Tag: Syria

Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

The State of War in Syria — In Two Charts

The fog of war, coupled with the output from multiple propaganda machines, makes it difficult to determine which side has the upper hand in any conflict. In Syria, it appears from recent reportage from Aleppo that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are getting the upper hand. But are they?

The best objective way to determine the course of a conflict is to observe black market (read: free market) exchange rates, and to translate changes in those rates via purchasing power parity into implied inflation rates. We at the Johns Hopkins–Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project have been doing that for Syria since 2013.

The two accompanying charts—one for the Syrian pound and another for Syria’s implied annual inflation rate—plot the course of the war. It is clear that Assad and his allies are getting the upper hand. The pound has been stabilizing since June of this year and inflation has been trending downwards.

Economic Freedom and Infants’ Lives

Recent reports that infants now die at a higher rate in Venezuela than in war-torn Syria were, sadly, unsurprising—the results of socialist economics are predictable. Venezuela’s infant mortality rate has actually been above Syria’s since 2008.

 

The big picture, fortunately, is happier. The global infant mortality rate has plummeted. Even Syria and Venezuela, despite the impact of war and failed policies, saw improvements up to as recently as last year. From 1960 to 2015, Syria’s infant mortality rate fell by 91% and Venezuela’s by 78%. This year (not reflected in the graph above or below), Syria’s rate rose from 11.1 per 1,000 live births to 15.4, while Venezuela’s shot up from 12.9 to 18.6. Meanwhile, infant mortality rates have continued to fall practically everywhere else, and have declined even faster in countries that enjoy more freedom and stability. Consider Chile.

Foreign Policy Schizophrenia

In last night’s presidential debate, policy issues were barely discussed among the conspiracy theories and scandal-mongering. But even the limited discussion of foreign policy highlighted a pretty strange fact: the Republican ticket effectively has two distinct foreign policy approaches. And though it’s hardly unusual for running mates to differ to some extent on issues – indeed, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine differ on some key foreign policy points – Trump’s statements last night, publicly repudiating his running mate’s proposals for Syria, were bizarre.

Despite his choice of vice presidential candidate, Trump and Pence have been largely at odds on foreign policy since day one.  Trump’s approach to foreign policy is highly inconsistent but has certainly been unconventional. The GOP nominee advocates a militaristic, ‘America First’ foreign policy, but differs from GOP orthodoxy on key topics like Russia, the Iraq War, U.S. alliances, and trade. In contrast, Pence is a hawk’s hawk, supporting the war in Iraq, increases in defense spending, and further Middle East intervention. In 2005, then-Representative Pence even introduced a House Resolution which would have declared that President Bush should not set an ‘arbitrary’ date for the removal of troops from Iraq until nation-building was complete.

The result has been a curious dichotomy in the Republican ticket’s foreign policy proposals. At last week’s vice presidential debate, Pence ignored Trump’s prior foreign policy statements, advocating for intervention against the Assad regime, the creation of safe zones in Syria, and a substantially harder line against Russia. Yet last night, when moderators pushed Trump on these differences, the Republican presidential candidate bluntly rejected Pence’s stance, noting that “he and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”  Trump then further contradicted his running mate, arguing for better relations with Russia, even refusing to attribute recent hacking incidents to Russia despite substantial evidence from the intelligence community on the issue.

Syria Is Not Obama’s Worst Mistake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that the failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war represents President Obama’s worst mistake, “casting a shadow over his legacy.” The war has certainly been a monumental tragedy. Almost 500,000 have died and millions now struggle as refugees. The truth, however, is that Obama’s refusal to bow to political pressure stands as a significant accomplishment of his tenure, not a mistake.

Kristof joins a bipartisan choir in accusing Obama of wrongly believing there is nothing the United States can do to make things better in Syria. Among his suggestions: implementing a no-fly zone, creating safe zones for civilians, and grounding the Syrian government’s air force. The immediate goal of such efforts would be to prevent harm to civilians. The longer-term goal is to put pressure on the Assad government to come to the negotiating table and put an end the civil war.

Though Kristof’s heart is in the right place, all of these suggestions – as well as the other, more interventionist recommendations made by many over the past several years – gloss over the obstacles to successful intervention. Obama’s more cautious approach implicitly acknowledges the reality of the situation in Syria as it stands today.

Most fundamentally, the political interests of those engaged in the civil war far outweigh America’s humanitarian interests in Syria. Calling Syria ‘Obama’s mistake’ both misdirects moral responsibility for the conflict and obscures the fact that the combatants are far more motivated than the United States. Both the Assad regime and the rebels have suffered incredible losses; all sides are clearly in it for the long haul.

Against such motivation the United States can certainly bring overwhelming military force. But as we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq, military superiority does not always translate to peace and stability. More American intervention in Syria is thus unlikely to change the calculus of those fighting for the future of their country. In the end, Syrians’ stomachs for taking casualties to control their own future will prove stronger than America’s stomach for taking casualties to prevent Syrians from dying.

Kristof also imagines that military humanitarian intervention on such a scale can be precise and limited. It cannot. The effort to exert control over events in Syria would lead inexorably to ownership of the broader conflict. This would lead to a massive and open-ended American commitment to Syria. It would also lead those currently fighting each other in Syria to find it increasingly necessary and useful to fight the United States – witness the attacks already conducted by the Islamic State and its supporters in Europe and the United States in response to Western engagement in Syria and Iraq.

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.”

Pages