Tag Archives: Second Gulf War (2003-2010)

The Why and How of US Intervention in Iraq

Last night President Barack Obama announced that US military would be conducting two missions in Iraq.  The first, already started when he made the announcement, is dropping food and water supplies on the besieged civilians, mostly Yezidis, in the Sinjar mountains after their city of Sinjar was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after reports of deaths due to dehydration among the children.  ISIS regards Yezidis as a devilish sect to be exterminated.  The second US mission is to use airstrikes to prevent ISIS from posing a threat to American personnel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, or in Baghdad.

Not all analysts support US military intervention in Iraq; one cogent statement of the case against airstrikes is here.  I agree with almost the entirety of that argument, and have repeatedly written against US military intervention in the Syrian Civil War.  Why should the US intervene in Iraq, but not Syria?  Basically, there is no way for the US to do more good than harm in Syria, but the costs of letting ISIS continue to terrorize Iraq and Syria outweigh those of striking ISIS, not only for Iraqis, but for the world. Continue reading

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What America Forgets About Syria

As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:

1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida.  The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago.  Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals.  Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria.  It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.”  In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons.  In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.

2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict.  As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria.  Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions.  Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah.  For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.

3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved.  Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration.  A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus.  In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.

4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad.  Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom.  Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media).  Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants.  That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.

There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”  If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.”  If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient.  It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials.  And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.

5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed.  Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval.  The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict.  While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court.  The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.

6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community.  But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient.  Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence.  Is this the message the US government really wishes to send?  The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries.  As an international friend of mine said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”  The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.

The Bottom Line

I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair.  I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished.  But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations.  The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock.  By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.

While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below.  Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?

 

The Human Dimension of Syria’s Conflict

This past week, US Secretary of State John Kerry toured the largest Syrian refugee camp, the Za’atari camp in Jordan, and encountered “the human side of this crisis,” as he put it.  Indeed, the situation in the camp is very difficult, so difficult that thousands of Syrians have left the camp to return to the civil war in Syria.  There has been intermittent reporting about the endemic sexual violence suffered by women in these camps.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War, as seen in the Za’atari refugee camp, is very bleak.

But it is also only one side of the suffering.  Three weeks ago the LA Times ran an interesting piece on two religious minority shrine enclaves, the town of Saydnaya with its ancient Greek Orthodox monastery of the Virgin and the Sayyida Zaynab suburb of Damascus with its grave of Zaynab, the daughter of ‘Ali and Muhammad‘s daughter Fatima.  The human side of the Syrian Civil War includes besieged minorities expecting to be annihilated if the regime falls.

One quotation in each of these articles stood out to me:

  • “A 43-year-old woman in a tan jacket and gray headscarf asked Kerry what the U.S. is waiting for. As a superpower, the U.S. could change the equation in Syria in 30 minutes, the woman said. Like other refugees, she asked not to be named for security reasons.”
  • “‘I have a question for you,’ Azar [the head of Saydnaya’s defense] asks a visiting U.S. reporter. ‘Why does America want all the Christians out of the Middle East?'”

The first quotation shows how the myth of American omnipotence is taken for granted among refugees, generating a lot of anger at US failure to take their side in the conflict.  The second quotation shows how the unintended consequences of previous US interventions in the Middle East, such as the targeting of the Iraqi Christian population in the sectarian violence following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

These pieces are best read together to get a sense of the multiple human sides to a conflict which has torn Syria apart.  What is clear is that there are no good options for anyone in this war.  What is often forgotten is that none of the fighting forces, rebel or loyalist, are “the good guys.”

The Sins of the Fathers…

In 1951, the British temporarily lost control of Iran’s oil fields, because they had refused to respond to Iranian complaints that the UK was not sharing the profits from the sale of oil with Iran.  In response to Britain’s cold shoulder, the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the Iranian oil industry, to which Britain responded with a naval blockade and trade embargo.  When economic sanctions failed to produce the desired de-nationalization of Iranian oil by 1953, the UK looked for more extreme possibilities.  Due to UK support for the US during the Korean War, the US supported the UK in Iran by executing “Operation Ajax,” a covert operation to depose the popular Prime Minister and replace him with an Iranian military leader who would support greater power being held by the pro-Western Shah, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi.  As a result of the successful coup, the US secured a good share of Iranian oil and Iranian oil profits, and an ally against Soviet Russia to the north.  The post-coup military rule crushed all political dissent and developed a much-hated secret police, SAVAK, trained by the CIA.

After 26 years of rule with Western support, the now widely-hated Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, but the American role in 1953 was well-remembered.  When the US admitted the exiled Shah into the country nine months after he left Iran, a group of Iranian students supporting the Islamic Revolution took over the American Embassy in Tehran and precipitated the Iran Hostage Crisis (known in Farsi as تسخیر لانه جاسوسی امریکا, “The capture of the American spy lair”).  Thirty-four years after the Islamic Revolution, the government in Tehran remains firmly opposed to the US.

In retribution against Iran for the Islamic Revolution, the US supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, during which Iraqi forces invaded Iran, were driven out, and Iran pressed the offensive onto Iraqi soil.  The US supported Iraq with intelligence regarding bombing targets and engaged the Iranian navy directly, including shooting down the civilian airliner Iran Air Flight 655, which the US claims was mistaken for a fighter jet.  The US military also supplied arms to the Iraqi military during the war, arms which it would then face against itself during the two Gulf Wars.  The government of Iraq is now pro-US, after two bloody US invasions of Iraq and a decade of even more deadly sectarian violence.

In the 2011 Arab Spring, protests broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrayn, and Syria.  Of the rulers challenged by these protests, President Zayn al-‘Abidin bin ‘Ali of Tunisia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen were US allies, despite their widely perceived autocratic and financially corrupt governments.  By contrast, the US opposed President Mu’ammar Qaddafi of Libya and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.  The presidents of Tunisia and Egypt were deposed, and their elected replacements came from Islamist anti-US parties, while when ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih of Yemen finally stepped down, he was able to name a pro-US successor who was ratified by a popular referendum.  The US ally Bahrayn crushed the protests with support from another US ally, Saudi Arabia.  Meanwhile, the US-aided ousting of Gaddafi in 2011 has opened the door to Libyan factional fighting and provided an excuse for Russian and Chinese intransigence regarding the government of Bashar al-Assad, with whom President Obama recently announced that he has lost patience and will “start” supplying arms to the Syrian rebels.  The revelation this week that the CIA has already been supplying arms to and training the rebels since 2012 is hardly a surprise, as it is in keeping with the picture of covert CIA activities supporting American interests abroad.

I am not arguing that Bashar al-Assad is fine or Gaddafi was fine, or that the current president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi, represents the “will of the Egyptian people” (there were election problems, including Morsi supporters violently intimidating people suspected of opposing Morsi, including Christians and liberals, in order to prevent them from voting at all).  I am arguing that US foreign policy and CIA operations have pursued a narrow and short-term definition of “American interests” which have destabilized and impoverished Middle Eastern countries involved and stoked anti-American sentiments there, ultimately to the detriment of longer-term American interests abroad.  An Eastern European recently said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”

In light of this perennial neglect of long-term interests, the US government needs to re-think its approach to the Middle East region as a whole.  The short-term “solutions” employed by the US to respond to current crises have only succeeded in creating another round of crises.  To take a particular current example, will US involvement in the Syrian Civil War against Bashar al-Assad actually create “a better Syria,” or will it simply supply arms to the next round of Middle Eastern forces that the US will then seek to dismantle five, ten, or thirty years down the road?  The only way to avoid perpetuating the cycle of crises generated by previous crises is to view Middle Easterners as people with their own interests, rather than solely as possible calculi in American interests abroad.  Unless Middle Easterners can be understood on their own terms, as people in their own right, the US will continue to “guess wrong” in its strategic initiatives in the region.  These faux pas, to put it mildly, result in continual loss of life both to Americans and especially to Middle Easterners, and must be stopped.