing hundreds of people? From everything we have seen since he began his presidential campaign, it seems likely that Trump would take such an act extremely personally. And given his hawkish rhetoric about dealing with terrorism, it is possible that Trump would respond emotionally, using his executive authority to take extreme measures beyond those dictated by a cool calculation of costs and benefits. Unfortunately, not only might such a response be dangerous and counterproductive for the United States, it might also play right into the hands of terrorists seeking to provoke just such an overreaction.

A second possibility is for Trump to divest from his private holdings and to begin to take the necessary steps to rename his associated properties. This would have the benefit of dramatically reducing the symbolic value of the properties as targets while simultaneously reducing the potential emotional impact on Trump himself. An attack on a hotel that “used” to bear Trump’s name is less likely to offend his ego and to provoke him to an overreaction.

If Trump is unwilling to do this, then he must come up with an alternative plan to ensure that his privately-owned properties and those bearing his name do not expose him to potential blackmail or provocation once he becomes president. Unfortunately, Trump’s reluctance to divest from his businesses, or even to acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest, strongly suggests that he will not come up with such a plan, or even admit that such a plan is necessary. If so, Trump will be choosing to leave the United States vulnerable on a new front in the battle against terrorism.

Tracing the Islamic State’s “Allure”

In a prominent article about Islamic State in the Washington Post over the weekend, Carol Morell and Jody Warrick suggest that, by massacring people in various locales, the group was growing in appeal—or “allure” in the words of the headline writer. How this remarkable process comes about is not explained, nor is evidence given to back it up. It is said to be a conclusion reached by “experts,” but only one of these is quoted in the article, and none of the quotes from him seems to fit, much less support, the article’s conclusion.

There is certainly evidence, much of it noted in other articles in the Post, to suggest that the appeal (or allure) of the vicious group actually is, like the scope of the territory it holds in Syria and Iraq, in severe decline. By 2016, the flow of foreign fighters going to join the group may have dropped by 90 percent over the previous year even as opposition to the group among Arab teens and young adults rose from 60 percent to 80 percent. Any allure the group may have in Iraq certainly fails to register on a poll conducted there in January 2016 in which 99 percent of Shiites and 95 percent of Sunnis express opposition to it. And, according to the FBI, the trend for Americans seeking to join Islamic State is decidedly downward.

Indeed, overall, the Islamic State has followed policies and military approaches that have repeatedly proven to be counterproductive in the extreme in enhancing its “appeal” and/or “allure.” High among these was the utterly mindless webcast beheadings of American hostages in 2014 that turned the United States almost overnight from a wary spectator into a dedicated military opponent.

U.S. Must Stay Out of the Syrian War

A group of State Department officials recently sent a confidential cable chiding the administration for not adding another war to America’s very full agenda. The 51 diplomats called for “targeted military strikes” against the Syrian government and greater support for “moderate” forces fighting the regime.

One of the architects of current policy, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, also has turned against the administration’s more disengaged approach. She urged creation of a no fly zone, an act of war, as well as greater support for insurgents.

The conflict is horrid, of course, but no one has explained how U.S. entry into Syria’s multi-sided civil war would actually end the murder and mayhem. Nor has anyone shown how America making another Middle Eastern conflict its own would serve Americans’ interests.

Despite the repeated failure of social engineering at home, Washington officials believe that they can transcend culture, history, religion, ethnicity, geography, and more and forcibly transform other peoples and nations. Those who resist America’s tender mercies via bombs, drones, infantry, and special operation forces are assumed to deserve their fate.

This interventionist impulse is particularly inappropriate for a devilishly complex conflict like Syria. Unfortunately, Washington’s early insistence on Bashar al-Assad’s overthrow thwarted hope for a negotiated settlement.

The claim that the U.S. could have provided just the right amount of assistance to just the right groups to yield just the right outcome is a fantasy, belied by America’s failure get much of anything in the Middle East right. Even when Washington seemingly enjoyed full control in Iraq the U.S. did just about everything wrong, triggering the sectarian conflict which spawned the Islamic State.

Military action would be even more dangerous today given Russia’s involvement. Syria matters much more to Russia, which has a long relationship with Damascus, enjoys access to the Mediterranean from a Syrian base, and has only limited influence elsewhere in the region.

No fly proponents blithely assume that Moscow would yield to U.S. dictates, but America would not surrender if the situation was reversed. A no fly zone would not bring peace to Syria but would risk a military incident with a nuclear-armed power.

The State Department dissenters argued for limited strikes on Syria. What if such attacks failed? What if Damascus deployed Russian anti-aircraft systems? What if Moscow escalated against U.S.-supported insurgents? Would Washington concede or double down?

In fact, no one has a realistic scheme to put the Syrian Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Ousting Assad would effectively clear the way for the Islamic State and other radical factions.

So far supporting so-called moderate insurgents has done little more than end up indirectly supplying ISIL and al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, with recruits and weapons. Turkey is at war with the same Kurdish fighters America supports.

While horror is the appropriate reaction to Syria’s civil war, the U.S. has no solution to offer. The U.S. should adopt a policy of first do no harm.

As I argue in National Interest: “Stay out of the conflict. Don’t add to the tragedy. Accept refugees fleeing for their lives. Provide humanitarian aid to those within reach. That would be an agenda of which Americans could be proud.”

The Dissent Channel Goes Public

This morning, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published excerpts and summaries of an internal memo by 51 State Department officials calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The key idea expressed in the memo is simple: take military action immediately to stem the tide of violence in Syria. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially from those who have been dealing with Syria’s barbaric civil war on a daily basis, as many of the signatories have. Unfortunately, it is also an exercise in wishful thinking, ignoring the concrete problems with further U.S. military commitment in Syria which have formed the basis for the Obama administration’s refusal to overthrow Assad.

The memo criticizes the Obama Administration’s decision to eschew military action in Syria, arguing instead for the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” against the Assad regime. Though such internal memos contesting the administration’s official policy – known as a ‘dissent channel cable’ – are not uncommon, the large number of signatories is more unusual. The memo blames the Assad regime’s violence towards civilians for both Syria’s instability and the appeal of ISIS, arguing that the moral rationale for airstrikes “is unquestionable.”

The Islamic State Creates Killer Caliphate to Eradicate Religious Minorities

ERBIL, IRAQ—Kurdistan in the north of Iraq has become a refuge for Christians and other religious minorities in the midst of the Islamic State’s murderous rampage. The abundant crimes of Daesh, as it also is known, constitute an unprecedented religious war against members of minority faiths who until recently largely lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors.

As ISIS expanded it attacked most everyone, especially Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities. Hence the brutal campaign detailed in the nearly 300-page report, “Genocide against Christians in the Middle East,” issued by the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, a group which focuses on the Mideast.

The report argued simply: “ISIS is committing genocide” against Christians in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The words of Daesh are clear.

The organization publishes a magazine named Dabiq, the place where the movement expects to destroy the “Crusader army,” meaning Christians. Explained the Islamic State: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted.”

To describe the Islamic State’s crimes in generalities does not adequately communicate the truly horrific nature of its campaign. The NGO Shlomo recorded 1131 Christians murdered between 2003 and 2014 in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, with more than 100 more since then.

Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan of Antioch, Syria believed more than 500 Christians in Iraq and more than 1000 in Syria were killed. The Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, said that hundreds of Christians have been executed or kidnapped in his city and perhaps thousands in Syria as a whole. Others have been slaughtered in Libya and elsewhere.

While widespread murder is the Islamic State’s most odious crime, the group inflicts grievous harm on those it does not kill. Those interviewed for the report cited all manner of bodily harm: “Choking, beatings with guns and electrical cords, mock executions, and withholding of food and water in the extreme heat are commonplace.”

Pages