Josh Rogin & Eli Lake write: “The White House somehow thinks we can de-escalate the conflict while keeping Assad in power,” one senior administration official told us.
That view, being pushed by top White House National Security staffers, including senior coordinator for the Middle East Rob Malley, is not new. But it has received fresh emphasis given Russian intervention.
If Assad is staying and there’s no political process in sight, this argument goes, the U.S. might as well focus on alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and mitigate the growing refugee crisis.
Local ceasefires have been struck sporadically throughout the war, mostly in areas under siege by the Assad regime. The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has been pushing this idea for over a year.
“The current policy of the United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure, must be rethought,” Malley’s predecessor at the National Security Council, Philip Gordon, wrote at Politico as Russia was amassing its forces in Syria.
The NSC view is opposed by top officials in other parts of the government, especially Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. They are trying to persuade Obama that the only way to solve Syria is to increase the pressure on Assad in the hopes he will enter negotiations.
Yet Kerry and Power now find themselves without any hope that Putin might bring the Syrian regime to the table. Kerry, though always skeptical of Russia, has been the point man on engaging the Russian government through several conversations with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But it’s now clear the Russians were leading the Obama administration down the primrose path.
“In Syria, much as it did in Ukraine, Russia has hidden its true intentions, using the ruse of joining the fight against ISIL to provide cover for Russia’s military intervention to prop up the Assad regime,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack Reed said Thursday. “Russia’s actions, however, increasingly expose their true objectives.”
The de-escalation and delay-Assad’s-departure approach pushed by Malley and Gordon “has always been on the table. It is fully operative now,” former State Department official Frederic Hof wrote in response to Gordon’s Politico article. The problem, he said, is that it won’t work because “neither the regime, nor Tehran, nor Moscow have demonstrated any interest in it.” [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: The Russian airstrikes on Syria are a sign that U.S. policy is working, a senior State Department official told shocked Syrian-American advocates in a private meeting on Monday.
The “Russians wouldn’t have to help Assad if we didn’t weaken him,” U.S. special envoy for Syria Michael Ratney said, according to multiple participants in the meeting and contemporaneous notes. Russian intervention, he went on to say, is a sign of success for American policy on Syria. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has ended the Pentagon’s $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels, administration officials said on Friday, in an acknowledgment that the beleaguered effort had failed to produce any kind of ground combat forces capable of taking on the Islamic State in Syria.
Pentagon officials announced the end of the program on Friday, as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter left London after meetings with his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, about the continuing wars in Syria and Iraq.
The closing of the program comes as the administration’s attention is shifting to northwestern Syria, where it hopes to assemble a group of Sunni tribes in a “Syrian Arab Coalition” to fight alongside Syrian Kurdish forces against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. [Continue reading…]
Molly O’Toole reports: The United States, which accepts more refugees per year than any other country, has all but closed its door to the millions of Syrians who are part of the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. A recent decision to admit more Syrian refugees this year opened that door a crack, but the Obama administration insists that national security concerns constrain it from going further. Yet officials at more than a dozen agencies could not point to any specific or credible case, data, or intelligence assessment indicating that Syrian refugees pose a threat.
The officials generally funnelled questions to the Department of Homeland Security.
“Certain groups have openly stated they will attempt to exploit the current situation with respect to large numbers of migrants seeking asylum in Europe and refugee resettlement,” said a DHS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because department leaders would not authorize anyone to speak on the record about the threat assessment of Syrian refugees. “We must balance a very real threat with the potential propaganda value here.” [Continue reading…]
Ivan Krastev writes: the differences between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama can be boiled down to opposing theories about the sources of the current global instability. America sees global instability primarily as the result of authoritarians’ desperate attempts to preserve a doomed status quo, while Moscow blames Washington’s obsession with democracy.
If the Soviets appealed to proletarians of the world to unite, the Kremlin today appeals to governments of the world to unite — all kind of governments. History is indeed “irony on the move.” Russia, the successor of the revolutionary Soviet Union, has given up on the power of the people.
Most of the popular history books on the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 you can find in Moscow bookstores today tell the story of Lenin and his comrades not as a popular uprising, but as a coup d’état, engineered by — and here you have a choice — the German general staff or British intelligence agents. Any time and any place when people demand power, the situation gets worse. Loyalty and stability are at the center of the Kremlin’s universe, a universe dominated by insecurity and fear of the future. [Continue reading…]
Politico reports: In 2014, Vian Dakhil’s stirring plea for international intervention helped inspire President Barack Obama to order airstrikes and launch a humanitarian effort to rescue thousands of Yazidi Iraqis who were trapped on a mountainside under assault by Islamic State.
A year later, Dakhil, one of two Yazidi members of the Iraqi parliament, says her people have been abandoned by Washington and the international community.
In an emotional, at times tearful, on-stage interview at POLITICO’s “Women Rule” event Wednesday morning in Washington, Dakhil described a full-blown humanitarian crisis — 420,000 Yazidis living in refugee camps in tents with mud floors, women and girls continuing to be kidnapped, 2,200 girls in captivity as sexual slaves, and survivors returning from the horror of ISIL captivity with no resources for psychological support. Thousands of orphans have no homes.
Dakhil, who is credited with saving many Yazidi women and girls from ISIL captivity, said she was not contacted by U.S. officials after the initial announcement. A letter to Michelle Obama received no response, she said. [Continue reading…]
Neil Macdonald writes: Mark Toner, the suave U.S. State Department spokesman, arrived in the briefing room Monday unprepared for what was coming.
Two days earlier, American airstrikes had obliterated a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, operated by Doctors Without Borders. The attack killed 22 people, including several staff members.
By the time Toner took to his podium, U.S. military officials had already given conflicting versions of what had happened.
But the underlying message was the same: There had been Taliban militants near the hospital and, in defence of American and Afghan troops, an American airstrike had inadvertently and tragically killed civilians.
Clearly, in Toner’s mind, the attack was a Pentagon matter. His briefing book contained some words of condolence to families of the dead, and evidently not much more.
Then Matt Lee of the Associated Press asked a question.
Lee began by reading aloud a State Department statement issued in August 2014 after an Israeli missile attack killed several people at a UN school in Gaza.
“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school,” said the State Department at the time. “The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defence Forces.”
The statement continued: “The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians.”
So, asked Lee, does that sentence about the presence of militants not justifying strikes that endanger innocent civilians stand as U.S. government policy?
Toner, having seen where this was going, dived into his official condolences, but quickly ran out of prepared messages.
He looked up: “Uh, you know, these are difficult situations, uh, it was I think … an active combat zone.”
Lee wasn’t going to be put off.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he told Toner, had been given the coordinates of the hospital, “much as the IDF had been given the coordinates of the school in Rafah” in Gaza.
Toner evaded: “I think it’s safe to say that, you know, this attack, this bombing, was not intentional,” he replied, asking for “a pass” until the investigations by U.S. agencies are completed.
Lee then expertly closed the trap.
After the “disgraceful” Israeli attack, he pointed out, the State Department declared itself “appalled” even before any investigation had begun.
“So. Can you say now … that this shelling of this hospital was disgraceful and appalling?”
At that, Toner just gave up, and re-read the condolence lines. [Continue reading…]
Mother Jones reports: Citing “damning evidence of war crimes,” Amnesty International has condemned America’s continued support of Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen. In a report released yesterday, the human-rights organization called on the United States to stop selling bombs, fighter jets, and combat helicopters to the Saudis
The nearly seven-month-old conflict, which pits Saudi Arabia and a coalition of allied states against anti-government rebels, has claimed thousands of civilian lives. More than two-thirds of those were killed by Saudi-led air strikes, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. While Saudi Arabia claims to only be targeting military targets, bombs have been dropped on power stations, water supplies, schools, hospitals, and a camp for displaced people.
The United States has been aiding the Saudi-led coalition with weaponry, logistics, and intelligence support. Washington and Riyadh inked $90 billion in arms deals between 2010 and 2014, and at least another $7.8 billion in new arms deals have been announced since Saudi Arabia’s air campaign began in March. Among the remnants of American-made bombs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have found on the ground in Yemen are two types of cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are banned by more than 100 countries because of the risk they pose to civilians. [Continue reading…]
Paul Goble writes: Vladimir Putin views Barack Obama as being in “panicked retreat” because of the latter’s decision to extricate the US from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and believes that it would be foolish not to exploit the possibilities that such a drawdown in American power present, according to Konstantin von Eggert.
But in doing so, the Moscow analyst says, Putin has opened the door to even more problems for himself as the conflict continues not only internationally but at home where most Russians and especially Russia’s predominantly Sunni Muslim community oppose his support of Assad.
In the short term, von Eggert argues, Putin has achieved five goals by his Syrian actions:
First, he has forced Obama to meet with him because, as a result of Syria, Obama “simply could not refuse dialogue with Putin” given the stakes.
Second, Putin has succeeded in reducing the importance of Ukraine for Washington and thus making it less the defining issue of the West’s relations with Moscow.
Third, Putin has “sent an unambiguous signal to the not-very-numerous allies of the Russian regime: ‘if things are going badly for you, we won’t throw you over,’” a message by which the Kremlin leader wants to contrast himself with the behavior of the United States.
Fourth, “participation in the Syrian civil war is giving [Russia] a chance to demonstrate what the latest Russian arms are capable of,” something useful not only to influence others but to attract new orders for Russia’s arms exporters.
And fifth, “Putin has made it clear to the entire world and above all to the United States that the principle of the sovereign right of any regime to do what it finds appropriate on its own territory is for him inviolable.”
Putin’s moves in this regard reflect a fundamental difference between the West and Russia. Western leaders get involved in foreign affairs “by necessity.” Putin in contrast sees foreign actions as “one of the main (if not the chief) component parts of his legitimacy in the eyes of his compatriots.”
Moreover, von Eggert continues, “Obama and his entourage have the dislike of using military force characteristic of Western leftists while Putin considers [the use of such force] as the key element of world politics.” For him, respect is everything because people “‘respect the strong but beat the weak,’” as he has said many times. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Russia has targeted Syrian rebel groups backed by the Central Intelligence Agency in a string of airstrikes running for days, leading the U.S. to conclude that it is an intentional effort by Moscow, American officials said.
The assessment, which is shared by commanders on the ground, has deepened U.S. anger at Moscow and sparked a debate within the administration over how the U.S. can come to the aid of its proxy forces without getting sucked deeper into a proxy war that President Barack Obama says he doesn’t want. The White House has so far been noncommittal about coming to the aid of CIA-backed rebels, wary of taking steps that could trigger a broader conflict.
U.S. officials said Russia’s targeting of its allies on the ground was a direct challenge to Mr. Obama’s Syria policy. Underlining the distrust, the Pentagon decided against sharing any information with Moscow about the areas where U.S. allies were located because it suspected Russia would use that information to target them more directly or provide the information to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“On day one, you can say it was a one-time mistake,” a senior U.S. official said of Russia’s strike on one of the allied rebel group’s headquarters. “But on day three and day four, there’s no question it’s intentional. They know what they’re hitting.”
U.S. officials say they now believe the Russians have been directly targeting CIA-backed rebel groups that pose the most direct threat to Mr. Assad since the campaign began on Wednesday, both to firm up regime positions and to send a message to Mr. Obama’s administration. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: British and U.S. military leaders first discussed the idea of creating a rebel army in Syria in late 2011, but didn’t have political backing to proceed. Two years later, Mr. Obama authorized a limited arm-and-train program to battle the regime, led by the CIA.
To identify rebel brigades eligible to receive support, the Americans created a color-coded ranking system. Green dots were assigned to brigades deemed acceptable to all parties. Yellow dots went to borderline groups. Red dots were for radicals. Since the system’s inception, the U.S. and its allies have continued to squabble over which groups belonged in which categories, officials said.
The vetting process set up by the Americans stunned partners in the region. They complained that the White House’s risk-averse approach put U.S.-backed rebels at a disadvantage to the Assad regime, whose Russian and Iranian allies moved more swiftly and decisively.
“The Americans color-coded; The Russians invaded,” a senior Turkish official said. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: After acknowledging that only four or five American-trained Syrian rebels were actually in the fight there, Pentagon officials said last week that they were suspending the movement of new recruits from Syria to Turkey and Jordan for training. The program suffered from a shortage of recruits willing to fight the Islamic State instead of the army of President Bashar al-Assad, a problem Mr. Obama noted at a news conference on Friday.
“I’m the first one to acknowledge it has not worked the way it was supposed to,” he said. “A part of the reason, frankly, is because when we tried to get them to just focus on ISIL, the response we get back is, ‘How can we focus on ISIL when, every single day, we’re having barrel bombs and attacks from the regime?’ ” [Continue reading…]
Rosa Brooks writes: Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians are just as brave as Americans: In fact, residents of all these states have endured vastly more hardship and bloodshed over the last decade than most Americans see in a lifetime. They’ll fight, and fight fiercely, for the causes they hold dear. When their interests and priorities (as they understand them, not as we understand them) align with ours, train-and-equip missions can be extraordinary successful. But when we ignore the interests and priorities of our partners — through our own ignorance of culture and history, or through a paternalistic conviction that we understand what’s good for them better than they do — train-and-equip missions are doomed to end in failure and humiliation. [Continue reading…]
Seth Masket writes: In the wake of yet another mass shooting, a rather familiar public debate is playing out. Liberals are calling for restrictions on access to weapons. President Obama, in one of the better examples of the inherent weaknesses of the presidency, gave a statement that gun laws are needed but he knows full well that Congress will never pass them and there’s not a damned thing he can do to about it.
Meanwhile, many of those opposed to gun regulations cited the usual issues. For one, they noted, mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated by the mentally ill, so we should do a better job caring for or monitoring the mentally ill. But as many others have noted, raising this issue is a dodge. Mental illness is a very serious issue in this country, but no more so than it is in others that have far, far fewer gun-related deaths each year. Besides, even if most shootings are done by the mentally ill, that does not mean that most mentally ill people are prone to violence. We could just as accurately note that mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated by white men, but singling them out as potential criminals is as morally abhorrent as it is impractical.
But another issue frequently raised is that gun culture runs deep in our nation. America, that is, has a fiercely individualistic culture and access to firearms is a part of that, dating back to the nation’s founding and earlier. Gun violence is a deeply complex and intractable issue in the United States that is rooted in region, faith, race, poverty, and family. You can’t just change the laws without changing our hearts and minds first. [Continue reading…]
NPR reports: NATO in Afghanistan says it will lead an investigation into an airstrike in Kunduz this weekend that hit a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital, killing 22 people — an attack that the humanitarian organization, also known as Doctors Without Borders, has called “a war crime.”
A U.S.-led airstrike on the northern Afghan city was carried out on Saturday but the circumstances surrounding it remain murky. NATO acknowledges only that the raid occurred near the charity’s hospital.
The NATO coalition says it “has directed a preliminary multi-national investigation known as a Casualty Assessment Team.” It says that an initial investigation would be complete in “a matter of days.” [Continue reading…]
Kingston Reif writes: In the aftermath of the Republican-controlled Congress’ failure to block the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), attention has begun to turn to implementation of the agreement and steps the administration and Congress can take to ensure scrupulous Iranian compliance, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, reassure nervous regional allies, and counter Iran’s many destabilizing activities in the region.
While numerous worthwhile suggestions have been put forward pursuant to these objectives, other proposals that have been put forward, including by Democratic supporters of the JCPOA on Capitol Hill, would severely complicate — if not threaten altogether — implementation of the agreement.
One such counterproductive recommendation is to transfer the GBU-57 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), and the means to deliver it, to Israel. The most powerful air-delivered conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal, the bunker-busting MOP is reportedly capable of holding at risk hard and deeply buried targets, such as Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Fordow. [Continue reading…]
David Ignatius writes: [After the P5+1 successful concluded the Iran nuclear deal] President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry were hopeful about working with the Russians on a “managed transition” away from a weakened President Bashar al-Assad. “I do think the window has opened a crack for us to get a political resolution in Syria, partly because both Russia and Iran, I think, recognize that the trend lines are not good for Assad,” Obama told reporters at the White House on Aug. 5.
Back then, the enthusiasts for greater Russian involvement in the Middle East included many traditional U.S. allies who also seemed eager to play the Russian card. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman traveled to Moscow; so did United Arab Emirates leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Kerry and Lavrov in Qatar. An ominous sign of what was really ahead — a Russian-Iranian alliance to bolster Assad — came with the Moscow visit of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. But otherwise, this looked until a week ago like a diplomatic love boat.
Obama and his allies failed to anticipate that Russian President Vladimir Putin would come armed to the negotiating table — and prepared to use his weapons to gain military leverage. Putin embodies a kind of muscular diplomacy the United States disdained over the past three years of halfhearted attempts to train and equip the Syrian opposition. Obama’s failure to develop a coherent strategy left the field open for Putin.
The speed and decisiveness of Russian action appear to have taken the administration by surprise, prompting Kerry to voice “grave concerns.” A U.S. official said the intelligence community predicted that Russia would provide indirect support to Assad, such as training and advisers, but that “direct military intervention was not considered the most likely” response.
A source close to Assad’s regime blasted what he claimed was chronic American misunderstanding of Syria. “The scandal is how amazingly incompetent American intelligence is,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Not only were U.S. officials predicting until weeks ago that the Russians could abandon Assad . . . U.S. intelligence could not even pick up on what the Russians were doing, the logistical, technical, military and manpower preparations . . . [to] execute such an unprecedented mission.” [Continue reading…]
Vice News reports: A Dutch-led effort to create a human rights mission for Yemen was abandoned Wednesday amid intense Saudi opposition at the UN, but human rights experts are laying blame in part at the feet of the United States, which failed to vigorously back the Netherlands — and may have worked behind the scenes to head off the independent investigation.
A Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemen since late March in an attempt to push back Houthi rebels and their allies and reinstate the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. The US (and UK) offers logistical support for the coalition, in addition to selling billions of dollars in weapons to its members, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. US officials say American personnel are also involved in providing targeting assistance for airstrikes, which the UN says are responsible for the majority of the more than 2,300 civilian deaths in the conflict in the past six months.
In September, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an independent, international inquiry into crimes committed in Yemen in the preceding year. Shortly after, the Netherlands, supported by several European countries, presented a draft resolution to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Among other elements, it called for a human rights mission, commissioned by Zeid, to be sent to Yemen, and for that team to be allowed access to all areas of the country.
Multiple sources familiar with negotiations in Geneva, where the HRC is located, said the Dutch initially encountered objections from the Yemeni government, as well as from the Saudis, Qataris, and Emiratis — all three of whom currently sit on the council.
The Saudis and other Arab members of the council then introduced an alternative text, which called for the UN to only assist an existing national inquiry in Yemen, established by the government in exile in Riyadh, which supports the Saudi-led intervention. Human rights and civil society groups considered it unacceptable, both due to its content and because it was introduced by a belligerent in Yemen’s war. They offered public support to the Dutch.
Largely quiet on the matter was the United States. After multiple requests for comment on whether the American government supported an international, independent human rights inquiry for Yemen, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power released an ambiguously worded statement on September 24. [Continue reading…]
Nouriel Roubini writes: With the US on the way to achieving energy independence, there is a risk that America and its Western allies will consider the Middle East less strategically important. That belief is wishful thinking: a burning Middle East can destabilize the world in many ways.
First, some of these conflicts may yet lead to an actual supply disruption, as in 1973, 1979, and 1990. Second, civil wars that turn millions of people into refugees will destabilize Europe economically and socially, which is bound to hit the global economy hard. And the economies and societies of frontline states like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, already under severe stress from absorbing millions of such refugees, face even greater risks.
Third, prolonged misery and hopelessness for millions of Arab young people will create a new generation of desperate jihadists who blame the West for their despair. Some will undoubtedly find their way to Europe and the US and stage terrorist attacks.
So, if the West ignores the Middle East or addresses the region’s problems only through military means (the US has spent $2 trillion in its Afghan and Iraqi wars, only to create more instability), rather than relying on diplomacy and financial resources to support growth and job creation, the region’s instability will only worsen. Such a choice would haunt the US and Europe – and thus the global economy – for decades to come. [Continue reading…]
Neil Quilliam writes: Yesterday President Barack Obama called for a political transition in Syria that would leave Bashar al-Assad temporarily in power. It is a proposal that seems to enjoy support among other Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Though a bad policy, the move should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Syrian history. The Assads — father and son — have learned that if they dig in and wait for the tide to turn, they will not only survive, but prosper. As Bente Scheller argues, they are masters at the ‘waiting game’.
Assad’s back was firmly against the wall when he crossed US President Obama’s red line in the summer of 2013 by using chemical weapons, but then Russia stepped in to save him and embarrass the US. The subsequent advance of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 2014 handed Assad another opportunity to sidestep international opprobrium, which he used to intensify atrocities against civilians. Since the US-led anti-ISIS coalition came together and prioritized degrading and destroying that organization, Assad’s regime has, in effect, been let off the hook. This despite the Syrian regime being responsible for more civilian fatalities and injuries than ISIS — at least 110,000 according to some sources.
Although Western leaders may grit their teeth, they are now willing to allow Assad to be part of a ‘managed transition’. Their own transition to accepting Assad is the result of a combination of factors, namely the likely longevity of the civil war and its impact on the EU in terms of refugees, unerring Russian and Iranian commitment to securing the regime, and their own diplomatic shortcomings. Western powers, it seems, have no answers, haunted as they are by the ghosts of interventions past. In short, they have nothing left in their diplomatic tool bag and begrudgingly accept that Russia and Iran are better positioned to impose a settlement; one that includes Assad. [Continue reading…]