ISIS

Small Steps in the Middle East

Here in America, you’d be forgiven for believing that things are on a downward spiral, as Donald Trump’s disturbing success in various primaries raises the real, and terrifying prospect that he will be the Republican nominee. So if constant media coverage of the primary season depresses you, you could do worse than consider recent developments in the Middle East, where something truly unusual has been happening in the last few weeks.

Can a Syrian Ceasefire Hold?

Yesterday’s agreement for a cessation of hostilities in the Syrian conflict – including provision for humanitarian aid deliveries – is welcome news from an increasingly bloody conflict. The deal has been greeted with justifiable skepticism from observers around the world, who note the many and varied problems inherent in the proposed agreement. This is not a formal ceasefire, and it faces long odds of successful implementation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth supporting to the fullest extent possible. If it does succeed in reducing violence inside Syria, it just might act as the necessary first step to a more comprehensive ceasefire and transition agreement.

One could hardly have imagined a more ill-omened location for the agreement, which was announced yesterday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The agreement itself calls for a cessation of hostilities inside Syria – though it does not apply to either of Syria’s main extremist groups, ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra – and for the rapid provision of access for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Syria’s besieged cities. It is not an immediate deal: parties have one week before it takes effect. Yet if the deal sticks, it will help to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

Moving Beyond Self-Serving Myths: Acknowledging the Principal Cause of Radical Islamic Terrorism

There has been a recent surge of allegations that the underlying motive for outrages such as the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino is that radical Islamists hate Western values. Senator Marco Rubio is perhaps the most blatant in pushing that thesis. One of his campaign commercials asserts flatly that such violent extremists target us because we let women drive and girls attend school.

Terrorism in Paris: Blowback for Yet Another Unnecessary War

The latest Paris attacks rightly horrify us, but they should surprise no one, least of all the French. After all, France started bombing Islamic State forces 14 months ago. The targeting of civilians is morally monstrous. However, it is sadly predictable, an almost common practice by weaker powers.

A century ago ethnic Serbs and Russian anarchists employed this hideous tactic. More recently Sri Lankan Tamils and Iraqi Sunnis used it. Now the Islamic State is perfecting a weapon it had heretofore left to al-Qaeda.

The Paris killings weren’t an attempt “to destroy our values, the values shared by the U.S. and France,” as claimed by Frederic Lefebvre of the National Assembly. Rather, admitted French academic Dominique Moisi, the Islamic State’s message was clear: “You attack us, so we will kill you.” As America learned on September 11, 2001, intervening in other nations’ political and military struggles inevitably creates enemies and blowback.

Explanation is not justification. But any government that attacks the Islamic State should realize retaliation against people innocently going about their lives, as in Paris, is likely.

Washington Keeps Picking Inept Foreign Clients

Yet another U.S. nation-building venture appears to be on the brink of failure.  Earlier this month, Taliban forces overran much of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.  Although government troops eventually retook most of the city, they were able to do so only with substantial assistance from the U.S. combat units still in the country. 

The Selectivity of American “Countering Violent Extremism” Policies

This week, the Obama administration and Congress continued their public duel over whether the U.S. government is doing enough to “counter violent extremism” (CVE). The White House press release on the “Leader’s Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism” lauded the administration’s efforts to prevent the radicalization of Muslim-American youth at the hands of ISIS.

Senate Intelligence Committee Ends Efforts To Turn Social Media Companies Into Government Spies

Earlier this year, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) inserted language into the annual Intelligence Authorization bill that would have forced social media companies like Twitter to act as de facto law enforcement agents and censors of the users of their service. The language in question read as follows:

SEC. 603. Requirement to report terrorist activities and the unlawful distribution of information relating to explosives.

(a) Duty To report.—Whoever, while engaged in providing an electronic communication service or a remote computing service to the public through a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, obtains actual knowledge of any terrorist activity, including the facts or circumstances described in subsection (c) shall, as soon as reasonably possible, provide to the appropriate authorities the facts or circumstances of the alleged terrorist activities.

(b) Attorney General determination.—The Attorney General shall determine the appropriate authorities under subsection (a).

(c) Facts or circumstances.—The facts or circumstances described in this subsection, include any facts or circumstances from which there is an apparent violation of section 842(p) of title 18, United States Code, that involves distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction.

(d) Protection of privacy.—Nothing in this section may be construed to require an electronic communication service provider or a remote computing service provider—

(1) to monitor any user, subscriber, or customer of that provider; or

(2) to monitor the content of any communication of any person described in paragraph (1).

In a social media context, what constitutes “terrorist activity”? And how would a social media company “obtain knowledge” of undefined “terrorist activity” absent active monitoring of all of is users?

Feinstein’s proposal was constitutionally dubious and wildly impractical. It also generated strong opposition from social media and tech companies, the privacy and civil liberties community, and some of her own Senate colleagues.

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.  

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