The obliteration of Aleppo and the fate of Syria

A conversation between Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel on the Syrian catastrophe and what should be done about it. Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Postel is the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Together they are the co-editors of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011), The Syria Dilemma (2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (forthcoming in early 2017).



The idea that the U.S. can ‘do no harm’ depends on the fiction that it can be ‘neutral’ in foreign conflicts

Shadi Hamid writes: The eight years of the Obama presidency have offered us a natural experiment of sorts. Not all U.S. presidents are similar on foreign policy, and not all (or any) U.S. presidents are quite like Barack Obama. After two terms of George W. Bush’s aggressive militarism, we have had the opportunity to watch whether attitudes toward the U.S. — and U.S. military force — would change, if circumstances changed. President Obama shared at least some of the assumptions of both the hard Left and foreign-policy realists, that the use of direct U.S. military force abroad, even with the best of intentions, often does more harm then good. Better, then, to “do no harm.”

This has been Barack Obama’s position on the Syrian Civil War, the key foreign-policy debate of our time. The president’s discomfort with military action against the Syrian regime seems deep and instinctual and oblivious to changing facts on the ground. When the debate over intervention began, around 5,000 Syrians had been killed. Now it’s close to 500,000. Yet, Obama’s basic orientation toward the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has remained unchanged. This suggests that Obama, like many others who oppose U.S. intervention against Assad, is doing so on “principled” or, to put it differently, ideological grounds.

Despite President Obama’s very conscious desire to limit America’s role in the Middle East and to minimize the extent to which U.S. military assets are deployed in the region, there is little evidence that the views of the hard Left and other critics of American power have changed as a result. (Yes, the U.S. military is arguably involved in more countries now than when the Obama administration took office, but — compared to Iraq and Afghanistan before him — Obama’s footprint has been decidedly limited, with a reliance on drone strikes and special-operations forces.) As for those who actually live in the Middle East, a less militaristic America has done little to temper anti-Americanism. In the three countries — Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon — for which Pew has survey data for both Bush’s last year and either 2014 or 2015, favorability toward the U.S. is significantly worse under Obama today than it was in 2008. Why exactly is up for debate, but we can at the very least say that a drastic drawdown of U.S. military personnel — precisely the policy pushed for by Democrats in the wake of Iraq’s failure — does not seem to have bought America much goodwill.

Despite the fact that Assad and Russia are responsible for indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, many leftists have viewed even the mere mention of the U.S. doing anything in response as “warmongering.” We have had the unfortunate situation of someone as (formerly) well-respected as Jeffrey Sachs arguing that the U.S. should provide “air cover and logistical support” to Bashar al-Assad. We have had Wikileaks’ attacks on the White Helmets, who have risked — and, for at least 140, lost — their lives in the worst conditions to save Syrian lives from the rubble of Syrian and Russian bombardment. Of course, it is not an absurd position to be skeptical of any proposed American escalation against Assad, and many reasonable people across the political spectrum have made that case. But it is something else entirely to apply such skepticism selectively to the U.S. and not to others, especially when the others in question deliberately target civilians as a matter of policy. It can be a slippery slope. While no one would accuse Obama of liking Putin, coordinating with and enabling Russia in Syria is effectively U.S. policy. As the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen noted in February, well before the current disaster in Aleppo: “The troubling thing is that the Putin policy on Syria has become hard to distinguish from the Obama policy.”

The Left has always had a utopian bent, believing that life, not just for Americans, but for millions abroad, can be made better through human agency (rather than, say, simply hoping that the market will self-correct). The problem, though, is that the better, more just world that so many hope for is simply impossible without the use of American military force. At first blush, such a claim might seem self-evidently absurd. Haven’t we all seen what happened in Iraq? The 2003 Iraq invasion was one of the worst strategic blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, it’s not clear what exactly this has to do with the Syrian conflict, which is almost the inverse of the Iraq war. In Iraq, civil war happened after the U.S. invasion. In Syria, civil war broke out in the absence of U.S. intervention. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy: Do ‘just enough to lose slowly’

The Washington Post reports from Camp Shorab: Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation. [Continue reading…]


Russian air defense raises stakes of U.S. confrontation in Syria

The Washington Post reports: Russia’s completion this month of an integrated air defense system in Syria has made an Obama administration decision to strike Syrian government installations from the air even less likely than it has been for years, and has created a substantial obstacle to the Syrian safe zones both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have advocated.

Deployment of mobile and interchangeable S-400 and S-300 missile batteries, along with other short-range systems, now gives Russia the ability to shoot down planes and cruise missiles over at least 250 miles in all directions from western Syria, covering virtually all of that country as well as significant portions of Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the eastern Mediterranean.

By placing the missiles as a threat “against military action” by other countries in Syria, Russia has raised “the stakes of confrontation,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Sunday.

While there is some disagreement among military experts as to the capability of the Russian systems, particularly the newly deployed S-300, “the reality is, we’re very concerned anytime those are emplaced,” a U.S. Defense official said. Neither its touted ability to counter U.S. stealth technology, or to target low-flying aircraft, has ever been tested by the United States.

“It’s not like we’ve had any shoot at an F-35,” the official said of the next-generation U.S. fighter jet. “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300.” [Continue reading…]


Syria talks conclude with agreement to carry on talking

The Washington Post reports: Talks in Switzerland on stemming the bloodshed in Syria resulted in no breakthrough Saturday, but the discussions did yield a decision to keep seeking ways to achieve a truce and resume negotiations.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who called the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and diplomats from seven Middle Eastern countries, characterized the gathering that lasted more than four hours as a brainstorming session that brought some new ideas to the table. However, he declined to specify what those ideas were.

No date was set for another meeting of the foreign ministers who took part, but their staffs are expected to continue talking together about possible approaches. [Continue reading…]


In Somalia, U.S. escalates a shadow war

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993.

The Somalia campaign, as it is described by American and African officials and international monitors of the Somali conflict, is partly designed to avoid repeating that debacle, which led to the deaths of 18 American soldiers. But it carries enormous risks — including more American casualties, botched airstrikes that kill civilians and the potential for the United States to be drawn even more deeply into a troubled country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.

The Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor. It is a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa — from Syria to Libya — despite the president’s stated aversion to American “boots on the ground” in the world’s war zones. This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more. [Continue reading…]


U.S. mulls over Syria policy — further military intervention is unlikely

The Guardian reports: The Obama administration is conducting a final review of its Syria policy as it enters its last hundred days, but the rethink is not expected to lead to any radical changes or significant military interventions that could bring US and Russian forces into head-on confrontation.

The secretary of state, John Kerry, will travel to Lausanne in Switzerland on Saturday to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and their counterparts from the Middle East. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are expected to attend. Iran’s participation is in doubt, possibly as a result of the dire state of its relations with Saudi Arabia.

Kerry will brief the UK, French and German governments in London on Sunday, on his way back from Switzerland.

The ministers go into the Lausanne meeting with low expectations, diplomats said. The best of the likely outcomes would be a humanitarian pause in the bombing of eastern Aleppo for two or three days to allow some basic humanitarian supplies to reach the embattled rebel-held districts, home to 275,000 people. [Continue reading…]


If we don’t act now, all future wars may be as horrific as Aleppo

Paul Mason writes: To single day of fighting in June 1859, among the vineyards and villages near Lake Garda, left 40,000 Italian, French and Austrian soldiers dead or wounded. The Battle of Solferino might have been remembered simply for its carnage, but for the presence of Henry Dunant. Dunant, a Swiss traveller, spent days tending the wounded and wrote a memoir that led to the founding of the Red Cross and to the first Geneva convention, signed by Europe’s great powers in 1864.

Solferino inspired the principle that hospitals and army medical personnel are not a legitimate target in war. Today, with the bombing of hospitals by the Russians in Syria, the Saudis in Yemen and the Americans in Afghanistan, those who provide medical aid in war believe that principle is in ruins.

So far this year, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 21 of their supported medical facilities in Yemen and Syria have been attacked. Last year an MSF hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was destroyed by a US attack, in which those fleeing the building were reportedly gunned down from the air, and 42 patients and staff died.

A UN resolution in May urged combatants to refrain from bombing medical facilities. MSF says that the resolution “has made no difference on the ground”. Four out of the five permanent members of the UN security council, it says, are actively involved in coalitions whose troops have attacked hospitals.

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles. [Continue reading…]


The West’s decline is of its own making

Judy Dempsey writes: A park close to the European Parliament in Brussels has been given a face-lift, if that is the right term. Apart from being spruced up, the area now contains new sculptures in the form of twelve ostriches. And yes, the ostriches have their heads stuck in the sand. If Europe as well as the United States weren’t suffering such a malaise as they are today, the symbolism of these birds wouldn’t matter.

But three recent events only confirm how the West continues to duck fundamental issues in ways that will leave it weaker and increasingly unable to project itself politically, socially, and economically.

The first event was the decision by the United States to cut off talks with Russia on trying to end the war in Syria. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, who was in Brussels on October 4, tried to defend his country’s role in Syria. In a speech hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, he decried Russia’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s relentless bombing of civilian targets, and the way Syrian government forces were using barrel bombs and chlorine gas against their opponents.

What Kerry omitted, hardly surprisingly, was how the United States in particular had crossed its own so-called redlines when it came to Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene, despite saying in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons would be a redline the United States would not tolerate, gave Russia and other players a free hand to play out their cynical geostrategic interests in that wretched country. [Continue reading…]


If he wanted to, Obama could end the slaughter in Yemen

The Associated Press reports: More than 1,000 mourners were packed into the funeral hall, including some of the most powerful figures in Yemen’s rebel movement. Ali al-Akwa, who was just about to start reciting the Quran, heard warplanes overhead — but that wasn’t strange for wartime Sanaa. Surely a funeral would be safe, he thought.

Moments later, a huge explosion struck, tearing bodies apart. The ceiling collapsed, walls fell in and a fire erupted. As people scrambled frantically to get out, a second missile struck, killing more of them.

Nearly 140 people were killed and more than 600 wounded in Saturday’s airstrike — one of the deadliest since Saudi Arabia and its allies began an air campaign in Yemen in March 2015. The coalition is trying to uproot the Shiite Houthi rebels who took over the capital and much of northern Yemen from the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The coalition seems to have been hoping to take out a significant part of the Houthis’ military leadership and its allies, who were expected at the funeral. Instead, the attack is likely to deepen the stalemate in a war that has already pushed the impoverished country into collapse.

The bloodshed has eclipsed new U.N. efforts to secure even a brief cease-fire. Amid popular anger, the coalition has lost potential tribal allies. In an attempt to expand the war, the Houthis have retaliated by firing rockets into neighboring Saudi Arabia and at U.S. warships.

The only hope for progress toward a resolution, many Yemenis say, is if the strike prompts Saudi Arabia’s top ally, the United States, and other Western nations to halt arms sales, pressure Riyadh to ease the war and move toward negotiations. [Continue reading…]

Akbar Shahid Ahmed writes: In the public consciousness, this brutal conflict blurs into the other bloody wars across the Middle East, each of them marked by its own complicated mix of players, incentives and grievances that make peace unlikely.

But Yemen is different. Here, Obama could single-handedly cause a major drop in the bloodshed, experts say. He simply doesn’t seem to want to do it.

Per Obama’s orders, planes belonging to the Saudis and others involved in their coalition currently receive aerial refueling from American planes, a defense official confirmed to The Huffington Post this week. U.S. military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia offer intelligence and logistical support to the coalition, but don’t decide where it bombs, the official said. And the Obama administration has greenlit three new transfers of weapons ― ammunition, bombs, air-to-ground missiles and tanks ― to the kingdom to replenish stocks used in Yemen, according to arms trade expert William Hartung.

Obama could stop all of that at any time. [Continue reading…]

In September, The Atlantic reported: Obama has said little about the war in Yemen. With mere months left in his presidency, there is scarce indication that he will. Increasingly skeptical of America’s ability to shape events on the ground in the Middle East, Obama sees little incentive to overturn the status quo, even if that means supporting the apparently reckless military forays of a [Saudi] government he disdains.

A U.S. official who briefs the White House on regional national security matters summed up the Obama administration’s prevailing attitude. Yemen was already a “complete shit show” before the war, he argued, echoing Obama’s use of a phrase he is said to use privately to describe Libya. The Houthis are a nasty militia who deserve no favors and Yemen would be a “shit show” whatever the United States does. So why further degrade a sometimes-unpleasant, but necessary relationship with the Saudis to produce the same end result?

After a joint U.S.-Russian press conference held in Geneva to announce the abortive Syria ceasefire this month, journalists were served vodka from the Russians and pizza courtesy of the Americans. Yemen wasn’t even worth the takeout order, al-Muslimi said: “There is no pizza or vodka when it comes to Yemen. Only cluster bombs and arms deals.” [Continue reading…]


White House says U.S. will retaliate against Russia for hacking

Politico reports: White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest promised on Tuesday that the U.S. would deliver a “proportional” response to Russia’s alleged hacking of American computer systems.

In addition to pledging that the U.S. “will ensure that our response is proportional,” Earnest told reporters flying on Air Force One that “it is unlikely that our response would be announced in advance.”

“The president has talked before about the significant capabilities that the U.S. government has to both defend our systems in the United States but also carry out offensive operations in other countries,” he said as the press corps traveled with the president to a Hillary Clinton campaign event in North Carolina. “So there are a range of responses that are available to the president and he will consider a response that is proportional.” [Continue reading…]


Barack Obama’s wrong: The new Cold War’s only just begun

Michael Weiss writes: In one of the better studies of Putinology to appear in the last year, Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men does much to upend the conventional wisdom about U.S.-Russian relations, particularly as offered by the American architects of those relations over the past eight years.

“Vladimir Putin,” Zygar writes, “did not like the new American president from the start. For him, Barack Obama was both soft and intractable… Paradoxically, Obama, the most idealistic and peace-loving U.S. president in living memory, became a symbol of war in Russia, a target for Russian state propaganda and racist jokes, and a hate figure for millions of patriotic Russians. He was caricatured as an ill-fated enemy doomed to be defeated by Vladimir Putin.”

Surveying some much-buried news over the last seven days, one begins to appreciate the weight of this grim appraisal. [Continue reading…]